Silently, they pass around the alien.
The meetings are held at the Eridani Colony Community Center. Shoved aside are the ping-pong tables (unused) and the motivational standees. A two-dimensional young girl in a hard-hat grins at the workers, tells them they’re doing an excellent job. The plastic chairs are set up in a circle, like they were during the “Imagining a Better World through Guided Visualization” group discussions (discontinued). The leader for the week, a man with a plastic name tag that informs Dennis his name is ROY, opens the box.
Sometimes it stings you. Sometimes it releases a cloud of gas that will choke you, but it’s not poison. Most of the time, the alien doesn’t do anything.
Dennis eagerly rubs his hands together, waiting for his turn. A few months ago, he was bitten by the alien. The alien’s sharp teeth dug like pushpins into the webbing of skin between his thumb and index finger. He carried his wound out in the open until it healed, remembering the thrill of the alien’s bite. His wish didn’t come true, but the wish doesn’t always come along with the bite. Not even usually.
Around him, he can feel the combined prayers and requests of the workers bubbling up, until the entire meeting almost sweats with concentrated yearning. Dennis keeps his own request at the forefront of his mind, a wish for a new set of bed sheets. It’s not much, but neither is it boastful. And he hasn’t gotten new bed sheets for seven years now, so it’s something he really needs. He feels positive about this one.
Dennis doesn’t know the name of the woman to his right, the woman currently holding the alien. She holds it at arm’s length, giving it a small shake, as she’s seen the others do. Might be new, Dennis thinks. The woman brings the alien into eye contact, trying to focus her two hazel eyes on its three tiny black ones. A lump of bile rises in her throat, and she struggles to push it down. Definitely new.
The alien is covered with short gray fur. Its mouth opens to a black hatch through which Dennis can see the rippling of the alien’s esophagus. The alien is slightly wet at all times.
Suddenly, the woman gasps. The alien has stung her with its back claw. A cheer rises up and Dennis joins in, thrusting his hands in the air, giving thanks. The alien doesn’t attack him that day–there are rarely two attacks in one day–but it hardly seems to matter. At this moment, they are free.
Dennis holds a small blue plastic chip to the air, inspecting it. A small reflective panel on its side mirrors back the face of his supervisor as she trundles behind him, tapping him on the shoulder.
“Get out of line. I need to talk to you.” His supervisor’s arms are ropy with muscle; her face is runneled with sweat.
The supervisor takes a small blue plastic part from the pocket of her overalls. “You let this get through. Look,” she says, running her thumbnail down a microscopic crease in the curved side of the tiny radiation filter. “No pay for today.”
Dennis nods, unconcerned. He’s thinking only of the Community Center meeting that will come together in three days. He has a good feeling about that one. He’s already been working on his wish. The bed sheets were a bit much to hope for, now that he really thinks about it.
Dennis slides into his workstation next to Ellen, who has been here even longer than he has. Together, they sort components for robot-guided exploration rockets for the next colonization effort. A new rocket is completed every six months and is launched. Dennis has been employed at the factory for the past twenty-three years as a quality control worker, and is thus responsible in some small way for the launching of forty-six rockets.
They work in silence for an hour until Ellen speaks. Her voice cracks like cement. “They denied me again.” Ellen has been trying to get away for years now, writing pleas to the administration as well as praying to the alien. “I don’t think I’m ever going to leave.”
“Well, you just have to keep trying.”
Ellen’s eyes gleam. “I know. I’m already starting the next appeal. And I’m always asking for it, every week.”
“Well, that’s great.” Dennis throws another piece of blue plastic into the sorting tray.
Gingerly, with the rough tips of her index finger and thumb, Ellen plucks a component from the tray and holds it up to the light. It shines, a tiny gem. “Broken,” she says, tossing it into the rejection tray behind them.
I loved you, Dennis thinks.
For every broken component Ellen takes out of commission, Dennis lets two go through. When he thinks of the rockets lifting off at the colony’s port, imagines them breaking up in mid-flight, he feels like pumping his fist in the air and yelling for joy.
When the noon buzzer rings, Dennis leaves for his lunch break, pulling on his dust mask on the way out. The sky over the colony is a dark orange today. A lighted walkway illuminates the way to the canteen, cutting a path through the dust.
The girl who runs the canteen nods as she gives him his boxed lunch. Dennis sits on the benches, whipping off his mask. He always eats alone. Today, though, he feels another body slip next to his.
“Mind if I sit here?” It’s the woman from the Community Center, the woman who was stung. She doesn’t wait for an answer. “I just transferred. I used to work at the purification center, but they don’t need as many people there anymore.” She chomps on her sandwich, chewing it slowly with her mouth open.
“Oh, that’s interesting,” Dennis says, even though it really isn’t. There’s been a lot of transfers lately.
“I don’t like it here. The work is boring. The pay isn’t so good. And at the purification center, they didn’t make us eat lunch outside in the dark.”
Dennis blinks. “Okay.”
She swallows, a gulping sound. “That meeting was weird.”
“Weird.” He grunts.
She squares her shoulders and cocks her head at him. “What is that thing, anyway?”
“It’s a being. It was here when we got here.”
The new girl makes a sound that might be giggling, or a snort. “And what does this being do?”
“You can ask it for help. Sometimes it answers.” This was typical. New transfers always trashed the meetings, until they had a chance to see the alien’s power for themselves. Or they didn’t, and stopped showing up. Either way worked for Dennis. He sips his water. “You’ll get used to it.”
She crumples the remains of her lunch and stands up. “I can’t wait to be reassigned. It’s only temporary. Maybe I’ll go back to Earth.”
“I’m sure you will.”
“This place smells too.” She turns on her heel and strides back down the walkway.
Dennis has lost his appetite. He returns his untouched lunch to the canteen girl and waits a few beats before returning to the factory. He doesn’t want to take the chance of running into her there.
It was wasted on her, Dennis thinks. She didn’t even have a wish. Of course, she didn’t know she needed one. Someone would have to teach her about the alien and its power. But it won’t be Dennis. He has his own problems to worry about.
In the factory, Dennis searches for his supervisor. He finds her on the loading dock, reassembling an engine.
“I need to talk about the new girl.”
The supervisor’s arms are streaked with engine lubricant, like a second set of veins. “Why?”
“I don’t want to take my lunch with her anymore. Let me switch my schedule around.”
She rolls her eyes and circles back to the engine.
“Are you listening?” After thirty seconds of waiting for an answer, Dennis shakes his head and leaves.
Thanks, he thinks.
Nobody remembers who found the alien. It was discovered underneath a buggy three years ago, and unresistingly scooped up by a group of workers. Dennis wasn’t there, but he knows people who were.
Of course, they planned to send it to the science department. No native life existed on Eridani, and life in general across the universe was sparse. The bounty from the discovery of the alien could keep the workers in imported food and happy pills for a year.
But then, they learned the alien’s secret.
Against advice, a man named Daniel brought his son to the colony with him. The child became very sick from expired meat, and wasn’t expected to survive the next two months. While handling the alien one day, Daniel prayed for his son to hold out until a medic ship could arrive.
He not only survived until the doctor arrived, but he didn’t need her at all.
More tentative wishes followed: an accidental double shipment of grain, a dust storm significantly less harsh than predicted. The colonists had found a receptacle for their desires, one that seemed to listen, almost to care. The price comes in the form of bites and stings, but they never really hurt. Meanwhile, spirits at the colony improved. No longer did the workers stumble through the dusty landscape, scowls on their lips. The Eridani government took notice, but most workers didn’t care for a government commendation. They had another force to please.
The alien doesn’t eat. At least, it doesn’t eat anything on the colony, which may or may not be its natural habitat. Dennis has researched it, and the alien is not listed in any guides to animal or plant life. He thinks it’s an animal. It just looks like one.
And outsiders dare to call the meetings “weird.”
It’s not weird. It’s what we need.
Dennis sinks into his seat across from Ellen. Blissful Ellen, nodding her head as she sorts, hums a tune to compete with the machinery’s clang. Dennis throws a chip with a broken-off corner into the bin. A few moments later, Ellen taps on the table.
“Are you okay? You put this one in.”
“Huh?” Dennis feigns stupidity. This is the first time Ellen’s noticed what would be called sabotage by the supervisors, if his pattern were discovered. “Oh, right.”
She grins, blushes, and tosses it into the trash bin. “I won’t tell. But just this once.”
Dennis’ heart lifts. He knows the time when he could have had a relationship with Ellen has passed. But she’ll always be here, sitting across from him, with her warm voice and sturdy hands. The alien didn’t give him Ellen’s love, but it’s not going to take her away either. Of this, he is sure. “Thanks. You’re a good friend.”
Above, ventilation fans churn their wide arms, gathering dust.
The new girl doesn’t show up at the next meeting. Neither does Ellen. It’s a sparse group, possibly owing to an increase in dust. Dennis spent all this week’s salary (minus the unpaid day) on a buggy to the Community Center. There’s one grizzled old man, plus a lead supervisor in the engineering department. The supervisor’s eyes dart around. He doesn’t want to be seen, and Dennis does him the favor of pretending he’s not.
Dennis takes the initiative, releases the alien from its cage. He hands it to the supervisor, who inspects it with shifting eyes and shaky fingers. In the first half-hour of passing the alien, nobody is bitten. Nobody is attacked. Even the feeling of goodwill one usually gets from handling the alien is absent. Dennis regrets coming.
Then, he feels a brush of hot air over his cheek. He looks over his shoulder. A cloaked figure, covered in thick brown sand, is stumbling through the door.
“Dammit!” says the old man. “Close the door.”
The figure removes its cloak and face mask. It’s the new girl. She skips toward them, bringing a folding chair from the pile near the door. “How’s he doing today? Can I hold him next?”
Even though Dennis hasn’t been very invested in the alien today, he’ll be damned if she’s going to hold it. “I’m afraid we were about to leave. You’re a little late. Maybe next week.”
A flash of lower lip. “Please?”
“Give it to her,” says the supervisor. He frowns at Dennis.
Dennis hands over the alien, keeping contact with it for as long as possible even though it is already delivered to the girl’s arms. For thirty seconds they are both gripping the alien, she softly, he for dear life. She called us weird. Finally, after it is clear that he can no longer protect the alien in this very small way without attracting attention, he lets it go. And of course it bites her.
“Oh,” she says, and for a minute it seems like she’s experiencing the bite the way it’s meant to be experienced, as a religious experience, not a rush of pure dumb dopamine into the organic machinery of the brain. “It tickles.”
Dennis stands up, knocking his chair behind him. Both of the other workers are swaying in time with the new girl’s pathetic little epiphany. He wants to slap them, snap them out of it. “Okay, I think it’s had enough,” Dennis says.
“I think he likes me.” Dennis can’t determine whether she heard him or not.
It doesn’t like anyone, you moron. It doesn’t feel anything for you, or for me, or for anyone. But especially not for you. Am I the only one who realizes this? “I think,” he says, voice wavering with the struggle to control his words, “that you should leave now.”
She doesn’t respond.
Dennis growls, cat-like, and advances on her. The alien squeaks, the barest noise, more indicative of a rusty hinge than a living thing, and burrows into the girl’s collarbone.
The nervous supervisor’s mouth gapes. “It talks.” He and the grizzled man go up close to the girl and the alien, in amazement at the first noise they have ever heard from the alien.
Dennis feels a draw toward the alien, too, a straight line of energy reaching from it to his heart. As he reaches out his right hand to touch it, the six eyes of the other colonists blaze at him. He drops his arm. Pulling his hood over his face, he walks out into the storm. He walks the seven kilometers back.
The next day, as Dennis fumbles for his access card in his satchel, the new girl appears at his side. He jumps a little; she’s come right out of nowhere.
“Went to the infirmary,” she says, holding up a bandaged wrist. “That monster really got me good this time.”
Dennis grunts. “I doubt it was that bad.”
“Are you calling me a hypochondriac?”
“I’m saying that it’s not a monster and it won’t hurt you.”
Hands on hips. “You don’t like me.”
“I don’t know what gave you that idea,” Dennis replies. “Can’t you leave me alone right now? My shift is about to begin. I’d be happy to talk to you later.” His mind rushes for ways to avoid seeing her after the shift. He might ask for overtime.
“Maybe I should ask it to get me out of this crummy place, with all these people that hate me,” she says.
“Yes, that might be a good place to start. Well, see you around.” He rushes with exaggerated speed onto the factory floor, making a beeline for his work station. Surprisingly, Ellen isn’t hunched over the component tray, but is instead pacing, a giant crooked grin on her lips. She dashes over to Dennis and gives him a hug.
“They said yes,” Ellen says. She bites her lower lip, though that doesn’t stop it from trembling.
“I mean I’m leaving. Aren’t you happy for me?”
Dennis’s head spins. He slides from Ellen’s arms into his chair, putting his head into the palm of one hand. “Sure. It’s great.”
“The letter said I can leave two weeks from now. The next routine flight to Mu Arae. They’re promising a job at a hospital there. They have houses, parks, schools.”
“I’m very happy for you.” Dennis swallows. “Very happy.”
Ellen bounces in her seat, unable to keep still. “I have so much to do! I’ll have to get rid of most of my things. Will you help me pack?”
“Sure,” Dennis says.
“Praise the alien.”
“Yes, praise it.” At least, he thinks, this wish is going to someone who deserves it.
Dennis prayed to the alien so many times. Only little things, always trying to be humble. A day off. A short vacation at the planet’s polar hotel, a tiny oasis he’d only ever heard of, never seen. For Ellen to love him back.
None of my requests were answered. Not one. But he can’t stay angry at the alien. He can, however, stay angry at the new girl. She curried its favor so quickly and so easily, like they were meant for one another.
Put it out of your mind, he thinks. You’re supposed to go over to Ellen’s place and help her tie things up here. Ellen needs you.
Ellen’s request, at least, had been answered. Dennis considers the possibility that the alien didn’t have anything to do with Ellen’s imminent departure, but dismisses it. Has to be the alien. Ellen’s been a true believer since day one.
Not like Dennis. Not anymore.
As he swipes out his lock, Dennis catches a glimpse of his face in the mirrored glass of the corridor walls. Tiny lines circle his eyes and mouth, like a series of cracks in a plastic component.
On the day before Ellen’s departure, there’s a special meeting at the Community Center. It’s a packed house, and some of the attendees have to stand. Ellen is given more time with the alien than anyone, in hopes that she’ll receive one last bite or sting. Even a faint kick would be a fine send-off.
Ellen hugs the alien, tickles its belly, blows on its fur. All the things you’re really not supposed to do. There’s only the faintest crack in her smile when she hands the alien off, unattacked, unselected. “Oh, well,” she whispers. “I already got my wish, anyway.”
Dennis could throttle the alien. He could rip it to shreds. Instead, the alien plops into his lap. It’s his turn.
He stares at it, his two gray eyes against the alien’s three black pebbly ones. He wants to feel something like faith. He looks up at Ellen’s round, expansive face. Grinning wide with gapped teeth, she nods at him. Make a wish.
I wish Ellen hadn’t gotten that letter, Dennis thinks. I wish she weren’t leaving.
The alien doesn’t do anything.
Dennis passes the alien to his left and leaves the room.
He sits on a bench, fists balled. When the calls of happiness and pain come from the community center, he doesn’t have to guess which colonist was chosen.
It’s her. It will always be her. It’s made its choice. Dennis kicks at the dust, and squints through the darkness until he can see the lights of the colony’s port, where he can see tomorrow’s rocket, gleaming blue and silver, proud and strong. The rocket that Ellen will take to Mu Arae less than twelve hours from now.
Dennis can’t go back to the center. Instead, he hails a buggy back to the colony dorms. As it speeds away through the gathering dust, he feels a tremor rack its way through his body. Putting his face in his hands, he remembers the feel of the alien’s fur between his fingers, the sharp bite of its fangs.
Dennis gets up early the next morning to see Ellen off. Above, Eridani is at its high point for the year, optimal time for a launch. Today the sky is purple. The beige-red ground glitters and it’s almost pretty. She stands at the mouth of the port, two small leather bags in tow.
“You too.” He reaches out to brush a strand of hair from her face. He has taken a half day off of work. This is too important to miss.
“You need to keep trying.”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t think so.”
“I’ll see you again. I know I will. Keep wishing… it worked for me!” A final broad smile. Christ, she actually believes it.
The pilot places a palm on Ellen’s shoulder and motions for her to get into the rocket. She smiles with closed lips and ascends the stairs. One of the security guards shoos Dennis away from the rocket, like he’s a stray cat.
The rocket climbs a few meters into the air, and explodes.
Blue shards of rocket rain down on Dennis and the three dozen other panicked onlookers. A siren wails. Dennis gapes open-mouthed at the sky until the dust swallows it completely.
Erica Satifka lives in Baltimore, MD. Her fiction has previously appeared in Ideomancer, as well as Clarkesworld Magazine and Electric Spec. She also writes the blog and zine Breakfast at Twilight. She says:
A few years ago, I read up on Appalachian snake handling religions in preparation for a possible novel. The novel hasn’t happened (yet), but I still wanted to use the concept of “snake handlers in space” for something. As an agnostic, I’m also obsessed with the idea of free will, and the impossibility of knowing whether we have it or not.