Ed walked beside Wyn. His cologne wafted over her whenever someone passed them. Every time it did she couldn’t help but close her eyes as it rooted into her hindbrain somewhere.
It smelled like the time that her mother and father had gone to a party, all dressed in their finest, and seemed happy and carefree . It smelled like the dance in school when she lurked in a corner with her friends until the most beautiful girl in the world came by, and she felt like crying because she knew, finally for sure, and it was such a good feeling to know. A smell for times when you were sure everything was going to be different and better, and it never was.
“I guess if you live in the upper city every day is like a party.”
Wyn looked at her.
“Sorry. That was a bitchy thing to say.”
“Parts of the under city are bad, I know, but Emma’s apartment seemed nice. It was safe.”
“Yeah, you know, you should really not be talking about her to me.”
He nodded. “I don’t think I can ever apologise enough. I genuinely didn’t know that she had a girlfriend. Nor that she prefers the company of ladies.”
Her expression made him smile. “Not the preferred nomenclature?”
“Depends on what century you’re from.” She glanced behind her, where Suzie and Auggie bickered between themselves.
“She…she didn’t tell you?”
“No. I hadn’t seen her for weeks, though.”
“Oh, not since summer.”
Despite everything Ed’s heart skipped.
“She didn’t… You guys…”
“When it approached the moment, that’s when she told me about the application. I guess that she couldn’t go through with it. Wrong person, you know. So no, we didn’t. And I’ll never forgive myself for not believing what she said about the application.”
“But it’ll be all right? You guys will let her go.”
“I’ll do my best to fix this problem.”
“Sounds a bit like you’re dodging my question, Wyn.”
“So it does.”
“Gonna come clean?”
“I don’t want to lie to you, and I don’t want to make you promises only to break them. I’ll do everything that I can to help her. Situations like this take a little time to work out. They’ll test Emma and so on. It may not be pleasant to answer a bunch of questions and get scanned, but she won’t have been taken to the special ward yet.”
She glanced at his perfect profile. Nothing they’d said or done had really disturbed his composure.
“Why weren’t you afraid? You some military guy?”
“Not for a long time.”
She snorted. “You’re what, a couple years older than me?”
He looked at her. His eyes were a pretty brown colour. And they were-
She stopped short, stumbling.
“Ed? You okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I’m…fine, Auggie.”
Wyn looked embarrassed.
“Maybe a little older.”
The buckles of her boots flashed as she walked. One, two, three, four…She began to understand how soothing counting was.
“That recording freaked you out, though. It’s bad, isn’t it?”
“A little unusual.”
“Bad for us. For Em.”
“It could be.”
“What did she do?”
“She only told the truth. The repercussions of it, what it means, is harder to see.”
He took them back to the Middlefield Exchange. It was packed with commuters. Business people with bags lockstep with each other. Hyper corporate zombies, every one of them better off than her. Not one of them would take their lover to a cheap hotel. They’d have a house or apartment or something. Even Em did.
It wouldn’t be so bad, maybe, a black suit and making schedules and writing reports on things. Accounting…things.
What the fuck is wrong with me? I don’t even know the words to use.
They were spiced with celebrants in a party mood. Come down to slum. They noticed when the three of them passed without pause, following Wyn to the special entrance. He flashed his black card.
“Your guests will-“ The gate pinged.
The guard looked at his screen, and sharply to Wyn. “Sorry, sir. Old machine.”
Ed felt eyes drilling into her, and whispers, wondering who they were. She looked back at Suzie.
“Is this what working as an executive would get you?”
“Not this good.”
“You’re an executive?”
“Not as big a one as she’s gonna be,” Auggie said.
“I can believe it.”
She thought that they’d turn off at one of the public lifts, but Wyn continued on. Gradually incidental travellers fell away. The hall became smaller, and more sleek, and elegant, empty enough that their footsteps echoed. Other doors vanished. Along one wall there were intermittent mirrors, reflecting back the soft light and infinite bits of herself, but never all of her. Wyn blended seamlessly. Suzie passed. She could even imagine Auggie on his way to show off some new invention to an investor maybe, or some eccentric. Not her, though.
“From here in particular, you can’t get separated from me. You won’t be able to explain.”
“Where are we going?”
A door slid open, and young couple giggled their way through. Wyn waited for them politely.
“It’s better not to say.”
“The Centre,” Ed said.
“Don’t. Not in public. Not even here.”
At the end of another long corridor a panel slid silently open. It didn’t even look like a door. Beyond it was a small platform with a single lift car. She’d seen ones that looked like any public transport, and fancier ones meant for higher-ups, but never the sleek black capsule that Wyn led them to.
The inside was flawlessly plush. It smelled clean, almost new. Definitely it did not smell of tired workers and secret farts.
Even farts would smell nice if the people came from up here.
“Our company president has a private car.” Suzie’s hand brushed over the soft leather. “Not like this.”
“I’m sure that you’ll have better, one day.” Wyn smiled and gestured for them to sit. “It will go up fast, but you don’t have to worry about pressure or the cold. Please try to enjoy the view.”
The sense of rising was so gentle that she didn’t even notice at first. Levels began to flash by, and her stomach turned over like it would on roller coasters.
“So what’s the Centre? What is it, really?”
Wyn looked at Ed. “It’s a school. A resource centre. A hospital. An orphanage.”
“Em said she was raised in an orphanage.”
He nodded. The lights passed over his face. It was eerie, how perfect he was from every angle. And blank. Even if she had a clear view she figured she wouldn’t be able to tell anything from his expression. “Her mother died when she was born, and her father needed our help.”
“Orphanages don’t have goons,” Suzie said. “What Ed and Auggie described were goons.”
“A special orphanage. A place for people like her to grow up in peace.”
“Emma was scared,” Ed said. Her eyes followed the polished brass rail that ran above the back of the seat, watching the lights travel along it. “All the time. Scared of doing the wrong thing. Getting in trouble. Your orphanage fucked her up. Whatever you did, you made her like that.”
He sighed. “I’ve never seen her outside of our…evenings together. As I was sent for, I assumed she was just shy in that particular situation.”
“So you’re a call…boy.”
“I wear many hats.”
“Who are you, really?”
Wyn tilted his head. “Who do you think?”
“Not just some slumming rich guy.”
The capsule had lifted clear of the under city and the level above that and above that, above any level that their small lives would ever allow them. Even above where Suzie could go. And still it rose, so the wide plains and the river and the mountains burst into view, spread out like silver, all of the snow, beneath an ice cold winter sky. It was perfectly clear. There were more stars than she ever imagined.
We’re one of them.
One of her girlfriends loved to watch the specks of light flying up the side of the city. Like shooting stars in reverse. They rode out into the plains, far enough that it was hard to tell the city from the sky. She’d dreamed of going to a shining gold party high up in the clouds with celebrities and the elite, and made elaborate plans to crash the upper levels, somehow, getting through all of the layers of checks and security. Like a fairy tale. And Ed had stupidly let herself join in, for a little bit, knowing how dumb it was, but she liked the girl, and didn’t want to turn her hair pink again, and it was better than the smallness of her life.
“How high is it?” Auggie peered up.
“There’s us, and then the stars.”
She sat with her brother and sister, tired and scared, and she didn’t want to do this anymore.
She rested her head against Auggie. He patted her arm, eyes glued to the breathtaking view.
I can’t give up this time.
Finally the capsule began to slow. Ed thought that her ears should pop or her head should explode or something.
“Stay with me, no matter what.”
“They gonna throw us over the edge if they find us alone?”
There was a soft chime. The door slid open. The platform that greeted them was smooth, flawless, like glass, only no glass could withstand the heights they were at. At least she thought so. It was all soft grey; some was transparent, while other parts, like the walkway they were on, were smoked opaque. It was large, spotless, and empty, except for them. She peered over the railing. Her stomach flipped over and she stumbled. Auggie caught her arm.
“Don’t look down.”
“Are you okay with all this?”
“This place is amazing, Ed. Imagine living up here. Why would anyone leave?”
“Emma was terrified of it. It can’t be that good.”
The door swept open. Swirls and circles of light appeared above it, and followed them along the corridor beyond. It became brighter, and warm and comforting somehow. There was a soft noise, nothing as distinctive as a voice, but comforting the way it was sometimes when you were sick. Not close or demanding, but present; someone was there to hear.
“You’re a Mimic, aren’t you?” Ed said.
“Wait, what?” Auggie looked at her.
“You’re a Mimic.”
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“But you are.”
“But you’re all gone,” Auggie said. “What the hell are you doing here? I mean, you all left. Everyone knows.”
“Obviously not. A few of us remain to keep an eye on things.”
Mimics. Why did Mimics have an orphanage? Creepy ASeL conspiracies jumped to mind.
“Where is everyone?” Suzie asked. “All this space…”
Auggie poked at one of the decorations on the wall. Light expanded like ripples in water.
“Nice aesthetics. Hey, Ed? It’s pretty, right?” Auggie’s voice was deliberately bright.
All of the swirls reminded her of music notation.
“Is it language?” she asked.
“Our language, yes.”
“Warnings about stinky humans?”
Wyn laughed. “Don’t believe writers. It’s information. Directions, notifications…that kind of thing. Weather warnings.” He looked at her. “It wasn’t us, you know. The riots and the slaughter that came after, that was all your nature, not ours.”
“But you invaded.”
“We investigated, as we have countless times before. Humans murdered our kind and yours in return, hiding a multitude of sins along the way.” He smiled. “Propaganda always becomes history, given time.”
“You don’t sound cut up about it,” Suzie said. “It was…Thousands of people died.”
“Tens of thousands. Should I take it out on children like you?”
“You are. We made that mistake before. To our grief.”
He stopped. They had come to a long walkway. It seemed like the spoke of a wheel, and at its far end was a sphere with its own tendril protrusions.
“That’s the Centre. Where Emma grew up.”
“All of it?”
“It handles its students and interactions with earth administrations.”
“Do you just grab kids away from their parents? What do you do with us?”
There was a long silence. Ed felt a horror creep over her. A surge of disgust, coupled with the humiliating realisation that everyone else had already understood when she was just catching on.
“Auggie, shut up.”
To Ed’s surprise it was Suzie who hugged her, while she choked embarrassingly on her tears.
Wyn left them in a room, to “have a moment.” Suzie had a tissue because of course she did. It was mostly snot anyway, and a cloggy, miserable ache.
“Sorry, Ed. I mean, I’m usually the last one to catch on, you know? I thought you had.”
Ed blew her nose, shuddering. Emma was…She rubbed her arms, wrapping her arms around herself. Suzie let her go with an awkward pat.
“What do you want to do?” Suzie asked. Ed shrugged.
“What do you mean? We’re gonna go get Emma, right?”
“It’s up to Ed.”
“But you gotta. We came all this way. And it’s your girl.”
“Ed! It’s still Emma. Nothing’s different.”
“You weren’t the one with your tongue shoved down an alien’s throat.”
“I don’t know, Ed. Some of Auggie’s girlfriends…”
Auggie looked ready to protest, then cocked his head, considering.
The door opened. Or anyway a hole appeared that served as a door. There was no physical thing. Wyn came in with glasses and a pitcher.
“I thought you could use a drink.
Auggie investigated. “Water?”
“Dehydration is a serious issue. And this isn’t quite the right time for whiskey.”
A chair emerged from the floor. Ed watched it with a sort of cringing horror. Emma had seemed normal enough. Weird, but human weird, not…
Wyn offered her a glass. She eyed it suspiciously.
“Crying causes dehydration,” he said.
“Traveling up here also causes dehydration.”
“Answer for fucking everything, right?”
“Most things, yes.”
She took it, after Susie and Auggie took theirs.
“I wasn’t sure whether to believe you, that Emma hadn’t said anything. I see it’s true.”
“She was too scared to say anything she didn’t think was safe.”
“That sounds like her, yes.”
“What do you look like? Really look like. Not…this.”
“You must have seen footage.” Wyn sounded the slightest bit pained.
“Who knows what’s been doctored?”
She stared determinedly at him. Finally he sighed. All the colour in him faded. His clothes bulged with translucent, faintly glowing goo, like the goo from the tablet. It moved with some current of its own. Bits appeared and disappeared inside it. Organs maybe, or whatever they had. Her stomach turned over.
Then he was there again, twitching his clothes straight, and smoothing his hair back.
“That…Emma is…like that?”
She hated how her voice cracked. She hated how she thought of Emma, in her stupid dowdy dress, now turning into a pile of nothing, lying to her, making her touch what was really just…
Suzie rubbed her arm. There to lean on.
“No. Emma is nothing like me. That’s why she was in the Centre. If she was like me her father could have taken her with him. She’s as human as you right now. As human as her mother was. Take her to a doctor, and they wouldn’t be able to tell any difference, even with the closest examination.”
“She didn’t say…”
“It’s the first lesson our young learn, and the consequences are severe.”
“But you’re telling us.”
“Yes well, you’ve learned enough that it seems best to explain, and take you into confidence.”
“That is so. Is it misplaced?”
“We won’t say anything.”
“What about my friends? The guys from the garage? Your goons got them.”
“I imagine they’re back. If you want them to remain well, don’t talk about this. If you insist on it they’ll remember, and human minds can only be altered so much before the new memories don’t take, and the damage begins.”
Wyn turned to Ed, ducking his head to meet her eyes. She wanted to stay hiding against Suzie. She’d take care of everything. Suzie always knew what to do.
“You can stop here.” His voice was kind. There was no judgement in it, and it wasn’t even as though he were coaxing her. It just was. It was a fact. “I’ll take you home. No tinkering, just your word that you won’t tell.”
“What about her?”
“I’ll take care of her. I’ve told you the truth.” He sat back, the chair moving to accommodate him. “We’ve learned how much difficulty humans have with this sort of thing. You don’t have enough experience outside of yourselves. Maybe you’ll adapt in time. Most species do. But for now, I understand if knowing makes it impossible. In that case, it’s better that you don’t go on. I think that she’s hurt enough. Even a kind rejection can sting.”
Everything that they’d done could be forgotten. Her family would all be safe. She could go back. Emma would be okay. They could take care of their own. She could forget that she’d fucked an alien.
She looked down. It’d be embarrassing but it would be okay. People wouldn’t blame her, even if they knew. It wasn’t like there was no reason for it. Suzie never liked her from the beginning. It was just another thing Suzie was right about. And anyway…
She straightened a buckle on her boot, buying time. It’d come off once after a drunken stagger through a park. She found some glue for it, but it always twisted a little. There were zippers on the boots anyway, so it wasn’t really functional. It wasn’t real. Just for looks, like everything Emma did.
Well, not everything. The love was real. And the fear. She knew it. She really did.
“No. You had your chance. You don’t get to kidnap her and then keep her.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m fucking sure. I’m gonna take her home.”