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About the Author
Paul A. Martens is the acclaimed author of numerous SF short stories.
Regarding Mr. Martens' story Chris Bars His Soul (also published by Deep Outside SFFH), best-selling Canadian SF writer Robert J. Sawyer commented: "A first story is always exciting, because you might be in on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing. Paul E. Martens is fabulously evocative, if a bit dark for some tastes. Give this one a try, and keep your eyes peeled for more by him." -Robert J. Sawyer, Fictionwise Recommender. [This story is later identified as having been published in Fall 2001. JTC 2012].
by Paul A. Martens
It took such effort for him to be human. So many things, large and small, that Miles Parker had to remember. Things that came to others without thinking. Nothing came naturally to him. He had to follow the instructions, step by step. A to B. B to C. C to D.
He sat in a room, his body quivering with the struggle to stay in control, avoid mistakes. He had to breathe. People noticed if you didn't breathe. In and out. Not too fast, not to slow. All the way in, not just the nose, but all the way down into the lungs. Human things assaulted his senses. There were machines humming and throbbing and grinding. Smells of foods and cleansers and people. Ova, eggs, gleamed viscously yellow and white on the table before him.
He realized that the woman across from him was talking.
"Miles? Aren't you going to eat your breakfast? You're going to be late for work, honey."
* * *
He examined her words, sought their meaning, broke them down and put them together again. He hated words. They were one dimensional sketches of thoughts that reached in all directions in his head. Thoughts existed all at once; subtly shaded, distinct, with taste and smell and texture, they couldn't be squeezed out, word by inadequate word, into tenuous strings whose beginnings would be forgotten before their ends were reached. He had to sort through all the possible choices of words, pick out the right ones, put them in the right order. Then he had to make the words into sounds, modulate tones, make the proper inflections. And even then he couldn't be sure he would be understood. It all took time and he saw she was looking at him, waiting for his response. He tried to look back, his mouth opening and closing helplessly. How did she focus both of her eyes at the same spot at the same time for so long? And now they were exuding some liquid. Tears. That what the liquid was called. He couldn't produce it himself. It was exactly the sort of fine motor control he lacked.
He looked around the room, searching for clues that would tell him how to act, what to do. Two more humans entered, smaller ones. Children. They had labels, names, and he was supposed to know them.
"'Morning, Mom," said the older of the two, the female. She looked at him and he wished he could interpret the meaning of that look. "Hi, Daddy."
He still said nothing though he knew he was required to speak. He longed to be finished with his assignment and off the planet. He was getting desperate.
The male child was also silent but he could feel the child's eyes on him with a physical force.
The three of them were pressuring him. He wished he knew how to cry, how to scream, how to leave the body in which he was trapped. "Some day they'll come," he blurted. "Someday they'll come and take me away."
* * *
Wait. That was wrong. He wasn't supposed to reveal himself. The whole point of assuming the cumbersome human guise was to observe without being observed. Who could predict how they would react to having a superior being in their midst?
The woman was still watching him and crying and now the young ones were crying, too. He tried to catalogue the emotions they exhibited. Fear, confusion, concern, pain and... what was that one? Love? There were so many emotions, and he wasn't all that certain of the meaning behind each word anyway.
Finally he could stand it no longer and got up and walked from the house.
Locomotion was complicated. The movements of his head, arms, legs and body had to be coordinated. He had to balance. It was practically impossible, yet, if you did it wrong, they stared at you. He was supposed to fit in, pass himself off as one of them, but how could he with all of them staring at him all the time?
He went to the car and got in. It was a crude machine, but, by virtue of its crudity, required him to coordinate many of his human muscles and senses. See the road. See the gauges. Apply the correct pressure to fuel supply or braking device. Navigate while avoiding obstacles. React to the actions of other vehicles. Easier than walking, but exhausting nonetheless.
Reaching his destination, he sat in the vehicle and tried to recover from the pressures of the day so far. Such a small part of the day. He braced himself for the pressures still to come, knowing it was futile. He scanned the sky, wishing without hope that today would be the day they would come and take him away.
He walked slowly into the building (lift foot, balance, swing arms, put foot down, repeat with other foot) where he had his "job."
* * *
"Good morning, Mr. Parker." "Good morning, Mr. Parker." "Good morning, Mr. Parker." Each person he passed recited the same cant phrase. Outside, he was like all of them. Physically, he passed for one of them. Inside, he boiled with knowledge of his strangeness. "I'm not one of you!" he wanted to shout. "I'm not like you at all!"
But this place was a refuge of sorts, here his life was simplified by routine. The necessity of thinking about who he was, what he was doing, was reduced.
"Morning. Morning. Morning," he replied. It was expected. He escaped into the room that was his and closed the door behind him, savoring the fact that he was alone. He was almost amused by the clumsy Earth computer, designed for inefficient human hands and fingers, but at least it was filled with numbers. Once he understood what they represented, it was gloriously numbing to fill the screen with numbers. Entering, adding, subtracting.
He rarely remembered to stop for lunch and left only when it was apparent that everyone else was gone.
The device on his work surface made a noise, startling him out of his numbers-induced trance. The noise was repeated, and again, and again, as he watched the instrument. At last it stopped, and he was able to return to his numbers.
* * *
A few moments later he was interrupted again, this time by a woman in his doorway. She was grayer than the woman at the house, her eyes and mouth had lines around them and seemed less pleasant somehow than the other's.
"Miles, what the Hell are you doing? Why didn't you answer your damn phone?" She barked the words at him. She came all the way into the room and dropped into the chair across from him while taking a white tube out of a pocket of her clothing. She put the tube in her mouth and patted herself as if looking for something, then she took the tube out of her mouth, seemingly surprised to find it there and jammed it back into the place from which it came, shaking her head. Miles watched in silent wonder.
"Look, Miles, we need to talk." She looked away from him, briefly, then back again. "Are you losing you mind or what? I mean, Christ, what the Hell are you doing in here all day? I expect reports from you, I get lists of numbers. I want invoices checked, I get numbers. All I ever get from you are numbers. Lots and lots of meaningless, pointless numbers. If you don't knock it off, I'm going to have to fire your ass." She stood up. "All right? Good. I'm glad we had this talk." She started out the door, then turned around again, some of the hardness gone from her face. "If you're having some kind of problems at home, or a mid-life crisis or something, well..." She shook her head. "Ah, Hell, I don't care if you're having problems, just don't bring them into the office, okay?" She left.
No numbers? What was he supposed to do if not fill his computer with numbers? He stared at the blank screen, afraid do anything, afraid to move. His refuge had been invaded, his one respite from the horrors of being human, snatched away.
He sat immobile for the rest of the day, until he could hear no sounds coming from the rest of the office. When he could finally accept that it was time to leave, there was nowhere to go but "home."
* * *
At home, he sometimes almost wished he was human. There were moments with the woman and the young ones, times when they weren't staring at him suspiciously or fearfully, when they just were, when he wanted to be a part of them, to share the quiet satisfaction of being together, believing themselves insulated by the flimsy walls of the house from all the rest of the universe.
The woman looked at him, smiled a smile with intricacies of meaning he was helpless to fathom, and asked, "How are you feeling, Miles?"
If only he could believe the illusion. If only he could forget that he was simply pretending to be human. Maybe, if he tried, really, really tried, he could fit in. At least here and now. He stretched the corners of his mouth, trying to duplicate the expression of the female. He summoned up the words, and the breath and made his vocal chords vibrate while moving his tongue and his mouth. "I'm fine."
He could tell he'd pleased her, yet that liquid came from her eyes again. He wondered what he'd done wrong. Nothing, he told himself. He'd done everything exactly as a human would have done. Why then was she crying?
"Kids," she said. "Time for bed."
They grumbled but, just when he was sure they were going to rebel, they stopped, turned away from the... television, and put away the waxy sticks they'd been using (crayons!). They came to him, wanting to be touched by him. It was tricky. They had to be held just right, not too tightly. Only touch them in certain places, in certain ways. Awkwardly, he tried patting the small male on the head. He must have done it too hard, the boy winced but stood his ground, didn't duck away. He needed contact with Miles.
Miles didn't want to be needed. Couldn't they understand he would be gone soon?
* * *
The girl put her arms around his neck and put her lips on his cheek. "'Night, Daddy."
It was night. Obviously. He put his hand on her head, not patting, and said, "Yes," not sure if that was what he should have said. The girl looked at him as if she, at least, knew what he was, knew he didn't belong there, then she took her mother's hand as the woman led the young ones to their nests.
When the woman returned, she looked at him as if weighing his ability to absorb what she was about to say. He returned her look, waiting, without any means to prepare himself for what might be coming. Perhaps a human would know what she was going to say, would have some sort of response ready. He had no hope that he would even be able to respond after he'd heard her.
"Miles..." Her voice trailed off. Could she be uncertain of what to say? "Miles... Honey... We have to talk. I know you haven't been... well, yourself lately. I don't understand what's wrong, but I want to. I want to help if I can. If you'll let me. Can't you tell me what's going on?"
What's going on? What's wrong? How could she not know? How could she spend so much time with him, be so close to him and not know? He made himself speak. "They're coming to take me away." Somehow he felt she had a right to know. His mission might be jeopardized, but he felt an obligation to put her mind at ease.
It didn't work. Instead she produced tears again. She seemed to try to speak several times, without success. Finally she stood and said, "Oh, Miles," and ran away.
* * *
He felt bad. Sad? Whatever it was, he didn't like it. It was apparent that he was a failure. He had to get out of this human body and back to where he belonged. But how? His thoughts kept bumping into the inside of his skull, unable to break free, unable to smash through the bones that contained him. There were openings, though. The mouth. He emptied himself of air, hoping he would leave with it. He opened wide, wider, but still he was trapped. Maybe if he yelled, used the voice that was often caught somewhere within him, he would be blown free.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH..." He yelled until he felt his air processors, lungs, were about to turn inside out. He struck his body, his chest, his head, trying to dislodge himself from his human prison. He was still locked up inside the human body. He had to get out. He had to get away. Hr flung himself back against his chair, then forward onto the floor. He thrashed and twisted and rolled, like an animal trying to get out of a trap. He had to...
"Miles?" The woman was back, the young ones with her, hiding behind her legs. Her face was a lighter shade than usual, as if the color had escaped. All three were staring, staring, staring at him.
If he couldn't get out of the body, he had to at least get out of the house. Pausing only to figure out how to get up from the floor, then how to get the body in motion, he bolted into the night.
"Miles!" He heard the female again, the word she used to describe him ripped from her, filled with the pain of the tearing. He had to ignore her, concentrate on moving his legs, pumping his arms, putting his feet down, picking them up, putting them down. Breathing became harder and harder to do until he had to stop his flight.
* * *
Eventually, he was able to continue, though at a slower pace. He walked past houses in which humans did the things that came so naturally, so easily, to them. The very Earth itself seemed to pull at him, making his feet harder and harder to lift with each step, step, step. He kept going until he was beyond the places the humans lived. He came to a field on a hill where the lights of the town were below him and the lights of the stars above him blazed a message he should have been able to understand. Which one was his home? Which one was waiting for his return? "Help me," he screamed silently, then aloud. "Here I am! Come and get me! Please!" He pleaded with the stars, desperately hitting himself in the head, trying to jar loose the knowledge that had to be there.
After a time, no matter how he fought it, his eyes closed, his body shut down. He slept.
It was after dawn when the woman gently shook him awake. "Miles," she said. "Wake up."
He was still inside the human. He let the woman help him to his feet. "I knew you'd be here, Miles," she said. "Do you remember when we used to come here to look at the stars?" He allowed himself to be led back to her home. She took him to the bathroom and told him to take a shower, turning on the water before she left to get him some food.
The warmth was soothing, relaxing. He wondered if he had been going about leaving the human body all wrong. Maybe he was trying to hard. He gave in to the loosening of the muscles, imagined himself becoming unmoored from the body to drift away from it, from the whole planet. He stopped trying to stay in control, but he still wasn't able to get out, wasn't able to stop the body from falling, wasn't able to keep the head from hitting the side of the enclosure.
The female hurried back in and helped him to get up. She didn't speak, possibly because she was unable to open her mouth while she bit her lower lip. He noticed she was shaking as she took off his wet clothes and dried him, then got him into a robe.
"I'm sorry," he said. He wasn't sure what it meant but it somehow seemed appropriate.
* * *
She put her arms around him and buried her face in his chest. "Oh, Miles. Where are you? Where did you go?"
He stood with his arms at his side. Go? He hadn't gone anywhere. Didn't she see that was the problem?
She dressed him and brought him to the table in the food area, setting a container of dark liquid before him. "Drink some coffee to warm up while I scramble some eggs, okay?" she said.
He sat looking at the liquid, not sure of his ability to lift the container, nor of what to do with it if he did manage to pick it up. It occurred to him that his command of the body, even his thoughts, was weakening. This certainly meant he was getting out at last. Surely it was part of a pre-arranged plan.
The woman put a dish of yellow lumps in front of him and sat at the table with him.
"Miles, I'm not sure if this is the time, but there are some things you have to know. Maybe hearing this will bring you out of whatever state you've been in. I don't know, maybe it will just make things worse." She paused and he waited for her to go on. He was losing the ability to understand what her words meant but her voice was pleasant to listen to.
"You remember Ms. Wasik, don't you, Miles?" She seemed to be searching for him in his eyes. He hoped she would find him.
"She's your boss, Miles. You must know who I'm talking about." She was exhibiting a host of emotions. He thought he recognized, fear, sadness, anger. He watched her hands, the way the digits curled inward, making a tight ball at the end of each of her arms. He looked at his own hands and became absorbed by all the possibilities of movement afforded by his fingers.
* * * "Miles, please. You've got to try to pay attention. This is important." He could hear her strain to keep her voice from becoming a scream. He looked at her and wondered if she, too, was struggling with something inside of her that wanted to get out.
"God, Miles. Look at you. You look like you think I'm speaking gibberish. Do you think you're the only one having a hard time coping? Do you think it's easy for me, for the kids, to deal with you? You just get further and further away, leaving us behind to deal with the things you want to escape. Well, there are some things you can't escape. Ms. Wasik says she doesn't want you to come to work anymore until you get your head straight. She said that all you've been doing is typing numbers into your computer, just random numbers that have nothing to do with anything. So now you're not going to have a job and we're already behind on our bills. We could lose the house, Miles. Do you understand? Where are we going to go if we lose the house?"
He tried to understand, at least some part of what she was saying. It seemed to him that there were things he could almost grasp, but they slipped away before his mind could hold them. It was obvious, though, that his stay on the planet had to be terminated. Even if he didn't blurt out what he was to the wrong people, sooner or later someone else was bound to figure it out. Even the practically imbecilic humans had to catch on someday.
Enough. He had to get away from this horrible planet. He stood and lurched toward the door, not bothering to waste concentration on walking like a proper human. He had no idea what his destination would be, he would rely on his instincts. Surely he had to have some sort of instinct for this sort of mission, he couldn't have just been thrust into these circumstances randomly
"Miles, stop. Where are you going?" The woman sounded shocked, perhaps afraid. He would be long gone before he could fully decipher all those emotions.
* * *
He contended with the front door. He pushed, he pulled, he beat on it with his hands, but it wouldn't open. Finally, impelled by the sound of the woman's footsteps behind him, he grabbed and twisted the handle and threw the door open to make his escape.
He stumbled on the steps outside the door, hitting his head on the railing.
"Miles!" The woman's voice was shrill, piercing his mind.
He got to his feet but the world seemed blurry, giving him hope that it was losing its hold on him. He tried to walk, run, anything to flee from the life in which he was trapped.
There was a noise. A dopplering clamor coming towards him. Two bright lights were bearing down on him. There was an impact and pain, then oblivion at last.
* * *
There was so much of it. So much... blood. It pleased the alien to be able to come up with the word for the fluid spilling out of the human's body. At least the word in the local language. The incomprehensible humans had so many words for the same thing, sometimes even in the same language.
The alien lay in the spreading pool, feeling himself leak out along with the fluid, and waited to be taken away. Surely this would make them come at last. "Please," said the alien, the word a wish and a prayer and a fear that they would never come at all.
But they did come, eventually, and they took him away.
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