I was disembodied, watching the daily routine of my teenage self on my parents’ farm. Wake up early, make myself up with raccoon’s eyes of kohl and an unflattering shade of bruise-purple lipstick, then march to the bus stop with a spiked collar around my throat, past corn fields and ditches.
I could hear my younger self listening to the Runaways. The crops were feet above my 4’11 head. I’d never grown past 5’ nothing even into adulthood. I couldn’t see past them to the road, but I could hear the bus rumble away past the swaying stalks. Younger me ran after it.
“Screw corn,” my phantom self said.
Younger me looked like she’d heard a ghost, and then tripped over her feet. “Crap! Is someone there?” she said. “How come I can’t see you?”
I sighed. “This is your future self coming back in time to tell you your life is going to suck major ass.”
Younger me’s nostrils flared. “I don’t think so. I can sing. I even play guitar. I’m going to be like Courtney Love, minus the drugs and sex tapes and kid named after a legume.”
“Shut up, I love Frances Cobain, and you’re nothing compared to her, you little twat. I forgot how bratty I was.” I snorted. “Guess what, you wannabe punk? You’ll break your ankle senior year of college and never make it as a dancer, your band will fall apart every time you try to put together an EP, and to top it all off, you’re going to be a barista. A fucking barista. Kiss your dreams of a record deal goodbye.”
She’s a bitter specimen, echoed a voice. It seems her childhood aspirations were never met, like so many humans we’ve studied.
Younger me froze. A particularly fiery cloud blazed on the horizon.
“God?” younger me breathed. “Only prophets hear voices coming from the sky. Mom was right. I should have paid more attention in Sunday school.”
“Shut up,” disembodied me said. “That’s not God. This is a dream, my dream, and you’re just a memory of who I was.”
Younger me flinched, then looked at her arms, which were beginning to fall away like sand slipping through someone’s fingers. “Oh?” she said, and then she was gone, clothes and headphones falling to a billowing pile on the muddy dirt road. The CD player blasted “Cherry Bomb.”
The corn rustled in the wind. I looked to the burning cloud. It swelled, swallowing the sky. The heat was intense, and the fields caught fire, sending crows into thermals above.
The voice from above grew concerned: She’s sensed our presence. Her mind is trying to expel us. Give her more neurodrip.
“Who are you?” I yelled. The boiling cloud enveloped the farm. It was all that was, an oven of heat, like the warmth that had flowed from Cyrus’ hand to my ankle when he’d healed me-
Cyrus. Our take-off. “Cyrus! Is that you?”
The neurodrip isn’t working. She’s too alert.
I suppose we’ll have to wake her.
I was greeted with silence.
The heat was unbearable. I was in the womb of a dragon, baking into being.
I panicked, then tried to reassure myself: “It’s my mind. Screw it, concentrate.”
I tried to imagine something peaceful.
The fiery cloud dissipated, growing fuzzy like a TV screen crackling between channels. My surroundings settled into my old backyard, with the creek, tree fort, and weeping willow. I was back in my body, sitting in the weeping willow’s rickety swing. I clutched the old rope fastenings and steadied myself.
Switch her to the revitadrip.
I shook my fist at the sky. “I hear you!”
Hashur, she’s fully cognizant of us. Should we engage?
Hashur? What kind of name was that? Like Slash but more emo. I stilled the swing, listening.
There was a pause. The second voice spoke:
Only if Enki is here, Gishkim. He’s still in his biomorph, so his form won’t frighten her.
“Stop talking about me like I can’t hear you.”
The first voice spoke: You’re right. I’ll go bring Enki back from the containment ward. Let’s let him deal with the fallout of his actions. It might teach him a lesson for once.
I doubt that. Our prince’s neural pathways are clogged with dreams, not common sense. Up the revitadrip. She’ll be fully awake when Enki is ready to debrief her.
Prince? Had I been captured by the British space monarchy? Had David Bowie died, ascended to the stars, and become an alien overlord claiming people conceived at his concerts to build an army of glam?
My dream-body ached, on pins and needles, like an unused limb. The creek trickled away into oblivion, and my swing shook violently. Darkness flooded my backyard, and I cried out, blinded. It was like the blackness behind eyelids, clogged with sunspot patterns. I heard something drum – my heart.
My eyes fluttered open.
I wasn’t strapped down on a dissection table, being probed with metal cylinders. Instead, I was alone, lying on a spongy floor, which was matted with something like grass. Dim light came from the ceiling. I was dressed in a white gown, made of some kind of downy material.
The lower region of my back ached, and I reached down to feel something like a vine rooted at the base of my spine. I pulled the brown tendril from me. It popped out with a suction-y sound, curled back into the ground, and left a small, bloodless hole in my back.
I poked my finger in to find that the hole ended shortly thereafter, like an electric socket. My throat clutched as I realized I had been plugged in and pumped with whatever revitadrip and neurodrip were. Someone had implanted this – this thing in my back, basically turning me into an outlet.
My tongue felt leaden. My limbs were jelly. I could barely sit up, and when I did, the room – if I could even call it that – spun. And it wasn’t from dizziness. The walls were moving with a slow, lush whir, like water swirling in an eddy. The air was warm and moist, like the Amazon, and brown and bluish-green vines, like the one that had been hooked into me, hung from the round, orb-like ceiling. Droplets of amber liquid fell periodically from the vines to the ground.
I felt the hole in my back again and flinched, craning my neck to see it. The material that formed a small circle at the base of my spine was cool and porous, like a hollowed-out pumice stone. Had I become a golem? Had Ziggy Stardust descended from Mars to claim me as his bride? What about Michael from Stranger in a Strange Land?
I struggled to stand, unable to lean on the moving walls for support. Besides the vegetation, the room was featureless, like some sort of mossy incubator. My gown fell to my ankles. I turned around, searching for a door, or some kind of control panel, anything that could be used to escape.
On wobbly knees, I walked forward to feel the green, springy walls. They were soaked in the amber liquid. Summoning my last reserves of strength, I pounded on them.
I knocked until my legs could no longer stand. I sank to the ground and stared listlessly at the ceiling.
After a while, the whirring of the walls grew louder, sending cascades of amber liquid from the vines.
The orb of the ceiling unfolded like a flower, splitting open into petal-like sections. The light from above grew bright, bright, brighter, and I found I was at the bottom of some sort of shaft.
Something like a leaf unfurled downwards from the rim of the shaft, past which I could see black sky and stars. I drew back, but there was nowhere to hide. The veined leaf opened and spiraled downward, forming a crumpled staircase. It touched ground at the center of the spongy grass. Cyrus was walking down the leaf, at a casual pace.
“Cyrus? What do you think this is, a walk through the park?”
“It’s good to see you. I never meant for this to happen. Hashur took you away before I could do anything. You had to be stabilized, and I had to debrief the ship’s crew on our, um, our situation.”
He stepped off the leaf and reached out a hand to me, his smile tentative.
I took his hand, stood, then slapped him across the cheek. Angry red spread across his skin.
“You’re an alien!”
He steadied my shaking body. “Ziggi, Ziggi, everything will make sense. Just be patient. That’s all I ask.” He smoothed the sleeves of my gown. “And my name isn’t Cyrus. I got that from a really outdated baby name book when I was on LSD and the names came to life. It’s kind of hard to explain that particular trip. Anyways, Cyrus had a nice ring to it? My Anunnaki name is Enki.”
“Is Anunnaki some kind of metal band?”
He straightened his white jumpsuit. “We’re a kind of observer species. We feed off the electrical release of neurons. Our biology is somewhat similar to yours, but amphibious. Does that make any sense?”
He sighed, rubbing his temple. “I know this must come as a shock to you, that your planet isn’t alone in the universe. My race studies things, and in studying them, we grow, both figuratively and literally. It’s a vital part of our developmental process.”
I drew back from him, cautious. “Why were you on Earth then?”
“I’m on a mapping expedition of the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy, what we call Ea. The Anunnaki investigate planets like Earth periodically. It’s part of my crowning process.”
I looked him up and down. Alien or not, he was still annoying, even more so now that I had been abducted, and still romance novel-hot with his perfect, no-hair-out-of-place manbun. “In my dream, the other aliens called you a prince.”
Cyrus – Enki – nodded. “Royalty in Anunnaki society has a different connotation. Have you heard of mirror neurons?”
I struggled to recall high school biology, drew a blank, then shook my head no.
“They’re the neurons in your brain that mirror other’s behavior – they’re related to empathy. Anunnaki royals have an overexpression a substance like mirror neurons. They allow us to bond with different species. We manage diplomacy between planets and assess other races to see if they’re at an evolutionary step that would allow them to open relations with us. Think of us as a mix between politicians and anthropologists.”
“Sounds like the plot of a low-budget Syfy movie.”
Enki’s smile was soft. “I’ve been tasked with bringing humanity into the Me – or Milky Way – federation. If I succeed, my crowning process will be complete, my neural makeup will undergo a shift, and I’ll metamorphose into my adult phase.”
My hairs stood on end. “The other aliens said something about a, a biomorph, or something. That you were stuck in it.”
Enki nodded. “My species’ phenotype is fluid under the right conditions. But enough about me. Would you mind turning around? I’d like to see how your biogauge is faring.”
Enki frowned. “Hashur implanted a device in your back to help you adjust to space. It’s hooked up to your nervous system and allows quick administration of chemicals that alter your physiology so that you can understand my language, or withstand our artificial gravity fields.”
He turned me around gently. Enki unhooked a clasp at my lower back and inspected the biogauge. He touched it gingerly. I shivered and stepped away.
“That is so not right,” I said. “Hashur shouldn’t have experimented on me. I don’t want to be an X-men. Unless I’m like Wolverine or something…”
Enki sighed. “After we launched, you were in critical condition. We had to put you in suspended animation and perform the operation. Hashur’s our equivalent of a doctor – she’s studied humans for centuries, and she knew exactly what she was doing. You’re fine, I promise, and the biogauge can always be removed. You’re our guest of honor, Ziggi – the first human to step aboard an Anunnaki ship. Would you like to see it?”
My heart palpitated. “I – yes, I mean – I guess so?”
“Then it would be my pleasure to show you. But first let me change back to my true form. Human skin is itchy.”