Enki stood, and as he did, bluish and silvery-white patterns appeared on his skin. His nose sank into his face and skin covered his eyelids. His flesh became fish-metallic, and his legs bent backward into another joint below the knee.
He removed his jumpsuit, revealing sexless, smooth features beneath. Parallel ridges covered with fins ran down his chest, and his shoulders sprouted feathery tentacles the color of sea foam. His fingers elongated, nails hardening into talons, and his pinkies reabsorbed into his hands. His feet swallowed their toes and hardened into something like claws. Finally, his ears and hair disappeared, replaced by fins and frills
A single, slanted eye blinked open in the center of his face, over lips stretched to where his ears had been. He smiled, and sharp rows of teeth greeted me.
“Put those fangs away! You look like a sewer mutant.”
His shoulder tentacles stood on end, and he frowned, his solitary brow arching downwards over an inky-black eye. “Do I really?”
“Yeah. Like the Leviathan or something.”
Enki examined his four-fingered hands. “Anunnaki are about as close to humans as you’ll get in our galaxy. Bipedal, male-female sexual dynamics, a highly social species. Now, if we went to the Andromeda galaxy, there’s a warm-blooded species closer to your physiology, but even that’s a stretch. They’re more marsupial than ape-like.”
“Stop being so academic about this. You’re freaking me out.” I looked at the ground. “I don’t think I can do this. I can’t go upstairs and see more Swamp Things. Take me home. Please.”
Enki’s skin flushed cyan. He frowned like a Cyclops. “I’d like to, but the next ship to Earth doesn’t leave for a week. We’re in the Perseus Arm of the Milky Way, about 6,400 light years from your solar system. The crew wasn’t expecting our arrival, and it takes planning to create a wormhole. Look, I already spoke to the ship’s captain, Gishkim. He’s slated our departure for as soon as is feasible.”
I gawked, so overwhelmed by the foreignness of the being before me. Enki was like something that had climbed out of Earth’s primordial seas, a fluorescent Cyclops sea slug that walked.
“But I can’t stay here,” I said. I looked around the vegetated room and shivered despite the rainforest heat. “What about my job? I’ll lose it if I’m gone. What about Carlos and Spike? They’ll freak.”
Enki’s ear-fins fanned out, like he was distressed, and the translucent frills on his neck stood up. “It’s alright. We’ve already used our ship’s communication systems to access your email and phone. I’ve contacted your family and friends to tell them you have the flu. Please, try to understand that we mean you no harm. I may look frightening, but we’re a peaceful species. You can’t stay in this ward forever. You have to eat. To move.”
I looked at the rotating walls. “Ward? That’s what this is? Some place where your friends can plug vines into my back and watch me?”
“It’s not like that. This room is like a hospital: the plants are genetically sculpted to administer medicine to patients and maintain their homeostasis. Hashur constructed it specifically for you.”
I touched the leaf-like staircase and looked Enki in his obsidian eye. “I want to blend in as much as possible.”
Enki nodded. “Alright then. Are you ready to go upstairs?”
I braced myself. “Okay.”
The ship was like a forest – woody halls, genetically-engineered vegetation creeping everywhere, with dozen-petalled flowers that looked like a cross between orchids and roses. A fine mist clung to the ceiling and amber liquid coated the floor, sticking to my feet. It was humid and warm. An occasional window would appear, and I would stop to stare at the velvety expanse of space. Enki would pause, wait, and then nudge me along to our destination.
“Hashur and Gishkim are in the heartwood hall – it’s time for our evening meal. I’m sure you’re hungry.”
I took note of the hollowness in my stomach and dully agreed.
Enki flashed his serrated-tooth smile. “Have you noticed you’re speaking my language?”
I stopped. “What?” The question exited my throat, and my tongue didn’t shape it like an English word. Instead, it was clear and bell-like, sweeter than human language. I repeated myself in wonder, then deliberately switched to English. I had been speaking a different language and hadn’t even processed it.
“Whoa,” I said. “Rad.”
Enki grinned. “It’s the neurodrip Hashur administered through your biogauge. It altered your brain chemistry so that you can speak our tongue.”
“Neat. I’ve always wanted to by a polyglot.”
I rounded a corner and ran straight into another Anunnaki. Their moist fins made contact with my skin, just like a fish plucked from water.
“Excuse me,” I said, frazzled.
The Anunnaki blocked my exit. It drew its tentacles down my arm.
“Is this the human?” a feminine voice purred. “I’ve never seen one up close before.”
I wiped her tentacles off me. They left behind a shining film. “Your skin is really cold,” I said.
“Sorry,” she said. Her skin flashed purple. “I was just curious.”
“Ishtar, give Ziggi her space,” Enki said. “She’s adjusting to the ship. Everything’s a bit frightening.”
“You don’t need to protect me,” I said. “It’s not so frightening now that I’m getting used to it.”
Ishtar’s ear-fins pressed close to her skull. “Are all humans this spry, brother?”
I looked to Enki. “I didn’t know you had a family.”
They both flinched, nictating membranes drawing down across their eyes.
Enki spoke: “Ziggi, my sister didn’t mean to invade your personal space. She has no manners to speak of. You’ll have to forgive her.”
Ishtar’s blue tongue rattled in her mouth. “At least I’m not the family idiot. Really, bringing a human aboard? You’ll never finish your crowning process with the speck of neural matter you possess.”
Enki’s skin turned whitish. “Don’t dredge up old arguments. Completing our maturation cycles isn’t a competition. Just because mother sent you on this mission with me doesn’t mean you have to hate me for it. I didn’t force you onto this ship.”
Ishtar flashed her fangs. “I wouldn’t be aboard this ship if you hadn’t taken so long to mature. The clock’s still ticking, and how much have you progressed? Did becoming addicted to drugs further your understanding of the human race? How much more of my time are you going to waste on this asinine, dead-end mission?”
Enki clenched his lips. “I don’t have to justify myself to you. Don’t be so aggressive. It’s unbecoming.”
Ishtar laughed, a throaty sound. “I could feel your imprint on her. You directly interfered with her genome on Earth – what, while she was sleeping?” Her cold gaze fixated on Enki. “Meddling with an uninitiated species’ biology is in direct violation of our laws. Or have you forgotten the fiasco that happened the last time you studied humanity? Your precious humans wrote religious books about us. Even thousands of years couldn’t erase your mistake from their memories.”
“I always thought the Bible was fishy,” I said.
Ishtar’s smile was thin. “Be careful, Ziggi. Enki loses himself in the subjects he studies. He’s a fool.”
“I think I can take care of myself,” I said.
Ishtar gave a hoarse laugh. “How long until she learns what the crowning process entails? What you’re grooming her for?”
Enki sighed, a wet sound. “Not her. Ziggi’s just my roommate. It’s an accident that she’s here.”
“What’s going on?” I said. “You guys are freaking me out.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Enki said, turning to me. “My sister’s conjecturing.” He glanced over his shoulder at Ishtar. “We’re leaving now. I suggest you do the same.”
Ishtar narrowed her eye. “Stop lying to yourself. No wonder you’re so addle-brained. You swallow your own venom instead of spitting it out.” She focused on me. “He’s imprinted on you – it’s only a matter of time.”
With that, Ishtar turned the corner, claws clacking on the damp floor.
Enki took my hand in his, trying to be reassuring. “Sorry about that. Ishtar’s usually unpleasant. Come. I’ll take you to the heartwood hall.”
I didn’t budge. “Is this some kinda alien porno like Earth Girls are Easy?”
Enki’s skin grayed, like brine. “What? No! It’s complicated, but completely untrue, and my sister is just mocking me. Her comments were crass. She likes to get a rise out of people.”
“What do I have to do with your crowning process?”
Enki looked over his shoulder, as if expecting his sister to return. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
I poked what looked like a bowl of fried arachnids with a single-pronged eating utensil and flinched.
“Is this stuff, um, edible?” I said.
The Anunnaki laughed.
I sat at a leafy table with Gishkim, Hashur, and Enki. Gishkim and Hashur were both two heads shorter than Enki and lacked his shoulder tentacles, marking them as the sheath class of Anunnaki, who ran communications and performed everyday duties that supported their species’ overall function. Their skin, instead of Enki’s default blue, was clear like glass, revealing strange organs beneath. Silver flashed beneath their skin, which Enki said was something like neurons.
Unlike Enki and Ishtar’s head- and neck-frills, Gishkim and Hashur had two fleshy stalks on each side of their brow. I was reminded of the translucent sea slugs I’d seen on Animal Planet once, in a documentary about Antarctica. They’d been called sea angels, as if they were otherworldly messengers from the depths. That’s what the Anunnaki were, anyways – visitors from the ocean of space.
“She’s funny,” said Gishkim, the ship’s captain. He smiled at me. “You eat the imperva like this.” He took his eating utensil and pressed it against a ridge on one of the arachnid’s backs. The imperva’s exoskeleton split open, revealing something that smelled like crab meat. The white, steaming flesh was split into different sections, and he stabbed his utensil through a portion of it and dipped it in a black sauce at the bottom of the bowl.
“What are imperva?” I asked, curious. I watched Gishkim chew. “Can I even digest it? Are you sure you don’t have like a hamburger or something?”
“Imperva are a kind of filter feeder from our home planet, Nibiru,” said Hashur. I absently touched the hole in my lower back. “They’re a delicacy. The sauce is made from their ink – it has a high salt content, but a savory taste. I think you’ll find them a pleasing combination and fully digestible.”
I skewered the imperva meat, dipped it in the ink, and took a tentative bite. The food nearly melted in my mouth. I chewed and swallowed.
“It does taste good. Like fish. But it looks like a spider. I thought it would be crap,” I said.
Enki laughed. “I’m glad that you’re adjusting.”
Gishkim took a triangular device from the middle of the table and shook it over his food. The shaker deposited a red, spicy-smelling substance over the imperva. He offered the shaker to me. “This gives it a kick. It’s crushed goudra petal.”
“Like a flower?” I asked.
“Heck if I know,” said Gishkim, looking to Hashur for an answer.
“They’re a bit like flowers,” Hashur, resident scientist, answered. “Goudras are chemotrophs. They degrade minerals. I’m sure you’ve seen them on the walls of our ship.”
“Oh,” I said, thinking of the dozen-petalled flowers. “You mean the ones that look like roses?”
I took the spice shaker and sniffed it. It smelled good, kind of tangy. I sprinkled some on one of the imperva’s legs and tried it. It tasted even better with the spice.
Gishkim took a last bite of his food. “Ishtar’s more aggressive than usual,” he said. “She’s molting. Try to avoid her.”
“That would explain her confrontation with us earlier,” Enki said. “I’m sorry she’s so difficult. I know it’s hard to keep her occupied aboard the ship. I don’t understand why my mother has kept her here so long. One would think Ishtar had learned enough about my crowning process already. She should have been assigned her own planet by now.”
Gishkim rubbed his temple. His head stalks stood on end. “She’s already mastered the crowning procedures and memorized every report sent back from Earth. She’s growing antsy. I’m running out of things to teach her. I think your mother hesitates because of Ishtar’s impulsiveness.”
“Tiamat has always been a cautious queen,” Hashur agreed.
“Only to counteract my father’s hotheaded tendencies,” Enki said. “I swear, Ishtar may well be his clone.”
“Abzu is a fiery ruler,” Gishkim agreed. “Your mother is his complement in every way.”
“Is your sister always moody?” I asked.
Gishkim smirked. “That’s one way to put it.”
Enki sighed. “Yes, she is, but she’s especially aggressive when molting. Anunnaki personalities are polarized during the molting process.”
I finished the last of my imperva and chased it down with a gulp of water. “So do you just turn into a total hippy-dippy druggie when you molt?”
Enki wiped his lips with a furry leaf that he plucked from the vegetated table. “Uh, well, I suppose I become calmer and indulge in, well, I indulge in more substances, yes. I find that cannabis soothes the painful process. It helped me cope on Earth.”
“Thank the waters of Nibiru we don’t have to molt, right Hashur?” Gishkim said. “It’s like being dried out and squeezed into a skin three sizes too small. At least, that’s what Abzu says.”
“That sounds uncomfortable,” I said.
Enki nodded. “It’s a part of the royal maturation cycle. We shed accumulated knowledge and cement neural pathway,” he said. “It occurs in the years before sexual maturation.”
I thought back to Ishtar’s mention of ‘imprinting.’ “Um, uh, I didn’t need to know that.”
Gishkim did something like snort, but it sounded more like a gurgle. “In a word, you could say Ishtar’s sexually frustrated. Another emotion Hashur and I will never experience. When the sheath class wants to spawn, all we need to do is touch antennae and-”
“Gishkim, stop being vulgar,” Hashur said.
Gishkim’s head stalks hung limp. “I wouldn’t be royal if you paid me. You’re the only reasonable member of your family, Enki, and even you’re an idiot.”
“He means that in the most affectionate way possible,” said Hashur. “Don’t you, Gishkim?”
“Bite me,” Gishkim said. “I had to rearrange an entire vortex schedule because our addict prince messed up.” Gishkim laughed. “Just kidding. It was no problem. Only as painful as plucking my claws out one by one.”
Enki flushed purple. “Sorry.”
Dinner passed, and I watched in fascination as Hashur caressed a bump at the center of the table. A pore opened with the sound of rushing liquid and something like sap filled the basin. The aliens put their wooden plates, dining implements, and bamboo-like cups into the pore. I did the same. Steam rose from the pore as the digested the materials. Dinner gone, the pore sealed shut.
“You guys are the most crunchy granola aliens I’ve ever met.”
Enki showed me to my room. We walked down a central hall with a clear floor, allowing one to see the expanse of space underfoot. Anunnaki trod over a gaseous, green planet with several rings and a single, crescent moon that hovered miles below. Enki said the planet was a kind of intergalactic trading post that Gishkim’s ship had landed on yesterday to refuel and restock on supplies. I was blown away by the planet’s beauty, atwitter from the idea that I could step out of the ship and fall into teal clouds.
“Here are your quarters,” Enki said, standing beside a tree as thick as three elephants. I gazed up at the branches that threatened to swallow the ceiling and disappeared into mist.
He pressed his hand to a whorl in the bark and the tree opened, just like the table’s pore had. Enki entered and I followed. The interior was the size of a studio apartment, with the same grassy floor as the ward I had been in and a bed made of moss. Red goudra flowers hung from the ceiling, spicing the air with their scent. A thin stream, lined with mossy slate, cut across the room, flowing in a miniature waterfall from what looked to be a sink. The ceiling was clear glass, allowing me to see the stars above.
Something splashed in the stream. I looked down to see ciliated, translucent jewels floating about – a bit like the diatoms on the microscope slides of my high school biology class. They glimmered every color of the rainbow.
“Snacks, in case you get hungry,” Enki said, bending over on his double-jointed legs to scoop one of the pear-sized creatures from the water. Its strands retracted as he bit in. There was a delicate crunch, and he showed me the interior of the organism, which looked a bit like red bean paste.
I sat down on the mossy bed. “I don’t know if I can eat something with tentacles.”
Enki finished the supposed snack. “They’re not really alive. They’re the fruiting bodies of our plants – like seedpods. Think of them as swimming apples. They drop into the waters of Nibiru and swim until they find ground to grow on. That’s what the tentacles are for: roots.”
“Maybe I’ll try one later.” I laid down on the bed and stared up at space.
Enki sat on a prominent rock. “I’m trying to make you feel comfortable. Please forgive me if you’re not.”
I rolled over onto my stomach. “It’s fine – well, as fine as being abducted can be. I can hack out a week here.”
Enki smiled, baring his shark teeth. “Do you want to watch TV? We save every program broadcast on Earth for research.”
I met his black eye. “Crap. Do you guys have Metalocalypse?”
“You mean that cartoon about the death metal band your band watches after practice? Yes, we do. I quite enjoy that.”
And so an alien and I watched a black comedy that peaked in the late 2000s, broadcast on the ceiling. Enki produced a joint and lighter from god knew where – did he have a kangaroo pouch or something? If so, I didn’t want to know.
The room smelled of goudra petals and weed, and the diatom-fruit drifted happily in the stream. The scent of Enki’s joint lingered after he left, just like the sheen his ass left on the rock. I couldn’t get over how sticky Anunnaki were.
My blanket was, predictably, a leaf. The natural light the walls exuded faded, and I took that as my signal to sleep. The moss beneath me was strangely comforting, and I found it as springy as a new mattress. I drifted off to sleep with thoughts of a green planet above and sweet arachnids on my tongue-
Slimy hands on my shoulders.
So much for sleep.