The fate of the female octopus, a gentle, intelligent creature who pays a high price for life, inspired this story.
“I will go unto the House of the Vord, the Vord who gives beauty and meaning to my life.”
And I an exterrobiologist. The more often beauty is present, the more likely the price of attraction is a large one. What does it cost the peacock to propagate? What does the peahen lose?
Even on My Earth, biology is destiny, and each new organism is more strange and more deadly than the previous.
I should have looked more closely, spent time investigating the whys: why was the attraction to Rakel, from the newly rediscovered Earth-settled Vord, so intense? Why were there no women on their small team at the Academy, three men of astounding male beauty? Their tech was old, but serviceable – why were there no family visualizations in his room? The cost to boost their fineries must have been prohibitive – why the luxury, why the wealth displayed? To attract…what?
It should have sent warning shivers up my spine. Maybe, had I been farther along in my research, I would have thought harder. Maybe, had there been no friendly competition within my female cohort to spur me on – academites are notoriously slovenly and self-centered and study-bound – I would have wondered why the Vord decorated themselves at school and paid such lavish attention to us women. Maybe, had I allowed a Teacher to pierce my prized independence…
The three Vord started Academy at First Term. Their academic credentials in the old sciences were superb, and they applied themselves to the new – they had several centuries to make up for – with fierce intensity. The competition at the Academy is legendary – they threw themselves into classes and labs as if they appreciated the opportunity instead of as if they were entitled, a refreshing attitude.
I was intrigued. More; smitten. I made my move, late one night at the traditional after-party for those ‘going home’ – in our little world it meant we would never see them again, and it always hurts – the acamaraderie is intense, but time and space cannot be twisted twice in the same direction, and each ‘leaver’ takes knowledge back but once.
I seduced Rakel, not he me. Carefully, bearing in mind the cultural abyss I had no way of understanding. He answered, truthfully it turns out, every question I asked – then, and later. There should have been no consequences beyond a mild regret – the Academy is a bastion of women’s freedom. He smiled – and let me undress him, inspect his working parts, every inch human, peak condition – most of which I had seen already at the Academy’s Physical Centre; some of us make an effort.
As if he wanted to remember me always, Rakel paid attention to me with a concentration I had never seen – the self-centeredness of our group of prodigies from many worlds extends famously to the sleep cubes – gave full measure for what he received. He treated me as a rare and precious vessel.
More than that, he seemed to value my mind, a mind I am quite fond of. We tested each other – history, science, art. He was a little innocent in humor – I should have marked it more – but as he learned quickly, absorbing (as I look back) my wry, off-center, peculiar cast, and seeming quite natural as he mirrored it back to me (again, retrospectively), so it, too, passed inspection. I am a Third Year. I am not naive.
I told him, soon enough after that night, that our relationship would not be permanent. As much as I loved our time together, I had four more years – and then would return home, with the knowledge My Earth had paid so dearly for. I was not free to make commitments. I might never be free – that was the price I had accepted and paid to be chosen for the Academy. My genes, even, were already promised, counted on in our gene pool, calculated out three generations at least.
He did not answer – so I assumed he understood. My earliest Chem/Bio teacher always said, “Don’t assume – it makes an ass out of you and me.” I can only believe I deliberately shortcircuited this part of my brain. I believe there were also enhanced pheromones; but a false sense of security, and that twin lure of beauty and attention caught me in a trap I didn’t see, could not imagine.
If I thought it through at all, I might have entertained one small glancing image of returning to My Earth with a tiny frozen embryo for implantation in one of our surrogates – I am too valuable to be a brood mother – a girlchild who would remind me of his ethereal beauty when I saw her. With his permission, of course. Beauty often goes with fitness in humans: the ancient Nords preferred slim ankles as a sign of a lack of ricketts, ancient tribes who veiled their women required ironclad certification of both beauty and fitness before the final sale.
How many mutations does it take before we are no longer human? Does a cleaned-up set of chromosomes count? The standard test, for a species, has been the possibility of interbreeding. Humankind are still protective of our children – what other point is there?
This narration will go into the vid I am leaving. Rakel is banished. No one from Vord will ever be allowed at the Academy again. My cells will all be destroyed by fusion torch, into the tiniest fragments we can make. Until then I am in quarantine, given no actual human contact. My Earth has lost its investment – it will be long before we can afford another.
I thought I was the only. I was instead only the first. Rakel proved he had not understood a word I said when he proposed a permanent union, on Vord, where my every whim would be satisfied. He said he was madly in love – a danger sign of its own. When I gently refused him, he asked only that I not tell anyone else, as he wished to make the offer to someone else.
Seventeen other women were identified early enough. They have been sterilized, stripped of any chance of normal reproduction except cloning. Their cells have been exhaustively tested.
I was not caught until I recognized the symptoms of impossible pregnancy. But as the first, predatory female as I must be, I was too far along. Precautions – hah!
I do not flinch: the fault was mine. Someone should have asked.
The mutation? Every cell of my body carries the new DNA, and every cell of the eight embryos I carry. Four female, four male, all aliens.
The parallel I failed to see? Our friend the octopus. Octopi, celebrated gentle and intelligent creatures of the old world, have an unfair division of labor: when the female octopus has given birth to the miniatures of herself, she dies. And she passes this lovely trait on to each of her daughters. Her intelligence is thus snuffed. Male octopi can live thirty years. If unfertilized, females live even longer.
The House of Vord is short on females – and uses them up at an appalling rate. There is little chance for them to develop – sexual dimorphism has led to almost moronic levels of intelligence in their women, to the point where it affects their boychildren – so the men have become concerned. A few highly intelligent human females lured into the line would partially reverse this – and acquiring them was deemed worth the effort and the cost. As I said, Rakel answered any questions I thought to ask. They used their scientists – male, of course – to develop supersperm – not to reverse the mutation in their own females, but to overcome any chemical resistance they might encounter in true humans, and carry an interretrovirus to spread the mutation to each new host.
He sees nothing wrong in what he did
They think their mutation beneficial to the race. Possibly ‘think’ is not strong enough to explain their arrogance. Their desperation.
But now total interdiction – no human world will traffic with them – is a sentence of racial death. For them, it will be the long way. They will not be allowed off-planet again.
Interbreeding is apparently not the marker it had been thought. We can interbreed – therefore, they must be destroyed.
I will not be here to see. I cannot bear knowing that every one of my cells is a time bomb for my species.
I am unclean. I must go die.