Introducing "Alterity" by Emily M. Dietrich, the first place winner of the Science Fiction/Fantasy category of the 14th Annual Writers Digest Popular Fiction Awards. See a complete list of the competition winners and read the first place entry in each category here. For an extended interview with the grand prize winner, visit this page. Read the grand prize winning short story here.
Alterity by Emily M. Dietrich
The third time Aliyah awoke in the alien’s body, fear sliced through every nerve. No matter what happened, she couldn’t lose control—they’d never allow a fourth.
Cortisol dumped into the complex system. The toxin spread until she felt like she was burning alive, from the inside. Not that she’d ever felt the scorch of fire and flame before. Not that she’d really felt anything before. Without pain or pleasure receptors, touch took on an amorphous quality.
But now that she experienced it, she never wanted to ever again. She wanted to spiral down the black hole that beckoned so greedily. But if she did, if she didn’t latch, she’d be terminated, body and soul.
Aliyah gasped. The push and pull of air caused her chest cavity to quake. The too-long held fetal position sent a searing stiffness through the intricate fibers of her legs. Blood pounded against her forehead. Breath fled from her lips. Fast, too fast. Her heart contracted well above the recommended 50 beats per minute. The darkness began closing in again, clouding out her periphery vision, and threatening to evict her once more.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Aliyah concentrated on applying the organic organization of the Interpolates. The successes, the ones that effectively latched onto the foreign specimens, processed these things unconsciously. No thought given to the base needs of respiration, circulation, digestion…but not her.
Verging on hyperventilation, she tried to orchestrate the countless processes needed for survival. She had to. Becoming an Interpolate was the only way for her and her kind to survive.
Aliyah started first with simply moving her head. She edged her forehead up, accidentally bumping into a side composite panel. Pinpricks of ice slapped against her and a shock of secretions touched her eyes. Watery droplets spilled onto her cheeks and disgust washed over.
She couldn’t even manage the interplay of irrational emotion. And that’s all these vessels were.
A light ignited overhead and bathed the sterile corridor in a grimy red tone. Aliyah responded. Her neck craned in the beam’s direction, instinct overriding other primary operations. She needed to follow the light source. She needed to follow it now.
One deep breath, then another. Aliyah pushed up. Her body hinged too far forward, a lopsided tug throwing it off balance. Her foot stumbled. Corked flooring needled the naked flesh. Puckered skin pulled from the checkered holes as she lumbered with another clunky step.
The forward slump of her bipedal body strained at the core. The crunch caused a million agonies to the congested organs and the carefully manipulated swish of fluids stalled. The years of prep did painfully little to prepare for the full onslaught of stimuli. Such inflexible perceptions these vessels had.
Aliyah steadied and started again. This time, she narrowed in, slowing the pathways of her brain, lessening the firing neurons and decreasing the number of new connections formed. She focused on a single task among a myriad of base functions, then another, then another. She continued until the trivial reduced to the auxiliary and the main mission could be exercised— pass Protocol One and avoid termination.
Up ahead, the self-assembling electrons of the enclosed field responded to her newfound presence. A charge raced through, the mild force absorbed into her upraised arm. Her fingertips tingled. The familiar sensation relaxed the rigid hold of her outstretched hand and her confidence grew. She could still rely on her primal understanding of the anatomy of energy.
The radiant communication complete, the field pulled open and revealed the source of the guiding light beam. The testbed.
The cylindrical room expanded. Layers and layers unfolded, its depth unfurling before her mammalian eyes. The replicating concreteness of the space was compounded by the objects in abundance—vessels. A millennia’s worth of vessels.
For many, it was the last in existence, with none providing enough to outfit her kind and therefore excised after the traditional two generations. Form deteriorated too quickly with the fusion of gametes, dilution occurred in even the first round of offspring. Her kind only suffered a third iteration of the manatees, as the humans called them, out of desperation.
They had long avoided adorning the skin of the human species. The short lifespan among other things made them less than ideal. Now, they’d simply be used as an intermediary to the next.
Aliyah’s breath caught. She tried to choke out an exhale, but couldn’t force the air from her lungs. The other grasped for control. Talons raked through her, tendrils of consciousness amassed. She wavered, the purple-black patches reappearing, closing in, swallowing.
It can’t happen again, it can’t happen again. Involuntary spasms tore through her trembling limbs. She’d been submerged by the natural inhabitant two times already. If caught, she wouldn’t be allowed to survive this time.
Aliyah pleaded in silence, unable to communicate with the other. Don’t do it! Don’t do it! They’ll kill us both. You’ll kill us both. No…no…no…no use.
Sloan shot up, ramrod straight and at full attention. Not the attention of her two years as a military astronaut candidate, but her service beforehand as a Naval Commander. That was the best imitation she could make of these parasites. Well, of the parasites when they made an imitation of her.
Walking around as rigid as it came, they barely bent their knees, never swung their arms. The noises uttered from their throats sounded guttural, stunted, and sour. She didn’t know what was more terrifying—that or when they remained as themselves.
Their gel-like bodies floated about, barely grazing the ground. Their shape frighteningly malleable and never complete, a visible viscosity clung to the air particles around them. Not to mention the eery silence. No vocalized language existed, nor any textual markings, script, or characters.
Sloan had stayed submerged for as long as she could, while the intruding parasite bumbled through the elongated passageway. Since waking in this nightmare, the repetitive series of events caused a circle to now become her least favorite shape. The intruder’s monotonous regiment stuck her in a metaphorical loop, around a literal cylinder of a ship, fighting a metaphysical crisis of sequence.
But, she’d learned how to break out.
The emotional distress of the intruder became her best tool. A weapon really, if she dared to use a weapon against herself. In short order, Sloan perfected exploiting it. Witnessing the abysmal control the intruder had over her body, Sloan cut off its breath, her own breath, to the point of blackout. She resurfaced, and would hold on until the intruder figured out how to beat her back again.
With the imperceptible turn of her head and the quiet movement of her eyes, Sloan surveyed the vast open area. The answers to surviving this place, and to understanding these beings, had to lay here.
Mesmerizing and surreal, the ship’s exposed core burned in the center, surrounded by a glass container. Only, the massive containment shell wasn’t actually made of glass. It expanded and shrunk intrinsically. The best she could tell, they somehow discovered a way to utilize the entropic state of a thermodynamic system.
Devising means to make order from disorder would upend the known paradigm of moving from order to disorder. She could only surmise that this capture, the utilization of all energy with none of it being unavailable, left all of it accessible.
A rush surged inside. Firing waves swirled around what looked like the red eye within a black core. The visualization levitated, moving up and down, but constant behind the transparent panes. Truly the most impressive thing she’d ever seen.
Human understanding of physics, and therefore engineering to mechanics, relied on making something from an existing something. But what if these aliens discovered how to make something out of nothing? They’d be able to harness energy over unimaginable distances, with applications explaining everything from their anatomical fluidity to their craft’s stealth ability.
The layout of the ship provided visibility to most of the interior. Passageways looped around the burning middle. Hidden ladders provided access up and down. No obvious engine room existed, no galley, no hangar for additional spacecraft. She hadn’t seen a single interface where she could open a terminal to inspect the code base or attempt to gain controls. Not even a maintenance shaft or a ventilation system.
Sloan had suppressed each surge of anxiety, each crippling doubt about her to escape. But now, her erected guard started to slip. What chance would she have if this wasn’t technological advancement, but instead biological?
The things she’d seen made this terrifying idea all the more suspect, but confirmed her evolving theory. Because it didn’t just explain the ship, it explained them.
Just like the energy source, they appeared to give off no byproducts. She found no repositories for waste. And the odds that the parasites thrived at precisely the same temperature with no climate controls, and respired the same elemental ratios, were nil. Yet, without any indexing systems, her naked body easily moved through the alien craft.
The honing device struck like a beacon. She continued following the intruder’s circular course, walking robotically toward a growing glimmer of red light. Different beams built into the broad bulkheads, flashing various colors and seeming to coordinate the activity of the others. The intruder’s reaction to it appeared drone-like. Even though the parasite verged on a panic attack, it responded immediately.
Sloan passed a small transparent room made of the glass-like substance, similar to the one she first woke in. The confine currently housed two humans, neither from the Levinsworth Space Station. They could be from International or Yuzhou. Only ten years had passed since private spaceflight companies added a couple habitable satellites. Squirrelly numbers accounted for the total number of humans in space, but it had to be astronomically low compared to earth’s population.
Eyeing them, she couldn’t decide what was better—to be one of the human test subjects or one of the controls. She hated the intruder trying to consume her consciousness, but being locked-up in a galactic petting zoo seemed worse. The parasites used those humans to teach behavior, to gauge productivity, to measure success. Their low survival rate attested to other unconscionable things.
Her incarceration in the proverbial pen lasted no more than a single cycle before they imprinted her, the term she came up with for an alien trying to take her over. The gut-wrenching result—loss of agency but not awareness.
A small shock hit her hand and residual energy raced through her arm. A warming sensation grew in its wake as she walked into a round chamber. Manatees gaggled in the center. Their swift and sway left an intrinsic mark in the air, a black sap of corroded material that eventually evaporated. Surrounding them was a line-up of human imprints.
Sloan watched the procedure, marking its nuances, subtleties, distinctions. Circular movement guided all. The human imprints stood like numbers on an analog clock face. The hand struck three and a manatee cruised forward and scanned the human body. The blast of white light, a sensor sensing who-knows-what, ran from head to toe. Then a mildewy brightness flashed overhead and the imprints moved up a number, counter-clockwise.
Eyes caged forward, limbs held without a lithe resemblance, Sloan followed the imprint in front of her. She’d come into the room at position six and easily made it to five, her confidence increasing that she could pass the test. She didn’t recognize any of the human imprints. She hadn’t been stationed alone, but so far she saw no one she knew.
The awful shade of the instructing beam flashed again. It revealed yellow splatters on the floor, like stains visible only under a black light. The imprints marched forward and it turned off. Her stomach cramped at the sickening suspicion that something grotesque lay beneath her bare feet.
Movement. Sloan’s eyes snapped to the right. A pulse of fear circulated through her and she quietly recovered. Any spontaneous reaction would give her away. She just had to make it to midnight. But what of the man in front of her?
A twitch, a tick, a response that shouldn’t exist. He held his arms stiffly at his sides, his squared back braced, his buttocks and thighs lean and still. The pinkie finger though, it moved. And with its subtle pinch, the muscles of his forearm flexed.
The manatee approached him. Sloan could feel the thrusting escalation of her heart. She stared straight ahead. The white sensor flashed, sweeping from the top of the man down the length of his body. It only made it mid-torso, then the fidget.
A tentacle formed from the manatees’ flipper-like arm and shot around the man. It wrapped him and pulled his body up and close to the alien’s head. Inky blobs clung to the air and then reabsorbed in the midst of the surreal action.
The sensor illuminated once more, but made it only to the man’s mouth. He opened it and screamed. The harrowing sound filled the sealed chamber. The shrieking pitch lasted less than three seconds. The manatee reared in response and the beam turned yellow.
Skin emulsified. The liquid caved inward. The muscle turned molten. The cascade burst into bone. Organs ruptured, and then the explosion. The entirety of his being turned out from the inside, a fluid-like gush morphed into a sinewy suspension. Then the skeins of flesh dematerialized.
Dark mush plummeted to the floor. The horrific whoosh pinged and plopped. And then nothing. The sound was gone. He was gone. And the manatee folded back into the center gaggle.
The ghastly overhead beam brightened.
Bile built in Sloan’s mouth. The gag threatening her throat matched the cruelty of her eyes. The light revealed the residue of lost souls, their slimy remains seeping into the punctured floor.
She stepped to three.
Thankful for the painful conformity of the parasites, Sloan clenched her teeth. Her muscles seized to overcome the writhing inside. The manatee floated over. Her gaze fixed so fiercely forward, she feared her eyes would spring from her head. Her heels dug so far into the flooring, she felt the cracks of hairline fractures. But she had to survive.
The sensor turned on. Its scan commenced.
The dump of adrenaline began to recede, leaving her with an achy emptiness. Her body froze and her mind started to unravel. Her mind’s eye opened if only to torment. Thoughts she had long suppressed bubbled to the surface.
Sloan saw her—the tiny bundle of barely something lost before she was even born. The secretly kept gift growing and thriving inside for months. And then the blood. And her hands. And the sorrow. And the enlistment. Never to return to that place again and never thinking about it to this day.
If it was day. If she would ever have another day. The pain spread, sheer will forcing her muscle fibers not to tremble. Finally, the sensor snapped off.
A sob of relief hit the inside of her mouth. The emotion never expressed but fully present. She waited for the rancid beam to indicate she should move to two and soon be done.
The manatee turned. Its deliquescing matter floated behind. The soft suspension lifted up before it rematerialized. The black dew rushed past her face, hinting below her nose. She sucked inward, feeling the snort, the peppery sting, the flare of her nostrils. The reflex threatened.
Sloan realized the suicidal act after it happened. After she caught her breath, her eyes bulged open, and her throat cleared.
The manatee rushed. The tentacle unleashed. A serpentine coil encircled her. The snare set, she couldn’t move. Panic exploded in her mind. A consuming desperation to live.
Then purple-black blotches constricted her vision. The gasp withheld. The impulse to breathe stifled. Blackout. She needed to blackout. She needed to let the parasite re-emerge.
She needed it to save her. To save them.
Aliyah’s consciousness burst into control. The sensory system screamed, the maintenance of function dubious, still only one job mattered. She had to prove the latch.
But the alien body had no means of intrinsic communication. The external expression so severely limited, so innately inferior, that she raked her mind to figure out what to do. The only chance—use the human vocals.
She had to manipulate the primitive voice box and communicate like they communicate, with observed speech patterns.
The beam raised above her human face. The charge activated. Termination imminent.
“Practice. Sn…sneeze.” The voice screeched against her ears. The garbled sounds couldn’t have meaning.
But somehow they did.
Her feet touched the floor, first her toes, then her heels. The weight of her small frame distributed and settled. The spindle loosened from her neck. The scan of Protocol One commenced again.
Pulling her abdominal muscles in and rebalancing, Aliyah implemented all she had learned while submerged by the other. Not that she’d let that happen again. The other had relinquished controls when faced with the existential threat, and Aliyah would never let it seize them again.
She moved deeper into the testbed. Exiting the round chamber, she entered an outer corridor. Broad convex windows ran parallel to the low walkway, the panoramic panes giving expansive view to the surrounding sights.
An icy shiver worked up her spine. Aliyah slammed to a stop. An internal integration had been unfolding, the unconscious orchestrating of more functions, but as she started to seamlessly manage more systems, she seemed to be losing control of others.
She raised her arm, holding it against the traces of light illuminating the dark hall. The skin prickled, a bluish tone covering it. She wasn’t doing a good job of temperature regulation. Maybe this species didn’t do a good job with that in general. Still, a seed of doubt burrowed into her mind.
The ship’s steady rotation revealed the majesty of space. An orb appeared bit by bit, until the entirety of the planet came into view. There it was. Earth. Aliyah felt a stirring inside, an awakening of sorts. She buried it back down, suppressing the other.
She suspected the Interpolates felt nothing for their others. After hers nearly got her killed, she wanted to feel hate. But looking at the abundant planet and the beauty beyond, she knew she’d carry her other with her for as long as she retained this vessel, most likely her entire lifespan.
Aliyah tapped the window, directly dead center of the unassuming planet. After passing Protocol Two, and clearing as an Interpolate, she’d initiate extraction to earth. Soon the other would go back home.
She followed the corridor to the next chamber. Anticipation rose. She’d never made it this far before and didn’t know what awaited.
An electrical charge unfurled. The spark hit her fingertips, revealing a sensation she had lost. A sobering numbness worked its way inward from her outer extremities. The initial sting to her bare feet turned into an unbearable cold burn. Her body cringed and her mind became saddled with the continuous urge to cradle her chest.
The harsh lighting of the Protocol Two chamber hit her eyes. Two barren boards lay horizontally in the center. A modeler stood behind each board, one male and one female. When she walked in, the listless looking male straightened and squinted toward the corner for confirmation. Then he turned back to her.
Aliyah remembered the time in prep. She knew exactly what to do. It had all looked exceedingly simple. But now…she grazed the broad board and flinched. They never warned about the senses, the nonstop competing sensations, the receptors that roared to life with the barest of input.
The modeler stepped forward to perform. The dullness in his eyes changed. She could smell his fear at first, but not anymore. Now she wondered if he could smell hers.
His hand shot out and clasped the nape of her neck. The gesture, possibly well meaning, possibly the best he could do in this situation, possibly an attempt to draw her frozen body in, sent the frigid cut of a thousand razors through her veins.
She had learned a lot, but not enough. She had not learned this. She didn’t want to know this. She didn’t want to feel this. She knew the trajectory of her kind, the continuum in which they lived. The difficulty of finding suitable vessels that reproduced asexually like themselves. But survival didn’t have to mean this.
A blistering cold wave seared through her screaming nerves. His grip hardened. The knot pulled at the base of her hair. Her roots alarmed. The receptors fed too much intel. Make them stop. Make it all stop.
And then the fight. The battle began. The other reimposing its will. Aliyah had saved it once, maybe the other could save her this small act. Maybe just this one time.
Splotches appeared, first at the periphery and then over the entirety of her sight. She relented, released, and let go.
Sloan grabbed the shaking man. Seizing him by the bottom of his jaw, she held him in a firm hold and made him look at her, only her. Anything to stop his frantic eyeballing at the manatee in the corner. She knew he did this to survive, believing one day he’d be free. But she couldn’t tell who was more afraid, him or her intruder.
She pulled the man in close and unleashed her tongue softly into his mouth. A kiss. As human as it came. As intimate as humanity could be. As frail and as delicate and as communal. His eyes widened, recognition reshaping the oval orbs, and then they closed.
The intruder had made it clear—first this, then home.
Sloan finally understood what she needed to do. Survival depended on forming a symbiotic alliance and overriding any aversions to alterity.
The only way the parasite would survive was if it got to earth.
The only way for Sloan to ultimately stop it was to let it.