They had his since he was a baby, now as he has become an adult, he discovers that he has them. Or does he?
All he knew now was mud and his time at the egg. Oh, he thought he remembered living on earth. The ground, hard and below him, the sky, blue and above. There was a wash of something he dimly recalled as green. There were other colors, other creatures, another life entirely than the one he lived now. He was only somewhat more than a toddler when he heard a great whoosh, felt himself being lifted into what he thought was the air--
That was a long time ago. Years, perhaps. But he no longer measured time by the revolutions of the sun and the dark blanket of night. Now he was a captive. They were certainly aliens, but he had been here so long, he could not even prove within himself that what he had known before was true and this was just a dream. For this quagmire imprisonment was all he knew.
He shook himself from his reverie. She was looking at him, this sow of a slug. One of them. These slithery creatures that bargained for his time.
"Eighteen," she repeated.
He shook his head. "Twenty-six." His smile, an auctioneer's greed.
No reaction. Her eyes didn't exactly lift, rather moving as if to an assigned focus. "It may be worth twenty-six, but you are not," she said.
Cold, cold bitch. He smiled, she was good ice, even for one of them. His eyes hardened. Ice could be beaten. He was better fire, and a good thaw at any price. They didn't seem to understand that his problem was one of consumption. This fire they seemed to enjoy taking from him took feeding. He had his needs, and this trade talk was mere kindling.
"No bargain. Twenty-two," he said, twisting his mouth into a smug closure.
No response. He started up, then stopped. There was a fleck of blue in her right eye. No change of expression, but that was the signal that the deal had been set.
Dane relaxed. Now he could have some fun. They loved to suck his experiences of earth from him, a weird sensation the first time he felt it, but each time he did it for them, they gave him time at the egg. It was his only food. His only water. So, time at the egg was more important to him than their sport or pleasure would ever be.
"Water, Land or Air? Which is it?"
She paused. It was an uncharacteristic moment in the history of his relations with her kind. The history was long, and though she was taking too much time to answer, he knew he had another minute of silence before he should worry.
She flicked a split blue tongue along the purple opening of her mouth. Could reptiles smile? She just did.
The avalanche of birth was pebble spray compared to his being plucked out off the road at what age? Five, six, seven?
Lucky for him, Dane had been comfortable with the creatures from the very start; especially since he was never again to see another of his own kind.
At first, each youthful experience closed off to begin the next; locks in a channel. He enjoyed the way they seemed to fight over him quietly, imperceptibly. They did everything with a slow and silent purpose.
Dane had been terrified, huddled in the corner of the cave--if that's what it was. If he had known from the beginning how they needed him, needed his brightness, he mightn't have been so terrified.
The first time one of them attached themselves to him, he thought it was to eat him. He fought and struggled, stupidly, waiting for the teeth to tear into his flesh, his guts to spill out into the muck that surrounded him so terribly and them so luxuriously.
But no teeth sunk into his slender frame. He dimly remembered an older sister back on earth. Something their mother called a hickey on her neck... and this sister, sucking on his slender neck, bringing the blood to the surface like a bruise. It felt funny when she did it to him, but it was enjoyable.
Why these creatures would want to give him a strawberry mark on his midsection was a complete mystery. But instead of drawing blood to the surface, memories rose within him. This is what they were eating. Didn't cost him anything but a few silly moments with one of them hanging off him.
He guessed that living in mud and slime all their lives was a pretty narrow existence. He couldn't begrudge them a few human fantasies, especially when it meant he got to eat.
It could have become a craven exchange, though better than the alternative, (of which he had no idea). They were his masters, their intellect vastly superior, even if it carried such a specific price.
The strength of mind required to survive in their world also called for absolute structure. And when it pressed too heavily, or the pain of determining absolute reality became too great, they invariably came to him.
And he always gave them what they needed.
They coaxed him along. Their early contact was a brief wish, a maternal lick on the forehead. They tasted in him their own sense of urgency and salted their every contact with caution. None wanted to force and thus impede his progress. What they didn't know was his immediate apprehension and clear definition of their need.
Dane's response to their need was genuine and he had neither the will nor ability to withstand them. As slow and cold as they were, they would surely know when it wasn't real. He intuitively understood that the day he had to pretend, he may as well explore the alternative.
That is, if they gave him the opportunity.
Their life was thick mud soup, the consistency of which they modulated mentally. It was a form of prescient radar, and therein lay Dane's advantage.
This control, an evolved automatic response, left them with no escape, no rest or sport. Since there is no history in wet mud, Dane had no idea how long they had lived in this bog. Not even how they'd escaped it to retrieve him. Only that they were both there in direct and seemingly necessary symbiotic relation.
That first time he'd remembered walking along a dirt path at home. He eventually came to call it "Land." It had been no real test. He carried within him a residual genetic experience of sure footing and positive travel. The pace of a footstep was an emotional earthquake to their suckling glide. A slow jog sent spasms of ecstasy throughout– a veritable jail break from the muck. Running was a tympanic storm.
Dane's subsequent plunge into the Water was a tadpole's frolic in an oceanic womb. It made him laugh the way this sudden and viscous shear never failed to identify the novitiates. Several even broke off contact, their circumforming lips closing in like a flower at night.
Except there were no flowers and there was no way to differentiate night.
The discovery of Air came through an accidental and exhilarating break with Water. It was the nature of Dane's constituents that they strove deeper, discovering more of him with each encounter.
He was never sure whether they knew when to move to the next plateau, or if it was as accidental as it seemed on the surface.
Except there was no such thing as a surface with them. Everything involved depth. What began as a kiss on his forehead became a tickle down his spine, and now a deep pull at the very center of his biological existence. An experienced slug could excite Dane's piss rod simultaneously with initial contact. It was during one such Water ride that Dane's side limbs waved spasmodically, lifting him and the rider out of the Water and into a vast cave with no perceptible ceiling.
Air was the limit for a while. But just as the Land loosened into Water, and Water into Air, the emptiness began to warm as they climbed higher toward a ceiling that was never there. The sensation was dichotomous for the heat bespoke the Land and became Fire– not a word but glimmer of new color in their emotionless eyes.
Dane usually didn't like to barter, especially when he thought they wanted too much of him, given his age and experience (intuitively sensed for he had no true measure). The numbers in his head were arbitrary to him, but translated into time at the egg. Fifteen for young novitiate wanting to feel Land. Twenty would buy a good time in the Water, and twenty-two was a good price for Air. He could use the time it would buy.
But Fire, for twenty-two? He normally needed at least twenty-four at the egg. Twenty-six would have been better, given him more strength.
If he had detected her motive he would have stayed at twenty-six. She had not looked like a Fire (as if he could predict, though he rarely missed). Water would have been better for a twenty-two. She appeared ready for the buoyant weightlessness and frolic of salt water.
(Admit it, he thought to himself, you were looking for a profit, the first step toward pretense.)
The thought caught him short of a strangle, gargling in his throat. He was sure he had seen the blue in her eye. If his code broke down so easily, he may indeed be near the end. (Green spot for Land, blue for Water, white led to the Air, and red glimmered as a Fire.)
What had begun as Dane's fulfilling their needs had turned into his dependence on their needing him. He was uneasy about the shifting exigencies of his contact with them. Each time they came to him he was delighted. Each time they left, he was delighted.
He plunged through the first layer of the ova and buried his face in yellow. His legs kicked a nursing mammal dance. His worries about the Fire for twenty-two were forgotten.
Early on he had given it tick for tick. They flocked to his enthusiasm and he and the egg were together almost as much as they were apart. That first green spot and the running– the sheer freedom– step after step.
It was his ability to lose sight of anything but the enjoyment that appeared to bring them to him. The conjunction of the two separate worlds regulated into one single breathing.
Between the egg and the mucky biospheres his existence was very narrow. The narrowness forced him to search the extremities of both to expand his world. A pure reflex of unknown origin.
Once he had gone to thirty-one. It had been a white spot, genuine royalty from the length of the frown. No, not a frown, just a deep pulling at his ability to express. He had felt the hungry mental tentacle hook deep inside him. Had he not become such an expert in emotional hedonism he might have failed and lost the tilt.
Except that he never failed. There was a smart white rodent in his genetics that could trace any maze of dead feeling, brightening the path toward that moment of release these unchanging anti-chameleons paid so much to experience. when they plugged into him, they got it all. (A secondary had to unplug that thirty-one. That was the moment he learned there is an unmistakable difference between a sigh and a gasp.)
The twenty-two was done. He extracted himself and stood still and rubbed the white across his midsection. It was habit, he didn't really care if she got a good connect. For twenty-two she could show a profit if there were only two secondaries.
He worked his way back to her biosphere slowly. He had a feeling that she could use up twenty-two by herself on a Fire. If she took more than twenty-four or twenty-five, he might not have enough to recover. Her trick during the barter intimated she didn't care.
He hoped she was at least royalty of some kind. He'd hate to be done in by ordinary avarice.
As he punched through the skin of the biosphere he found her lying in the black stew. It was only in this, their favorite medium that they truly lost their reptilian nature and became slugs again. Dane looked around the stepped arena. It was empty.
He didn't like it. Normally there would be any number of secondaries to catch the residue. For such unfeeling creatures, they thrived on his experiences, even at one remove. But this one was alone. This was new. Dane's experience didn't prepare him for the new, only for accomplishing the expected.
"Twenty-two looks just about right," she squirted letting her tongue loll after the word "right." Dane just shook his head. "Twenty-two, Mr. Dane." Her left eye pierced a deepening red spot.
He was in trouble.
"You're going to enjoy this," he began the ritual.
"No, I won't," she replied with the wrong chill.
"You must release to me. Give me control or I'm going to double the fee." It was a ritual lie, but one he was willing to invoke here.
Dane could feel her closeness. With his eyes closed, the soft suction was reassuring. Once she was connected, she couldn't talk back to him. That was their control– their slow words made the world– and kept his feelings at bay. When there were no more words to speak, he could take them to his places.
She was connected.
Now, he needed to entrain her heartbeat. The pulse was low and strong and Dane knew she was still fighting him. He had to pull her heartbeat into synchronization with his. If she pulled him, he failed, and he wasn't ready yet for the unknown alternative.
She had a deep hook. He could feel his thigh begin to cramp. God, deeper than the thirty-one. (The price was dear and he gave a good indication. But that time he had been ready for it.) This one was too cheap for such a fight. At least now he was convinced it would be a fight and that would help him to conjure the extra three or four he would need to carry it over.
Then it started. His first fear rose like smoke. But smoke was not going to be enough. This slug was building a bonfire in his loins and waiting to hear him crackle. He was suddenly caught by the idea that she might be a royal bitch in heat, ready to be juiced for hatchlings. He hadn't considered that.
Why hadn't he seen her left eye during the negotiations? He could have used a cushion of five or six before dipping into his reserves.
The smoke was visible now, and he reached into the sphere. A lick of flame caught his palm and he winced, pulling back. She laughed, a mucous snort where they were attached.
It became all too apparent that she was after everything and he was going to die.
Now she really began to suck. She had tasted his sense of dying and was eating at his inside. There was no stopping her gnaw into his rib cage. He stoked the fire in his loin to perhaps cut off her access, but she was eating his full heat too rapaciously. He tried to kick out at her, but she laughed, turning him like a pinwheel on the breeze of his own death. His blood was smoke now, and his intestines charcoal.
He tried to keep his thoughts of the irony of being caught off guard out of his mind, but she was like a bulldozer into him. An no secondaries! What the hell was she that she could do this, and to him? Perhaps they used her to finish off the feelers when they outlived their usefulness. Or had another, new one come along.
She was at his spinal cord, now. He felt it with a fascination he usually reserved for their ability to absorb his fancy. It was fingers, and teeth. Like small match burns along the nerve canal. This was the second step toward death, and he figured there were only three paces to take. He screamed and she ate it in a gulp.
All of the sudden he didn't mind.
She was the monster he couldn't be. He was the best, but if she could eat him, then she was the best. He would become part of her, part of the best. He would be immortal through her.
Then he saw it. There was no more smoke, no more heat. He was looking at the mouth of time. He was being eaten by time. He had often considered what it would be like, this final consumption, and now he was experiencing it: Land, Sea, Air, Fire, and now Time!
It exploded through his cells. They all recognized the beat, the rhythm and the sense of it. The thought spread like a fast cancer. It was Time he was in now, and in that instant the power switched over to his side of the battle. He was going to do more than win this one. This was one he was going to kill. He had to see death before he could perform it, and he might never get another chance.
Dane cut into her heartbeat with a vengeance. She started and began braying in muffled, coughing spurts. But she would get no help. There were no secondaries to wrestle her off him. She had initiated the plunge toward his death. Now, he had only to pull out and let her hurtle on without him, toward her own, instead.
The tongue that had been lapping at his spinal fluids started to curl back into her throat. Actually, the creatures were all throat, but now this one could be clogged. The blue split was going down, perhaps to begin chewing on her own insides! He nearly halved her with that thought. Now he could see that he might not even need to approach his own death. Death alone was strong enough to smell up their nostrils, bringing the words to mind that would finish them off in the future.
But what good would it do to kill her? Or any of them? It was so unprecedented in his experience that there was no telling what consequences would follow. Did he want her to die because she was his master alone? It was obvious that she was no longer his master. None of them, really. Now that he had Time to enter into, he could take them to the brink of death and exercise his own power to save them.
He smiled, thinking of her hanging off his midsection, cloying for life. He would continue to give them bargains. Why bother ever going for thirty again, when even twenty seemed too much to ask of them for his new pleasure. The lower the price, the closer he could take them to death, and bring them back. He might even do it for free, some time after a long slow descent in his rates.
They must never suspect his motives, and as the price dropped, the number of secondaries would grow, and he could act as a tour guide to a hell he designed for them. It was a staggering concept.
She dropped off, the royalty drained from her. The others would see she had been ridden back, but never realize from where. They enjoyed the absolute reality, but this mystery would bring new interest in him. He didn't need minutes at the egg any more. He had broken their best ride, and now he would be devalued to do it again and again. He smiled as he punched his way back to his chamber in the biosphere.
The mouse in the maze had won again.
Dane looked at the new one across from him. He no longer looked for spots. He was just glad to have another shot at one. It seemed like days since he had last been at the egg, but that didn't matter. He knew he should do it for appearances, but appearances no longer concerned him.
The next one would be his last, every time he did it.
It was better than the alternative and there was no way to communicate to them how much he needed their terror. It was a terrible thing to know why they came to him. As long as he could keep them from figuring out that he needed them now more than they needed him.
He looked across again, suddenly annoyed by their self-satisfied, implicit demand. Then he smiled.
Why eat egg when you can have a slug?
They communicated by changing the chemical structure of the mud. The stew was much brighter after the Great Female's visit to the alien. He had reached his final maturity and taken her to where they all desired to go, all for only twenty-two! At last, he had become the perpetual emotion machine his spiritual biology had promised.
They would not need another human for a long, long time.