Completely Different is an unprecedented collection of queer and feminist sci-fi fiction from the Bishkek art-activism hub SHTAB, bringing together fresh new voices from Central Asia and beyond. Here, The Calvert Journal presents an exclusive translation of Element 174 by Kyrgyz activist and academic Syinat Sultanalieva — an interplanetary tale of queer communism, anti-imperialism and lesbian desire.
Before me stood a beautiful woman, blocking my view of the gloomy backdrop — yes, the sort we imagine, drowsy in our messy beds, alone and unhappy, touching ourselves with one hand and holding the blanket with the other to hide what we are doing from our older brothers. She smiled amicably, not too open, not too reserved; earnest, as warm as the occasion demanded. Her face was symmetrical, dark hair reaching almost to her shoulders, big, grey eyes beneath a fan of feathery lashes. She was wearing a light white dress, not too tight, not too loose — her every graceful movement hinted at the contours of the dusky, young, passionate body underneath, the sort you want to feel writhe beneath you. I could almost hear the moans… Nails digging into my back, head thrown back, revealing that soft, tender throat, ready to be bitten into…
“Welcome to Omay, Madame Ambassador Jenry Khovak.” The alien interrupted my thoughts. Without skipping a beat, I replied:
“And good health to you, beautiful!”
I was born this way: a shameless lesbian. Ever since it became clear that I would have to be physically present on the planet of Omay, it had been my personal goal to sleep with as many of their famously gorgeous women as possible. There were rumours that they were all lesbians. I think my brothers would have understood, had they known about my plans — after all, it wasn’t exactly easy to get hold of women on Earth. There weren’t many left, and those that remained had mostly already been distributed amongst the domains. Those who grew up in ours were either too young or already related to me. I might be a lesbian, but I’m not so craven as to seduce them. I had to get by as best I could, making rare visits to the worse-for-wear residents of the Wild Zone or engaging in self-care. Luckily my father had some antique pictures and videos of sordid delights from before the Exodus, so I could indulge my fantasies at will.
Of course, I had other, less prosaic intentions. Along the way I was planning on saving the Earth and our colonies from the threat of annihilation by these foolish women. I might be a lesbian, but my father is a big player in the Government, and I was his right hand. We’d heard rumours that Omay scientists had discovered element 174. After what almost happened on Mars nine years ago when we’d tried to synthesise the element ourselves, we didn’t want to leave the fate of the galaxy in the hands of these broads. And we had other plans, of course — you know, to enslave these bratty chicks and use their science (which was, apparently, quite advanced) for the good of old Mother Earth. If we could manage it, that is.
The beauty was looking at me as if she’d known me my entire life; as if she was happy to see me but forbidden from showing it.
“My name is Ayly,” she said, coming closer and offering her hand. I was a little taller than her, though you might not have been able to tell, depending on the angle.
“Oh, and what sort of name is that?”
“It means ‘lunar’ in Ancient Turkic,” the girl replied, and she stepped forward to show me the way.
We left behind the photon cutter that had picked me up at the border of the Omay Federation, where our Excelsior, a heavy-class cruiser with a hyperspace engine, was now drifting. The two-day flight had passed well enough, but it wouldn’t have been necessary if the Omay had given us the location codes for a standard quantum teleportation. In that case my father and brothers needn’t have worried about what was going to happen to me; instead of the real deal — thin, red-headed, charismatic — the Omay would have got a very realistic infogram. She would have been impossible to shoot, poison or hang, but her senses would have been limited to sound and vision. Given my intentions, it was more convenient for me to be here physically. I grinned at my own thoughts and followed Ayly.
We were walking down a wide hall, almost an avenue, transparent like the most delicate organza, behind whose quivering walls on all sides could be seen the rocky valleys of the planet, devoid of buildings. I’d heard a lot about how these idiots had decided not to terraform their new home. Stupidity, obviously, but there was something poetic about, something we’d long lost. The sky was marked by bright stars and a lone neighbouring planet; I’d landed on the night side of Omay. I was yet to discover the fantastic views afforded by the day side, the ones that had been popularised on Earth in the early stages of this planet’s colonisation — two planets passing overhead close to the Sun, itself gleaming, everything coated in the reddish gold of the heavens. The sky of the Omay system was reminiscent of TRAPPIST-1, with its seven planets orbiting a cold dwarf, which had proven so disappointing to those on Earth — despite their beauty, all seven planets had proven unsuitable for terraforming and the decades spent trying to make them inhabitable had proven futile. Unlike the cold dwarf of TRAPPIST-1, the red dwarf sun of Omay had a wider, more stable wavelength band, allowing for autochthonous ecology. I’m no astrophysicist, but I know about these things.
Soon we stopped, though there was nothing of note around. Ayly looked down — on the floor to my right a circle began to form. Later I found out that this effect was produced by a shift in nanoparticles woven into the structure of the building materials. Confused, I looked at Ayly.
“This is the door to your room,” she replied, smiling. It was clear that she was enjoying my confusion.
“I’m staying in the basement?” Clearly I could expect the unexpected in this system. After the first photographic and video messages sent back to us by the colonisers 500 years ago, communication between Earth and Omay had ceased. We had no idea what was happening on this new planet, but to send even a single exploratory vessel was too expensive, not to mention pointless. When they re-established contact in order to declare their independence, those on Earth saw absolutely alien people looking back at them. I could expect plenty more surprises ahead.
“All rooms on the night side are located underground to conserve warmth.”
I understood now where the overwhelming sensation of endless space that had been following me along the corridor was coming from. I had thought that this was an isolated hallway, that perhaps beyond the horizon were multi-layered cities with fantastical architecture. But no. To the left and right of me branched deserted glass corridors. In the distance one could make out untouched, uninhabited crags and shining lakes. I wondered how they travelled from place to place, living underground — how did they know where to meet?
“I will leave you here,” whispered Ayly behind me. I quickly turned around, a question on my lips.
“Wait — what am I supposed to do? I don’t know how things work here.”
Ayly smiled again, this time with embarrassment, and stepped towards the rotating circle. As she moved closer it began to glow blue. Checking that I understood, she gestured to me to come closer. As I did, the circle turned gold, and a hatch (or was it a door?) slid open to the left.
“You luggage is already here, Madame Ambassador. We imagine you might need some rest. We’ve given you a guest room with an ion shower that will refresh you. We’ll wait for you to get in touch when you feel better. You can use the unalgi [Ancient Turkic for radio] on the wall for that.”
With this the beauty stopped and said her goodbyes, bowing slightly. I followed her with my eyes as she left, as impolite as it was to do so. Everything seemed so new, strange and exhilarating that I couldn’t resist. Though a couple of centimetres shorter than me, Ayly was more athletic. She held her back straight, her centre of gravity was concentrated in the pit of her belly — like they teach you in martial arts. Her stride was neither hurried nor slow, but soft, like that of a predatory cat. Her white dress twisted around her taut body. Winking at the departing figure, I finally descended the softly lit staircase into my chambers.
I stepped into a wide, well-lit, seemingly boundless space just like the transparent corridor above, but now beneath the surface of Omay. I withdrew instinctively, trying to understand how this was possible. Digging your homes into the earth was one thing, but how to create the illusion of open sky while underground? Overcoming my initial fear, I made out the edges of the space. Stepping closer I could feel an uneven wall. So, it was a projection. Such wonderful quality! I nodded approvingly, convinced that the room must be stuffed with audio and video bugs. Let them see how impressed I am — and by extension, Earth. Let them relax, let their guard down, expose their weakness. Having found the control panel for the room, I darkened the walls a little in order to see their edges, and noticed my suitcase in the furthest corner of the room.
Standing under the ion shower I felt as though I hadn’t left my home planet, that an obliging granny was waiting outside with a warm, fluffy robe. We had the same shower in my family estate on the shore of the Tasman Sea, one that made it feel like all the rusty little springs inside you had been replaced with shiny new ones. But this was not my house. On the other side of the door was a system hostile to Earth, populated by perverts and rebels. My government wasn’t interested in how exactly they survived in this chaos. Much more important was to find out about element 174: had it really been synthesised? If so, how? Was it true that the element formed part of the biochemistry of Omay? At the very least I had to find out as much as possible about this element and get that knowledge back home. If possible, I was to convince a scientist to abandon this planet of freaks and come with me to explain everything. And if this interplanetary comrade didn’t fancy talking, then my father had some very talented ‘negotiators’ who knew how to extract information from anyone. And I would feel no pity for this Omayan — they had it coming!
Everyone knew that the women and men of Omay (if the latter existed — there were rumours that all Omay males were castrated) were lucky. Lucky, because their great-grandparents, cooped up on the Koyper Belt, managed to ‘persuade’ our government to send them off to research this new planetary system. The Omay themselves didn’t even know how this so-called persuasion happened — but we knew. To this day, our leaders couldn’t forgive the politicians of the past for squandering such a system so needlessly. At the time it might have seemed as though the benefits of the expedition outweighed the negatives. We had already been through TRAPPIST-1, that cruel and senseless dashing of our hopes for expanding beyond the Solar System. It would have been too expensive to explore this new system. But our Koyper comrades, who called themselves (God forbid) ‘queer feminists’ were proving a very inconvenient demographic. Banished to the far corners of the Solar System for their various thought- and word-crimes, they nonetheless continued in their attempts to influence the common people of the Earth. That there was a simple — if expensive — way to be rid of them seemed quite the opportunity to the bureaucrats who made the decision. As the saying goes, the sheep are safe when the wolves are fed: the exiles would die an idiotic, romantic death, and quit playing at being martyrs; their sympathisers would lose interest. And no one could accuse the government of treating them harshly.
You could say that’s how it turned out — you won’t find any godless feminists on our planet these days — but this small victory turned out to be a strategic defeat on an unimaginable scale. Earth was ideologically clean and united, but the colonisers inherited a wonderful new system, which turned out to be the gateway to a new branch of the Galaxy, where there were even more viable planets than we had imagined. Now the Earth and its seven miserable colonies were nestled at the back of the Great Territory while former exiles who didn’t even believe in money were harvesting the bounties of element 174. But we would have our revenge, and the mistakes of our ancestors would be avenged.
My bed seemed to poke me softly in the back — a kinetic alarm, perhaps? — and I awoke, fully recovered from the two-day high speed journey. Outside were the same stars and the same dark-flecked violet planet. There were no visual clues as to the passage of time here — it simply stood still. Only the radium reading to which all the planet’s clocks were aligned showed when to turn on the daytime lighting, with its fantastic illusion of light trapped within the chains of an eternal night. I had slept for about six hours.
Straightening myself out, I decided it was time to get to know this world, and ascended the stairs to the door. But up there was empty and isolated, as if I were all alone on this grim planet. I strolled a little way down the corridor and realised that it truly was limitless — in any case, I had no desire to find out on foot just how far it stretched. Before my eyes stood an endless rocky surface, above which burned the unknown constellations of an alien sky. Not a vending machine in sight. I turned back and the door began to glow gold as I approached. At least I wouldn’t get lost.
I was supposed to get in touch with my hosts via the unalgi, their communication device. I had no idea how to use it, but the need to work something out was becoming obvious — my stomach was rumbling. Ayly had said that the device was located in the far wall. It turned out to be a standard intercom, with one button to call and another to hang up. I pressed the call button.
“Greetings, Ambassador Jenry. How may we help you?” The voice was totally without emotion.
“Hello. I’m ready to get to work. Or whatever…”
“One moment, please. We’ll put you in touch with Ayly-serdar.”
‘Serdar’? What did that mean? God, what a strange language. So inhuman. I should check with Ayly what it meant. ‘Assistant’, perhaps? Or ‘secretary’? After all, who else would they send? It stood to reason that the bosses wouldn’t meet with guests in person. I was yet to meet them.
“Ambassador Jenry?” The voice of the previous day’s companion somehow resonated within me. I suddenly realised that in that moment Ayly was my only acquaintance on the entire planet.
“Yes, hello! I wanted to get in touch with you earlier, but I fell asleep — apologies. Now I’m rested and ready to get to work. After a light breakfast, that is, if that’s possible?”
“Wonderful! You’ll find the food ordering programme on the main console. I’ll fetch you in an hour and take you to the Council.”
“Right. Your device, can it prepare some real meat? I don’t know if you even have cows here. Maybe you just eat seaweed.” God, what was I saying?
There was a brief pause and then a brisk reply.
“We are vegans. We don’t eat cows, or any other animals. You can order artificial meat.”
“Excellent. I’ll see you in an hour.”
The console offered several ready-made breakfasts, as well as the option of making something yourself. I needn’t have been so aggressive before — I don’t actually eat meat in the morning, I just wanted to find out if it was available. Luckily artificial meat was on the menu, though I suspected that it had been quickly added after our conversation. I chose layered pancakes with alien ‘blueberries’ and Omay herbal tea.
Ayly knocked on the door exactly 60 minutes later. I took my work console, rolled it up into the tube attached to my necklace and left. She was wearing the same clothes as yesterday — it was possible that she hadn’t slept yet, which wouldn’t be odd on a planet with tidal locking. Due to the strict delineation into night and day, with a narrow twilight zone in between —the ‘terminator’ — life on Omay was probably set up such that all work and study occurred in the day zone, with all sleep and leisure activities in the other. And although there was standardised time that allowed the infrastructure to be programmed according to the ancient human circadian rhythms, many people still organised their work time on an individual basis. How it was possible to maintain a high level of productivity with everyone working and sleeping at different times was beyond me.
“You are our very first guest from Earth, Ambassador Jenry,” Ayly began, leading me to the right down the corridor. “So we would like to offer you a brief tour of the planet before your meeting with the Council. What do you say?”
“Wonderful! I was going to ask for one in any case. I hope that you will be my guide?”
Ayly confirmed this with her signature smile — brief, but sincere.
“We travel around the planet with the aid of planetary teleporters, for which we use precise geolocational data codes. I hear you have these on Earth, too.”
“Here on Omay we have five parallel rings, or levels, circling the planet. You could walk around the ring we’re currently on in two years — Omay is slightly smaller than your planet. On the night side all lodgings are located underground in order to preserve heat. Here we have our sleeping quarters and entertainment centres. (So I guessed right!) All working and other functional spaces are located on the day side; on the surface, but deep within mountain strata, allowing us to maintain the planet’s natural architecture. The first level, closest to the solar pole, houses the administrative ring. The second is the ring of physicality, with sports schools, stadia, spaces for ascetic practice. The third ring, right over the equator, is the ring of art. The fourth is the ring of science. The fifth, furthest from the solar pole, is the ring of military support.”
“Military support? Doesn’t that contradict your philosophy?” We continued walking down the corridor, though much more briskly than I’d expected. Golden light glimmered on the horizon beyond the confines of our glass tube. We were probably at one of the poles, or simply close to the terminator, given how quickly we’d reached the border.
“Not at all. We believe that our achievements and collective progress should be defended from potential aggressors.” Ayly stopped and looked at me. “Are you tired? I can turn on the the gravi-lift, that way we’ll reach the Terminus sooner.”
Although this was an obvious attempt to change the subject away from the uncomfortable fact that the potential aggressor in their eyes was, clearly, Earth, I liked the idea and consented. A rectangular section of the floor beneath us softened, then hardened, before detaching from the ground and carrying us forward.
“So, the entire population of Omay is spread across the five rings?”
“Then how do you control who goes where? What if most of the population decides to go into sport or science and leaves the other levels empty? Someone needs to do the boring stuff.”
“Our society doesn’t restrict people to a single sphere — everyone is free to move from one level to another. At any given moment in time on each level there is a team of volunteer overseers. From time to time, of course, you find more people on the science ring, or the art ring. But we haven’t noticed any major imbalances yet.”
Our surroundings were becoming lighter and lighter. We were literally flying from darkness into the sun. This would be unimaginable on Earth, where the planet’s rotation around its axis is not synchronised with its orbit around the Sun. The stars grew paler with every second, the sky began to resemble an enormous blue watercolour blot, with streaks of purple, orange and gold. The further we moved, the brighter the canopy blossomed with colour. Ayly was silent, knowing that the first experience of crossing the terminator needn’t be interrupted by conversation. I was grateful. It’s not that I’d never done something like this before — I’d been on the Moon, on Titan — but neither of those had the same unique conditions as Omay. Looking at the riot of colour above me I suddenly noticed the first of the neighbouring planets; its unexpectedness took my breath away. Earth residents are used to being able to see the Moon from their homes, and from Mars you can see Phobos and Damos — but those are simple satellites and you can barely even make out the texture of their surfaces. Here the sight of a planet three times the size of the Moon hanging over the rocky canyons was a little frightening. I could distinguish layers of clouds, even the outlines of its distant continents.
“That is Gaya, our nearest neighbour in the system. It is closer to the sun and therefore a lot hotter than Omay. It’s inhabited by the Gayn. That’s what they call themselves.”
“Right. And what do your men and women call themselves?”
“Omayans or Omayn.”
“How are Gayn different from Omayn?”
“All of us in the Federation are different. But not in terms of our philosophy. Gayn, Omayn and Atabeyn — those who live on the planet closest to the Sun — we all share the philosophy of queer feminism, borne here by our fore-mothers 500 years ago. They can develop their own culture and traditions, but the foundational principles are mutual aid, the rejection of violence, constant reflection and mindfulness, the acceptance of differing mental, physical and psychological abilities and their equal worth and uniqueness.”
I wasn’t particularly convinced that all this was possible. We were still being carried at great speed on our rectangular gravi-lift along the corridor that stretched around the world. From time to time we passed other Omayans on their own geometric figures. They saluted Ayly, who smiled and said something or other in their language. Oddly enough, some of their words were familiar to me. Later I learned that they used a form of Esperanto in order to avoid linguistic colonialism — no single language or culture was more important here than any other. Knowing my origins, they spoke to me in Russian, even though the lingua franca on Earth was English.
It didn’t seem reasonable to argue with Ayly about the viability of their utopia. I was there to convince the Omayans that I liked their system, that they could lure me over to their side as easily as they had agents sent from other colonies. The Omay Federation maintained a principle of open space with Earth’s colonies but refused to have any relationship with Earth itself. My visit was a historic first. We wouldn’t get another shot: if I failed, no other Earth citizen would be allowed within their borders. That would be a disaster for us, given that the Federation was much better placed in the long run to establish a galactic empire. With their location, and having recently synthesised element 174, the Omayans represented a clear barrier to our expansion. We needed to integrate ourselves into their ranks, intermingle with them; give it a few hundred years and there’d be no trace left of these useless Omay ideas and their science could be put to Earth’s use. Because sooner or later they’d realise that the best strategy was attack, not collaboration.
There were now two planets cutting through the golden velvet of the sky. The second, Atabey, was almost the same size as Gaya despite being closer to the Sun and therefore further from us.
“Ayly, what do the names of the planets mean?”
By now we had flown out of the twilight zone into the eternal day. Unlike many other planets with tidal locking, the day side of Omay was not some arid hellscape. Of course, I was protected by the corridor and its now-darkening walls. Perhaps I’d perish as soon as I stepped foot outside.
“You don’t know them?” Ayly was surprised. “‘Omay’ comes from the name of the Ancient Turkic Mother goddess. ‘Gaya’ was the Ancient Greek Earth goddess, and ‘Atabey’ was the ur-goddess of the Taino Arawak, a pre-Columbian tribe.”
This made no sense to me. Seeing my lack of reaction, Ayly added:
“They are from the mythology of Earth.”
“Oh God, you mean barbarian religions?” I laughed. I felt sorry for Ayly and the Omayans, carrying on for centuries with the names of some age-old whores. “You know, on Earth no one bothers to remember anything from before the Threefold Prophet. Only Mosejesuhammed, only the hardcore stuff,” I joked, making the most of the absence of my brothers, who would have turned me over to our father (or worse, to the holy ones) for such a lighthearted reference to MJM.
Ayly looked ahead, absorbed in unknown thoughts. I wanted to leap inside her brain for an instant, to see the world as she did. Now that I knew a bit more about how the world was put together, I was sure that Ayly was from the ring of science. She was curious, open to contact with an unknown Earther — someone whose relatives were no doubt considered backwards, pestilential — and she didn’t shy away from explaining things; she seemed to enjoy enlightening me. The feeling I’d had while speaking to her on the unalgi returned. She was strong, independent, intelligent, very beautiful — she couldn’t have existed on Earth.
If my father wasn’t a big player in the Government, I’d have been sent into exile long ago. People like me weren’t tolerated on Earth because we were living reminders of the perverted Omayans and our geopolitical subordination to them — or because we were simply servants of Satan. Thanks to my father, I had access to an education, one of the three routes to becoming a future commander. A virtual reality education, but an education all the same. The other two options — raising a family or managing your own land — were beyond me regardless of whose offspring I was. My virtual reality avatar reflected my ideal self: red hair, rough but attractive features, 180 centimetres tall, no breasts and a huge dick. I didn’t even consider a female avatar — why draw attention to my disadvantages? And I was grateful for it, spending all day and night in ‘virt’, specialising in strategy and doing pretty damn well. Maybe that’s why I was chosen when the Omayans, to our great surprise, agreed to the visit of an ambassador from Earth. Physically speaking I was a woman, but I was unquestioningly loyal to the men of my great lineage. I understood better than anyone the strategic importance of getting hold of element 174. Gazing at Ayly’s striking profile, I realised that I had to bring her back to Earth at all costs. She was my ultimate mission.
Soon the gravi-lift began to slow down. On this level the day side was mostly hills and plateaus, and our transparent tunnel began to branch out like an artery. Somewhere nearby was the splashing of waves. Our transport came to a stop and Ayly invited me to follow her. Atabey was fading from view, travelling away from us towards the Sun, and would return in two Earth days — its orbit was shorter than that of the other planets in this system. Gaya seemed fixed in the sky, a result of the differences in orbit length and speed of movement in comparison with Omay.
“Madame Ambassador, we have arrived. The Council has gathered in full and is awaiting us.”
“Good — where are they?” There was no one in sight. We went through the nearest door into a darkened room resembling the airlock of a spaceship.
“We need to prepare before exiting beyond the boundaries of the ring. Every few years the Council gathers in open space.”
“But why?” I didn’t understand. Wouldn’t it be easier to turn one of those fantastic, shapeless rooms in the planet’s core into a ceremonial hall for this kind of occasion? Why force everyone to wear protective suits in order to hold your meetings on unterraformed land?
“We are expected,” Ayly replied, and pointed towards a silver suit hanging on the nearest wall. It was much lighter than a spacesuit, weightless even, and it wrapped me from head to toe in warmth. Ayly gave me something that looked like a nose clip.
“These filters will allow us to breathe in Omay’s atmosphere. They only work for two hours, but that should be plenty of time for us to return to the ring.”
Looking like two ethereal jellyfish, we swam out of the airlock. I didn’t feel any different and I was comfortable enough, but the thought of being unprotected against the unterraformed atmosphere made me move more slowly than usual. Ayly was five steps ahead of me. The fear of getting lost, of being left alone with only two hours of oxygen carried me forwards, and soon I was walking alongside her.
“I still can’t see them, Ayly,” I said. We were alone beneath the eternal alien sun. The purple grass beneath our feet murmured like it does at home. To the right I could make out a line of breaking waves and then sea itself, yellow, reflecting back the image of the sky, its two planets and its star.
“We are here.” Ayly stopped. And suddenly I noticed that certain details of the landscape were shifting. We were approached by something like a living, moving tree. From the water emerged a creature like a six-fingered alligator, only much bigger. The third figure seemed at first to be wearing a white funeral shroud, until I realised that it was a head-to-toe formless dress drifting in the thick Omay atmosphere. And so there were five of us.
“Welcome, Madame Ambassador Jenry!” I could hear someone’s soft baritone in my head. I looked at Ayly anxiously and she nodded encouragingly. But I couldn’t put myself at ease. I wasn’t prepared for telepathic communication. Words, text, those were my strongest suits — not empathy. And as for these creatures… I couldn’t shake off the unexpectedness of it all.
“Oh… Wow.” I could hear my own response before I had even affirmed it. Damn it, not only can you not hide anything during a telepathic link, you lose control of yourself into the bargain.
“You consider yourself a man?” On this voice I could feel the warm, salty winds of my months in Tasmania.
“Why do you think that?”
“You always use the masculine grammatical form when referring to yourself.” I could make out a humourous note in the reply.
“Hmm. I hadn’t thought about that. It’s probably just easier for me. That’s how everyone back home speaks, because most of those speaking are men.” I hadn’t wanted to reveal that last detail, but here, apparently, the slightest thought became part of the conversation.
“Quite right, Ambassador Jenry. But let’s not get distracted.” This new voice sounded like my father’s — dry, uncoloured by gender. I couldn’t tell who was speaking; possibly the figure in white?
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Atabey,” said the figure, raising its arm.
“Atabey? Like the planet?” I couldn’t keep this thought in, and I felt the blood rush to my face. The figure didn’t move, but I thought I heard a soundless laugh, carried on a tingling wind.
“Pleasure to meet you. I am Gaya.” The baritone turned out to belong to the tree-creature. It waved three branches in welcome and I bowed stiffly in return.
“The pleasure is mine. I am Omay.” The amphibian looked at me without blinking. I concluded that it was her voice that carried that warm, salty Tasmanian wind; everyone else had already spoken, except Ayly, who for some reason wasn’t participating in this thought exchange.
“Ayly-serdar is concentrating on keeping us safe,” Atabey thought at me. “But let’s not waste time. Tell us why Earth is trying to make contact with our Federation, Ambassador Jenry? Your system has been paying us a lot of attention recently.”
Quick and efficient — I couldn’t help but feel respect towards these inhuman creatures. Concentrating, I tried to give the response that we had agreed upon back home.
“Earth wants to re-establish contact with its lost sons. Or daughters, even. Enough time has passed to put aside old offences. Why not join forces in the great colonisation of space?”
“That was your planned response. What is the truth?” I think that was the amphibian. Damn this telepathy! Maybe I should have refused to speak to the Council in this format?
“Thought exchange is the only means of communication between us.”
“Very well. I was planning on sharing this a bit later, but: as a sign of our gratitude at your suggestion of an open doors policy between our systems, and as proof of Earth’s good intentions, we offer you this archival footage of the first group of colonisers sent to the Alpha Epsilon-23 system.” I took the console from around my neck and gave it to Ayly. “We believe that collaboration cannot be based on myths and legends. What is needed is pure historical clarity about the circumstances of your people’s departure” — don’t think, don’t think, don’t think — “Here is the whole truth.”
Ayly rolled the console out on the ground and turned it on. Above it appeared a holographic greeting from long ago. Figures in grey uniforms were sitting around an enormous round table. Almost all of them were men. They were arguing over something and pointing at a hologram model of the Alpha Epsilon-23 system that hovered in their midst. They were discussing whether or not to send the Koyper Belt colonists on a research mission. Most of the men were frowning in disagreement. The discussion dragged on for a while without coming to an agreement — judging by the disappointed faces on display. One of the women slammed the door as she left. Only two men were left in the room, lazily chatting about something, when the angry woman returned. Sitting down with the men, she seemed to start the discussion again from scratch. Perhaps these men were among those most opposed to the idea. At some point the men looked at one another, smiled slyly and said something to the woman. She was silent for a moment; it was hard to parse the emotions on her face, but she seemed to freeze completely. And then she got on her knees.
I couldn’t watch what happened next without shuddering inside. Screwing my eyes tight shut, I consciously tried to distance myself from my people’s ‘gift of gratitude’, but succeeded only in falling down a rabbit hole of my own memory. I was no longer on the planet of Omay, with its strange creatures and nightmarish sky — I was in the Wild Zone, with its slums, trash in the streets, drugs and prostitutes. I used to go there once a month when I could no longer stand to be without female company. Once they reach a certain age, most Earth women live in segregated homes in order not to distract men from important matters. Access to them is limited, as are their minds, to be honest — I’d never met a worthy woman, someone I could have a conversation with. Daft chicks. Only in the Wild Zone, usually located in the western outskirts of any given city, was it possible to relax in both body and mind. But mostly in body.
I was on my way home after visiting Gloria Disco Tits, a wonderful dame with a husky velvet voice that made you want to curl up and lie beside her for as long as possible. I heard footsteps behind me; I tried to pick up the pace, but a second later I felt a blow to the back of my head and fell to the dirt. Two people stood grinning over me. The horizon was upended and everything started to blur. One of them took off his belt and started to undo his trousers and I was overcome with horror at what was about to happen. “You are the perversion that should not exist,” spoke voices that seemed to come from far away. I tried to get up, but the second guy kicked me in the stomach. I doubled over in pain, curled up like I had at Gloria’s only half an hour earlier (Gloria, Gloria, I hope she’s alright). “We’ve already dealt with your friend,” came the voice as if in reply. “She won’t be serving filth like you anymore.” Having prepared himself, the first man dropped to his knees and began to turn me over onto my stomach. My light shorts were torn. “You’ll thank me once you’ve had a taste of my Johnny,” he laughed. I don’t remember what happened next; I lost consciousness. The last thing I heard was the voice of my older brother Petro: “She is the property of the great house of Khovak. We have the right to decide what happens to her.”
This heavy vision lifted as suddenly as it had arrived. A single planet circled above my head; the second had already vanished. The same figures stood around me in the golden light of the eternal day. The hologram was showing the first ship departing the Koyper Belt for Alpha Epsilon-23; the people of Earth were waving to the colonists, and in their midst were the two men from the meeting room. But no one was looking at the ceremony… Omay, Gaya and Atabey were looking at me. Ayly turned away, her fingers clenched into fists.
“You think your brother was protecting you?” I heard a voice. I could no longer tell who was speaking. I was suffocating in tears.
“Yes, he saved… saved me from… from…” My sobs were holding me back; I didn’t want to keep talking, but I had to, I had to! “And I’m here… to… to show you that… that your fore-mothers… were whores!” I no longer cared whether I was transmitting these thoughts on purpose or who received them. My political aim was to slowly but surely spread doubt and discord amongst the Omayans, so that some of them would grow disillusioned and want to collaborate with Earth. But in that moment, all of that seemed very distant. It wasn’t their good fortune that I hated the Omayans for, or their cosmopolitanism, or their scientific discoveries — it was their egotism. “You thought only of yourselves, leaving millions of women on Earth and Mars in the hands of rapists and murderers, scurrying off to Alpha Epsilon, making these whores into saints! Whores who’d do anything to avoid thinking of the consequences. And it’s thanks to those whores that we are like we are!”
All four were silent. I was shaking. After a while the figure in white said:
“Ayly-serdar, your instincts were correct. These creatures know nothing of compassion and do not believe in collaboration. Not to act now would mean failure.”
Atabey, Gaya and Omay nodded in unison as if agreeing on something.
“We thank you, Ambassador Jenry. We weep with you.” Having said this, all three began to leave.
Ayly and I were left alone. She came up to me and embraced me. I couldn’t physically feel her touch through the suits, but the sensation of unity burned in me for a brief moment. We turned back towards the ring. Stepping inside, I began hastily to remove the jellyfish-like suit. I wanted to be out of it as quickly as possible. The last thing I removed was the nose filter. Throwing it to the ground, I looked at Ayly. She had also removed her protection. Something was smouldering in my chest, spreading warmth up and down into my stomach.
“Where is your filter, Ayly?” I asked, trying not to pay attention to the unexpected, wayward, inconvenient desire that had awakened within me.
She looked at me, smiled and replied:
“I don’t need one. I can breathe this air.”
“But how? I mean, the planet’s not terraformed?” My sense of surprise did nothing to quell my feelings, and almost against my will I began to move closer to Ayly.
“We Omay-formed ourselves,” she responded. “Using nanotechnology we manage to avoid damaging planets that differ from the original home. But I…” Ayly stopped for a moment, noticing my approach, then continued without moving. “I am more different from you than the others. I have mechanical blood in me.”
That explained it: Ayly-serdar was a cyborg, some kind of cybernetic organism. Perhaps she was once a human, but thanks to mechanical modifications she had become a hybrid, capable of breathing in open space, of going long periods without food or sleep. Did this make any difference to me? She could have been hiding unknown reserves of possibly lethal strength — but the feeling within me was burning ever brighter. It didn’t matter whether she was human or not, at least not in the Earth sense. She was the only creature dear to me in this sector of the galaxy.
I was almost level with her now, the distance between us as small as it had ever been. I could hear her breath, much slower than mine but beginning to pick up the pace. I don’t know how long we stood like this, completely alone — beyond the walls the wind carried myriads of crimson sand grains into the air. A storm was coming. I could feel the warmth of her body and wanted to become one with her. Softly pulling her towards me, I embraced her, and Ayly responded in kind. I ran my hands through the silk of her hair and my lips found hers. We kissed, savouring the taste of each other, slowly moving towards the wall. When Ayly reached it, everything shifted. Continuing to hold her, I unhooked the clasp of her dress and it slid effortlessly to the floor. My hands moved purposefully down her burning body, leaving traces of their desire like bruises or bloodstains… Over her firm, full breasts and then back up to her open lips and then down again past her stomach — I was torn apart by desire, desire to become a part of her, to leave my mark on every centimetre of her, to kiss her hungrily all over. Her hands, caressing my back, sent electric shocks through me, turning me on even more, and then I was inside — slowing down, expiring from passion, looking at her. Her thinly traced mouth half-open, trying to stifle the sounds that become more insistent with every second. I moved faster, then faster still — I could have tortured her by slowing down again, but that was for later — her lips bit into mine and I closed my eyes but I could still feel her pleasure with my fingers and I smiled. She was coming with me.
The photon cutter took off from the surface of the planet. I looked over Omay, which filled the screen. Somewhere behind me Ayly was taking care of navigation. We were flying back to the Excelsior, each convinced of our own vision of the future. Ayly was bringing emancipation to Earth. And I had fulfilled my ultimate mission and was overwhelmed with joy, albeit tinged with bitterness. I had already fallen somewhat for this cyborg-girl.
“Ayly, do you know anything about element 174?” Suddenly I felt sick of myself.
“Yes. It was our ring that invented it,” Ayly replied, without looking at me. Navigation is a very delicate business.
My father and brothers would be satisfied. I might not have succeeded in spreading doubt in the heart of Omayans, but I had encouraged them — under the pretence of maintaining an open doors policy — to send their own envoy to us on a reciprocal visit. I was bringing my family the smartest woman they had ever met. Of course theirs was the only ring that could have produced the element — the scientists of Omay were the driving force moving their civilisation forwards. They had probably conducted hundreds of experiments, and now we would be able to receive that data directly from her. Thanks to this operation I might now get a high-ranking position in a government run by the great Khovak family.
But some nagging feeling prevented me from enjoying fully this well-deserved victory. What did she mean by ‘invented’? Maybe this was just a linguistic error — did she mean ‘created’? I looked at the ship’s display. The planet was receding into the top right corner of the screen, and it became obvious that we had departed from the bottom ring, furthest from the solar pole. A cold sensation spread through my breast. What had she said about the position of the five rings?
“Ayly, what does that suffix ‘serdar’ in your name mean?”
“It means ‘commander-in-chief’. A timely attack is the best form of defence.”
Ayly smiled her signature smile — brief, but sincere.