Dr. Audra Grissom stretched as she woke from her hyper-sleep, groaning as each vertebra popped and clicked back into alignment. She flinched as she placed a bare foot on the floor outside her sleeping pod.
“They couldn’t have turned the heat on a little early?” she muttered as she levered herself to standing. Audra made her way to a window as the other scientists crawled out of their pods. Outside, hanging in the dark vacuum of space, was the Inter-Galactic Neutral Space Station. It shone like a mirror shard, its countless solar panels and bright windows beckoning as if it were a celestial lighthouse.
“That’s not a bad sight to wake up to, is it?” Audra murmured, her breath ghosting on the reinforced glass.
“Ready, Dr. Grissom?”
The chipper voice of a morning person sounded over her shoulder. She turned and saw one of the chief anthropologists behind her.
“As we could ever hope to be.”
The scientists and crew of the Abeona met by the cargo bay once their grogginess had abated. The briefing was purely a formality; everyone knew why they were there. Guidelines were recited, packets outlining information they had all memorized years earlier were distributed, and warnings were issued.
“We’ve maintained a dialogue with the Phytomorphs for three decades now; I don’t want anything to jeopardize our relationship, is that clear? We’re making history, folks. Let’s make sure we’re on the right side of it.” Audra looked around the room, giving everyone a chance to meet her unflinching gaze. The steeliness of her eyes matched the silver hair she kept cropped around her shoulders. She had started graying in her 30s, but had given up trying to dye it back to its original brown once she hit her 40s. She had no husband or children to keep up appearances for anyway. Besides, the unruly interns back home respected her authority when they thought she was their grandmother’s age.
Audra cleared her throat.
“Now for some basics, which I’m sure you are already familiar with, but in case anyone has been living under a rock for the last thirty years—” a quiet chuckle rose from the group.
“The Phytomorphs are the first and only alien species humans have come into contact with in all of recorded history. They are generally shorter in stature, get their energy through a type of photosynthesis, and have cultures as varied as our own. We’ll be living and interacting with them for the next few years, so we’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other.”
Another dry chuckle.
“Does anyone have any questions?”
An impatient silence followed.
“Good. Let’s get ready to dock.”
The Abeona slid into the docking space, delicate as surgery. The IGNSS was designed with three major wings: one for human habitation, one for the Phytomorphs, and a common central area where the two species would interact and collect data. It was a horseshoe, and Audra liked to think that it was tilting upward.
Objects were unloaded from the Abeona’s cargo hold: clothing from all over the world, both modern and historical, tools and weapons, examples of food that was to be offered to the Phytomorphs, books, textiles, samples of artwork and music, records of monumental historic events, photographs of animals and architecture. Every physical representation of Earth’s cultures and its cumulative history. The Phytomorphs would be arriving with their own collection.
The schedules were remarkably synced, with the humans arriving only days before the Phytomorphs. They met in one of the many conference rooms on the station. Audra and the other scientists tried to present themselves with professional decorum and stifle their gasps as the first Phytomorphs filed into the room. Audra wiped her clammy palms on her thighs, and her ears throbbed with her heartbeat. She had to bite her lower lip to keep from grinning like an expectant mother. After decades of work and billions of dollars in funding, it was all going to be worth it.
Their skin was leathery and heavily ridged, and had growths clustering along their joints that resembled lichen or moss. The lower halves of their bodies, if one were to assign an Earth-like equivalent, were vaguely tree-trunk in shape, with sprawling sentient roots. Their faces were mostly featureless, but had two massive green eyes in the same bright verdancy as tree leaves backlit by a summer sun. They moved like an octopus, each limb moving independently so that the Phytomorphs appeared to undulate across the floor. The Phytomorph leading the group reached out its hands in welcome, palms upward. Audra placed her hands lightly on top of the alien’s. Its mouth opened, and the communicator around its neck translated the thrumming gargle:
“Welcome, friends. We yearn to begin this journey of peace and learning.”
Audra spoke her own gratitude and welcome; a similar communicator hung around her neck. The Phytomorphs buzzed as they extended their personal welcomes to the other scientists. Audra remained with the one who had greeted her.
Over the past decades, this was the one Phytomorph she had been in contact with the most. Audra had clocked in a staggering amount of overtime at the Galactic Communications Lab, receiving and imparting messages to the aliens. From the first static-filled thrums caught by satellites to the fully-furnished blueprints for the IGNSS, Audra had maintained constant contact. Over the years, they had formed a close bond, and she had secretly nicknamed him “Ziggy” after her favorite 1970s musician. The androgynous spider-limbed alien fit the bill quite nicely.
“It is wonderful to finally meet you,” Audra said, smiling. Ziggy’s root-like limbs fluttered happily against the floor.
“It is equally pleasant to meet you, friend Doctor Audra.” Ziggy was her alien equivalent, with as strong a passion and curiosity for humans as she had for the Phytomorphs. She gripped his rough hands once more, and felt the ridges press into her skin.
During the course of the next three months, human scientists and Phytomorphs met and collated their data. The mission was purely academic, but friendships inevitably formed. There was awkwardness at times, and the leading anthropologists on board helped the humans through the worst of the culture shock. The other discomfort lay in the acknowledgement of the negative sides of humanity. The fact of human cruelty was delicately addressed. There was no way around it. During one meeting, Ziggy asked,
“Why do you care so deeply for some humans, but harm so many others?”
Audra paused before responding.
“We are proud and fearful creatures, and sometimes we let those feelings get in the way of everything else.”
“You are a deeply flawed species.” Ziggy responded, tilting his head to one side. Audra gave a quiet, wry smile.
“Yes, we are. But we wouldn’t be us without them.”
“We ourselves are not perfect, but we have never committed such…” Ziggy gestured to both the holograph projector and information packets on the table. The Holocaust. Cambodian genocide. Armenian genocide. American slavery. The bombing of Hiroshima. The Trail of Tears. He picked up an information packet, and flipped through the color images of riots and mass graves. A twiggy finger rested on the image of a screaming mother holding her child. There was a heavy silence in the room. Audra finally broke it with a small sigh.
“We can be done for the day, if you wish.”
Ziggy nodded, still staring at the image. Audra picked up her things and left the room, pausing to look back at his hunched figure as he stared blankly at the papers in his hands.
The most popular form of recreation aboard the IGNSS was the solarium at the heart of the station. Massive windows framed the room to let in the light that reflected off the solar panels. This was where both the Phytomorphs came to sun themselves and photosynthesize, and where the humans ate their rehydrated meal packs. It was also fitted with games, books, and lounge areas. It was the largest room on the station, and most of the inhabitants spent their free time there.
One day, Ziggy approached Audra in the solarium after sunning himself by the windows. The root-like tendrils were skittering happily on the linoleum as he rushed to her. His large green eyes shone brightly, and the outline of his body had a pale-yellow glow.
“Friend Doctor Audra! We are performing The Hum tonight. Would you like to join us?”
Audra’s breath caught. The Hum was a ceremonial and spiritual gathering that no human had ever witnessed. The Phytomorphs had mentioned it in their discussions with the human scientists, but few details were given. She nodded, and looked over at a few of the Phytomorphs happily chatting by the windows as they fed off the solar rays. They caught her gaze and smiled at her. Audra’s stomach twisted in anticipation.
Audra met them in one of the gathering rooms on the Phytomorph side of the station later that night. The lights were dim when she entered, and it took her a few seconds to adjust. The Phytomorphs were sitting in a circle, softly conversing in their native languages. They all must have been sunning themselves recently, for their lichens were thick and plush, and a soft haze clung to their bodies. Ziggy found her and gestured to the empty space next to him. Once she sat down, he nudged her shoes and wiggled his own tuber-like extremities. Audra took off the offending shoes and socks and set them behind her. She was mildly embarrassed by the smell of her feet in the crowded room, but the Phytomorphs didn’t seem to notice.
Slowly, they began to hum. There was a rustling sound, and Audra saw them intertwining their roots with the alien next to them. She felt the roots thread between her toes and coil up her calves. Her hands and forearms were also ensnared, and soon all the Phytomorphs were entangled with the others in an interconnected ring. Audra was immediately reminded of some fact from a high school biology course about mycelia and earthen root systems.
The thrumming grew louder, and the aliens started swaying, like grasses caught in an afternoon breeze. The hair on the backs of Audra’s arms stood on end, and she was filled with an enveloping sense of contentment. The hum grew louder still, until the entire room seemed to vibrate. She looked around her. The Phytomorphs had closed their eyes. She closed her own and was hit with a wave of sensation. Every heartbeat of the Phytomorphs around her echoed in her own chest. It was as though she was inhabiting all of them at once, while they were inhabiting her. Tears began to streak down Audra’s cheeks, but she couldn’t have been able to explain why. She moved in harmony with them, reveling in the feeling of oneness. All thoughts emptied out of her mind, and she was no longer aware of time passing. Everything was consumed by the swaying, purring, wholeness of The Hum.
When it finally ended and the Phytomorphs’ roots untangled from their neighbor’s, Audra was surprised that she felt disappointed. The close intimacy brought on by The Hum was fading, and she was lonely in her own body. The Phytomorphs were slow in dispersing, as if they too didn’t want the sensation to end. She placed a hand on Ziggy’s shoulder and felt the familiar hard ridges of his skin under her palm.
He smiled, the thin slit of his mouth broadening.
“Do humans have a Hum?”
Audra shook her head.
“Nothing even close.”
Ziggy nodded solemnly.
“That would explain why you are cruel, sometimes.” There was no malice or mockery in his voice, he was simply stating fact. He drifted off to join the other Phytomorphs as they went back to their own dwelling spaces. Audra took her time walking back to the human side of the station, slowly piecing herself back together.
In the common room, men and women were scattered, absorbed in their various hobbies. A woman knitted in the corner, listening to an old recorded podcast. Someone was hunched over a sketchbook. The only sound was the soft burr of the station and the whisper of pages and yarn. Audra recognized the chief anthropologist who had spoken to her on the Abeona. She called his name and waved. He gave a distracted nod, too immersed in the book propped on his knee. Audra went to bed feeling hollow.
Audra wasn’t the only human Ziggy interacted with. He followed the other scientists and showered them with questions. He cooed and exclaimed over the slightest thing, whether it be someone tying their shoe or cracking their knuckles. He was endlessly curious and adored the humans to such an extent that even Audra was amused.
One afternoon, six months after they arrived at the station, Ziggy joined Audra at her usual spot in the solarium.
“Friend Doctor Audra!”
It was quiet in the solarium that day, and his excited voice felt jarring against the haze of sun, and the Phytomorphs standing in a silent forest by the windows. He sat down across from her, his roots coiling around the chair legs. Audra glanced from his animated face to the Phytomorphs at the windows. Instead of their usual gargling chatter, they were hushed, focused on absorbing every ray that hit their skin.
“Are they doing all right?” Audra nodded towards the windows, “they seem…different today.”
Ziggy glanced back at them and shrugged, “I know they’ve been really hungry lately.”
“Hungry?” Audra shifted in her seat, “we can change the schedules, so you have more time to sun yourselves.”
She withdrew a pen, and began making a note on the back of her hand, but Ziggy stopped her.
“No, no, do not worry yourself. I’m sure it’s nothing.” He gave a reassuring smile, but the sight of the Phytomorphs silently clustered by the windows nagged at her for the rest of her meal.
Later that day, Audra visited the data files on the human side of the station. They were kept in a separate room, as if the supercomputer got flustered and couldn’t think properly if it had to share living space. Audra scanned her ID and logged in, the soft whirring and beeps of the fiber optics and motherboards around her doing little to calm her nerves. She pulled up information about the Phytomorphs’ dietary habits. Throughout the course of the study, the human and aliens were simultaneously observing each other. Audra had to admit, it had taken some time to get used to entering in the amount of time she’d slept, how much food she consumed at meals, the weekly weight updates, and records of how she used her free time. But in return, she had access to this. She found the dietary summary for all twenty-five Phytomorphs on board. She bit her lip as she looked over the numbers. The amount of time they collectively spent sunbathing in the solarium had increased, but the end-of-day evaluations reported the majority of the Phytomorphs feeling weak and tired.
“What is happening to you guys?” she murmured under her breath as she double-checked the numbers. It wasn’t a mistake. The Phytomorphs were struggling to photosynthesize. They were starving.
Audra called an emergency meeting with the other human scientists. They gathered in a conference room, whispering to each other in confusion. Audra relayed what she’d found.
“It can’t be the solar ray apparatus, we built it from their instructions. Something is happening to them. I don’t know if it’s a type of infection or virus or what, but I get the sense that it has to do with us.” She pursed her lips. “I’ll be the first to admit, we’ve gotten too close.”
A biologist in the back of the room piped up, “So, what are you suggesting?”
“I’ll be honest with you. I’m not entirely sure, yet. So much has gone into this mission, but I’m concerned that it’s been compromised.”
Someone else spoke, “If we’re influencing their biology this much, I suggest we abort.”
Audra felt a spike of adrenaline.
“What? It took us sixteen years to get here, not to mention the decades of work since we first—”
The person speaking stepped forward. It was Dr. Muir, one of the philosophers on board. His focus was ethics and epistemology.
“Dr. Grissom, we know you have a lot invested in this mission, more than anyone. But when we set out to make contact with these creatures, our number one priority was to strictly observe and collect information, not to influence their behaviors. From what you’ve told us, it would appear that our principle command has been violated. Would you not agree?”
Audra paused, considering her words.
“I hear you, and I understand the need for caution. However, I do think the decision to abort the mission is a bit premature. I suggest we continue to monitor this closely, and if the situation gets worse, we reconvene and discuss our options from there. That seems reasonable, yes?” Audra passed her gaze across the room, daring anyone to argue with her.
A few weeks later, the situation hadn’t improved. The humans had altered the schedule so the Phytomorphs had more hours to be in the solarium, and the solar panels were double- and triple-checked by the engineers on board, but the aliens continued to grow weaker.
Audra had just sat down for lunch when Ziggy joined her at her usual spot in the solarium.
“What is the material which you are ingesting?” he asked. The other Phytomorphs were standing by the windows, faces uplifted to the light reflecting from the solar panels.
“Rehydrated steak and broccoli. Basically a TV dinner.” Audra smiled at her own joke.
“May I try some?”
Audra froze. This was new.
“Um. Are you sure? I don’t think—” She thought he would reach for the broccoli. Instead he extended a hand and selected a pre-cut cube of steak. Before Audra could object, Ziggy popped it into his mouth. He chewed slowly. Audra’s mouth hung open as he swallowed. This was the first recorded case of a Phytomorph ingesting physical food. The sight of such a botanical creature gnawing on a dead animal felt inherently wrong. Ziggy’s twiggy fingers drummed on the table, considering.
“That was most interesting.”
Audra pulled the tray closer to her.
“What type of sustenance did you say that was?”
She put her napkin over the uneaten food. Her appetite was gone.
“That was steak. From a cow.”
Ziggy nodded thoughtfully. From across the room, a few Phytomorphs were curiously eying the pair. Audra’s face flushed, feeling strangely guilty like she’d been caught giving alcohol to a minor. She stood with her half-eaten plate.
“I’m sorry, I just remembered that I have a meeting I need to get to.”
Ziggy nodded, and she left. The white lie gnawed at her as she walked down the hallway, and she couldn’t shake the image of Ziggy’s mouth closing around that cube of steak.
The room buzzed as Audra told the other scientists what had happened. One of the biologists spoke up.
“I didn’t think they even had a digestive system.”
The room grew louder as other people voiced their own questions:
“Evolution can’t work this quickly.”
“Is this happening to all of them, or just a few?”
“Is it some sort of virus? Could we catch it?”
“So, an alien had some steak. Is it really that big a deal?”
Dr. Muir raised a hand, and the room hushed. He enunciated each word carefully.
“This is even more reason to withdraw. If we are endangering these beings, intentional or not, then we need to cease all interaction. And I think it’s obvious that our presence is affecting them. I don’t think any one of us wants to be responsible for these creatures’ suffering.”
A weighty silence filled the room. No one could think of a worthy response. Audra cleared her throat to rid herself the lump that was forming there.
“All right then. We return to Earth.”
Audra’s chest felt heavy as she sat down at her next meeting with Ziggy. It would take the humans a few days to get everything sorted, and Audra wanted to see her friend again before she left. He immediately noticed the change in her demeanor, and reached out to grip her hands folded on the table in front of her.
“Friend Doctor Audra, what is making you so upset?”
She gave his hands a friendly squeeze.
“We’re leaving. I know it hasn’t been the allotted time we agreed on at the beginning of this project. But we feel that it has been…corrupted.”
His green eyes crinkled and he withdrew his hands.
“Corrupted? How do you mean?”
Audra paused, then gave him a sideways look.
“Have you felt any different lately? Noticed any changes?”
“Nope, not that I can tell. I know some of the other aliens haven’t been feeling well lately though.”
Audra opened her mouth to ask something else, but it clicked shut. The other aliens. She sat back in her chair.
“What do you mean ‘other aliens?’”
“The green ones. The ones that hang out by the windows all the time and have tree roots for feet. We try to keep our distance in case it’s contagious”
“You called them aliens. You called the Phytomorphs aliens. Why would you do that?”
He quirked his head at her.
“That’s what they are, aren’t they?”
All the humans were packing to leave, importing any remaining data to the Abeona’s servers and finalizing any loose ends. It had taken them a few weeks to reroute the Abeona’s flight plans and make the necessary changes to the hyper-sleep pods. All the Earth artifacts were brought back on board, and the living quarters on the IGNSS were emptied. The Phytomorphs, if they were confused, were too distracted to show it. Most of them spent their time in the solarium, bathing in the sunlight at all hours. The others drifted through the hallways and followed the humans, asking to help and for details of their departure.
A few hours before the Abeona was scheduled to detach from the IGNSS, all the human scientists were packed and had boarded the Abeona, tidying away any last items before their sixteen-year sleep. Audra wandered the empty station. Her chest ached at the prospect of leaving, and she trailed her fingertips along the walls. She had spent most of a lifetime preparing for this mission, and had a hand in almost every aspect, from the layout of the conference rooms to the collection of human artifacts. It felt like saying goodbye to a child.
There were no Phytomorphs undulating through the hallways on their curious limbs. She checked their wing of the IGNSS. Their homey, rounded dwellings were empty. She made her way to the center of the horseshoe.
Audra’s breath caught in the back of her throat as she walked in on the Phytomorphs in the solarium. Some were clustered around the food dispensing unit, tearing open the remaining meal packs. Others were weakly pressing themselves against the windows, as if hoping they could pass through the transparent film and become one with the rays of light. Small dried clumps littered the floor at their feet, and Audra gagged. The lichens and mosses that had once bloomed so thick and rich across their shoulders were shriveling and falling off. Their eyes were dull, their limbs atrophied. She scanned the room for Ziggy. There, at the center of the frenzied cluster. She pushed her way past the oblivious Phytomorphs, who ignored both her and their starving companions at the windows.
“Dr. Audra!” Ziggy cried when she finally broke into the center of the cluster. Scattered about his feet were empty packages of food, and crumbs had settled onto his skin like mushroom spores. Gripped in each hand was a chunk of dripping meat. He grinned at her. Audra didn’t realize Phytomorphs had teeth.
“What are you doing?” She panted. Ziggy shrugged and glanced around the circle.
“Just having some lunch.” He opened his mouth to take a bite, and the sight of those new pearlescent shards poised above the dripping hunk in his fist filled Audra with a horror she’d never known. Lunging, she reached toward the meat in his hand. Ziggy calmly moved out of reach and regarded her with mild confusion.
“Dr. Audra, there’s plenty, you don’t have to take mine.”
“You’re not supposed to be eating that! You don’t even have a stomach!”
Ziggy put a hand on his hip and cocked it to the side in a gesture that would have been comical under different circumstances.
“I don’t see why you guys have to hog all the good stuff.” He took a bite, juices running down his chin and forearm.
Audra gestured to the Phytomorphs wasting away by the windows. Most were crumpled on the ground now, too weak to move.
“Look at your people! What’s happening to them?”
Ziggy peered over her shoulder at the other aliens. His eyes were smaller and had lost their otherworldly vibrancy. A disgusted sneer twisted the corners of his mouth.
“Hell if I know. Between you and me, those things always freaked me out.”
Audra’s mind spun. She recalled the intimacy of The Hum and was overwhelmed with loss.
She gripped Ziggy’s shoulders, but cried out as soon as her skin came into contact. It was soft and yielding, almost…fleshy. The hard ridges that had adorned his skin when they first met were gone. She snatched her hands back and a great swath of lichen came with, crumbling into smaller pieces as it was removed. Ziggy didn’t appear to notice.
“What’s gotten into you, Audra? Is everything all right?”
She shook her head and looked down at her hands. Specks of dried lichen clung to her palms.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” she murmured, eyes scanning the room for a trashcan. Ziggy took a step toward her. A step. A pronounced, single movement. Not the fluid crawling of roots and tendrils. Audra looked down and saw that Ziggy’s mass of roots had condensed into two stocky trunks. Legs. The nausea hit her with full force and she vomited on the ground. Ziggy leapt out of the way. The image of those makeshift legs and their jerky, unsure movements like those of a newborn deer made her stomach heave again. She staggered backward and bumped into the other feasting Phytomorphs. Stumbling, she fell to the ground. Suddenly she was surrounded by countless pairs of those crude legs. Crumbling bits of lichen drifted down as the Phytomorphs brushed against each other in their wild grasping for food, heedless of their companions or the human cowering on the floor at their feet. As Audra lay panting, an intrusive thought broke through the adrenaline: Were we ever this ravenous? She scrambled to her feet and rushed out of the solarium. She could hear Ziggy shouting after her.
Ziggy broke free from the horde of aliens and chased after her. She looked behind and saw him running, stumbling every few feet as his legs adjusted to their new movements. His arms were splayed out for balance and his voice was desperate as he called out her name. Audra’s heart lodged itself behind her larynx as she saw his movements become more sure, more confident. Soon he was running with natural ease, long legs stretching out almost gracefully.
They passed through the human wing of the station before Audra stopped. Ziggy approached sheepishly. She turned to face him. She was caught between his pleading gaze and the airlock doors behind her that would lead to the Abeona’s hyper-sleep pods.
“We’re about to leave, what do you want?”
“Take me with you.” Ziggy panted as he caught his breath. Deep furrows formed in Audra’s brow at his request.
“I don’t want to be left alone with these aliens. I want to come with you.” She could see the remains of his meal sticking to the corners of his mouth.
Audra shook her head. Anger was starting to boil in the space where nausea had been. She gestured to the solarium back down the hallway.
“Those are your people! Those are your people and they’re dying! Don’t you remember The Hum?”
Ziggy didn’t respond but stepped forward to take her hand in his. She looked down at it. Fingernails, hard and pink as shells, grew from pale crescents. She pressed her own thumb against his whorled fingerprints. She took her hand away and moved back from him. In the solarium, with the other Phytomorphs crowded around and the shock of her nausea, she hadn’t been able to get a good look at him. The hardened ridges that had crested his body when they first met seven months ago had softened into…just skin. It became clear to the humans early on that Phytomorphs did not have discernable genders, and that they procreated in a different manner than humans. But Ziggy’s new, naked body was unmistakably male. There was no lichen, no tendrils, no roots. Only sturdy muscular limbs.
Goosebumps prickled along Audra’s flesh. Flesh that was so similar to his. She shivered and scrubbed at the tiny bumps. Ziggy chuckled lightly.
“See? Not so different, you and I.”
Audra’s head swam. She knew he was referring to their fleshy skin, but that statement rattled something loose in Audra’s mind. Not so different. She felt as though her brain was rewinding like one of those ancient VHS tapes:
“You are a deeply flawed species.”
“That is why you are cruel, sometimes.”
“Is it some sort of virus? Could we catch it?”
A cold sweat clung to her palms, and to the dewy hairs at the back of her neck. Her own human body suddenly felt alien, unknown. He forgot. What if…we also forgot?
Ziggy smiled, showing teeth.
“Come, Audra. Let’s go home.”