Gel (Embe Charpentier)
The ten-centimeter square clock reads 000 and blinks to the rhythm of the chime. I touch my own flesh again for the first time in thirty days. Fascinated by the way the gel has changed me, determined to preserve every drop of it, I depress two buttons within my capsule. One opens the lid; the other prevents notification of my awakening. I know she is paying attention.
Taja shouldn’t be watching me. She’s the second-shift navigator and should be focused on her instruments. When I rise from the darkness of the capsule into the small storage area where I’ve been hibernating for forty-one days, I see her pillow and blanket on the floor.
I can salvage most of my gel from a sitting position. I gently trace my new skin with one broad finger, placing the clear jelly I secreted into a foil bag that I lodge between my feet. The glissade of my fingers along my new body acquaints me with my reality. Thicker muscles are defined in swaths and slung in powerful strands. My chest stretches wide over new lung capacity. My shoulders range broad as I sweep the gel from my back and swipe it into the container. Within the shells of my ears, in my crotch, between my toes: every drop pays my passage to my destination. The one blemish that remains on my flesh, the deep rosy ring around my neck, identifies my status. I, Setun, have nothing more to give but blood and bone. I will never excrete the gel again. I have endured the final metamorphosis in safety. The rest of my life can be spent free of fear.
My planet has been an armed camp for four hundred years. The gel our glands secrete has been sought after by criminals throughout the galaxy. Huge galleons have bombarded us; every Kanila monitors radar installations for five years of his life. Despite the attacks, our force fields have never been penetrated. In choosing to use the gel to fund my route out, I forged my future.
I use renewed muscles to step out of my capsule. The wider shoes I need are not where I left them, for she moved them to make room for her blanket. Amazed that she used my tunic and pants to pillow her head, I hope the changes I’ve undergone don’t startle her. By now, the camera’s motion detectors will have set off the hastily-rigged instrumentation used on the bridge to monitor me. I exit the storage room to find the privy.
The shining silver wall shows me my adult face for the first time, but I’m not sure I prefer it to the third version of my face. The fourth and last is carved, harsh and angular; my already prominent features are larger; the irises of my eyes have lightened to burnt umber. My short black hair, still slick with gel, has changed from curly to straight. Until the day of my death, I will remain so, unoxidized, as impervious to the air as gold.
Three loud knocks on the door end my appraisal. “Wait,” I respond, in a voice louder and deeper than I intend. I find the captain less than impressed by my transformation. He squints at my face as he squeezes past me in the narrow hall.
“You saved every bit of that gel, Setun?”
He’s an idiot to ask, but there’s no point in insulting him. The ship lists gently, and I use my hand to steady me along the narrow corridor. My legs strengthen with every step. The angry battle scars that creased my legs and forearms have been erased. I pass through the heavy metal portal to the bridge, where I assume Taja awaits.
The first shift navigator, a calm Genrena, notices the difference in my appearance, but she’s more interested in the gel’s effect on my physiology. “Use the ID instrument to see how much your heat signature changed. I’m curious.”
I shift my weight differently as I walk, and Wills, a small-framed Terran, laughs so hard his belly shakes. He turns the scanner lights down to look at me in the cabin’s ambient light. “Plus five centimeters in height? Look at your goddamn feet!” As my head tips down, he roars. “Looking to see if a sixth toe grew in?”
Without comment, I pass the white handheld unit over me. The numbers tumble. “Your old HS rating was 458.79,” the navigator reminds me.
“492.01 now. The retinal scan won’t match either,” I explain, putting down the unit.
“You Kanila are a bizarre fucking species,” Wills says. “Canti is less than a week away. Your ninety kilos will be off this ship. My pockets will be full. And if you’re looking for Taja, she went to her quarters. She told me she’d rather sleep on the floor next to your capsule than fuck me. You’re an asshole even when you’re asleep for a month.”
“I’m an awake asshole now. Be cautious. We Kanila speak loudest with our fists.”
I make my way through the tunnel to the staff quarters, but Taja’s bed is tightly made. Taja, a typical Nola, wouldn’t make a dent in anything heavier than insulating foam; she possesses small facial features, a narrow frame, long limbs, and skin pale as a summer cloud. Their fragility makes sex more dance than exercise, but we Kanila have experience with the Nola that goes back centuries. Their delicacy and need to feel personally attached lead to them to profound devotion. Once we shared a planet in peace; for an unknown reason, the ancient Kanila, whose DNA I’ve just awakened, granted them a settlement permit denied other species. I was told their weakness engendered our leaders’ pity; those who appear fragile must survive more by stealth than strength.
Troubled, I pace the few corridors of this small smuggler-ship to the cargo bay. The sum total of my possessions is still affixed by ropes to the confined deck, pockmarked with secret hatches. Taja is nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly, insight focuses my search. I return to my containment capsule to find it locked from within; the pass code to the unit has been altered. The capsule shifts gently. The barely-squeezed gel-containment bag rests against the far wall.
“Taja!” I slam my hand three times against the impermeable lid. “Why? There is no research on the effects of Kanila gel on the Nola. You could mutate radically.”
She explains in a volume I know must exhaust her. “No more weakness. The rannic acid solution I’ve been drinking will deaden my pain. My size enables me to use your remaining gel. I will be a Nola of the ancients. Artists in the past marveled at the exotic beauty of our ancestors. I will need your protection from now on.”
Though my plans don’t include protecting anyone, I remain with her. I rest on her blanket beside the capsule, and advise her how to manage hunger and thirst. I run the variables through my medical handheld and discover she has a maximum time of twenty-five hours to remain in the capsule without drinking.
Soon, the Captain enters and retrieves the gel bag. “Her stunt’s cost us 100 bars. When we get to Canti, I’m firing her. I’m tempted to pry that capsule open, but she has to come out sometime.”
I stand. “No discipline against her when she comes out. Consider yourself warned.”
As any emergency physician would, I counsel her to monitor her pulse. I explain the relevance of the temperature and humidity readings. I allay her occasional fear with pleasant reminders of sex we’d enjoyed before I entered the capsule. I set the timer for eight hours and lower myself onto the hard floor, atop a blanket as white as Taja’s thighs. I fall asleep estimating which of her compliments were exaggerations, and how many merely lies.
At the end of Taja’s twenty-five hours I tap on the dark, plastic cover of the capsule. When she emerges, her soft, short hair is streaked light blonde and platinum. Within her lush, rosy-gold flesh, her muscle mass has nearly doubled. Her oval face is graced by a petite nose, and plump mauve lips burst from a face whose mouth was previously but a thin line. Almond-shaped pink eyes have shifted to luminous amber flecked with copper. I rush to block the camera lens with my palm. She says it did not cause as much pain as she’d anticipated, but she leaves the capsule with a labored bending of her back.
Then I smell her scent: vernita flower, bitter orange, vintage wine. My senses flood. “Taja, you will need protection wherever you go. When you see how you have changed…” I speak honestly as her nude body emerges. I find my medical bag and inject her with a muscle relaxant. “Shower, now, before you change further.”
Despite her pain, she shines with delight. “Look at my arms! My legs! My DNA has reverted properly, hasn’t it?”
I rush her into the individual shower stall as though she is afire. I help her wash her every cell, tell her to rinse her mouth and eyes. Her soft, golden nipples peak among streams of water and warm soap bubbles. My hands glide over her roseate skin, shining and smooth, velvet glass.
“Look.” I hold her shoulders and present her to a mirror which has long pushed past patina.
A smile of pride lifts her head as she appreciates her side portrait. “I do resemble Jhitma well enough!” she trills. “My projections of this experiment didn’t account for such a convincing result!” She stops to place a hand beneath my chin. “And I haven’t complimented you on your change, Setun. Your face is stark now. No sense of youth remains. Imagine: this handsome face will hardly age.” She rubs the stubble growing on my face with her index finger, and then traces my prominent cheekbones. “My pride is justified in choosing this opportunity so carefully. Now Jhitma lives.”
Jhitma, “essence of light”, a creature of legend, might as well stand before me, for Taja of Uaru seems but a discarded shell. “You shouldn’t do it. Not for money or for power. To impersonate a deity this way—doubters will research your past and find out you worked as a smuggler. You could be jailed. Or harmed. You have no right.”
Taja stretches her neck backwards and hums. “I endured the pain willingly, so I gained every right. Jhitma never possessed the gift of healing. She listened to others and provided guidance. Those things I can do. Our legends say Jhitma convinced the Kanila to allow us to settle on your planet years ago. Without armor or weapons, a Nola goddess stood among an army of Kanila males and blessed them. For the first time, the Kanila chose peace over war, generosity over self-interest.”
“Nola legend, not fact. This is nothing we Kanila have ever been told.”
She interrupts with a finger across my lips. “As a warrior and emergency physician, you are perfectly suited to be my protector. Obviously, donations to our cause will be welcome, and you can protect our funds as well.”
“I won’t do it,” I respond. “I have principles. I am not a con artist.” She doesn’t touch me as I walk away, but I hear her prophesy.
“You Kanila love your grand metal castings, but you are no statue forged in flame, Setun. Prepare yourself for my imprint.”
Suddenly, a Nola who cannot lift ten kilos is my foe. Her beauty could influence me to accept her fully, to imprint and take her as mine for life. My newfound freedom could be lost.
I avoid Taja for two days, no small feat on a smuggling ship. I worry that Wills and Captain Stune will succumb to desire for her. Though she is not strong enough to physically resist them, her voice and scent can pacify them. Crouching in the cargo hold, its barely insulated structure leaving me pierced with frozen needles, is no plan. Eventually, I must face her, a fact she knows well and need not prepare for.
My hunger leads me to the galley. I forage for a can of protein supplement I can stir into water, but my body craves meat. For a moment, I visualize a meal before me: a rare steak, a ripe yam, a slab of hot bread, and glass of thick, dark malt. I lick my lips, and the juiciness of meat coats my throat. The only warning I have is a delicious scent, which arrives before she does. I rummage for the protein powder in the highest cabinet, since I am the only one aboard tall enough to reach it. But I am not fast enough, because her hands lift my shirt and touch my back.
Softness envelops me. She is not tall enough to reach my ear; if she were, the brush of her tongue would weaken me. My pants tighten.
“Use my new name.” Her hands reach around my waist.
“Taja, leave me alone. I gave you my answer.” The touch of her hands bastes me in hot oil. I refuse to allow her to co-opt my reason.
“I have a job waiting for me on Canti. I can live in peace, without fear of being kidnapped for the first time in my life. Let me be happy.”
A Kanila’s last conversion leaves him a normal being; finally, we go our own way, to see the rest of the worlds that await us. I cannot allow Taja her opportunity. My freedom is at risk. Kanila imprint upon one partner alone. My new life, not even begun, will not be my own if she succeeds.
She calls my name as she holds me, and I remove her arms with care, remembering the moments before I hibernated. She squeezes her body against me, taunting every sense. “Come to my room. Don’t let one more night slip by us.”
I turn to face her. “You are no goddess.” The scent, her warmth weaken me, erode me. I push her away as she reaches for me with a delicately fashioned upraised palm.
“How do you know that? Perhaps there is reincarnation, as some believe.” The liquid amber of her eyes is all I see.
“It is the effect of the gel! You were Taja days ago, and still are.” I try to make sense of this accident of fate. I question my own judgment as she embraces me.
“Come to me, Setun.”
She allows me to push past her. It takes a half-hour for me to realize I am still starving.
I don’t, can’t, won’t sleep. I find no comfort on the floor of my capsule since her devotion rested there. I remember the way she trusted me despite our people’s history. Her dubious claim about Jhitma’s effect on my people may be merely another con, but when I see her before me, I believe she has spoken the truth.
I stride toward her room only to hear her scream. Wills bangs on her door with closed fists. The thin metal portal shudders under the force of his blows.
“Get away, Wills.” Words of command come easily, but the velocity of his charge exceeds my expectations. My back hammers against the steel wall behind me. I grab his shoulders and push back.
“You damned Kanila! Fucking predators!” Wills screams.
I lift my knee and shove his testicles deep into his crotch, then throw him down on the metal grid of the floor. “Enjoy being right,” I mutter. He slinks off. Adrenaline pounds as I knock. “He’s gone, Taja.”
“Did you sleep?” Her sweetness appeals so deeply that I cannot look away. She uses that single delicate fingertip to trace a puffy area below my eye.
She does not invite me, take me by my shirt and pull me in. My desire leads me. I sit in the one rusty chair battened to the floor of her cabin. “When you get to Canti, crowds will form to receive you. If you’re lucky, no one will ever investigate your origins. Worshippers will follow you. Any male would guard you willingly. Did you ask me because of the protection I’ve given you aboard this ship, or do you know the way I am drawn to you, Taja?”
She sits cross-legged on the floor and takes the narrow restraining band from across her breasts. “None of those things. You wanted me when I was frail and weak, and treated me gently. The same gel that carved your handsome face made my transformation possible.” My eyes don’t leave hers as I consider the strange metamorphosis that connects us. “The best of your race are admirable. Show the worlds we visit the true nature of the Kanila. Imprinting is not something to fear.”
Imprinting. I see the inevitability of my actions and hate my own need for her. Just as I have found my freedom, I lock the shackles on my own wrists. As I take off my clothes, I acknowledge the irony of imprinting upon the weakest of creatures, now turned more powerful than any muscle in my renewed body. In years to come, the impression will fade. By then, love will have replaced the chemical changes that tonight’s passion will create in my mind. I remember who she is, what she plans. “If I join you, will you remain faithful to me? This is no game. Kanila, both male and female, have killed themselves in shame when their siamuleaves them.”
She wastes no time answering. “I pledge myself to you without reservation.”
I ask her how she knows the words in Kanilata.
“I studied them while you slept. I wanted to say them perfectly.”
Though doubt batters me, my will is snapped like a dead tree limb. Soon she is in my arms, and my mind swings between past and future. My body breathes her air and pulses her blood. She touches me with hands that mark me hers. I lay back, so she places one lengthened leg on either side of my waist. Around her head I view the first flush of the corona, and panic.
“Don’t run from this,” she pleads.
My body heaves upward, almost knocking her over. I hyperventilate as she presses my shoulders down. I am so disoriented she can pin me with her palms. My spine shudders. Though male elders have told me what would happen, I underestimated the depth and breadth of it. My legs shake. Like a runaway ship entering a foreign atmosphere, my rattling threatens to rip me apart. The corona about her burns, blushes in carmine, scarlet, and claret. I feel her squeeze my shaft inside her body. Every nerve in me aches with relief. As she tilts her hips, I feel the rise and fall of her tight around me, and I close my eyes to slow my pace. Yet her luscious scent invades my pores, brings with it the taste of the meat I craved, covered in syrup so thickly sweet that shouts of joy melt in my mouth.
She rides me and moans, begs me to change positions, tells me what she wants. Her voice is soft and distant, passing through the clouds that block my ear canals. She dismounts me and takes my hand, motions for me to stand, and lays on her back, arms raised. I rest atop her gently, as though she were still the Taja I took upon my lap weeks before. Yet her taut legs encircle me, and I reenter her. She orders me to keep my eyes fixed on hers. The corona radiates fuchsia, a glow that I understand as passion, mutual pride. Our union blossoms as I push within her.
I hallucinate concentric rings of coral and tangerine and my body burns for hers; my skin flushing with patches of auburn heat. Deep gravity waves strike my flesh until I hear her cry out, a well of bubbling ecstasy that allows me to spend myself completely for the first time since my transformation. My every cell has emptied. I roll to her side; my weight should not burden her. Even her scent has changed; bitter orange is now nectar; the wine has aged into viscous, creamy richness; her florals are balm beyond description.
My mind whirs and buzzes and thrums. I kiss her cheek and she smiles.
“You will never regret tonight. Now we are one.” She rejoices, kissing my face, each touch of her lips a benediction.
Jhitma herself lies beside me.
The ship landed far from the city five days ago. Her debut in Capitol Square was followed by spontaneous celebration, religious observances, and long-winded speeches about the return of Jhitma, Patroness of Petitions. Today, the cupola of the domed pilgrimage temple in Canti’s great city of Semanta is decorated in pink and rose prayer flags: pink, a prayer offered; rose, a need satisfied. The people of Canti acclaim Taja as the bearer of heaven. The truth of Jhitma’s legends are spoken with reverence. Believers claim she possesses more than an ambrosial scent and a touch that relieves pain. They profess visions of her ability to direct animal migrations, to mass bees for pollination, to make rain. They say a handful of soil cast from her hand will bring forth abundant harvest. How can myths as ancient as constellations’ light, the dreams of the deluded, be made real in the hands of a charlatan? How many glorious days do I have with Taja before no miracles come to pass?
Everyone requests Taja’s blessing. The faithful kneel and beg her to deliver their petitions to what deities and demigods they worship. If the pious bring a token item for Taja to touch, the believers leave assured their beloved rests in heaven, for her charisma resolves all doubt. When yesterday Taja preached of a future of peace and cast her hands over the heads of the people, the multitudes answered by clasping their arms together and singing hymns. Taja is no longer of the Nola, pale and thin like bleached parchment: she is Jhitma, a draught of amber, amrita, and apricot.
I pray only to remain anonymous, to defend her from harm, to measure my devotion in decades.