Communication Breakdown – Andrew Knighton

Communication Breakdown – Andrew Knighton

July 2019

“No.” I pushed my chair back from the conference table. I could see myself in the window opposite, Herrje’s deep night sky turning the glass wall into a giant mirror. Beyond that window was one of the most amazing cities in the universe, a melting pot in which dozens of races and cultures mixed, their mingled architectural styles creating a cityscape like no other. But all I could see was myself, looking angry and in need of a shave. “No sodding way.”

Thea Canning peered at me across her glasses. The British ambassador in Herrje was used to arguing with alien species, not her own staff. She nearly managed to hide her surprise behind her inexpressive face and sharply tailored suit.

“This is going to happen, Julian.” She was still using my first name. I wasn’t in trouble yet. “Britain needs this peace. Earth needs this peace.”

“Earth doesn’t need me for it.” I stared at the jar on the table, which everyone else seemed so blasé about. An inch-long black parasite writhed inside it like an excitable slug. The sight was stomach-churning. “Let someone else play host to the Veng.”

It was easy for me to say that. I hadn’t lost anyone I cared about in the war, because there were so few people I even halfway liked. But Canning had lost a brother fighting for the outer colonies; Warren, our security officer, had been a marine in the lunar landings; even Hannah, my placid assistant, got nervous when messages came in from her sister in the RAF. As the three of them stared at me, I could feel the pressure of their collective need.

Of everyone in this room, I was the one with least at stake, and I was the one being asked to pay the price.

“You are our communications officer,” Canning said.

“That means I do public relations, not body swaps.”

“Mister Atticus, you speak thirteen languages and have spent time with a score of different races. You are the ideal choice for this task.”

“But this task is a terrible choice for me.” I pressed a hand against my chest. “I love my body. I don’t want to have it violated by that thing.”

“Don’t try that “my body is a temple” nonsense with me.” Canning tapped a finger against the table. “You eat like a horse and you haven’t been to the gym in months.”

“I have a job to do, briefings to deliver, press releases to write.”

“You work for me, and as of right now this is part of your job. Given the PR blackout around the negotiations, there’s nothing on your plate that Hannah can’t handle. Isn’t that right, Hannah?”

“I’d be honoured to do it,” Hannah said brightly.

I glared at her. “Kiss arse.”

Her face fell.

“I’m only trying to help,” she said, staring at her hands.

Of course she was. Hannah was far too sweet to be stuck as my emotional punchbag, but PR was too harsh a world to start pulling my blows.

I looked at the jar again. On the inside of my contact lenses, a readout provided facts about Veng biology, such as how they laid their eggs and how much mucus they secreted in a week. The thought of swallowing all that slime and tentacles made me shudder.

“This must be a violation of my human rights,” I said.

Canning sighed. “Are you really going to try that one on?”

“No.” I slumped in my seat.

“Good. Now open wide and swallow the Veng emissary.”

“This isn’t fair!” Even I was embarrassed by my petulance.

“Life is not fair, Mister Atticus. We make of it what we can.”

She took the lid off the jar and pushed it towards me. The Veng representative raised the part of itself that came closest to a head – a cluster of tiny, writhing limbs. It wasn’t even a conscious being in its own right, just an appendage of a portion of a vast collective intelligence, one of many that shared Veng space. I reached in and picked it up, my skin crawling as it pulsed beneath my fingertips.

I gave Canning one last pleading look, then tipped my head back and dropped the Veng into my mouth. It squirmed for a moment and then writhed at alarming speed back along my tongue. I gagged, then choked, then almost vomited as it wriggled down my throat and into my belly.

I couldn’t feel it anchoring itself within me, or the tendrils that reached out to tap into my nervous system. What I felt was a coldness spreading through my guts, and tangled, nonsensical thoughts spilling across my brain, images that were not my own. Far away creatures and places that made me sigh wistfully even though I had never been there. I slumped in my seat as a sudden lethargy overtook me.

“Good man,” Canning said. “And remember, caffeine disrupts the mental bond, so no coffee until this is done.”

I was still half present for the initial negotiations the next day, listening numbly as the Veng consciousness used the parasite to control my body, my mouth conveying its message, my eyes and ears taking in the response. There was talk of reparations, border demarcations, and future trade relations, setting out the crude picture which the next few days would refine.

I had hundreds of questions about what was happening to me and no chance to ask any of them. Instead, I sat like a passenger in my own body, brooding on how I could avoid having to do this again – a career change, a better assistant, perhaps some sort of drug problem that would make my body unusable. It wasn’t exactly productive, but what else was I going to do?

I watched events around me as if they were happening on a distant screen. The longer the talks went on, the further I drifted, greyness descending like the gentle touch of sleep. I was aware of Hannah giving my shoulder a reassuring squeeze and of Canning’s look of approval. After that, it was someone else’s life.

I had known in advance that there were going to be blackouts. You don’t play host to another consciousness and always get to be yourself.

What I didn’t expect was to be left hungover.

The first time was fine. I lost two days, then found myself sitting back in the conference room, mouth dry and head fuzzy, Canning giving me an uncertain look.

“That is you, isn’t it, Julian?” she said.

I nodded, blinked, and looked around, assessing my environment as I pulled my consciousness back together.

“I thought so. There’s a different look to those eyes when they belong to the Veng.”

“Belong,” I said with a frown. “Huh.”

I didn’t like the idea of belonging to anyone. Even my loyalty is my own, not the property of His Majesty’s Government.

“The talks seem to be going well,” Canning said. “How does it look from the other side?”

“No idea.” My thoughts came slowly, as if I had had just one too many drinks the previous night. It seemed that downing a Veng was not so different from downing tequila shots – there was the same memory loss and the same aftermath of distant and unaccountable sadness, but with less of a headache.

I reached for the coffee pot in the middle of the table, then remembered the sacrifices I was making and slammed the pot back down.

“As I said when you first fielded this plan, the talk of “shared consciousness” is a mistranslation,” I said. “That idiot Hemming can barely get French right, never mind Veng. This isn’t a team-up. The brain slug replaces me.”

“That’s a shame,” Canning said, her brow crumpling. “I had hoped to gain some insider insight, but at least you get to feel vindicated.”

“What a huge comfort.”

“It’s better than nothing.” She smiled slightly. “Alright, you go rest. And you might want to check in with Hannah – she’s been worried about you.”

“All the more reason not to see her.” I didn’t want to encourage my assistant’s personal interest in me. In less senior company I would have said as much, and not politely. But Canning, as well as my boss, was a smart lady who could read between the lines.

“Go,” she said. “Sleep.”

I went back to my room, had a shower and a meal – carefully avoiding any trace of caffeine – and waited for the thing to take over again. Normally when I was that tense I would have put on a porn movie and given myself some biological relaxation, but the thought of someone else turning up in my body mid-wank was just too embarrassing.

The second time around was different. I woke up in my usual slacks and black shirt, but this time I was in bed. The damned slug hadn’t bothered getting undressed.

“What is this bullshit?” I shouted, leaping to my feet. The room spun around me and I collapsed back in a heap.

I smelt like a nightclub toilet, all stale booze, week-old sweat and dead cigarettes. My head was pounding – part pain, part the sound of knocking on my door. According to the digits on the inside of my contact lens, a week had passed.

Strangely, I didn’t feel like I’d had a lot of fun. The Veng was somewhere in the back of my brain, looking out through my eyes, but there was no joy in it, just a sense of distance, even disappointment, as if it had turned up to a much-anticipated party and found that it didn’t like the rest of the guests. And for some reason, my arm was aching.

I crawled out of bed, moving more carefully this time, and pulled myself upright using the bookcase in the corner of the room. Someone had emptied all the bottles from the top shelf, leaving only the dregs of something sickly in the bottom of the cocktail shaker. I staggered to the door and swung it open.

Hannah looked up at me with big, concerned eyes. I sighed. I did not want to be doing this.

“Are you alright, Mister Atticus?” She gestured towards a stain on the carpet. “Warren said you were bleeding when you came in.”

I rolled up the sleeve of my aching arm and looked down at a thick, ugly scab.

“What the…?”

My pulse quickened as I stared at the wound. That bastard Veng had done this, and not even bothered to get it treated.

“The ambassador wants to see you,” Hannah said.

“The ambassador can sod off,” I snapped.

Hannah took a step back, lip trembling, and some of my fury turned inward. This wasn’t her fault, it was the Veng’s.

“Can I shower first?” I asked.

“The ambassador called you Mister Atticus.”

“You call me Mister Atticus.”

“But I think it’s a nice name.”

I sighed and followed Hannah out of the room. The door closed behind me, its click like a dagger in my skull. In the back of my mind, the Veng was feeling sorry for itself, but I didn’t think that was about how it had messed with me. The bastard was in a sulk and I was on the receiving end.

When I got to Canning’s office, with its empty desk and plain walls, the ambassador was stood by the window, looking out across the skyline of Herrje. It was a spectacularly eclectic sight, human skyscrapers standing amidst the vaulted arches of the shoji sector, low groundling domes running up against the battered blocks of the k’kiri markets. I might get frustrated at this place, angry even, but I never got bored.

“Close the door,” Canning said.

I turned to obey. Warren, the head of security, was there ahead of me. Gone was his usual affectation of a twentieth century tie. At least he still wore the smugness he showed whenever I was in trouble.

I sank into a chair. My stomach sank with me.

“Where have you been?” Canning turned to face me. She held a cup of coffee, the most delicious thing I had ever smelled. Between the hangover and a fortnight without caffeine, I would have killed for a cup, but just thinking that set the Veng writhing angrily inside me.

“Where have you been?” she repeated as I stared slack-jawed at her cup.

“I don’t know,” I said, snapping back to reality. “Isn’t it Warren’s job to keep track of me and my passenger?”

“You lost him three days ago,” she said. “After a particularly fruitless day of negotiations. It’s almost as if the Veng don’t want peace.”

It was a chilling thought. The war hadn’t been lost, but there was no doubting that we had suffered the most. If the Veng decided to push on, thousands more soldiers would be joining Canning’s brother in floating mausoleums far from home.

She sipped at the coffee and narrowed her gaze as she watched my reaction. Was she still hoping that I would remember something the alien had thought?

“Maybe they don’t want peace.” It was a dark idea, but I was in a dark place, full of the hollowness that follows an epic night out. I’d put my body through some hellish hangovers, but none that left me as despondent as I felt now, with the tendrils of Veng thought trailing through my brain.

“They put too much effort into making this happen,” Canning said. “Even choosing a fragment of a Veng consciousness to send took weeks. Something else is going on.”

“I pity the poor Veng that got stuck with this job,” I said. “When you’re used to sharing in a collective consciousness, it’s got to be lonely only having a single human’s thoughts for company.”

“Especially when that human’s you,” Warren said.

I ignored the taunt, closed my eyes, and tried to feel the Veng’s presence in my mind. It did seem a little sad, though that could just have been home sickness or a hangover. I wondered what was getting to it and whether there was anything I could do to help. With a little effort, maybe I could bridge the gap between us and be a better host.

“Shit!” I jumped as Warren stuck a needle in my arm, pulled it out and read the syringe’s electronic display.

“How sexually active are you, Atticus?” He looked up from the readout with a grin.

“Far less than I’d like.” I stared despondently at the syringe. Was my parasite getting lucky behind my back? “Tell me the worst.”

“K’kiri vein crabs.” Warren passed the syringe to Canning. “A couple of psychotropic drugs too. Your body’s been living the high life.”

“I didn’t think you could catch vein crabs off humans.” The ambassador put down her coffee and examined the syringe.

“You can’t,” I said, frozen in my seat. Now I was glad for the mercy of full blackout. Inter-alien fun-times might be a turn-on for some people, but I was a one species man. I felt violated in the worst possible way.

“Increase the guards,” Canning said to Warren. “We need to get these negotiations on track.”

“Whoah whoah whoah!” I staggered red-faced to my feet. “I’ve been turned into a pervert by the damn Veng brain slug. You’re getting it out of me, right?”

“Once we’re done.”

“Screw that.” I had to do something to avoid another takeover. Still befuddled, I snatched the coffee cup and downed its lukewarm contents.

The scab on my arm cracked, blood dripping on the carpet. Canning looked at me with cold, dead eyes.

“Pray that does not cause a problem, Mister Atticus,” she said. “Warren, lock down the east wing apartments. He won’t be going out.”

I woke to the strangest sensation. I’d been dreaming about having sex with Hannah, her pasty little body wobbling around beneath me. As consciousness took hold, I could feel myself moving on her still, and then I realised that my eyes were open.

Oh sweet horror, it was real.

I tried to jerk away but my body wouldn’t respond. I could feel someone else in there with me, grinding away in a desperate hunt for a pleasure it barely felt. A half-empty bottle of whiskey lay beside the bed and the room smelled of pot. Someone was having a wild time, and they were using my body to do it.

“Oh, yes,” Hannah gasped. “Oh Julian, you don’t know how long I’ve wanted this.”

This was bad. This was very, very bad.

Not the sex itself. What I felt through the dreamlike haze was surprisingly good. Not the weed and the booze either, though I wished I’d been around to enjoy the high.

No, doing this with Hannah was bad. The admin pool had bets on when I’d give in and hook up with her. Warren had sworn to break my legs if I broke her heart. I didn’t want to be with my soppy, soft-hearted assistant, and yet some treacherous part of me was enjoying this.

Screw Canning’s failed negotiations, this was my diplomatic hell.

I tried again to take control of my body, but the Veng sensed me now. It paused in its activities and I could feel its attention bearing down on me. Its thoughts whirled through the same space as my own. I struggled to make sense of the words and images, too wild and disjointed to have meaning for me, and I could sense a similar frustration on its part.

Frustration. I might not recognise its thoughts, but I recognised its feelings.

I probed deeper. There was loneliness, disappointment, a grey fog of loss all revolving around this time with me. The highs it had sought were nothing compared with the lows of being here. The poor bastard.

As I stared into the alien’s feelings its gaze was drawn there too, sucking it deeper into its own depression. I let it ride that desolation, let it wallow, and took the moment to take control.

“Julian?” Hannah looked up at me uncertainly, raised a hand to stroke my face. “Julian, is something the matter?”

I got to my feet, stumbled naked and woozy towards the kitchen. The damn thing had been fighting deep sorrow, cut off from the rest of its hive mind just as I had been from my body. But how much whiskey had it drunk trying to cheer itself up?

Enough was enough. I needed this thing out.

I moved for the kettle, but there wasn’t time. The Veng mind was stirring in me again, trying to take control. Tentacles of desperation battled with my own determination to be free.

“Julian?” Hannah rose. “Julian, what’s the matter?”

No time. I yanked the fridge open, grabbed a bag of coffee beans and tipped them into my mouth. I chewed those acrid brown seeds like they were candy. They popped and crunched, and I swallowed the jagged, caffeinated shards. Chewed and swallowed, chewed and swallowed, the caffeine buzz breaking the Veng’s hold.

In the last moment of connection, it seemed to be pleading with me, reaching out for something I didn’t understand. Tears ran down my face and I sobbed at the terrible loneliness of it all.

My stomach lurched. I fell to my knees, vomiting up coffee grounds and the black, slug-like blob of the Veng.

Hannah crouched beside me, rubbing my back.

“It’ll be OK,” she murmured. “Whatever it is, it’ll be OK.”

I leaned in towards her, and it felt surprisingly good.

“That’s it?” Canning asked.

I nodded and sipped at my tea.

“Separation from the hive took away all its pleasure,” I said, peering at the slug-like blob in its jar on the desk. I felt sorry for it now, having felt what it did during those final shared moments in my room. But unlike the Veng, I was glad not to have anyone else in my thoughts. “Must be something to do with human bodies, or a lifetime of dousing myself with coffee. Once it realised, it spent the whole time seeking other thrills. Send it back. It’ll be so relieved we’ll have peace within days.”

“Without a host, we can’t talk with them.” Canning frowned and tapped a finger on her desk.

“We don’t need to,” I said with confidence. “After that experience, they won’t want anything we’ve got.”

Canning turned toward Warren. For all his petty failings – and there were many of them – even I acknowledged that he knew security issues.

“Makes sense, given their other priorities,” he growled, giving me the filthiest look I’ve ever received. “It’s not like the talks were working.”

“Very well.” Canning turned from us back to her computer. “Thank you, gentlemen.”

We rose to leave.

“I warned you, Atticus,” Warren said as he followed to the door. “You hurt Hannah and now I’m going to break both your legs.”

As we stepped out of the office, Hannah appeared and took my arm. Warren glared. I smiled and kissed the top of Hannah’s head.

“We’re off out for dinner,” I said. “Don’t wait up.”

I didn’t turn to see his expression, just enjoyed the feeling of having my thoughts to myself and of having Hannah beside me. Alone in my head, but not in the world.

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