When it gets hard to breathe I think of Enyru’s smile, of Enyru’s touch, of Enryu’s arms around me and the feeling of dying slowly disappears. I take a deep breath that dispels the phantom scent of Enryu. My extra sensitive nostrils pick up the smell of sweat, oil and testosterone off my landlord and compound my failing respiratory functions. I’m chocking again.
I need water. I just need a minute under water.
Enryu says the Seyn haven’t evolved to be completely independent of aquatic breathing. Who’d think a race that developed evolution technology couldn’t change their own physiology.
“I’m sorry but rules are rules.” The landlord runs a nervous hand through his greying hair and I hate him instantly.
I hate everything about him. I hate that he can sweat when my body is at the point of giving up, choosing water conservation over heat regulation. I hate that he controls the one commodity that makes it easier to pretend I’m human.
“Is there any way I can get it turned back on? I can pay.” I fumble with my purse.
He waves his hands to stop me. “It’s not about the money. Water is a precious resource here. It will come back on at midnight. If you need to cool down you can go to the municipal pool, most folks do this time of year.”
I suppose if I’m still alive at sundown I can sneak in. I haven’t been in Unity for long but even I know the locals won’t take kindly to an alien in their town, especially a Seyn.
“You really ought to be careful with your water consumption, miss. I wish I could help but my hands are tied. You understand?”
I think he wants me to absolve him of the guilt associated with causing a pregnant woman discomfort. I won't’. “I guess that’s that then. Have a good day sir.” I say and slam the door in his face before he responds.
I’m suffering the effects of either heat stroke, heat exhaustion, or dehydration. Whatever it is, reminds that I know too little of what I’ve become.
I miss Enyru so much my heart hurts. I think the baby feels it too. I swear sometimes I can feel what it feels like I used to with Enryu. A slight telepathic link between mating Seyn that kindled rumours that we were a race of mind-controlling freaks. As if it wasn’t hard enough to be a race on the brink of extinction. I suppose things weren’t any better for us before the Sanctions.
Us. It’s starting to become normal to think of myself as one of them. Acceptance?
I chuckle to myself, out loud I realise when a child points my way. His mother casts a worried glance my way and leads him away.
Can she tell that something about me isn’t quite right? A sixth sense that species use to distinguish their own? At some level, I can tell when I meet another Seyn. I wonder if I could do that with other humans before.
Although, I’d known Enryu wasn’t quite right when I first met him. And no, this wasn’t because of the possessing instant crush I had on him. Beneath the irrational urges spurred by my raging hormones, there was something, an alarm that sounded in his presence, warning me of his alien nature. But did I listen? No, I ran into his arms and ended up here.
I flop to the pavement suddenly exhausted, breathing harder but receiving no air. Part of me wants to give up right there on the dusty pavement outside the municipal pool.
I want to forget Enyru. To forget his laugh and how my heart warms up when I’m with him. I want to believe that there is no possible way he survived the raid on Delta Five, the smuggler controlled space station we’d called home before the Coalition soldiers came.
If I believe he’s dead with all my heart I can stop trying to get to Pylomaya. I can stop hiding and surrender.
The baby kicks and my heart shatters. I can’t make that decision. I have to live. I have to get him or her to safety. Whatever little safety Pylomaya will offer us.
I look up to a familiar face smiling down at me. I search my brain for her memory. Baker or grocer? I’m not certain which but I know her from one of the four shops.
“Going for a dip?”
“Pondering the option.”
Her smile has a warmth that calms me down and eases the choking sensation.
“I never use that pool. I imagine it’s a cesspool of human filth.”
“Well, there aren’t that many options.”
“I know you and I are hardly acquainted but I have a pool you can use if you don’t mind.”
“I couldn’t impose.”
“I wasn’t going to swim anyway, just dip my feet in and cool down a little. You don’t have to worry yourself.”
The woman drops into a squat, inches from me, an indecipherable look on her face. She lowers her voice to a whisper. “If you don’t get water soon you’ll kill your baby. You’re already having trouble breathing.”
I stare into her eyes terrified, half wishing I was physically capable of hyperventilating. She knows. Oh God, she knows!
“Come on Chiko. What do you have to lose?”
Her name is Valerie and she’s the baker. I’ve been to her shop a few times since I moved here. I’m not much of a confectionaries fan but I like to treat myself with a cupcake once in a while.
My mother was huge on cupcakes. It’s the one happy memory I have from childhood. Mama frosting cupcakes in the kitchen while I watched shows about other planets and intergalactic spaceships and wished I’d someday fly to the stars. An impossible dream for an African child from the third world. But then I’m a relentless believer. Just look at me now, transformed into an outcast alien species but still fighting.
Valerie lied. She doesn’t have a pool. She does, however, have enough water to fill her large bathtub.
I eye the water suspiciously still unsure about my host.
“Don’t worry. If I was going to report you I’d have done that already.”
“How did you know?” I ask.
“I used to work for a Seyn health care centre. In this heat, it wasn’t so hard to spot you.”
“That worries me.”
She laughs. I still stare at the water and refuse to get in. “Don’t worry. No one else knows. Is Chiko your real name?”
“I knew a Chiko once. Charming girl from central Africa. It’s an unusual name for a Seyn.”
“I used to be human,” I say.
She raises one brow and my cheeks heat up. I've said too much. Is the heat getting to my brain? In the two years Enryu and I lived off the grid, I’d never given anyone this much information about myself. Even the smugglers on Delta Five knew next to nothing about us. As long as Enryu flew their ships and fixed their engines they left us alone. It was easier back then even when the world we once knew collapsed around us. We had each other.
I keep myself from crying and climb into the tub.
I dream of Enryu. He holds me to his chest and we sink to the bottom to the ocean where no one can harm us.
I open my eyes and I’m still in Valerie’s tub. My body hasn’t felt this good in weeks. My cheap room has no bathtub and I take water where I can. Usually in brief soaks in basins. It keeps the tender gill filaments inside my nose moist but does nothing for my overall hydration.
I’m not certain how long I’ve been in the tub but I am sure this is the last time I’ll be here. The baby senses my tensing muscles and shifts. I rub my belly and send it all my love. “I’m sorry, my love. I also wish we could stay and do this every day but it’s not safe here anymore.”
I drown the voice that screams that nowhere in the known universe is safe for Seyn. I have to believe for baby. I must. I empty the last of the berry-infused water Valerie left for me and leave the comfort of the tub.
I find Valerie wedging a watermelon. “Refreshed already?”
“Yes. Thank you. I don’t know what we’d have done if you hadn’t spotted us.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s a shame what the Coalition is putting you through. It’s practically genocide.”
I rub the back of my neck but say nothing. I’ve heard just about every opinion about the Coalition’s decision to revoke Pilomayan citizenship, put sanctions on the planet and, redefine and remove us from the species protection act. I understand both sides. The fear from the human majority and the despair from the Pilomayan side. I understand and refuse to have an opinion on the matter.
All I want is my Enryu. All I want is a home where we can be a family even if the universe hates us.
“So, former human,” Valerie says and offers me a watermelon wedge. “You volunteered for evolution therapy?”
I’m not going to tell her how our ship was hijacked by a Pilomayan survivalist sect. How we were forced through unregulated evolution therapy. How I would have died if I hadn’t had Enryu.
I’m glad she says no more. We finish the watermelon wedges in silence only because I don’t want to be rude and leave too soon but I have to eventually. I slide off the kitchen stool.
“You can't’ leave yet.” Valerie’s lips curve up in the most curious way. “It’s about to start.”
My brow tightens and I stare at the woman whose face lights up as if in anticipation. “What?”
“You should sit down.” She waves me back to the stool.
My face is locked in what might be my fiercest of frowns. I open my mouth to speak and that’s when the pain hits. I groan and grab my belly as if it will drop. It sure feels like it. The pain hits again and I buckle to the floor. My vision blurs. I know what is going on but my brain goes into a frenzy.
It’s not time yet. I have a whole month before the baby is due. I know it. “What did you do?” I manage to look up at Valerie no doubt that she has something to do with this. The pain dulls.
“Come on. Let’s get you to some water.”
She reaches for me. I extend my hand to slap her just as another contraction hits so instead I grab her hand and squeeze. In the cycles of pain and confusion, I accept her assistance and am led into her basement.
Such a basement! I have vivid recollections of places like this. The memories visit me in my daily slumber. Large vats of saline water to hold mother and baby. The tubes that connect them to the fluid supply and the drugs that dull the senses and turn off the flight or flee response.
I’ve witnessed so many of my kind die in places like this. Forced to breed over and over again till they expired.
I shudder and scramble towards the stairs. Another contraction hits and I lose my balance. I want to scream but no sound comes out. I want Enryu. I want him to swoop in and save me.
“Please, please. Why are you doing this?” I ask in between contractions.
Valerie helps me into an empty birthing tub and begins to fill it up. “I like you Chiko. Honest. But a girl’s got to make a living and they pay top dollar for Seyn babies these days. I couldn’t believe my good fortune when you popped into town. I waited and waited and here you are. Oh steady there, love. Hold on to these when the contractions hit.”
She goes on talking as if she isn’t committing the most heinous crime. She walks me through the birthing process and I know the chemicals I’ve absorbed in the fluid make me obey her. My mind wants to rebel but I can't. I want to brave the contractions and take my baby to safety. I need to take us to safety.
“Please. Please,” I cry. “Don’t take my baby away from me. He’s all I have. Please.”
She cups my face and rubs my forehead. Her face is set in what I could have mistaken for pity hid I not seen the greed in her eyes. “Darling girl, you’ll have another baby. And another. And another. You won’t remember this one.”
Oh, God! She’s turning me into a breeder. Why did I think she’d let me go? I push into the next contraction. My will fights the onset of drugged submission to no avail. My mind knows to fight but is disconnected from my body which obeys and pushes.
“Just one more push, girl. We are almost there.” Val hovers over me in demented glee. All that kindness gone from her features.
A loud crash shocks us both to a halt. She jolts to her feet, opens her mouth and another loud crash drowns her words.
I can worry about the noise. I should. But I’m too far gone in the birth process. She disappears from my sight and I continue the act unassisted.
In this moment there is only me, my baby and the memory of my love. I drift into a motion picture of my past. A montage of love. Lost in the bliss of memory.
I want to believe it's the drugs in my system but I know too well that I'm tired. I don't want to run and hide. I want to have my love back or cease to exist.
I can not say how much time passes or how I deliver my baby by myself. How I cut his cord. Or how I pull myself out of the tub and onto the floor. Is it my survival instinct or my baby's? I'm too tired to care.
The crashing draws closer and with it heavy footfall. Several heavy feet shuffle around above me. The door flies open and I push myself behind the tub. This can't be the end for me.
I hug my baby closer and curl into a ball. If they should harm me, he'll be safe.
A pair of boots enter my line of sight. "What the.." A deep voice gasps.
I lift be my head until our eyes are locked. His eyes are wider than mine. As if this ruddy, carrot haired boy clad in the garb of local police hadn't expected to find me here.
I want to beg. To plead with him to let me go but I'm dumbstruck. My lips start to quiver and I bite down on them.
"Find anything?" A voice calls from above.
The ruddy boy pauses, his gaze piercing. It's the longer second I've ever lived through.
"Nothing here. Just an empty birthing centre."
His brow softens and he turns heel.