By Robert Lynch
The ship touched down in a clearing near a river on the planet’s equator.
I fidgeted with my straps, waiting for the all-clear. “Ok, it’s finally happening. I get to be the first person to walk on a new planet.”
“Settle down, Newbie.” Commander Clark said as she did the final checks throughout the cabin, “It’ll be old-hat before too long, just don’t trip and fall on your face like Michaelson did.”
“I maintain there was a fault in the ladder,” Michaelson said. “I’m glad we’re off that gross amphibian planet. Maybe this time we’ll get to be something that isn’t squelchy.”
“Scans indicate we landed on a grassy plain. Maybe we’ll get to be antelope people.” Clark said.
“Or lion people. That would be cool.” Michaelson said.
“Blending with predators is not good for group cohesion,” Clark said.
“Spoilsport,” Michaelson replied.
“We are all accounted for and correct,” Clark said. “Head to the airlock and get geared up, Newbie. You’ve got history to make.”
30 minutes later, I was wrapped in the atmospheric protective clothing and standing at the airlock.
“Don’t hurry and be sure of your footing,” Michaelson said. “We’ll be here for weeks, no need to rush.”
My hands were slick with sweat and my breathing hard as I climbed down the ladder. Gravity was .93g, barely noticeable from Earth norm. I could see how someone could slip on the ladder. The clammy suit made everything slippery. I got to the base of the ladder and turned to face the camera boom.
“With this step, I add to the many humankind has taken. By this action, planet W-R94F is added to the Human Confederacy.”
I had to put up a flag too. I’m not going to lie; it was pretty awesome.
But all good things must come to an end, and we spent the rest of the afternoon setting up the temporary Hab. After the long trip to the planet, I was happy to add another few cubic metres to our living space. Space travel is cramped at the best of times and downright claustrophobic when you need a moment alone. The small addition also signalled a lot of freedom to come.
Over the next week, Commander Clark and I were on trapping detail. Michaelson didn’t leave the lab at all, becoming more and more excited as we brought him new specimens to analyse.
On the fifth day, Clark and I were caging up a herding herbivore we had caught when the ground shook.
“Earthquake?” I asked.
Clark shook her head, but her helmet never moved. “This area should be tectonically stable.”
“Even stable areas have quakes sometimes,” I replied.
“They are too regular,” Clark said. “I was in Africa during my training; this feels more like when an elephant goes by.”
“That’s cool; we should check it out,” I said.
“Land giants aren’t good candidates for blending,” Clark said. “But I suppose we need to at least catalogue it.”
We split up and coordinated. We went toward whoever could feel the tremors strongest. 15 minutes later, we saw the source of the tremors. A huge lizard ponderously walked through the trees, obliterating the thick trunks with no notice. The creature’s shoulders were higher than the treetops, as its legs moved forward the trees fell as though they were ripe grain before a farmer’s scythe.
“That’s a big lizard,” I said.
“Definitely a carnivore,” Clark said. “We have no protection from it. It could go through our camp with ease.”
“It doesn’t seem bothered by those tree trunks.” I said, “How long would it take us to build a safe barrier to keep it out of the base?”
“Too long,” Clark replied. “It has a scratch on its leg – there on the back right – see it,”
“Yeah,” I said. “You want to get a sample?”
“We are going to need it,” Clark said. “Stay here and I’ll be back before too long.”
Clark snuck out of our hiding place and stalked the giant creature. It was strange to see something so small predate on the huge lizard. She was quick and quiet. She took multiple samples from smeared blood on the trees, I thought she would stop there, but she darted out and stabbed the open wound of the creature with a sample kit. The lizard moved lightning quick, but Clark rolled sideways and behind cover. For 5 minutes I thought the Commander was going to be eaten, until the lizard finally turned and headed back on its way.
Clark and I returned back to base and told Michaelson what we’d seen.
“You’re thinking a defensive blending?” Michaelson asked Clark.
“There’s no other way to defend the base with such a small team. It would take weeks to synthesise barricades, and even then we don’t know how the creature would react to them.”
“Is it even possible to blend with such a creature?” I asked.
“Size isn’t the issue,” Michaelson said. “We can add intravenous body mass during the transition phase to grow a blend to any size. The issue is a defensive blending is more than just standard colonising blending. Instead of just atmospheric acclimatisation and disease resistance, we are talking growth, muscle mass, and the most dangerous – hypothalamus adaption.”
“Hypothalamus,” I said testing the word out. “Brain blending?”
“The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls instinct. It’s necessary to do a hypothalamus blend when the blending involves significant physical change. The danger is that new instincts can lead to new urges. Our prefrontal cortex checks our instincts; that’s why we don’t act on every little thing that happens. But changing a person’s instinct response without modifying the prefrontal cortex to compensate can lead to erratic behaviour. You may experience random strong urges that you are compelled to act on.”
“You?” I asked. “You say that like only I will be getting this blending.”
“I have to keep working through the samples in the lab, and the Commander has to keep bringing in samples,” Michaelson said. “After the blending, you will be solely on defensive duty. Look on the bright side; you get to spend the rest of this mission as a huge lizard beast. It’s almost a dragon.”
“Ok,” I said. “How much blending will we need to do?”
“We need you to be strong enough to deter that big fellow, and any of his friends should he have them, so you are going to need to be pretty big and strong,” Michaelson said. “And because of the mass change, I think we’ll hit 95 – 96% blend.”
My eyebrows raised. “I could be as little as 4% human?”
“A very specific 4%,” Michaelson said. “You’ll retain all higher brain function.”
“But I won’t have opposable thumbs anymore!” I said. “Will I even be able to speak?”
“I’ll do my best.” Michaelson said, “But I can’t guarantee it.”
Clark finally broke her silence. “In my first exploration mission, we landed on C-103N. There’s 3 million people living there now; but during the mission, we encountered a poisonous reptile that bit through my suit. Humans have no immunity to the poison, but there was a rodent on the planet that did. There was no time to gene select just for the disease resistance, so I was given a 98% blend. I spent nearly a week as a 30cm long rodent.” Clark looked off into the distance for a moment, then continued, “It’s going to be a strange experience. One that you may well have lingering side effects from. I will see to it that you are allocated hazard pay for this mission, and even if you don’t think you need it – in fact especially if you don’t think you need it – see one of the therapists they provide as part of the hazard pay package. Talking through the experience will help. For now, unfortunately, this is the mission. Do your best to prepare.”
I’ve been blended so many times I couldn’t count them all. A single injection with a retrovirus that alters the genes. You can get injections that allow you to breathe underwater, or live in high gravity, keep you warm in sub-zero temperatures. Cosmetic horns, skin colours, even extra limbs. Most of the changes represent a tiny deviation from human. I’d heard about high per cent blends, of course, but I’d never met anyone who had been through it. Or at least, until Clark told me about her experience, I never knew that I had met anyone who had been through it. But Clark was right. We had a mission to complete. I lay down on Michaelson’s table and tried to push the equal parts of fear and excitement from my brain.
The doctor injected me with the IV first and began to push the nutrient fluid in until I felt bloated and gross. Then he added the retrovirus.
It always seems like it should hurt. But the cell has no mechanism that can feel damage to the DNA. What comes after injection is uncomfortable, like an itch inside your muscles, inside your bones, your eyeball. It doesn’t hurt, but it isn’t pleasant.
It took more than 8 hours to blend. My longest previous blend (I lost a bet and had to have fluorescent blue skin for a week) only took 20 minutes. I had thought 20 minutes was bad. Little did I know.
It’s hard to explain what it feels like when your instincts change. Everything was changing, so it made it hard to isolate, but there were things I noticed. I had all the nutrients I needed, I wasn’t hungry, yet I was worried about hunger. I remember staring at the herding herbivore we had caught earlier in the day. It was scared. I could smell it. And I liked it.
Michaelson had tried to leave me with speech, but the change was too great, I lost functioning vocal cords in the 4th hour. So I couldn’t tell them how good they smelled. It was like the cinnamon smell that fills the kitchen when you bake an apple pie, delicious. There was another smell too. One that I couldn’t put my finger on, but it didn’t make me think of food.
After the change, I patrolled the perimeter. My big body knocked down the trees as easy as if they were reeds. That weird smell was getting stronger. I had the urge to make my own smell stronger, and without really thinking on it, urinated on a systematic pattern of trees around the perimeter. I hadn’t meant to do that. I had just done it. It scared me that I might do something without even thinking about it. On reflection, I thought on it and decided that my marking the trees was probably a good thing, after all, many species used urine to carry their scent. Since the blend, my sense of smell was much more acute; perhaps it would mark my territory and keep out any other giant lizards like me. Still, I had to take stock and try not to make unconscious decisions.
The strange smell was getting stronger. I tried to tell Michaelson about it. I could tap out Morse code to communicate, but it was difficult. Without intonation and body language, the urgency I felt didn’t really come across.
I was hungry. It seemed like my hunger was increasing as the mysterious smell got stronger. As I had depleted our emergency rations already, Michaelson had taken to feeding me the specimens after he had finished testing them. I was eating raw, live food, and it was so much better than rations.
That weird smell increased, and I was getting antsy. Not worried, not scared; then I realised what it was. I was aroused.
That wasn’t good.
I tried to push it away but the smell was getting stronger, so was my hunger for food. I ate through the night, chomping down the last of the captured animals, including the ones that Michaelson hadn’t finished testing yet.
My nostrils filled with the smell and my hunger reached fever pitch. I tore open the hab and ate the rations. Clark and Michaelson flailed for a couple of minutes as the planet’s atmosphere overwhelmed them. They smelled really good. They tasted good too. I turned from the base and wandered toward the smell. I didn’t need to go far before I found the other lizard.
While the lizards on W-R94F weren’t sentient in a human sense, our children were. I was able to communicate with them and teach them language. When other humans came, we gobbled them up. This was our home; the delicious intruders couldn’t have it.
“I was blended like that for 23 years,” I told the therapist. “I have living children and grandchildren on W-R94F. They couldn’t be blended to turn them more human, well I suppose they could be, but you’d have to catch them first. They’re too smart for that. I was only caught because an expedition explored the base and found Michaelson’s records. They were able to synthesis a blend to turn me back from the sample he’d kept.”
“I know it can be distressing.” The therapist said. “To feel overwhelmed by foreign desires and emotions. Post blending always carries with it residuals of our previous form. It’s Ok to feel disturbed by those feelings. But you should remember that your brain was fundamentally changed during the blend; you were not fully in control of your actions.”
“I don’t feel distressed,” I said. “I feel that I should return to W-R94F. That my life is there. I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but I don’t feel bad for the things I have done. I feel out of place here. I was free there.”
“That’s perfectly understandable.” The therapist said. “You were blended for longer than you have been human. Those feelings will subside in time.”
The therapist looked away and out the window. I was completely out of her field of vision.
I leapt up from the comfy chair and grabbed a heavy ornament from the table in between us. Her head snapped back toward me, realising her mistake, but it was too late. With a thud, she was dead before she could scream.
Never turn your back on a predator.
My weak human body shook with adrenaline. If I was going to get back home, I was going to need to blend back some of my strengths. My sense of smell was dismal in this form, but I would be able to find cosmetic blenders to help me with that. Strength and claws as well.
As soon as the police found out about the therapist, it would not be long before they confronted me. I would need my strength for that. I looked at the therapist’s corpse. Waste not want not. She could make me strong. But I couldn’t eat like I used to. I would have to prioritise. I searched around the room and found a letter opener. It was blunt and nowhere near as good as my claws had been, but plunged it down below the rib cage and it opened the way to the nutrient-rich internal organs.
As I finished the eyeballs, I pondered over my new problem. It would help to conceal the rest of the carrion, but I’d never needed to hide prey back home. I looked at my blood-soaked hands and wiggled my thumbs. I didn’t have opposable thumbs back home either. The books on the bookcase provided ample tinder. There were even alcohol bottles in a cabinet that helped to turn the small flame into a roaring blaze. Once the room was an inferno and the corpse was well and truly cooking, I crashed out of the window and fell into the garden.
Concealed in the darkness, I moved quickly. It would take them a while to work out what had happened and account for the chaos. By then, I would be strong. There was a cosmetic blending parlour nearby. Soon I would be whole again.