As Coen drove the party back to camp, black stretches of rock began to come into view. He turned to Gwen and took a moment to appreciate her hair spiraling in the wind, the occasional colony of microbes getting tangled up and disassociating like old flowers crumbling to dust. “Those are the obsidian fields,” he said.
“Where the Sciakrigs live?” Gwen turned to him.
“Yes,” Coen said. “They spend the days there, then hunt at night.”
“Can we see them?” Gwen asked.
“I’ll get you close enough to catch a glimpse with the binoculars,” Coen said. “No closer without more guns and more people.” He turned the Jeep and spun off toward the black rocks.
A muffled voice came from the back seat. “Where are we going?”
Coen rolled his eyes. For a moment he’d pleasantly forgotten that Gwen’s husband Martin was even there. The man hadn’t made a single kill the entire trip, which was bad even for a beginner. The Pallaforms they hunted, large orange bulbs that floated above the prairie, were target practice more than anything, but Coen constantly had to remind Martin to slow down, breathe, relax. Still, the gun would shake in his hands, he’d close his eyes, squeeze the trigger, and wince as the bullet crackled through the air of Verdist B, hitting nothing. The Pallaforms would all sigh in unison and drop as their gas bladders contracted.
The poor aim Coen could forgive, but such skittishness in a grown man was inexcusable. No wonder Gwen had been giving Coen signals all day. Usually he’d have already slept with the wife by now, but with Gwen it was harder to read. Nevertheless, tonight was the night, he’d decided. It struck Coen as ironic that it could be harder to sleep with a woman you’d already slept with than one you’d just met.
“We’re going to check out the krigs,” Coen said to Martin. He handed back a pair of binoculars. “Over there.”
Gwen had already stood up in the moving Jeep with her own binoculars. As they got close she exclaimed, “I can see them.”
Coen stopped the Jeep. Above the smooth black rocks, several organisms floated in similar fashion to the Pallaforms. Instead of one bulb, though, their bodies consisted of several tubes, the tops of which could expand and contract as they rose and sank. Smaller tubes ran around and through the several larger ones, connecting them. Instead of the orange of the Pallaforms, the krigs were multicolored and dynamic, their colors changing in patterns from dark purple to a bright bioluminescent green. On the top of the tubes, three sails with the largest in the middle rotated colors in a pulsating rhythm. Unlike the Pallaforms, the krigs did more than just rise and fall, but could move horizontally as well. As they moved, dozens of thin tendrils trailed behind them, each changing color to match the sails.
“They’re beautiful,” Gwen said.
“What are they?” Martin said.
“The apex predator of the planet,” Coen said.
“And we came this close?” Martin slunk deeper into the seat to which Coen rolled his eyes again.
“Oh calm down,” Gwen said. “They only hunt at night. We’re fine out here. Trust me, I did my master’s thesis on them. You remember, right, Coen? I was obsessed with them for a long time.”
Of course Coen remembered. That’s how he’d finally gotten Gwen to respond to a letter. That’s how he’d convinced her to come out to Verdist B at all. He even recalled her bringing the krigs up once while they were making love all those years ago. Coen realized Gwen must have told Martin they’d been together back at the Academy, and he wondered what kind of man let his wife talk him into traveling to an alien world he was clearly terrified of to hang out with her exboyfriend. The kind who was even scared of bulbs, obviously.
“I guess they don’t look so bad,” Martin said. “They’re not even much bigger than a dog, it doesn’t look like.”
“That can be misleading,” Gwen said. “They’re in the same phylum as the Pallaforms, which means they can dissociate certain classes of their cells. The cells can spread up to two centimeters from each other and still communicate. Their range is enormous.”
“They’re the poisonous ones you were talking about?” Martin said.
“Yes,” Gwen said. “The cells in the tendrils are capable of injecting a potent neurotoxin.”
“Are we going to hunt them?” Martin said.
Coen laughed. “No, God no. Experts only. And even then, rarely.” He winked at Gwen.
“Have you ever?” Martin asked.
“Once,” Coen said. “We separated one from the others and followed it for a few days. There were eight of us, and we still lost a guy. The krig was about thirty meters off at the time, but when they stretch them out long enough, the tendrils become invisible. He got stung and started seizing right there. We tried to get him to the doctors, but he died after an hour. Convulsed the whole time.”
“Wow,” Martin said. “I can’t even imagine. And here I can’t even shoot a bulb.” He hung his head.
“You’ll get there, buddy.” Coen patted his knee and made strong eye contact with Gwen, who smiled. Tonight was the night.
After the sun had set, Coen lay on the ground near the fire sipping bourbon from a flask. Gwen and her husband sat in chairs on the other side. Coen had hoped she might lie on the ground as well or sit next to him, but no matter. She’d sent out plenty of other signals.
“So how’d you become a professional hunter?” Martin said. “Gwen said you were in the army. Did you learn all this there?”
Even though Coen had been medically discharged for a foot injury before he’d finished training, it was easy enough to just say, “Yes.”
“I always thought about joining up when I was younger,” Martin said. “It’s just not me, though.” He sighed. “I better go to bed if I’m actually going to get a kill tomorrow.” He stood up, kissed Gwen on the cheek, and walked to their tent. “Goodnight.”
After Martin had been in the tent for a few minutes, Coen got up and moved to the empty chair next to Gwen. “You told Martin all about me?” he said.
“A few things,” Gwen said.
Gwen laughed. “The simple things, at least. There’s a lot to tell.”
Coen offered Gwen the flask, and she took a swig. “But you told him we dated?”
“Not in so many words, maybe, but I think it’s obvious.”
“Oh is it?” Coen said. “Because of all the chemistry, you mean?” Maybe that was a little too on the nose. Oh well, he was drunk.
Gwen let out a small awkward chuckle. “No, just because you come up. He knows how involved in my life you were at the Academy. He’d have to. Plus, he sees the letters in the mail.”
“The ones you never respond to?” Coen said.
“I responded to the last one.” She gave him a light slap on the arm.
“Yeah, yeah, you didn’t want to see me, just the Sciakrigs,” Coen said. He slapped her back and repositioned himself closer to her. “Sounds like old times.”
Gwen laughed sarcastically. “Please, I wanted to be with you more than you wanted to be with me. You’re the one who ran off to join the army.”
Coen leaned his face in towards her and smiled. “You’re kidding me. I wanted you more than anything.” That should hook her.
“I don’t think you had any idea what you wanted,” Gwen said.
“I do now,” Coen said. He leaned in closer and kissed her. She kissed him back, deeply, and he ran his hand up her waist, up her chest to her face. He stood her up. Still kissing and fondling each other, he moved them to his tent. He unzipped the tent with is hand behind his back like he’d done dozens of times before and pulled her in with him.
They rolled back and forth on his sleeping bag as he took off her jacket and blouse, leaving her in her undershirt. He began to undo her bra, but she stopped his hand and said, “Wait.”
“What is it?” Coen said, still fiddling with her clothes.
“What is it?” Gwen pushed him off and sat back in the corner of the tent. She ran her hands through her hair. “I have a husband, and he’s right over there.”
Coen had some experience with second thoughts. “It’s just one night.” He took Gwen’s hand in his. “I haven’t seen you in so long, and I won’t see you again for so long. You’ll go back to Earth, and Martin will never have to know.”
Gwen pulled her hand away. “No, I can’t. I loved you once, I really did, but I can’t do this. I’m sorry.” She scrambled out of the tent before he could say anything else.
Coen sat stunned for a moment and then zipped the tent back up. He lay back against the sleeping bag. He hadn’t expected that. Should he have waited another night? No, he’d read the signals correctly, surely. She’d wanted it. Coen thought about when they’d been dating at the Academy, when he’d first met her in their astrobiology lab. It had taken them a while to finally go all the way. Maybe it was just in her nature. He thought about their time together until he drifted off to sleep.
Coen awoke suddenly to the sound of the tent zipper being pulled frantically open.
“Coen, wake up. Please.”
He peered through the dark to see the outline of Gwen’s head. “What?”
“Martin left,” she said. “He’s gone. I told him we kissed. He got mad, and then he left.”
“What do you want me to do about it?” Coen said.
“He took a gun,” Gwen said. “He’s going to go shoot a Pallaform. He’s jealous of you.”
“He can’t go now.” Coen jumped up. “The krigs come out at night to hunt the bulbs. He’s going to get himself killed.”
“Yes.” Gwen was crying. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Okay, calm down.” Coen pulled on his boots and crawled out of the tent. “I’ll go get him. Just calm down. He’ll be fine.”
Martin had taken the Jeep, but Coen strapped his assault rifle to his back and got on his motorcycle. He kick-started it, and the bluish headlight fanned out across the prairie. He spun off toward the Pallaform herd in the dark moonless night of Verdist B.
As he approached where they’d been hunting the day before, he saw the lights of the Jeep and Martin’s headlamp a couple dozen meters away from it. He pulled up by the Jeep at the same time he saw the eerie bioluminescence of a krig as its tendrils wrapped around a Pallaform a couple hundred meters off.
Coen jogged up beside Martin who was steadying his rifle for a shot. “Stop,” he said. “What are you doing? We have to go.”
“Gwen told me what happened,” Martin said. “We’re leaving in the morning, but I have to get a kill first.”
“The krigs are out right now,” Coen said. He tried to pull Martin toward the Jeep. “We have to leave. I know you’re mad at me, but trust me. You’ll die out here.”
“No,” Martin said. “I’m done playing it safe. There’s only one, and it’s way out there anyway.”
“You can’t see them in the dark if they don’t want you to,” Coen said. “Seriously, let’s go. There could be one two meters away.”
Just as he said it, the sails of a krig flared a glowing blue just a few meters off to their side. Martin turned, and his headlamp cast a faint light across the body of the krig, which had swelled to an enormous size. It hung in the darkness just a meter off the ground. The tendrils were the same color of blue but began to fade as they elongated. “Run,” Coen said and pulled Martin around and pushed him hard toward the Jeep. He took a step forward himself and saw Martin climb over the side of the Jeep at the same time he felt the dizzying pain of the krig’s cells stinging him in loops around his body. As the pain escalated, he fell to the ground, and everything went black.
Coen woke up to fluorescent lights switching on and the scramble of soldiers jumping out of their bunks. He opened his eyes to squint and saw the bottom of a bunk above him. Two legs hung over the edge, and then a soldier dropped to his feet beside him, moved to the front of the bunk and stood at parade rest. He turned around to look at Coen. “What are you doing?” he hissed. “Get up.”
Coen recognized the boy. It was Polanco, his bunkmate from basic training. Coen had been five years older than the boy, who had enlisted right out of secondary school. Coen looked around. The whole room was exactly as it had been in basic training, the worn tile, gray bunk beds punctuated with gray lockers, the only color the faded green wool blankets. It even smelled the same, bleach.
The drill sergeant was in Coen’s face before he could fully realize his confusion. “Are you deaf, warrior? Or just fucking stupid?”
The rest of the soldiers in the bay were standing in front of their bunks, eyes straight forward, their hands locked behind their backs in parade rest. “I don’t know what–” Coen began to say, but the drill sergeant cut him off. “Are you serious, specialist? Get the fuck up.”
In a daze, Coen got out of bed and stood at ease like the rest of the soldiers. He felt an old but familiar pain shoot through the top of his foot as he put weight on it.
The drill sergeant paced through the bay eyeing the young men. “Listen up, privates,” he said. “We got something special planned for you all this week. Formation at oh-four-thirty.”
The drill sergeant left the room, and the other soldiers began running around the bay making their beds, shaving, pulling on their uniforms. Coen just stood there trying to figure out what was going on. This was, of course, not right. Yesterday he had not been in basic training because he had been in basic training some six years ago. He couldn’t quite remember what he had been doing yesterday, though, actually. He had a vague feeling of a distant world, but it definitely wasn’t the army.
Polanco peered out at Coen from behind the door of his locker. “What is your deal today?” he said. “Come on, man, formation in less than fifteen minutes. You’re gonna get us all smoked.”
Coen pondered the situation for a minute and decided he’d have to at least play along until he woke up from the dream or whatever it was. Real or imaginary, there were apparently rational consequences to his actions, and the army was no place to explore those consequences.
Coen went to his locker and opened the lock. It occurred to him that not only did he know which locker was his–the same as it had been when he’d really been in training–but he remembered the combination to his lock as well.
Coen slipped into the PT uniform for first formation and hurried outside with the other soldiers. His foot ached. They stood at parade rest again under the large metal awning outside their barracks, and their drill sergeant watched them from his wooden platform. “Listen up, men,” he said. “This is an important week. It’s time for Alien Warfare Training.” Some of the boys in formation clapped or whooped. Alien warfare was always highly anticipated. “Shut up,” the drill sergeant screamed. “Training is at Canyons Maneuver Center for Extraterrestrial Warfare, which means you’ll be packing for a week away from the barracks. After PT and breakfast, you’re going to go back to the bays and load up your gear. We ride after lunch.” The drill sergeant paced across the platform. “Now, I don’t want anyone breaking a profile. If you can’t do AWT this week, suck it up. You can be held over and make it up later. So does anyone have a profile? Does anyone need to go to sick call and get one?”
Coen never did AWT, so surely that meant he’d wake up soon. Suddenly realized what day it was. It was the day he washed out of the army. His foot hurt, and he was tired of standing at parade rest for hours. He didn’t want to go hike around the Canyons Maneuver Center rolling his ankle over boulders, shooting at god knows what. This was that moment. He raised his hand.
“Specialist Morgan,” the drill sergeant said. “Glad to see you awake. What is it?”
“I need to go to sick call, Drill Sergeant,” Coen said.
“Get up here, specialist.”
Coen fell out and jogged up to the platform.
“What’s the problem?” the drill sergeant asked.
“Something’s wrong with my foot, Drill Sergeant.”
“Your foot?” the drill sergeant said. “You jogged up here just fine. So you think you won’t make it through AWT? I’ll send you to sick call, but you might get held over. Are you sure you want to do that?”
When Coen had done this the first time, he’d insisted his foot was too bad for AWT. He’d gone to sick call, and an x-ray had shown he had a stress fracture. He wasn’t just held over, he was discharged, and that was the end of his army career. He thought for a moment. “No,” he said. “Never mind, I’m fine.”
“Get back in formation,” the drill sergeant said.
They parachuted into the Canyons Maneuver Center near the Book Cliffs. Coen knew that between the mountains the wide open valleys had been filled with dangerous alien life forms the soldiers might have to encounter if they were deployed. Landing sent pain through Coen’s whole lower leg, but he sucked it up. Surely he’d wake up soon anyway.
Coen’s squad hiked ten miles or so out into the desert to a point they’d been given on their map. Occasionally they had to shoot an aggressive but harmless alien creature. The sun set, and it began to get cold. The soldiers set up camp, radioed in to confirm their location, and organized the fire guard.
Coen had the third shift and woke up groggy, fumbled out of the tent, and sat in the cold red dirt. It was a new moon, but the stars provided a hazy light across the valley. Off in the distance, the silhouettes of the Book Cliffs scraped the cloudless desert sky. The shift was an hour, but after a few minutes, Coen drifted off to a light sleep that was interrupted by the cackling of the radio.
“Squad Eight,” the voice called between static. “Someone respond.”
Coen slid over to the radio. “This is Specialist Morgan. What’s up?”
“Morgan, get your squad out of there,” the voice said. “There’s been a containment incident. You’ve got a creature out there beyond your skill level. All squads are to report back to the landing site.”
At that moment Coen saw a familiar electric blue streak flash in the shadow of the cliffs. He stood up with the radio and began scanning the valley. In the other direction, he could just make out jagged peaks of the La Sal Mountains off to the south. A light breeze began to whistle through the brush. “Drill Sergeant,” he said. “What exactly is out here?” He turned to face the East, and the silent darkness of the night exploded with the bioluminescent colors of a fully expanded krig less than ten meters in front of him, its sails red and yellow, its body a disorienting purple, its tendrils invisible and spread out around it. Coen suddenly remembered where he’d been before he’d woken up in the army that morning. Thousands of stings scorched his skin, wasted his nerves, and once again it all went black.
Coen woke up to the sound of an alarm clock. He instinctively got up, turned it off, and flipped on the lights before fresh confusion struck him. He was in his student apartment back at the Academy. Clothes cluttered the floor, and stacks of books covered a desk along with a picture of a young Gwen.
Coen prodded his memory. The army was fresh, just a day of it, but how and why did it end? A sting, that’s right, from a krig. How did he know it was a krig? Because he’d been stung before. He sorted the pieces into a sensible story where he was stung on Verdist B, woke up in the army, and was stung again.
Now he was back at the Academy. He’d met Gwen, he could deduce that, so it was later in his time there. He was about to open up his computer just to check the date when the phone rang.
“Hey, babe.” It was Gwen’s voice. “I was just calling to make sure you were up.”
“I am. Gwen?”
“Don’t forget your appointment,” Gwen said. “I’m sure Dr. Albright will let you in. You did well in the lab last semester. Okay, I have to get back to studying. Love you.” She hung up.
Coen knew what day it was. He had an appointment with Dr. Albright, the head of the astrobiology department. After taking the intro course and falling in love with Gwen, he’d decided he wanted to change majors. He’d only had one year left, though, and most departments wouldn’t let a student in so late. His only hope had been that Gwen was Dr. Albright’s star pupil, certainly destined for a prestigious graduate program, and thanks to her, Dr. Albright had allowed him in with the assumption he’d make up the required courses, adding at least three more semesters till his graduation.
If Coen’s first sting was on Verdist B, then he was currently eight years younger. When he’d done this the first time, Gwen had thought he was going to see about getting into Dr. Albright’s lab on the newly discovered Verdesia. In reality, Coen had changed his mind. When he’d changed his major, he’d had to convince the professor that his interest in astrobiology was more than just a passing fancy, but in the end it proved to be just that. He was really meeting with Dr. Albright to drop out of the program. He didn’t want to be in school that long, and he definitely didn’t want to pay for it. Instead, he graduated on time with his general studies degree, and Gwen entered a doctoral program for astrobiology at the Institute for Extraterrestrial Biology in Berlin. The closest he could find a job was Cologne, but that was just a couple hours away by train, and they made it work. Until he enlisted, at least.
Coen wondered if he should go to the appointment. On the one hand, he’d done all this before, so what was the point? On the other hand, he had no way to get back to real life, and that was assuming this wasn’t real life. If the army hadn’t just been a dream, was he hallucinating from the sting? If so, they were pretty tame hallucinations. What else? Time travel? An astrobiology professor could be a great place to start getting answers and maybe find a way back to the origin, if he even wanted one. The Academy had been a good time in his life after all.
Coen remembered the way across campus to the biology building and up the stairs to Dr. Albright’s office. He shook the professor’s hand and took a seat in front of his desk.
“Gwen tells me you want into the Verdesia lab,” the professor said. “Why?”
The words “actually professor” touched Coen’s lips, but he held them back. “I think the Verdesia are fascinating,” he said instead. “I want to learn more about the krigs.”
“The Sciakrigs, I mean.”
“Admittedly, it’s an important area of research considering how recently they were discovered,” Dr. Albright said. “At the same time, that’s why it’s so popular, trendy if you will. You don’t have the prereqs for the course. You could take them concurrently, but I’d still be making an exception for you, so I need to know it’s really what you want.”
“Of course,” Coen said. “It’s my passion.”
“I have an empty slot,” the professor said. “The first class is tomorrow at nine. Be sure to enroll in the prereqs.”
“Thank you,” Coen said. He stood up to leave but stopped. “What do we know about the Sciakrigs?” he said. “Their neurotoxin, what is it exactly? What does it do?”
“Come tomorrow and find out,” Dr. Albright said.
Coen returned to his apartment and began researching the Sciakrigs, though there was little to find. He heard a knock on his door and realized it had already turned to evening. Before he could answer it, Gwen came in and greeted him with a kiss and a hug. Youth surged through him.
“He let me in,” Coen said.
“That’s great,” Gwen exclaimed. “We’ll be in it together. You know it starts tomorrow, right? I’m so excited. Aren’t you?”
This was as far as Coen had gotten the first time around, of course. Originally this conversation hadn’t been a celebration. Rather, it had almost turned into a fight because not only had he made Gwen look like a fool to her professor by dropping out of the program, he’d hidden the whole thing from her till then. “I’m excited,” he said.
“I guess I was right to bring over the wine.” Gwen pulled a bottle out of her backpack. “Let’s celebrate.”
They drank the wine into the night, and Coen relearned who Gwen was as a young student. She was youthful and beautiful, and she loved astrobiology almost as much as she clearly loved him, her eyes focused and admiring. Coen had always envied Gwen’s passion. She’d wanted to be an astrobiologist since she was a little girl, and it still consumed her. Coen went through phase after phase thinking he’d finally found his calling, and then he’d grow bored of it after a year, a month, even a few days. He knew he could be great at something, if he knew what he wanted to be great at.
After drinking the wine, they made love, and the night he first got stung began to clarify itself in his mind. He’d thought he was just trying to sleep with another client, but maybe he was trying to get back to this feeling. Maybe he didn’t want to go back to Verdist B at all. Maybe whatever brought him back here did it for a reason, and this was where he was supposed to stay.
They both fell asleep and didn’t wake up until the alarm clock went off again. They slipped on their clothes and walked hand in hand to the biology building and into the lab for Dr. Albright’s class.
After passing out the syllabuses and introducing the course, Dr. Albright instructed everyone to put on the highest level of protective gear. Coen and Gwen went to the lockers in the back of the lab and got out the suits, goggles, gloves and helmets.
“I’m not really sure how these work,” Coen whispered.
“It’s fine,” Gwen said. “I’ll help you.”
Coen pulled on the suit and helmet and twisted the gloves into the suit’s sleeves, mimicking the way Gwen had done it.
“You got it?” she said.
“I think so.”
They sat back down at their station, and Dr. Albright brought out several lab jars filled with a yellowish gunk. “I thought I’d give you a fun introduction to the research we’ll be doing,” he said. “In these jars are the cells of an organism called the Sciakrig.” The students all looked at each other in surprise. “Like much of the life on Verdist B,” the professor continued, “the Sciakrig is a colonial organism made up of several different multicellular colonies. Each of these jars contains a sample of cells from a different part of the Sciakrig’s body and therefore a different colony. We’ll be examining differences between the cells. You’re wearing the protective gear because the tendril cells produce an incredibly potent toxin that’s lethal to humans in small doses.”
Each group prepared a slide at their station and then rotated around the stations observing the different cells. The last station Coen and Gwen came to had a sample of the tendril cells. Coen felt a pang of fear. He didn’t know what exactly was in those cells, but he knew how it felt. At the same time, it could be his best bet at figuring out what was going on.
Gwen looked into the microscope. “Wow,” she said. “Incredible. You gotta see this.”
Coen put is eye up to the lens. He didn’t have the experience yet to understand what he was seeing as well as Gwen, but it was fascinating. Slowed by the ether, the krig cells moved toward and away from each other, and their membranes changed colors in unison. “You’re right,” he said. “It’s mesmerizing.”
“We only have about five minutes left,” Dr. Albright said. “Please wash off your equipment and return all the materials.”
Coen looked up, the pulsating circular colors still in his vision. He slid the slide out from under the microscope and backed right into Gwen carrying the jar of cells back to the front. The slide slipped from his grip and smeared the ether across his wrist. He felt the cold moisture hit his skin where he’d apparently incorrectly attached his gloves, and as he collapsed to the floor, he heard Gwen screaming his name.
The chirps and hums of life woke Coen this time. Light was filtering in through a thin canvas roof, not a tent, but a temporary structure. He was on a cot. It was the safari base camp on Verdist B. Coen wondered if he’d finally cycled back to the present, reality, whatever it was. He checked his watch.
No, it was two months before Gwen and Martin had come to Verdist B, so he wasn’t back yet. He relaxed back into the cot. Despite the hot, humid air of the alien planet, it was cold and empty compared to his Academy bed with Gwen in it.
Coen twisted his head trying to think why he’d be back here, what he was even doing at this point, and he noticed a pad of paper and pen lying next to him on his pillow. It was the letter addressed to Gwen describing Verdist B and his job as a hunting guide. He remembered now that he’d fallen asleep before finishing it, before the final paragraph telling her she and her husband should come to the safari, free of charge for an old friend. Now even more than before he had the urge to complete the letter. He began to pick up the pen but then put it down. Instead he opened his computer and purchased a ticket to Earth.
Gwen still lived in Berlin in Prenzlauer Berg near the Institute for Extraterrestrial Biology. The city was as gritty and charmless as Coen remembered. It was winter in Earth’s northern hemisphere, a shocking cold compared to Verdist B, and an impermeable layer of clouds hung low above the rows of faded apartment buildings. Coen stepped off the train at Schönhauser Allee and wandered the broken streets to her building, climbed the stairs to her door. He knocked.
Gwen opened the door dressed plainly and without makeup. “Coen?” She peered at him with apprehension. “What on Earth are you doing here? I didn’t even think you lived on this planet anymore.”
“I really need to talk to you,” Coen said.
“It was too urgent to call?” Gwen said. “Can it wait till later this week? We could get lunch or something. I have to get to work, though.”
“It’s pretty important,” Coen said. “Can I just come in?”
“I don’t know,” Gwen said. “It’s not the best time.”
“I got stung by a Sciakrig.”
“What?” Gwen’s eyes focused. “Then how are you still alive? You should be at a hospital, not my apartment.”
“I have no idea,” Coen said. “That’s why I’m here. I’ve actually been stung several times. Each time I wake up somewhere, some other time, else. The first time was on Verdist B–two months from now. You were visiting me.”
“Okay, come in.”
Coen walked into Gwen’s apartment. It was filled with the radiating warmth Coen remembered had always accompanied her. The apartment was decently sized for one in Germany’s largest city. Gwen walked into the kitchen, which was separated from the large living room where Coen sat down on the couch. It was the same couch she’d had when she’d first moved to Berlin, back when they were still together. The apartment was well decorated. Framed photographs of Gwen and Martin were scattered on walls and end tables including a large one from their wedding, and biology textbooks dominated two large bookshelves and the coffee table.
Gwen came back with two cups of tea. “I remember how you like it,” she said. “Now what exactly are you saying? You’ve been stung multiple times by a Sciakrig and are somehow sitting on my couch as if nothing happened?”
Coen told Gwen how he’d first been stung on Verdist B, woken up in the army, been stung again, woken up at the Academy, and then ended up here. “What do you know about their venom, the neurotoxin? Do you know what it does?”
“Not really,” Gwen said. “No one really knows. No one’s ever survived it. Someone was in a coma for a few days once, but the doctors on Verdist B didn’t have the equipment to get much information from that.”
“So could that be it then?” Coen said. “Could I just be in a coma, dreaming, hallucinating?”
Gwen smiled. After all these years she was just as beautiful as she’d been back at the Academy. “I can tell you as a conscious person sitting here in front of you that you’re not hallucinating,” she said. “Of course, that’s meaningless coming from me. Do you feel like you’re dreaming? Do you think you’d be this lucid? Do you think you’d even remember getting stung?”
“I suppose not,” Coen said. “So what then? Am I just in hell? Was that krig the devil or something? Each time I get stung I wake up at some turning point in my life. It’s like I’m being reminded of all the things I could’ve done but gave up on.”
“I don’t think that’s the most scientific answer,” Gwen said. “Plus, I’m not in hell as far as I know. Are you sure you’re all right? Maybe I’m not the person you should be talking to.”
“No, I’m serious,” Coen said. “Back on Verdist B–or in the future on Verdist B, I should say–you told me I’ve never known what I wanted. Could the krig toxin have some kind of extrademensional property? Like time travel, or maybe I’m being cycled through all these alternate universes where I follow through with things I’ve started.”
“I’ve studied Sciakrigs for a long time, Coen.” Gwen put her tea down and leaned forward. “That’s a little farfetched. I don’t know why or how an organic chemical would evolve to escort you through the multiverse.”
“No, listen, I really think I’m on to something,” Coen said. “Maybe this isn’t hell but some kind of gift. I’ll keep cycling through till I get to the right universe, the one where I get what I actually want, what actually fulfills me. Sure, I don’t know the science behind it, but like you said, no one does. Something about interdemensional wormholes and brain chemistry, who knows.”
Gwen sighed. “If I’m being honest, I kind of think you’re losing it. I don’t know what I can do for you.” She paused. “Why don’t you come down to the lab with me, and we’ll just do some tests?”
They left the apartment and walked through the city to the Institute. Coen followed Gwen to her lab and sat in a reclined white chair. He let her take blood samples from his arm and then waited as she left the room. She came back with three other scientists dressed in white lab coats.
“There’s no trace of the toxin in your blood,” Gwen said. “I don’t see any weird antibodies either, but admittedly, I have no idea what they’d look like.”
“Who are they?” Coen pointed at the other men in lab coats.
“These are a few colleagues of mine,” Gwen said. “Look, it’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s just that it’s hard to believe you. Herr Dr. Müller here is an excellent neurologist and psychologist. He’d be happy to help you.”
“Gwen, I’m not crazy,” Coen said. “At least, I’m pretty sure I’m not. Don’t you think I’d have a much less intricate delusion if I were crazy?”
“In that case, Herr Dr. Demir did have one last idea.” She turned to one of the other men in lab coats. “We can inject a few Sciakrig tendril cells into your body and see what happens. There’s a good chance it would be lower than the lethal dose, but we have no way to know. Maybe you’d have an immune response that could shed some light on what’s going on.”
“I see,” Coen said. “Your friend just wants to use me as a guinea pig.”
“It’s an incredible opportunity, it’s true,” Gwen said. “But how else do you expect to get some answers?”
Gwen obviously didn’t believe him, and Coen was tired of this reality anyway. Gwen was still beautiful, but she was married now and the same woman who ignored his letters. “Okay, fine,” he said. “Answer me something, though. If I’d stayed in Germany instead of enlisting, would we still be together? Or would I have found some other reason to leave, and we’d be here like this anyway?”
“The second one,” Gwen said and motioned to her colleague.
The scientist approached Coen, and he held out his arm. The man stuck the needle in. Coen leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and waited for the next one.
Coen opened his eyes again to snow dusted fields whipping by in a blur outside a window. He looked around to see it was a German train, one he’d been on before many times. It was the hyperloop train from Cologne to Berlin, the train he took to see Gwen each weekend while he was working, and she was studying at the Institute.
There was a single backpack on the seat next to him he recognized as his. He looked through the bag for more clues and found mostly clothes and toiletries. Then, tucked neatly in the back pocket he found a large stack of papers, his enlistment contract, still waiting to be signed. Coen remembered this trip well. It was the one where he’d told Gwen he’d be going back to the United States for basic training, and she’d told him she couldn’t be waiting for him to figure it all out anymore.
Coen wasn’t doing that again. Back then Gwen had stayed in the cheaper apartments in Kreuzberg, so Coen got off the train at Alexanderplatz. He ripped up the contract and threw it away before he got off.
Coen walked out of the cramped cement train station to find Gwen waiting for him outside. Snow was falling. It was getting caught in her hair and melting against her pinked cheeks. He kissed her, and they walked hand in hand to her apartment, this one up a flight of dusty and decaying stairs.
Coen watched blissfully as Gwen moved through the apartment. She put on pajamas, made tea, and then snuggled up to him on the couch. “You said you had something important to tell me,” she said.
“I do,” Coen said. He pulled Gwen in closer to his body. “I know it’s seemed like maybe I can’t decide what I want,” he said. “I wanted to tell you that I know now. I just want to be with you. The other parts don’t matter.”
Gwen looked up at him. “I’m glad,” she said. “Sure you won’t change your mind?” She laughed.
“Of course not,” Coen said.
They drank their tea and cuddled in Gwen’s drafty Berlin apartment. They made love and fell asleep in her bed. Coen woke up still next to her, and they had more tea, breakfast, and made love again. They sat in the bed all morning exploring each other’s hands. Finally, Gwen said, “I have a surprise for you, kind of an early Christmas present.”
“What is it?”
“Get dressed and come with me,” Gwen said. “You’ll see.”
Coen had never known that she’d had something planned the first time he’d lived this weekend. It was a shame to know whatever it was had been wasted, that Gwen had had all this hope for him, and that he’d let her down. At least he was getting a second chance.
Gwen led him out of her building, out of Kreuzberg, down the various city streets. They came into the Tiergarten district, and Coen noticed how Gwen’s eyes gleamed with the reflection of the snow-covered plants and the water, how he could smell her hair mixed with the scent of the park.
They came to the entrance of the Berlin Zoological Garden, and Gwen said, “Surprise. I got us tickets.” She took his hand, gave the tickets to the attendant, and brought them through the gate.
They wandered around watching the different animals. She took his picture in front of elephants and kangaroos. They laughed and kissed in public.
Eventually they came to a large ornate building, and Gwen said, “This is the best part.” Coen let Gwen pull him through the door, and he instantly felt a cold surge of adrenaline in his veins. The first thing he saw was a Pallaform floating lazily and harmlessly in a large glass cage, but he knew what the building was. He turned around just in time to see the Sciakrig’s attendant, though armed and heavily clothed, picked up and flung such that his body shattered the glass in the front of its cage.
When Coen turned around, the krig was still compact, about a meter in diameter, a light blue, with all its tendrils visible and dangling from its tubular body. The zoo had imitated the krigs’ natural resting grounds with an inky tile the same reflective black as the obsidian fields on Verdist B.
As the glass broke, the krig expanded to its full size, looming above Coen. It glowed with all the colors he had come to understand so well, each changing pattern a hypnotizing new arrangement of shades. He watched the tendrils stretch out away from the krig till each was an invisible trail of independent yet cooperative cells.
Coen turned to Gwen, her face calm and her eyes all awash with the splendor of the creature. “No, please,” he said. “I really thought this could be the one.” He turned back to see the krig’s body flare with upwardly accelerating bands of color as the pain of the stings crawled along his every nerve and pierced his every neuron.
Coen awoke suddenly to the sound of a tent zipper being pulled frantically open.
“Coen, wake up. Please.”
Coen lay in silence for several moments, totally aware it was Gwen bursting into his tent on Verdist B asking him to go help Martin for a second time. “Okay,” he said finally. “Let’s get this over with.” Ignoring her pleas to hurry, he slowly put on his boots, found his gun, and stumbled out to his motorcycle. “See you later,” he said to the woman whose body was only slightly outlined from the starlight. He started the engine and rode away into the alien night.