Whoever Is Not For Us

by G. Scott Huggins

The sparking hell of Main Engineering shuddered and rang like a cymbal under the blows of magnetic grapples impacting the outer hull. Marine Captain Manuel Stolz spared a single glance for Commander Ellerbee and her mate frantically working on the drive bomb.

“How long?” he said. His voice echoed in his combat suit helmet, unnaturally loud.

“A couple of minutes,” grunted Ellerbee. The Navy engineer’s hands were moving too fast for him to follow.

Too long. Stolz switched to his Marines’ channel. “Perimeter check.”

“Conrad, hatch secure.”

“Olivett, hatch secure.”

“Plekhanov, hatch…” The lights went out with a photoflash and Plekhanov’s voice was swallowed by a roaring hiss. The boarders were through the stern perimeter, moving with a precision inhuman and terrifying. Their lasers strobed the compartment. Ellerbee’s suit sprouted holes: superheated air and flesh jetted out, knocking her body back into Stolz, smashing him into the bulkhead. Conrad slammed the butt of his rifle into the helmet of the attacker that appeared suddenly behind him. Then he leveled it at the thing’s belly. He and the alien fired at the same moment. They exploded apart from each other.

Stolz’s reflexes and enhancement took over. Riding the tailored hormones like a roller coaster, he tucked and bounced off the bulkhead, rolling back to fire his puppetcutter. The focused EMP seared through the Brainsucker’s circuit-neurons, severing the connection between host and parasite, and his target spasmed and went still. Then Stolz was through the hatch, into the weapons bay. Scanning. His bulky gun’s screen showed nothing. He sealed the hatch and moved again, bouncing from wall to wall. His back itched, but no infinitely hot finger reached out to stab him between the shoulder blades.

They wanted him alive. Wanted them all alive. It was their way.

He dogged the hatch behind him and turned forward. Then he heard the shout. “Manuel, stop!”

He stopped. He didn’t remember letting the gun go, but it hung before him in microgravity.

Zanne’s voice.

Numb, he reached for his holster. So even this prayer would be denied him. He’d had nightmares about this moment, had planned for it. And prayed it would never happen. The weight of the weapon filled his hand with heavy and final comfort. He focused his eyes on it, and the comfort drained away.

His laser sidearm was burnt clean through. He’d never noticed the hit. And the hatch behind him was beginning to glow red. The Brainsuckers were burning through. He was trapped, with Zanne on the other side, coming for him, and he could not kill himself.


She had not been there among the wreckage at Ceres Base, when the Marines had retaken it.

Manuel had asked permission to look for her. General Arnault had granted it, of course. The newsnets were calling him “the hero of Ceres” after the details of Charlie Company’s defense of the rockhead had come out. Six long hours they had held after forcing the landing on the moon-sized planetoid. And then they’d gone into the tunnels and smashed the enemy’s counterattack. After the main forces were assembled inside their perimeter, it had been all over. They were saying Manuel’s leadership had saved the invasion. Manuel supposed that sounded better than saying “rage and hope.”

Manuel never knew how long his search had taken. As long as needed to inspect the recovered bodies, the stacks of them, bound like lumpen, infernal fruit harvested from the plains of Ceres. Ceres, ironically named after the goddess of grain. Bodies burned, ripped apart, desiccated by exposure to vacuum. All of them Brainsucked, the dead parasites finally as still and lifeless as their victims. None were Zanne. In spite of his prayers.

Ceres Base had been humanity’s first defeat of the War. Now it was their first real victory. Zanne had been there for the defeat. He had hoped to find her here, among the dead. Among those who were at peace. But in the end, she was not.

Conrad and Chu had taken him out that night. Practically forced him into the officer’s club, or what passed for it, and gotten him drunk.

Arnault and the Gray Colonel—its title translated more precisely as Node Director—arrived just as things were getting mellow. Stolz had winced at the thought of rising, but the General waved him down before he could do more than blink.

“No rank here, gentlemen,” said Arnault. He sat. So did the Gray. The thin humanoid looked much like pre-Contact rumors had made aliens out to be. Some said that proved something, but Stolz didn’t much care. Against the Brainsuckers, any ally would do, and without the Grays, Earth would not have lasted a year.

It didn’t mean he felt at ease with them, though. No one did. The slender hermaphrodites were hairless but covered with sensory spines that you could almost mistake for a thin stubble, and their eyes were a pale violet.

It spoke.

“My condolences, Captain Stolz.”

“Thanks,” he replied, coldly. What could a Gray know of losing a wife? They didn’t have them.

“Manny,” said Arnault. “I’m sorry as hell. I wanted to come down and buy you a drink. I only wish I could do more. Sometimes, it seems we ought to be able to do anything these days.” The General finished by vaguely waving at the construction going up around him.

Manuel nodded. The technology the Grays had given humanity was astounding. Even now, great girders of steel were being grown from the crust of the dwarf planet, extruded by the mining creatures the aliens had engineered for such work. In less than a week, Ceres base would be stronger than it had been before it fell. The Grays were biological wizards. Disease—even the aggressive forms of brain disease that had plagued humanity—was practically a thing of the past.

But they could not cure death. Or what had happened to Zanne. Stolz accepted the drink gratefully.

“Manny,” said the General, “There’s a lot more of this war to come. We need officers who can think and fight like you do. I’m promoting you. You’re due for Earthside duty. You’ll go as Major Stolz, and you’ll come back to us with your own regiment.”

“No, sir. Thank you, sir. But that’s not what I want.”

Arnault looked at him. “You had something else in mind?”

“I want posting to the Drakensis’ complement. You want to do more for me? Give me that.”

The Gray shook its head. “It is a waste of your potential.”

Manny’s eyes narrowed. “I wasn’t asking you. Sir.”

Arnault raised a hand to forestall a reply and set his drink down. “That’s really what you want, Captain? Think carefully. I think we’d best discuss this tomorrow.”

Drakensis was the most powerful battleship humanity had yet constructed. The rumors said she was on her way here. Of course, she would be going where the battle was hardest. It was unlikely she would survive. Other ships would take her place, and she would buy time for them to be built.

Manuel had seen Arnault the next day. They’d argued. But in the end, Captain Manuel Stolz had gotten what he wanted: away from Ceres, away from Earth. Away from her.


But now she was here, and he could not get away. Zanne—what had been Zanne—was on the other side of the glowing hatch, waiting. The smell of burning metal choked him.

“Manny, please wait,” the voice came over the intercom. “It’s not what you think. You have my word I won’t harm you.”

He grinned like a death’s head. How many of them were there? He trained the puppetcutter on the hatch, but its EMP wouldn’t penetrate the thick battle steel. He’d lost his chance to blow the ship, and now he could not kill Zanne and give her peace. If there was any peace in death. If a man could still believe in a heaven whose God would create such monsters.

He couldn’t be taken alive. Not at this price. Calmly, he began to cycle the maintenance lock on the inner hull. He sealed his faceplate. The melting hatch liquefied, blobs of metal beginning to float toward him. He squeezed through the lock and slammed the air door against them. Then he flushed the air, and pulled the space door open.

And slid inside a star filled mirror.

The core of the Drakensis was a 120 cm laser, powered by the main drive. It was meant to punch through starships. If they wanted to kill him—if they fired the drive—he’d never even know he’d died.

He could always hope.

The surface was nearly frictionless, and his boots and gloves scarred the mirrored lining. He looked up. Instead of the tiny, circular aperture, there was a ragged elliptical hole, much closer than it should have been; the nose of the ship was gone. The stars there were points, hard and cold. Everywhere else in his field of vision they were lines: streaks crazed by their reflection in the huge laser’s barrel.

He forced himself to slow, and bounce. He bounced forward, eye to the surface. Slowly. Slowly. His arms ached in the cramped space of the barrel, and he cursed himself for a fool for bringing the massive gun along, but he hadn’t been able to part with it. The fear of being unarmed was somehow much more real than the fear of being brainsucked.

After an eternity, he saw the break. A fractured starline. He moved his head slightly. Another fracture, just ahead. He put his hands between the lines, and pushed. One. Two. Three. The nearly invisible airlock popped out, sensing the pressure from the outside, and he was back in Damage Control. He leapt through the hatch, rotating the ship in his mind so that he was always jumping up. Into the corridor. Up to the cross shaft.

She appeared in front of him like a ghost, and he twisted frantically, leaping through the side passage.

“Manuel, stop!”

He never even considered firing, considered anything, because what was chasing him was dead, worse than dead, was a nightmare, and he was so close now, so close. Ten meters. Five. The open lifeboat port beckoned him, he could see the stars through its viewport.

And then he was through, slamming the lifeboat hatch shut. An instant later, something clanged off it, and he could hear her, it, on the other side. “Manuel. Manuel!”

Snarling, he raised the gun… and froze.

He could not see her. Had not seen her except as a suited shape. But the gun saw, and in the false color image, it drew her for him in false color, through the lifeboat’s thin aluminum. In perfection, she hovered on the other side of the hatch, that same silhouette, the same shape that had walked, lain beside him so many nights. And glowing above her head was a halo of light, and in the high radiation bands there was… something else, lines of pure force shifting with blinding speed, as she searched for a way in: lines, patterns like wings, done in purple and indigo.

With a cry of hatred and longing he thrust the gun away and hit the launch button. The acceleration threw him against the wall and back into darkness.

There was nothing more.


Manuel Stolz woke to the sound of his dead wife speaking to him.

“Wake up, Manuel. It’s time to wake up.”

Memory flooded him. From his childhood on the plains of Kansas, to Quantico, the war, to his battle-couch aboard Drakensis, while the thrust of the Orion’s drive bombs pounded him into his seat, the air thickening with the heat of weapons fire bleeding slowly into the cabin. Then all the rest. How could she be speaking to him?


For an instant, Manuel believed again, prepared to forgive God everything if only He had brought her back to him.

As abruptly as his eyes opened, the flow of memories cut from a torrent to a trickle and he recognized the familiar grip of PTSD. Your life’s supposed to pass before your eyes as you die, he thought. He saw the room. Saw the door before him. The door was a bell curve, ribbed and organic, surrounding a smooth, ovoid operculum. Not the traditional lozenge shape of human airlocks. Not the distinctive hexagonal portal of their allies, the Grays.

They had caught him after all.


Well, it had been two years since he’d believed in Heaven and Hell. In any God who listened.

He rose, balanced on the balls of his feet. Low gravity. He moved toward the door, adrenaline flooding his system.

Only adrenaline. Nothing more. Of course, they had taken the bioenhancement package out. His lips pulled back from his teeth. He looked to his chest. No scar. Naturally, the Brainsuckers’ surgery would be good. Why am I still me?

He searched the room. It was bare, except for the bed and the door. The bed was attached, seamlessly, to the floor. Calmly, he undid the belt from his robe and tested its strength. It would serve as a garrote. He flattened himself against the wall.

Before he could settle down to wait, the door, thin as paper, dilated, and a voice issued from the other room.

“Please come in, Captain.” The voice spoke English, with a curiously flat accent.

Manuel hesitated. Then he looped the belt around his waist and stepped through the door. His breath caught.

Sunlight flooded the spherical room from an aperture set high in the ceiling. From where he stood, a lush, blue carpeted walk led to a circular platform at the bottom of the room.

The entire outer wall was made of salmon colored wood. Not paneled. Grown. Branches reached inward, bearing black-green leaves. It was as if someone had hollowed out a lecture-hall sized sphere in a California redwood and let branches grow inside. Manuel shook himself, looking behind him. His cell was as spare and metallic as it had been when he awoke. He had not entered a fairyland. But what was this place?

On the circular platform below stood three chairs and a table of the same wood as the room. The being that had spoken sat in one. It rose.

“Please sit, Captain.”

This creature did not fit into the fairy tale surroundings. It was black, whip thin and deadly looking. Its legs and tail (or was it three legs?) were jointless but plated, each plate made up of tightly woven black scales (insect? lizard? neither?). The trilateral symmetry extended up through its torso to a tricornered head set with three compound eyes. Its three arms were long and tipped with thorny members. Manuel had never seen anything like it, but he felt his stomach slide away from him in the familiar manner of combat as he caught sight of its master. The Brainsucker.

Like a malignancy, it sat on the alien’s head, shading from a bruise-violet at the base to the fleshy color of cooked trout at the top. Two of the thing’s yellow, slitted eyes were open. Where a third should be, a rope of flesh extended downward to encircle one of its host’s oculars. A bulge of protoplasm quivered over the eye like an obscene lens. The parasite wore a crest of metal. Thin tendrils of that metal and its own flesh trailed down its host’s neck, growing into the faults of its plates.

Manuel fought a shudder and took a step forward.

“Good day, Captain. Please join me,” the creature reiterated, “and allow me to introduce myself. I am Colonel—” and there was a noise like a flute being strangled. “But you may call me Marvin.”

Manuel’s head shot up in disbelief. Like in the old cartoons he and Zanne had used to watch? His anger flared as he remembered what he was talking to. He calmed himself. Humor from a Brainsucker? Expect nothing in battle except what occurs.

“Manuel Stolz. Marine Captain. ASMO 493648.” He fixed his eyes ahead, parade rest.

“We know all that,” said the alien dryly. “Please, sit.”

“I prefer to stand, sir. Assuming you will give me the choice, sir. However, I understand that choice is hardly consonant with your species’ goals, sir.” Suddenly he had an overwhelming urge to put his hands to his head and make sure that there was no Brainsucker nestled there, waiting to pull his nerves like strings. No. His thoughts were his own. Except missing memories… Casually, he slipped a hand up to scratch his head. He met only hair. The alien emitted a skreeking sound.

“No, my good Captain. Trust me, you will know when we Join with you…”

Manuel flushed. “Death first, sir.”

“Possibly. But quite unnecessary. As is the spit and polish act. You may speak freely. This,” it gestured to the room, “isn’t what you expected, is it?”

It wasn’t, of course. Everyone knew what being captured meant. He’d envisioned obscene nightmare hives, living in structures of saliva, wax and darkness. Certainly not this dryad’s apartment. “Not exactly.”

“What if I were to tell you that you have been lied to, Captain? About us. About the very nature of the war?”

Manuel felt himself grinning, in spite of himself. So it began. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “But I got used to that after my first year at Quantico. Everyone lies. What’s your point?”

He scanned the room. No obvious threats. This alien looked strong, but brittle.

Not yet.

“Don’t fence with me, Captain. I am quite serious.”

“So am I. Please, Colonel, don’t assume that because humans are technologically backward”—amazing how it still hurt to say that, after five years—“that we’re fools. We know—most of us—that the Grays have their own agenda. Quite honestly, we’d like nothing better than to see you both wipe each other out. It’s simply a question of supporting the lesser of two evils.”

“And are you quite sure they are the lesser, Captain?”

He couldn’t stop himself. “Hmmm. Let me see. The Grays… versus a creature that parasitizes and enslaves living humans? Yes! And I was there when we took Ceres base from you. I saw. I fought your victims. I believe what I see.”

“I know,” the Colonel said grimly. “They’ve cultivated that trait in you very well. I wonder, would we have done as well had we gotten here first?” Before Manuel could answer, it continued. “Perhaps if you follow me, you will see more to believe in.”

“Fixed the whole place up as nicely as this, have you?”

The alien skreeked a laugh. “Ah, the arrogance. Yes, I know. There is no length to which we dastardly aliens would not go to subvert the heroic human, who will staunchly resist all attempts at brainwashing. Captain, I don’t rearrange the officers’ lounge to impress guests. The treemold is beautiful and we’re lucky to have one here. I’m sorry we did have to remove all luxuries from your room, but I’m afraid we thought that you might be, ah, resourceful. As your performance with the belt proved.”

“Glad I’m not too disappointing.”

The Colonel gestured, and the door at their back opened into a jungle. The light here was dimmer, like a permanent sunset. Lush, green black vegetation curved outward as the path curved upward. The arboretum was shaped like a wedge of a cheese wheel, and the path ran along its outer edge. High above, a huge globe of water floated. Finned shapes swam in it. The sky was a deep rose. Manuel’s eyes began to pick out patterns: stands of stunted fruit trees, jigsaw puzzle outlines of grasses.

A great, sharklike creature emerged from the pool high above, then braked with long, saillike fins, and banked back into the water. The Colonel regarded him as he stared. Finally, Manuel looked down. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it?” he asked, trying to squelch his awe.

“It’s occasionally good to remember what one is fighting for, wouldn’t you agree, Captain?” He started forward.

“I know what you’re fighting for.”

“And what is that?”

“Hosts. Brooders. Lebensraum.”

The Colonel skreeked again. “Really Captain, you ask me not to insult your intelligence, and then you do the job for me. Do you really think we can’t breed our own hosts? The Moiety”—he indicated the Brainsucker with his rear arm—“evolved to Join with a host. What need of wars of conquest? It would be much cheaper to breed them on Homeworld.” He stripped two translucent, green fruits from an overhanging branch and offered one to Manuel, “Build battlefleets to cross the interstellar gulfs to subdue armed and unwilling hosts? No, thank you. Our war is defensive.”

“Funny, no conqueror in Earth’s entire history ever said that. No, thank you,” he said, in spite of the saliva that rushed to his mouth, remembering the tale of Persephone.

The Colonel made a whooshing noise. “Really, Captain, you almost make me despair.” His mandibles speared the fruit and chewed, but his voice was unimpeded. “Are you one of those, Captain, who does not believe that there is any right side in a war?”

“Let’s say I believe that some sides are more wrong than others.”

“Well spoken. And worst of all would be a race which sweeps from system to system in search of races to use as breeding grounds for itself?”

Manuel blinked. “That’s why we’re fighting you.”

“No. That’s the reason we’re fighting you.”

“What? We haven’t even left our own system yet.”

“The reason we’re fighting your allies, then.”

Manuel felt his lips pull back in a sneer. “I hate to correct you, Colonel, but you’re the one sitting on top of a host, pulling its nerves like puppet strings. You’re the ones all cyborg-implanted into your Central Mind with your computer implants, there.” He gestured toward the Colonel’s head. “The Grays haven’t done that to us.”

“Haven’t they?”

Manuel merely looked at him.

“Captain, you and your people have been the victims of a brilliant propaganda campaign. So obvious that it was a masterstroke of subtlety. You see us, and cry, ‘Evil!’ You see the Grays, and you shout, ‘Good!’ Why? Because our symbiosis is visible, and to you, disgusting? Come, Captain, you know you’re a symbiont yourself. Nearly every complex form of life in the galaxy is. Or did your education not include the existence of Escherichia coli? How about hair mites? All invisible to you. It goes for parasites, too. Trypanosoma, tapeworms, and trichina are all much more common than leeches or remorae. Earth—and the world that spawned the Grays—are both quite typical. It is we, the Moiety, that are the exception.

“Does it not seem odd to you, Captain, that so much of your science fiction addressing the idea of mind controlling aliens used comparatively huge creatures to do so? Pod spewing plants and clunky, pus oozing machines? Demonic shadow beings, chest-bursting insects, and so on? When all along the real danger was much more subtle. A paravirus that could rewrite the cerebral cortex; weave new connections into a different personality…”

“Are you trying to tell me that the Grays…?”

“No, not the Grays.” The Colonel’s voice was sad now. “The people you call the Grays are just their latest victims in a long line of species taken over and used for breeding vats. They don’t have an outward form. They don’t have a name, or a language. They are our enemy. Your name for them, until recently, has been Alzheimer’s Disease.”

Manuel allowed himself a smirk. “The Grays cured us of Alzheimer’s Disease four years ago.”

“No, they didn’t. They cured it of you. Alzheimer’s Disease is what happens when the parasite can’t completely rewrite the host’s brain. The host fights back. The struggle weaves plaques in the brain that strangle both host and the nascent prionic parasite. But their birthrate—and their persistence—are tremendous. The disease wasn’t even noticed on your world until about a hundred years ago. Then it got worse, and worse, striking younger and younger victims. Finally, the Grays’ spaceships landed openly, telling you to guard yourselves, because we were coming. The dreaded Borg, or Puppet Masters, or Body Snatchers, or whatever it is they called us. Naturally, you snapped to attention. They offered you weapons and spacecraft… and cures for your diseases… as gifts. Why not? Any technology they give you will soon be theirs again. And you’d been exquisitely prepared. Already the enemy had a willing network of people to speak for them. The oldest, the richest, the most powerful people, all with a new lease on life, and all so grateful to them.”

Suddenly, the jungle seemed very cold. “You’re lying,” he got out. “You’ve got no evidence for any of this. It’s just a pretty story, like any other crackpot conspiracy tale.”

“There is evidence, Captain. It’s elementary biology, but I can’t show you the enemy. If you were a doctor and I had a dead Gray, or a dead man”—the Colonel paused at the exit and gestured at the door—“or an infected, living man,” it said more softly, “I could show you. But you have no reason to believe my interpretation of the data.”

The door opened, and Manuel froze.

It was the first part of the Brainsucker base that had looked like a spacecraft since his cell. A huge observation deck paneled in steel with a single bay window. Outside, surrounded by working lights, the battered, squat, flashlight shape of the Drakensis.

And standing against the window, Zanne.

Manuel turned on the alien, roared and reached, his fingers spread to crush, to strangle. The alien blocked once, twice, then spun and caught his robe with its rear arm, lifting him into the air. He looked down into one great compound eye. He tried to break the grip. It yielded not at all. He nodded, face flushed. The gauntlet relaxed. Shallow scratches bled onto the gray synthetic. Suddenly, defeat crashed down around him. He couldn’t even be enraged anymore. He just felt dead. Defeated. He hadn’t been able to scuttle Drakensis. He hadn’t been able to save Zanne. He’d told himself she was dead. He’d prayed she was dead.

“You have Zanne.” He’d known that. But it hadn’t been real, before. “Damn you.”

“And she has us.” The Colonel moved off, following the curve of the window.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” They were now in a long corridor, steel on one side, glastic on the other.

“That we are symbionts. Not parasites. We live with our hosts, not on them. Host. Moiety. Machine.”

“Doesn’t look that way to me.”

“Then stop seeing with your eyes and look with your mind. You were utterly at our mercy. If we are what you think we are, why aren’t you under our control right now?”

Manuel met the compound gaze. “I’ve been wondering that myself,” he admitted. “Why not?”

“Because it’s not that simple, Manny.”

The world took on a nightmare slowness with the sound of that voice. He had tried not to look at her. But now he could no longer turn away.

She had approached while he had fought. Her skin was white, deathly white. The parasite fit tightly over her head like a cap. Its eyes were obscenely active, tendrils growing down into the curve of her neck, like giant blood vessels. They reached everywhere, along her arms, curving toward her breasts like long fingers, down past the neck of the simple indigo (her favorite color, an absurd part of him noted) robe she wore. Wisps of her blond hair grew from the edges of the cap. From the top of the parasite, a crest of metal swept down her spine, sheathing it in articulated joints. Filigree wire and fleshy tendrils buried themselves in her neck. The alien lens wrapped around her right eye like a monocle. She looked like a preserved corpse, beautiful in death, and a part of him ached to embrace her.

Her face spoke again. “Please come in, both of you.” She gestured to a table and chairs on the observation deck. Manuel turned to the alien, and when he spoke, his voice rasped. “Don’t do this to me. If there is anything left in your mind that can understand what it once was, what I ask, I beg you not to do this. Don’t talk to me through her. Please!” He felt the tears and shame well up beneath him. The room blurred.

The alien did not move.

It was Zanne’s body that spoke. “Oh, Manny, I can’t imagine what you’re feeling right now. I know how it looks… how I look, but please listen…”

“Shut up!” He surged forward and grabbed the alien by its shoulders. Instantly his wrists were locked in viselike grips, but his hands acted on their own. “Don’t use her anymore. Not on me! I’ll kill you! I’ll force you to kill me! Stop it!”

“I cannot control what she does, Captain,” the alien answered evenly. Slowly, it forced Manuel’s hands away. Speaking with effort, it continued: “She is her own person. She is still her own person, no matter what you have been told.”

“Please, Manny, listen to me. If you can’t believe it’s me, then listen anyway, for the sake of whatever you once felt for what I was.”

With an effort, he relaxed. Feeling like an old, old man, he shuffled to the chair that faced her. “Talk.”

Zanne crossed from the window and sat facing him. He watched her, unable to stop. She sat across from him and looked away.

“I don’t remember my capture. There was some brain injury. Memories destroyed. I just remember waking up to music. At first, I thought I was home, and you were singing to me. Then I realized that the voice was inside my head, and there were so many of them, so many voices talking, soothing…” She put her head in her hands.

“Oh, dammit, it’s just as bad as I thought it would be—you don’t have the words to know how wonderful it is, and I wish I could show you. We were wrong, Manny, it’s not a massmind that controls its hosts. We’re not victims, or robots: it’s not unity, it’s… trinity.

“Trinity?” he spat. Even though he no longer believed, it sounded like blasphemy.

“It’s the best word I can think of for it, Manny. Three, but one. Human, Moiety, and The Machine. But still separate, Manny. I’m still me. I don’t know how to prove it to you.”

“I do.” His voice was hard and flat. “Let me go. Come back with me.”

Slowly, she nodded. “I can let you go,” she whispered.

Manuel froze. “What?”

“I don’t want to, but I can let you go. You’ll walk right out that door behind us. If you still want to, when we’re done—”

“When you’re done with me, I guess I won’t want anything ever again.”

“God, Manny, you haven’t changed a bit! You still don’t let people finish their sentences!”

“And you still patronize me when I don’t go right along with you.” He checked himself. He had answered without thinking, as if he were talking to Zanne. The voice of General Arnault came back to him. “If you ever speak to a Human that the Enemy has taken, remember, he or she is dead! It is in control. You are speaking with an it.” And yet it was so like her, even the sad smile she gave.

“I guess I do, Manny. But I mean it: you’re free to go after this. Without any sort of implantation. Outside that door is a lifepod with a distress beacon and ten days of supplies. The same model we found your… found you in. You’ll be picked up by—” She gulped. “By your side, in time.”

“Don’t give me that. You can’t afford to let me go.”

“Yes, we can,” the Colonel said. “You don’t appreciate the scale of this war, Captain. We’re somewhat more advanced than your own species, and we have many more resources. If the enemy gets you, you’ll be another piece of cannon fodder. No more, no less. Gifted cannon fodder, certainly, but ultimately that.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence. So, you’ll let me go.” He turned to Zanne. “But you won’t go with me.” It was not a question.

“No, Manny. I’m needed here.”

“Needed here? I’ve needed you for the last two years, Zanne!”

“You’ve been fighting me for the last two years, Manny. Oh, it isn’t your fault. But I’m fighting for the whole human race. They—and you—need me. Here.”

“The enemy would kill her if she went back with you, Captain. You know it. We cannot allow that.”

Manuel looked her in the eye. “You’d buy our lives by putting a Brainsucker on me? That alone tells me I’m not talking to Zanne. You should have just done it while I was out, like your new friend here said.”

“We can’t, Manny.”

“What do you mean, you can’t? Are you saying,” he said, slowly, “that this thing”—he gestured to the Colonel—“convinced you to do this? Are you telling me that everyone with a Brainsucker asked to have one?”

“No,” said the Colonel. “A very few join us of their own free will. We look too horrible. You’ve been too prepared to hate us. For all your vaunts of the power of free minds, Captain, you and your fellow Humans are distressingly eager to simply believe what you see. Some of you—the ones who could be—were taken against their will, because we needed them. But it’s an awful risk. We’re not perfect, Captain. We can’t match minds that truly want nothing to do with each other. I speak as a member of the Moiety, now. We are expert in joining disparate races together, through the Machine. It’s how we live. Sometimes, we succeeded. Sometimes we failed. For each failure, a Human—and one of the Moiety—died.”

“That’s what you did to Zanne,” Manuel grated.

“They saved me, Manny.”

“Sure they did.”

“I’ve seen the charts,” she said, wearily. “I was wounded when Ceres fell. Badly. My skull looked like an eggshell. I was dying. If I’d even made it to a hospital, chances are I’d be lying in bed, drooling and trying to remember how to complete a sentence. As it is, you can see how much metal I wear. It worked, Manny. They gave me my life back.”

“But you can’t do it to me.”


“Why not?”

The alien and Zanne looked at each other. It was Zanne who spoke.

“Because you’re infected, Manny.”

In spite of his disbelief, he felt his chest tighten. “What do you mean?”

“You have a case of the enemy, Captain. Alzheimer’s disease, if you will. Still dormant, but the nets are there. Written into the very nuclei of your cells. I know,” he continued, forestalling Manuel’s protest. “You haven’t noticed symptoms. You won’t. Not now that there’s a ‘cure.’ One day, it will be put in your food. Or a standard injection. And you will be turned off.”

Manuel smiled humorlessly. “I see. I either go home and get, ‘turned off,’ or I surrender here and now to the forces of righteousness.”

The Colonel leaned forward. “This is not about right or wrong, Captain. It’s about what you can live with. You have two choices. Go back and die with them, or live with us.”

“I don’t want to live with you! Or them! I have my own life!”

“That time is over, Captain. For you and for your species. If it ever really existed. I assure you it doesn’t matter a damn to the universe.”

“But it does to her.” Manuel looked into Zanne’s face. “If she is who she claims to be. I’m infected?” He locked eyes with Zanne. “Then kill it.” He was amazed by how even his voice was. “Kill it and disinfect me.”

“We can’t, Manny. The paravirus is in your genes now. We couldn’t even clone you without growing it, too. There’s only one way to get rid of it. If you let us. By Joining with you.”

“That’s convenient. So, I’m carrying a fatal disease. And you’re negotiating with me? Damned poor quarantine procedures. Why?”

Zanne looked at the Colonel. It made a motion that might have been a nod. “Because we have to. The enemy inside you is dormant, but they have learned. You can’t stop us, Manny. Not alone. The paravirus can’t stop us alone. But the both of you can.”

He nodded slowly. “So, I can prevent you. Unless you can convince me not to fight. Nice story. And why do you want me so badly, if I’m just another piece of cannon fodder?”

The Colonel swiveled his head from side to side. “No, Captain. That’s what you are to the enemy. It’s one of their great weaknesses. They can use you as a host. Nothing more. To us, you are a very important being, because you are a part of Zanne. And Zanne is a genius the like of which we seldom see.”

“I know what her IQ was,” he said, shortly. She flinched at the past tense.

“And you, Captain. We have your file from our time on Ceres. Because of who you are to Zanne, we have watched you. Ever since she was lost, you have been marked by moods. Tempers. Reckless behavior in combat. You both… you are much more together than separately. We need you, Captain. Not as much for yourself as for her, I will admit, even though every Human who comes to us is a small victory. We will go to great lengths to get you. But it is you who must come. You must come, of yourself.”

“You want me at the cost of myself.”

“No, Manny, we want to save your self. All that it truly is. If you knew,” She broke off. Swallowed. “If you knew how many nights I’ve prayed, asked God to give you back to me before you were killed, out there in the black, or worse, overwritten by the Enemy and turned into an empty machine.” She blinked back tears. “And here you are.”

“I prayed the same thing.” He whispered the words before he could stop them. “When I still believed God heard. Prayed that you would come back. Or at least be dead. And here you are.” The words tasted like ash.

“God did hear you, Manny. He brought you here. To find me, alive. Oh, please, can’t you believe? Just believe one more time.”

Manny closed his eyes against the pain. To have his faith killed had been bad enough. But now it was resurrected too, in a horrible parody of itself. “No,” he grated. “Whatever soul I have, you’ll never get it.”

“You gave away your life when you became a Marine, Manny,” Zanne said. “Gave it away because you cared about humanity even more than you cared about me, and I accepted it. Because you were fighting for me, too. Have you become so much smaller that you cannot believe me when I ask the same?”

Manuel felt the question hit him as surely as if it had been an arrow. She went on. “And you gave your soul to God. Trust Him with it.”

Manuel felt acid rising in the emptiness within him. “You’re not using me. Not in the name of God or anyone else. I know who I am. I know Zanne. I don’t know either of you. Or God. Zanne… would never want me to become an appendage of herself, just to be with her. Even if you aren’t Zanne, you have her memories. You know I’m right.”

She looked up at him. “I thought…” She slumped. “I was afraid you would say that. I know you so well. But you’re right. You don’t know me anymore. Manny, it’s not like you think. I wish I could show you. I know you think I’m trapped here, in this body, but I’m not. It’s so…” And then she was crying, tears streaming from her eye.

Rage flooded him. “Enough. Let me go, Colonel.”


“Let me go, Colonel!” he shouted. “You’ve lost. I’ve won. You can’t break me like this. Now either keep your word and let me go, or break it and kill me!”

The door behind Zanne’s body opened.

A small, metal corridor led to the unmistakable shape of a lifeboat.

Manuel froze. He had never expected that door to open.

“You may leave, Captain. You are correct. We have lost. The enemy has won.”

Manuel took a step toward the lifeboat. Then two. Then three. He turned back. The Colonel was watching him. Zanne was still crying.

He felt his stomach tighten. He opened his mouth to speak, but the Colonel raised its hand. “You asked us once not to cause you unnecessary pain. I ask you the same courtesy. Say nothing more. Don’t increase our pain at losing you.”

Manuel’s eyes went hard. “I’ll show you more courtesy than you showed me. I’ll be brief. I only ask that… if there is anything left… left of Zanne… tell her I love her.”

There was a silence. A small voice spoke.

“She knows.”


His shoulders itched until the lifeboat had floated away, and the base had vanished from the port. He ate. Drank. Slept. Stared through the port. Wept.

They picked him up on the third day. He braced himself against the shock of docking. The hatch was opened, and his legs protested as he was led from the capsule by two Marines. He fell to his knees, blinded by the hangar lights. “Oh, my God,” one of them gasped as he looked up.

“Look that bad, do I?” He got out. And stopped.

Five Marines stared in horror at him.

Steps rang on the deck behind him. He turned. And looked into a mirror.

Major Manuel Stolz looked down on Captain Manuel Stoltz. He had never been so clean cut. His uniform so perfect. He fell back to the deck. He heard his own voice come from the figure’s mouth.

“Well. What a surprise.” The words were flat. “I never thought they’d try it again.”

“What? Again? Who are you?” he managed weakly.

“You know who I am.” Manuel Stolz had time for one brief look into the barrel of a gun and flat eyes that did not belong to him, and then the world ended.


Zanne was watching the tank when the Colonel came to her and laid his hand on her shoulder. In the starlight from the ports, Manuel Stolz floated, buoyed up gently by the nutrient fluid.

“We may cure him one day,” the Colonel said. “We need him. And you.”

Zanne made a sound that was half laugh and half sob. “You don’t know Manuel.” She reached out with one of her wing shaped, magnetic fields and altered the tank’s acidity. She watched the Colonel with her rear eyes. “If we had shown him…”

“Seeing his own clone growing would only prove to him that we are as cold and calculating as he thinks us to be. And showing him the sample would prove nothing.”

She nodded. What had been left of Manuel after the enemy destroyed his lifeboat was unrecognizable except to machines.

“I should not have tried to use God against him,” she said. “I thought… I thought he would still believe. Perhaps we have damaged him, in the cloning. Lost his soul.”

“I do not know,” the Colonel said, gently. “The Infinite never reveals Itself in the same way to Its children. But it is the Enemy who has damaged him. Not you.”

“I only pray that He can give me the wisdom to heal him.”

“There is nothing you can do, save what you are doing.”

“I know.” She stroked the plastic in which he floated. “Wake up, Manuel,” she whispered. “It’s time to wake up.”

G. Scott Huggins now lives in Wisconsin after sojourns in Kansas, Germany and Russia. He teaches history to high school students, many of whom learn things. He is the author of A Doctor To Dragons and has also appeared on Escape Pod and Podcastle. You can read his ramblings and rants at The Logoccentric Orbit. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

“This story started from the realization that when it comes to symbiotic and parasitic lifeforms in science fiction, truth and beauty invariably go together. ‘Good’ symbiotic beings are extremely rare, and almost always invisible: Jad’zia Dax hosts her Trill and remains a knockout. Meanwhile, the Alien that the Weyland-Yutani corporation keeps trying to get its hands on is a slime-covered, crab-like horror. It’s pretty much a rule: the prettier the infestation leaves you, the more moral the symbiont is. So I badly wanted to subvert that trope, but I also wanted to explore the question of how you could know that such a being was telling the truth before it was too late.”

“Whoever Is Not For Us” by G. Scott Huggins. Copyright © 2019 by G. Scott Huggins.

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