The Naked and the Damned
Two worlds spoke to one another. Crude images raster scanned, symbols, color images, audio. Genetic sequences.
"I don't want to stay here anymore," the young woman said. She had auburn hair with red highlights, high cheekbones, light blue eyes and pale, white skin.
The young woman's chambers were lined with tapestries and carpeted with the brilliant patterned plush of soft fibers. She sat sideways in an overstuffed chair, naked, her legs dangling over one arm. She was wiggling a foot and watching it intently.
"Why ever not? It's your home." The caregiver was astonished at the young woman's restlessness.
"This can never be my home."
"She has the gift of language and language is the divide."
The council sat in silence.
"We have an obligation," the caregiver continued.
"Is her happiness our obligation?" one of the council members asked.
"Is her unhappiness to our credit?"
"We know not of her kind," the council member replied.
"She is our responsibility," said the chairman.
"To what extent?" the council member asked and countered by saying, "This may be the destiny of her kind."
The young man contemplated himself in the mirror. He was ugly. He knew that he was ugly because he did not share the features common to everyone else. His eyes were too large and too slanted, face too narrow. Worst of all he was hairless. No hair to cover his bare scalp, no eyebrows, no eyelashes. Strangers caught unaware wore startled expressions or quickly looked away. Or worse, they stared. He was not totally without beauty. There was the golden skin with its iridescent sheen.
The video screen flashed an incoming call.
"Please, answer," he commanded.
"Eric, let's go." It was Gary from across the hall waiting to accompany him to work.
"Please, off." Eric had never looked away from the mirror. The screen reverted to an abstract painting, a mottled pink on pink.
When Eric opened the door to his apartment, Gary was waiting for him.
"Hello," Gary said.
Eric looked at him, expressionless, then turned and walked toward the elevator.
"Eric, it's customary to return greetings."
"I do, sometimes."
"And actually say something in response on a video call."
"I'm sorry." Eric was not sorry. He was faintly annoyed. After fourteen years, they were still trying to mold him to the trivial responses that served as social glue. Eric had learned that whenever he was being lectured for some inappropriate behavior, all he needed to say was 'I'm sorry'.
The elevator door opened.
"Hi, Eric. Gary." It was Natasha. Natasha was beautiful. She had auburn hair with red highlights, pale blue eyes, high cheekbones and skin like milk. Her eyes darted from Eric and lingered on Gary.
Eric sensed it and wanted her to look at him instead. All he could think to say was, "More pictures today?"
"I suppose so." She was looking at the ceiling as she spoke.
Of course it would be more pictures, Eric thought. That was what they did. It seemed as though it was all they did.
"Yram?" the caregiver asked. "What are you painting?"
"The face of my prince, my lover. Far away on Earth."
"You have seen the face of your lover? One of the images of the humans?"
"I do not know?"
"May I see the painting?"
"Not yet. When I'm finished."
"What do lovers do?"
"They hold each other through the long night. They touch each other."
"Do you wish to be touched?"
"Yes, a little." Yram seemed embarrassed by both the question and her answer. She looked at the video screen, fed by the image translator, at the human image of the Orakind caregiver.
"What do you really look like?" Yram had asked this question many, many times.
"Not so different as I appear," the caregiver replied.
"How much longer must I wait to see your true image?"
"Not long. We must be patient."
Eric looked impatiently at more pictures of the alien world. We called it Htrae.
"It is truly amazing just how much you look like them," Natasha said.
They looked ugly, Eric thought. They looked alien.
"Do you think them beautiful?" he asked.
"Very," she replied.
"Do you think I'm beautiful?"
"You are as beautiful as any of them."
As beautiful as any of them, Eric thought. Not saying much.
"They wear no clothing," Eric commented. "It makes them seem so primitive."
"Rather advanced, I'd say," Gary replied. "In our world, some think that beads and feathers make themselves more beautiful." Gary shot a glance at Natasha.
Natasha smiled ever so briefly.
"It does not," Gary finished.
"I think it can," Eric replied. "I like clothes."
"And accessories," Natasha added.
"Yes, and accessories." Eric was wearing his habitual hat, a knit watch cap, and large sunglasses.
The council members watched Yram on a video monitor.
"She likes the Earth music. See how she moves to it," one said.
Yram danced naked, on her toes, pirouetting, then swooping low, arms extended from her sides, her face a mobile picture of contentment.
"How did she learn it," the other asked.
"It was spontaneous behavior. Like speech."
"Have we encouraged it?"
"We are giving her all the Earth music we have."
"It seems primitive, but somehow engaging."
"When will we have replacements for Belinda and Mark?" the Director asked.
"They're in transit," the man on the video screen replied. "But you'll have to take them through orientation."
"Another week," said the Director. He changed the subject. "What have they said?"
"The same thing they told you, the same thing that's on video. Eric became belligerent, took insult to something Mark said, began choking him. When Belinda came to Mark's aid, Eric hit her."
"What did Mark say that upset Eric so much?" the Director asked.
"We still don't know and we know everything that was said."
"Where is your appetite?" the caregiver asked.
Yram lay on a pallet of velvet pillows, crimson against her pale skin. On a low ivory table, an uneaten meal.
"I'm sorry," Yram whispered.
"We have new music from Earth. Would you like to hear it?"
"If you wish." Without enthusiasm.
The precise tones of a harpsichord took up a fluid melody. Yram's hand and wrist responded with small, but graceful, motions.
"Everyone was wonderfully impressed with your dance," the caregiver coaxed.
Yram turned her head toward the video screen that bore the translated image of the caregiver, but said nothing.
"Do you think this music will inspire another performance?" the caregiver asked. "We are hoping that it will. It gives everyone so much pleasure."
"I'll see if I can get the feel of the music." Yram leaned back and closed her eyes.
Eric watched Natasha out of the corner of his eye. He watched her mouth. She had a thin, but well shaped upper lip and a full lower lip. Eric watched Natasha's lips. He watched them part slightly, watched them compress.
Eric put his hand to his own mouth. His lips were almost nonexistent. He thought his mouth ugly. He had seen pictures of men with moustaches that covered the mouth. Not the kind that rode above the upper lip, but flowed down to cover both.
He looked at Gary surreptitiously. Gary had lips. What did Natasha think of Gary's lips? Gary was clean-shaven, but Eric could see the dark whiskers seemingly just beneath the skin. Gary's shirt was open at the neck and a dark wisp of chest hair could be seen. Eric shifted his gaze back to Natasha. Was she looking at Gary and his chest hair?
After all, I am a hybrid, Eric thought. If only I could have inherited hair from my human component. But hair isn't in the cytoplasm and alien blood runs through me like shit through a sewer.
Natasha turned to her keyboard and punched up her messages.
Gary heard the click of the keys. He looked up and said, "How can something as ancient as a keyboard still be the best we can do?"
Natasha and Eric remained silent, Natasha reading her messages and Eric pretending to look at the pictures of Htrae while watching Natasha and Gary.
"I'm hungry," Gary said. "Let's eat."
"Can't," Natasha said, "Gotta message to meet with the Director. What do you think he wants?" Natasha looked at Gary and then at Eric.
"Somethin' he ain't gonna get," Gary said.
Gary and Natasha laughed.
Eric was silent.
"Go see what he wants. We'll wait for you." Gary looked at Eric.
"Sure," Eric said.
"Okay. If it looks like it's gonna go long, I'll give you a buzz."
Eric felt the sleeve of Natasha's blouse brush his arm as she squeezed by. He tingled from the sensation. He put his hand up to straighten his sunglasses and looked idly at his video screen.
She's not like Belinda, Eric thought. Eric had watched Belinda surrender herself to Mark. Belinda and Mark were in the cafeteria. Eric had been in the cafeteria restroom. He had fumbled opening the door on his way out. He held it open no more than a centimeter to re-adjust his grip on the handle. He could see Belinda and Mark standing a meter apart, their eyes locked upon one another. Eric could feel the tension in the air and he froze with it. In two slow steps, Mark stood pressed against Belinda. She looked up at him. Her lips parted. Mark put his hands on her waist and kissed her. Belinda pressed her hips into him and arched her back, kissing Mark, with her hands still hanging loosely at her sides. Eric had let the door close and had leaned his head against it.
He brought up a mental image of Belinda, the one he kept fresh in his mind. Belinda, bending over and deliberately showing Eric her breasts. Now Belinda surrendering to Mark. Eric composed himself and opened the restroom door.
Belinda and Mark were seated diagonally across a table. 'Hey Eric,' Mark had said. They both smiled at him as though nothing had happened.
"Natasha, please come in." The Director rose from behind a glass table with its video screen and keyboard. He walked from behind his desk and motioned for Natasha to sit in one of the two plush chairs that sat opposite one another across a low table.
"Coffee?" he asked.
"No, thank you. We're going to lunch when I return."
The director studied her for a moment.
Natasha crossed her legs.
The Director cleared his throat and crossed his own legs. "How are things going with Eric?"
"He was initially very tense. He has loosened up a little."
"What do you think?"
"I think he likes girls better than he does boys."
"Do you think he saw them?" The Director was trying to drag Natasha to the object of his inquiry.
"Did video show him watching them?"
"No," the director replied. "He was in the restroom. We don't have cameras there." The Director sat with his elbows on the armrests, hands together fingertips to fingertips. "Do you think we were wrong to have Belinda...." The Director searched for the proper words and didn't find them.
"It was one way to find out."
The Director nodded. "We're going to make some changes."
Natasha waited for it.
"We have four new technicians coming in day after tomorrow."
"Four?" Natasha had expected only replacements for Belinda and Mark.
"We're going to try an all male team. No females, no jealousies. What do you think?"
"It's worth a try." Natasha smiled. "I'll miss the little guy. And me?"
"You'll be staying. We're going to put you on the monitor screens. You know him as well as anyone we have. If things start to go wrong, we may need you."
"Yram?" the caregiver asked.
Yram lay on her pallet of crimson pillows pretending to be asleep.
"Yram, please. We need your help."
Yram dropped her pretense of sleep, stretched, and said, "All right."
"Have you exercised yet today?"
"Make sure that you do. It will keep you healthy in both body and spirit."
"Is that what you've come to tell me? I thought you needed my help for something."
"We do. We need you to look at some faces and tell us a story about each one?"
"Whatever for?" Yram asked.
"It will tell us something more about human perceptions and emotions."
The first picture to flash upon the video screen was a young woman. Her lips were compressed and her eyes were downcast. She was pulling a scarf from her hair.
"She is disappointed," Yram said.
"Why?" the caregiver asked.
"Her lover had promised to meet her and she had been anticipating it all afternoon. She had just gotten dressed to meet him and now he has called to tell her that he cannot. He has done this many times. You can see it in her face."
Several more faces follow and with them several more stories. Then a picture of a baby, perhaps two years old, running in short grass, arms outstretched, an open mouth with a smile, eyes wide, an expression of unadulterated joy.
Natasha had a message. 'Please see the Director'. Well, she thought, it would be a nice break from watching the all-male quartet and their engaging pastime of breaking wind and laughing hysterically. Eric was only fourteen and could be excused. She wasn't sure about the other three.
"Natasha." The Director rose from behind his desk. Natasha and the Director sat in the plush chairs. "So, how are things going?"
"They've established a typical male rapport. Eric has adjusted well; he seems more at ease. He even came in this morning without his hat. I think it's the first time I've ever seen him without that hat."
"He has made progress," the Director agreed. "In fact he's made so much progress that we're going to make another change."
Natasha waited for it.
"We're going to give him a girlfriend."
"Who's the lucky girl?" Natasha asked.
"Well, you see, we have another human-alien hybrid."
"There's another Eric?"
"More like Erica."
"What's her name?"
"Erica?" Natasha said in disbelief.
"Erica," the Director repeated. "It had an appealing symmetry to it."
"You can't just give someone a girlfriend."
"Call us matchmakers."
"Ever have a blind date?"
The Director considered this for a moment. "I take your point. We'll have to be subtle."
Subtle, Natasha thought.
Eric and Erica stared at one another. Eric wore his habitual watch cap and sunglasses. Erica wore a bright green wig and a very loose yellow shift.
"Let's go around the room and each introduce ourselves," Natasha suggested. "I'm Natasha." Natasha nudged Eric.
David, Leslie, William and Gina introduced themselves. The two women, Leslie and Gina, were new to Eric.
Erica looked at Gary and said, "I'm Erica."
"Well," Natasha said, "Let's get to work."
The workstations were arranged in an octagonal configuration in the square room. Everyone sat with their back to everyone else. The seating assignments were computer generated. Eric sat between Gary and Natasha. On the opposite bank, Erica sat between David and Leslie. Gina and William occupied the remaining places.
Natasha and Gina began to discuss one of the images. They were looking at the interiors of living quarters. The images were devoid of the inhabitants. They studied and commented on the floor and wall coverings, the furniture, and various other objects.
Eric began to reply to Gina's comments. They began an enthusiastic discussion concerning what appeared to be some kind of glass or ceramic bowl. Gina asked Natasha to trade seats with Eric so they could discuss it side by side.
This choreography proceeded throughout the morning, through lunch in the cafeteria, and into the afternoon. Eric and Erica never sat next to each other, never spoke to one another, hardly looked at each other. At the end of the day, Gary and Eric stood outside the doors to their apartments.
"How many are there?" asked Eric.
Gary shrugged. "I don't know."
"Are she and I the same age?"
"Are she and I supposed to...?"
Gary leaned against the door of his apartment. "I don't know. I think that's up to you, both of you." Gary paused a moment. "What I think they really want? I think they want both of you to know that you are not alone. You know?"
Eric looked at Gary for a moment, and without a word, turned, and disappeared into his apartment.
Two council members sat in the otherwise empty council chamber and watched as Yram listened to the harpsichord music.
"She moves gracefully," one said watching Yram's hand move to the music.
"Yes," replied the other.
The first council member scanned the video monitors showing Yram from various perspectives. "She has covered the easel with a cloth. Why does she try to hide it?"
"She says it is unfinished."
"Have you seen it?"
"Yes, it is a portrait."
"Of a human?"
"The body is representational, but the face is not. It's abstract."
"What does that mean?"
Natasha and the Director sat opposite each other in the plush chairs across the low table.
"They don't interact a great deal."
"Why do you think that is?" the Director asked.
"Erica is chasing Gary. She's not interested in Eric."
"Eric appears to have taken it all in stride. He gets along well with the men. He hasn't gone out of his way to get the attention of the women."
"He's not jealous of Gary?"
"No. Gary has been deliberately misinterpreting Erica's advances. He's gotten pretty good at it. He treats her no differently than any of the other females." Natasha paused a moment. "Eric seems more mature than Erica."
The four couples were in the cafeteria, eating their evening meal. Erica was seated across from Gary at the end of the table. Next to Gary was Natasha, then Eric, then Gina. Across from Gina was David, then Leslie, then William who sat next to Erica. An animated discussion was taking place concerning plans for a picnic.
"Won't it be cold this time of year?" Leslie asked.
"We'll have to pick a very bright, very sunny day. We'll draw back the sunshades and let it heat up," David replied. The roof of their building was glassed in.
"They have to keep it fairly warm or the grass would die." William offered this explanation around a slice of pizza.
Eric polished off the rest of his sparkling water and had risen to get another bottle.
Natasha looked at him and raised her own empty bottle.
Eric nodded to her.
Eric passed behind Gary on his way to the glass door of the cooler. He retrieved two bottles of sparkling water. As he turned to go back, he could see that Erica had placed her bare foot on Gary's and was looking at him intently.
Gary turned to William and asked for another slice of pizza. As he did so, he drew his foot out from under Erica's and placed both his feet well under his chair.
As Eric sat down, Erica abruptly rose and ran to the restroom.
There was a brief lull in the conversation that was quickly interrupted by Gina and William. The others joined in in a determined fashion. Gary ate pizza in silence.
Eric turned to Natasha and whispered that Gary had rejected another of Erica's advances.
Natasha turned to Gary.
Natasha turned to Eric and said, "She'll be all right. Let's give her a few minutes."
Everyone made an effort to keep the conversation going. Natasha looked at the clock. Ten minutes had passed.
"Should I go see if she's all right?" Gary asked.
"Perhaps it would be better if I went to see her," Eric suggested.
Gary looked at Natasha.
Eric rose and went to the restroom door. He knocked softly.
Erica knew from the voice that it was Eric. "What do you want?"
Eric opened the door a crack and whispered. "I saw what he did. I want to tell you something about them."
"It is only we that think we are ugly. They think we are beautiful."
Erica was silent.
Eric opened the door enough to stick his head in. "I felt like you once."
"How do you know how I feel?"
"They are forbidden to become involved with us, no matter their true desires."
Erica refused to look at him, but did not order him out.
Eric stepped in.
Yram stretched unconsciously as she slept on her crushed velvet pillows. Something pulled at her awareness; Yram began to feel herself slowly rise to consciousness. She could hear it now, a soft gurgling sound. Her inner being jelled in an instant, fully aware. She opened her eyes and sat up instantly.
Yram's attention was drawn immediately to a small arm and perfectly formed hand that protruded from a bundle of blankets nestled between pillows in the corner of her chamber. Presently, a little head rose from the bundle and looked about. She had sparse, fine brown hair that surrounded her head like an unruly halo. When she caught sight of Yram, her little blue eyes grew large and she sat perfectly still.
Yram smiled at her.
The little girl rose on unsteady legs. She wore only a cloth elaborately folded around her hips and groin.
Yram held out her arms. "Come over here, little one."
The little girl went down in the tangle of blankets at her feet and went down rather hard. She looked up at Yram, startled. She began to cry.
"Oh no, little one." Yram crossed the short distance and knelt beside the child. She reached out and picked her up. "Where does it hurt, baby?"
The little girl continued to cry.
Yram hugged her and began to hum as she rocked back and forth. When the little girl ceased to cry, Yram stood her in her lap and looked at her.
The little girl looked back at Yram. She reached up to touch Yram's face, Yram's long auburn hair.
Yram brushed her forefinger lightly across the tip of the little girl's nose and giggled.
The little girl giggled back.
"They've been in there a long time," Gary said to Natasha. "Maybe we should send someone in. Take a look."
Natasha was worried as well. "William, see if you can hear anything."
William rose and walked quietly to the restroom door. He lowered his head in concentration and listened intently. He turned to Natasha and shook his head.
Natasha nodded to him.
William knocked lightly. "Erica? Eric?" There was no response. William looked to Natasha again.
William slowly pushed the door open and stuck his head in. He withdrew it quickly and looked to Natasha. "Trouble!" He went in.
Natasha rose and moved quickly into the restroom behind William. When she arrived, she saw Eric sitting nonchalantly on the edge of the sink. William was kneeling down. Natasha moved closer and looked over William's shoulder.
William looked up and over his shoulder to Natasha. Erica was stretched out in front of William with blood pooled around her head. William was lightly pressing two fingers against her throat. "She's dead."
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