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Frog Water

Tony Daniel

Here’s a tale with a number of twists, with an alien who didn’t think she was evil or malevolent, though her preteen prisoner had a different take on the matter. And maybe the alien shouldn’t have assumed that kidnapping an adolescent girl was the best and easiest way to bring a specimen back to her home system. Too bad the alien wasn’t familiar with human fairytales, and what happened to evil stepmothers in them . . .

Tony Daniel is the author of five science fiction books, the latest of which is Guardian of Night, as well as an award-winning short story collection, the Robot’s Twilight Companion. He also collaborated with David Drake on the novel The Heretic, and its forthcoming sequel, The Savior, new novels in the popular military science fiction series, The General. His story “Life on the Moon,” was a Hugo finalist and also won the Asimov’s Reader’s Choice Award. Daniel’s short fiction has been much anthologized and has been collected in multiple year’s best anthologies. Daniel has also co-written screen plays for SyFy Channel horror movies, and during the early 2000s was the writer and director of numerous audio dramas for critically-acclaimed SCIFICOM’s Seeing Ear theater. Born in Alabama, Daniel has lived in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Seattle, Prague, and New York City. He is now an editor at Baen Books and lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina with his wife and two children.


Tony Daniel

The ship soothed my legs with the slop wands. Aleria had ordered it to do so. She thought I was upset about the blisters on my thighs and shins, but the truth was that I was used to those now. I let her keep thinking that was what it was, though. This was something I’d learned to do back home, even though maybe I didn’t know I’d learned it at the time: you know, act like something bad that happened is much worse than it actually is until you can figure out your next move.

The wands were wet and gooey. I was holding onto a wall strap and stuck my legs out floating in front of me so the ship could get to them easily. Living in the ship was like living inside a kind of cave, only the stalactites and stalagmites could grow out of the ship wall instantly, and they could be long and thin, or thick and bumpy. They would also be hollow, like a hose. They delivered all kinds of stuff, from fluid to the goo on the slop wands, to the gray stuff I sucked out of one of them that Aleria called food. It must be something close, because it had kept me alive and kicking for over a year.

Anyway, the slop wands were a little different. They were more like sea anemones with swirling little tentaclely brushes. They were coated with this combination of nutrient and lubricating solution for the mechs in my skin.

The goo was kind of rancid to tell the truth. It smelled like that time Dustin found the frog eggs when he was playing at the creek by my old house, and he brought this big mass of eggs home and put them in a bottle of water—one of those plastic bottles that used to be at the grocery stores and they came in a case of twelve or twenty or however many and they were wrapped in that clear wrap like a little squeaky pod. We always got Something Springs Water, something like that. I’d forgotten the brand name. It wasn’t something I ever thought I’d want to remember, you know?

I used to really like to poke my fingers in the plastic wrap of those cases, because it would give a lot without breaking and make these kind of dorky dimples that looked funny, before finally it would break. Da yelled at me for wasting my time doing it once.

“But it feels good, Da,” I would say, and he would smile and say, “Yeah, sweetiepie, I guess it does, at that.” And we poked a couple in together.

So Dustin leaves the frog eggs on that little side cart thing by the kitchen table and one day about a week later Mom comes in from gardening and she’s all thirsty and what does she do? She looks around, and sees a half-full water bottle and reaches for it and takes a swig.

And there I am sitting at the table, eating some microwave shrimp dinner or something, and I’m in a hurry because I have to go to a soccer game.

Mom turns to tell me probably to hurry up or we’ll be late.

She realizes her mouth is full of water.

Then she realizes what’s in that water.


Week-old frog egg water all over the side of my face, in my hair, on my jersey sleeve, in the macaroni and shrimp. And there’s even some of it on the fork that’s just going into my mouth. Frog water—and into my mouth before I can stop it.


I spit out the frog water shrimp and macaroni on the plate. Meanwhile, Mom runs over to the sink and gags, trying to throw up, but she can’t get herself to.

And I, I remember, I went over there too, and I couldn’t help it, and I shouldn’t have done what I did next, because I was just as grossed out as she was, but I couldn’t help it. I laughed.

And she turned and looked at me so hurt, that I would laugh at her at a time like that. She didn’t say anything, but I’ll never forget that look she gave me.

And I felt really bad and started to cry, “Sorry, Mommy. Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Because I still called her that sometimes back then, “Mommy.”

And then Mom smiled. Everything was all right.

Except that she went ahead and threw up right then and there into the sink, of course. After all, she’d drunk a huge swallow of frog egg water.

I was ten at the time. It was not long before that night with the glowing light, and the bad dream, and the next thing I know I woke up in the crèche, and then there was Aleria hunched over me, staring at me with those eye stalks of hers.

But back to the frog water: the smell of it hit us both. It was on me, and it was rancid. And we both started to gag and laugh, and Mom helped me clean up real quick, and she brushed her teeth and gargled with some old mouthwash she found under the bathroom cabinet, Tangerine or Listerane or something, I can’t remember, and we made it to the soccer game just in time. But I had to keep the same jersey on since I only had the one, and I smelled that gag-me frog water smell the whole time and it made me so mad I scored a goal and took another girl out with a slide tackle when I was on defense and got yellow-carded and almost thrown out. Anyway, we won that time, and all the other girls jumped on me, and high-fived me for playing so good. And I forgot all about the frog water after that. Until now.

The slop wand goo had been in storage probably for years, and, like everything else on Aleria’s ship, was kind of stale smelling or tasting.

I dried myself off with a towel that came out of another maker-bump from the ship wall. You have to dry yourself off in zero g. Any liquid that’s water-based will stick to you like a layer of paste or cooking oil or something, and it won’t just run off, because there’s no “down” for it to run toward. I gave the wet towel to a disposal tube, which sucked it down.

“Space or recycle?” asked the ship.

“Recycle,” I answered.

There wasn’t any reason to throw the thing away, even though interstellar space was pretty empty and could use maybe a towel floating out there between stars to give it some character.

After Aleria had detached herself from my legs, she slid over to her resting globe. It was kind of like a chair for Aleria, and it floated in the exact middle of the bridge pod. It was held in place by magnets or some kind of forcefield thing like that, because if you tried to move the globe from the center, it would pop back into position. It had an opening on one side, so Aleria, who didn’t have any skeleton or exoskeleton at all, could slide into there like a, say, one of those sea slugs from the Science Channel, and bunch up in a ball. This was relaxing to Aleria’s type, the Meebs. I’d never met any others, but she’d had me watch plenty of videos.

“You’ll be meeting them soon, after all,” she said. “Your new brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. By the time we arrive, you’ll really be looking forward to it.”

So there she sat in the middle of the bridge pod. This was what I called the room, anyway. It was oval shaped, like an egg. There wasn’t really any floor or ceiling, just a wall, because this was zero g. The resting globe was clear and it looked like one of those terrariums I used to see in Pet Mart or whatever that place was called. I guess the globe ones were supposed to look cool. They sat on a stand and you put turtles or frogs or whatever air breathing stuff in them. Dustin and I only ever had gold fish.

Thinking about Dustin made me whimper a little. I guess it was pretty loud. I didn’t cry anymore, but I couldn’t help sometimes letting out something like that. I hated it when I did. I hated to let Aleria know anything about how I was really feeling. She was going to own my thoughts and feelings pretty soon, and I wanted to keep them for myself as long as I could before that happened.

“Honey, won’t you tell me what’s the matter?” said the voice from the ship’s speakers. This was Aleria talking. The regular ship voice was just a voice, maybe a woman, maybe a man. Gray, like everything else here. But Aleria’s voice was all honey-sweet. She kind of sounded like when Da would do the helium breath voice at my and Dustin’s birthday parties, but full of “oohs,” and “aahs,” and “dears” and “darlings.”

She didn’t have a real voice, of course. She was a blob, not a human. She talked to the ship the way her kind did—through chemical packets that she kind of flicked at the walls, where they were absorbed. I thought of them as booger-filled snot. The ship then translated the packets and spoke in the made-up voice it had for her.

“The nodes are hurting me inside,” I said. Which was true. The implants, which she’d put into me, were growing inside my muscles and would one day take over all of me, did hurt. This was an always and forever ache, and I didn’t let it affect me anymore. But it was a good excuse.

“I’m sorry, Megan, but one day the pain will be gone, I promise.”

“And I’ll be like you.”

“You’ll be part of me,” Aleria said. “I’ll hug you really tight, and we’ll be together forever.”

You’re not my mother, I thought. My mother is ten thousand light-years behind me.

I didn’t really care about what the change was doing to my body that much. Oh, I did a little. But one day my thoughts were not going to be my own. That was what I really hated, hated, hated.

One day, all my memories of Mom, Da, Dustin and the rest would belong to Aleria. And I knew what she’d do with them, all right. She was jealous. She would keep the knowledge, but wipe the love away. She wanted me all for herself.

“Darling, you’re so sweet, I need another sip of you,” Aleria said through the ship speaker. “Bring the conditioner over and bathe me, there’s a good girl.”

The ship wall made a faucet. That was the only way I could think to describe it. You squeezed the outside of the faucet like maybe you would milk a cow—even though I never milked a cow in my life, we lived in the suburbs—and this kind of gloppy sausage filling stuff would come out. It was some kind of enzyme that softened up Aleria’s membrane artificially so she could feed again without having to wait her normal period, which could be a couple of hours. I caught the glop in a balloon bag, then pinched the balloon closed, and slid the end from the faucet. There was another maker-cone thingie nearby, more or less permanent, for water. I put the lip of the balloon over this one and squeezed out some water to mix with the enzyme-glop inside the balloon.

When I took the balloon off the water maker-cone, a few drops of water escaped. Water drops didn’t just float off into space like you might think. They were still touching my hand, and water has this weird surface tension. In zero g it will stick to you. I remember when we had toast for breakfast and I would get some strawberry jelly on my hands and you couldn’t wipe it off with a napkin and even if you licked your fingers—gross!—that jelly-slimy feeling would still be there until you gave your hands a good washing.

Water does that in zero g. A thin coat will stick to you no matter how hard you shake your hand or whatever to get it off. The only way to get rid of it is to find something absorbent and let that soak it up. I wiped these water drops on the side of my pants. I wear these kind of gray pajama top and bottoms made out of some kind of thin material. I don’t know what they’re made of, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t one hundred percent cotton. They fit me okay, but I’ve been growing a lot lately and my wrists and ankles are starting to stick way out.

Anyway, I kept the balloon pinched off and then sloshed around the water and enzyme goop solution inside, mixing it. After a while, it started to make a solution with no lumps. That was the way Aleria liked it. Absolutely no lumps. I kicked off from the wall and floated over to Aleria’s globe. She was packed in there pretty good, but a couple of pseudopods were sticking out, drifting kind of lazily around. There was a holding strap attached to the globe especially for me, so I hooked in with a foot and kind of bent myself around the globe. I’d gotten really good at swimming in zero g. If there was zero g soccer, I was sure I’d be good enough to score goals.

I squeezed the conditioning solution into the top of the tank. It hung onto Aleria’s outer membrane the same way water clung to my skin. I spread it around. A little stream of snot-talk shot out from her and right by my face. I heard it splat, soft-like, into the ship wall.

“Wonderful,” said the wall speaker. “That’s it. Rub it in. Get me soft, dear.”

I remembered getting hugged by Mom. The hug I used the most was the big one she gave me when I was finally starting to get okay grades on my language art quizzes. I was kind of slow learning to read—I was still on second grade books when I was already in third grade—but then one day in fourth grade, it just seemed a lot easier. And Mom was this big reader—she always had a book around—and she wanted us to share that, liking books and all. We never really got a chance.

I used that hug a lot, though.

I spread on the rest of the conditioner. I reached into the tank and kind of kneaded her like a giant ball of Play-doh. She could squeeze up real tight, about the size of a basketball, when she wanted to.

“Careful, careful, child,” said the wall. “Not too much on the underside. I’ll turn blue.”

Aleria was kind of a clear color, but not see-through. She looked like gloppy Elmer’s glue if it had dark chunks floating around in it like Aleria’s organs and nodules and stuff did.

“Why will you turn blue, Aleria?” I asked,

“I do wish you’d call me Mother, as we discussed.”

“Why will you turn blue, Mother?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. “I never was much of a chemist. My specialty is scouting, as you know. But you humans and we Meebs do need oxygen in about the same amounts. That’s why I picked you out at the crèche, of course. You and I can share the same atmosphere.”

The crèche, I thought with a shudder. It was a collection station, staffed by Meeb robots. I only found that out later.

One day I went to sleep in my room. Mine was the one over the garage. It was farther from Mom and Da’s bedroom that Dustin’s was, but it was a little bigger than his. Mom and I painted it up with peace signs and flowers and stuff.

I dreamed about a bright light.

And when I woke up, I wasn’t in my room anymore. I was in a cage.

There were other people in there with me from all different parts of the world, like India and Australia and China and like that. Some were kids, some were adults. It was like this white room we couldn’t see the walls of, but we couldn’t get out of. I was the youngest.

What none of us knew what that we were in a Pet Mart. I mean, an alien Pet Mart.

I used to love going to Pet Mart. I really liked watching those cuddly looking chinchillas, and the cute little mice running around and around to nowhere in those wheels of theirs. I liked it when they grabbed the wheels and took a ride around and around for a few turns. It made you think that they weren’t completely stupid, and kind of knew what they were doing.

Or no. The crèche was not like the pet store. It was lots worse. Because I knew now what it meant to be picked out at the crèche. To be the one who gets selected by that floating glob outside the cage window.

Kind of like a pet store crossed with a grocery store. That was maybe the closest way of looking at it. Kind of, but not really.

The ones Aleria didn’t pick out of her trap got recycled, of course. Aleria was very big on a recycling.

I emptied the rest of the balloon then kicked over to the disposal. I stuck my hand into the blister orifice and let it suck away the used balloon skin. The reason the disposal blister didn’t suck me away was because of the mechs in my skin. They got pinged and identified me, my body, as “keep.” The disposal unit then asked the question it always asked.

“Space or recycle?”

“Recycle,” I answered.

And that was all there was to it. The blister didn’t care; it just needed the answer to follow its programming. The ship might be an artificial intelligence of some sort, but it sure wasn’t any kind of genius.

I pushed off and went back to Aleria. She was conditioned now. All her pseudopods were retracted which I knew meant she was waiting expectantly. It was time.

I stuck my hands into the globe, into the main opening, and stuck them into her, pushing into her gooey flesh. The outside of her dimpled for a ways, like the plastic wrap on those cases of water bottles did, then it gave away completely, and my hands and arms were within the milky glop that floated inside Aleria, that was Aleria.

A stream of her speech-mucus twisted past me. It hit the walls and got absorbed and translated.

“Aaah,” the wall speaker sighed. “That’s it. Deeper, deeper.”

I plunged in up to my shoulders. I felt the goo of her surround my arms. And then I felt the prickles where she broke the skin and where parts of her slid inside me.

She wasn’t just feeding on me, she was changing me. Changing me into more of her. One day, when the nodules she left inside me reached maturity, I would be “ripe,” and she would be able to absorb me completely. We would be one.

“My youth will be restored, darling, and your youth will last forever.”

She never told me exactly how the process worked. “I’m not a biologist, dear. I’m a scout,” was her only reply when I asked. But I knew a lot more about Meebs now that I’d been on the ship for a year and seen the videos. At least I thought it was a year I’d been here. I figured I was about the size of an eleven-year-old, even though there were no mirrors, and if there had been, I would have avoided them. I hadn’t seen myself in a long time. I was kind of afraid to look, afraid to see what the mechs had done to my face. My skin was as gray as my pajamas. But at least, with the mechs in it, it was kind of shiny.

I pushed into Aleria as deep as I could, because I knew if I didn’t, she would demand it of me anyway.

“Is that good, Mother?”

“You have no idea, dear. Replenishment is the greatest pleasure in life, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

Finally, after what seemed like hours and hours, but I knew was maybe thirty minutes—two Sponge Bob episodes, Da used to say, when I asked how long that was—a deep sigh came from the wall speakers.

“Perfect. That will be all dear,” Aleria said.

I pulled out my arms. They came out coated in her milky interior fluid. I had towels, the ship made them for me, but I knew not to rub my arms off just yet. My skin was blistered, and the skin mechs needed time to fix what they could of the damage before I went to dry myself. The mechs never really did a great job. I thought that, like a lot of the stuff on Aleria’s ship, they were kind of stale or something like that. I knew my arms would be red and hurt for at least a light cycle.

When I first got on the ship, I used to call a light cycle a day, but pretty soon I figured out that they were exactly the same length every time. The light came from everywhere in the ship, and then didn’t. Nearly ten Earth hours on. A little over four off. I asked once, and Aleria explained this was the Meeb active-rest cycle. And when the lights went off, it became so pitch black I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face in the ship’s bridge or the recreation room or the waste room, which was where both Aleria and I went to the bathroom. It got sort of sucked dry and cleaned after we left. This was done with mech crawlies that looked like baby spiders, maybe. They clumped together while you were going, then swarmed the place after you left and carried off whatever.

Anyway, there was one place where the faintest of light remained during lights-out. This was in the supply room. There were observation portals there. Each one was about as big as the windows used to be in my bedroom, but they were roundish, kind of egg-shaped. They were shaped to fit a Meeb optical stalk. There were four windows around the supply room, and I could always see the stars through them. We were traveling faster than light, but it was still slow enough so the stars didn’t look like they were moving. I usually slept floating near one of those portals. I pretended that I knew the one that was facing Earth, and I would look out and pretend I could see the sun, even if it was only a pinprick in the dark. I knew this wasn’t true, that I didn’t know which one was the sun, but I could sort of fake my way to sleep that way.

So I let the mech work, and then I patted my arms and hands dry with an absorption towel, and was careful not to take off too much of my tenderized skin. Even though I was going easy with the towel, it still felt like I was rubbing sandpaper against myself. The towels were the same gray color as my pajamas, by the way, and not pretty the way Mom’s always were, with flowers on them and stuff. Everything in the ship was gray like that, and even I was now.

This time when I dried off the milk, something felt different. My skin wasn’t just blistered; it was changing shape, too. It was kind of crunchy-lumpy. And it looked thinner. In fact, I touched it with a finger and it popped like a pear skin. Something oozed out, but it wasn’t red like blood. It was white and looked like puss.

I felt the swollen nodes under my chin, the nodes in my neck. They were big and as tight as little nuts, like pecans or those hard, dark brown ones you could barely break with the nutcracker. I never knew what those kinds of nuts were called, and now I didn’t have anyone to ask.

Aleria had said this would happen, that all my lymph nodes would swell up more and more. That would mean my body’s defenses were getting taken over, and would start to tag the biological elements she implanted in me as “friend” instead of “enemy.” That was what was happening, I supposed.

While I was drying off and feeling my nodes and all that, Aleria was babbling away, the way she often did after a replenishing. Talk, talk, talk. Snot flying everywhere. She got nostalgic, too—you know, talking about the old days and all that. She talked a lot about the Meeb home system. The Meebs didn’t live on planet surfaces, but in a bunch of big space stations spread around their star’s biological sweet spot. That’s where we were headed at the moment, to one of those habitats, even though the trip was going to take another Earth year. We were one year into it. Which was another reason I figured I was eleven.

I could tell that Aleria was particularly relaxed today. She had fed well. And I guess she could feel that my resistance was really starting to break down.

“The clan will be so happy to meet you, my darling daughter,” Aleria said. She was glowing white in the tank now, about to ooze her way out and back to her usual spot near the main ship interaction console. “And I think they’ll be very pleased with the bounty I bring them from this journey. Also for the information. We’ll get a fine reward.”

Here was something I hadn’t heard from her before.

“The information?” I asked. “I don’t understand, Mother. What do you mean?”

“The knowledge of where the system is, of course, and what to expect when they get there.”

“Get where?”

“The systems where the new children are to be found, dear,” she replied. The wall speakers made it sound like she was sleepy, dreamy, the way I felt when I was drifting off to sleep all safe and sound and tucked in. It had been a long way since I felt that way.

“Why would the clan want to go there?”

“Why, to protect your kind, dear,” she said. “To absorb and protect. That’s what parents are for.”

“They’ll take children?”

“It’s better that way,” she said. “Believe me, I’ve had to absorb a full grown adult before, and it was an unpleasant process for both of us. Integrating those kinds of ingrained memories is difficult. So much resentment and anger to deal with in adults of a species.”

“I guess so,” I said.

“Children are so much easier to handle,” she continued. “But not all species have children, you know. Juvenile and nymph forms, I mean. Only special ones. Like yours, my darling.”

And then it hit me. What she was. Her job. She’d told me over and over, but I hadn’t been listening, or it hadn’t, you know, registered.

She was a scout.

“Now darling, I need to get dried off and ready for my rest period,” Aleria said. “Come and wipe me down, there’s a dear.”

My jaw hurt. I had been grinding my teeth again.

“Yes, Mother dear,” I replied.

So I guess I was thinking about Dustin when I did it. I was thinking about the way she would send back more Meebs. I knew how many existed in the space stations of Aleria’s home system. I’d watched the videos. My troubles in third grade were behind me. I was a good student now. Anyway, it didn’t take a genius to do the math.

There were enough Meebs for every child on Earth, and then some.

Aleria was a scout. Scouts find the way. Then they go back and lead others on the same path. To the same destination.

A year to go, and then two years for a return trip. Those habitats were capable of faster than light travel. Imagine that: a whole city of a billion Meebs headed for Earth.

Dustin would be eleven when they arrived.

This would happen to him.

I floated over to the water maker-cone and planted my feet against the ship wall. I pulled on the end of the bump. The ship wall dimpled out at my touch. I pulled harder. The cone grew in length, became more a tube than a cone. It reeled out like a hose, flowing from the material of the wall itself. I needed it to be long enough to reach Aleria.

So I pulled it out farther and farther. I wrapped it around my elbow and a thumb, the way I’d seen Da roll up the extension cord for the leaf blower. The extension cord was orange. The hose was a light shade of gray. I missed colors.

When I had enough length, I pushed off. I let the water hose trail out behind me as I sailed across the room.

Aleria had flowed out of the globe and pushed off a way, like a couple of yard sticks away. She was beginning her after-feed stretch. I needed to catch her before she spread out to her full size. At the moment, she was about the size of one of those big rubbery exercise balls like Mom used to have. A Pilamies ball, or something like that.

Aleria extended a sensing stalk in time to notice what I was doing.

“Darling daughter, I said to bring a towel, not more water, now please—”

“Stop calling me that,” I said. My voice was sort of a growl and it surprised even me. I’d never made that mean a sound before. “I’m not your child, and you’re not my mother.”

I reached the end of my tether, the water tube. With a squeeze of my hands around the tube’s end—the end looked kind of a like the tip of an elephant trunk—I opened the spigot and let the water flow. There was back pressure behind it, and out the water came.

Water doesn’t flow in zero g the way it does in gravity. Even before Aleria took me, I knew about zero g. I had seen Youtube videos from space shuttles and the space station and stuff in science class at school. But the one thing I had never seen was what water does when it meets something floating in zero g.

It clings.

It jiggles like crazy, but it won’t come off.

You can’t shake it off. You can shake off a few droplets, but if there is enough of it, it isn’t going anywhere no matter what you do. Without something to absorb it and overcome that surface tension, water sticks like glue.

It sticks like frog egg glop does to frog eggs, the gunk that holds the eggs together in a big clump. All for one. One for all.

In the creek, or in some little kid’s water bottle.

Living or dead.

For a second, it seemed like Aleria thought I was trying to do something nice for her, something extra. She paused there, floating, out of the globe and maybe a yard or two away from it, but not completely expanded yet. She let me bathe her. And then I bathed the other side of her. I bathed her all over.

And I kept the spigot open. It’s pretty simple. You squeeze the orifice and it relaxes some kind of stopper on the end.

And when she tried to move, to ooze outward, the water went with her.

I squeezed the spigot open, and then the bubble of water around her expanded. She was inside it, like a milky-white pit. It was jiggling around her, but it wouldn’t come off.

I remembered those frog eggs.

Oh, she struggled. She twisted and turned. On her own, all the squirming would have gotten her to a wall, certainly. If she’d been by herself in the ship, she would have had a scare, but even her random motion would probably have saved her, allowed her to intersect with a hard surface, an extended piece of the bridge pod, anything. And then one of her pseudopods would have been able to find a footing, pull herself free from the coating of water.

But I was here now.

I was careful and alert, like the teachers always wanted us to be during carpool pickup. I circled Aleria with the water hose. I used pressure from the water tube hose for flying around fast, and the strap holds the ship had grown for me all around the wall for anchoring myself when I needed to. The moment Aleria looked like she was drifting close to a wall, I sent a stream of water toward her to push her away. I hadn’t spent a year in zero g for nothing; I had a feel for how to do this now.

I kept her away from the pod walls, all of them. I held her away from saving herself.

Inside the ball of water, I saw the shooting snot, the little chemical speaking packets, dart out into the liquid. But they couldn’t escape. The water tension held them in. Her words of command couldn’t get to the ship wall and receive activation.

Frog glop, I thought. Frog water.

I had to smile.

She couldn’t turn off the water.

She couldn’t tell the ship to save her.

She couldn’t even scream.

I watched her in that frog water. She turned from milky white to blue. And when she was blue, I saw something else she was doing. She was forming a picture on the surface of her membrane.

Not fair.

It was Mom. Her face. Frowning, the way she’d looked when I hurt her feelings. After she drank the frog water and was gagging over the kitchen sink and I was laughing at her.

Aleria had stolen enough of me to show me that.

But I’m eleven. I know real from fake.

I kept on laughing.

I mean, she was a blob in a quivery, jiggly coating of froggy, jumpy water. It was the water I was laughing at, the way it moved.

I kept on laughing while Aleria went from blue to green and from green to brown.

She stayed brown.

My laugh turned into a kind of a chuckle, then a wheezing kind of thing, and then it felt like it was going to turn into crying. I didn’t want that, so I stopped as quickly as I’d started and held it all in. After that, I stared at Aleria for a long, long time.

She drowned—suspended in a quivering coating of water, only a few meters from safety. A dead blob in frog water.

When I finally spoke, it was a whisper. “Is Aleria dead, ship?”

“Affirmative. Captain Aleria is dead.” The voice was neutral. No feeling. Gray. And it was a huge relief to hear after Aleria’s honey-sweet Mother voice. I could go with gray for now.

Of course I didn’t take the ship’s word for it, not entirely. Like I said, the ship wasn’t the brightest brain in the universe. No, I left Aleria floating there for another light cycle. When I woke up from a tired, restless sleep, she hadn’t wiggled free. Hadn’t somehow come back to life. There she hung.

Aleria was dead. I made double sure of it by expelling her remains via the disposal unit.

“Space or recycle?” asked the ship.

You can guess the answer I gave.

I ate. The stuff the ship fed me through a food maker-bump was gray and didn’t taste like much, but it kept me alive.

It was time to have a serious talk with the ship.

I went to the bridge. There were still lots of gobs of water hanging around. I hadn’t managed to suck the place dry yet. Floating around there felt a little like walking in that misty stuff when Da took us on the hike up to that overlook one time. I couldn’t remember the name of the place. Mount Overlook or something like that, but I knew that couldn’t be the right name. Who would call a mountain Mount Overlook? I wished, like I always wished, that I had been paying better attention.

That’s okay. I was just a kid, I thought.

And then I realized I wasn’t anymore. Not now.

So I was all ready to have an argument with ship, for it to be a struggle. The truth was I was expecting to have to figure out some way to sabotage the vessel if I had to. There was no way we were going to the Meeb system. I’d blow us up first.

“Ship,” I said. “We need to talk.”

And the ship answered in its neutral, gray tone with maybe the sweetest words I’ve ever heard.

“Yes, Captain Aleria, how may I serve you?”

“But ship, you know Aleria is dead. You said she was dead yourself.”

“Speaker mech signal identifies as Captain Aleria,” the ship replied. “Previous reading has been discarded.”

I sighed, and felt the tightness and a little bit of the scared-ness and terrified-ness leak out of me.

And then, I think I started to cry. And I let myself. Just a little. My face was already wet, with all that mist in the air. When I first woke up in the crèche trap and then when Aleria took me on board her ship, I had cried a lot. But then I stopped, and I hadn’t for a long, long time. Maybe this was because tears are hard to deal with in zero g. They kind of stick to your eyes when you don’t wipe them and make little globs. They don’t run down your face and they don’t go away. In zero g, you have to do something about tears or they’ll just, you know, stay.

“Do you have a fix on the system we recently visited, ship? The one with the crèche trap in orbit around the planet called Earth?”

“Yes, captain.”

“If we turned around and started immediately, do we have enough fuel and supplies to make it back there?”

“Yes, captain.”

Was this really what I wanted? I was more than half a Meeb, or the ship wouldn’t have recognized me as captain. I was afraid to have the ship make a mirror. I was afraid to look myself in the face. My skin was gray and glinted a little from the mech. What would the rest of me look like?

But I was still me. Still Megan. I was just—different, now.

And I had to make sure that the next time a Meeb scout showed up to steal a human child, she got met by some very angry very dangerous moms and dads.

I wiped my tears. Oh, whatever. I was gray. Okay, maybe I was half-human, half-Meeb. This was the way things were. I had to deal with it. I wasn’t a kid anymore. I was eleven. Practically a teenager.

“Take us to Earth, ship.”

Take me home.

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