By Sandy Parsons
The first time Irdl heard Joolie sing, his pollinators stiffened under their leathery sheath. He’d had to switch from his walking legs to his squatters to remain upright. She was oblivious as he fell in behind her. She sang a human song, logical enough, being a human. He recognized the words, even though she added extra syllables as if she’d sucked the words down her windpipe and divided them into their component parts before sending them back on achingly sweet vibrations formed from her full lips. As she sang, she plucked dry bits of moss from the grassy wall and disappeared around a corner.
He began to look for her after that. He’d catch sight of her hair first, because it rose above her. She carried a basket and a small set of silver tools, tweezers and scissors, and a scoop, and he soon realized that he was jealous of them, for they were caressed by her dark fingers. He did a little searching and discovered that her job was to maintain the moss that kept the station’s gas balance in check. He petitioned Pung to let him change his lunch hour so that he might better align his schedule with hers. She didn’t always sing as she clipped and tugged and sprayed the furry walls, but the damage had been done. Irdl was smitten.
He squeezed in behind her on a gyro-shuttle. The shuttle was full, so the usual rules about personal space could be forgiven a little. He let one of his overhanging appendages rest so that the tip floated amongst her crown of wiry ringlets. She turned around, more inquisitive than annoyed.
“Excuse me.” He intoned the words with as much human inflection as his mandibles allowed, and retracted the arm. She nodded as if mollified and started to turn back. He added, hastily, “Your dreadlocks are lovely.”
“I don’t have dreadlocks.”
“Pl- Please forgive me. What do you call them, then? I am unfamiliar.” He winced inwardly at playing the alien card, at least so soon. He usually waited until he got them back to his hammock.
“It’s just my hair.” She gave her mane a little shake, and the flesh of her arms and the swell of her breasts shook where they were not confined by her cleensoot. She must have seen something in his gaze, although he couldn’t be sure what, or even hope, but she said, “You can touch it if you want.”
He did. Gently, using just the graspers of the lower set of arms so as not to draw attention to the other passengers. He pulled one long ringlet, uncoiling it, feeling the strands slide apart and then together again until she placed her hand, the flesh surprisingly hot, over his arm and returned it to his side. She turned away from him then, but he saw that her cheeks bulged and her white teeth showed. A human smile, a good sign.
“I’m Irdl. I work in the Interspecies Research and Discovery Lab.”
“Joolie.” She faced the back of the passenger’s head in front of her, giving him no encouragement to continue the conversation. But then, after a moment, she added, “We must have similar schedules because I see you a lot.”
Irdl’s pump filaments fluttered.
“Maybe we could have lunch sometime. Do you eat?”
He had to physically keep his mandibles from chattering. “Yes. I do. Tomorrow? In the commons?”
She looked up at him over her shoulder. “You don’t eat people, do you?” He was glad that he’d taken that class in human interaction, or else he wouldn’t have been able to pick up on the idiomatic inflection known as teasing.
“I’m a vegetarian.”
Pung snapped a slide into the viewer as he ranted. “A human. Have you even tried it before?”
“Well. Yes. There was that older one, Freva. And Mae. We went out for six revolutions.”
“Mae was a human? I thought she was a construct of some sort.”
“Technically. But all the parts were based on human anatomy. We made it work. And Freva was very adventurous.” Irdl wiggled his tentacles.
“But,” Pung said, curling his proboscis in distaste, “they transpire, respire, expire, and inspire from every orifice on their body. They’re essentially squishy bags of chemical stench. I don’t see the appeal.”
“This coming from someone who poked a Middle Columncular serpent. I’m surprised she didn’t snap your pollinators off.”
Pung clicked his mandibles. “That was a wild time. But still, I plan on mating with my own species one day. You’ve been seeing this human female for weeks now. Where is it going?”
Irdl blew through his proboscis. He’d been thinking about that very same thing, lately. “I don’t know if I’ll ever take the procreation leap. I mean, do you really want to commit to that? Once you’re bonded, there’s no turning back. I’d rather love without consequences.”
“The idea of love is risk. That’s the beauty of our way. Once you’re bonded with a Qykhee female, it doesn’t matter how you feel. But if you keep messing around with these things,” he waved a slide of human cells at Irdl, “you’ll never meet a real female.”
Irdl batted the slide away with a lower appendage and flopped from the walkers to the squatters. He used his squatters to balance or paddle like everyone else, but he imagined they could also be formed into just the right shape for cupping Joolie’s ample buttocks. “What if the offspring reject you? Then it would matter a lot. Who would gnaw the bonding crust from your skin?”
Pung made a dismissive gesture with his downreaching arm. “The risks are overstated. The odds of getting rejected are probably not that high. I mean, it wouldn’t make sense if any substantial number of fathers died before the offspring were old enough for the gender epoch.”
“Then why do we produce so many offspring at once?”
To this, Pung had no answer, and so they worked on in silence until their shift was over.
Joolie’s singing greeted him when he opened the door to his apartment. For a second, he was surprised, the vibrations of her song going straight from his antennae to his pollinators without allowing his brain a chance to remind him that he’d given her his passcode. She was in the kitchen, her head cocked to the side as she removed a long stem from an arrangement of flowers. This was not dinner but her hobby, aesthetic placement of flora. When she sensed his presence, she turned her dark limpid eyes to him and stopped singing.
“Don’t stop. I love hearing you sing.”
“No. It’s silly, I do it for myself. I didn’t even realize…”
“Please.” He moved closer to her and settled on his squatters, looking up at her, and giving his full attention.
He stood back up, realizing that it was true. She was too self-conscious. He’d only heard her sing when she was unaware that anyone was listening. “Let me show you something. Close your eyes. Start singing — “
“What do I sing?”
“Anything. That song you were singing when I came in.”
She opened her mouth, but instead of producing music, she laughed. “I can’t. I can feel you watching me.”
“We’ll both close our eyes then. Now, go ahead.”
She slitted one eye open, to make sure he was being honest. He was, but the membranes were thin enough to allow him to see through them. She cleared her throat, and, leaning against the wall behind her, started to sing.
Irdl moved his head like a metronome, getting the feel of it. As she gained confidence, her voice became louder, more sure, and he gently, carefully so as not to startle her, raised up the serrated edges of his vestigial wings and slid them together, producing a complementary tone. It wasn’t exactly an instrumental sound, more like humming along. He half-expected her to stop. She almost did, her closed eyes scrunching tighter in a question, but then she smiled as she sang, and he opened his eyes, and she opened her eyes, and he rubbed his wingtips with more force, and she filled the room with her voice, and filled him with joy.
The song ended. He settled the wings flat against his back, and then, before the magic could be broken, moved to her and unfurled his proboscis, touching the tip of her ear. She didn’t move, but her eyes bored into him, and her mouth parted slightly as he slid along the outer curve of her ear, to the lobe, to the little indentation behind it, and down the sinews of her neck, feeling his way, aware of each tiny hair awakening the hot skin beneath his touch. He paused when he got to the cleft between her breasts.
Her voice was husky, breathless. “Why did you stop?”
“I don’t want to frighten you.”
“You don’t scare me.” She raised her hands and slipped them between the leg segments, around and underneath the wings, fingers seeking, reaching the tender place and pressing, and he was wild with desire, and how did she know to do that, and never mind because he was pressing against her too, all six appendages finding purchase and now her lips were on him, and he lifted her up, over his head and carried her to his hammock, careful to keep the pollinators, swollen and ready to burst, from breaking through their protective shell. He set her down gently and touched her, everywhere, sliding in and slipping, and she was hot, so hot, she was like fire, like fire in solid form.
She was fire that he could hold.
Later she made him eat the dinner she’d prepared, laughing that she would ‘fatten him up’ as her grandmother used to say. “I don’t have enough of you to hold onto.” He laughed too, and ate, although no matter how much he consumed, he was incapable of creating fat. His body did not know how. He watched her flesh jiggle with envy.
Joolie loved to sing, but she loved to dance even more. She took Irdl to a human club where the beat came from every angle and, after a while, from inside of him too. He got the hang of it, shaking his segments and contorting and cavorting, appendages akimbo. His motions were wild, unhinged by the tempo, while Joolie barely moved. And yet, with every pulse, she embodied the sound, making the music a part of her. Everyone watched them move together, and from every aspect of his vision, he thought it was with envy.
They met every day in the commons for lunch, arranging their schedules for the maximum amount of time together. They would touch sometimes, hand to appendage or back to front if they were lucky enough to find a crowded gyro-shuttle. Then he would feel her heat through her cleensoot and for the rest of the day Pung would have to remind him that the centrifuge had stopped, or that the latest samples were contaminated because he’d forgotten to wash his lunchtime lasciviousness off.
“I didn’t even touch her,” Irdl defended. “If the samples are ruined, it’s not because of me this time.”
Pung sighed. “You don’t have to touch them, and you, most of all, should know that. They give off bits of themselves constantly.”
“What do you mean, me most of all?” He thought he did know, though. He’d sensed that he carried the scent of Joolie with him, and the thought made him smile.
“Irdl, listen to me. We’re here, on this station, on borrowed time. If we don’t find out how that group of humans got cured from interacting with the Qykhee, we’ll lose our permit. We’ve got to learn more about their anatomy and their chemistry. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that they’ve forgotten why we’re here. Now is not the time for toggling.”
Irdl snapped his proboscis in small circular flicks. Toggling was what unmated males did when they couldn’t find a female to pollinate.
“You’re one to talk. I have a female.”
“But if you pollinate her, you’ll both die.”
He snapped a response before he’d even realized what he was saying. “You don’t know that.” As if realizing how stupid he sounded, he added, “I don’t need to pollinate her.”
“Oh, you’re happy to reabsorb your seed forever? Forever, Irdl?”
Irdl slapped the data sheet against the table and made for the door. “If I have to, I will. There’s more to life than making more life.” And he stormed out before hearing Pung’s response, because he didn’t want to hear what biology wouldn’t allow, but also because he hadn’t realized until that moment that he’d meant what he’d just said.
They developed a habit of touching in public that could be seen as harmless, and yet conveyed to the other the depth of their feelings. Joolie was pressing just the tip of a booted toe against Irdl’s leg joint, the place where pressure collected before springing. He was trying to act normal, but the sensation was driving him to distraction.
“Joolie, is that you?”
She jerked away, and the sudden absence of touch almost made him strike. He swallowed acid and waited for his eyes to refocus.
“Hello, Druitt.” Dusky rose darkened the cheeks of his beloved. “I thought you’d left the station.”
Irdl knew who Druitt was. He took a long look at Joolie’s previous lover. With those orange curls and speckled skin, he looked more like one of her beloved flowers than a human. But as his eyes followed the symmetry of their respective anatomy, an overwhelming surge of jealousy consumed him. So compatible! Those ins and outs and complex hands. How could he compete? His mandibles opened and closed in little spasms, until he realized that they were both staring at him, as if expecting an answer. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
Druitt showed his teeth, a human signal of positive feedback. “Joolie says you study the chemical compatibility between humans and Qykhee.” Then he added, as if to demonstrate that he knew what this meant, “Your poison, our cure?”
Irdl swallowed again, a self-conscious admission of his impulsiveness. Druitt didn’t seem to notice, his long whitish lashes fluttering above watery eyes like the plumes of a Qykhee female. “I study the common links between our cellular structures. Nothing definitive has been discovered.”
“Irdl likes music,” said Joolie, the words sounding more like a challenge than a statement. Irdl and Druitt turned to face her. “He likes me the way I am.”
“Ah, Joo, let’s not start on that again. I’ll never be sorry enough for you.”
“You’re sorry enough.”
Irdl observed the interaction with every possible facility, antenna cocked, eyes switching back and forth between heat and binocular vision, but he was still surprised at what came next. Their heat signatures flared and cooled, their vibrations tapered off, and their eyes locked. And then they both laughed. Irdl’s antenna wilted.
Druitt said, “Hey, I saw your dad on the transport. I didn’t know you guys were talking again.”
Joolie’s eyes darted to Irdl, and this expression he did understand. She said, “He’s my dad. We can’t avoid each other forever.”
Druitt stared at Irdl for a long thoughtful moment, opened his mouth as if he were going to say something, and then closed it again. “I’ll see you around.”
After he left, Joolie said, “I’ve been meaning to tell you about my dad. I mean, I was going to…” She tugged at the roots of her hair, a tic he associated with nervousness, “Do you even want to meet him?”
Irdl thought about all that he knew about human relations. The father represented a composite of threat and obligation. When he didn’t answer right away, she continued, “I mean, what are we doing here? Are we going to get married? What if I want to go back home? Would you be able to go? What about children?”
“Do you want to have children?” He thought of Druitt. He thought of the females, calling, and of the dark carbuncles of bonding.
“I don’t know. I’m just saying.” She sighed and looked over the atrium, as if the moss-lined walls could give her an answer. “I don’t know if I want to bother letting you meet my dad if we’re just messing around here. I want to know you’re with me.”
Irdl’s pump filaments flew about wildly. He felt a sudden lightness, as if the station’s gravity had just dropped away. He dropped to his squatters before her and held her face with his overhanging arms. “I’m with you. I don’t care about children. I want to hear you sing, I want to be what makes you sing. I don’t care about your father. Meet him or not, I’m with you as long as you’ll have me.”
Three weeks later, as he sat across from the old man, he’d started to wish he hadn’t been quite so eager to agree to the meeting. Her father had been badly burned a long time ago, but it wasn’t his scarred appearance that put Irdl off. It was something about the way he held himself, the way his paper cleensoot clung to his arms but bagged at the chest, as if he’d been mistaken for some other species by the issuer.
“Joolie, hurry up with that food, we’re starving in here,” said the father, shaking his mottled and knobby head at Irdl. “The girl doesn’t do anything fast.”
Irdl shifted under that gaze. His closed pouch shifted with him. His pollinators, in spite of the current situation, trembled with desire. He remembered her once, after making love, cradling the full sac, and asking why he was so careful about it.
“If my pollinators breach the sack without finding purchase in a Qykhee female, I will die, for only the bonded female’s response pheromones can keep me alive.”
“No, not forever. But for a very long time.” He decided not to mention the black crust that formed as a byproduct. He looked at her, ready to acknowledge her sympathy.
But she hadn’t given it. Instead, she’d laughed, and he’d never quite understood her amusement at what most Qykhee considered the end of their need for evolution.
The rustling of the father’s cleensoot brought him back to the present. “Joolie has taught me that life is better unrushed,” Irdl said, hoping that the words were a suitable response. Her father made a sound that was halfway between a grunt and an acknowledgment, so that Irdl felt comfortable enough to continue. “Her sector of the station has the highest rating for contaminant scrubbing. She really knows how to coax the best work from the moss.”
Joolie entered with a tray of cheese, crackers, and vegetables, which she set down between them. She gave Irdl a furtive glance before she took the seat next to him. Her eyes never met her father’s. The man hunched to the edge of his seat and leaned over the tray, legs splayed, and began to place food in his mouth, one handful after another. Irdl didn’t mind. He was looking at Joolie with his peripheral vision, remembering the way her dark eyes rolled back under their delicate fringed casings and the thin line of sweat that limned her upper lip.
“You use protection?”
The question was so unexpected and yet so close to his thoughts that Irdl very nearly sprayed acid. “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” he managed, vocalizing around a mouthful of liquid.
The father swallowed and waved one mottled stubby hand in Irdl’s direction. “You guys are covered in some kind of oil, right? Do you wear gloves, or what? Do I have to worry about my daughter getting sick?”
“No.” Irdl wanted to reach out, place an overhanging hand on the man’s head and press. “The Qykhee can touch humans with impunity.” He heard a soft snorting sound and, peeking with his left eye, saw Joolie stifling a laugh. “Our touch is not dangerous.”
“But you do touch her.”
The father of Joolie did not change his demeanor, or his inflection, he did not even stop eating in that slow purposeful manner. But Irdl felt a shift, as if a particle of energy had been removed from every molecule in the room. Even his beloved next to him seemed to have cooled. She did not look up, or even to Irdl, when he responded, reflecting the coolness, “Yes, I do,” and allowed a smaller, side appendage to touch her waist.
She stood up, and so did her father, and they leveled glances at each other’s torsos. Irdl shifted on his squatters and assigned an eye to each of them, while settling the overhanging arms in a position to defend Joolie should the need arise.
It didn’t. The father left with a promise, or threat, Irdl couldn’t tell which, to return soon. When the door shut behind him, Joolie fell into his arms. “I couldn’t deal with him again if you’re not here. Promise me you’re going to stick around.”
He promised, and he meant it. But fate was fickle, Irdl already knew that, so he wasn’t surprised when Pung told him at work the next morning that there had been a breakthrough down in the settlement, and Irdl was the only one available to go. He’d tried to get out of it and he’d spent the entire flight down reassuring Joolie, until the signal from her phone was so weak that he found her plaintive voice more static than words.
Resentment aside, when he stepped off the shuttle Joolie was forgotten as he saw the females, waving their plumes in bright arches, whispering the histories, so many of them that the gentle cacophony was detectable even from here. He wanted to run over to them, wanted to lie among the welcoming circles and let those feathery plumes caress him, forget the wide old world and the worlds beyond, curl up like the young ones, and listen to the stories.
A trill startled him from his reverie and he turned to see Olly waiting for him. Irdl had to swallow acid when he saw him. He’d known Olly all his life. They’d gone through their gender epoch together. “You’ve bonded,” Irdl said.
Olly smiled through the blackened knobs. “Research made you that observant, eh Irdl?” But the jibe was good-natured.
“Sorry, it’s just unexpected.” He winced at the weeping carbuncles around Olly’s eyes. “Does it hurt? Don’t your offspring keep that in check?”
“You’ve been up there too long,” Olly said, instead of answering. And then, as if to concede the point, he added, “No one prepares you for the long haul. The closer the offspring get to their gender epoch the less they care about dear ol’ dad. Really, it looks worse than it is. So my female tells me.”
The bonding crust didn’t allow peripheral vision, much less binocular independence. Irdl didn’t stare but one eye or the other kept drifting back to Olly’s stuck forward gaze, as if to taunt the other’s handicap. “Come on,” said Olly, “Let’s go out to the fields. It’s easier to show you what we’ve found.”
They climbed to the higher hills, where the unbonded females, who hadn’t grown roots yet, hung out. Olly and Irdl had to spend an entire day collecting a representative sample population. Finally, Olly set the last one down and she clung to her sisters, plumes, and tendrils aquiver. “Take a good look and tell me what you see.”
Irdl gave an I’ll-play-along wiggle of his antennae. “Females. Unbonded.”
“Come on. Look at that one. And that one there. Now look down there, in the field, at that clutch of bonded females. Compare.”
“These’re smaller. That one looks sick. That one is mottled. Cave rot? I didn’t know we’d brought it with us to the settlement.”
“You’re quick, Irdl. You can see it. Not the cave rot, but the difference. Now make the connection.”
Irdl pushed aside the compliment so that he could concentrate on what his friend wanted him to see. “Bonded females are healthier.” An understatement. Some of these unbonded girls looked close to death.
Olly opened his mandibles into a smile, causing the carbuncles to squeeze his eyes close. “They have a lot of signs of disease that the bonded ones don’t, yeah? How did we not notice that?”
Irdl wiggled his antennae again. “It isn’t exactly a breakthrough that bonded females are healthier. It only makes sense that a female needs to be healthy to care for the young ones. She can’t exactly get out and forage on her own.”
“No, no. You’re missing the point. He looked from the girls on the hill to the women by the lakeside, swinging his head in wide arcs, compensating for his limited vision. “What do you think gives them good health? Cures the cave rot, plume droop, and spotty stalk ooze? In fact, have you ever seen a mother with any of those afflictions?”
Irdl thought of the mothers, plumes, and tendrils spanning a glorious dance. “No. I guess not. So mating cures them?”
“You’re getting it.” Olly’s smile cracked off some crust, and Irdl had to look away. He was starting to wish his friend wasn’t so happy. “Put in the final piece.”
“Us. It must be us. When we impregnate them, we must give them something that ensures they are healthy enough to care for their offspring.”
“Are the humans going to love that, or what?”
Irdl reeled from the knowledge. All this time, they’d been studying the saliva, when really it was his…he rubbed his pouch with his flaccid pollinators tucked inside. “Have we isolated the compounds that do it?”
“Whoa, buddy. Chemistry is for you young minds up there. We’re just the breeding stock.” But he looked a little smug as he said it.
They scattered the females and walked down to the lakeside together. Stars were starting to come out, and the tufts of the mothers cast elegant shadows on the silvery water. “You know, I always assumed we chose the females that were healthy to bond with.”
“It makes sense until you remember that we really don’t do the choosing.”
Irdl laughed, and so did Olly, and Irdl was glad that the darkening sky kept him from seeing his friend’s face. They moved through circles of murmuring mothers, hearing the tales of Qykhee, great and low. A momentary sadness enveloped him, and he wondered what story they would tell of him, if any.
A mother nearby unfurled a tendril and stroked his face, as if she could sense his sadness. He turned and pressed his pouch against her, and the pollinators sprang to attention, as if they too, knew. It would be so easy. It was made to be easy. Right here, right now, and he’d be forever bound to this spot, this female. Since she had already mated he’d be a secondary, but that had advantages too. The mother’s whispers floated on the breeze, eternally telling the history, with an undercurrent of reassurance. It’s all right, all right. Right.
An image of Joolie came to him then, and his pump filaments stirred stronger than any wind upon any lake. He loved her. He loved her more than anything, and he’d keep his pollinators sheathed forever. He peeled the purring female from him and stroked her lovely plumes for a moment, and she gave him a reciprocal caress. As he left, he heard her beginning to chant of him, adding this moment to the history of all Qykhee. But a final resolution kept him from caring. His only thought was returning to Joolie.
Finally, the last bits of data were collected. Irdl tried not to think too hard at the fragility of the cargo and its painstakingly difficult collection process. For each donor had risked his life, agreeing to forgo the entirety of his coupling so that a few remaining drops might be collected in the thin tubes for study. He left Olly in the same spot he had met him, waving his knobby discolored arms in furious hopeful waves. Irdl felt a swell of emotion as he looked out the window at his friend, and now that he was leaving he realized he’d grown accustomed to the other’s crusty appearance. But no sooner than they’d been freed from the planet’s gravity Irdl began checking his messages. He wouldn’t be able to talk to Joolie for hours yet, but if she’d left him a message he could hear her voice, and in the void that her absence had left, it would be enough. He clicked, saw a message from a name he recognized but couldn’t place. A female. Ah, he had it. A coworker of Joolie’s. Often seen at the dance club. He listened. The voice was static-y and inflected with stress hormones.
“Irdl, where are you? Joolie’s sick. Or dead. I mean she will be soon. They said her condition… irreversible? She… talk, a little. ..asking for you… come back …?”
He didn’t quite believe it until he opened the message from Pung, coldhearted and to the point. Irdl’s pump filaments felt like ice.
He left everything, all the data, the delicate vials, all his personal items, and sped to the infirmary. He had never been there before, and its sharp smell added to his panic. He grabbed someone, shouted Joolie’s name, and another until an irritated doctor threatened to expel him if he didn’t calm down.
“Please, I need to see her.”
“Okay. No family has come. She might as well have someone there at the end. Even if it is…”
“What about her father?”
Irdl followed the woman, close enough that his overhanging arms kept dipping into her field of vision.
She waved her ineffective hands at them. “It’s been declared an accidental exposure.”
Irdl knew that Joolie didn’t work with anything dangerous enough to kill her unless she ingested it on purpose, but he would deal with that later.
The doctor stopped in front of a door and turned to face him. “Okay, you can go in. Can I trust you to act according to our rules?”
Irdl didn’t have time for bureaucracy. He dipped the overhanging arms and moved the woman out of his way, closing the door on her protests.
He allowed all of his senses to adjust to the dimness of the room. Joolie was on a narrow metal table. She had no IVs or monitors, a telling sign that they’d given up hope. Bloodied blisters and abrasions had formed around her nose and mouth where the emetic had failed to remove the poison from her body. He bent down and placed an antenna beneath her nose, at the little divot above her lip. Her breath came at faint and erratic intervals.
“Joolie,” he said, “I’m here.” He didn’t know what else to say. He stroked her hair, tugging at a tangle. He moved so that he could hold her with all his appendages and he stayed like that for a while, his mind blank. He could feel her cooling.
The heat of her filtered through his fingers.
He stood then, and walked to the drawers where equipment was kept, his movements purposeful and directed, until he found what he was looking for. He carried the items back to her and climbed up, settling on top of her so that he could maintain the best vantage.
He tilted her head back, ever so slightly, and felt along her throat for the ridges that would serve as his landmark. Once finding them, he doused her neck and his hands with antiseptic, then, quickly, he pressed the sharp edge of the knife through flesh and cartilage. With no intravenous access and no one to help, the lungs were the only way he could get into her circulation.
He turned the knife upon himself. He didn’t bother with the antiseptic this time but sliced vertically through his sheath, surprised at the need for so much pressure, and unsure, just for a second, if he could endure the pain. A part of his mind wondered that it should be so hard, when this barrier was meant to be breached. After all, every bonded male of his species had done it, and no one had ever mentioned pain. But the answer came, too, amid the wetness and pulses of agony, in the whispered voices of the female Qykhee. The sheath was made to be pierced from the other side.
He stopped thinking then, and reached inside to get the pollinators pointed upward. They were each uncooperative in their own way, damp flimsy spears that curled cowardly down. He’d have to milk each one separately. Finally, he got one to straighten, and managed to produce a single drop, which he placed on the tip of his proboscis. He used his smaller hand to part the opening he’d made in her throat, and with a motion exquisitely gentle he slipped the tip inside and provided a single long exhalation. Her chest rose higher with his effort, and he imagined his life force entering her, wending its way through her lungs, her capillaries, into her circulation and into her, giving her life as he felt his slipping away.
He repeated the process with the rest of the pollinators, growing weaker with each successive attempt. His overhanging arms had become too weak, and he let them droop, so that they wilted onto Joolie’s chest in limp coils. He noticed, with less shock than he’d expected, that dark splotches had already started to appear on his skin. He pulled the other limbs up, so that they could touch Joolie, too. He turned his eyes so that both of them could look upon her face, and he was heartened to see that she appeared less ashen, and with a single last effort, he applied a thin seam of medical glue to seal the wound he had made on her throat.
He heard the sounds of the world around him, generators, voices, the hum of life. He thought of the samples he’d brought back, and of Pung, and Olly, and all the males who had the power to give life and save life. A million voices cried out to him, singing his history and the future of the Qykhee and the humans. And then none of it mattered, and all that he hoped was that if Joolie were to open her eyes she would recognize what she saw beside her was the body of a bonded male.