A Close Embrace
By John B. Rosenman
When Justin Underwood learned about the creature on Miro IV and what it could supposedly do, he booked passage on a company ship at once. Being the Director of Solar Plus Industries made such an impetuous decision possible, though the fabulous claims concerning an alien species five light-days from Earth were hard to believe.
Reports varied. Some claimed a single touch of the Epione would make one live forever. At the other extreme, contact with the creature would grant you an excellent night’s sleep. Underwood dismissed both claims. The first was frivolous; the second, trivial.
The reports in the middle were what intrigued him. Though he knew it was foolish, he resolved to check them out, just as he had other miracle cures, including radical psych and biochemical treatments. Despite everything he had tried, they had failed. After all these years, his secret defect remained unchanged, as intractable as ever.
As their destination swelled in the screens, Underwood felt hope swell in his chest as well. He knew he should think of all the lucrative markets that might be opened up if the reports were true but kept imagining himself healed and whole. He tried to quash his hope, remembering all the times his prayers had gone unanswered, sometimes in the cruelest of ways. Indeed, it had often seemed that God was mocking him and laughing at his disappointment.
Remembering the reports he’d read, Underwood felt his mood brighten. Apparently all you had to do was touch the creature from Miro IV to be changed. He could hardly wait to get there.
The three-week trip went smoothly and they docked with the Phoenix on schedule. Underwood and his assistant were immediately ushered into the station’s Command Center. Since he ran the company and controlled its five trillion-dollar assets, his arrival was a big deal. The captain and her officers stood ramrod straight and were spick-and-span.
It was the physicians, though, that Underwood wanted to see. So he ordered the captain to take him to the hospital where he was introduced to the two doctors in charge. After the captain left, Underwood cut to the chase.
“Tell me about this Epione,” he said. “I’ve heard amazing things about it.”
Dr. Swanson, the ranking physician, was a short woman who weighed at least three hundred pounds. Rolls of fat jiggled as she moved and she was clearly out of breath.
“Director Underwood,” she said, “have you read our reports?”
“Yes.” He glanced eagerly about. “Where is this creature? Do you keep it here?”
Dr. Martin, the second physician, rubbed his gloved hands. “Yes, we do, sir. We have it in back.”
Underwood nodded impatiently. “Well, what can you tell me about it? Can it really do what your reports say, make people . . . better?”
Dr. Swanson said, “Apparently it can, Director.”
“Well, how does it do this? How is it possible?”
The two physicians exchanged glances. “Please look around you, Director,” Dr. Swanson said. “This is a cramped facility, basically little more than an infirmary. Our station’s mission is to extract gold, platinum and other precious metals from Miro IV.” She spread her plump hands. “There is no xenologist on board who is trained to evaluate a member of an alien species. After extensive examination, we still don’t know how the Epione survives in this station’s air. We aren’t even sure of its gender, assuming it has one.”
Underwood was getting tired of the pair’s evasive answers. People seldom opposed him or offered resistance in any way. Yet for some reason, both physicians seemed reluctant to answer a simple question. He bit back a harsh rebuke, thinking it was better to get their cooperation voluntarily.
“I read in one of the reports that a mere ten minutes’ physical contact with the Epione stabilized the First Mate’s blood pressure.”
A small nod from Dr. Martin, who continued to rub his gloved hands.
“So it’s true?” Underwood pressed.
“Yes,” Martin said. “Ion Johnson was the first. After two months, his BP remains stable, approximately 110 over 70.”
“And Chang, one of your engineers, he interacted with the Epione and it cured his cancer.”
“Correct, Director,” Dr. Swanson said. “He was scheduled for surgery, but we discovered all traces of the malignancy had disappeared.” She hesitated. “And in only a few days.”
“I see.” Underwood swallowed. Now came the case that had really caught his attention, for it involved a mental condition. “And Jacobs, your Operations Officer. I understand that a brief, uh, encounter with the Epione cured her depression?”
The physicians exchanged glances again. “Yes, Director,” Dr. Martin said. “She had lost a child Earthside and struggled to cope emotionally. The Epione has changed that. She now accepts her loss and faces the future with joy.”
Dr. Swanson picked up a clamp and put it in a cabinet. “Director Underwood, do you know why we call this ‘creature’ an Epione?”
Underwood couldn’t recall. “Refresh my memory.”
“Epione was the ancient Greek goddess of healing. She soothed pain and distress, promoted well-being.”
“It’s a good name,” Underwood said. “Like you two, the alien is a doctor.”
“With significant differences,” Dr. Martin put in. “For one thing, it apparently can only cure one problem in each subject. Additional exposures to the Epione have no effect. And we can’t predict in advance what condition the Epione will cure.”
“I didn’t know that.” The news briefly troubled him. “As I recall, this Epione has cured six patients?”
“Nine,” Dr. Martin said. “In the three weeks since you left Earth, it cured three more.”
“That’s stunning! But what about you two?” Underwood pointed at the man’s gloved hands. “Dr. Martin, you keep rubbing your hands and wincing. What is it, arthritis?”
“Yes. A rare form, resistant to treatment.”
“My sympathies.” Underwood turned. “And you, Dr. Swanson, I notice that you’re . . .”
“Fat?” She gave him a tight smile.
“I don’t understand,” Underwood said. “Dr. Swanson, at your weight, you must be concerned about diabetes, heart trouble, and a stroke. And Dr. Martin, you have a painful form of arthritis. Why haven’t the two of you embraced the opportunity this Epione offers? You’re members of the crew also, aren’t you?”
Breathing heavily, Dr. Swanson went to an operating table. “Despite our discomfort, Dr. Martin and I both have religious, or perhaps more accurately, spiritual reasons to refuse treatment. After the ‘creature’ was discovered on the planet’s surface and transported here, we were troubled by the prospect of having an alien minister to humans in any way.”
“It’s something we feel,” Dr. Martin said. “It seems unnatural. Unfortunately, we’ve been under orders to provide access to the alien and supervise treatment. We’ve tried without success to convince the Captain that sooner or later something will go wrong, and we’ll have to pay a price.”
“But why? For God’s sake, why?” Underwood said. “It sounds like xenophobia or superstition to me. Look, the Epione’s treatment works, doesn’t it? All anyone has to do is ask the nine members of the crew who tried it. Ask Johnson if he wants his high blood pressure back, or Chang if he’d prefer to have cancer again. Or Jacobs if she’d like to be depressed as she was before about her dead child. Not to mention all the other members of the crew who were helped one way or another by your guest. So as I see it, it’s case closed. End of discussion.”
The two physicians were silent. Underwood stared at them, then erupted, “Hell’s freakin’ bells, this alien’s treatment works, doesn’t it? You even named it Epione, after the goddess of healing.”
“We didn’t name it,” Dr. Swanson said. “Julio Chavez, our Navigations Officer, named the alien after they lay together and it cured his sweet tooth.”
The somber duo actually smiled. Swanson said, “Julio wanted his migraines cured. Instead, it cured his addiction to candy.”
Another mental problem, Underwood thought, though not as severe as mine. “Dr. Swanson, did you say ‘they lay together’?”
“Yes,” she said. “The subject has to lie close with the Epione. I suppose you could call it . . . an embrace.”
“Embrace? The reports said the, uh, subject just had to touch it.”
“That was an error,” Dr. Swanson said.
Underwood stared at them. “There’s something I’ve been wondering about. Why wasn’t a holo included in the reports? What does the damned thing look like?”
No reply. Underwood gazed at the door to the back and went there. “Show me!” he ordered.
Swanson sighed. “If you insist.” She raised a keypad and pressed it.
The door slid open. After a moment, Underwood entered, finding himself in a small compartment. At first, he thought it was empty. Then he looked down.
“Oh, my God,” he said.
Underwood stood in the observation module, gazing down at Miro IV. The station orbited the planet at over eighteen thousand miles an hour, and he felt he could see every feature of the beautiful surface below.
Beautiful? You know intellectually it’s beautiful, but you can’t feel it. You can’t feel anything.
Footsteps. Quinn, his assistant, joined him. They stood for a moment, admiring the view.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” Underwood said. “It’s so green and blue, looks almost like Earth.”
“Appearances can be deceiving,” Quinn said. “What seems beautiful or desirable is often deadly. Most of the ‘grass’ you see is actually a parasitic plant. What’s more, the CO2 levels alone on this planet would kill you.”
Though Underwood had no friends, he had permitted Quinn to have a limited intimacy with him. “You don’t think my coming here was a good idea, do you?”
“I have my reservations,” Quinn said. He had a probing gaze that sometimes made Underwood uncomfortable. “Despite the good reports, I fear this Epione could be dangerous.”
Underwood scoffed. “You sound like the doctors here. How could this thing be dangerous? You think it will make me blind or give me an incurable disease? Kill me like this planet could?”
“I don’t know. It’s just that I don’t trust things that are too easy. Life isn’t like that, and the universe doesn’t give you free gifts.”
Underwood remembered Dr. Martin saying they couldn’t predict what condition the Epione would cure. It could be something as trivial as an infected hangnail. But he couldn’t believe that. The Epione had to cure what was most critical and glaring, the disease that had plagued him all his life.
He forced himself to laugh. “Nine crewmen have received those gifts, Quinn. Ask them how they feel.”
Quinn raised a finger and traced a complicated pattern on the window. “I hear this creature’s ugly. Is that true?”
Underwood swallowed, and his stomach twisted. “You have no idea.”
“And so far, they’ve found only one?”
“Yes. Do you find that disturbing as well?”
Quinn’s gaze searched his. It was almost as if the man could see right into his soul.
“Director,” Quinn said softly, “why did you come so far to see this monster? Does something trouble you?”
Underwood stiffened. Confidant or not, this man was getting too personal. “Thank you for your counsel, Quinn,” he said, “but I’ve decided to go through with the treatment anyway.”
A few hours later, Underwood entered the compartment and heard the door slide shut behind him. Following Dr. Swanson’s instructions, he lay naked at one end on the padded floor and waited for the Epione to come to him. Naked. They’d told him they’d learned only recently that the treatment would be most effective if the subject shed his clothes.
Swanson had assured him this would not be a sexual encounter, but it did seem to resemble it in some ways. Underwood trembled at the thought of his skin pressed against the repulsive white hide he had seen. He’d been told the Epione would remain behind the panel at the other end before coming to him. Was it hiding something?
He choked back a sob. Hiding something? He’d been hiding something all his life: The fact that there was nothing to hide, that where other men and women could love and feel, in him there was only a void. For as long as he could remember, he had felt different and apart from others. Where they all shared a bond and common code, he struggled even to understand their emotions and had to mimic them. Eventually, he’d directed his pain and frustration into forging a business empire and crushing those who stood in his way. If he couldn’t share people’s dreams and warm himself by their fires, he’d conquer them and make them bow before his will.
But if only it could be different! If only he could be like them!
The panel at the other end slid open.
His body tensed, and he felt sweat spring out over his whole body. Maybe sweat’s a good conductor, he thought with rising hysteria.
The Epione emerged and squirmed toward him, even more repulsive and slimy than when he’d seen it before. To Underwood, it resembled a giant white slug nearly as long as his body, only he saw now that some subtle quality of its color and contour heightened his terror. It raised its head slightly—if it was a head—and stared at him. Only it had no eyes, no nose to sniff his scent, nothing. Somehow, that made it far worse.
All too soon, the creature nudged his bare foot. He convulsed and pulled it back. Go away! Leave me alone! But he’d come all this way to receive salvation and knew this was his last chance. He forced himself to lie still and wait.
The Epione nudged his foot again then slowly worked its way up his body. To Underwood’s relief, it was odorless and did not feel slimy at all, nor was the experience in any way sexual. Instead, it was something more. Moment by moment, he felt a strange invasion as the Epione moved inside him. It reached deeper and deeper, learning his taste and absorbing his essence. Did it possess a mind or consciousness of any kind, or was this process strictly mechanical? He couldn’t say, for the exchange worked only one way. The Epione would know him while remaining a mystery in return.
The Epione swarmed over Underwood’s body and they mingled in a close embrace, becoming almost one flesh. He felt the alien caress him and tried to reciprocate, to give back. In response, it pulled away and he saw a giant eye appear just inches from his face. It was the most beautiful eye Underwood had ever seen, a deep, turquoise jewel in which he could clearly see his own tears.
Then the eye closed and Underwood’s world went dark.
When he awoke, the Epione was gone like a dream. In the days that followed, station personnel gave Underwood every test in the book, trying to determine how the alien had changed him. In the end, they found nothing, not even a healed hangnail.
Underwood himself felt only despair. Since he’d awoken, he’d known the treatment had failed and he was still empty of emotion. He was the first and perhaps the last of the Epione’s failures. Whatever the crewmen had possessed he would forever lack.
Before he left on his return journey, Dr. Swanson and Dr. Martin both expressed their sympathy and hugged him. After Underwood left, they embraced each other.
Three days later, Dr. Swanson entered the hospital and stopped before her colleague. “That’s odd,” she said happily. “According to the scales, I’ve lost twenty-five pounds.” She turned around, showing off her body. “See how loose my uniform is?”
Martin rose and walked around her, whistling in approval. “Amazing! You look like a beauty queen.”
She laughed. “Hardly, but I feel so much better. My blood pressure’s lower, and I’m not short of breath all the time.” She pointed at him. “Hey, Jeff, I’ve just noticed you’re not wearing your gloves anymore. What’s up with that?”
Martin looked at his hands and rubbed the one Underwood had shaken before leaving. “It’s the oddest thing, Beth. For some reason, they don’t hurt anymore.”
“How strange,” she said. “We didn’t even have to lie down with the Epione to get better. What could have possibly caused it?” She frowned. “Poor Mr. Underwood. The Epione didn’t seem to help him at all. I wonder why.”
“Good question,” Martin replied. “The Epione has helped two crew members since Underwood left, so it hasn’t lost its powers. I wonder why it couldn’t help him.” He thought for a moment. “Perhaps there was something different about Underwood to begin with, so he was affected in a different way. A way we will never know.”
About the Author:
John was an English professor at Norfolk State University where he designed and taught a course in how to write Science fiction and Fantasy. He is a former Chairman of the Board of the Horror Writers Association and has published 250 stories in places such as Weird Tales, Whitley Strieber’s Aliens, Fangoria, Galaxy, Endless Apocalypse, The Age of Wonders, and the Hot Blood erotic horror series. John has published two dozen books, including SF action-adventure novels such as Beyond Those Distant Stars, Speaker of the Shakk, A Senseless Act of Beauty, Alien Dreams, and the Inspector of the Cross series (Crossroad Press). He has also published a four-book box set, The Amazing Worlds of John B. Rosenman (MuseItUp Publishing). In addition, he has published two mainstream novels, The Best Laugh Last (McPherson & Company) and the Young Adult The Merry-Go-Round Man (Crossroad Press). Recently, he completed two science-fiction novels, Dreamfarer and Go East, Young Man that are the start of a new Dreamfarer series. They will be published by Crossroad Press.