“You can’t go, Kate,” David said, instinctively reaching for my hand. I pulled away. He always wanted more, but we were sent to this planet to research, not to distract ourselves with meaningless romance.
In close quarters on our ship, people tended to couple. Biologically it made sense. Suddenly the man you found repulsive is almost lovely in the right light. Almost like a hallucination.
“They’ve invited me,” I said.
David looked nervously at the door of my quarters. One of the indigenous people of this planet stood beyond it, waiting for me.
“You don’t know what they’ll do.”
“This is my chance to finally learn the inner workings of their culture and religion.”
“We should have left this planet when we had the chance,” he grumbled, knowing that he couldn’t sway me.
“Not when we’ve come so far,” I insisted. I stood and moved to the other side of the table, putting some space between David and me. “I’m going. This might be our only chance. I’ve been waiting months.”
He stood and didn’t look at me as he stormed past, throwing the door open and nearly bumping into the creature that stood outside.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the creature. “He’ll be fine. Just give it time,” I looked into its face. I never knew whether to call it a creature or a person. It was humanoid in that it was bipedal and had two arms, but that was where the resemblance stopped. Its mouth was sewn shut, its eyes grown over from being poked out, its ears missing and scarred, flat tissue where its nose should be.
“Shall we go?” I asked it. It looked at me blindly.
“No need to speak aloud. I can hear it in your mind,” it said to me, pressing in on my thoughts. It didn’t emit a single sound.
“How can you tell I’m speaking?”
“I see it in your mind, Kate. It’s all there for us to see.”
“I feel better if I’m saying it out loud I guess. You know, you always talk about this “us” even though I’ve only ever seen you.”
“I’m sure in time you’ll learn to speak like us.” The creature disregarded my last comment.
I tried not to dig too much into the meaning of it. Thinking about it only seemed to provoke the creature.
The creature turned to leave, intending that I follow. The body looked like it may have been human once, but it was emaciated with wrinkly, sagging, ashen skin. It dropped its hands by its sides, gliding gracefully as it walked as if it could see. The hands looked like they had once suffered third-degree burns, and now it was only scar tissue like the rest of its body.
I didn’t know what the rest of them looked like, the mysterious “us”. I’d only seen this single creature, our communications stretching out sporadically over the course of the few months we’d been on this planet.
I pitied it for whatever misfortune had given him such a body. I didn’t know of any war that was waged here. My communications so far with it had indicated their race to be quite peaceful.
This would be the first time anyone on our crew would be admitted into their city. It was said to be a city of great riches, and this, of course, appealed to my superiors hoping to exploit it. But I wanted to understand them.
As the creature walked, I thought of how it almost looked feminine. The form had no breasts and no genitals. Only scar tissue as if they’d once been there. This was the first time I’d watched the creature move, comfortable in its skin outside the confines of our ship. I began to feel more that, despite no differentiation of gender that I could see, the creature was a she.
She wore beads around her neck, wrists, head, and hips, hanging where her genitals should have been. They were a very holy and religious people. She often spoke of the Great Mother, but not much about their worship rituals. They were sacred, she said.
I’d always asked her if she had a name. She told me she has no name, and the name of her people is sacred. She feared that if someone outside of their race knew what they were called, those people would have great power over her kind.
“We are the Aisling,” came her voice in my mind. “And now, you too can become Aisling.”
“Is Aisling your religion or your race?” I could almost hear her struggling with those words that were unfamiliar to her culture. Our language translated via the telepathic communication, but it didn’t always give the right meaning.
“It is both. Our faith and our existence are not separate like they are for you. We do not choose. We simply know what is right.”
I followed her, and we said nothing further on our journey, though I felt like her presence was always lurking in my mind.
Like a homing pigeon, she knew her way back to the city. I hoped today that I would finally learn how she did this. Maybe they all had innate direction this precise.
The city came into view as we crested the hill. It was like a paradise. While the rest of the planet so far had been mostly rock and desert, they lived in the oasis.
Structures surrounded the oasis, windowless and made of a material that almost looked golden. Gems were set into the walls, ones that I’d never seen before and our crews had not yet excavated such treasures.
Lush tress twisted from the ground in heavenly spirals, plumes of golden leaves sprouting from the branches. Everything looked meticulously kept, like a shrine.
As we grew closer, I could see how the roofs of the structures were squared off at the top, then flared out similar to a Japanese pagoda on Earth.
I stumbled slightly on the rocky terrain and cringed a bit as the Aisling walked barefoot with her thick-skinned feet.
I’d gotten fairly used to her appearance, but I always sickened a little at the thought of her tolerance for pain.
When we arrived, no one came to greet us. They were all waiting at the temple, she said. They were waiting for me to become Aisling.
“What do I have to do? And why did you choose me?”
“One is not chosen to be Aisling. You are always Aisling. We simply wait for the right time. Today is our annual ceremony where those who have come of age become Aisling.”
“Are they not always Aisling if they are not one of you? How do they come of age? I mean, how do you reproduce to have young ones?”
“The Aisling are sterile. The Great Mother provides for us. Before the young ones become Aisling, they are only Ubh. Children of the Great Mother. She gives life to us all.”
The temple was even more glorious than the rest of the city. “It’s all so beautiful,” I said. Then I felt bad for a moment, knowing she couldn’t see the city, despite her ability to navigate it. I’d confirmed her complete blindness in previous interactions.
“What is unseen to your eyes is even more beautiful,” she said.
“You can see?”
“In a manner of speaking. They are the most glorious visions. While we worship, it allows us to see the universe.”
As we walked through the doors of the temple, my stomach gave no warning as I heaved up the contents of my stomach. The Aisling didn’t seem to be offended. The reek that met me was what I would imagine an open mass grave to smell like.
“You’ll grow used to it,” she said. I felt her swirling in my thoughts as if she were trying to comfort me from my fear and disgust. “You needn’t fear death. It’s only the sweet scent of the Great Mother.”
As we pushed further into the windowless temple, the air grew as rank and moist as rot in a cave. In the sparse light, I could see other Aisling gather in the shadows and follow us.
My guide was not the only one of her kind. Every other Aisling looked just as she did, stripped of their senses. Then, I saw the young ones. I assumed them to be the Ubh, and they looked astonishingly human despite their gray skin. They had eyes, ears, hair, genitals, and their mouths flopped open freely as they scurried about.
They couldn’t do this to their children, could they? I came back to the explanation that there had to be some war or disaster to make them this way. I wanted to turn back, but I could feel the Aisling pressing up behind me as we grew closer to the Great Mother and the stink worsened. I fought against my stomach.
I saw it then, at the end of the large, dimly lit room. Like her children, her skin was gray. She looked like a huge gelatinous mass, the size of some of the buildings in the city. There was little differentiation between the head and the limbless body. It had tiny, useless eyes, a gaping mouth devoid of teeth, and a dropping flap of a nose that moved as the thing breathed. It glistened with a brownish liquid.
“This is our Great Mother who provides for us, and so we provide for her. It is our purpose in life, as her purpose is for us. You see, we must become Aisling to worship the Great Mother, ensuring her survival and ours. Symbiotic, as you might call it. She calls to us so we are never lost. We always come back to the Great Mother.” My Aisling guide swept her hand out to the Great Mother in the presentation.
“Come,” she said. “It is time to begin.”
I noticed then that something moved within the body of the Great Mother as if it were trying to escape. My Aisling guide lead all of the Aisling to the rear of the Great Mother where a gaping hold oozed with pus.
“Is she injured?” I asked.
“No. She’s giving birth.” It almost looked like the Aisling smiled.
The gaping hole began to gurgle and spat, and a few moments later an egg came out. Then more, and more. Each egg was retrieved by an Aisling and put in holes that had been dug in the moist ground.
“They will incubate here until they hatch,” the Aisling explained. “Then we will feed them, nourish them, care for them until it is time for them to become Aisling.”
The gaping hole squeezed shut, and it was done. The Aisling turned to me. “Now that the Great Mother has given to us, we must give to her.”
Then, from behind their sewn mouths came a guttural hum. The Great Mother hummed in response, then opened its great mouth, as if it were waiting.
A few Ubh stepped forward from the mass, taller than the other Ubh. These must be those that have come of age.
“They must pay their respects to the Great Mother. They must pay tribute, and then we will worship.”
“Yes, we must become like the Great Mother. We sever ourselves from our senses as the Great Mother has done. Then, our minds ascend to become one with her and worship her. We do not need any nourishment other than the worship we give. But we must nourish the Great Mother so she in return can nourish us.” The Aisling walked to the side of the room and opened several chests.
The chests contained beads that would likely be given to the naked Ubh. The Aisling also withdrew seven knives, one for each Ubh, I counted. She also retrieved a satchel that she revealed to be a collection of needles and threat. Then, she produced the eighth knife from a chest.
Bile began to rise in my throat again. The Aisling approached me and the group of Ubh, who showed no signs of fear. The same soothing presence the one Aisling had put in my mind now turned into a group effort. I was beginning to feel as if I were being filled with nitrous oxide, my body, and mind beginning to numb.
“We haven’t ever before allowed an outsider to become Aisling,” she said to me.
“Why me, then? I don’t want to pay tribute to your Great Mother. I just wanted to learn about you.”
“Yes, and this is the only way to learn. You cannot truly understand the Aisling until you have worshipped with us, and to do that you must become Aisling. This is an alliance between our races.”
“I don’t understand. Can’t I worship as I am?” I fought to keep my thoughts straight as they drifted in all directions. I wanted to push back, to get away. But my legs wouldn’t run, even as adrenaline pumped through my system. A silent scream rose in my mind.
“Here,” the Aisling said, bringing me a small cup. “Drink a sip of this. It will help wase you into the tribute and the worship.”
I fumbled with the cup and inspected its contents. It was odorless and colorless. My body tried to rebel and drop the cup, but something in me compelled me to drink. I took a small sip and made a face at the bitter taste.
“That will be plenty,” she said.
I didn’t know how much time passed after that, but the humming continued to drone on while my mind grew light and airy, like it was separating from my body.
I saw her then, the Great Mother. She walked out of the great mouth with long, flowing hair draped around her smooth, gray shoulders. She had round, full breasts, and plump aroused labia between her legs.
I struggled to my knees, bowing before her. The room suddenly smelled like spring flowers, sweet and succulent. The world warped around the Great Mother as if she didn’t move through time and space, but it moved around her.
I felt a deep sense of ecstasy and moaned, falling to the ground. The ground was like jelly beneath me, like nothing was firm or real. I lay on my back, sprawled out as an offering to the Great Mother as the room lit up with rainbows and fractals, colors moving in the air like a current through water.
Very carefully, the Great Mother came to each Ubh in turn, taking their tribute. I waited impatiently for my turn. I may have been waiting for days. It could have been minutes. I didn’t know anymore.
The Great Mother came to me. It was my turn. I felt as if I’d always been waiting for this day as if I were meant for this.
As she came closer, I wasn’t sure anymore if she was the Great Mother or the Aisling guide, but then the world dimmed as if a cloud had passed over my vision, a fog settling in the room.
“I’m ready,” I said, no longer speaking aloud. I spoke as the indigenous spoke, in my mind.
I felt nothing but pure bliss as the Great Mother brought the knife to my skin. She took away my sight first, and my ecstasy only increased. I could see the Great Mother more clearly now than ever, and the image became more real with each sense she took. I could feel a tugging as all of my wounds were carefully stitched closed, my lips bound shut. I felt more whole now than I’d ever been. I felt fulfilled.
The Great Mother ate her offerings, blood trickling down her chin as she bit into the tender flesh of my removed breast. When she finished, she retreated to her gelatinous form, disappearing into the mouth.
I stood, born anew, seeing the world as I’d never seen it before when I had eyes. My clothes were gone, my body now adorned with the beads of the Aisling. I began to hum. I was connected to the universe, the Great Mother, and visions of paradise.