…it was a catch-all term. Anyone who was infected, in that certain, disgusting way. Over time, society at large had taken not to calling them that — not even as they should, mind you, as the bacterias had long since changed and mutated, the viruses long since diffused. They took to calling them instead simply lickers. It conjured up the right image in the minds of the clean, so the clean thought; images of those flighty neerdowells lapping up shit or piss or vomit, or any number of sexual fluids. Their place on the ground solidified, their disease one of derangement more than of the body. It gave permission to tuck them away, so very far away. Here on Asteroid 7.
The drop ship was coming the next weekend. It was not a long time to plan such a great escape — one week. But Alex had gotten the idea in her head, and simply had to do it. She was ferocious with her own ideas, and out here, on the endtrailing abandoned ruins of Asteroid 7, with no schools to grow up in, with no jobs to grow up into, she could let her ideas consume her. She could do whatever she wanted. It was the best education, the best incubator, an avant-garde escaper could have possibly hoped for. She had been raised here since birth. She was of the sad kind that had it passed down to her from her mother, upon birth. On contact. Though, she didn’t know who her mother was… it was all a big family here, a grouped in community of the deformed. She liked that; she had heard stories that, on the Real Earths, there were no big families like that — only small ones. She had heard about the schools and the jobs from the people that had been there — though they had been there so long ago, who knew if it was still really there? After scrounging for survival in the septic suburbs for so long, she was bored, but skilled. Asteroid 7 was endless monotony, and endless monotony can only supply so many ideas. She was not determined to travel back to get a job or to go to school, or even to stay. It was just a change of scenery, a vacation adventure. Just as well, it was to see if she could do it. And, perhaps the biggest reason: which she refused to admit to herself — to meet a boy. Any boy down there on the Real Earth. She was too independent for one, too of her own mind, she told herself. But she had started to have feelings, as everybody does. Being ferocious, she wanted to take her pick. She wanted to see how different the ‘Real’ ones were, so to speak. But, she reasoned, silently, to herself, that they must be disgustingly ugly on the inside. She just had to see, though. Just had to know.
The only one she told about it was her best friend Francene. She made them venture all the way out — three neighbourhoods past where anybody else had made their home. They huddled in the cracking floor boards of the old bungalow. “I’m going to leave,” she said, in a whisper no lighter than the wind, “next week.”
“Next week?!” Francene could not contain her excitement, her surprise, and simply shouted.
“Shhhhh! Shut up!”
“However long I feel like.”
“They’ll catch you.”
“I’ll hide.” Francene pursed her lips and shook her head, not with disdain so much as worry.
“They’ll see you.. you’ll look different. Deformed. How can you hide your face from a whole world? They’ll kill you.”
“They won’t — at worst they’ll send me back.”
“You don’t know that…”
“Those are just stories they tell to scare people from leaving.”
“Maybe…” Francene knew there was no use in arguing.
The supply ship touched down. It released desert winds so hot it turned the sky white from their exhaust turbines. Alex cradled herself behind a rock — close enough to scramble to the ship as the boxes were dropped out. They never saw the people running the ship — or, for that matter, she now realized, knew if people ran the ship at all. It touched down, dropped boxes of supplies, and took back off every weekend all on its own. She had weighed herself, and practised for endless hours that week lifting things and then testing their weight on a scale afterwards, so she could get a feel for it. She could not throw off their payload. The endless roaring thunder began to quiet, and was replaced by the thuds of shipping containers smacking the red rock ground. She peeked her head above the rock, and, seeing nobody, ran: she clung to the walls of the containers already fallen, craning her eyes upwards to see any more that might hit her head and squash her like a bug from out of the gaping hole under the rocket ship. The thing opened and closed to let the boxes of different sizes out, automatically, like a great metal iris. Another crouched down, leaving a wake of sand in the air where it fell. She climbed on top of this one. The void above her opened; another box lurched out — she had to jump a span farther than she thought she could just to avoid being hit by it. She reached all she could, jumped onto the extended landing gear, and quickly fumbled up the metal spikes as they closed into their unified aperture. Her foot was barely out of the way of the flexing steel teeth in time; and now she was in a room of full blackness. Another box would be barreling down soon. She heard the rumbles of it above her. She ran: she had to run, full on, in the darkness, to be fully off the iris in time, hoping to not break a leg or singe herself on some electrified pipe in the process. The opening croaked a beam of light through again. It let her see enough — enough to make it to the edge, as the floor trap door collapsed under her. She threw herself onto that solid part, and huddled into her own body: she clutched her knees between her arms, gasping through the fibres of fabric that made up her skin-tight leggings (to keep any loose snags from happening today). She hated tight clothes, but had parted for these just for the occasion; she needed them. It had been so much to do in a week. The final box barrelled down, but she had already picked up spare pieces of tool kits, pieces of pipes lying around. She breathed pure relief as soon as she touched them: this was what she needed. She thought something must be loose in the ship, but she did not know. She held them in her hands, adding in her head: 20 pounds… 50 pounds. A box of screws, rapidly sifting through them… 3 pounds, yes. She threw it all out as the metal lips opened and close. Yes, that would do it — that was her weight. She thought. She was still scared she may have gotten it wrong. But the thing finally lumbered completely closed, for the last time. The rumble of the jets started. She had no choice but to trust herself, and hope none of the odds and ends were anything but odds and ends; hope that the spaceship would and could fly. To where? Anywhere aside from here. Any of the Real Earths, with the Real People.
It was, she realized, not the adventure she had sold to herself, but the mere burning curiosity of finding out what she wasn’t. No men ever came out of the ship. No broadcast had ever shown a face: the only signals that made it to the Lepers on Asteroid 7 were audio. She saw all the faces of her friends, her family, her community. They looked normal to her. They looked the same. She had never known anything different. She was not afraid of them, did not sense even a whiff of deformity among them. They said to her that she couldn’t; that not knowing anything else, she didn’t know what could be. She had nothing to compare it to. But she felt, deep inside her, that if beauty was so inherent as people said, that if people were so attuned to deformities and to avoiding them, she would have known; at the base of her brain, she would have known. She could not have hugged her friends, kissed the boys she had; at the base she would be repelled just as much as anybody. And so she wondered — was anything really wrong?
The thought dawned on her, and ripped fear through her tendons and her heart: what if seeing them, the normal people, made her disgusted of home. How could she be home, go home (let alone get back)? But it was now too late. The man made tornado of thrust was starting below her. Maybe that was why she had done it, so furiously, so fiendishly, in a week; to keep that thought out of her mind. The one thought that might have stopped her from doing it. She brushed the dark hair out of her eyes. The hairs tickled her eyelashes. How was she so different? She supposed she just had to know, even if it killed her: why were they so unloveable? No, not even, to be so far up here, banished — unlookable.
She tucked herself into the fetal position, on the cold metal floor, for what seemed like years again. It was darker then she could have ever dreamed. The walls rumbled. She cringed her body and clung to a spare pipe, tried tying herself to it, in the dark, when her stomach lurched and she became weightless. She was floating around in a black hell womb. For what? She asked herself, nervously. It was now all hitting her. For what? To die on the other end. No, no, no, she wouldn’t. And to live the same way for a thousand years wasn’t to live; it was purgatory at best. She was gone now, for one way or the other.
She clung with all fours against the pipe to keep herself from being thrashed around like a ping pong ball in the cavernous transport space upon landing. It was some hot steam pipe of fuel or exhaust, and it burned her breasts and nipples: but she pressed in more and more, until it singed her thighs, her stomach, her shoulders even, determined not to be killed simply by the cursing force of some rumbling spare pipe in this hold. She had made it this far, and would not succumb to such a chance death with an answer so close. She felt like she could smell her own hair burn. When the thing landed she could relax. She splayed herself on the floor as the metal iris once more opened up. She felt the lumps and contours of her face with her own hands. It was fine, normal — for her. The burns were not that bad. There was no blistering on her arms. Cool air flowed upward and washed over her as the rocket engine died down. She gulped it in thirstily, lapping her tongue to match like a desperate dog. And then she heard it: the most wonderful sound she had ever heard! She knew, instinctively, it was birds chirping. And with that she knew that she had made it: they had never replenished any live animals for the Lepers: it was nonessential, and growing their own livestock might make them too independent, or would open the possibility for a disease spread backwards through he animals. All the birds on all the abandoned suburb asteroids had long since been hunted down. She had never heard one sing in real life. But she knew what it was the instant she heard it. She propelled herself out of the metal opening like she was jumping off of a diving board; no regard for safety, all the way down. She simply had to. She couldn’t wait any longer. She hit not rock, but grass! Sweet grass that filled her nostrils with the smell of a wonderful dampness and tickled her toes. It absorbed her, it was spring. The very ground sprung like a loaded trampoline. She hugged the ground, she kissed it for an instant — praising all the things she had only known of, to never know how much she had missed. But only for a moment, for she had to quickly hide in the shadows. She ran to the nearest hill, through the field. Into the alleys of the first buildings she saw. She had to hide. She could not let her hideous self be seen for fear of deportation, or worse.
The sun was setting as she hustled into an alleyway. Clothes, she thought to herself, that was the first order of business. That was all, she supposed, that she could really do… hoodies, hats, scarves. She had to hope that would be enough. But for now her eyes were trained upwards, through the vents of the buildings surrounding her, in awe of the sky. It was not like on the asteroid, where stars’ comings and goings made the weak atmosphere burn red and static like a bloodshot eye. It was beautiful. Clouds spun themselves pink and blue like billowing, hot tea, like cotton candy pulling itself apart in long either strings. She couldn’t bare to take her eyes off of the sky, huddled behind the dumpster in the alleyway. She heard the murmurs of voices. They didn’t sound too different, she thought. She had half-worried that in their time apart the two had turned to different species; had developed different languages. That she would be a complete foreigner back here. But she could hear them, she could understand them. They were rumbling about on the street, a few yards away from her. She covered her face with bits of trash, but she listened intensely, her eyes pointed low at the ground now. They were talking about the same things they did, more or less. Dating, food, toys… now that was an odd one. She would have to figure what exactly a ‘toys’ was. She had to know… and she could right now. And how risky was it, after all she had just done? She folded damp cardboard and paper around herself, like a scarf. She concealed all but one eye. And she delicately lifted her head up, a millimetre per minute, straining to see just above the lines of the dumpsters she was hid behind. Her one eye glared out, shot out. Forms were moving, walking in the street, beyond the alleyway. Her pupil focused. A woman walked by — she caught the figure and followed it. And… she looked almost wholly like Francene. Strikingly like her. Blonde hair bounced off of her shoulders as she walked. Her nose came to the same point as theirs did, her eyes covered with the same lids and lashes. Her mouth muttered to herself, contorting the same pink-purple flesh Alex had. Her head rose up fully from the shock. She could not believe what she was seeing. The scarf of garbage fell off — her face was exposed. She was simply staring into the street now, and nobody was paying her any attention. One after one, like a million wind-up soldiers marching, the men and women passed by the opening of the alleyway that fed into the street. And they all looked the same. The same as each other, the same as Alex. The same as all the ‘lepers’ on Asteroid 7. Alex’s clothing was not even too different from the ones she saw floating off of the women who passed. She saw one girl she was certain even wore the same outfit. She was in shock, her brain was lost in a dream now, and her body carried her without her knowing. She shed the garbage as she walked, through the columns of the intertwined buildings, towards and matching the pace of everybody else. She didn’t realize what she was doing, and then, she was there. She was walking in the street, among them, just the same as everybody else. No one looked at her; no one batted an eye. No one paused, or even shied away from her body anymore than they bumped into each other, rushing with briefcases and shopping bags, pushing hurriedly through the street. She caught herself in the window of a transit stop. She stared at her reflection, stopping traffic around her, gazing into her own eyes. What is it? She was almost crying, but her body was smart and would not let her eyes comply in a foreign public. What is it? She checked and checked and checked: danced with her pupils over every millimetre of her face. Dashed her eyes in a frenzy out of the window mirror and back to the couples hand in hand, the businessmen, the shoppers, the kids in the street. What was the difference? Her paranoia only heightened as it seemed none of them could spot her different either. She was pushed by the milling crowd into a hall of tables. There were drinks she knew with prices she didn’t scrawled on the boards above her. People chatted and sipped through mugs. Alex quickly sat down at an open table. A mug sat with a residue of coffee at the bottom. She watched the others, and quickly sipped from it to imitate them. Another blonde woman in an apron came up to her, looked at her with a pot in her hand. Alex set down the cup and nodded — would her voice give it away? The woman filled up the mug once more. She stared right into Alex’s eyes… and nothing happened. Nobody could tell. What was the difference? What was the difference? Her own brain was screaming at her. She figured it was only a matter of time before someone came along and slapped a chain on her — or looked too close and shouted, pointed. She sat back, nervously sipping the steaming liquid. Her awareness was heightened ten thousand times. She seemed to be able to hear, clearly, all the conversations in the room at once.
“…Sheila had Mike…”
“…Bob lost the promotion, can you believe it?…”
“…no, no, we’ve taken Jimmy to extra tutoring…”
“Turned out she was a licker…
She trained in on that one:
“Can you believe it? Didn’t turn herself in. I mean, nothing was wrong with her.” The man talking stopped to laugh. Alex darted her eyes around to see who it was. She could not quite find him, “Can you imagine how sacred us normals would have been, how much more we would have hated them, back when it wasn’t treatable? When it wasn’t completely harmless?”
Completely harmless. She did not grasp it intellectually at all; she had never been to this world, much less a school on it. But the feeling hit her in her gut. Someone had cracked it, but not all the way: it was there, still, maybe. But completely harmless. Dormant. It didn’t cause any difference. And still, they were herded like cattle up there… still people were afraid?
She found them. Their eyes linked for a second, the man with her’s across the room. It was an intense stare. The man raised his eyebrows towards Alex. She saw he was with another woman, sitting at a table tucked behind the service counter and across the room. She looked down hurriedly, but still listened. The woman, this time, spoke. But first, she laughed nervously.
“Sometimes I worry I might have it! I mean, probably not. But I’m afraid of needles, I always shy away from the testing. And it doesn’t really do anything now, what with all the pre meds in the food — you could never tell.” Alex heard a nervous smile in her voice, then a croak as it faded. The woman looked back at the man, whose grin faded and who simply stared at her. He spat at her. It only nearly missed, landing on the table. “Go get tested right now,” he barked, “this date is over.” He stood up from the table. He locked eyes with Alex again as he did so. She filled her lungs with air; she was unable to breathe out. Her ribcage bolted itself in place with a surge of lightning. She was locked in place, frozen like an animal. She had been found out. The man was walking towards her, staring at her intensely, with hunger in her eyes. Would he kill her? He knew, he knew. He sat down across from her. She buried her head in her hands. Her eyelashes batted against her sweating palms.
“Hey,” the man said, “I must say, you look incredibly beautiful — sexy.” He looked her up and down, “Can I buy you a drink?”