Science Fiction Strange

Showing the Colours

By M. Darusha Wehm
2,866 words · 11-minute reading time

When I open my eyes, I am alone for the first time I can remember. 

I spend the first conscious hours of my capture hunting for food. I find the small creatures living in the dirt floor of my cell, my claws shoveling the sediment into my mouthparts. I sift through it all fast, filtering out the tiny protein rich food animals. There isn’t much, though, and I am still hungry when the floor is nothing but a sea of dirt balls.

The room is barely large enough to stretch out to my full length, but I manage to exercise my limbs a little. There seems to be no real damage. I breathe deeply, searching the air for scents, any clue as to where I am, where everyone else in this place may be. But I smell nothing clearly, only a tiny trace of one or two other people. I can’t tell if the scents are from other prisoners or my captors.

I was born a soldier. I have never been alone this long.

I crouch on my hind limbs, counting by threes to help the time pass. We learned this technique in our training, and it worked well enough in the sensory deprivation exercises. I am up to 681 when the entry unbars and you enter.

I don’t know what I expected. A monster, a tyrant, a demon. Someone who didn’t look like me. But it was just you, you who could be my sibling.

I suppose the surprise shows on my body; I’ve never been good at controlling my colour-changing. You walk up to me and look at me as if I were some strange, small animal you found in your territory—curious but harmless. I say nothing to you, and the silence seems to last forever. 

Eventually you nod your head, and the other one who’s been standing near the entry—the big one—comes toward me. 

The pain is severe. I’ve experienced worse, but never for this length of time. I don’t know how long I can put up with it; this is not how I thought I would die; but then it stops. You wave off the guard and sit in front of me as blood pours from my wounds. You look calm, like you’ve done this a thousand times before. I imagine that you have.

“Tell me about the Tilth army’s plans to attack Barzelay,” you say, sounding bored.

“I am Andalya Lour:Odam,” I croak out, “a loyal citizen of Tilth. I am the sworn enemy of Barzelay and will provide no other information.” I give the answer I have been trained to provide to all questions, the only thing you will ever get from me. 

“Of course you are,” you say. “Just as I am the sworn enemy of Tilth. But you’re only half right.” You lean in toward me, and I can smell food on your breath. “You will give me all the information you have, Soldier Andalya. We will learn what you know, if I have to claw open your head and scoop out your brains to get it.” 

Your voice is calm and sure, and you stand, turning away from me. The guard walks toward me and I flinch. But before I can say a word, you call the guard and leave, barring the entry again. 

I lean against the wall of the cell and weep.

There is a crack in the wall, near the corner where I relieve myself. Through it I can make out the shift from day to night. I try to count the nights, but soon I lose track. I watch the door until my eyes swim, waiting for it to unbar, becoming more afraid each moment that it doesn’t. But soon the emptiness in my belly outweighs the fear in my mind.

I methodically move in a spiral around my cell, filtering the dirt over and over again for any morsel that I can find. Counting by threes becomes useless. I have no idea how much time has passed before the door finally unbars. I am so hungry I forget to be afraid.

You throw a bundle at me and I smell food. I am intoxicated by the prospect of nourishment and tear open the cloth, thrusting my mouth parts into the mound of fresh dirt inside. I don’t know if you are speaking to me or not; all I can hear is the sound of myself eating. It seems like only a heartbeat passes before the food is gone.

“Sorry,” you say, “but this land is not very rich in nutrients. It’s not ideal for a prison, but so much is not ideal in wartime, don’t you think?” You walk around the cell, looking at the dirt balls on the floor, my waste piled in a corner. I feel my mandible contracting in shame, but I force myself not to change colour. I try not to catch your eye as I take my forelimb and clean myself the best I can.

You notice my movements and stop talking. I can feel your eyes on me, and it takes all my effort not to fold myself up with my head tucked deep into the hollow my body makes. But the voice of my trainer comes back to me, and I manage not to change my body position. Never put yourself in the position of humility. Never show any of them more than basic courtesy. The enemy’s regents are not your leaders—do not pay obeisance in their presence. Stay strong in yourself to stay strong for Tilth.

You do not seem to notice the effort I am making not to show my humiliation, and I am pleased that I am the strong warrior I was born to be. For the first time since I was brought here I feel calm, the fear flowing from me like water over boulders. I believe that I will endure this capture. 

And then your face draws close to mine. Too close, I think, close enough that our antennae could touch. I have never been this close to another, except in combat. But it’s strange: I do not feel my carapace colouring brown in discomfort, and I feel no need to move away, even as the guard enters and places me in restraints.

I can smell your scent, and you radiate a desire to make me comfortable. The smell is delicious, and its effect on me is immediate. My muscles relax, and my body colours blue-green in contentment. 

“This is much better, Andalya Lour:Odam,” you say. “So much more civilized, don’t you think?” 

I excrete a scent of agreement. 

“I just want to help you,” you say. 

And when you begin asking me questions, I am so pleased that there is finally something I can do to help you in return. You who have brought me food and water, kept me cool and safe here in this strange place. 

I tell you everything I know. But I have so little to offer, my carapace turns the colour of blood in shame. You have given me so much, and I have no real information for you at all. I am only a mere soldier, this is my first mission away from Odam. 

“Tell me about Odam,” you say, as if we were merchants chatting over the tables of our stalls on a quiet market day. 

“Odam is my hatchling group,” I say. “There were twenty-one of us, my siblings and I, and once my shell was hard, I trained with them for thirty cycles before we were assigned to the front.”

“Trained for what?”

“We fight for Tilth against the pretenders from Barzelay. We fight to keep Tilthians free, to protect our kin and way of life.”

You look at me and I see your body colour slightly orange. Sadness. Then it is gone and you are the beautiful colour of contentment again. “What does that mean, Soldier Andalya? What do you think those phrases really mean?”

“Please,” I say, “call me Lour. My friends call me Lour.” 

A flash of orange on your body again, so fast I almost do not see it.

“Never mind,” you say. “Tell me more about your training. Tell me about this mission.” 

There is an odd voice in the back of my mind screaming at me to stop, that any information I give you is too much. I do not know why I think this, and I ignore it. Helping you makes you happy, makes you smell so good. It makes me feel good, and it has been a very long time since I have felt this way. I do not want this feeling to end.

“We learned fighting, my siblings and I,” I say. “Fighting claw to claw and with weapons. And interrogation—” Something seems wrong, my stomach clenches and I feel sick for a moment. Then it passes. “Something about withstanding interrogation.”

“You’re doing very well,” you say, your intoxicating aroma calming me. “What about your mission?”

“We were to find the Barzelay base,” I say. “There was a rumor of a Barzelay unit just across the river. We were to find it and kill all the soldiers there.”

“Do you know why?” you ask. “Why that base?”

Confusion colours my body. “I do not understand,” I say. “Because it was there. Because it is Barzelay. There is no other reason.”

“No,” you say and I am sure I smell a hint of disappointment in the air. “There is never any other reason.” 

You lay a claw on me, softly, and I can’t remember a time when anyone ever touched me with such care.

Your scent lingers when you leave the room, but only for a moment. Then all I can smell is my own scent. Loneliness. 

When I wake, minutes or days later, my limbs are still restrained, but I cannot stop my body from curling into itself, the burning of red on my carapace, remembering. 

How could I have so quickly turned traitor? For a sack of food, I have failed my people. I can’t imagine now why I would have wanted to tell you all my secrets, tell you everything. You who are the very reason I was brought into existence. 

We live to fight Barzelay, I and all my kin. We fight so all of Tilth—the merchants and educators, the healers and priests—may live free of conflict and foreign rule. I think of my siblings, my trainers, the only other souls I’ve ever known outside this prison. Here I have given you everything you asked for without even a struggle. My whole nation, my people. How all of them would despise me for what I have done. I am worthless. 

I long for a weapon to end my miserable life. When the burning on my carapace begins to be matched by a burning in my belly, I am thankful. Perhaps I will be allowed to starve to death, and no Odam will ever know of my failure. I busy myself with the restrains on my limbs. The repetitive movement of the vines against my claw, the rough parts of my body, makes me almost forget the burning inside and out.

The door unbars, and my eyes close against the shaft of light. I smell you before I can see you, and I throw myself in your direction, claws snapping wildly. I feel myself get a grip on some part of you, maybe a limb, and I squeeze with every bit of strength I have left. I smell blood, and I squeeze harder.

Then I feel claws, hard truncheons, electrical weapons. Pain explodes all over me, and I think that I will die. My body colours green in relief.

But I do not die. New restraints are put on me, and your guards stand by your side. There is a shallow cut on the second joint of your left forelimb, barely more than a scratch. I have failed yet again.

Yet you flash orange. Sadness? Pity?

“Soldier Andalya,” you say. “Don’t be angry with yourself. No one can withstand the drug we gave you. Not you, not me, not the greatest generals in all of Tilth or Barzelay.”

I try to spit at you, but only a puff of dust comes out.

“Barzie trickery,” I say. “Infidel sorcery.”

You laugh. “I wish only Barzelay forces had these tools,” you say. “But your interrogators use the same tricks on our soldiers. We are more the same than they would have us believe, Andalya Lour:Odam. Only evenly matched forces can fight forever.”

“What are you talking about?”

“How long have we been fighting this war?” you say, orange colouring your body. “Ten, twenty generations? I was born a soldier, same as you, same as all my siblings. All of us were born to fight. Yet in all your training, did anyone ever tell you what would happen when you win? What specific objective you were to achieve? How would you even know if you won?” You lean in toward me, and I fight not to shrink away from your face. “Tell me, Soldier Andalya. What are you fighting for?”

I stare into your eyes, antennae pulled back for fear of touching you. “I am Andalya Lour:Odam, a loyal citizen of Tilth. I am the sworn enemy of Barzelay and will provide no other information.”

I barely have time to hear the crack of claw on carapace before the world goes black again.

Days come and go; there is no way to keep track. I guess that every two or three days a sack of dirt is dropped into the room. The first time, I manage to ignore it for hours. Now I don’t bother. If you want to drug me, you will. If you want to beat me, you will. And when it comes time to kill me, you will do that too.

Today it seems that the food is clean. I feel normal, at least undrugged. I no longer remember what I used to feel like. When I was a soldier not a prisoner. 

I have no particular hatred for you; that passed a long time ago. But neither am I pleased to see you when the door unbars and you walk in. You no longer bother with the guards, though I am certain they remain nearby. 

“Soldier Andalya,” you say as you crouch before me. “It is almost one full moon cycle since you first came to us.”

“If you say so,” I say.

You look at me, and colours cycle over your carapace. You’ve obviously had better colour control training than I have, and by now I know the colours are all lies. And yet when I look at you, I see orange over and over again. Why do you choose to show me sadness? Sadness for what? For your loyalty to the wrong side? For what you do here? For what is happening to me?

“The war is almost over for you,” you say, and I know exactly what you mean. “I envy you.”

“Do you?” I say, almost able to laugh. “Shall we change places, then?”

“Sadly, a hero’s death is not in my future,” you say. “We all must serve our masters in the ways we must. You will die to keep your leaders and my leaders fat, and I will kill you to ensure a rich economy for my merchants and for yours. Today I will serve by killing you, and you will serve by dying. Tomorrow, who knows how I will be called on to serve?”

“I will die for the honour of Tilth,” I say.

You look at me, the colour of anger flashing brightly over your body, but your voice is soft when you speak. “Yes. That’s what I just said.” 

My limbs are each tied to a separate branch and pulled apart. I cannot move any part of my body. My thorax is completely exposed, and I cannot help but emit the odour of fear. I know now that I am going to die. Killed in action. A hero of Tilth.

You are alone in the yard. I can no longer even smell your guards. You walk toward me until you stand two limbs’ length before me, the weapon in your claw. “I see you’re not getting your subordinates for this task,” I manage to say. “Good for you.”

“There is no pleasure in this for me, Lour,” you say, your body covered in orange.

I close my eyes. “Just get it over with,” I say. “I’m ready to be a hero.”

And then I smell something. It must be you, but I have never smelled it before. It makes me think of parents, of mates. For a moment I forget myself and feel like a softshell youth. It is the most wonderful smell I’ve ever encountered. I open my eyes, and see your body colour yellow and blue: the colours of kinship. You lift the weapon, and I can smell its electricity crackle. 

Kinship, your body is telling me, and I almost believe you. But I know the colours lie. They must.

This story originally appeared in Procyon Science Fiction Anthology 2016.


Like this story? Tip or subscribe to M. Darusha.