Difficult news: Curious Fictions will be closing its doors August 27. More details »
From the author: "The time has come," the astronaut said, "to talk of many things: of shoes and ships and sealing-wax, of presidents and quarantines."
The rain started just moments before FGOTUS's motorcade rolled up to the aircraft. Emma hit the control to lower the boarding ramp to the small private jet as her fellow Secret Service agent, William Harrigan, escorted the First Gentleman out of his bulletproof embassy sedan.
"Bluebird on approach to Executive One Foxtrot," Emma said into the microphone attached under her left sleeve.
"You know, I'm sitting right here," the pilot called through the open doorway to the cockpit. "You could just talk to me."
Emma grumbled and stepped back from the side of the plane so she could reply in kind. "We have radio procedures for a reason, Captain. Everyone in the protective detail needs to hear the update."
"Everyone in the protective detail can see what's happening." The pilot waved out the window. "You're all either on the aircraft or on the tarmac by now."
Emma leaned into the cockpit and lowered her voice. "I don't tell you how to do your job, Captain."
"I mean," the pilot said, smiling over his shoulder at her, "you did last night."
Emma made a show of bringing her wrist mic up to her face and pushing the talk button. "Aircraft is spinning up now." She lowered her arm and whispered into the pilot's ear, "And what happens in Vegas-stan, stays in Vegas-stan, right?"
The pilot gave her a mock salute. "You're in charge, Special Agent Szekeley."
Emma shook her head with a smile, stepped back into the cabin, and closed the cockpit door just as Harrigan led FGOTUS into the aircraft.
Joshua Santillo, First Gentleman of the United States, looked as dapper as ever. The collar on his formalwear, a bespoke Nehru jacket, accentuated his stunning jawline and cheekbones. Being dappled with raindrops only made him look hotter, if Emma were forced to judge.
"Welcome back, sir," she said, handing him a hand towel from the wet bar at the front of the cabin. "How was the dinner?"
"Oh, the food was excellent," Santillo said, drying off his hair with the towel as the rest of his entourage filed past into the jet and started taking their seats. "And the dance music was even better."
Emma shot Harrigan a dirty look. "Don't tell me that's why you're late getting back."
"I serve at the pleasure," Harrigan said, shrugging. "Besides, it was a great photo op. The First Gentleman's got some moves."
"I keep telling you, Bill," Santillo said as he sat down and buckled up, "I prefer 'First Mate.'"
"Let it go, sir. You're not in the navy anymore." Emma checked Santillo's seat belt, then took the seat facing him. Harrigan did a head count to make sure everyone was aboard, secured the aircraft door, and sat down across the aisle from them.
"You know what they say," Santillo said, smiling. His tousled black hair looked even better now for some reason. "Old sailors never die--"
"I've heard, sir. They just get a little dingy."
Santillo chuckled. "Anyway, I'm sorry you didn't get to go out more on your first international escort detail. We'll have plenty of other opportunities to paint the town red, I'm sure."
"No worries, sir," Emma said. "I'm not much for going out anyway. Harrigan's a better wingman."
Santillo's smile faded. "I don't know what you've heard, Special Agent Szekeley, but the president and I don't have that kind of relationship."
"Sorry, sir. That's not what I meant. Not at all." Christ, Emma, are you going to get yourself fired off your first protective detail already? "I just think Special Agent Harrigan is better in social situations. I can be a bit of a... wet blanket. That's what my wife says, anyway."
Santillo's smile returned, making Emma just the slightest bit moist between her legs. "Don't sell yourself short, Special Agent. We all end up learning a lot on the job around here. Look at me. I was trained to be an astronaut, not arm candy. But life had other plans."
"Fair enough, sir," Emma said. "Though I feel like you could have politely declined President Lanman's marriage proposal. If you had wanted to."
Santillo continued smiling, but his eyes suddenly looked sad. "Not as easily as you might think."
Emma briefly considered taking the opening to inquire further, but before she could figure out how to phrase her very personal question, the speaker overhead buzzed with the pilot's voice.
"Hey folks, this is the captain speaking. I'm afraid there's going to be a slight delay in our departure. Could I get someone from Secret Service up to the cockpit? As soon as possible?"
Emma was on her feet before Harrigan could get himself unbuckled. The pilot opened the cockpit door as soon as she started banging her fist against it.
"Is it the storm? Are we grounded by weather?" she asked. If Harrigan letting FGOTUS stay late at the embassy had caused them to miss their window, she was going to write up a scathing intra-agency complaint when they got home.
"No, sorry," the pilot said, his face ashen. "It's a... coup, I think? What do you call it when the government gets overthrown?"
The revolutionaries who had taken over the airport and shut down the control tower weren't able to jam EXEC1F's satellite communications, so Santillo could talk to his husband in the White House situation room. There was no video, but the audio was loud and clear.
"State Department is on top of it," President Ryan Lanman said in his trademark reassuring baritone. "This appears to be an internal Gromistani dispute. They explicitly don't want to involve the US, so you all are safe for the moment."
"But we can't leave the country," Santillo said.
"The rebels have closed all the borders and locked down the capital," Lanman said. "So no one's going anywhere right now. Try not to take it personally, Josh."
Santillo chuckled. "You always know how to make me feel better."
"Yeah, just wait until I get you back in the Lincoln Bedroom."
Harrigan cleared his throat. "Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt, sirs, but can I ask about the medical situation?"
Emma frowned at him. Medical situation?
"I'm doing fine," Santillo said. "You're okay, Ryan?"
"Fit as a fiddle," Lanman said. "We've still got time. The embassy's sending a crash team to the airport, with a marine escort. Just in case."
Emma nudged Harrigan and raised her eyebrows. What the fuck?
Harrigan shook his head. Not now.
"Thanks, Ryan." Santillo had obviously noticed the two Secret Service agents exchanging nonverbal communications. "I'm going to read in the rest of my protective detail. Like you said, just in case."
Lanman sighed heavily. "May I speak to Special Agent Szekeley, please?"
Santillo nodded at her. Emma leaned closer to the radio and said, "I'm here, Mr. President."
"Special Agent--may I call you Emma?"
"Of course, sir."
"I want to assure you, Emma," Lanman said, "that you were posted to Joshua's protective detail because of your exemplary service record. What he's going to talk to you about now was a small factor in your selection, but it was the last thing ever considered. Because we hoped we'd never have to ask you to do--well, we still hope it won't come down to the last resort, but at this point, you need to know everything."
Emma's stomach was fluttering, and not in a good way. "I'm sorry, sir, I don't understand."
"Joshua will explain everything," Lanman said. "I'm just asking you to remember your oath, Emma. You took this job knowing you might have to take a bullet for either him or me. In the next twenty-four hours, we might ask you to do something nearly as drastic. But we certainly hope not."
Emma had always wondered what was stored on Harrigan's encrypted tablet, the one he never used but always kept with him when FGOTUS traveled anywhere outside of DC. Now, alone behind the closed door of EXEC1F's galley area, she got to learn more than she ever wanted to know about the president, his husband, and why it would have been so difficult for Santillo to turn down Lanman's marriage proposal.
Everyone knew the public story: how Captain Ryan Lanman had commanded the first crewed mission to Mars aboard the long-duration spacecraft Marathoner, how Commander Joshua Santillo had been the first human to walk on the red planet, and how the two of them had been the only survivors of that disastrous expedition. Most of the world had watched the livestream of the first few astronauts succumbing to alien bacteria accidentally dug up from the Martian permafrost, before NASA had locked down the Marathoner's radio signal.
Months later, everyone had learned, after Lanman and Santillo returned safely to Earth, how Santillo--who had a doctorate in microbiology and field experience in epidemiology--had been able to devise a treatment to kill off the bacteria in their bodies and in their spacecraft. That first landing zone was now off-limits, and only robotic expeditions had visited Mars since. No more humans would go there until everyone was sure there were no other dormant Martian microorganisms waiting to ambush visitors.
Lanman had proposed to Santillo on the pitcher's mound after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at that year's World Series. The week after that, they had set a date for their wedding--and announced Ryan's bid for the presidency.
The election had been a landslide. No other candidate could compete with the patriotic romance of two hero astronauts who fell in love under dire circumstances and survived the ordeal with renewed commitments to each other, their nation, and their planet.
"We're all voting for the fanfic," Emma's wife Dani had said when they filled out their ballots together and dropped them in the mail.
But as usual in politics, there was more to the story.
Harrigan's tablet contained a complete accounting of the Mars mission, including the weeks on the surface when comms were blacked out and all the transmission gaps during the Marathoner's voyage home. A medical log listed "pair bond treatments" at regular, 200-hour intervals, and there was a video file labeled "typical symbiosis event."
Emma watched the playback in silent horror.
The video showed Lanman and Santillo in the Marathoner's medical bay. The timestamp in the corner of the image indicated it was about halfway through their flight back to Earth. And despite NASA's insistence that the astronauts had retained no living Martian samples, that was definitely a bright green alien fern--dark blue veins pulsing inside the green leaves, what looked like tiny cilia fluttering at the end of each frond--placed between the two men.
Lanman was seated on an exam bed, the fern was on an instrument stand next to him, and Santillo stood on the other side of the strange plant. Santillo had one sleeve of his jumpsuit rolled up. He extended his forearm toward the plant at the same time that Lanman leaned down and put his face next to it.
The fern's veins brightened, and the cilia extended, touching both men's skin and drawing fronds out, eventually wrapping several leaves around Santillo's arm and pressing other leaves against Lanman's face. The cilia extended and also grew brighter in color, until they were almost glowing, and Emma thought she could see a swirl of silver particles rising from the now vine-like tendrils.
One silver vine snaked into Lanman's open mouth, and he squeezed his eyes shut. Santillo's face was contorted and red. There was no audio in this file, but Emma was sure both men were screaming by now.
The whole plant shimmered with color, blue and green and silver, and the particles became a haze in Lanman's mouth. Santillo's own veins were visible under his skin, but in an unnatural white. The pale pattern of branches, almost like a slow spread of lightning, appeared on Lanman's face, too, crawling out from his mouth, as if reaching to engulf his entire head.
Then, with a shiver, the fern exploded in a flurry of silver, and Lanman and Santillo both fell backwards, sweaty and shaking. The alien plant had released them, and their whitened blood vessels slowly faded back to a normal color. Lanman gasped for breath as he lay on the exam bed, until Santillo injected him with something from a syringe they had obviously prepared beforehand. Then Santillo injected himself, and sat down on a chair, looking exhausted.
The video ended.
Emma sat there for a moment, shivering, then slammed the tablet face down on the galley table and stood. She yanked open the door to find Santillo standing there, his face sallow and dewed with perspiration. He had taken off his jacket, and there were damp circles under the arms of his dress shirt.
"I imagine you have some questions, Special Agent Szekeley," he in a shaky voice.
"Just a few," Emma said. "Let's start with: what the fuck is wrong with you?"
Santillo joined Emma in the galley, closed the door again, and talked her through it.
"We found a parasitic organism on Mars. Some kind of alien plant—it might not even be native. Our entire crew was infected. It killed everyone else before we could figure out what it wanted. I was only able to save Ryan."
"And yourself," Emma said. "So what does the plant want?"
"It wants--that's not the right word." Santillo shook his head weakly. "There's no intelligence at work here. It's just biology. The plant produces spores; those are the silver particles you saw on the video. But it requires distinct organic inputs to complete that part of its reproductive cycle, and it also uses hosts to carry those spores away."
"But why does it need both of you?"
"That's just how it works." Santillo shrugged. "Took me forever to figure out, but the plant bonds to host organisms in pairs. No more, no less; that's how the RNA functions, for some obscure evolutionary reason. Maybe in the distant past, there were Martian animals that involved this plant in their own reproductive cycles. Maybe the symbiosis events were even pleasurable for those animals."
Emma didn't appreciate having the image of little green men getting freaky with ferns stuck in her head. "It sure didn't look pleasurable for you and the president."
"It's even less pleasant when the symbiosis doesn’t happen," Santillo said. "That was our mistake on Mars. We quarantined people individually, but we needed to do it in pairs. I should have figured it out sooner." He clenched both hands into fists. "I could have saved everyone."
"You couldn't possibly have known," Emma offered. "But if I may ask, sir, how did you figure it out?"
Santillo wiped tears from his face. "I couldn't let Ryan die alone. It was just the two of us left at the end and I said fuck the quarantine, I'm going to be with him when he goes. I had left him in there with the plant, because he insisted on studying it as well, maybe give me some ideas I wouldn't think of on my own. And when I went in--well, we were lucky that it happened to be at the right time."
"The plant produces new spores every two hundred hours. That's every eight days and eight hours," Santillo said. "The plant will survive if it doesn't spore, but its hosts won't."
"How is that an evolutionary advantage?"
"It's actually quite elegant. The bonded animals have an incentive to remain near the plant, which also motivates them to cultivate more of the plant. You don't want to die just because you can't get your fern on every week. You and your partner, whoever that might happen to be. Two farmers are better than one."
Emma's head was spinning. "I'm not going to ask you whether there's an entire greenhouse of these Martian ferns at fucking Area 51 now."
"Good," Santillo said. "Because I wouldn't tell you." He looked at her with sad eyes. "But I do need to ask you to sacrifice something for your country, Special Agent Szekeley."
Emma knew she wasn't going to refuse, but she also wasn't going into this blind. "What's the compatibility factor? Obviously you and the president got super lucky on Mars, but why me and not any of the other poor souls on this plane?"
Santillo sighed heavily. "You've been vaccinated for smallpox. Most people under the age of sixty haven't."
Emma stared at him for a moment, then nodded. "We need to do this right now?"
"Within the next twelve hours would be ideal. And given what's going on with our Gromistani hosts--"
"Yeah. I know. Fuck it." Emma shrugged off her jacket. "Job security, right? I do this, and I'm assigned to protect either you or the president for the rest of my life?"
"Unless you pair-bond with someone else," Santillo said. "The plant doesn't care, as long as there are two different hosts feeding it. This will be only temporary, one way or another. We can read in your wife--"
"Let's cross that bridge later."
"Thank you, Special Agent Szekeley."
She grumbled. "You might as well start calling me Emma."
The Gromistani coup attempt ended up lasting almost forty-eight hours. A well-stocked, fully fueled private jet wasn't the worst place to pass the time--unless you were recovering from a close encounter of the alien-plant kind.
Emma had never been a drug addict, but she did quit smoking once every few years, and the twenty hours after her first plant-bonding session with Santillo felt--she estimated--about ten thousand times worse than weaning herself off nicotine.
They did the procedure in the galley--Harrigan also carried a small fern cutting in his travel bag, just in case a situation like this arose--and Emma stayed in there afterward, to recover. The embassy medical team wasn’t able to get through to the airport, so Harrigan stayed with Emma, making sure she was hydrated the whole time.
That was good, because Emma could barely breathe through the haze of pain that followed the initial symbiosis. At times, she thought she could feel and see tiny white tendrils snaking out of every pore in her skin, and she scratched at her arms until they bled. At other times, she felt like her teeth might be dissolving into a fine, dirt-flavored grit. Her tongue went numb from her biting it repeatedly, to make sure her teeth were still intact.
Eventually, somebody strapped her down to a chair and stuck an IV in her arm. Emma didn't know how long she lay there, staring at the ceiling, struggling against her restraints. But she regained her senses shortly before they landed at Andrews Air Force Base. And she realized she should have asked a few more questions before agreeing to this insane setup.
The pilot came into the galley to check on her while the rest of the passengers started deplaning.
"You okay?" the pilot asked, offering Emma a damp washcloth. "That was some serious food poisoning you had."
"I'll live." Emma pressed the cool cloth against her forehead. "Please go away."
Harrigan pulled the pilot away, feeding him the rest of the cover story, while Santillo stepped into the galley. Unlike Emma, he once again looked the perfect picture of handsome health. Bastard.
"It gets better," Santillo said, handing Emma another bottle of water. "I promise. We've got drugs that will help."
Emma took the water and glared at him. "I want a raise."
There was a lot of national-security-related paperwork for Emma to sign before they let her leave the airport. On one hand, she felt pretty badass to be included in the inner circle, but she didn't love all the restrictions and surveillance that she was under now. She and Dani. That was going to be a fun conversation when she got home.
Santillo and Harrigan escorted her from Andrews directly to the White House, where President Lanman met them privately in the Oval Office. He thanked Emma profusely for her service, apologized for not being able to honor her in public for her great sacrifice, blah blah blah. Emma continued to be impressed by how this man could deliver all the platitudes of his office with a straight face and always make everything sound fully sincere.
"If I may ask, sir," she said when he was done.
"Ask me anything. Please, sit." Lanman gestured at one of the two couches in the center of the room as he sat down on the facing couch. Emma had to look down as she sat, and couldn't avoid seeing the huge presidential seal on the rug beneath their feet. Harrigan sat down next to her, and Santillo sat next to his husband.
"Who was your plant buddy here at home yesterday?" Emma asked. "And can they be my plant buddy now?"
Lanman smiled thinly. "You're right, we do have contingency plans in case Josh and I can't be together every eight days. But it's always better if he and I undergo the symbiosis with each other. You've been through the process; you know how unpleasant the first few events are. Repeated exposure reduces the discomfort. Josh can explain the science."
"I can," Santillo said. "But it's a lot."
"Maybe later," Emma said. "You didn't answer my question, Mr. President."
"We prefer to keep our secondary hosts compartmentalized. For security reasons. You understand."
Yeah, but I don't like it, Emma thought. "And since you're already weaponizing this thing--"
"Nobody's said that." Santillo sat forward, alarmed. "Nobody's said anything like that."
Emma gave him a look. Bitch, please. "I'm not an idiot, sir. Just please tell me you all have made some progress on a vaccine or something. So we can all eventually get weaned off our weekly plant duty."
Lanman patted his husband's arm. "We are working on that, Special Agent Szekeley. But we can't promise when it might be viable. You understand."
Emma suspected she might come to hate that phrase soon. "Yes, sir."
"Anything else you want to ask us?"
"Maybe later, sir. I'd like to go home now."
Emma showered in the White House gym before she went home. Dani greeted her at the door with a desperate hug and enthusiastic kisses.
"I was so worried!" Dani dragged Emma into the kitchen. "Are you hungry? Did they feed you anything at the debriefing? I could make sandwiches--"
"I'm fine, baby." Emma put one hand on Dani's shoulder. "Come here."
They kissed slower and more gently this time. Dani slid both her hands under Emma's arms and up her back, and Emma couldn't help but think of silver vines creeping over her skin. She broke away abruptly.
"What's wrong?" Dani looked at her with concern. "Did you get hurt?"
"No, I--" Emma looked back at her wife, and for just a moment she saw the face of the pilot she'd slept with in Gromistan. Or was it the waiter she had bedded at a motel outside of Camp David last month? Emma definitely had a type. "I'm just exhausted. Sorry."
Dani smiled softly. "Don't even worry about it, babe. Come on. You need to sleep, I can tell."
Emma did her best to smile back. "You always know what I need."
After Dani helped Emma change into pajamas, tucked her into bed, and left the bedroom, Emma was left there, alone in the dark, staring at the ceiling. Thinking about how she should be happy to be home and lying in her own bed. How she ought to be grateful for such a loving wife. How she should do more to show her appreciation for Dani's patience with Emma's demanding job and often short temper.
The thing that Emma certainly should not be doing was thinking about picking up a sailor on shore leave and taking them to a hotel outside the city for a few hours. She should obviously not be looking forward to the next opportunity she had to sneak away from her beautiful, devoted wife in order to fuck a total stranger.
Emma didn't know how to stop herself. Sure, she could go to therapy, find one of those support groups for sex addiction, all that stuff. But that would jeopardize her security clearance. And she didn't want to give up everything she had just been granted access to. She simply had to make herself be more faithful to her wife.
Or have something else help her with that.
Emma held up her left arm, the one she'd used on the plane to plant-bond with Santillo. She thought she could still see, just barely, a hint of the white glinting in the veins under her skin.
The plant would want them to be together every eight days. They'd be forced into intimacy at least once a week. That was more often than most married couples had sex, wasn't it?
And if it was good enough for the President and the First Gentleman, who were Emma and Dani to resist biology?
Emma put her arm down and fell asleep. She dreamed of a silver rain.