Her ship docked at the tiny outpost station. However, you wouldn't know that if you were looking out the window because the station was literally tiny, looking more like a metallic star far off in the distance than a fully operational station. She hadn't seen him in a long time, not since training, before he was recruited for this mission. She wondered about him, especially during launches, and if he missed them. Now he was stuck at this station, all his time spent shrunk down to better work with the alien race that had accidentally populated one of the nearby planets out here. A freak accident on NASA's part that turned beneficial. They knew more than the humans did, and they didn't require special suits or gear to navigate the long stretches of space.
She'd been asked to resupply their station with a package that fit on the tip of her pinky. She wished he could be sized up to receive it, not the other way around. She didn't care for the idea of a smaller her. Especially not with them walking around the station. On Earth, it was one thing to be bigger than them. You could squash them if you really wanted to, not that she did, not as a habit. Maybe they thought if he sized up, then he wouldn't want to go back. Better to keep things normal for him.
The bodiless voice of the station asked if she was ready. One moment, she was a standard-sized human in the chamber linking her ship to the station. The next, she was small, and the package that fit on her pinky required the help of many mutated ladybugs to move. She remembered her training and didn't stare, not that she'd want to look anyway. Ladybugs, she thought, were probably the cutest out of a species of disgusting creatures. However, their tiny defense mechanisms and resilient bodies would create monsters if seen in full size, in the size they were now right behind her. She remembered sleeping in her parent's bed for weeks after the babysitter let her watch Them! on television. Giant ants running around on waving stick legs, clicking their pincers, and trying to eat everyone. She was sure she would have continued sleeping in their bed until college had the boy down the street, not shown her what a magnifying glass and the sun could do. She'd had real power while using it. That's when she'd started to look up instead of down at Earth. When she began to wonder what else could be gotten from up there.
She wished she had her magnifying glass now. She had been warned before coming to keep her thoughts to herself. Their knowledge was valued, essential, and far outweighed humans. What had been an accident resulted in the greatest leap in space travel for her planet. Her commander didn't care that she was "squeamish," that their bodies looked like blood-red armor, that their jerky movements on so many legs made her feel like you never knew which way they were about to walk, an unpredictable species. He didn't care that you couldn't tell where their eyes were, not until you shown a light into their faces and saw the red rings next to the white markings. And he definitely didn't care that their mutated pincers had rows of sharp black teeth, like a rotted shark's mouth, rows and rows of them, sliding and clicking together as they walked behind her. What he did care about was the knowledge they received from their oversized antenna, as long as their bodies, thick black cables that told them everything, maybe even told them about her disgust right now and in a quieter way, smaller in the back of her mind, about her fear.
If he wasn't in this space station, she might have broken protocol and took off as soon as they had the supplies on base. She had heard rumors of it happening, of the unease the few pilots before her had felt, old prejudices about insects and their rightful place in our hierarchy. But it had felt important to her to see him again. She'd always wondered what would have happened if he had not been stationed here, the only human among the ladybugs. Even with them behind her, she could not forget their presence, their movements somehow both mechanical and primal, the juicy suction cupping sound of their walking. Her stomach turned over with the vacuum-sealed freeze-dried eggs and bacon breakfast from this morning.
The hallway eventually opened up to a round white room. When her eyes adjusted to the brightness, she saw large white tiles lining the walls and climbing into a dome above them. It reminded her of the Pantheon in Rome, an odd choice of architecture to model a space station after, she thought. At the center of this room, a statue stood highlighted directly under the skylight oculus, a circle of space directly over the white marble ladybug. Had she looked closer, she’d have seen a plaque near the statue that read, "Dolores." If she'd stop to read the plaque, she would've learned of her bravery. How she'd been the first ladybug in space, and about her discoveries. Including the one that led her to mate with an alien that produced this mutated race. It would have a great many nice things to say about Dolores, but all she could see was him waiting for her and smiling. He didn't look any older than when they had parted ten years ago, the benefits to living on this station millions of lightyears away from Earth's gravitational pull on his body. But he remembered her, she could tell, even after all this time and space.
He greeted her warmly, "Safe flight? Have any trouble finding the place?" She laughed at the old colloquialisms of their home planet.
"No, the coordinates couldn't have been more accurate."
"Good, good. I was afraid I was never going to see another human again."
He steered her towards a door she hadn't seen at first when she entered the room, his hand on her lower back, guiding her towards it, leaving the ladybugs behind in the circular room.
She took a moment to enjoy his touch, but her mind was full of questions, "You mean not one of those cowards ever stopped here? Didn't you tell the commander? So you haven't seen another human in all this time? How could you stand it here with just them?"
His hand left her back. She took a breathe so he could answer. "A few weeks into being stationed here, my communication link stopped working. Basically, I couldn't make any outgoing calls. The data from my work sends automatically, so nothing appeared interrupted out here." He looked behind them, back to where they had left the ladybugs. "As for them, well— they've been my only solace out here."
He looked back at her unbelieving face and smiled, "They really are an amazing species, you know. I've learned a lot from them."
She sneered but kept quiet. Amazing wouldn't have been her first choice of words to describe what she had seen of them.
"You get used to them after a while, and once I learned their language, it became really nice working with them, actually."
"They have a language? And you learned it?" she asked.
"Well, of course, they do. Sign language and charades will only get you so far. It actually wasn't too difficult to learn, and they really respected me after that. Respect is important in their culture. And you also have to prove you're valuable to them. Otherwise, you just become another ration."
He laughed at his own joke, but she wondered if maybe he wasn't really joking. Nothing in the briefings she'd read of their species actually talked about what they ate. She looked at him, his eyes crinkling at the sides, so happy. He seemed so normal out here under the circumstances. She didn't think she could have adapted so easily. After being up close with him, she realized her first impression of him was wrong. He hadn't aged, but he had changed. His mannerisms were different. He moved slowly like he didn't want to startle the space around him. And his facial expressions were off, even the way he looked at her was wrong. She blamed it on the isolation of this place. When she left here, the first thing she was going to do was tell her commander and get them to fix his communication. She'd even see about getting visitors out here instead of just a resupply drop every two years. Ten years was far too long a time to go without real communication, despite what he said about how pleasant the alien bugs had been to him. The more she learned, the more unsettled she felt about being here, but she wasn't ready to leave him yet. When he asked her if she wanted a tour, she readily agreed, an excuse to continue being with him.
They made their way around the station slowly as he explained in great detail everything about his job up here. She had thought he'd want to reminisce with her about their time in training. That he'd ask if she ever heard from Johnny or Samburn. Or that he'd mention the day they'd gotten stuck together in the malfunctioning training pod. But maybe bringing up the past and other people would be too difficult for him.
He took her through each console, explaining each button and switch, the tracking and note-taking he did, and what monitors he paid attention to. If it had been anyone else showing her around the station, she doubted whether she would have been able to pay attention otherwise. But he hadn't spoken to another human in so long, she let him talk. He showed her the manual he'd written translating their language. He laid the thick volume on top of his logs and winked. "Trust me," he said, "It's not as complicated as it looks." She laughed to cover up her uncomfortableness. There was no way she would ever learn a language to communicate with them. She already planned on taking a long shower as soon as she got back on her ship to wash away the itch she felt every time she thought of them lurking somewhere near them.
They continued on, moving deeper into the station. He pointed out large cargo doors at the end of another hallway. "That's their side of the station, where they take their half of the supplies." He gave a slight shiver. "We won't go in there. Best to stick to the common areas and your quarters." She put her hand on his arm and smiled coyly, finally, she thought, the opening she had been waiting for. "Speaking of your quarters, I still have some time before I have to take off. Should we end the tour there?"
"Actually," he said, returning her smile, "I have something even better to show you."
She followed him closely, almost bumping into him when he stopped short before another door. He stepped aside so she could enter, but when she turned around ready to wrap her arms around him, like all the times they had snuck off during training, the doors closed behind her, his face visible on the other side of the glass. She laughed, all still a game to her, "What are you doing?" His smile was gone, though. She tried to open the door the way he had, but it wouldn't respond. She looked back at him, confused, and repeated her question with more concern.
"I'm sorry," he said. She didn't think he looked very apologetic, though. "I can't stay any longer. You just have to do what they say, ok? Maybe you'll get lucky, and the next pilot will stop like you did, but you have to keep working. Learn their language, be valuable to them. You won't like the alternative." He held a palm up to the glass where her cheek would be. "I really am sorry about this."
She scrunched up her brow, still confused, still thinking it wasn't over. "But it's me. You know me. You... you'd told me you'd loved me." She brought her fists to the door, "Don't you remember? Remember when we were in training? You can't do this." But he was already shaking his head and backing away. "Wait! Please. We can go together, we can be together again. Don't leave me here!"
He took one last look at her and said, "I'm sorry, but I don't know who you are."
And then he was gone. His silence replaced by the beeping of buttons that needed to be pushed and the sliding and clicking of their many mouths.
Kate Sowinski lives outside of Philadelphia with a Siamese cat and works for a private detective. She is currently writing a children's book series about a chameleon who solves crimes.