Pod people



Nell was having none of it. Not anymore. Her husband simply refused to even try to breathe air. The doctor said he could, that his lungs could adapt to this environment, but he disagreed. Trouble was, he’d never know unless he tried.

Elowyn had read about other Marenians who had converted to air breathing. He’d never met one, of course. How could he? There were only three who lived in this state, and the closest was two hours away by plane. No airline would let him on a plane with his argon suit, that was a given. Their fears were unproven, but policy was policy.

They’d met three years ago at the landing site. She was a reporter, alerted by the scanner in the office that something was coming from the skies again. That scanner was worth its cost from all the leads it provided. Quick as a wink she was downstairs and in her car, trying to not drive off the road as she followed the plumes of green clouds stretching like a tightrope from the eastern sky to some nearby cornfield – Mr. O’Reilly’s, most likely. He had the biggest one, so it stood to reason. She turned down Ellis Way and got there before the locals did. Farmers listened to the scanner same as reporters did, and for much the same reason. It was the best way to know what was going on that might be of interest. Something like this would pull them out of their barns for sure.

Just think of it! Aliens! Here! In Mill City!

Nell had guessed the pod’s trajectory right and reached the small crater it created just after the police had gotten there. The ground was still steaming next to the blue (metal?) craft. She noticed that there was a bright iridescent sheen across the pod’s surface, reflecting the late afternoon summer sun, as well as a distinctive sharp smell much like ammonia, but she couldn’t quite place it.

They didn’t know at the time but it turned out that the color and the smell were both hallmarks of the Marenians. They both came about because their ships were alive, growing out of the same stuff as the people. This way they could self-repair. It saved a lot of money and time that way. It worked perfectly as long as they stayed in the Marenian solar system because the elements were more or less the same throughout.

Earth, however, was another matter entirely. The stresses of the previous crashes had resulted in every pod going into automatic repair mode, sending wispy tendrils into the soil to gather the raw materials needed to boil up replacement parts in the integral kitchen/lab. Three minutes after the tendrils went down, they came back up, spit out what dirt they’d sampled, and retracted back into the beetle-like shell, refusing to budge. The self-preservation instinct was the strongest one, so the pods calmly explained in their proto-language to the pilot inside them that the soil was not compatible with their electrochemical makeup, so repairs would not be forthcoming. As trained, each pod then sent out a trans-space summons for another pod to make the trek to bring dirt from home so repairs could proceed.

The only problem was that these supply pods came and they too became stranded. They’d underestimated the amount of dirt needed for the repairs.  The pods were small, with barely enough room for the pilot.  Even if they were able to navigate without a pilot there still wouldn’t have been enough room for dirt to repair both ships.

No matter – flying without a pilot wasn’t an option. Each pod was raised with its pilot from the moment s/he was formerly admitted to the astro-nav program. Saying that they were synchronized wasn’t the half of it. Cells were harvested from under the tongue of the pilot and cultured over three weeks, growing into a ship that learned as the pilot learned. This was no simple cloning. The two beings were separate in body only. All past, present, and future were shared.

This created a dilemma when the pods, and thus the pilots, began to be stranded. Without hope of repair, the pods chose to self-terminate, opting for a quick death over a slow lingering one. The pilots had to be tranquilized before the pods could self-euthanize. Otherwise it would have been too painful for them to endure. Some later, once they’d learned the local language, said it was like amputation of half your limbs and your brain.  Many were encouraged to adopt dogs afterwards as the closest Earth option to the deep connection that they had shared with the ships.

Nell had worked closely with Elowyn after the crash, helping him to adjust to Earth living.  There was no going back to Marenia, so he had to learn a whole different culture. This was made easier because of his astro-nav training, but it was still understandably difficult.

She’d not planned on adopting a stray, but the Mayor assured her that she was the most qualified person in the city for the job.  Simply being a reporter, curious about new things, made her ideal, he said.  Put that way, how could she refuse? It was a high honor to be deemed worthy of helping a stranded Marenian.  You were serving as an ambassador for the whole planet, after all.  The future of the relationship between the two solar systems would be created from these one-on-one relationships.

It was about a year later that they both realized that they were quite compatible together and decided to formalize their pairing.  Fortunately for them, other human-Marenian pairs had formed before they had even met, and laws had been changed to allow for interspecies marriage.  There was only one difference with these marriages and all others – one member of the union had to be sterilized.   Doctors weren’t comfortable with what could happen if a child was created.

There was no way a child could have been created in the case of Nell and Elowyn. He was still hermetically sealed inside his argon suit.  He had to have it to breathe on Earth, he insisted.  The material in the suit was fortunately impervious to decay, or he would have a more difficult time of it.

Nell was quietly upset when she learned this, hoping that he’d eventually be forced to adapt to Earth ways.  She loved him, of course, but she thought that things would be better for both of them if he didn’t wear that darned suit.  It made going out to visit friends awkward.  Plus, the smell took some getting used to.  The ammonia-like smell was a byproduct of the impervious material.  It was unnoticeable on Marenia, but on Earth it alerted others that there was a foreigner around even before they saw him.  It made some people not want to deal with Marenians at all, saying that they smelled like used gym socks.

Nell and Elowyn mostly kept to themselves at home when she wasn’t working.  He didn’t have to work – none of the stranded pilots did.  They didn’t need food, and they weren’t interested in owning anything.  If they couldn’t carry it, they didn’t need it – this philosophy was part and parcel of being a Marenian.  It was how they had finally adapted to a planet with too many people and not enough land.  They didn’t even need to live in homes anymore, having selectively bred themselves over twenty-three generations to be unaffected by temperature changes or ultraviolet rays.  Some did live in homes on Marenia out of habit or convenience, and most pilots on Earth did as well, but it wasn’t uncommon to see one hanging out with homeless people under overpasses or near street corners. They were comfortable wherever they happened to be.

The Marenians got along with the homeless population uncommonly well.  They had in common their philosophy of “less is more”, albeit perhaps unwillingly for some of the homeless.  Soon the Marenians and homeless had developed a spiritual system – not a religion – about this, encouraging others to get rid of their addiction to things. They explained that there was a reason that the Earth language used the word “possession” to refer to things as well as being taken over by demons.

It had to be a spiritual system because a religion would require stuff – books or buildings, for instance, and this was totally opposed to their beliefs.  Of course, many years later, after the founders had died and no more new Marenians came to Earth, their simple way was converted like all other spiritual paths had been and there were not only cathedrals to “less is more” but also gift shops with plastic trinkets made in China.

Nobody told me about death

It was such a surreal time when my mom was dying. Nothing in my life had prepared before it, and nobody helped me through it. It was strange for her to, of course, so she was not able to help. The person I had always looked to for guidance was looking to me for strength.

The hospice social worker read off a set list questions – “What do you want to do?” “What life goals have you not achieved?” I guess the idea was to try to do some of these things before she died. It all seemed cruel and thoughtless. She couldn’t do these things – not enough energy anymore, or time. Visit England, her birthplace? Not possible. See me graduate / get married / be an adult? Not possible. 53 is a young death, and all preventable. She signed her death certificate the day she started smoking. She tried to quit but didn’t stick with it for many reasons. Something stressful would happen. She was bored. Dad wouldn’t quit.

Milton suggested that Adam ate the apple because Eve had, and he didn’t want her to be alone in being banished from the garden. He sacrificed his own happiness to be with her, to support her. Is this part of it? Or was it just a simple ugly habit, an addiction?

Near the end hospice sent over an aide they’d hired from a home healthcare company. She was a skinny black woman of limited education. She browsed our bookshelves and pointed out those that she felt were expensive. They weren’t – we often found large hardback photo books on the remainder table for under $10. We collected them and savored them, as the library in our city was small, and far away. After she said this I felt obliged to stay in the room with her all the time, which defeated the purpose of having her there. The point was to have a trained person with my Mom so I could go get errands done, or simply have some time off from the endless task of tending her by myself.

The aide also wanted to use Vaseline to swab my Mom’s mouth, saying that dying people’s mouths get dry. They do, but Vaseline isn’t the answer. That is weird. “Would you want Vaseline in your mouth?” I asked her. No answer. She couldn’t empathize.

She also had a bit of note paper in a folder she brought in. She’d written “The devil is real” and “You’re going to die!!!” on it. I asked her about it. She said that sometimes the people she tended would “act up” and she’d shove this in their faces to quiet them. I called hospice and said she never needed to tend my mother or anyone else ever again. They said she was leaving that company to go tend people who were profoundly mentally and physically handicapped. I replied that “She does not need to be around anyone who cannot defend themselves”. They had no answer, it was out of their hands they said. She wasn’t hired by them, it was through another company.

Around the same time a lady named Bernice was there. She went to the Episcopal Church that Father Rainsford had visited at and preached. He used Mom’s story in a sermon. He did not ask if he could, but that is another story. Bernice felt moved by the story to ask if she could help since I was tending Mom all by myself. She helped watch the watcher and later went, by my suggestion, to get hoagies from Ankar’s. She’d never had them before. They are my family’s comfort food. Submarine sandwiches don’t even come close.

I remember how weird it was when Father Rainsford came over towards the end and did last rights. That made it really real. He called out the page in the Book of Common Prayer. I was one I’d never seen before, and I scanned the title of the section. It is page 462 if you are interested, and it is titled “Litany at the Time of Death”. I’d not asked him to do it, but he knew it was time. I wasn’t ready for it. She died maybe a week later. She’d not talked for a week before this, but chimed in when we recited the Lord’s Prayer.

People who are dying see things that others don’t. Mom asked about that man who was sitting there, pointing towards the couch. No man had been in the house for days at that point.

People who are dying do unusual things. She was picking at her bedclothes. She took all the Kleenex out of a box, one by one. She filled in random letters in the crossword puzzle she was working on. Late one night she had nightmares, visions. She was quite anxious, calling out. I could not calm her. I called hospice, who sent out a nurse who gave her more anti-anxiety medicine. He said that people tended to die the way they lived. Since Mom had smoked a cigarette every 20 minutes of her adult life, she was quite unable to calm herself without chemical intervention.

Months earlier she’d finally came to understand about my pot usage at the time. She refused to try it, afraid that the doctor would find out through blood tests. What would they do – arrest a dying woman? Refuse further treatment? If she had tried it she would have been happier, more at peace, better able to process her feelings. It takes the edge off, and it is hard to think when life is all edges and angles. Plus she might have not lost much weight since she would have been hungry, and pot is also an anti-emetic. The wasting away from throwing up from chemotherapy drugs is awful. The “cure” is sometimes worse than the disease. Surely there has to be a better way to heal than by putting poison into people’s veins. It makes no sense at all.

The neighbors provided food. The priest visited. Hospice nurses and volunteers came. It still wasn’t enough, and still none of them told me what to expect. Hospice provided a page of “things that might happen” but it wasn’t enough. I needed someone to sit down with me and let me know that this crazy event that was happening was normal, and here’s what to do and not do.

Nobody told me what to expect. Nobody counseled me. Nobody thought to care for or about me, the 25-year-old child, not yet an adult, he was tending her mother, her friend, her roommate, alone and without training. I would suspect it is just as hard to do this at 50, but at least then you’ve had a bit more life experience to call upon.

At the end my aunt came, even though we were against it because of letters that she had written my Dad, saying that Mom would be better off dead. There was no one else I could invite to stay over to help me. Friends left me. In spite of my years of church involvement, church members never showed. Did they know? This is one of the disadvantages of being in a large congregation.

If I was pregnant, for instance, I suspect that someone would tell me what to expect, how to handle this. There are books at least. But people don’t talk about death. It is the elephant in the room. Perhaps they don’t know what to say? Perhaps I appeared to be handling it so well that they thought I knew. It was a façade, a front. In the back behind the scenes, I was alone, made more so by the fact that my counselor, my support, my friend, my roommate was leaving me, fading away to nothing right before my eyes.