For James Tiptree, Jr.
Doctor An left in the early hours of the morning on a hipu bound for the heliport on the military base on the Perimeter. He didn’t sleep much that night. A secret mission would take him, over the course of the day, through the main cities of Iris, to discuss his discoveries with high-level officials and a hidden group of SaintRei scientists. He couldn’t stop coughing during the trip to the heliport. The hipu driver commented: it’s that time of year. He took out a little spray bottle to soothe his throat.
The heliplane pilot saw Doctor An get onboard and gestured to the ground technicians that he was ready for takeoff. Once in the air, the pilot’s thoughts turned to what had happened the night before. He had slept with an Irisian for the first time. One of the base’s translators had invited him to her house on the outskirts of the Perimeter. He had to move with caution so his brodies wouldn’t find out. They’d had a wonderful couple of hours.
Only then did he realize that Doctor An was talking to him. The air was very cold, could he turn it up a little. The doctor coughed and, in short order, he was asleep.
When Doctor An arrived in Megara, forty-five minutes later, the shan who had given him a ride that morning was being admitted to the hospital. She was driving the hipu through the city when a trickle of blood ran out of her mouth. She felt surrounded by a toxic cloud that covered her bodi and reminded her of all her scars, those she had and those that were to come: the palm of her right hand burned and the bite she had received from a bulldog when she was six reemerged, out there in a little town in the hinterland of Munro; her left knee creaked and the snapped cruciate ligament from when she was playing fut21 at fifteen in her district returned; there was a stabbing pain in her abdominal cavity and she knew that an inguinal hernia was foreseen in her future. She wanted to catch her breath, but strange things were drawing near. Very strange. She stopped the hipu and the male shan who accompanied her heard her shout that a ship had just stopped in front of them in the middle of the avenue and that from it were descending forty-five aliens with green skin and astronaut masks. Don’t let them take me, she implored while she tried to tear off her uniform. Don’t let them, she said, and she collapsed against the steering wheel; her hands were trembling. The other shan moved her to the backseat and drove quickly toward the Perimeter, wondering why forty-five and not fifty.
The meeting in Megara took place in a room on the military base. Doctor An was known for his lack of charisma; when he talked to people, he never looked them in the eye, possessed by an insuperable shyness. Sitting at a round table before officials and scientists, in a room on the eighth floor, he started watching the flight of the lánsès through the window and said, his voice barely audible, that by the next month those birds would be in Africa, kilometer after kilometer of little wingbeats that would give rise to a great opportunity. One of the attendees noticed he was more restless than usual. He was friends with a woman who, for a time, had slept with the doctor. The woman had spread the rumor that he had strange habits, like sleeping on the marble floor of his pod and praying for an hour every night to an Irisian god who preached the virtues of karma. This fueled his legend. But nothing fueled it more than his work.
Real stubborn, the woman had said. And fokin brilliant, di. As if a concept, somethin that seemed simple, he could hold it down for nus, as if he couldn’t go on without exploring its complexity. At first I thought he was kinda dense. I was wrong. The capacity ta wonder at things the world accepts as normal tends to show up n’a superior mind. He proved he’s on anotha level when he discovered those unexpected effects of serotonin conversion. It’s a shame SaintRei kept him from continuing. Den the countermand came and they gave him a riskier project, who knows why. Curious that radical ideas come out of someone so conservative. A defender of the statuquo. It was hard for him to shake hands with Irisians. When he was in their presence, he acted as if they didn’t exist. Women weren’t on his level either, di. Really, I was like a ghost to’im. In his pod, holos of Doctor Held, a lady from his team, you remember, famous for her unorthodox methods, like injecting herself with the substances that they den tested in the shanz. He didn’t talk about’er but I understood that her death was a blow to him and he wanted to carry on her research. I understood that she the one oo’s really fascinated with Irisian cults and transmigrations and karmas. I dunno if he believed, sometimes I suspected dat‘ee wanted to believe in homage to her. A way of preserving her.
(If Doctor An had heard the conversation, he would have told them their description of Doctor Held fell short. Everyone fell short in speaking of her, Doctor Honey, that was her nickname, honey honey honey, so pretty with that brilliant brain, a perfect oval. If they had asked him what about her made words insufficient, he would have answered, assuming the limits of any story that could be told about her, remembering the time she appeared in a meeting with their team, a meeting in which Doctor An participated, and stuck a compound they had just processed in her mouth, a compound so powerful there were no volunteers to try it. A compound that was meant to abduct the brain of whoever tried it and transform them into a plant. Doctor An saw how Doctor Held’s face changed, as if the muscles were cut loose and her eyes were melting over themselves, and he fell in love with her. He wanted to follow her example, and he tried the compound. Seeing the world with the eyes of a plant had changed his life. Sometimes they chatted with the bushes in the lab’s gardens. It bothered him when the others stepped on the grass. That first time, he had also been able to speak to Doctor Held, who was as lost as him in the murky world of plants. They were river plants, with subterranean roots in the mossy Waters of the End in the Malhado Valley, and they told each other of their solitude. Not long after that, Doctor An slept with Doctor Held. It was the day after they threatened to suspend her for the unnecessary risks she was taking. Every time he slept with her, they were both aquatic plants. It felt good being there, bobbing in the tranquility of the water, although sometimes, when he couldn’t find her, he felt a bite of anguish and thought he was the only inhabitant of a deserted world. Doctor Held, doctorita, docdocdoc, he whispered, and there was no answer. Doctor held, I’ll see ya in the other world, he would say, but then she would appear and touch his cold hands, she was a carnivorous plant she said, you’re mine mine, and then she insisted that there was no other world, every everything’sin this’n.)
During the meeting in Megara, Doctor An explained himself with concepts that only other scientists could understand. Chemical diagrams appeared in the holo in the center of the table. A molecular engineer who had worked with him before tried to translate these formulas to a more intelligible language for the officials, but the doctor cut him off and said he could do that after he left. An coughed and raised his inhaler to his mouth, and the engineer joked:
Careful not to give nus flu.
I wouldn’t mind, said An, and nobody liked his response.
The engineer translated as soon as the doctor left: his team had succeeded in creating an incredibly powerful chemical weapon, he said, his voice cracking with excitement. The gas contained a compound similar to the prohibited MDPV. Doctor An had discovered how to use it effectively. It produced terrifying lysergic visions: the victim could feel like he was fighting against himself, he could think a legion of clones surrounded him, planning to kill him. Visions so intolerable that the victim would attempt suicide to escape from them. If he had a riflarpoon at hand, he would either shoot himself or try to open his veins. He might jump from the top floor of a building or try to drown himself in a river. The gas left no traces, which was fundamental because Munro had prohibited any type of chemical weapon on Iris. The past condemned them. The Irisian uprisings had to be crushed using traditional arms.
Munro will find out, said one of the officials. It’s impossible, a gas like that has to leave traces.
An’s word, said the engineer. I trust him. That’s why his team took so many years.
His lab is famously baddun, said another officer. There’ve been unexplained deaths.
Doctor Held is the one who gave him badrep, said the engineer. She died on her own terms, that’s all there is to it. That’s all over.
(Nothing was over, Doctor An would have said if he had heard the conversation. Doctor Held was the one who put nus on track. The Irisian gods had taught her oare true mission. Long may she live.)
Two officials burst into applause and others followed their lead.
The heliplane arrived in Kondra at the exact moment when, walking to his lab, the molecular engineer thought he saw a hipu approaching him and ordering him to stop. He paused and put one of his hands on his forehead to block out the sun and see the hipu’s passengers. Suddenly another hipu appeared behind the first. Then another on the right, on the left, and two behind him. The hipus multiplied until they became a fleet blocking the streets all around him; he managed to count twenty-five.
Out of the hipus descended shanz with pustules on their faces, long necks, and cleft lips. Shanz with long fangs and fingers with twisted nails.
The engineer felt the breath knocked out of his stomach. He coughed and drops of blood came out.
The hipu driver who had checked into the Iris hospital had died. Her internal organs seemed to have exploded. One of the doctors told an official on the Perimeter that it was a strange case, that before they cremated the bodi they should do an investigation. The official agreed.
The heliplane that took Doctor An to Kondra was not driven by the same pilot who departed from Iris. The original pilot had fallen ill and stayed on the air base at Megara. He was sitting on a bench in a room, pale, waiting for the doctors, when he started retching. He wanted to control it but he couldn’t. Something that was not liquid came uncontrollably up his throat. The pilot saw that his mouth was expelling enormous zhizes with blue bodis and bulging eyes and he screamed, terrified. He scratched at his face and pulled off his uniform as if it were burning him. He started running naked down one of the base’s hallways, pursued by two shanz. One of them shot him with a tranquilizer dart that knocked him to the floor. In short order, he was asleep. A trickle of blood ran out of his lips.
In Kondra, a group of scientists eagerly awaited Doctor An. Before beginning the meeting, they approached to greet him, with the respect owed to someone on his level, someone able to light up a room with his presence. His tiredness was evident, as was his nervousness; it was hard to understand, the doctor was awkward and shy but his serenity in high-tension situations was well known. And then there were the stupid jokes. Two scientists had heard tell that a very active substance had been lost a couple of days before in his lab. They didn’t play around with things like that on a military base.
One of the biologists told him that, in spite of the admiration he felt for him, he didn’t agree with his last project, and he accused him of manufacturing weapons of chemical warfare.
Lysergic warfare, you mean, said Doctor An.
It’s the same thing, the biologist blinked as if afflicted by a tic. The Irisians will be its victims, and they won’t care about its exact name.
We must be precise. But, in th’end, what you say is true.
The biologist didn’t know what to say. He was ready for an argument, not for the doctor to tell him he was right.
Someone wanted to talk about industrial applications, but Doctor An laughed.
The only possible application is military, he said.
His words were lost between his teeth, the scientists had to prick up their ears to hear him. An launched into a rushed speech about evolution and said its course was mistaken.
Cicadas and crickets used to sing and nau they don’t. They’ve adapted to nus, to hide from nus. A stupid example that we could multiply to all levels. We’re capable of’at. Not to mention what we do among lil humans and those we think are unlike nus. I don’t know anymore if a superior race inna future will be able to fix oare mistake. I trusted’n karma. If I did well’n this life, I would return in the next as something better, more advanced. The reward for my sacrifices. But they I had a revelation thanks to you, Doctor Honey. Karma only takes place’n this life. What comes after doesn’t matter. Not even finding you again. We already lived what we lived. That’s enough. We deserve this punishment. We deserve to disappear. We wanted to take charge of the Irisians. Why, if they’re the ones who gave nus these gods? They’ve taught nus to use magic plants. We can only learn from people with these gods and plants. We want to leave their island and leave them in peace. And so, Doctor Honey and I will do all we can to ensure that someday we all disappear, all of nus who form part of this mission.
One of the scientists thought that perhaps Doctor An was drunk.
The doctor kept talking about his work to transform stimulant drugs into hallucinogens. His team had succeeded in synthesizing a compound much more potent that than efedrone, MDVP-2, that they called Honey. If MDVP was ten times stronger than cocaine, MDVP-2 or Honey was twenty times stronger. He described its effects dryly, in four sentences, and few understood. One of the scientists felt inspired to give more illustrative examples.
Imagine, he said, that your brain is a bathroom sink and water drips endlessly fromda tap. These drops of water are dopamine and itsin its natural form, dis. With methamphetamines, what we do is open the tap to the max. With coke, we put in a plug soda water stays inda sink. With MDPV-2, or Honey, we do both things at the same time. The result is that the drug floods the brain and the effects don’t stop. The victim can die within minutes or in five, ten days.
Doctor An looked at him as if envious of his didactic capabilities. He added that animals could recover ninety percent of the time, but humans suffered the worst effects; no one survived more than three weeks. Honey was viable in any environment and it diffused easily through the air. The contagion rate was very high.
An official asked a question. Doctor An asked him to repeat it. He took out the spray and hardly noticed as one of the scientists started running for the door. A chair fell, another scientist jumped over it and ran out of the room. An kept talking, as if nothing was happening around him. The biologist raised his hand to his nose and found drops of blood; an official felt that his hands were burning and saw that Doctor An had become a monster with arms like tentacles and transparent skin—he could see his heart.
There’s no way to defend yourself, said the doctor. What I’ve done is very bad. I warned the officials when they assigned me the project. We’re all wrong, and karma will come for nus all. But, luckily, it’s all over.
An walked toward the door as two officials trained their guns at him. He didn’t try to resist. The officials were afraid to approach him and they ordered a shan to cuff him. He started mumbling something about the migratory routes of the lánsès. He said it was impossible to contain something within the confines of Iris. Everything went to the Outside. His voice was hoarse.
He closed his eyes as if he were about to fall asleep. Drops of blood ran out of his ears. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, marks of an uncontrolled fever.
Hot hot, he murmured, until you see the wounds. But you won’t die, Honey. I won’t let you die. Karma comes for alla nus in this life, but not for you. I hope I saved you. You’ve stayed there, you were honey and nau you’re Honey. What a terrible truth, daughter of chaos under the golden light, spinning solo’n space.
One of the officials asked for a stretcher. Another said that after what he had done they should let him die. They took him to the hospital in an ambulance. He was there for ten days, fighting for his life, unconscious most of the time, although sometimes the fever made him rave. The SaintRei guys recorded everything, trying to find clues that would help them understand his motives. By then, the two heliplane pilots had died, just like several officials and scientists who had contact with Doctor An on the day of his final flight. They had closed his lab and confiscated highly toxic substances, analyzing the function of the spray, the antidote that he injected before leaving that allowed him to live longer than the rest.
Doctor doc doc, said An’s tormented voice in the room where they had isolated him. Queen, Doctor Held. Oare life, your death. Oare death woulda been your death, let’s avoid that. They’re not to blame, no. They’re not nus, but then who is nus. Queen, doctor, you are very cold. The Outside can’t keep nus apart. The nightmares are with nus when awake. Fulfil the duty, insubordination and evidence you. You were forgotten but you weren’t. You were the poison remedy. We wanted to call it Held. But honey is better, Honey. I was the bee and you the honey. Or maybe you the bee and I the honey. Beehoney, beehoney. There’s no beyond there’s no beyond. It all stops’ere and there’s no more.
His ruined throat released a moan. Then, Doctor An died.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Edmundo Paz Soldán (Cochabamba, 1967) is a Bolivian writer. He has lived in the United States since 1991, and has taught literature at Cornell University since 1997. His published works include the novels Días de papel [Days of paper] (1992), Sueños digitales [Digital dreams] (2000), The Matter of Desire (2004), Turing's Delirium (2006), Norte [North] (2011), and Iris (2014), as well as the short story collections Amores imperfectos [Imperfect loves] (2000), Simulacros (1999), and Lazos de familia [Family ties] (2008), among others. He has also published collections of essays and criticism. He was awarded the Premio Juan Rulfo 1977 for the short story "Dochera," the Premio Nacional de Novela 2002 in Bolivia for Turing's Delirium, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
LALT No. 6 goes from the gripping true stories of literary journalism to the strange worlds of fantastic short stories and graphic literature. We highlight chronicles by Colombian journalist Alberto Salcedo Ramos, speculative fiction in a dossier curated by Mexican writer Alberto Chimal, and Yucatec Maya poetry and prose in our ongoing Indigenous Literature series.