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Wherein Gaila is molting

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Gaila wakes up itchy at 0530 and moans when she looks in the mirror. Her belly is splotched with yellow and red. At her waist the skin is brittle, dried-out brown, and crumbles when she bends. She thinks for several panicky moments that she is ill, but as she prods at her limbs and breasts, tugs the roots of her hair, tests the edges of her eyesight, she realizes she is molting. Gaila moans again. How has this surprised her? Is she now so ignorant of her own body?

It is the ship's fault: it is so full of smells, all mechanical or meat except for the boiled babies in the canteen. The air cycles again and again, mixing last month's pheromones with last week's. The ship that looked so big to her four years ago, cozy-full of beings, is filled with their lady's metal innards and the crew are left to slither around the edges. It is hard to find a coupling nest, especially when the crew are so exuberant and dedicated to other things. Gaila has fucked less lately and she thought it was for lack of opportunity, not appetite.

So now she is molting without time to arrange for shore leave.

Gaila curses in her mother tongue, a staunch invective that Nyota once likened to a clay bowl breaking and then asked her to repeat. Starfleet gave assurances years ago that Medbay can accommodate an Orion's physiological needs, but their idea of a burial bed is a hard-edged box filled with silica beads and powdered nutrients. It is nothing like the petite sleeping gardens of the Orion embassy on Earth, and even those were a poverty compared to the luxurious loam of her homefield. There, attendants walked up and down the furrows aerating the ground with their nubbly soles. They sang while they walked, dropping notes as round and perfect as any seed. Her cocoon was made of fine silken leaves, not medical gauze, and held delicious treats between the layers: petals of her ancestors, pith from pungent fruit, the curled up tendrils of freshly plucked legumes. Such little things, such great joy when Gaila clawed her way out with new skin.

There is nothing for it now; Gaila dresses in her loosest clothes and trudges down the corridor to Medbay. She hates the walls--too slick, unyielding, humming with an ugly tone--but she has to lean on them because her external eyes are dying. Her depth perception is distorted and color's fading fast. She does not have blind spots, yet, but she soon will: the phagocytic bodies are growing at the corners, milky-white like cataracts that humans get.

Gaila doesn't mind. For the first time in years, she can see the variations in her own skin: stripes of faux-muscle structure; the gleam of chitinous protuberances; the rings and fissures where, many decades ago, her fragile new stalks were carefully bound and pruned into humanoid limbs.

Crewmen give her sidelong glances. They give her space to pass. That is good, because Gaila does not want to be touched by humans now. She wants the structure of her own kind, brittle and tender by turns. She wants to run her fingers in the grooves between sap-filled bursae and rigid stalks. Humans can't tell the difference, not through the layers of skin that Orions build up in full bloom, but Gaila can.

They should see themselves the way that she does, pale and mottled with grey blood coursing through translucencies. Gaila does not miss their candy-pinkness but she misses loving it. Now she can't help put think of the meat beneath the skin, cords of protein marbled with fat. The animal smell is making her sick.

She smiles for the passing crewmen anyway: brittle, thin-lipped flashes of politeness. Humans are confusing but Gaila has learned that lesson well. A smile makes many things easier. At home, Gaila wouldn't have to smile while her skin was sloughing off; facial expressions are things for foreigners, the glint of teeth as beguiling as a drop of nectar in the sun.

No, that's bad. It is a mistake to think of home; memories chase themselves ragged in her brain, good ones and bad ones and ones incomprehensible to her acclimated human-culture thinking. She is near to tears by the time she reaches Medbay, and stops the medical yeoman when he tries to page Dr. M'Benga.

"Um," says Gaila; 'um' is a good word to lead with, disarming and non-aggressive. "Does it have to be Dr. M'Benga?"

"He is the most qualified on non-humans," says the yeoman.

"No, I don't like him," Gaila snaps. Then smiles.

The yeoman does not smile back, instead glancing around the Medbay like he knows the things Gaila used to do to people who displeased her. He needn't worry; Gaila is not a king's favorite slave anymore. She is a citizen of the Federation and a Starfleet officer. She does things differently now.

Dr. Bones has noticed and come over. "Miss Gaila, what's the matter?" he asks.

Gaila turns to him, automatically drawing in her shoulders to be small and girl-like. "I'm molting," she mumbles petulantly. She has heard that his daughter talks like this to get what she wants; Dr. Bones is, as Jim would say, 'a sucker.'

The yeoman has gone someplace else, which is good because Gaila didn't like him.

"Well, bless your heart," says Dr. Bones. "Let's get you situated over here, and I'll see what I can do." He is soft and concerned and so nice with his big hands that invite Gaila to the quietest corner of Medbay. Nyota dislikes his softness--she calls it chauvinism--but Gaila doesn't mind. If she wanted Dr. Bones to treat her like a man, then she would grow big strong muscles and stop pruning her clitoris until it is long and gnarled to fuck him with. Nyota overlooks the simplest solutions sometimes.

Dr. Bones says, "Bear with me, I'm not versed in molting protocol right off the top of my head...." and then he says other things, but Gaila is not listening. It is nice to lay down after the long walk from her quarters, even though the biobed is scratchy and tough. She dozes, restless but manageable now that Dr. Bones has drawn a curtain around the bed to keep out the smells and noises and other animal unpleasantries.

It must be some minutes later when he tugs at her dress and says, "'Scuse me, sweetheart, I need to get you out of these clothes."

Gaila likes that. Her heart is sweet. She ate a piece of it, once, when enemies had butchered her body and she was so hungry, lying alone in the dark.

Dr. Bones goes away and comes back again with a bandage clotted with nutrient sap. That's good. "I apologize that we don't have the burial bed ready just yet; this'll tide you over until then." He lays it carefully over her splotches and smooths down the adhesive edges. "You let me know if I'm pressing too hard, alright?"

"You're so kind," mumbles Gaila. The Federation is full of kind people. The Federation would never crush your breasts between two boards until they burst. The Federation would never rip open your belly and pour beetles in. The Federation takes care of its citizens, so Gaila told the Federation the information she had that the enemies wanted.

Dr. Bones navigates the modesty drape carefully to keep it from falling, as if her breasts aren't there to be looked at. Orions don't produce milk for their young like humans do. Gaila knows her breasts are not as beautiful as they used to be; the embassy helped her regrow them, shaving away the lumps and bruising them evenly to plump them up with sap, but there is no comparison to the professional sculptors on Orion. Lucky, then, that human males are not picky.

Your breasts are fucking perfect, Jim said once, and Gaila laughed at how unlearned he was.

Dr. Bones grazes his meat-fingers against her skin and says, "Sorry 'bout that" when she flinches. He reaches for some gloves.

That makes Gaila sad. He's making her queasy but any other time Gaila would love for Dr. Bones to touch her. She pursued him, once, in an idle moment. He was aroused (she noticed, even if he did not) but politely declined.

He should have more sex, Gaila told Jim later. He would be happier.

I don't think he's over his ex-wife yet, said Jim.

That's just silly.

Jim laughed and said, Yeah, but humans are like that.

Gaila sighs as the itching stops. Dr. Bones glances up at her face, and they trade eighth-hearted smiles. Not even half.

"You're looking a bit more cheerful than when you came in," says Dr. Bones.

"You aren't," says Gaila.

That was too blunt; Dr. Bones ducks his head. He peels another wet bandage from the tray and sets to work on the orangey bits along her side, crackled prematurely from the friction of her arm as she walks. "I miss my baby girl," he says very quietly. "She's shooting up like a weed. No offense."

"None taken," says Gaila, because that is the proper phrase.

"I hate not being there," Dr. Bones says, mumbling into the bandage. "I feel like there'll be nothing left of her childhood by the time I get back. You don't realize how long five years is until your kid turns twelve, and you swear she was startin' kindergarten just yesterday...." He goes on.

Gaila makes sympathetic noises, though she is bemused by this concern for offspring. Gaila likes the idea of procreation, of course: she played with pebbles before she was fully sculpted, swallowing them between her legs and then pushing them out, one by one, from her belly button. She knows, now, that real seeds are greater than she imagined. The first one split open the skin of her belly as it emerged, hard enough to rap her knuckles against, and made her weep with the beauty of its striations.

Yet Gaila put it into the ground without a second thought. She met Orions later who may have been her children, and she liked them, but she did not miss watching them grow.

Perhaps it is because humans have so few children. Gaila remembers much more clearly the seeds she produced on Earth, given to the embassy in secret because she was not supposed to be breeding. There were such beautiful people on Earth, and Gaila could not help but make use of their semen and hard-won saliva. Why should she resist? It is so easy to ferret away DNA with her mouth or her cunt or even the stomata on her fingertips. All Orions do this, and have done this, for millennia. They mimic the traits of other species to make their flowers more appealing.

Gaila is a flower. She is very appealing.

She wonders, sometimes, if that is why she chose Starfleet when the Federation officials were building her new identity. In the beginning, the only humanoids Orions could capture were travelers. Gaila is of the oldest line of humanoid flowers; the original restlessness lingers in the caches of her ovaries.

Dr. Bones stands up to gather his supplies together, and stops suddenly with a strange look on his face. "Hell, have I been talking about Joanna this whole time?" he asks.

Gaila shrugs because she doesn't know. "Your daughter sounds adorable," she says. "Feisty." Jim has used that word before. It's a good thing.

Dr. Bones laughs. "Just tell me to hush next time, or I'm liable to get carried away and break out the photo album."

This is true. Jim will stop him, if he's there, but Gaila likes to be nice to handsome drunk people so she has seen many pictures already. She recognized the ex-wife as an instructor at the Academy, the one who taught combat and a class about numbers and who made Nyota cry. Gaila didn't like that but Mrs. Bones had a very nice bone structure. So Gaila stole it.

"You obviously love your family very much," Gaila says. "You are lucky to have something that makes you so happy."

Dr. Bones stares at her for a long moment. Gaila does not think what she said was wrong; she learned it from a very good phrasebook.

There are many subtleties to human expression that Gaila cannot comprehend; his face is confusing to her. Though there is desire in him, she cannot grasp the shape of it, or the subject. She does not think he desires her.

"Let me go see how your burial bed is coming along," says Dr. Bones, and disappears through the curtain.

He is gone too quickly, so Gaila does not say what she thought:

Give me time and a trellis and I could look like your wife, if you want.