They met in the doctor's surgery, reading the articles in the women's magazines. Larry was laughing at a romantic story over Joanna's shoulder when the receptionist called her through.
"You finish it," she whispered. "Tell me if she marries him in the end."
"Of course she will. They always do," he replied.
The doctor looked up from her screen as Joanna entered the room.
"Now, what seems to be the trouble, Ms Walters?"
Joanna croaked out her symptoms. The doctor examined her throat with a little torch and felt her glands with cold fingers.
"You've got a throat infection," the doctor announced. She grinned as Joanna opened her mouth to disagree.
"That's not what you expected, is it?"
Joanna felt embarrassed.
"I thought it might be one of the Alien's diseases. He beats the bounds right outside my flat every night."
"Everyone says that." The doctor clicked her pen open on the desk. "If someone falls off the bus and breaks their arm in this town, they blame the Alien. Nobody remembers what the common cold is."
"Are you sure it's not a Beta disease?" she croaked as she watched the doctor write out a prescription. "It feels so strange."
"Of course it does!" laughed the doctor. "It's an infected throat. Remember, the aliens will not harm or inconvenience any humans in any way. It's part of their charter. We all felt it in the Empathic Event when they declared their presence to us. Now... Take this four times a day." She tore off the prescription and handed it to Joanna.
"If you're sure, doctor," said Joanna meekly, getting up from her chair.
"Of course I am."
The doctor waited until Joanna had her hand on the door before asking the question Joanna had been expecting all along.
"How's the depression?"
"Fine," said Joanna. "I'm coping." She left the room quickly and paused just outside the door, fighting the flutter of nervousness she felt about re-entering the waiting room.
There was no need. Larry waved to her from his chair as she came into the sunlit space.
"She met him in the hotel, like they promised," he called.
"That's nice," said Joanna. Larry moved towards her, too close. She flinched as she caught sight of his wedding ring.
"Hey, what's the matter?"
"Nothing. I've got to go." She pushed through the doors of the surgery, out into the busy street. A bus drove by in a cloud of diesel fumes.
Larry emerged into the daylight behind her.
"Leave me alone, will you?" she rasped. Her throat was aching.
His face fell. "Okay, I'm sorry." He backed off, confused, returned to the surgery. Joanna stood lost in the crowds of people that pushed past. Two women walked by, dressed in colourful Saris and chattering away in Gujarati. Joanna felt the sinking black weight of depression begin to settle. Something tickled at the base of her skull, a disease she had unknowingly caught sometime over the past few weeks. It offered itself to her and she accepted it. She needed some comfort now; she would feel bad later.
The street gradually suffused with orange, the dirty black bricks of the Victorian shops, hidden behind the gaudy modern frontages, soaked up the colour. So a married man had tried it on with her. She had turned him down. She wasn't any lonelier than when she left home this morning, no worse off. She felt the warming fizz of alien microbes rushing around her pulsing bloodstream and felt the urge to hug the passers by, to spread the infection. She was contagious and proud of it. A tall black teenager walked past, swaying to the beat inside his head. He recognized the symptoms and smiled at her, happy to be in her company. He shook her hand and their diseases mingled in sweet syrupy ecstasy.
She wandered through the supermarket in a giddy daze, eventually coming to a halt in the covered market. She was just sitting down to a cup of tea in the cafe when the infection began to wear off. Her bloodstream emptying as the disease died away. Slowly she returned to earth.
"Sugar in your tea. It's the best solution," said the old woman sitting opposite. Her wrinkled face crumpled in sympathy. "I always use sugar when I come out of it. My hip gives me no rest, you know."
Joanna sipped at the tea and let it run gently down her aching throat. She felt it stinging. She was aware of somebody sitting down next to her. A man's voice spoke.
"Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't realize it was you."
It was Larry. He looked embarrassed, and a little bit hurt. He made to leave.
"Sit down," whispered Joanna. "Drink your tea. You've got just as much right to be here as I have." She winced as she drank a little more.
"I'm sorry. I followed you," said Larry. "I don't know what I did to upset you."
"I object to being chatted up by married men."
Larry looked down at his hand and gave a mournful laugh.
"Oh. I see. You're not going to believe this, you know, but I'm not married."
"Of course not."
"I live here during the week, in digs. The landlady likes having men around the house..."
"Look. Here. Take it. It means nothing to me. It's only tin." He slipped off the ring and passed it to Joanna. It felt warm in her hands. He smiled sadly at her, his eyes crinkling around the edges. She held the ring for a moment, wanting to believe him, and then passed it back. The confidence she had felt in the waiting room had gone. She felt shy and awkward.
"Excuse me, I have to go and do my shift," she croaked. Larry stood aside and let her pass.
The younger staff had invited Joanna for a drink with them when the store closed, but as always, she refused. She walked home along the bitterly cold main street. A bus glided gently by through dirty scraps of paper; around her the warm yellow shoplights switched off one by one. There was the rattle of metal security grilles as staff locked up.
Joanna pressed the button at the traffic lights on the end of the street. Something moved up and stood beside her. It was the local Alien. Their Beta. It turned slowly, taller and thinner than she was, feeling the air. She pulled back slightly. Its body was covered in coarse red and white hair that induced a rash in humans. Its hands tapered to long sharp nails containing bitter poison.
Something caught its attention across the road. The alien leant forward so that its expressionless eyes could get a better look, and then it was gone. Loping forward, effortlessly dodging the traffic, it vanished into the darkness.
Joanna wondered about Larry. Everywhere had its own Beta, fiercely territorial, it would fight any intruders into its own patch. What did Larry's do? She thought about his friendly face, his receding curly black hair. The lights changed and the traffic stopped. She pushed him from her mind and walked home.
The phone was ringing when she got back to the flat. She dashed upstairs to answer it. It was her sister.
"Hello, Pat," she croaked.
"Throat's not better then?"
"Yes it is. I'm just practising croaking for next time I lose my voice."
"It's that Beta of yours. Spreading its filthy diseases." There was shouting in the background. Pat's children, fighting.
"It's just a throat infection. I wish you'd stop knocking our Beta. Yours pushes drugs."
"Don't knock them until you've tried them. Anyway, anything happened today?"
Joanna felt herself blush.
"I met a nice man today."
Pat laughed. "So it is true!" She shouted something to the children at the other end of the phone. The noise died for a second before getting louder again.
"What is?" said Joanna, annoyed at Pat's reaction.
"Rumours I've been hearing about a new disease. Your Beta has released a love virus! You've got it."
"Pat, why are you always so rude?"
"Come on Joanna, you met a nice man today? I mean. It's a bit of a coincidence."
"Why shouldn't I meet someone?"
"No reason," said Pat, a little too quickly. "So, when will I get to see him?"
"You won't. I told him to leave me alone."
"Oh." The clamour of children suddenly erupted in the background again. Pat shouted and there was the sound of someone being slapped. A child began to cry. Pat spoke in a softer voice.
"Listen, Joanna, be careful. If it is a disease it will wear off. You're not used to it. You can't handle rejection like the rest of us. Remember last time." Another child began to cry. Pat's voice was suddenly weary. "Look, I'm sorry, I've got to go. I'll speak to you later."
She hung up, leaving Joanna all alone in the empty flat. She turned on the television to drown out the silence and went to make herself some hot soup for her throat.
Joanna woke up the next morning feeling a little better. The swelling in her throat had gone down. To her delight, she felt the first symptoms of Vibrant Fragility. The world was sharper and crisper, more precious and resonant.
Joanna walked to work feeling as if she was made of glass. The revving of the traffic resonated through her body. Rev too much and I'll shatter, she thought. It was a delightful feeling. She rubbed her hands on the passers by, at work she hugged and kissed the other staff, spreading the infection to grateful recipients. Vibrant Fragility was a rare treat. The Beta must have infected her by the traffic lights last night; now all of its locals could feel the benefit.
Larry walked into the store towards the end of her shift.
"Excuse me, do you have any... Oh I'm sorry."
Joanna laughed at his attempt at deception. Vibrant Fragility conquered shyness. She could do anything that morning.
"Come on, Larry. You recognised my uniform: you knew where I worked. You came here on purpose. Yes, I will see you again. Meet me in the café in the market at one."
"Oh! Okay!" He beamed with delight, and then looked more closely at her. "Are you okay?" he said, his words tinkling though her body.
"Yes, I am now. I won't be by the time I meet you, though. This will have worn off by then."
"You can explain later, then. I'll leave you to your job."
He left looking puzzled. Joanna flicked the side of a nearby vase and wriggled delightfully as she felt herself ring in sympathy.
Larry smiled uncertainly as she walked in. Joanna had felt her confidence evaporating as her white blood cells fought off the Vibrant Fragility. Now she panicked at the sight of Larry.
"How are you?" he said, as she sat down.
"A little better. I can swallow without so much pain." She stirred her tea, and then laughed. "You're talking about earlier, aren't you? That was Vibrant Fragility disease, a favourite round here. A present from our Beta." She felt oddly embarrassed.
"Your Beta?" said Larry. "I'd heard he spreads disease amongst you. I didn't believe it."
"It's true. It's not like it sounds. He farms them. Dave says that we've got over four hundred of them inside us at any one time."
"Dave?" Larry looked uncomfortable at the mention of the name.
"Dave is the shop's knowall. We usually ignore him. What does your Beta do?"
"Oh, nothing special. What do you mean when you say he farms diseases? Why does he do that?"
"I don't know. He is an Alien, after all. My sister's Beta deals drugs. Yours must do something."
"It's not very interesting."
Larry sipped at his tea and wrinkled his nose at the taste. An awkward silence descended. Joanna noticed how little his smart grey suit matched the surroundings. He seemed to stand out against the cheap wood veneer of the indoor market. The scratched Formica tables and the smell of cabbages from the vegetable stalls. He had a quiet elegance about his dress that made the bright clothes that hung around the nearby stands seem even cheaper.
"So, what do you do?" blurted Joanna.
"I work in the city. I act as a government liaison with the Betas. I was going to ask, what time do you normally finish work?"
"It depends. Why?"
"I'm on expenses. It's lonely eating by yourself all the time during the week. Would you like to join me for dinner some time?"
"Oh. That would be nice," said Joanna. She felt herself smiling. She was delighted to see Larry smile as well.
"How about tomorrow?"
"Can I pick you up at home?"
"I'll meet you outside the store at six. I've got to go now, I'm due back at work."
Larry stood up as Joanna did. She walked back to work, smiling to herself all the way.
Pat was stoned when Joanna phoned her. The kids in the background were singing as if they were drunk.
"Hey! Joanna, how's my favourite sister?"
"I don't know. I met Larry again today. He's really nice. I think he's quite well off."
"Hey. Go for it. What does he do?"
"Something in the city."
"What about his Beta?"
"I don't know. He said it doesn't do anything."
"Hey. That's nice. Hang on. Hey, be careful. He's trying it on. He's a spy."
"You're stoned, Pat."
"Yes. That's right," she giggled. "Our Beta did this. Better than diseases. You want to move, get away. It can't be healthy. Diseases to make you fall in love. What does your man's Beta do?"
"I told you. Nothing."
"Hey, be careful. He'll be a spy. He's using you."
"You're stoned. I'm hanging up."
Joanna felt nervous waiting outside the market. She'd changed into her blue cotton dress at the store. The girls had teased her as they watched her put on make up, and she had blushed, but inside she had felt proud. She was going on a date. Somebody thought she was special enough to ask out. Gail had spoiled the moment when she had whispered that Joanna had caught the Love Disease, and the other girls had laughed, but Joanna had looked so happy the joke was lost. Gail helped her with her hair.
Larry drove up to the market in a rented car. Joanna gasped as she saw its long sleek lines. Joanna sat down on a soft leather seat and pulled the door shut with a quiet click. They pulled away with hardly a sound.
"I can't believe this is happening to me," said Joanna. "I never knew you were so well off. What do you want with me?" She was suspicious. "I'm not attractive, I've got no money. Why me?"
Larry blushed as he spoke.
"You have very low self esteem. I looked at you in the Doctors' surgery and you were the prettiest girl I've ever seen." He seemed embarrassed. Joanna's stomach fluttered with delight.
"Where are we going?" she said. "I'm not dressed, don't let it be too nice."
"You look wonderful. Remember, confidence! Why do you have so little confidence?"
"I had a bad experience when I was younger." Joanna blushed. She changed the subject. "I don't want to talk about it. Tell me about you. Your job. It sounds interesting."
"I act as a liaison with the government. My Beta is the only one that has any contact with them."
"Is he the leader?" said Joanna, impressed.
"They haven't got a leader. They don't seem to understand the concept."
"You must have a very interesting job," said Joanna. "Better than working in a shop."
"There's nothing wrong with working in a shop. Confidence, Joanna. Anyway. You do more than I do. My job is worthless. Three years the Aliens have been here, and we've learned nothing. They won't talk to us. My Beta is the only one who attempts any contact with our leaders. We've no idea what makes it different."
"They're all different, aren't they?" said Joanna, helpfully.
Larry looked rueful.
"I suppose so. No wonder the government is running around in circles."
The worried lines above his eyes suddenly deepened.
"You know, I sometimes wonder if we are even seeing them properly," he said darkly. "I'm not sure that we can really understand what's going on. We all seem to have a different perception of the situation."
He was silent for a moment. Joanna said nothing.
They drove into the city, to a restaurant at the edge of a huge park. Joanna ate and looked around in wonder, she still couldn't believe her luck at being here. But the nicest thing was Larry. He looked as if he thought himself lucky just to be with her.
Later that night he dropped her outside her flat. She walked up the stairs, full of rich steak and good red wine and looked around her tiny, lonely flat. It didn't seem so lonely any more.
Pat drove Joanna to the shops that weekend. She wanted to know all about Larry. Joanna got the impression her sister half believed she was making it up.
"You're just jealous," said Joanna. "You think that only you can have nice things. Why shouldn't I meet a nice man?" She looked at the shelves in the supermarket. "We'll have steak. Larry likes steak. He ate it at that restaurant."
"It's very expensive."
"I know. But I want this to be special. I've been saving up for my holiday, but this is more important. I'm going to buy a new dress for tonight. Will you help me choose?"
"Joanna, are you sure about this? This is very sudden. It's been less than a week."
"I know, but... I've never understood what people mean by falling in love. I thought I did."
"Joanna, listen. You were always the sensible one. Look at you now."
They stopped in the middle of the aisle. The weekend shoppers pushed and jostled past. Pat took Joanna's hand and held it.
"Listen, Joanna. Think about it. It's so sudden. You've heard the rumours about that disease. It's the Beta. Everyone knows he's spreading it. You and Larry caught it at the surgery. It's fine now, but what happens when it wears off?"
Joanna listened, but it didn't make sense.
"No. I know it's real. We speak. I think about him."
"Joanna, you sound like a teenage girl. You've got nothing in common. What would he see in you? What do you really think?"
At the back of Joanna's mind, the empty flat and lonely nights waited. Larry filled the space between them. But she knew. She said it, carefully.
"No. I love him. Really."
"Joanna, I didn't want to say this. You said he liaises between a Beta and the government."
"Only one of the Betas does that. Nick was telling me about it. It's a parasite. It lives on efforts of the others. It's using its humans to do its dirty work. It sent Larry here to capture the Love disease. He's caught it. He won't be there tonight, he'll be back at home, having it sucked out of his body and packaged up, ready to be... to be... whatever they do with it."
Joanna listened but she knew it wasn't true.
"No. Pat, he'll be there. Now, come with me, please."
"If that's what you want," said Pat, unhappily.
Joanna spent the afternoon shopping, spending her money in a whirl of happiness. Pat followed her, gloomily carrying the bags and fearing the worst.
"Pat. Trust me," said Joanna.
Joanna looked at herself in the mirror. She had always thought her hair was her best feature. Tonight, she had brushed it so that it shone in the candlelight. The smell of potatoes, onions and mushrooms filled the house, a bottle of red wine stood open on the shelf.
Outside, the world carried on. The Betas beat the bounds of their patches with renewed vigour. Saturday night, the night the transactions with home took place. Joanna, rich with the microbes and bacteria farmed by her Beta, poured herself a glass of wine and took a drink. She wondered why Larry was late.
All across the city, humans and Betas exchanged their culture. Gift was exchanged for gift.
The phone rang. Joanna picked it up, breathlessly.
"He hasn't turned up then?" said Pat. She sounded sick with worry. Joanna heard her crack a capsule. Her sister's voice came back, firm and steady.
"Joanna, don't take it too hard. It's just a disease; it will wear off. Listen, I'm coming round. Okay?"
Pat's fatalism was infectious. Joanna's voice was wobbling.
"Pat, if it wears off, I'll still remember. I can't go back to being lonely."
"I'm coming round, Joanna."
"No. Leave me. Let me think." She hung up.
Joanna stood, staring at nothing. She heard the traffic outside, the sound of next door's television. She put down the phone gently and walked across the room, picked up the bottle of wine, and looked at it. It had cost too much money, but she had bought it because she thought that she recognised the label. Larry had drunk it, the other night.
Inside her, the Beta bacteria swarmed. The Betas are like wild birds to us humans, she thought. They share the same territory with us, but we never really meet. We must be like farm animals to them. Used to grow their produce. What do they do with the diseases they grow within us? I know they feed on them, but is there something more to it?
Oh, I've heard the rumours. How the bacteria that have been grown to maturity in human bodies are shipped to other planets to help transform them. To terraform them, that was the word. I hope it's true. That what happens to us affects things on the other side of the galaxy. That would be nice.
She gave a sigh. Against all this, surely one lonely woman means nothing.
The phone rang.
"Joanna? It's me. Larry."
"Yes?" she said, listlessly.
"Joanna. I had to phone and explain. I'm in Birmingham. I won't be coming tonight."
"At the moment, I love you. I can't do this to you, except, if I don't... My Beta is a parasite. He has a stronger hold over me."
"He steals from the others. If he walked onto your Beta's patch it would kill him, so he uses me to do his dirty work instead. Your Beta can't harm me. They can't harm humans in any way. Not at all."
"I know. My doctor told me. Anyway, I felt the wave of feeling when they first arrived."
"I know. The Empathic Event." Larry paused, summoning the courage to continue. He spoke softly. "He sends me to steal diseases. I'm here to get the new one. I thought it was a myth. But, obviously... Well. You know. That's why I was hanging around the Doctor's surgery, waiting to catch it. I knew I had it when I saw you. I had to nurture it."
"I'll be cured. My Beta will cure me. It's for the best. You must have wondered. We have nothing in common. We're worlds apart."
"Do you want him to cure you?"
"No. Not at the moment, no. But." His next words came in a rush of strangled embarrassment. "Maybe he can cure you too?"
"It doesn't matter," said Joanna. A little thought was stirring inside her. She looked out of the window. All over the world the Betas beat the bounds. Every Beta fighting for himself against the others, each with its own little patch.
"Joanna, are you still there?" Larry sounded concerned. "Are you all right?"
"I think so."
Larry fumbled for something to say.
"Joanna. I hate the Betas. I wish they had never come."
"I don't," said Joanna, thinking hard. "They're on our side. Who'd have thought it would be like this? They've come to meet the people, not the leaders. They're on our side. They're helping us to be ourselves."
"I don't understand."
But I do she thought.
"Poor old Larry. Phone me tomorrow, when you've seen your Beta."
Joanna hung up with a slowly growing smile, and took a drink of wine straight from the bottle. She hummed softly to herself as she looked out of the window. He hadn't seen it; he honestly hadn't seen it yet. She couldn't blame him. It had taken her long enough, and she had a lot more experience of alien diseases than he had.
The Betas couldn't harm humans in any way. It was part of their charter. Tomorrow Larry would wake up and find that he hadn't caught a Beta disease. What he had was entirely natural.
© Tony Ballantyne 2001.
This story appears here for the first time.
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