Weyland slid the probe out of Mirelle’s neural port. He checked the numbers on his com screen, looked at the probe, checked them again, and said, “Hang on a minute, I think something’s wrong with this equipment.”
He went over to his desk to find a different probe. Mirelle sat in the chair in his lab, hands on her knees, looking around the room curiously. Sera had already given her the full tour of the Benevolence, which was still docked, receiving its final round of repairs. Captain Dysart had informed him that Mirelle was coming on as a new member of the crew, and instructed him to perform a complete medical checkup on her. There was something about the way she’d said it, emphasizing the word complete, that made Weyland suspect that she was looking for something in particular.
He found a different probe, double-checked that it was calibrated correctly, and tested Mirelle’s neural function again. Her results were the same, a jumble of highs and lows he couldn’t make any sense of. Some of her readings were far healthier than Jianyu’s. Others shouldn’t be possible in a living humanoid brain. According to Weyland’s readout, Mirelle was perfectly healthy, and she was clinically dead at the same time.
“Are you feeling faint at all?” he asked. “Any lightheadedness, dizziness, vertigo?”
“No, I feel fine,” she said.
“What about sensory confusion? Have you had any nosebleeds recently?”
“Nope,” said Mirelle, shifting in her seat. “Wait, I think I got a nosebleed a couple months ago. It happens sometimes when the air’s too dry.”
Weyland stared at the numbers again, wondering if he should try the test a third time. Jianyu would have been on the floor, unable to speak or stand, by round two. Mirelle just looked up at him, smiled nervously, and said, “Sometimes my numbers are a little strange.”
“I’m going to have to do a full brain scan,” Weyland said. “Have you ever had one before? Is there anything I should know?”
Mirelle twisted her mouth to one side, clearly thinking about that, and said, “I think you’ll see it all on the scan.”
Weyland took his time setting up the equipment. He’d never actually used this machine before; Jianyu was overdue for a scan, but he kept finding excuses to put off his appointment, and the rest of the crew weren’t on a regular schedule for neurological checks. The movements of getting everything ready to go came naturally to him, something he could do without thinking unless he slowed down and forced himself to concentrate on why he took each step. His brother Delos had sent him a poem once called The Centipede’s Dilemma, about a many-legged bug that thought too much about which leg came after the other and forgot how to run. Weyland hadn’t understood why his brother wanted him to see it at first, even after he looked up what a centipede was, but he’d come to understand it in time. They were all like the centipede, going through the motions of work without thinking, until they stopped to consider how they worked at all.
The scanner was a tangle of electrodes and wires, circling Mirelle’s head like an overgrown crown. Weyland adjusted it to fit her, waited for the scan to finish, and then packed it all away again as the image uploaded to the ship’s central computer system, then appeared on his com screen.
He took a sharp breath, startled and trying to appear calm, as he saw what was inside Mirelle’s skull for the first time. She had most of a human brain. Her left temporal lobe was almost completely gone. The damage was old, the tissue atrophied but without lesions. Her cerebellum had been injured too. Worse, there was something else inside her head, a foreign matter that wasn’t human at all. The worst of it was wrapped around her brainstem, but there were tendrils of it all through her head, growing through the white matter like the roots of a tree pushing through soil. They curled around the spike of hardware in her head, the Coalition hardware almost completely obscured on the scan by a web of fine filaments. The mass continued down through the foramen magnum opening at the base of her skull and out through the gap just before her first vertebra, where it formed a spongy, dense lump like the cap of a mushroom under her skin.
Minervan. Weyland knew what they were. He’d met plenty in person, if person was even the right term for what they were. He knew they were a type of fungus, occupying a similar niche to Ophiocordyceps unilateralis on Earth, or the brain-controlling contagion the Centaurians called the Hive-Killer. And yet Minervans walked among other sentient species as if they were normal; they’d even been members of the Coalition.
Weyland said, without thinking, “What happened to your temporal lobe? Was it the parasite?”
Mirelle’s expression changed. She looked hurt, and Weyland felt ashamed. He knew he’d said the wrong thing. She shifted nervously in her chair, then raised her fingers to the back of her head, gently touching the lump of alien flesh underneath her skin. “Symbiote,” she corrected him. “My brain was already damaged. I would have died without it.”
“So it’s…” Weyland spoke carefully, thinking hard about each word. The centipede’s dilemma, only he’d already run straight into a wall. “It’s a part of you?”
“It is me,” she said.
Weyland had a lot of follow-up questions, but Mirelle looked tense, and he was pretty sure he shouldn’t have called her a parasite. Changing topics seemed like a safer way to go. “How do you know Sera?”
Mirelle smiled again, and Weyland was hopeful that they’d found steadier conversational footing. “She’s my mom.”
“Oh.” She looked like she was about the same age as Sera, somewhere in her late twenties, although it was hard to tell from appearances alone. Space travel kept people insulated from the damaging effects of too much direct natural starlight, and there were plenty of cosmetic procedures available for looking young. Weyland, who’d always been careful about looking older than he actually was, didn’t know much about them.
Mirelle said, “You don’t know much about Minervans, do you?”
“I really don’t,” Weyland admitted. “How can Sera be your mother?”
“It’s not quite… there isn’t a good word for it in most human languages.” Mirelle quirked her mouth to the side again, considering how to explain the concept. “Someone who takes care of you when you’re young, that’s your parent, even if they aren’t biologically related to you. I was young–not for a human, but I’ve only had the symbiote for a few years, after I was in an accident. And she took care of me, so that makes her my mom.”
“I see,” said Weyland, who didn’t understand at all.
“Some people have dozens of moms,” said Mirelle. “It’s all about who’s looking out for you. Does that make sense?”
“Yes, I think so,” said Weyland. By that standard, as well as several more conventional ways of counting what makes a family, he had no mother at all.
“And besides,” Mirelle said, “she was going to marry my d–”
The door to Weyland’s lab slid open. Mirelle shut her mouth, looking a little guilty, as if she’d been on the cusp of saying something she shouldn’t have. Sera stepped into the room. She had grease on her forearms and she was wiping her hands with a rag.
“All done in here?” she asked. “Mirelle, the captain wants a word with you when you’re free. Weyland, those idiots who were working on the electrical system shut it off for a couple of days. I’m going to need to check your meat vats to make sure the backup system worked with no interruptions.”
Mirelle flashed a quick smile at Weyland as she got up. “Thank you for your time, doctor…?”
“Just Weyland is fine,” he said.