|RED-HEADS by Joseph Farley
Nadja was a red head, but her pubic hair was blue. Combined with her pale white skin, she came off as patriotic.
“Come back to bed,” she called.
Robert Ledmer slid onto the sheet and lay down beside her. He turned on his side and grinned at Nadja. “I bet you are a blond under all that colour.”
She laughed, showing perfect teeth. “You’ll never know.”
“I can find out. I can shave you while you’re asleep, then wait to see what colour grows in, though it might take a few days.”
Nadja pinched his nose. “You touch my hair and I’ll kill you.”
“I won’t touch your head. Just down below.”
“I might let you do it, just for the surprise you will get.”
“My pubes will come back blue.”
“My hair is dyed red. Otherwise it would be blue.”
Robert thought about this. “Blue can’t be your natural colour.”
She nodded, “It’s not natural.”
“What do you mean?”
“I spent two years on Malik, back in my Peace Corp days.”
Malik. Robert had heard about the place. One of the small worlds orbiting a nearby star. The USA and other nations had been colonizing it for the past twenty years. It was a dry rock covered planet with roasting days and freezing nights, but it had what mattered most—liquid water underground and a passable atmosphere.
“I’ve been to Titan,” he said, “but my hair is the same colour it always was.”
“It’s a dietary thing,” Nadja explained. “There’s not a lot to eat on Malik except for the local fare. I sort of got hooked on Stygian worms.”
Robert put his arm around her.
“I’ve heard of Stygian worms,” he said. “Space crews bring a canister with them for emergency rations.”
Nadja confirmed this.
“The worms are high in nutrients, protein and calories. You only need to eat one a day to survive.”
“I’ve never had one. What do they taste like?”
She shrugged, “More or less like you might think a worm would taste, except some added spice, like tabasco sauce. That comes from the head. The worms are blue, but the head is small and red. They cut off the heads on the worms packed for space rations. That’s so the crews can still think clearly, and other reasons, but mostly for logical thinking. The ship owners don’t want any of their crews acting odd with their investments. A distress signal can be received, and a crash can be salvaged.”
“Hallucinogenic?” Robert guessed. “Now you’ve made me interested. Maybe I should give them a try.”
Nadja shook her head.
“It’s a high like no other, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“I told you, I am a little hooked—a bit addicted.”
“To Stygian worms?”
Nadja rolled onto her back, and tugged the sheets up over her stomach.
“Yes, the heads are highly addictive,” she said to the ceiling. “Two years on Malik will do that to a gal. Malik gets old five minutes after you leave the landing craft. A few Stygian worm heads and you can dream you are anywhere, or dream that the dud you are with is your favourite movie heartthrob.”
Robert looked at his body. “How many worm heads have you eaten today?”
“Just one. I try to pace myself because of the side effects.”
“The blue hair? That’s not so bad. It sets you apart.”
“I can live with that. There are worse side effects.”
Nadja turned her head towards her temporary paramour, and explained.
“The sex organs of Stygian worms are in their heads, and the heads can breed even after separation from the body. It is how they evolved. It’s their survival strategy. Get eaten, then multiply. The heads digest slowly. Eggs can be spit out and fertilized in your stomach even with all that churning acid. Then, sooner or later, you have baby worms. They grow very slow and eat very little, at least for the first few weeks. But, with time, that changes.”
“What do they eat?”
The thoughts of Nadja being nibbled away did not sit well with Robert.
“Have you been tested for these worms?” he asked. “There has to be a cure.”
“Of course there is a cure, but it only works half the time. I get tested every month. Still, the odds are against me.”
“You could stop eating the stuff,” Robert suggested.
“Tried. Dozens of times. When I say I am a little bit of an addict, that means I am alive. If I was a big addict, eating two of three worm heads at a time, I’d be dead in a week. I might not even know it. I could just drift from life into death while absorbed in one never ending fantasy. I could be near death now and not know it. I could be in excruciating pain, but not feel it because my mind is telling me I am having the time of my life.”
“I’ll pass then.”
“Pass on what?”
“Stygian worms. I won’t give them a try.”
Nadja stroked his face. “Smart boy.”
They lay in bed. Robert dozed with Nadja in his arms. He dreamed of a far off planet. Nothing but rocks and dull provincial colonists. There was nothing to do, day after day, except work, sleep, eat, and try not to die. One day he was offered a red dot, a worm head. A free sample. He had nothing better to do at the time. The next moment he was in the best dream he had ever had. Breath-taking, vast expanses of colour, worlds to be explored and experienced. People, creatures, stories, lives. Then he woke. Nadja was gone. He was alone in the bed. He glanced at the back of his hand, and saw fine blue hairs growing there.