|Five Hours, Thirty-Two Minutes
by Michael Bard
© Michael Bard -- all rights reserved
The doctors never wanted me to go to Xanadu; they thought it was too much of a risk. I insisted. Yes, I expected to die sooner rather than later, but Xanadu was my one escape, my one dream out in the real world.
Living in a bubble, sealed off from everything, makes one shy, afraid. Getting out wasn't hard -- places like NASA were more than happy to donate spacesuits and life support equipment, and even modify it for me. It made good PR.
But it was the stares, the crowds of people jostling me, poking at me.
It's why I told so few the truth. Told so few that I was one of the oldest living sufferers of Severe Combined Immune Deficiency. SCIDs, better know as The Boy in the Bubble disease. I hadn't been diagnosed right away. Only after an infection at four months, that ultimately resulted in my losing both my legs, did they diagnose me as having no immune system at all. My mother's had kept me going for the first few months of my life, even though she'd died giving birth to me, but when my own was supposed to kick in, it hadn't.
And so I was isolated. Sealed. Touched only through rubber. Seeing the world only on the screen and through the window.
It gives one a lot of time to read.
All my short life I'd dreamed of technology, dreamed of a cure. The most common one was bone marrow transplant, but they couldn't find a match for me. There were rumours of gene therapy to replace the defective gene, but nothing usable. Yet.
Xanadu had always had a large costuming or fursuiting group. And, I had to go in costume anyway -- the full spacesuit that NASA donated, modified to have the lower half replaced by a wheeled chair. Of course, it was no fun to go as a human in a space suit -- that was missing the whole spirit of the thing! Not to mention reminding people of my disease.
Obviously, I had to go as an alien in an environment suit visiting Earth.
It was actually easy. A mirrored visor, and a lot of imagination and bald faced lies about what the visor hid. It was fun! And by the third year the alien had gotten pretty elaborate.
But then, I didn't have much else to do with my life. And, the more elaborate the costume, the more impressed people were, and the less likely they were to pity me.
This year, like so many previous, I'd driven my little self-contained world around the con, chatting with people I knew, acting all dark and mysterious and confused by all the strange things these Earthlings did, and generally having a good time interacting as best I could.
Interacting with a world I could never touch.
So many people in costumes that hid themselves from the world, a world that they could feel--
By the time the Event happened, I'd had to park in a corner and just watch, my entire body aching with the wish, the need, to have what they'd all hidden in their costumes. I couldn't even wipe the tears from my eyes as the cool sterile air hissed in so that I could breathe. A quick check revealed that there was five hours and thirty two minutes of oxygen left.
It was just as Mr. Winters was striding up to the stage to hand out the first prize to the winners that I lost it completely. Wheels whirring I turned away and threw myself into my dreams of what I wanted the suit to be. An alien, weird, inhuman, breathing a frightening cold liquid medium. Here by choice to visit, with a whole world to return to. With a companion so that they were never EVER alone.
I felt a bit faint, maybe the breathing mixture. I just pushed the thought aside, trusting the technology. Closing my eyes I could almost feel that this suit, this environmental capsule was just temporary--
-- I blinked an eye open, feeling stronger and more secure. A tentacle caressed controls and status updates pulsed into my mind. Everything nominal, environment safe, breathing mixture optimal.
Who's there? Grabbing control of more eyestalks, I twisted them around, oozing through the liquid. Trying to see who'd spoken.
I'm you of course.
I focused on the second neural cluster, my sophantsibling.
Our gills pulsed, liquid sucked through them, and the environmental unit clicked as hydrogen enriched ammonia gurgled into the environmental medium.
I think we'd better call for pickup.
Pictures poured from his neural cluster down our shared link into mine and I saw a scene of chaos and horror as animals and aliens and all sorts of weirdness ran and panicked in the hall. Inside my cocoon there was only silence.
This wasn't real. It couldn't be real.
Idly I re-arranged biological connections and took control of an auditory sensor and listened to the dim vibrations of human screams and sobs and growls distorted through the liquid medium I now floated in with my sophantsibling.
The ship isn't answering. I hope it's just a momentary failure. I felt liquid gurgle over our shared gills as he sucked nervously.
I knew it wasn't and let my fear and panic and knowledge flow down into my sibling. I checked the life support systems.
Five hours, thirty-two minutes of hydrogen remaining.
Five hours, thirty-two minutes of life remaining.
My sibling screamed across our shared nervous system. Who are you? WHO ARE YOU?!
That hurt! But how could it hurt when I wasn't hearing him with ears?
This can't be true! I'm not your imagination!
I took control of some of our tentacles and ran them along his primary neural cord. I could feel a slight buzz as he sucked ammonia through our gills far more rapidly then he really should have. With a click more hydrogen filled ammonia gurgled in and our life span grew shorter.
I am not!
Nasalla, please don't panic. The name I had imagined my other self, my sophantsibling, to have.
Why shouldn't I?
Please... I've been alone for so long. I don't want to die alone. Die. I was really going to die. Just what the doctors had been warning me about for years. Gently I squeezed his neural cluster.
You're not Allasan. Where is he? WHERE IS HE?!
Nasalla, just shut up and listen! Please!
Maybe one of us is mad. I KNEW it wasn't me. But only five hours-- Right now we can't tell if either of us even are, let alone who it is. Can you recall any case of either half of an undamaged sibling pair going insane.
Let's activate the emergency beacon. If I'm the insane one, and I hope to God that I am, then that'll get us picked up and we'll live.
But if I'm the insane one, we have just-- five hours, eighteen minutes left.
That's possible. And, if it is, do you want to try and live, or die screaming?
Point. I'm-- Nasalla, I'm sorry. It's just-- It's just that I've never been alone before.
That's all right. I've been alone enough for both of us. But we're together now.
Yes. We're together -- sophantsibling.
Together we activated the emergency beacon.
I looked outside and saw that the room was quieter now. Just a few figures sobbing on the floor. Some piles of shattered rock -- I wonder what they'd been. Then I saw a statue of a snake-headed woman holding a thin slab of rock, highly polished and reflective-- a mirror? -- and I shuddered.
Are you all right? Nasalla asked.
I'm starting to fear that you're the mad one.
I hope not-- Five hours, fourteen minutes. Why though?
I shied away from the shattered remains of former humans. Nasalla, why do you use hours and minutes?
Why wouldn't I? It's the standard unit.
But it's what I remember as the Solarian unit of time.
Hmm-- It IS possible that your madness could be taking the Lalannas units and thinking they're Solarian.
I played around with the thought, and couldn't see any logical flaw. Do you see those piles of rocks outside? And the statues scattered amongst them?
I think they were Solarians once. They seemed to have undergone a molecular reconstruction from biological to silicone base. I think it-- I think it killed them.
You sure some of the screaming primitives didn't just knock over some of the statues and break them.
Nasalla, do you remember those statues being there before-- before I went mad? I could feel his nervousness ping along the neural links we shared. Along with my nervousness.
What do you remember? I could feel our gills suck angrily as Nasalla took control of them.
Nothing much before we merged. Of course I remember the merger clearly, the blossoming of intelligence. Then we were trained, joined expedition after expedition, and finally this one. Jumped here to explore contact for trade. He opened his memories to me and I opened a link and started browsing with part of my mind.
Do you remember faces, names, people, friends?
Of course I do! Clearly. Most recently Captain Maksanaskam. The briefing. Tentacles entwining, sharing information, knowledge--
I've never touched anybody.
I'm-- sorry Allasan. How can you have lived like that? All alone?
I took control of our gills and gulped some ammonia to try and calm myself. I -- I had no choice.
From your memories, a simple retrovirus to repair the damaged gene would have sufficed.
On this primitive place?
He chuckled, his humour bouncing along our shared nerves. Point.
Nasalla, I remember creating us, this race, bits of the culture. I -- I created it because I wanted to be something that was never alone. Ever.
We've been alone -- we are alone, in this suit.
I rummaged through our shared memories. It was easier now, and they did seem complete. So much contact -- Nasalla, you've never been alone. Never cried yourself to sleep on a sterile mat. Never pressed your hand against a rubber glove, feeling that something is inside, but never FEELING it.
I felt Nasalla rummaging through my memories. For a second we stopped swallowing. Allasan, that's horrible, an abomination! Alone in your mind-- There're dark rumours of sophantsiblings where one half died-- He shuddered.
You know Nasalla, I was only twelve Solarian years old. Now I have such a rich -- heritage -- from you. Decades and decades of existence. All that knowledge--
There are gaps. Things that you stored are gone. You were always the artist of us, the romantic.
Given that I created us, that's no surprise!
Don't even think that Allasan!
Nothing from the ship yet you know.
There was a knocking on our environmental unit and I grabbed control of some eyestalks and focused them on the likely source of the sound. I could feel Nasalla doing likewise. There was a Solarian looking at us, leaning down and looking through the transparent dome on top. He was dressed all in black, and wearing dark glasses. There was a mono-tonal babble that dragged on and on, and then I heard: "Ambassador Kikicluthk, I need you to come this way for your safety. The security of this conference has been compromised."
Allasan, what's he talking about?
I focused on the Solarian. It couldn't be! They were fiction! Nasalla, I asked slowly, have you ever heard of a group called 'Men in Black' or 'MiBs'?
I think I remember something in the cultural studies-- Yea, a movie a few years back. Some crap about aliens on Terra and a group keeping it secret.
That's what I remember too. I don't think our visitor is fictional though. I moved an eyestalk around to get a better look at him and saw that he was carrying a gleaming chrome weapon stuck in his pocket. Maybe we better do what he says.
Listen to a stupid Solarian?! He paused and then thought at me. Sorry. No offense meant.
None taken sophantsibling. It looks like he's carrying a weapon, and the last thing we need is for somebody to shoot us.
But Terra doesn't have the kind of portable tech that could hurt us!
And if I'm right and both of us were changed, created? I waved a tentacle around inside our Environment Unit. And the tech keeping us alive?
Besides, if he's gathering up the aliens, we might find somebody who can help us with our hydrogen problem.
I rummaged through our shared memories and activated the external speaker. "We will follow. Please be aware that we need liquid hydrogen for our breathing medium as soon as possible." It never hurts to ask. I listened, heard the echoes of the English I was speaking, a few echoing tinkles, and then a dull monotonous monotone. Nasalla, we're speaking English, aren't we?
Now why would we be doing that? It's all in the translation matrix. Don't you remember the ship hiding in orbit for two months gathering the data, and our building the matrix?
Oh. Trust me, we did. He fed me the specific memory, I hadn't had a chance to look at it, and I had to agree. Unless the memory was fake.
I felt Nasalla switch off some controls. Listen sophantsibling.
The MiB spoke again and then walked off, but all I heard was a dull monotonous drone that made no sense what so ever. I'm not speaking English, am I?
You got it Allasan.
I started manipulating the Environment Unit controls and drove after him, a soft hum echoing through our breathing medium. Would you mind switching the translation matrix back on?
Certainly. After one thing.
Nasalla switched the translation matrix back on. By the way Allasan, Five hours, three minutes.
I drove after the Man in Black, the only sensation of movement being a slight tendency for our body to press against the back of the Environment Unit. My sophantsibling and I just looked out at the ruins of the con. There were no more shattered remnants of bodies, no bodies at all thank God, but the wreckage of stands and displays were everywhere. Some of the walls showed scars and craters from what looked like energy weapon fire, and we saw one person, apparently a Pierson's Puppeteer, curled up in the corner shivering. Guess he wasn't insane enough. I think I saw a person being sucked into a ball, but it happened so fast I couldn't be sure.
Nasalla? Is this thing armed? I don't remember any weapons --
Armed!? That would be so individual! Besides, nothing on this workd other than anti-tank rounds could hurt it. Or so the scans showed.
We joined a group of aliens -- mostly from Star Trek. A Romulan, a pair of Vulcans, and a Centauri and Narn in opposite corners glaring at each other.
This may not have been the best of ideas Nasalla.
I don't have anything better. And we do have some time yet.
I checked. Four hours, fifty-two minutes.
Oh. Seems so little.
The elevator doors closed and we started upward. You know Nasalla, this is kind of ironic.
It is? I thought it was just depressing.
Assume my memories are right. In that case I went from living in a bubble with unlimited air, to living in a bubble, I motioned around with some tentacles, with limited air.
Nasalla chuckled, ammonia gurgling through our shared gills. Then he was suddenly serious. You're not alone though.
I blinked one of our eyestalks and ran a tentacle gently along Nasalla's prime neural cluster, feeling the touch like it was against somebody else's warm, soft flesh. Only a soft echo of the touch made it into my primary neural cluster. And that makes it all worth while.
I'm glad we're together.
I think Nasalla was humouring me as I followed the MiBs into a conference room full of milling aliens. He knew that the mothership would pick us up. I had my doubts. Even though I doubted he was right, I hoped he was. I REALLY hoped he was.
Virtually all of the aliens were from either Star Trek, or Babylon 5. And that meant that they were all oxygen breathers, which meant that we were screwed. I checked, dutifully driving around with encouragement from Nasalla, and asking with increasing desperation only to find out that there was no hope. Sure, there were weapons. Lots and lots of fancy SF weapons, but nothing else. Didn't anybody believe in PEACEFUL aliens?
A part of my mind took control of some of our tentacles and waved them around in anger. Another part of me gulped more hydrogen rich ammonia through our gills.
The questioning took a long time as I'd say something, and then wait until it was translated. Then they'd say something, I'd wait, and it'd be translated.
"--Vulcan Science Directorate has determined that sentient entities which breath mediums other than gaseous oxygen do not exist. Therefore, any such research has not been conducted as it would not be logical. Just as your existence is not logical. Unless you're lying --" the Vulcan droned on but I'd stopped listening.
You know Allasan, I'm not familiar with any of these entities here. You sure they're not just Solarians in disguise?
Check the scanners Nasalla -- too many outward differences and consistent thermal readouts.
I thought we knew all the aliens in this region of the galaxy.
Unless I'm right and you're wrong.
And nothing from the ship yet? It's been almost two hours.
That doesn't make sense! We were supposed to be picked up an hour ago, and they should have grabbed us then, even if they somehow missed our beacon.
Have we made formal contact with the Solarians yet?
Of course not! We're still gathering information -- we're the communication specialists. It's a gift. The captain put us here in a pretend costume so that we could get more data at close range and further refine the translation matrix. Could something have happened--?
Something so rapid that they wouldn't have sent us at least a warning? Nasalla, isn't there some kind of survival equipment to process dihydrogen monoxide for breathing?
Why don't we have it? It can't be that bulky!
There was some fear that it might be damaged-- or that some Solarians might dump other fluids down it --
Oh come on!
Both of us gasped desperately through our shared gills. I knew the truth, and Nasalla was coming to agree with me.
Three hours, eight minutes, I sent down through our shared nervous system.
We got to get out of here and find somebody who can help us. Nasalla took the controls and drove us roughly through the crowd to the door where an MiB was standing. "Get out of my way."
"Ambassador Kikicluthk, it's not safe for you to leave!"
"We have urgent--" Nasalla continued.
"It's too dangerous, you have to remain here!"
"We need hydrogen!"
"Zed has some on its way. According to the Tycho Accord--"
This isn't getting us anywhere Nasalla. I took control of a tentacle and switched on one of the headlights so that it spot lit the MiB's crotch. The Environment Unit was a bit on the short side.
What are you doing Allasan?!
"Sir. I have armed this suit's Photonic Wave Motion Disruptor. If you do not get out of our way in fifteen seconds, I WILL use it."
We don't have any weapons Allansan! That'd be too individual!
Nasalla, he doesn't know that.
There was a moment of silence. Point.
I checked the timer. "Ten seconds."
"Ambassador Kikicluthk, you place me in an awkward situation. Are you calling a Code White under the accord?"
Code White? What was a Code White? Who cared? "Yes. Five seconds."
"Your timings as bit off, Ambassador, the MiB stated. But, as you have a Code White, you may depart. Is there a way I can reach you when your hydrogen comes?"
Ignoring him, Nasalla drove us out and down the hallway. Any ideas Allasan?
Got me-- Try going back to the main conference area. Maybe we can find somebody still there. Or somebody who might know.
By the Duality, I hope so!
We just passed the elevator.
I let Nasalla drive us back and pushed the down button as we waited.
You'd think they'd have a faster means of vertical movement in this primitive place. Swimming is so much easier!
We have to make do Nasalla.
Two hours, fifty-seven minutes.
You don't think there's a ship anymore, do you?
There has to be!
Then why the panic?
Because if there is no ship, then my entire race, all my friends, are gone, and have never existed.
I ran a tentacle gently along his primary neural cord, glorying in the touch, even though it felt almost like I was just touching myself. Don't worry, we'll survive. The ship will find us, or we'll find a way.
How do you know that?
The elevator dinged open and I took control of the tentacles on the movement controls and drove us in. I don't. But I have to believe it.
Unless the ship--
You want to depend on that?
The elevator door thunked shut behind us and I spun around an eyestalk and pushed the button for the ground floor. Slowly the elevator started descending. Nasalla, we can't panic. At least not for another three hours. THEN we can panic.
He snickered, chuckles bouncing along our shared neural system. I just hope we're still around then.
I double checked the beacon, and the radio. Both passed full diagnostics. The ship HAS to be able to hear us.
Nasalla! Believe that, fine, but don't panic. But don't let that stop us from looking for other sources.
The elevator stopped on the second floor and the doors slid open revealing a startled anthropomorphic rabbit, pure white with glistening blue eyes, blinking in the light we were projecting. I turned it off. "Sorry." I almost said EXTERMINATE! But the Environment Unit didn't look quite right though.
Nasalla pushed the button and the doors thunked shut before I could hear the rabbit's reply. Why did you waste hydrogen apologizing?
Because it was the right thing to do.
The right thing to do is to be picked up--
That isn't happening--
I KNOW THAT!!
The elevator dinged and the door slid open on the ground floor.
Nasalla! Just shut up! We'll find something! I started driving us out. It's hard to stay calm when your sophantsibling's anger pulses up and down and through your shared neural network.
On this primitive place?!
A dull monotone droned outside, and then it was translated: "Exudes mean MiB look informed? Do yew no what floor--?"
What the--? Nasalla, is something wrong with the translator?
He ran a quick diagnostic. No -- one of the tasks we came here for was to work on cleaning up how it dealt with accents.
Accents. Probably a phonal analysis breakdown.
Together we connected our neural system to the onboard translation matrix allowing direct mental manipulation of the structure. It didn't take long for us to call up individual sounds that were picked up, map them against stored phonal groups with probabilities, scan the speech for distinctive accent markers and flag them, and create a tentative sub-matrix adapted to the particular accent in question. Generally I was the one who determined which phonemes, or discrete language sounds, were correct, which were distortions, and which were accent markers, and Nasalla was the one who manipulated the actual matrix.
A dull knocking echoed through our breathing fluid.
Nasalla and I looked at each other through different eyestalks, and then ran the recorded speech through the improved matrix.
"Excuse mean MiB looking formed. Do you no what floor--?"
My best guess was that he was looking for the MiBs who'd sent for him. Answering, I let the default non-accented matrix create our response: "Up on the 8th floor. A. C. Clarke room." I examined the Solarian as the system processed our response. He was wearing a red Star Fleet shirt and carrying some kind of thick plastic case.
"Trench." He pushed by and into the elevator as we drove out. "Tan doors -- You'd think theta invented transcendental aluminum be now." The doors thumped shut behind us.
It took only another few moments to further manipulate the matrix and refine the sub-algorithm we'd started on with the additional recorded input.
What was I doing? Sub-algorithms? Translation matrixes? Phonal groups? Probabilities? Nasalla? What just happened?
He had a fairly thick accent -- I think he was from a place called Scotland.
Nasalla. I don't KNOW anything about language translation! I gulped ammonia as more thoughts burbled through my brain. In fact, I'm only twelve years old. So, how come I think and speak like an adult, am not panicking, and know how to use and program an alien language translation matrix?!
Twelve years -- INDIVIDUAL! Nasalla sighed through our shared gills. Allasan, whomever, for a second it WAS Allasan back. My sophantsibling. My other self.
I see two possibilities. Either the insanity that created your delusions about once being a Solarian is breaking down, or there are pieces of what you imagined Allasan to be, the skillsets that Allasan had, still present within your neural cluster.
I thought on that for a moment, slowly sucking ammonia through our gills as I played around with the idea. I KNOW that this whole entity, our whole race, -- I motioned around inside the Environment Unit with a pair of tentacles -- was created out of my imagination.
I'm starting to believe you -- though I wish I didn't.
It seemed that as part of whatever transformed us, me, a significant part of Allasan's skill set and abilities has been transferred over to me. Along with, I guess, his maturity. The whole concept of childhood, something I'd remembered intellectually as existing within inside the bubble, was now gone. I could imagine it as a logical exercise, but I couldn't BELIEVE it, couldn't feel it--
What's wrong Allasan?
Nasalla-- Nasalla, to Solarians childhood is a thing to be treasured. Or at least so I remember. And now, I can remember events when I was a Solarian child, but I can't FEEL them. I can't KNOW them other than as intellectual concepts.
Nasalla was quiet for a moment, the only sound the gurgle of ammonia through our gills. Allasan, I don't know what's going on. But, remember that we Lalannas don't have a childhood, or not really. In our youth we live as non-sophants. We merge, we gain sentience, and almost the first thing we do is encounter an adult who links with us and fills our minds with knowledge. Other sophant species we've encountered have childhood. We don't.
I felt like my lips were quivering. Nasalla, I don't think I was meant to grow up so fast. So-- abruptly. To lose-- I'm not ready for this!
I felt a tentacle run itself along my primal neural cord. Allasan! You said it yourself, we CAN'T panic!
I-- I know-- but it's so damn hard!
You have to try. We both have to try. It's our only hope. Except for the ship of course.
There is no--
Then act like an adult, not like an individual!
I slowly decreased the speed I was sucking ammonia past our shared gills, slowly calming as Nasalla ran a tentacle up and down my primal neural cord. Finally I asked: Nasalla, how-- how are you coping? Is it easier for adults?
Easier? I WISH it was! He took control of our gills and rapidly gulped down some ammonia. Allasan, if you look at the memories I passed you, you'll see that we've -- that myself and the real -- bad word -- the ORIGINAL Allasan, have been in bad spots before. Admittedly this one is at the top of the list. If you're right then I just remember experiencing those events, but then that's really the same thing. Sure, I have some training, some practice, but I just try and ignore it and concentrate on the task. It's not maturity or any such thing -- it's just -- it's just a matter of not letting it control you. I wish I had more to offer.
He released the gills to me and I concentrated on slowly gulping ammonia past them to calm down. Thank you Nasalla. I'm sorry.
Allasan, it's past. Right now we have to survive. Later, we can reason it out. There is no destiny, no master controlling entity as the Solarians have. There is the Duality, but that is where our collected experiences, what makes us conscious sophants, merge with those who have gone before us to imagine into existance a new reality when enough wisdom has been gained.
Allasan-- You've shown me your memories, and I have the same lack of understanding. Like you I remember learning to speak, to identify objects, but it's not REAL. It's just too foreign, too individual--
Nasalla-- Am I mad?
A tentacle reached up and gently ran along my primary neural cord. Allasan, you're no more mad than I am. One of us has a delusion, nothing mor--
We better get going Nasalla. I read-- two hours, thirty-five minutes.
Point. Where's the individual ship?!
I don't know. But-- I took control of another tentacle and ran it along Nasalla's primary neural cord. Thanks. I--
Don't worry about it sophantsibling. I panicked, you panicked, now we're even. Let's see what we can find!
The first place we went to was the front desk -- they might have some ideas. There was a nervous looking clerk there, along with a pair of Jedi -- Ben Kenobi and Luke Skywalker apparently -- performing a practice duel with lightsabres.
What are those weapons? Glass? Nasalla asked. But readings say they're lasers-- That's not possible--
I think almost anything is possible now.
Just in case I asked them if they had a solution to our problem. Sadly, though their duel looked impressive, and they could do all kinds of impossible things, it seemed that The Force couldn't produce liquid hydrogen.
We drove outside to talk to the police -- and there were LOTS of police. Politely they stopped us, thinking we were about to leave. I stated our problem, and we were passed from one officer to another, to another, until finally one answered that they'd 'work on it'.
Nasalla and I had our doubts.
We thought about making a run for it but decided not too for a number of reasons. There were SWAT teams in evidence, and they could have mounted weapons that could damage our Environment Unit. If the ship did exist, and had lost our beacon, then they'd go to the conference centre. We needed to stay there. More importantly though, we had no idea where to go to get help.
So we drove back through the convention. Most of the rooms were shambles -- oddly nothing much seemed to be looted though there was no way to be sure. There weren't many people around. A few superheroes -- who would be highly useful if we needed somebody to break through a wall or bend an iron bar -- seemed to be standing around keeping an eye on things. Eventually we made our way to the cafeteria, hoping to find somebody useful there.
Nasalla, this is probably a stupid question -- especially given our situation -- but, what do we eat?
Funny you should ask. We're filter feeders. We need them to be healthy. The breathing medium around us is full of single celled organisms consuming our waste potassium and producing hydrogen--
Hope flashed through me. Then why are we running out?!
There's not enough. Just enough so that we feel okay, not enough to noticeably affect our environment.
And when are they all used up?
Hmm, Nasalla checked, that's not for another four days or so.
Doesn't really matter in the long run if we're trapped here. We can eat some Solarian foods -- just grind them up and drop them in. Why do you think we were trying to make contact to trade? For the tech around here? Of course we also wanted the standards like art, stories, movies--
We looked around. Four or five anthropomorphic animals -- mostly vulpines -- and a group of three Solarians with minor animal features -- elephant trunk, rabbit ears, cat ears.
Allasan -- maybe that one. He passed control of an eyestalk to me and I saw a woman sitting at a dark table -- it's only light was a thick candle as the overhead fluorescents all around her weren't working. A bowl was floating in front of her, and then it glowed, and melted upward into a cup.
No, I don't know how either, I answered, but I can't see anyone else that could possibly help us.
I drove us over to her table.
"Excuse me Miss--" I asked.
She jerked in astonishment and the cup flowed back into a bowl, and then clanked onto the table, rattling to a standstill.
"Excuse me?" she echoed. "I was-- Do you need help opening that thing?"
"NO!" Nasalla and I both screamed through the translation matrix together.
She cocked her head and looked at us. I pumped ammonia through our gills faster and felt like I was blushing.
I'd better talk -- I'm the Solarian here, remember?
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you. But this Environment Unit is necessary for our continued life -- oxygen is poison to us."
"You're not human?"
"No. Miss. Something from my-- ahh-- imagination."
Nasalla good naturedly hissed at me.
"Umm--" I continued, "We, I, couldn't help but-- uh-- notice--"
"The lights?" she asked smiling.
"Well-- uhh-- no but--"
Allasan, what's wrong with you? You're acting like we're about to intertwine ourselves with a mate--
Allasan, you're not human anymore. If you tried, she'd either freeze in our -100 degree environment, or we'd boil in hers.
Well-- true-- but--
"I'm allergic--" she began.
Can't you SEE?! Nasalla moved a tentacle and switched on the light I'd used on the MiB.
"NOOOOOOOO!" she screamed, and I would have winced had not the electronics dampened the translated sound down to something bearable.
What did you do Nasalla?
Just the lights -- thought I'd let you take a look at her and see that it'd never work.
You could have--
"I'm not sneezing!" she said in her dull monotonous voice which was then translated.
I blinked an eyestalk and looked at her.
"I'm sorry. It's just that I'm," she looked embarrassed, "allergic to fluorescent lights."
I burst out laughing and the matrix dutifully translated it.
Her face turned reddish and she glared at me.
"I'm-- I'm sorry. It's just-- the idea of being allergic to fluorescent lights -- it's just so -- so absurd!"
"You wouldn't say that if you were."
She raised an eyebrow.
"I was just-- ahh-- agreeing with you."
Nasalla, it won't work. You're not the same species! Now get control of yourself.
Actually Nasalla-- according to the onboard systems she's projecting some kind of low-frequency energy--
Let me just-- He manipulated some of the onboard systems and the transparent dome capping the Environment Unit darkened, paled, and darkened a little. Got it!
I've made the dome opaque to that particular frequency.
Oh. I blinked the eyestalk I was using and looked at her. She was-- different. Before she had glowed, and the rest of the world had faded into shadow around her. But now, now she was beautiful, beautiful as Solarians would think, but just-- normally beautiful. Blinking, I grabbed another eyestalk and focused on her. In fact, it seemed that her body, well, the white silk draped shapely version, the long golden hair, the long translucent fluorescent wings, were all partially transparent. Or they wavered. I could see perched on the back of the chair a much smaller beautiful women. The tiny figure was dressed, and looked largely the same, but appeared more normally beautiful, rather than superhumanly beautiful.
"Hello in there?"
"Oh. Sorry." I found that I could speak easily now without confusion.
Don't tell her about me. I don't know what was affecting you, but there's no sense in letting her know you have a sophantsibling.
"Anyway, I'm Nasalla, well I am now anyway--"
She giggled politely.
"-- and I couldn't help but see your," I motioned towards the table where the bowl had finally stopped spinning with one of the Environment Unit's manipulator tentacles, "magic. I guess that's what it is anyway."
It could be psychic powers. I've heard rumours --
Be quiet Nasalla!
"Oh, that. I was practicing. I guess that now I am Elisandra Melisande Blueleaf the Eighth, Princess of the Willowand Faeries. And it seems that I can now do magic--"
Told you Nasalla!
Hmph! Magic is simply physics we don't understand yet.
"Pleased to meet you Princess."
"And you -- Allasan."
"Anyway, I couldn't help but see what you were doing, and came over to -- well, ask for your help."
"Oh?" The translucent form blinked whilst the smaller form obscured within leaned forward a bit.
"Well -- remember I said that oxygen is poison for me?"
"I-- I have only --"
Fifty- eight minutes Allasan
"-- a little under an hour before I run out of hydrogen."
"As you breathe oxygen, I breathe hydrogen."
She nodded, and her wings moved slowly down and then back up.
"Anyway, we-- I desperately need more liquid hydrogen or, well, I'm dead."
"Tell me about it. I've tried everything else, I was just hoping that maybe magic--"
"Could solve the problem! Well-- I'm still kind of new at this--"
Great Duality-- Nasalla muttered.
"Oh. Well, we... I'm getting kinda desperate here."
She pulled a massive gold and silver-bound tome out from a too small pouch on the diminuative form partially hidden inside, and thunked it open on the table. I could dimly see ornate writing inside that writhed and reshaped itself as I watched.
Careful there Allasan -- that writing is radiating a low energy too. It's in the same frequency range as whatever it was she was putting out, so we should be fine.
She leafed through the pages muttering something under her breath. It was easy to tell it wasn't English from her lip movements -- oddly, the movements of both the translucent form, and the small form inside, were synchronized. "I can make water easily enough--"
"Dihydrogen monoxide? If I could use that, well, there're lots of water fountains around."
She giggled. "True. I'm not sure what else I can do-- hydrogen isn't something magic usually deals with. Hmmm-- I've got something here to create a fireball, that could be hydrogen, or something else." She muttered to herself for a bit, running a long fingernail down along the writing. "I think it is -- and I MIGHT be able to create it inside a container--"
"It has to be liquid hydrogen Princess."
"Liquid-- that would pose a problem, wouldn't it?" She leafed through more pages. "I think I could work something out but it'd take time."
"More than an hour?"
Told you it wouldn't work Allasan.
What do we have to lose at this point?!
The princess continued oblivious to Nasalla's and my internal conversation. "Almost certainly. Now-- hmm-- there might be something else--"
The eye I was currently controlling lit up. "Oh?"
"I have a number of polymorph spells here. I haven't been able to undo whatever transformed people here--"
What's she talking about Allasan?
She turned and looked at me, her large eyes blinking in surprise. "You honestly don't know?"
"I've been-- kind of busy."
"Oh. About four hours ago a wave of ancient magic rolled through the entire convention. It transformed everybody here, in the grounds outside, in their rooms in the hotel, into whatever costume they were wearing. Some--"
That means that I'm the sane one--
Everybody's gone-- Myths--
"--people who were concentrating on the role of their costume became-- consumed by that role. They lost all memory of who they were."
I shook the eyestalk I was using to clear my head as I heard, maybe for the first time, the loud thumping of our hearts. "Princess-- I didn't know-- I've-- we've had different things on our minds."
My friends. Our offspring--
Why'd you create me just to die Allasan?
I didn't create you.
Didn't?! You said yourself that you'd created my whole race, my whole society, even my Duality-damned memories! What she says just proves it. There's no ship, there never was a ship!
So you accept that I'm not mad?
Accept? ACCEPT?! The information seems overwhelmingly in your favour! People becoming their costume, magic apparently working, and no damned ship communication!
There has to be something--
We can DIE! I can be magicked into existence, my whole race, my memories, my DREAMS, just so that you can have company for five hours. And then I die, and all -- ALL of it -- dies with me!
'The anger fed back and forth along our neural system. Nasalla! Do you think I WANTED this?!
You know what's worse Allasan? MY friends, MY co-workers, NONE of them really exist! None of them EVER existed! They're not waiting for me in the Duality. They're fake. UNREAL!
"Allasan, are you all right in there?" the princess asked.
Nasalla, I never-- I NEVER planned on this! It was a dream, a story!
NOT TO ME!
Well, I'm going to die too! In--, I checked, forty-three minutes! I don't want to die!
It doesn't matter anymore Allasan.
Of course it does!
YOU were the bubble boy Allasan! You'd already beaten the odds of survival.
It's not MY fault that the stupid suit that YOUR race designed has such a limited life support system!
My fault?! Do you know WHY we started with only five hours hydrogen left? It's obvious from your memories--
Oh, blame me--
Remember when you were a Solarian? Just before you created me to die, you had five hours and thirty two minutes of oxygen in YOUR suit! Nasalla threw the memory he was talking about down our neural system and into my core so hard it hurt.
I had no choice and remembered the memory. 'A quick check revealed that there was five hours and thirty two minutes of oxygen left.' Dear God-- Nasalla, sophantsibling, I'm--
DON'T call me that! Don't-- His anger vanished. No--you -- you're right. It's not your fault. I know you too well to really believe that. It doesn't matter Allasan. It's-- it's done. Let's hear what this Solarian has to say. You-- you do it. I need some time-- some time to mourn--
"Are you still alive in there?" the princess asked.
"I-- yes--" I could feel Nasalla's sobbing echoing through our shared neural system, even though he was trying to keep it to himself. "Sorry -- it was a shock. You were saying?"
"Like I said, I don't really have any way yet of undoing whatever it is that Xanadu did to us, but I do have some polymorph spells here. I could polymorph, transform you, into something that could breathe oxygen."
"I-- I think so. It wouldn't be easy -- and it wouldn't be permanent--"
"It would last a few hours-- maybe--"
A few hours! More time to find a solution!
She said something but I didn't hear -- life! To touch the world, to feel, to not be sheltered away. To breathe fresh air, not tanked hydrogen. To touch a leaf, to hear a bird sing not filtered through speakers--
No! Nasalla burst out.
I turned my attention back to him.
No I said. Ask her what it involves. Ask her to repeat it!
I turned away from my sophantsibling and looked at the Princess looking at me. "What would the change involve?"
"As I said, I could only change you, not your container."
"If you could come out--"
Allasan, we can't SURVIVE out there for more than a few seconds! And there is no way to store the ammonia, to get back INTO the Environment Unit if we had to!
But a few more hours-- anything could happen!
Allasan, I said NO! Think about it! Tell her the TRUTH about us! Tell her the TRUTH and ask her!
"Princess-- do you know what I am?"
"By name, no--"
"Princess -- I'm-- I'm not alone here."
"You're not--? But I can only sense one form--"
"Princess, this being I became -- there are two of us sharing one body."
"Two? You mean that the delusionary persona is separate from you! This would cure it--"
I AM NOT DELUSIONARY! Nasalla churned the ammonia with clumps of tentacles.
"Princess, it's not like that! It's the race -- one body, two minds --"
"Hmm-- Well, the polymorph would put you into a single body. I think the two personalities would merge and the dominant one would remain with only memories of the secondary one."
Allasan, listen to what she's saying!
Nasalla, I don't want to die! There's a chance here!
You think I want to die?! I-- I don't want to-- No, I DON'T want to die!
Well, I don't want to either!
You heard what she said! You'll be saved, if it works, and I'll just be left behind.
Maybe-- and maybe you'll be saved.
Not likely. You've always been the forceful one. I'm almost always just along for the ride.
But it's all we've got!
Allasan, it'll kill both of us. Whatever's created, it won't be US. It'll be somebody else. It'll be an INDIVIDUAL!
I tore my concentration back to the outside world. "Princess, I thank you for the offer, and-- and-- I'll take it."
What are you doing Allsan!
I'm taking the only hope we have to live!
"It'll take a bit for me to set up the spell. I'll start now. I can't promise that it'll work though."
Nasalla? What's wrong? It's not as though we have anything to lose. Are you all right?
All right? I-- I don't know anymore. He took control of a tentacle and switched off the emergency beacon.
What are you doing?
It's obvious that we don't need that anymore.
There's no ship. We're not going to be rescued.
Nasalla, I don't want to die!
I don't either! Even with-- even knowing-- I want to live!
I don't know what else to do!
You heard her! IF we survived opening the suit, IF, then you'd live, and I'd die, or more likely we'd become somebody else. And then there'd be no turning back!
But we'd live!
No, YOU'D live. Until the spell wears off -- then you'd pop back into what we were, and then you'd die. End of it.
Nothing else has worked!
At least I can die, as ME, as US!
But I don't want to die!
You're repeating yourself Allasan.
It bears repeating.
Allasan -- I'm half this partnership. I say NO.
I sucked down ammonia. Nasalla, that's cruel and mean! You're condemning us, ME, to die when there's hope.
There was a long silence where the only sound was the beating of our shared hearts and the click gurgle of the support system.
Finally Nasalla spoke: Allasan-- you're right.
Of course I am!
Something may live. I don't know what, but something will. And that's worth the risk.
Of course it is! I'm going to live! I'm going to live!
Allasan-- I-- I would like to ask you, my sophantsibling, a favour.
I'm going to live! I'm going to live! Anything Nasalla.
I have a memory. It's one -- it's the most precious one that I have, that you, that the original Allasan, the Allasan I remember, had. I let him have control of our gills as I could feel him trembling.
Allasan, take my half of the memory. Experience it. Remember it! I want -- I want that memory-- our memory, to live whatever happens. Will you?
I'm going to live! I'm going to live! Sure Nasalla. Sophantsibling. But you'll be with me.
Will I? I don't know, you don't know, SHE doesn't know. If both of us have this memory, then it's more likely to live. A last fragment of the Lalannas to survive. I felt him gulp ammonia through our gills frantically. Please--
I felt cold and alone. But, I was going to live! Nasalla, sophantsibling, I'll take it and do my best. It's-- it's all I can offer.
He took control of most of our tentacles and wrapped them around my primary neural cluster and gently squeezed. Thank you.
It's no problem Nasalla, sophantsibling.
Gently he pushed a large ordered pulse of electro-chemical reaction down his primary neural cord to the junction where his met mine, and I let it flow back up and into my primary neural cluster. I could feel that it was loved, that it had been shared again and again, that it had changed with each remembering -- each instance subtly altering the chemical bonds and structure. I could feel Nasalla trembling.
The best I can describe is that I dove into it, that's what it felt like. Biologically I linked it's neural/electrical structure into my own, and let it flow through the knot of my consciousness.
Regardless, I remembered--
Over and over again. Mindless repetition as I grew--
I can see a form nearby. Larger than the little things around me. I can sense it; it can sense me. We draw closer, helpless to move away.
I swim faster and faster, jetting through the ammonia. Tiny ones are sucked through my jet, through my gills. Some don't make it. But I'm not thinking. I don't realize. I have only one thing in my mind.
I collide, my jet, my gills, slamming into the other. Pain. Blood. The soft flesh tears. Blood oozes around us. The pieces, the flaps of flesh, intertwine and curl against each other. The fine filament of my gills mingles with the other, blood rich filaments merging with others.
I am Nasalla.
I am Allasan.
We are Nasallallasan.
Our bodies merge, bound at our gills, our neural cords tangling.
I think. We think.
Our instincts merge, feeling out the new pathways. Feeling out how to think as myself watches.
Around us there is liquid. Liquid is a medium. A thing. It has existence.
Light. Light changes. Changes with time.
Our thoughts, no concepts, flow past each other, swirling in each primary neural cluster. Some are taken, some are rejected. Lobes of each our of clusters vote. Re-arrange. Decide. Think.
Sentience blossoms upon me. Instincts become thoughts. Concepts become ideas. Now splits into past, present and future.
The world shifts, changing from what is, to what was, what is, and what will be.
I am Nasalla. And I am Allasan.
The world becomes a place of colour, of wonder, a thing to learn about. Before it just was, now it is and can be known.
I am. We are.
No longer alone.
We hug, celebrate out existence, our knowledge, our eternal companionship.
We look around in wonder and amazement, in comprehension, at the world we shared. At the world we'd never be lonely in again. At a world inviting us to explore it!
I blinked at the end of the memory.
As a Solarian I was born. Mindless, still forming. My brain matured and I learned how to remember the world. I learned light and dark, colour and sound.
I learned loneliness. Eternal loneliness.
Taking control of an eyestalk I turned it and looked upon myself, ourself. We floated in at a tangled web of red/purple vines, of all kinds of thicknesses and colour variations. Tubes were wrapped around and a pinkish liquid moved up and down our veins and arteries. There were two distinct groups, each dominated by either red or purple. They met in a tangled knot around a complex of biological jets that contained our gills. The jets normally sucked ammonia in and out, but could also be used for movement.
That was -- I couldn't describe it.
I know. But your half is gone. Gone forever. And soon I will--
I wrapped tentacles around my sophantsibling's primary neural cluster and gently squeezed.
Nasalla, I felt --
"Allasan, Nasalla? I think I'm ready," the translated voice of the princess broke my train of thoughts.
Broke the marriage of sharing.
Click. Gurgle. BEEEEEP!
Both Nasalla and I checked the system. That was it -- no more hydrogen.
Nasalla used a tentacle and shut the alarm down.
Tell her you're ready.
I gulped ammonia, already feeling hydrogen starvation though I knew that wasn't possible.
I thought of surviving longer. Of living. Of living ALONE.
Nasalla -- it's -- it's WRONG!
I couldn't do it. Now now.
What you, what I, what WE have -- it's a miracle. I didn't know--
Go! Save what you can!
Nasalla -- NO! We're sophantsiblings. I think that -- maybe -- I know what that is now.
Allasan -- you have to save the memories of what you created! There's nothing else I have--
I'd rather die with you then steal a few more hours of loneliness.
I-- Allasan-- You can't--
We'll remember together, as long as we live. And when we die-- well, we'll both join the Duality.
Allasan, just DO it -- don't let a figment of your imagination drag you to death.
"Whenever you're ready Allasan," came from the translation matrix.
Nasalla tried to answer, but I wouldn't let him. Nasalla! Listen to me! I will NOT leave you! Like those who have gone before us, we'll die TOGETHER!
We struggled, but Nasalla's heart wasn't in it.
Finally Nasalla just collapsed, and I hugged him against me as he sobbed. I sent a response through the translation matrix: "Princess. I've -- I've changed my mind. The price is too high. I'm going to die anyway. I'd rather die like this."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm -- positive. Completely positive." I could feel our gills start to labour as the ratio of dissolved hydrogen decreased.
"Three hours is a long time Allasan," said the princess.
Nasalla just sobbed against me. "I'll-- we'll be fine." Only a few more minutes and then we'd die together, remembering what I'd created. "But thank --"
"Ambassador Kikicluthk! There you are!"
Nasalla and I both moved an eyestalk and looked out at the MiB.
He spoke in his dull monotone and we waited for the translation. "I've found a technical expert who should be able to modify your Environment Unit to process water into liquid hydrogen." He motioned to another human beside him -- a man in a red Starfleet shirt.
The same one we'd met at the elevator.
"Do you give him permission to modify your environment suit Ambassador Kikicluthk? According to the Tycho --"
"YES!" I screamed through the translation matrix.
Then he went to work. I disabled the warnings of the Environment Unit's system integrity being violated as I gulped ammonia past our gill faster and faster. According to onboard chronometers it was only three minutes, but to us it seemed forever. I just held Nasalla and rocked him back and forth as I, we, waited.
Click. Gurgle. Click. Gurgle. Click. Gurgle.
We live? Nasalla whispered.
It seems so.
But everything I know is a dream--
Everything but me.
I put the finishing touches on the document Dr. Sands had requested when we joined Project X. I could understand why he wanted complete details of what had happened to us. We were one of the weirder results of the Xanadu Effect.
What do you think Nasalla?
I think it's a bit too accurate.
He doesn't need to know about us. Nasalla edited the record so that there was only I.
If he asks Elisandra Melisande Blueleaf he might get suspicious --
Nasalla added a slow delusionary state brought on by the decreasing hydrogen as the Environment Unit went into conservation mode.
Okay Nasalla, why?
He wants us to sign a contract. You sign it. As far as he knows, you're it.
But that's lying!
That's keeping our options open. The ship MAY come back still.
You never know!
I did a last read through and sent off the message into Project X's intranet. Our environment suit had an adaptable data interface that could downgrade output to successfully use Solarian data systems.
I took an eyestalk and looked at Nasalla's primary neural cluster, and he took another one and looked at mine.
Boy, will HE be surprised if the ship returns! I said.
Nasalla didn't say anything, and I forced back tears. I didn't know what was wrong with him. Physically nothing, but mentally-- He knew that everything he knew was a lie, a product of my imagination.
We downloaded more of the pikachu recordings and statements of meaning, and dove into our latest translation project. Soon a whole room for us would be complete, but for now we could survive.
The only time Nasalla came alive was when we worked -- and I was getting as much work as we could handle. I'd save him, no matter what the cost.
Maybe working on the Alytherian language, and the dictionary would pull him out of it--
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