Mother was in the kitchen. I heard her rattle with utensils. A smell of freshly baked vanilla pancakes mixed with a stench of burnt oil reached my nostrils and I sat up in bed. A huge clock on the wall showed seven in the morning. Sunlight was beaming through curtains and birds were chirping on a birch tree that stretched its branches over my room’s balcony.
The morning had all signs of turning into a nice day but for one little detail – my head was hurting in two places and I didn’t know how it had come to be that way. I looked around. My uniform was still on the floor where I had left it the evening before. That much I remembered. My bag was thrown into a corner and lay there half open. Everything around me suggested that I belonged here, but something didn’t feel right. I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was and decided to concentrate on getting out of bed first.
Mother called for breakfast. Within seconds the entire household began buzzing with noise and commotion. A family?
“Awake, are you?” A cheery voice coming from outside my room sounded persistent. I mumbled something in return.
“Ah, he’s alive!” The voice moved away from the door and I heard a screeching sound. The door opened and somebody sneaked in.
“Look, he’s sitting up,” that somebody was a little girl in a beautiful pinkish dress with ruffles. She smiled at me and handed an apple.
“Thank you,” was all I could say. I did not recognize the girl. I knew I should have, and a sudden realization that I might be having amnesia frightened me. Apparently my facial expression gave away my inner distress.
“Mother, he looks like he doesn’t know who I am!” The girl shouted into the space outside my room and ran out. For a moment I could see her ruffles in the doorway before she vanished and I was left sitting in my bed holding an apple and feeling ridiculous. I couldn’t see beyond my room’s door but assumed there were more rooms and corridors the way I knew there were supposed to be more rooms and corridors in my house. And yet, a nagging feeling in my stomach made me rethink my assumptions.
The voice I had heard prior to the girl’s little demarche returned.
“Leave your brother alone,” I found myself face to face with an elderly man who wore a grayish beard and had a pair of warm, deep hazel eyes. From the looks of it he must have been a grandfather figure around here, possibly my own grandfather, if only I could remember that. I couldn’t and so kept sitting there looking around and blinking like a stupid cow.
Mother appeared with a tray in her hands featuring a small teapot and a lovely porcelain tea cup, a set of pancakes on a plate and a jar of maple syrup.
“I thought after a night like that you’d like your breakfast in bed,” Mother said carefully setting the tray next to me. “No need to rush, dear, you’ll have plenty of time to sort things out. Now eat.” She left the room. My grandfather, or at least the man whom I was supposed to remember as one, was looking through the window, his hands behind his back. He didn’t say a word when Mother walked in and kept silent when she walked out.
Sort things out? ran through my head. What things? What happened to me and why I cannot recognize my family but can recognize my room? Something was wrong and I resolved to get to the bottom of this unexpected mystery.
“You better eat those before they get cold,” Grandfather pointed in the direction of the tray. “Trust me, you don’t want them to get cold.”
Trust you? In this moment I don’t even know who you are! My head was still hurting but I armed myself with a fork and a knife and vigorously attacked the plate.
“Do you know what happened to me?” Words came out of my mouth uncontrollably while I was still chewing. I couldn’t help myself – I was in a hurry to uncover the truth.
Why such an innocent question would startle Grandfather was beyond me. He looked straight into my eyes, held the pose for a moment as if trying to find something behind my retina and uttered in all seriousness:
“The truth won’t do you any good right now.”
He then walked out into the space outside my room. I still couldn’t see beyond the door although it was left wide open.
“We shouldn’t have brought him here,” Mother looked at Grandfather with utter reprimand as she whispered her disagreement. “You with your insane ideas… I don’t know what possessed me to listen to you in the first place, but recreating a familiar setting will most likely only make things worse. You heard the medic, we cannot delay the inevitable. Besides, how long do you think we’ll be able to fool him? Need I remind you staying in corporeal forms will take up all our energy resources?”
“Questions, questions… How do you suppose we tell him the truth… It’s unthinkable! His entire world collapsed in a blink of an eye right in front of him. How does one recover from something like this? He’s too weak. That shock wave took a toll on him. Brutal exposure to the truth is what will make things worse for him – not eating pancakes in the comfort of his home, even a fake one. After all, what were we to do? His shuttle crashed practically in our backyard!” Grandfather didn’t feel the need to whisper but Mother alerted him with a gesture and he changed the tone of his voice. “Don’t worry, he won’t hear us, I activated a damping field around his room’s door when I left.”
The little girl ran up to them and spoke in a serious adult manner. “I still don’t understand how this happened, I mean the physics of this all. But we couldn’t have shown up in front of the Council with him either. They’d have him committed or put in a museum at best! I too didn’t approve of the decision to keep him here. But we couldn’t send him back to his death now, could we? His shuttle was catapulted away from his planet right into our space for a reason. All this secrecy… The Council will eventually find out, no doubt about that, but by the time they do he’ll pass the transformation and it’ll all be done with. He’s young, and I am convinced there’s hope for him after all. He liked the apple. And I am beginning to like these ruffles.”
Mother and Grandfather only shrugged in response. None of them could foresee what was to come next.
I stared at the apple in my hand. A red, polished, fine smelling fruit was so inviting. I was still weak after the night, and couldn’t think straight. Having put the tray aside, I walked up to the window. The sky and the sun were magical. I opened the window and a breeze of fresh air tickled my nostrils. Then I walked to the corner where my bag was, and inspected its contents. Seemingly, all my things were still there. My uniform bore marks of exposure to elements, or at least it looked that way to me. Dirty smudges, a sleeve torn off, my insignia gone. I concluded I must have been in a mishap of sorts. At the moment I didn’t know yet that ‘a mishap’ was in fact a downright destruction of my world, the only home I had known, and the trauma to my nervous system, caused by the mega blast that had killed everything on Earth and engulfed my shuttle on approach to the planet, was so severe it rendered me unconscious and drifting in space. The other thing I didn’t know at the time was that the space I ended up in wasn’t the same that my planet had existed in. Somehow, my shuttle was shot into the void between two Universes, and that’s where I encountered beings who nursed me back to health, the void dwellers.
A girl appeared in the room again. She made a few rounds around my bed and danced away with a smile on her face. She did look genuinely very friendly and nice. Is she my little sister? From what I’ve heard earlier she must have been. I couldn’t remember. My amnesia was so annoying. The girl said nothing, just glanced at me in a peculiar way. After she had left, my attention was focused on the room again.
Why can’t I see beyond the door? I approached it sensing movement on the outside but my eyes registered nothing. I couldn’t hear a thing either unlike just an hour ago when I was still in bed. This is my room, and yet it is not. I began inspecting the perimeter in agitation. Things started to make sense. My uniform… I must have been in a crash. Most likely this is where I landed. But why am I being kept here? How long have I been here? Am I a guest or a prisoner? Or is this all a bad dream? My head was aching in two places and my neck felt stiff. There were too many questions that I had no answers to. Out of curiosity I stretched my hand through the doorway. I didn’t dare cross the invisible border between my environment and what was beyond it. But I stretched my hand and it didn’t get stuck or burnt or bitten. Nothing like that happened. Instead, I could actually see my hand on the other side, shining like a light bulb and feeling weightless. For no apparent reason this scared me and I pulled back. That hurt for a split second. At a closer look I saw no visible changes of any kind, nothing that would have any significance or clues to what was going on. I was still instinctively rubbing my hand when Mother walked in.
“You shouldn’t be straining yourself so much,” Mother brought clean clothes for me to change into. “Here, something for you to wear now that you’re awake and ‘ve eaten. But don’t strain yourself like that, there’s no need. Grandfather wanted to talk to you though. I sure hope he knows what he’s doing,” she picked up my dirty uniform and left just as suddenly as she had appeared the moment before.
Mother acted like she was trying too hard, but her last remark alerted me to the possibility of something dead serious going on that I had not been made privy to yet. I changed into a new set of clothes and decided to wait not wanting to jump the gun by revealing my concerns prematurely. For all I knew, this whole thing could have indeed been in my head, which still hurt like hell by the way. Anyhow, from the looks of it I wasn’t in any immediate danger and lying in wait seemed like the smartest decision for the time being. I tucked myself in bed. There was a book on the bedside table, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Well then, Jules Verne it is. There was nothing better for me to do anyways. In a subconscious gesture I picked up the apple that had been resting on a plate next to Jules Verne’s masterpiece, had my first bite, opened the volume of 20,000 Leagues at a random page and began reading.
“He is eating the apple,” the girl whispered to Mother and Grandfather who stood to her left. “I told you, there’s a chance he’ll become one of us.”
“I am still skeptical. We mustn’t push him into anything,” Mother uttered reproachfully, “Not a single human ever survived the transformation when forced into it. It’s just too dangerous for his kind.”
“What do you mean by his kind,” Grandfather grumped out, “Aren’t you forgetting he is what we used to be thousands of years ago? In a way, he is our past, our fascinating past.”
“You and your romantic ideals,” Mother shook her head. “No wonder you were expelled from the Council. They won’t tolerate nonsense.”
“Exactly why I didn’t want to reveal him to them,” Grandfather retaliated. “Now you see why.”
“All right, you two, get a grip,” the girl in ruffles was getting tired of the dispute that went on between the only two adults in the entire household. Their corporeal forms were holding steady but she was beginning to feel drained from having to continuously battle them both in an attempt to get her message across. She was the youngest and as impatient as they come. “Look, he’s reading and eating the apple. I told you it’d work.”
“Aren’t you rushing this a bit? He needs to finish the book first. And the apple,” Mother waved off the girl’s enthusiasm.
“Something tells me he will,” Grandfather took the girl’s side. He began feeling more secure about the young man’s future in their space. The boy needed to transform fast. Their containment field would soon weaken because of limited power resources, and they couldn’t afford drawing attention to the situation and exposing their guest by requesting additional power cells from the factory. They were exhausting their energy savings for the sake of a stranger whom Grandfather believed to be the last of their long lost human ancestry.
“The book is encoded. I worked all night on the algorithms. It’s very intense this time, but we have no choice. The apple is re-sequenced to decompile his DNA and re-assemble it in a new form. When he’s absorbed the code – he has to finish the book for that – the catalyst in the apple will do its work. After that it’s wait and see.” The girl spoke as a true scientist. The corporeal form she had chosen was so unfitting her dry talk that Mother and Grandfather smiled involuntarily.
“The transformation will be painful, no doubt. If it’ll occur that is,” Mother sounded ruthless, almost as if she wanted for this experiment to fail. “There were no survivors after his planet was gone. If we lose him, we lose the last of his kind. That’ll be such a shame.”
“I will guide him,” Grandfather intercepted her destructive thinking, “I have some experience, if you must know I’ve guided several humanoids who ascended to our space due to natural causes. Not only from this boy’s planet that is, but they all have similar physiology. It’ll be a walk in the park.”
“If only I could share your enthusiasm,” Mother moved away from the door. “I have to run a few maintenance routines, this recreation of his home cannot support itself.”
“Just make sure you don’t disengage the room,” the girl reminded. “He must finish reading.”
I felt a tingling, irritating sensation in my arms and legs. Sudden onset of dizziness and nausea didn’t feel pretty either but I immediately dismissed these symptoms linking them to the accident’s aftermath. I figured I must have injured my head in the shuttle on my approach to Earth. I remembered that now. A hundred pages into the book I began remembering events that preceded my being here, going back in time, not always in the actual order of how these events had occurred but nevertheless I began remembering.
There was something very odd about the book I was reading. Pages almost seemed fluorescent at times. Or that was just my optical nerve malfunctioning. Either way, I kept on reading without keeping track of time. The story that I had known since childhood now had a new feel about it. I was discovering new words, new meanings. I was Jules Verne’s characters every step of their way, seeing what they had seen through their very eyes. A fascinating journey, from time to time so real I could swear it felt as if I was present on that submarine.
I finished eating the apple just when I turned the last page of 20,000 Leagues. That’s when Grandfather walked in. And that’s when it hit me.
Earth was gone.
A wave of emotions overwhelmed me. In a matter of seconds I remembered seeing on my shuttle’s screen a fiery blast that was moving across from one continent to another, burning all life on my planet, not sparing anyone or anything organic. And then when it was over, my planet was left a solid dry rock, no water, no atmosphere, no people, no animals, no plants. No nothing. Just dry solid overheated rock. And then something exploded. My shuttle got picked up by the shockwave and I lost consciousness. When I woke up, my nervous system had already blocked all memory of the event and I lived for another day under the assumption that my family, my people were alive and well. I was kept in the illusion of my own home which supported my amnesia. But, my psyche began instinctively getting through the masquerade and that’s why I started questioning everything. I sat up in bed shaking and if I could cry I would have, but my eyes were dry and I felt empty on the inside. Images began passing before my eyes. Images of my family, my friends, and then the exposure grew larger and I began seeing faces of unfamiliar to me people, but they all were humans, of different races, and they all lived their lives and breathed the same air I did, on the same planet that nurtured them till something terrible happened and took all of that away from them.
Nothing made sense and yet everything did. The burden of emotion fell on me like a huge rock and buried me underneath its weight; I was alone, weak and gasping for air, desperately trying to get up and shake off the weight that kept me down, but I was gradually losing the battle with the giant which was the truth. I collapsed to the floor in an uncontrollable seizure. My arms and legs were convulsing and that tingling, irritating sensation returned. I was dizzy and nauseating.
“Did he finish the book? And the apple?” the girl’s voice came from behind the door.
“Not now! He’s having a fit,” Grandfather barked in response. “We must stabilize him now before he slips into a coma.”
Nobody ever ascended while in coma. Everyone who did was always conscious, even if it meant for a brief moment, because ascension only took a brief moment. Inexperienced with corporeal medicine, the three of the void dwellers did their best to save the life of an organic being, a human, who was rapidly deteriorating right there on the floor of the illusionary room they had created to keep him safe.
“He dog-eared the book, see, right here,” Mother turned a few pages of 20,000 Leagues. “He must have started reading from a random page, not from the very beginning. Did you compensate for this variable?” She turned to the little girl in pinkish ruffles who was holding the young boy’s head while Grandfather was trying to maintain the life in the boy’s weakening body.
The girl realized what had gone wrong and froze in disbelief. She looked at the young man on her lap and the gravity of her mistake became clear to her. She failed to anticipate the unexpected. Was there a chance to correct the error? Her mind began racing through myriads of options, calculating new solutions, but the boy’s body was almost gone and she had to do something right away if they were to keep the last human from descending into an abyss.
“Deactivate the containment field, now!” She shouted, but the void dweller who had previously acted as Mother had already anticipated her instruction and cast off her pretend physical body, now moving to the panel hidden behind the large clock on the wall. In the absence of corporeal restrictions she could navigate around much easier. She deactivated the simulation, all but one elements of it, because they still needed the floor to keep the young man on it, before they could figure out what to do with his fading corporeal form. The girl’s thinking was to conserve energy and store the boy’s consciousness in a buffer that was masked as a window, before they could decide how to proceed. But the events took a different turn.
“He is beginning to emit energy beams,” Grandfather announced with a smile of relief. He was holding the boy’s limbs tight to prevent premature disintegration and was still in his corporeal form for that reason. Once the young man began emitting energy, Grandfather changed his physical appearance into that of a being of light, free and unrestricted. The boy’s body was motionless on the floor that was rotating in the space filled with fluidic all-penetrating light. The space was formed as a chamber with soft edges, many of such chambers linked to one another in the mosaic of fluorescent light.
“I don’t see how that’s possible,” Mother was checking 20,000 Leagues for clues. “It seems he did read it all, but in a random order. I have never encountered such an unorganized mind. That might explain the problem – he’s ascending backwards, out of alignment.” She approached the girl. “It looks like all you need to do is re-sequence the algorithms, and the ascension process will be resumed in a correct fashion.” Mother took over and the little girl now got a chance to cast off her corporeal form and quickly made necessary adjustments to the code. She then moved to the young man’s head and gently blew shimmering light onto his face. The boy opened his eyes. His body was partially consumed by light, his flesh now gone, and his remaining organic parts were getting thinner and lighter as he looked at the surroundings, still very confused, shocked and yet in a complete submission to the ongoing. The floor stopped spinning around and, as the three void dwellers united around the boy’s transforming physical form, he made the final transition. Now fluidic light was everywhere and four beings were freely soaring in the whirlpool of shimmer and fluorescence.
“I will miss the ruffles,” the girl winked at Grandfather and the four of them left the chamber.
Camilla Stein ©2015. All rights reserved.