By Alexis A Hunter
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Conjure the face of a loved one, they say. Remember who you're fighting for.
The others in this support group have spouses, children, parents to clutch in their minds like talismans as the chemo floods their bodies with poison.
I smile to myself, gaze straying to the glimpse of green beyond the streaked window. The sky is a different beast every night; the wind tastes different every moment; I'll never step in the same river twice--that is what I have to hold on to.
They take turns talking of their loved ones and the events they're holding on to see. When it's my turn, I shrug, smile in my quiet way.
Just life, I say. As if that's something small.
Pity crashes over their faces. I become, in their eyes, the one with nothing to fight for. They struggle with the awkwardness of this, fumble to provide me with answers I already have. Everyone thinks being alone is such a horrible thing. Maybe for them it is. Maybe for them it's synonymous with loneliness and emptiness, but for me...
Life was always enough for me.
I clutch it--even as my doctor utters the words 'bone metastasis' and 'three months at most' --I hold it like my last breath.
I am little more than a bag of pitted bones and strange masses. It's a wonder there's anything worth salvaging. When I read the news of the entity, it crushed me: hope for others, denied to me. I thought I'd missed it.
Then my doctor called me in. She pushed a dreadlock away from her grave face. Told me I would be the first. Could be the first. Spoke of risks, but with a tone that impressed what do you have to lose?
That was two days ago.
Now I am here.
Attendants remove my clothes with gentle care. They wrap me in a plush robe, more befitting a spa than a lab in orbit. This is a serene place. One chatty nurse tells me it used to be the station's meditation room. I can see that. An assortment of frothy, sea-green paintings adorn the walls. Calming, woodwind music softens the buzz of attendants and monitors. Everyone speaks softly.
"I'm not dead yet," I say. It was meant to be a cheerful tone, but it scrapes out of my throat thin and flat.
The chatty nurse shakes his head. "It's not for you. The entity is sensitive to sound. Or... the vibrations of sound. We're honoring its wishes. Hoping... well, hoping this works out so we can cure a lot more people."
It takes too much energy to nod, so I muster a grunt.
The nurse's eyes shine when he speaks of the entity. "It's a marvel," he says as they finish up my paperwork.
They murmur of a cost. Wordlessly, I wobble my signature over a waiver. What can it cost that would be worth denying my last shot at life? There are so many places I never got to go, so many foods I never tried, and quiet corners of quiet cities I never discovered. I want it. I am full of wanting it.
I never thought I'd make it here. This shining place orbiting the world that was my talisman. I tried to glimpse the blue-green sphere when our ship docked, but they whisked me down the hall-- as if afraid I would die before they could get me to the entity.
Maybe on the way back...
There it is. A sliver of hope in my throat. I cannot speak around it.
Trembling, I close my eyes as they push me into the entity's chamber.
In the dim light, I gasp.
The entity is opaque, rectangular in shape--like a great, thick slab of frosted glass. It expands as the attendants wheel me closer.
They say it has no eyes, but still I feel observed. My skin prickles. My heart flutters against pitted ribs. I am moved to tears. If things go poorly (I am, after all, the first for this procedure) I will die having beheld this alien creature, this marvel.
The attendants lay me on a long, pale table and strip my robe. They leave the room and seem to take all the oxygen with them. I can hardly breathe-- is this the end?-- as this marvel approaches. How? How does it move? How does it--
Then it's upon me.
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
It's viscous, but... solid, resistant against my skin. I call to mind the brief tangles with former lovers: men, women, people of other genders between and beyond. Each of these exchanges temporary. Skin on skin and-- but this entity's weight pressed against my own is not sexual, it is otherworldly, beyond categorizing.
The moment of its resistance ends as its gelatinous exo-skeleton goes soft and malleable. It pours around me and pulls-pushes-kneads me further into itself. I am swallowed. I am held. It is... warm.
The world is gone.
Within, this marvel is translucent. I glimpse its true body: cords of blue-black filaments spooling around ovular, purple-red organs, close and vulnerable. Light pulses, like a storm in the clouds above, followed by a thunder more felt than heard.
The blue-black filaments uncoil-extend-reach.
Thousands of them.
They brush my cheek. Tickle my ears. Their ends narrow to microscopic thinness and slip between the cells of my skin in a thousand different places. Their invasion is painless. Repairing and perusing--the service and the cost. I give myself over completely. I clutch at the marvel with infantile desire and, for the moment, it clutches back.
I can feel it flipping through my past. And in doing so, it rewrites me. My history, my memories.
It was a good life. I was alone for much of it. Or I thought--
Now there's a shadow. A trail-- as if the marvel left a smudge across my mind. When I recall my past, I find there's a being beside me, at my periphery, in each memory. Always just out of sight, out of focus: warm, smooth, THERE.
I was never alone.
(I was, I remember.)
It was always there.
(No, that is false.)
I remember lying on my back, tracing the stars, whispering constellations to myself-- to it. Not solitude, but silent companionship. The campfire crackled, showered the stars with sparks winking out. I grinned to-- the marvel by my side.
I cease to resist this rewriting. I welcome it. Not because there was an absence in my life, but because this presence is so pervasive, so comforting, so--
It severs the connection and my scream can't stop it. It recoils from my cry, the reverberations of my lament, as if struck. Its gelatinous shell goes fluid again, pushing-nudging-pressing me to its edge. My thrashing movements do nothing to slow this expulsion.
It pushes me out and slides away into the shadows. I follow: instinctive, desperate-- suddenly strong.
My flesh is new, but that doesn't matter anymore. I scream again, a babe reaching for its mother. But it has already solidified. I can no longer see the filaments, the lightning storm of thought in its purple-red storm-organs.
Before the attendants can reach me, my knees buckle and crack against the tile. I weep, a hand extended-- and, for just a moment, the entity flickers transparent and a single filament presses against the gelatinous glass, like a hand reaching back.
It's an unexpected side effect; they recommend therapy.
On the shuttle back to Earth, I explore my altered memories.
The marvel is there. Casting a shadow beside me at my father's funeral; they played the bagpipes and I wanted to cry, I tried to, but I couldn't. Looming over me as I tangled with Mellie, my first girlfriend. We-- the three of us, two beings of flesh and one of shadow-- got tangled in the sheets and ripped them trying to get free. Hovering in the booth of a quiet cafe in a no-name town in rural Virginia-- I ate the best damn pancakes I'd ever had there and it... there it was. But it wasn't. It wasn't.
It doesn't matter that I know my memories were altered. I still ache for the constant presence of a being that was never truly there, the ghost in my memories. There's a bitter hollow in my chest.
My heart hammers against my ribs; my body feels lighter and stronger, not bogged down by the cancer. Still, I shiver and shake. I turn from the window of the shuttle, rejecting the world below. It is full of strangers and experiences to be tasted, but I... I have never been alone and my new life stretches out before me and--
A niggle. A gelatinous wiggle under my smallest rib.
My breath catches. I touch the peachy flesh over the spot. Inside, it twitches again as if in response. Can it be? I pull back my shirt and press harder, flexing the rib, and the blessed intruder dances under my skin. Warmth-joy-serenity, an overload. And I know then, I come alive with knowing:
A new marvel. A baby marvel.
I have never been alone--
--And I never will be again.