Hi, and welcome back to Fantastique, stories of Wonder, Dread, and Hope. This time I’ve got a story I wrote a while back in honor of an online friend. This story will be considerably more flavored towards science fiction. Hope you’re into that sort of thing. Content warnings; mentions of body dysmorphia, some depression, and a couple of non-detailed mentions of sex and drugs. For that reason I give this one a PG-13, but still make your own decisions.
Intro taken care of, take a moment to let go a little of the world you know, of the self you know, and imagine someone else. A young woman on a mission in the depths of space. Someone struggling through life, far from home, and uncomfortable in her own skin. Let’s all let go of our own struggles, and meet Alise.
The reflection of her helmet showed one small white star close enough to get the honorific of sun. The rest of the field of view was filled with far more distant stars. They also reflected off the smooth faceplate of her suit. Standing on the hull of her sleek grey ship, as it floated peacefully, she looked into the one dark corner of sky. Not really a corner, an angular spheroid of dark matter that took a long time to find. A 3 dimensional optical illusion that had shape but being dark upon dark she couldn’t quite make out the lines of it. Her HUD traced highlights, but only captured the silhouette.
She shuddered a little, then turned and climbed back into the airlock. She felt a little stressed, and chronically uncomfortable. Have you ever felt uncomfortable, but so familiar with it that it was kind of a comfort itself? That’s what was flowing through her mind right now. An almost ever-present klaxon alarm somewhere in the distance of her mind. She wondered if it was ever turned off would she feel lost, like how you might miss a scratchy too hot blanket that you’ve had since childhood.
She closed the inner door and pulled back the two clasps that locked her helmet into place. A hiss of pressurized air, and her long brown hair unfurled in the artificial gravity. Her suit loosened slightly for more comfort while within the ship. The walk back to the cockpit was lit with slow patterns of lights along the walls. They all meant something, but the subtle shades didn’t mean much to her right now, only ready to check them if they dropped to red. She had been trained of course, but she had a lot on her plate and stuck to the important pieces.
She sat easily in the cockpit chair, surrounded by softly glowing screens. Only half were actually focused on the mission. Some were connected to her class documentation, others showed pictures of back home. Things she liked, her parents, her boyfriend, her friends. A few scrolled inspirational messages. This was her control center as well as a flashy mood board.
The reason she kept all the screens glowing is because while she was fine being alone this far from anyone, she still didn’t like the black surfaces empty of anything but herself. No matter what anyone told her, something inside made her avoid the images of herself. Everyone said she was beautiful, but mirrors… mirrors she just didn’t quite vibe with. And those reflective black surfaces were close enough to mirrors to be problematic.
She picked up a mug shaped like a hedgehog, and drank the slightly tepid but very strong coffee. She’d been pushing herself hard. Messages to keep in touch, taking classes, and now the mission. Okay, it was just a job, but a rare one, and she liked being theatrical about things. The term often used was over dramatic. As if being dramatic didn’t require also being extra all on its own.
The readouts showed the dark matter mass, a small asteroid with unusual properties, hidden against the background of deep night. It wasn’t just rock though. About a century before now a chance encounter with just such a mass revealed alien life to humanity. Creatures that could live dormant in space for long periods of time, much like tardigrades. The science fiction writers guild of terra prime would put a hit out on me if I failed to mention tardigrades.
They found two of the aliens before they knew how to awaken them. Brought them back to earth to study what they assumed were the frozen corpses of giant creatures. But once on Earth, the beings began stirring, moving, and came alive. At the time humanity was unaware of the quantum radiation created by emotions, and most thought the explanation that these creatures soaked in the leftover energy of emotions was absolutely insane. But truth like all other scientific discoveries care little for what people think makes sense, and the beings awoke to bask in the outpouring of emotions that earth was providing.
The two beings were taller than a small building, glowed with a dancing light, and were shaped like something between insect and gorilla. They had a kind of telepathy, which itself was another feature that people met with fear and disbelief. Some wanted to destroy the creatures, but fortunately the scales balanced towards peace. The Lumenari (a human given name due to the dermatological disco happening inside their skin) helped make amazing strides in technology and exploration. All they asked in return was a peaceful place to live, and help finding any others of their kind scattered through space.
The excitement of the beginning search faded off over the decades, several more were found, but only a fraction of what was lost. Few people even searched these days. The organization founded to search out the Lumenari, Lux Cupitorum, had lost most of its influence. People were ungrateful, and thought the Lumenari had little to do with the advancements overall. The growing sentiment was that humanity had accomplished massive progress on their own in addition to saving a sad nearly extinct species.
But here she was, far from home, in debt to pay for school, on a mission to find another Lumenari. Go on the hunt, and you get a stipend to support yourself, but only barely. You have to be able to spend long periods of time detached from the rest of the world. She chuckled internally at that thought. There was more peace removed from people than stuck in the middle of them. But if you find one…if you find one you get enough to never have to worry about money again.
Once she was sure again that it was a sleeping Lumenari, she left the cockpit to go to the forward hold. There was only one thing inside, a metallic ring that appeared grey with small gold circuits. It was floating at the tip of a crooked spike rising from the floor. It was thin, delicate, and wider across than a person’s head. She watched it a minute before she moved, caught in the delicate play of light as it turned.
She took it softly, with relief, and apprehension. As she carried it towards the airlock, it tugged gently against her hand, wanting to float free. She picked up her helmet from where she left it, and held it above the back of her head. An internal set of fans created enough vacuum to suck her hair upward and into a concave section inside the back of the helmet. She pulled it down over her face and clipped it securely to her suit. Then there was just the waiting as her suit adjusted and pressurized. She hated this part, it made her feel exposed. Each adjustment accentuated her body, she felt huge, as if the suit was made for someone smaller. She glanced at her own reflection in the airlock window just for a moment. People told her it was in her head, the problem was that was where she was too, so the advice didn’t help much.
Inner door, turn, click, hiss. Outer door, beeps, click, turn, open. No sound but her own breathing. She pushed off hard from her ship, setting the dark floating Lumenari as her target. The suit obliged, a good friend despite how rude she considered it. Jetting air from her pack through tubes in her suit, it guided her straight to the sleeping shadow ahead. A thin ribbon of cable floating behind her to keep her tethered to the ship.
She alighted gently upon the sleeping giant. Tight wrinkled skin, hard as stone, felt colder than the space around her through her suit. She looked at the ring one more time. You see, to awaken a dormant Lemunari requires a great deal of emotion, of all types. Positive, negative, love, hate, joy, sadness. But you can’t send hundreds of people on every ship, or hope they would all feel strongly enough. She gripped the ring harder. You can however flood one person’s mind with more emotion than any hundred people feel at one time.
This was the final reason so few took this job. To ride the ring meant going through an emotional event so great it couldn’t help but change you. The few that have done it either dropped into a coma, or came back more than a little off. Her thoughts were on her loved ones. She had recorded messages to go out if she didn’t stop it every day. Just in case she was one of the ones who would just go to sleep and never wake up. Nobody took this gig unless they didn’t already feel that oblivion wasn’t at least partially a welcome option.
She breathed deeply for a bit, smiled a crooked halfway smile, then lifted the ring to her helmet and slid it down over it. It floated just at her brow, spinning slowly. The gold circuits shimmered briefly. She ran through the telepathic unlock code in her head. The taste of dark chocolate, the sound of laughter, the smell of coffee, the touch of a hand upon her face, the sight of a sunrise. Memories recorded to activate the ring and begin the ride.
The gold circuits lit up, flashing in complex rolling patterns. The patterns blurred as it began to spin faster with her helmet as the center point. And the memories came. Some were hers, but most were from other people. She had been told the ring flooded her with emotion, but she didn’t realize this was how.
Suddenly she was 6 years old, being held by her mom and being told she was a good boy. Then she was at her wedding, looking at the man she loves. Her name was Carol and she had just learned she had cancer. Her name was Lami’ah and she was running from drones over her village. Her name was Pieter and she was operating on someone, desperately afraid and ashamed he had made a mistake that would kill this patient. Her name was Tasha and felt so ugly that she was cutting herself as a distraction. Her name was John and she was naked with someone else for the first time, feeling nervous and excited at the same time. She was an enby named Alex standing resolute in front of police officers at a protest.
Her name was Diana, William, she couldn’t remember her name, Najima, Pedro, Tommy “warlock” Jones. She could barely hold on to her own identity. She was happy, she was broken, she was so many things. The ring glowed brighter and brighter, a shining halo reflected in her helmet and visible a distance away. Her body went rigid as she lived through moments everyone hoped for, or dreaded. Her brain, her soul, was a supernova of emotion.
The glow of the ring was the only light, then it was joined. Unseen by her, the floating body beneath her began to show a soft rainbow colored light. Shimmering, growing, rapidly shifting through colors. Her suit worked to collect her tears and try to regulate her body. It was so bright inside her mind, she couldn’t hold on. The memories became more intense, sex, death, loneliness, acid trips. Then just when she was trying to repeat her name over and over and felt like letting go, the ring snapped. The halo winked out as the circuits overheated. Everything went black.
When she woke up, she was pressed against the hull of her ship, warm yellow light surrounding her. No, not her, the Lumenari floating close by. She opened her eyes and it was staring back at her. It knew her down to her bones. She smiled, and the light became warmer. She was going to explain, but it already knew. It went under the ship to a second door, which opened expectantly for it.
She entered the ship as well, feeling the Lumenari in her mind, with her. She sat in the cockpit, looking at readings, wishing she had some more coffee after that. She felt exhausted, different, but not broken like the others. She had just been so many people, now she was happy to just be her again. She said her own name “Alise” as if it was the first time she ever had. She set a course for home, then turned off all the screens. She caught herself in one of them, and smiled back. Her smile felt just right.
And that’s the story. Thanks for letting go and getting to know Alise. You can subscribe anywhere you find other podcasts to listen to more stories of wonder, dread, and hope. You can find me on twitter @podfantastique, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you liked this story, please share it with a friend or stranger. Our intro and outro music is Bughici’s Suite for Violin 8 Ardeleneasca as performed by Advent Chamber Orchestra. Other music courtesy of the free music archive and all attribution will be in the show notes on podfantastique.com.