Loss and Understanding
By Jamie Lackey
Prudence slammed into cold metal, and her nose broke with a sharp crack. Pain flashed through her and faded.
Mathematical formulas spun in her vision like cogs in a watch that had been wound too tight. They shimmered in a delicate rainbow of colors, and they whispered their secrets. Prudence could almost comprehend them.
She tasted blood.
The formulas still spun, but their whispers faded.
Prudence couldn’t move, and she couldn’t feel anything. Had she been paralyzed somehow? She tried to remember what she’d been doing, but the memories felt thin and slippery, like crumpled waxed paper.
She couldn’t tell if she was breathing. Terror started to pull at the edges of her mind.
The numbers spun faster in a beautiful, intricate dance.
Prudence tried to scream.
Voices drifted to her, along with the scent of clean, oiled metal. The words were unfamiliar, but something in her mind offered smooth translation.
What was happening to her?
“Looks like this one’s had some kind of malfunction.”
“Damn turbulence. I hate traveling in atmosphere.”
In atmosphere? Did that mean that they sometimes traveled outside it?
The first voice sighed. “It’s not so bad. I prefer turbulence to vacuum.”
Was she trapped in some kind of space ship? Kidnapped by extraterrestrials?
Prudence heard a pneumatic hiss, and white light washed out the still-swirling formulas. Two dark figures entered her field of vision. Their horrifyingly alien forms were partially obscured by the numbers, but Prudence saw enough to be sure she’d gone mad.
One was a dark, slimy purple blob with six eyes on long stalks and a mouth surrounded by waving cilia. The other loomed over it, a giant, bipedal butterfly, complete with shimmering wings and proboscis. They both wore simple gray coveralls and intricate tool belts. Their almost familiar outfits jarred with their alien forms.
Prudence wanted to scream, to run as far away as her legs would take her. She couldn’t even close her eyes.
“I think she’s aware of us,” Blob said.
“Impossible,” Butterfly snapped. It prodded Prudence with a spiny foreleg. She felt nothing. She tried to look down at her body, to reassure herself it was still there. She couldn’t. “It looks normal to me. No anomalous reactions.”
At least the numbers were finally starting to fade.
“I just have a feeling,” Blob said. It leaned in close. Prudence smelled over-ripe peaches on its breath. “There’s blood in her mouth. Let me check her assimilation numbers before we seal her up, okay?”
Butterfly sighed. “Fine.”
Blob pulled a little box off of its belt and fiddled with a knob. It pressed the box against Prudence’s forehead. “Hmm.”
“Are you satisfied yet? Can I get back to my crossword?”
“No, this is serious. She’s definitely aware of us, and her link percentage has dropped to almost zero. We can’t just close her back up, she’ll go mad in there.” Blob shifted away, and Prudence heard it typing at something. “Bad news, this life form is a fragile model with a super high assimilation rate. We need to take her out to fix her, and we can’t plug her back in again, after.”
The extraterrestrials were being terribly rude. If they were really her hallucinations, they wouldn’t talk about her as if she wasn’t there. And the things they were saying didn’t sound promising. Fear curdled in Prudence’s belly.
Butterfly pulled its own box off of its belt and duplicated Blob’s movements. “Looks like you’re right.” It fluttered its wings. “If we plug her back in she’ll assimilate completely. And her physical form is too fragile to handle the time dilation unshielded.”
“Poor little thing,” said Blob, leaning over and patting Prudence’s face with its cilia. The smell of peaches overwhelmed her. “What should we do?”
Prudence wished it was asking her. She wished she could answer. She wished she understood the choices.
“Pull her out. She’s still bleeding; that can’t be good for her,” Butterfly said. “Set her up in a room, then we’ll figure out what to do next.”
Prudence flexed her fingers, then her toes, watching them move as she did so. They still felt distant and odd — more like someone else’s digits than her own — but at least they moved at her will again.
The coveralls that Blob had supplied hardly reached her knees, and they were too long in the arms and too tight across her bust.
Overall, a large improvement from paralyzed, naked numbness, but it was still far from ideal. She wished they’d given her a tool belt. Or a sandwich.
The door slid open at her touch. The hallway outside was white and plain. It stretched uniformly off in either direction. She had no idea which way to go. She sat down on her narrow bunk and hugged her knees to her chest.
Time crawled by. Eventually, the door slid open and Blob oozed into the room. It balanced a tray on its head. “I thought you might be hungry,” it said.
“Yes. Quite.” Prudence stood up and took the tray, barely restraining the urge to bolt her food down like some uncultured savage. She uncovered the food gingerly, expecting alien mush or strange food cubes. Instead, she found a perfectly presentable tea spread, complete with cucumber and watercress sandwiches and scones with butter and jam.
“Do you understand me, then?” Blob asked.
Prudence nodded, her mouth full of scone.
“Hmm. Your assimilation must have gone quite deep. Well, at least that will make whole experience a little easier for you.” He paused and watched her eat for a moment. “Is the food acceptable?”
Prudence nodded again.
Blob’s cilia waved, and the purple color of its skin deepened. “Good, good.” It scootched closer to her. “I’m sure you have questions.”
Prudence gulped down the last of her tea. “I do indeed. Where am I? Why am I here? How did I get here? Who, and what, are you?”
Blob waved its feelers. “Our ship gathers samples of life forms from every habitable planet we find. We take them home to study, then we return them to where and when we found them.”
“You travel through both space and time?” Prudence reconsidered the state of her sanity.
“And something went wrong with my transport, so now you can’t put me back when and where you found me?”
It fanned its feelers. “Yes. I — I’m really quite sorry. Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
“How much time has passed?” Prudence asked.
Prudence could barely comprehend the number. “I’ve been gone for 150 years? You mean Earth years?”
Blob bobbed in agreement.
She rubbed her temples. “What are my options?”
Blob’s skin darkened to the shade of India ink. “I’m afraid we have to let you off now, unless you want to be assimilated into the ship.”
“Why would I want that?” Prudence asked.
Blob shrugged. “The ship has a sort of higher intelligence. Assimilation is almost like transcendence, from what I understand. I hear it can be very beautiful.”
Prudence imagined being sucked back into swirling numbers and floating through nothing. The thought was oddly seductive. There had been a sense of something greater just beyond her understanding. But she didn’t want to lose herself. “I don’t think assimilation is a viable option.” She closed her eyes and struggled to maintain her decorum. 150 years in the future. Everyone she knew and loved would be dead. And how would the world have changed? She felt dizzy. And nauseated. “Are you going to simply lower a ramp and present me in these ill-fitting coveralls?”
Blob flinched. “No! Of course not. We’ll do all we can to help you acclimate. Gold is still very precious here, we can give you a supply — enough to live on until you get your feet under you. And we can get you clothes that will help you blend in. And I can do some research on what you can expect.”
“That’s very generous of you,” Prudence said. She reminded herself of all of the times she’d dreamed of adventure. She tried not to think about her family — the way her mother tucked her hair behind her ear, the way her father always ate the crusts of his bread first, the sound of her brother’s laughter.
She thought of David, his intense brown eyes and shy, sideways smiles. How long did he mourn her before he found another girl?
Had he found another girl? Or had he lived and died alone, without her?
“I — I need to be alone for a while,” Prudence said.
“I understand,” Blob said, its voice soft and small. “I’ll send you whatever information I find.”
150 years had wrought more changes than Prudence ever could have imagined. She pored over the documents that Blob brought her. Her eyes ached — all she’d done for days was read and cry. She had more options than she’d ever dreamed of having. Could she truly be sorry that she’d missed the chance to grow old with David, when this new world offered her so much?
A tear fell onto the screen in front of her. She sighed. Of course she could.
Butterfly poked its head into her room. “How long do you intend to make us stay here? Time travel can only overcome so much tardiness.” It grabbed her checklist of things to learn and shook its head. “This will not do.”
“What is it you’re in such hurry to get back to?” Prudence asked.
“I don’t want to ‘get back’ to anything,” Butterfly said. “Except to our schedule.”
Prudence imagined hitting Butterfly as hard as she could. How hard could its exoskeleton be? Would she break her knuckles, or would it crumple under her blows? She took a deep breath. “You disrupted my entire life. I’m only throwing you off by a week or two.”
Butterfly glared at her and stormed out. “Just hurry it up.”
Prudence wandered through the halls, thinking about what she wanted to do with her life.
Her choices were dizzying. She was leaning toward becoming a pilot. She’d always longed to see the world.
Blob approached her and bobbed in welcome. “How is your research progressing?” it asked.
“Well.” Prudence smiled at it. “You can tell Butterfly that I’m almost ready.”
“There’s no rush,” Blob said. “I enjoy your company. It gets lonely sometimes, with just the computer and Butterfly. Butterfly gets terribly … annoying sometimes.”
Prudence leaned forward. “Do you want to annoy him in return?”
Blob darkened, but it leaned forward, too. “What do you suggest?”
Prudence laughed. “Well, why don’t we go get some tea and make a show of taking as long as possible. I bet that’ll curl its antennae in knots. And the ship makes lovely tea.”
Blob burbled in amusement. “That sounds like a very pleasant way to spend the afternoon.”
Prudence stepped out of the ship into the middle of a field. Moonlight glinted against swaying stalks of wheat. “At least fields still look the same,” she said.
Blob caressed her face with its cilia. “Do you have your address? And your identification cards and things?”
Prudence nodded. She was excited to start her new life. Scared, but excited.
Blob rolled away. He looked back and waved. Butterfly stood in the doorway, radiating impatience.
Prudence waved back.
The ship lifted into the air, flew twenty feet, and tangled in a strange group of overhead cables. Sparks flew. The ship wavered, then slumped down to the ground. It left a furrow of crushed wheat behind it.
Prudence ran to the ship. She pounded on the door, and it slid jerkily open. She stepped inside. “Hello? Are you all right?”
“Malfunction,” a shimmery female voice said. Prudence had never heard the ship speak before, but it sounded somehow like the swirling equations.
“Hey!” Prudence shouted. “Where are you?”
“Here!” It was Butterfly’s voice, weak and gasping.
Prudence followed the sound of its voice, and found it half crushed under a splintered pod. There was a strange, furry creature trapped inside, its eyes open but unmoving.
“If I lift this, can you crawl out?” Prudence asked, gripping the pod by its jagged edges.
“I think so.”
Prudence lifted with all of her strength. The pod barely budged. But it was enough. Butterfly slid to freedom.
“Are you going to be okay?” Prudence asked.
“If the medical bay is still functional, yes. If not…” Butterfly glanced down at its crumpled wing. “I can get myself there.”
“I’ll find Blob,” Prudence offered. She imagined him crushed somewhere and her heart twisted.
“He was in the core,” Butterfly said.
Prudence hurried through the now-familiar corridors. When had the ship started to feel like home?
She found Blob frantically sliding around the ship’s core, where the A.I.’s integral parts curled together. Prudence sagged with relief. “Are you all right?” she asked.
Blob’s skin was almost black. “No.”
Prudence scanned it for injury. “Where are you hurt? Do you need my help?”
Blob froze for a moment, then turned to her. “You might be able to help. The question is, are you willing?”
“What are you talking about?” Prudence asked. He didn’t look injured.
“The surge scrambled some things. Things that might be stored in your mind. If you’re willing to let us connect you to the ship.”
“But won’t I be completely assimilated if you connect me?” Prudence asked.
Blob bobbed up and down. “Yes. But if you don’t help us…”
“Aren’t there others? There are so many pods, surely one of them would do?”
“And how would we ask their permission?” Blob said. “And there’s no guarantee that they’ll have the information we need.”
“Is there any guarantee that I will?” Prudence asked.
Blob rattled off a string of numbers. “Do you know what comes next?”
She did. She thought about lying. But then she remembered that Blob had been a friend to her, that the ship did feel like home. She couldn’t strand them here. “Yes.”
Blob scootched toward her. “Will you help?”
Prudence’s dreams of a new life as a pilot faded like stars at dawn. She blinked back tears and nodded. “Of course I will.”
Prudence settled into her pod. She closed her eyes, and all sensation faded. Memories fell away from her. Her father’s voice, her mother’s touch. David’s eyes. Butterfly’s stunned, grateful babbling. Blob’s final slimy embrace.
The numbers shimmered, and whispered the secrets of the universe.
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Penumbra. She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her Kickstarter-funded short story collection,One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.
Good story. Kept me wondering beginning to end.
Wonderful. I love the characters. A strange but happy ending.