Chapter Nine – Dear Prudence
The first time was the hardest. Waves of pain penetrated still through the many iterations; weeks, months, days—had it been a year already? Jay shuddered remembering each as if it were the first—all things cold and hard bared in an abrupt breach that she still had yet to elude. It manifested within her in the occasional nightmare where it percolated into something lacking and hostile—mundane really. Her creators and the set into which she was resurrected tore through her like thousands of daggers ricocheted from afar, grinding through her blood, scraping across and into her skin and nerves; trauma that burned like acid, forged into her DNA.
She wondered sometimes if purposely to torment.
Her ears rang with everything hot and sharp; her nose smelled the acrid stench of the unfamiliar and the torment of the familiar—each and every atom of life as it arrived unannounced and blatant, rudely so, like a pop and zap pointedly to each sense that left her dizzy and vertiginous, slightly nauseous.
Clinical and vague, the dark—infinite and pure—penetrated every synapse.
That’s when she saw them. Their unambiguous bodies coalesced into the black of the ship. No boundaries nor edges to that with which they wouldn’t ascend and no passage so great they would not seek, the fascination factor foretold into the set to which she was born—a theme she eventually realized augmented their very existence into something infinitely compelling, soothing, almost comforting; still somewhat abrupt and definitely unforeseen—certainly convincing enough to make her hold her tongue till she knew more. Jay saw only their eyes and the crystalline amber that deflected her uncertainty in a flat unfailing way. Not purposely, of course. She would find that out eventually, though not at first.
Once introduced, Niko, Tinta, and Bian dismissed her and brushed away her questions with a cold indifference; not hostile; unresponsive—like a child pestering their parents while they were busy doing something else of more import.
Her teeth chattered. Her eyes flitted not from the unenthusiastic reception, but from a hollow sense of naught, and fear—a fear of the unknown. Initially, a blank slate, she had no other thought but an unease, and self-preservation as they reconciled her and everything organic rushing through her to the present. That worry and caution became familiar to her after each experience—born into a body filled with angst, the foundational mistrust skirted everything she did.
Then they inserted the memories.
It was a remarkable feeling and one she couldn’t fully articulate at the time. An extended uninterrupted sting melded with a wave of intoxication producing the most incredible euphoria. It made every nanometer of her body tingle—intensities of pain and pleasure unknown and unfelt till now.
It was one of the many things Niko probed her on.
“What does it feel like?”
Jay took a long minute to think on her answer before articulating: “It feels like being dipped in a warm bath of eucalyptus, spearmint and honey while having a triple three-minute orgasm on mushrooms. And the pain…”
Niko, not allowing her to finish, surprised Jay by laughing and nodding along with her, which elicited a quizzical frown from Jay. “Yes,” she said nodding still. That’s when Jay began to suspect that she was partaking of her own experiment.
Forcing herself to open to adventure shaped most of Jay’s life, even the painful pleasures—this was part and parcel to her personality, regardless of fear or aversion. That conflict came with a challenge of forging through the trauma of the past to arrive at the present armored and ready for the future—a metaphor that quickly became literal in this and every reality since; the underlying layer as impervious as the one she adorned with each beat when she began anew.
This was what she repeatedly told herself—like another mantra.
Jay only saw glimpses of Niko in the beginning, though apparently she monitored Jay on all things. She found Niko intriguing, and vexing. Niko would pop in on her and ask pointed clever questions that Jay found incredibly perceptive—and direct; Niko was nothing if not direct. She would then disappear again leaving Jay hungry for more of that irreverent puckish wit that she challenged her with. There was still a veiled cadence within her lurking; a beat she couldn’t quite elicit.
Jay had never really been good at charm finding it exhausting and deceptive at times. Her communication style remained straightforward and earnest—genuine to the core, and that left her vulnerable on a number of fronts, especially to the duplicitous. Unsure what Niko wanted from her, Jay played the role as it was given to her at the time—each and every time, in every version thereof.
There were times she didn’t send Jay below and kept her consigned to the ship. Given a room and instructed to watch documentaries—some of which she already viewed—she started on a series of propaganda films that had her fuming. Created by the autocratic administration since its coup, the propaganda pieces highlighted their dear leader and his family—the First Imperial Family as they were thusly named and heralded oftentimes mocked unbeknownst to them. Plundering the former Republic of all its capital, the First Family then started fleecing citizens demanding higher taxes from those with scant—austerity measures that broke the backs of the most vulnerable. All this while fortifying a malevolent force that proved merciless and relentless to the most powerless—cruelty their only purpose.
The propaganda pieces were juxtaposed with other documentaries that were extremely artistic in origin and contained no narrations. These consisted of the truth at its source, ugly and unbridled, not in the least censored. How the footage was gathered, Jay could only guess. This became a puzzle she longed to solve. There were hundreds and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours of footage—far too many hours for her to view casually in a day nor a week, or even a month really. Nevertheless, she continued, reviewing some of it again with an eye towards signs of this ally, perhaps hidden within the ranks of the imperial family, or someone close to them. She, however, could not figure out how this unseen hero shot such incredible footage and lived, nor who they were. It was brutal. As merciless as the guard was, the films showed them far worse in their depravity; the realism of cruelty surreal. She and millions of others witnessed this cruelty as fact evident in the lives lost and the devastation rendered.
After many hours, shaken and burning with rage and sadness, she stepped away to take a breath before it consumed her whole.
Jay decided to explore the ship. She guessed it was the size of a football field in length—probably just over. Nearly all accessible, most rooms bare—all solidly black and the occasional dark grey; very few instances of anything lighter. Viewing portals opened automatically on approach; many were large, extravagantly so. Spiral ramps lead to other levels wrapping through visually open portals that viewed the intricacies of this engineering marvel.
Truth was alive—a living, breathing, sentient organism capable of the usual bodily functions for a transport. She found this out in her first days when there was exhaustion, and so much sleep; something about bodies becoming acclimated to the exertion and environment—she wasn’t really listening as she was already dozing on her feet weakened and drained from the fatigue of just being. On her first night, she woke and mumbled sleepily into the ether—I need to pee and where is the bathroom?—in which a derisive How quaint remarked and a modern bathroom, equipped with all the necessities, materialized in front of her. She said a polite thank you when finished and climbed back into bed. Settling back in, it took her a moment to realize what had just happened, to which she mentally shrugged and drifted back off to sleep as she didn’t have the energy to do anything more at the time.
Truth didn’t come as a surprise and felt more comforting than alarming. Quizzing Truth once she woke, Jay received snappy one-liners and smartass quotes that went mostly over her head. But that wasn’t really fair though as most things went over her head on this ship.
From that point forward, they became pals—those introverted pals that spare gratuitous words and luxuriate in each other’s solitudinous comfort. Like an empath, Truth sensed the needs of her occupants and did what was necessary for comfort, safety, or if possible, even their confinement. Jay determined this upon contemplating mutiny in order to free her country from the tyranny and oppression of the fascists that had taken over the government.
A pause in music then a long sigh followed by an “‘Even a lioness, the queen of the forest, protects herself against flies,’” then another sigh, “you will not succeed.”
Jay, eyebrows raised, the hairs on the back of her neck alert as something in her lizard-brain heeded her caution, asked “I beg your pardon?”
She played dumb, but even that quote she could easily understand—she was a fly.
“You may beg all you want, your actions will not be allowed nor will they succeed.” Truth’s voice—throaty and modulated—seduced Jay into a comfortable and deceptive lull.
Thinking carefully on what she said, Jay understood all that statement implied. “I’ve tried this before?”
“How many times?”
“I’ve lost count,” she said dryly and unenthusiastically.
“You would not,” Jay replied laughing, appreciating the implications in that pithy sarcastic retort that inferred far too much. Resigned to the fact that she could not obviously force Truth to destroy all those fascist bullies, she asked politely later when she felt more comfortable doing so.
First, however, she needed to find where Niko’s rooms were. She asked Truth who replied with a “‘When you show the moon to a child, it sees only your finger.’”
“Find her yourself,” she snapped then went silent.
And she did. Jay found Niko’s room—or more like her end of the ship—after some searching. The mask of the maze camouflaged the entry. Only on the umpteenth turn around the ship did she locate it when the light hit the opening oddly. The illusion rendered a doorway that was always there; one simply had to really look at it. Emblematic of everything about Niko—enigmatic mysteries and truths in plain sight.
She didn’t wanna be rude and simply walk in on her. She asked Truth to request an entrance. Denied many times, they often left her waiting for long periods—so long, she sat outside the door on the floor; other days, she went back to her room not bothering. She fell asleep one day until Truth woke her with an approval. She followed the maze that opened into a vast room that filled a quarter of the ship that included a lab and a library. Yes, an actual library with real physical books.
Since Truth’s beds disappeared on disuse, Jay could only guess where Niko slept amongst the chaos of books and other items, like magazines—all genres of cultural artifacts leftover from so-called better times. They were everywhere. It was like walking into a twentieth century used book store crammed and filled to the ceiling and in every corner—books everywhere. There was art too—oodles of it stored, stacked and displayed. Where there was an open space that attracted the eyes, there was art—or more books. There was also a blank wall that projected visuals of such, similar to one of those twenty-first century digital photo frames, except larger, and on the wall. The photos were varied. Jay recognized the occasional celebrity, be it political, artistic or sports related. The photos, of happier times, seemed different. The individuals depicted a serenity antithetical to the era.
This was peculiar and she wondered…
“When were these taken? Where were these taken?” Jay asked Niko, wherever she was in this chaos. She didn’t answer and Jay continued watching obsessively.
She heard distant mumblings then the books disappeared—most of them. She assumed Truth ported them to somewhere else on the ship in order to clear most of the disarray. Niko lounged in a far corner of the room near a theater-sized portal. Sprawled on what appeared to be Truth’s version of a chaise lounge, her eyes partially closed, head tilted back, Niko stuck out her tongue and blew a big, sloppy raspberry. “Must you mess with my anarchy?”
“Per usual, your anarchy becomes my mess,” Truth replied. “‘Fleas trouble the lioness more than the lioness can trouble the fleas.’”
Projected across the dome of the room was an inky black ceiling that, on first glance, appeared like another unending portal, only more akin to a clear glass ceiling—a galactic presentation of space in brilliant colors splayed vividly, except, this was interactive.
Jay watched as occasional pop-up notifications peppered the screen indicating prodigious human activity across extensive areas of space.
She had questions—about everything. She figured she’d start small then move her way up to the bigger ones like why the hell was she here. “What’s with all the…stuff?”
“I have a fetish for your era.”
“Why?” Asked Jay bemused finding this implausible.
Niko’s shrug was typical of her overall demeanor—curt and dismissive, yet reflective and honest.
Jay found this refreshing.
Truth offered her another seat like Niko’s and she accepted mirroring Niko’s position looking upwards. “Is this…the universe?”
Niko chuckled. “Hardly.”
Jay, embarrassed, realized her blunder. “Galaxy then.”
As various popups indicated transportations en route and other news, Jay considered what and when and who again. This showed that humans had scattered throughout the galaxy if what she was reading was accurate. They’d barely made it off their own dismal world rife with war, poverty, disease, and destruction let alone traveling throughout the galaxy colonizing and destroying the rest. Even the toxic billionaire boys hadn’t made it passed the redline yet. She reckoned that this wasn’t likely her neighborhood given everything she was confronted with so far.
Niko definitely wasn’t from around these parts.
“You’re not from around here, huh?”
“Nope,” she popped off an enthusiastic snap to her lips that had Jay automatically grinning at her. It was as if Niko aimed to be defiant and militant, but she inevitably came off as fascinating and endearingly hot. Then again, that could be just Jay—she always had an attraction to trouble, and Niko was definitely that.
“Why are you here?”
She chuckled; a flirty, comehither sound that made Jay’s toes curl. It sounded both sly and teasing, yet, earnestly sombre. It was a deep and dubious few before she spoke.
“I had a friend / She proved not meek / in light, I at once amend / and must bespeak / Wit and woke despite yours truly / beyond, above and even unruly / contend and favor and aid the rest / deception unborn and stratagem attest / In force and fail / our duties o’er pend / friendships need countervail / for kinships to transcend / Consider the pluck and decree the pressure / enlists indeed an alarming square measure / bring burden bear nought in replete firsthand / on equal and alike and unduly command / For I was not but a rudely chore / and furthered a fissure extreme and evermore / a freak, a quirk, a beat unknown / I could not concur, comply nor atone / Branded, booted and disavowed / for all those qualities am certainly endowed / A demigod, explorer, a scientist whatnot / in search of knowledge and truths untaught / The bounds of time I did not hold / free of limits—a mind uncontrolled / to probe and seek and search and test / unto / those laterals I so hungrily obsessed / And here I am to your dismay / gracelessly adjudicating these many, many assays / to wit and were it beats and bares not / the means to amuse, benumbed, loaded and overwrought / The plights and plagues of your own demise / left no one the wiser, peaceful, nor surprised / the scourge of your bigotry illustrated and foretold / by yourself, your ancestors and their violent threshold.”
Jay’s eyes and mouth had slowly gated open like a portend to nowhere good during that first line, and gapped fully thereafter while her eyebrows hit her hairline when certain words sprouted meaning: “A demigod? Really?”
Niko looked at her with a much too telling yes, really—I brought you back to life, didn’t I? And with that, Jay—properly schooled—certainly had nothing further to add to that subject. She fired off her next question, which was sure to elicit more captivating drama.
“Ok then, why am I here?”
She pointed to the ceiling and pantomined a flourish. With that, a montage of rapidly displayed video played forth. It took Jay a moment—combined with Niko’s partial recitation of a well-known Plath verse—to realize what she was looking at: Deaths upon deaths and all its destruction.
“’Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well. / I do it so it feels like hell. / I do it so it feels real. / I guess you could say I’ve a call. / It’s easy enough to do it in a cell. / It’s easy enough to do it and stay put. / It’s the theatrical.’” She looked at me: “You, me—we are Lady Lazarus.”
© 2021 Pamela Gay Mullins