The woman lay prone, as if in stasis.
Not stasis, thought Lyr. Stasis implies a future after the deepest slumber.
But this woman’s condition would never change. Despite the hibernation chamber and the stabilizing efforts of the stellar-craft’s solar energies, this woman would remain as she had since they had woken Niel and the rest of his crew.
Unlike the survivors, her eyes would stay shut and dry. Ridges would not mar her brow. Her hands would not clench. Her knees would not buckle. Frustrated growls and whimpers of despair would not pass through her purpled lips. While the last of her kind remained sequestered, this woman would be free from sharing their seclusion in the stellar-craft’s contamination zone, and yet, like them, she would escape the plummeting demise withering those left behind on their blue-green orb into dust.
She’s avoided the Council and the monotony of cataloging components too.
At Lyr’s sigh, the restraint of sterilized air responded by firming over the woman. The invisible tension stirred the pale hairs on her head and rippled the clouds of silvered mist emanating from Lyr’s spherical core as she floated by her subject’s bare shoulder.
With a thought, Lyr stilled her haze. With the next, she stiffened her mist into limbs like those alongside the woman’s torso. When she stretched matching legs to the floor, Lyr’s toes chilled on the opalescent surface. Glancing at her reflection in the bulkhead’s gleam, Lyr deflated the globular head perched on the spinal cartilage rising out of her core and crafted a bald oval instead. She added the nub of nose and slim lips, but her attempt at narrowing her circular eyes failed, leaving two mercury pools dominating her face’s sleek façade.
Her mouth’s downward curve deepened when the entryway’s amber film dissolved. Dhara joined her side, his gray mist billowing shapelessly around his core.
“You’ll get a cleansing if you keep doing this.”
“I’m experimenting.” Lyr swayed her arms, curled her fingers, and rolled her shoulders. “They have an intriguing structure. Gangly, yet graceful.”
“They’re inefficient. Delicate.”
With a huff and ruffle of mist, Dhara collected a clear disk and cover plate from his station. He returned to their subject, formed a set of pincers from his body’s swirling cloud, and snipped a curl of the woman’s hair. Catching the falling threads on the disk, he then pressed them flat with the plate and drifted to the magnifier mounted against the laboratory’s perimeter.
“At least quit being so distracted. The System knows have work to do.”
“Always, more work to do.”
Lyr slumped and padded across the laboratory. She bent over waiting vials smeared with crimson while Dhara spoke to the System.
“Straight fibers. Lipid outer sheath. Potential capacity for liquid repellant. Melanin discolored.”
He provided measurements for the sample, but his voice faded as Lyr stared at her likeness in the vials’ convex sides. She formed eyelids out of her taut flesh, and found blinking one made the left vials vanish and the other made the ones on the right disappear. Blinking both together provided a sudden darkness and she bolted upright. Her legs dissolved, but she halted her wobble with fingers gripped to the counter’s edge.
She grimaced at Dhara’s tone. “The Gathering, I know.”
Reforming her legs, Lyr widened her stance and refocused on her samples. A spectrum scan reported an overview of the water-based fluid and several types of cells, some with indents, others smashed against one another like collided meteorites. She voiced her observations to the System, but kept her comparisons to Niel’s hair to herself.
The coloration, though, makes a distinctive contrast with his eyes.
The connection inspired another battle to maintain her shape and again Lyr glimpsed herself in the vials. She had softened her eyelids and created supporting cheekbones by the time Dhara placed a trapped sample of outer skin cells at her elbow.
“You really should stop.”
She straightened and peered down at his bobbing head. “What’s wrong with learning about their mobility and testing their features?”
“You are a Gatherer, Lyr.”
“I know what I am. I’ve been one for,” she eyed her station, “for forever it seems.”
“But if the Council—”
A white light throbbed above the counter, halting Dhara and another round of cyclical debate.
Lyr hid the sudden quirk in her lips. “I’ll go.”
“Of course you’ll go.”
She swiveled to him, hands on makeshift hips. “It’s my job isn’t it?”
“Our job is to understand the components of what we’ve gathered onboard.” Dhara formed a three-fingered hand and gestured at the pressed hairs, skin samples, and blood-filled vials. “This is where we belong. Where you belong. Not flying off every time they call.”
Lyr skimmed over the bits and pieces. “They’re not so simple.”
“Yes, they are. They’re like the rest, assembled components, the components at the basis of life. Understanding them allows us to understand everything else. You should know that.”
“I do, but they’re something more.” Lyr gazed through the entryway’s amber film separating their laboratory from the stellar-craft’s wending corridors and contamination zone.
She hummed in halfhearted recognition, her thoughts hallways away.
“If you keep going on like this, the Council is going to find out. You know what they’ll do then.”
The bulkheads seemed to contract around her, the entryway to shrink, the walls collapsing into an iridescent tomb. Lyr found herself back in the laboratory, confronted with Dhara’s bold stare and the echo of his insinuation.
She stroked her body’s curved sides. “Would they really cleanse me for this?”
“They might not see you serving the Gathering anymore with this kind of attitude.”
“I am.” Lyr stomped her foot. “I’m simply doing it another way.”
The swirl in Dhara’s mist stilled. “There is only the Council’s way.”
Lyr opened her mouth, but denying the fact would be useless. The Council controlled their course.
One could only follow.
“I should see why they’ve called.” Putting Dhara behind her, Lyr waited for the entryway’s dissipating film to retreat, leaving a refracted blue outline around the frame.
“Remember, we report at the coming Rise.”
Lyr stepped outside. “I’ll return before then.”
She glanced through the opening, the worried slant crossing Dhara’s rounded head tinted amber from the reconstituted film. “On task.”
“And looking like that?”
Lyr examined her figure and wiggled her fingers for a final time. “I suppose not.” She released her shape, her head swelling, her features smoothing, her limbs dissolving into haze.
Dhara bobbed at the entryway, approval mixing in his mist. “Maybe you have some sense after all.”
“You know I do.”
“I just hope the Council does too.”
“They’ll think what they’ll think.”
Before Dhara could argue, Lyr funneled her agitation and propelled herself along the corridor. At the next juncture, where the passing starscape streamed by the bulging panes, she paused. The swirl of her mist and in her thoughts calmed as she identified the gaseous arrangements, named brighter pinpricks, and labeled systems frozen by distance.
All so far away. All so unique. So free.
The gleam of the bulkheads, the soft hush of the stellar-craft on its tireless course, and the whispers of others nearing, drew her back. Holding tight to the promise of life beyond the panes, Lyr started along the corridor again.
Like the far-flung planets endlessly circling their stars, additional Gatherers crossed her path as they made their way through the curving passageways between their laboratories, testing areas, and hibernation chambers. Some floated in pairs or close clusters, quietly debating or sharing the details of their subjects’ components. Their discussions focused on cells and molecules, nervous systems and exoskeletons. None mentioned the thoughts or dreams of those they studied.
Their subjects are simpler. They aren’t as complicated as mine. The remembered flash of white light beckoned and Lyr sped along.
At the final curve, she veered from the details of parts and portions, and into the contamination zone. The arched corridor stretched off empty of others and opaque screens flanked either side.
Lyr halted at one rimmed in white and, after ensuring the hallway remained vacant, she squared herself to the screen and began rippling her mist. A few thoughts later, Lyr had legs extended to the floor, arms at her sides, head oval, and features in place. She shifted her skin to mimic the slacks and shirts the survivors had requested of the System and firmed her hold on her new shape.
Once confident of her mental grasp on the arrangement, she pressed her finger to a button on the uppermost panel, causing a low tone within. Lowering her hand, she clasped her arms across her midriff. She squeezed her temperate flesh when a responding tone sounded, preceding the screen’s fade to transparent, and then the presence of Niel.
Flecks of gray joined the hair grown over the lower half of his face and blended into the shag upon his head. The ruddy covering bunched with his grim smile, but unlike her usual visits, this one failed to brighten the blue in his eyes.
“Good morning, Lyr.”
“We think so.” Niel motioned at a pinched device where, inside, blanched granules fell in a steady stream from the top reservoir into the bottom. Beside it, the sloped-shouldered Garin murmured quietly across the table from Mamori who etched on a pad while awaiting his thickset opponent’s next move on the checkered board they’d crafted out of the same pliable putty the System dispensed.
Lyr eyed the dripping granules, noting their timely descent, a rhythm used by Sadie in her abdominal crunching by their bunks.
Returning to Niel, Lyr worked up a matching grin. “Good morning, then.”
The corner of Niel’s mouth rose, but his gaze dropped to the floor. He rubbed the back of his neck while a glisten of sweat appeared at his hairline.
Lyr tilted her head. “You notified me to say something difficult.”
After a snicker, Niel lifted his gaze and pocketed his hands. “How can you tell?”
“Your posture. Your tone.”
“Nothing gets by you, does it?”
His pitch implied a rhetorical question, and Lyr remained mute, allowing him the opportunity to speak when he felt fit. Behind him, Mamori and Garin paused in their scribbling or tentative movement of a piece across their board. Sadie ceased crunching and draped her hands on bent knees. The three pairs of eyes locked on them, and although Lyr knew they lacked the Council’s capacity to read thoughts, they seemed to add their presence to the conversation.
Niel cleared his throat. “The truth is, we can’t stay.”
“Aren’t you comfortable?”
“We’re very comfortable. But this isn’t where we belong.”
“The System can create—”
“It’s not about the System creating some alternative environment. It’s about going home.”
The word frosted Lyr’s skin. Into her mind crashed a deluge of landscapes, creatures, and floral variants Mamori had drawn for her along with stories of comfort and companionship the others had shared or whispered to one another when they thought no one listened. She tightened her self-embrace.
“Yes.” Niel tipped up his chin. “We’ve taken a vote about it.”
The unfamiliar term diverted Lyr’s plunge into the images of places she would never see, touch, or taste, ones with a vitality the surrounding bulkheads would never have.
“We shared our opinions on whether we wanted to stay or go and tallied our individual decisions. We’re unanimous. We’d like to leave.”
“You wish to return to where we found you?”
“But it might not exist. You were in stasis for—”
“A long time. I understand. But we need to find out what’s happened before we can move on.” Rigidity entered Niel’s body and, when he continued, his voice had hardened. “We don’t want to remain here as your…guests.”
Lyr suspected he had debated an alternative word, pet perhaps or prisoner. They’d used each in the earliest discussions she’d monitored and had been among the first terms the System had interpreted. Although they had comprehended the Gathering’s objective to understand the foundations of the universe, the accusation remained potent however delicately phrased.
“Can you help us, Lyr?”
She glanced away from Niel and down the corridor where the rest plucked from hazardous sites, drifting vessels, or orbiting crafts like Niel’s, were sequestered. All of their worlds had suffered conflict and cataclysm, and although the Council had not chosen to witness the results, the end of Niel’s had been as inevitable.
On his tiny blue-green orb, billions of life forms would have succumbed to the growing heat poisoning their atmosphere, to the rays of sun piercing their fractured ozone shell, to the fatal undulations of their planet’s fragile ecosystems. Niel and the others had seemed to grasp the concept of death and Lyr had seen it touch them. Their quiet mourning for their female companion had provided an initial insight into their nature, one the analyzing tools surrounding the woman in the laboratory could never provide. Reports of their home in the same state as their lost crewmate, however, had not seemed to quash their drive to return and the mist around Lyr’s core coiled around the idea they would never happily remain.
She returned to Niel. “You won’t be satisfied staying here. With me. With us?”
She hadn’t meant to cringe, but the expression crossed her features nonetheless.
Niel inched closer, his timbre softening. “You’ve been very kind. You’ve opened our eyes, exposed us to a universe we’d never thought possible. But we can’t move on without knowing, without seeing what’s become of our world with our own eyes.”
Lyr nodded, but his request left her with one response. “The Council will not change course. You are with us now. You must come to terms with that.”
Sadie rose, growling like the Cativins of Algernon-Prime. “I told you they wouldn’t understand.”
“You’re mistaken. I understand your desire for a home.” Unfolding her arms, Lyr stroked along her formed legs, suddenly wary of her own shape’s solidity. “To discover the place where you can live free and belong.”
Mamori twirled his stylus. “If you understand, then you have to help us.”
“Your situation is not so simple.”
The crowned piece from their game crackled in Garin’s clutched fist. “There has to be something you can do.”
Spurred by their pleas, Lyr sought an alternative, the effort making her claim on her figure slacken and her mist to swirl.
“Are you alright?”
At the sight of Niel’s furrows, Lyr steadied.
“I’m thinking. Distraction makes it difficult to retain this body.”
“Then don’t.” Niel shrugged, as if he believed pondering might lead her to better answers. “Whatever shape you take doesn’t bother us.”
“As you like.”
Lyr faded her limbs into delicate tethers, but the reality of their circumstances remained the same as hers. The Council would not alter her assignment or their stellar-craft’s passage through the stars from the one they had been traveling since the birth of Niel’s remote star and planetary system. Niel and his crew would leave behind their world, what had no doubt become a shattered husk of a planet, and instead dwell as they had since they’d been retrieved from their orbiting exploration craft.
At least here, they could move without the restrictions of stasis.
They could create the game pieces they desired, the clothes they wished, and the tools they needed to pass their fleeting lifetimes in whatever way they liked. In this stellar-craft, they were safe from harm, safe from the ravages of their planet’s last throws. They would be provided with everything they could ever want, except it seemed for one thing they most needed.
Niel laid a palm against the transparent screen, bright white outlining his fingers. “Although what?”
The consequences jarred her, but Lyr firmed her body and planted her feet. “You understand how to run the System?”
Niel glanced at his crew who had risen and neared as one. As if hearing his silent query, each nodded, and Niel returned.
“Then this chamber should be able to provide you with what you require.”
“It can take us home?”
“I believe so.”
Sadie scowled. “You don’t know?”
“It’s never been done before. The System is meant to sustain. Alternative uses are not attempted.” Lyr’s core quivered and her shape nearly lost solidity. Locking onto Niel’s face, she forced her mist to steady. “It may be possible.”
“What do we have to do?”
She soaked in his eyes’ fearless shimmer and lowered her voice. “Be prepared to supply the System with a design for your transport and instructions for your journey. Detour by enough suns and the chamber will remain powered and able to supply you with whatever else you might need. Have this ready for when it’s detached.”
“And how do we detach?”
“You’ll help us then?”
“I don’t want you to remain as my prisoner or our pet.”
Niel winced and diverted his gaze like the rest. After a moment of silence, of perhaps regret, considered Lyr, he gathered his nerve and faced her once more.
Lyr resumed her self-embrace. “I am not certain you should. This hasn’t been done before. It may not work, and even if it does you might find nothing when you arrive if you succeed in your journey at all.”
“It’s a risk we’ll have to take.”
“One worth your lives?”
He glanced at the others again and received agreeing nods, their unanimous reply to a question asked by his gaze alone.
“It’s worth it.”
“Then prepare yourselves. The detachment will be obvious and soon, but afterwards you will be out of my influence.”
“We’ll be ready.”
Assembling at the table, Niel’s crew began a bustling conversation. Mamori marked his pad in vicious strokes while Garin rearranged their pieces as if forming a diagram amid Sadie’s points and gestures.
Niel remained before her, hand outlined on the screen. “We won’t forget this, Lyr.”
She mimicked the strained smile bunching his hairy cheeks. “And I won’t forget you.”
Raising her hand, Lyr depressed a button, darkening the opening like the pessimism draping her mind. She lingered, the presence of Niel staining her sight despite the obscuring screen. Visions of the rest stooped in debate, resting, pacing, or standing and talking with her at the opening blended into molecules and samples of hair and skin, blood and saliva. The details itched at her core, reminding her of the coming Rise.
We’ve understood so little and now, we’ll miss our chance.
If they had stayed, however, she imagined the quartet dwindling like their world. They would wither within the confinement of the System until their complexity and uniqueness had been doused beneath hopelessness or animosity.
They’ll do better free.
Suppressing a rise of envy, she pressed another of the panel’s button. Around the screen, the white rim turned red.
Turning away, Lyr marched on bared feet from the contamination zone and through the corridors where the discussions of those she passed washed over her like the sterilized air of a hibernation chamber. As she made her way to the Council, she set aside thoughts of Niel, of the courage he and his crew embodied, of their hope, of their desires for home. Instead, she tallied the solid facts, the ones the Council needed to hear to reach the necessary conclusion and provide her subjects with their chance.
The entrance to the Council appeared as she honed her mind and the amber film retracted with each of her nearing steps. Edges wet her arms and legs when she stepped through, but her flesh had dried by the time she halted beside Dhara who waited before the crescent pillar dominating the circular chamber, the Council’s perch an ebony island jutting from an opal sea.
Puzzled, Lyr glanced Dhara’s way and caught herself in his wide eyes.
In an instant, she dissolved the limbs his silvered gaze reflected and released her head’s shape. She suppressed fears of the Council observing her previous form during their arrival atop the pillar and locked her attention on the fiery globe swirling into existence. While golden mist thickened around the Council’s core, she centered her thoughts on the gathered facts, and stood still and steady as the cloud of gilded essence spilled off the pillar and permeated her gray haze.
The Council’s multi-presence settled into her mind and then their collective, high-pitched voice ricocheted behind her eyes. You have activated a quarantine field?
I determined our subjects to be a hazard, thought Lyr, and in need of immediate separation.
Lyr formed an arm, a hand, and her splayed fingers halted Dhara’s exasperation.
We have gathered all the necessary samples, she thought to the Council. We have the deceased subject should we need more. The presence of the survivors is dangerous for the rest onboard.
Lyr waited as the Council’s mist flowed over her limb and her now trembling digits.
Why are you so formed?
I have been studying their anatomy, thought Lyr, and assuming their shape appears to make them more comfortable when conversing. Doing so now was happenstance.
You are not meant to make them comfortable, replied the Council, the System supplies their needs.
It seemed the wisest course to reach an understanding worthy of the Gathering.
We shall see.
Within the gilded mist, the Council’s collective presences turned to one another, their conversation an indistinguishable murmur. Moments passed, each like a single dropped granule.
Keeping her gaze on the fiery core, Lyr dissolved her limb and waited. She smothered a yearning to craft legs, to shift her feet, to feel the chill running up her legs proving she had not slipped into some kind of stasis herself, and kept her mind as blank and empty as the laboratory’s bulkheads.
After a countless stretch, the Council’s attention returned and their single voice spoke. Separation is authorized.
Lyr squinted when the core on the pillar blazed. As she sensed the locking clamps beginning the disengagement sequence, a final thought to Niel and his crew escaped her mental reins and a silent, Farwell, floated free.
The Council’s mist quivered. Perhaps contamination has already occurred.
Dhara bobbed at her side. “Wait—”
The swirl of the Council’s mist choked his plea and stilled his cloudy haze.
Gatherers must maintain distance from their subjects. Your behavior, Lyr, is unacceptable for one in your position.
I can explain—
Before she had a chance, Lyr heard her statements in the laboratory and conversations the System had snatched out of the air repeated as the Council presented their argument. In shades of gold, they formed misted images of her progressive attempts at replicating the dead subject’s figure, her time spent at the monitors observing the survivor’s activities, and her countless exchanges at the transparent screen. The evidence accumulated and Lyr shuddered beneath the weight.
I cannot deny my actions.
The sounds and sights generated by the Council disappeared. And your conclusion?
I’ve been contaminated.
She held up her hand, quieting Dhara, and then gazed along the fingers she hadn’t meant to recreate. Waggling their tapered ends, she watched the Council’s mist coil around each digit while the inevitable crashed into her thoughts.
Will I be cleansed?
If you can purge your contamination and return to your proper objectivity, then our assistance will not be necessary. If you cannot, we will act.
I understand. Bowing her head, Lyr imagined toes peeking through the haze. She wiggled the ones in her imagination and didn’t bother hiding the burst of satisfaction at the idea.
You have until the next Rise to decide.
The Council’s presence drifted from her mind.
Sensing her dismissal, Lyr floated through the receding haze to the entrance, which opened, allowing her to depart. Reforming her legs and arms, she swept through the corridors, savoring the thud of her steps on her destination to nowhere in particular.
The only interesting place to go has left.
Halting before a broad pane, she soaked in the starscape.
I hope you make it, Niel. I hope you find your way home, wherever it may be.
While she watched the passing systems, Dhara approached, the reflection showing him bobbing alongside her gangly limbs.
“You let them go?”
Lyr met his mirrored eyes. “How did you know?”
“It’s happened once before. A Gatherer became too close to his subjects and manipulated their release.”
“If you knew I was going astray, why didn’t you tell the Council?”
“With all that evidence, they’ve known longer than I have.” His mist contracted, making him smaller, his voice quieter. “You’re no Gatherer like this, Lyr, but that doesn’t mean you have to lose the knowledge you’ve gained through your experimentation and contact.” A rippled coursed through him. “No reason for you to be cleansed.”
“What choice do I have? I can’t forget them on my own.”
Dhara glanced up at down the corridor, then floated closer. “What if you went with them?
With a three-fingered limb, Dhara motioned toward the contamination zone where a tiny pinprick of red beckoned in the black. “You’d have to hurry.”
“And you are brilliant.” Lyr drew back from the entrancing sight and squatted, putting herself level with Dhara. “I won’t forget this.”
His eyes glistened and his mist calmed. “Neither will I.”
After a parting brush by his core, Lyr dissolved her figure. She propelled herself in gaseous form toward the red-rimmed frame, toward the chamber unclamping from the Council’s stellar-craft, toward those of common spirit if not body willing to risk their lives to find the place where they belonged.