Thursday, November 25, 2010

Impaired Judgement

Alex had been lonely before, but there had been at least some fleeting reason behind it. He understood why and could usually see a path through it. This was different. The narcotic effect Carbon had worried about had taken root in his brain, irrational and inescapable. He felt depressed and perfectly isolated, despite Carbon sitting a few feet away curled up with her legs hugged to her chest.

She had pushed him away too late with a whispered apology, just as the connection broke the effect set in. The source of the pained look she wore was clear to Alex, a burst of panic had ripped through the Carbon part of their mind link just before she had severed it. She knew what was going to happen but she didn't want it to happen to him. Now they sat on opposite sides of the couch, temporarily destroyed.

"It's too bad that..." Alex tried to make a joke but just ran out of steam between getting the idea and actually saying it. He didn't really see the point anymore. "I'm going to get something to sleep this off with. Is that safe?"

She looked at him with grief in her eyes, voice feeble. "It should be but please do not. This should not take more than an hour to pass and I do not want to be alone right now.”

“Well. Yeah, sure.” Alex was pretty sure an hour would feel like an eternity like this, but he was willing to put up with it for her sake. He really didn’t want to be alone either. “Is there anything we can do to speed this up?”

“Not specifically.” Her eyes narrowed in thought for a moment. She unbuckled herself and scooted over to him, undid his belt before taking his hand and tugging him up off the couch with her. “There is one thing I have been told... I do not know if it a true remedy, but it can not hurt to try.”

“What are you doing?”

“Bringing you along. It is improper to drink by yourself.”

“How is that... How is that different than taking a sleep aid?” Carbon pulled him into the passageway without any trouble, he wasn't putting up any resistance anyway. His eyes closed and he shook his head as she towed him behind her towards the aft end of the ship. The CPP was widely recognized as having dry ships. “How did you get alcohol on board, anyway? Didn't they check your gear?”

“It is different because it is not being done alone.” She toggled the door controls to her cabin with a shrug. “I moved onto the ship before it left dry dock for the first time. No one checked anything I brought on board with me.”

Any other time, Alex would have been surprised at what he saw in Carbon's cabin. In place of the light gray walls and allegedly mood-enhancing blue stripe, it had been covered in a detailed mural. The cabin became a clearing in a strangely colored alien forest, trees reaching up to the night sky above on the ceiling. He'd have thought it beautiful in it's own way, but right now it was just an oddity as she deposited him on her bunk before rummaging through the dresser embedded in the wall.

“They checked mine. Why is your bunk so big? Is this down?” Alex held on to the comforter stretched over the top, squishing it under his fingers with the distinct crunch of feathers. Her bunk was significantly wider than his, though it was welded down to the floor.

Carbon came back up with a hexagonal bottle, about the size Alex would expect for a liter. Thick clear glass held a pale green liquid and she dug a claw into the wax sealing the cork. The motion needed to drink from a rigid bottle in zero gravity was awkward, kind of tossing the bottle at your face to make the liquid travel into your mouth. She took a long drink, maybe a third of the bottle and made a horrible face before pressing the cork back in and tossing it over to him. “It is the standard bed for a Tslao ship and it is down.”

“That’s nice. Nicer than what I got.” He was starting to feel a little bit better, even if it was just an incremental adjustment back towards normal. A drink couldn’t hurt. Alex twisted the cork out of the bottle and he went through the awkward motion himself, sucking down a sample before continuing with two mouthfuls. The pleasant, almost pear-like flavor lasted for several seconds before being overwhelmed by the burn of alcohol. He shuddered and corked the bottle, “what is that? Hundred proof?”

She settled down on the bed next to him and shook her head as she took possession of the bottle again. “No, that would taste horrible. It’s only seventy percent alcohol.”

Alex shook his head as she took another drink. “That’d make it one-hundred and forty proof and we’ve drank half the bottle already.”

“Is that bad?”

“It’s... Uh, well, that can be a lot to drink all at once on an empty stomach.”

“I ate-” she stopped and thought about it for a moment, realization dawning on her face. “I did not eat that much.”

“I didn’t either. That’s smooth, though. Fooled me with the first sip.” He was starting to feel a little flush and maybe just a little bit better than he had a minute ago. “Need to be careful with the hard alcohol.”

“I did not have that much.”

“Yeah, you did. I only had a few swallows of it and the bottle is still half empty.”

She stared at the bottle in her lap for a long time, brow furrowed. Her head jerked up and she looked at Alex, eyes wide and a startled. “Is that amount dangerous?”

“You should be fine. I’m just guessing, but that’s like, pfft...” He looked up at the ceiling, briefly entranced by the pattern of stars. “I dunno, eight shots? That’s a nights worth of drinking, for some people. Not something you should have all at once.”


“Oh.” She sounded surprised and looked back down at the bottle, bewildered.

“Oh? I don’t like how that sounds.”

“I have had, ehm... deep wines.” It took her a moment to determine the right words. She looked up at him, eyes focusing slowly and looking decidedly lost. Her head tilted to the side as she spoke. “I have... never drink this before?”

His mouth twisted into a frown, “you’ve never had this specifically or you’ve never had hard liquor?” Not that it mattered, he hadn’t seen her drink before. It’d been a year since he’d drank. Neither of them had any resistance built up.

“Liquor... Liquor. I like this, what is it mean?” Her eyes squinted as she sussed the word out with a little laugh.

“Great. This is a good place to stop, then.” Alex reached over and plucked the bottle out of her hands. Carbon grabbed for it, eyes wide as she made a little distressed noise and looked absolutely shocked that he would take something from her. He set it down on the bed behind him and shook his head. “We’re done with this for now.”

“Fine.” Carbon shifted away from him, crossed her arms over her chest and pouted like he’d just taken a toy from her.

Alex smiled, she was kind of cute like that. “Look, just wait a little bit and we’ll see how you’re feeling. Pacing is important.”

Thsen she. Avara?” She talked over her shoulder at him, too rapid for him to understand what she was saying, if he even knew the words.

“I didn’t catch that.” Had had been drinking on an empty stomach. He was too hot and everything was lagging behind in that annoying way that it did.

Her eyebrows went up like he should have gotten it. “Avarah?

He shook his head, not sure if it was actually a different word or if she was starting to slur her speech already. He opted for the latter, his smile turning into a grin and an easy laugh. “No, you’re speaking Tsla. I can’t understand what you are saying.”

“Do you feel better too?” Her face scrunched up in concentration as she held up a finger, enunciating the words slowly, punctuating each one with a poke at the air. It sounded like she actually wanted to know but it was taking everything she had to get the words out.

“Yes.” Alex nodded in agreement then leaned over and kissed her without a second thought.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Laid Bare

Moving from the state where they were still separate entities to the shared place, where Alex and Carbon became a combination of each other was much smoother the second time around. He sort of slipped down into a different frame of mind this time, not the jarring slam of their first mind link.

Carbon’s part of their shared space crackled with nerves, unsure of where to start or if she even could. Alex smoothed himself out and tried to present a calming front for her. Trepidation that he was able to hide face-to-face showed through here, though he remained resolute in his desire to make things right. It seemed to help her a little, the frantic energy dying down as she started to order the things she was to show him.

The first thing that she brought up was a collection of memories, snippets of school and conversations she had with her parents. It wasn’t as personal as a single memory, but it carried much more information and allowed him to understand concepts and events as she did. Baring your legs to someone outside of your family unit was a profound sign of trust or vulnerability and was sometimes an invitation for more. It didn’t hurt that stout ankles and knees were attractive features to them, one that Carbon had come to find particularly enticing. Alex, about a head taller than Carbon, had deliriously durable looking leg joints.

The Carbon part flushed with embarrassment and fled that topic, bringing up another memory of a time with her father. Alex fell into her place again, far younger than the previous memory. In a large, cool room with a few other Tslao, Carbon waited with her father to meet an alien. She clutched her father’s leg, face pressed into the fabric of his pants, partially hidden and afraid. She could feel the dense bone and sinew in his knee and knew he was strong. He’d protect her, she was sure of that. It didn’t make her feel any less afraid, but it made her less nervous knowing he was there for her.

The alien they were there to meet came into the room. It was unimaginably tall, strangely colored, had weird rounded ears and only the top of its head had fur. The thing crouched and smiled and gave her a little wave and she squeezed her father’s knee harder. It still felt strong and made her feel a little safer. Her father patted her shoulder and urged her to greet it as well. She managed a little wave back before she lost her nerves and fled the room, her father and the alien laughing behind her. She peeked around the doorway as they sat down at opposite sides of a table, both looking very amused.

The memory ended and he realized it had been tainted with later introspection. She had been four at the time and her father had brought her along to spend more time with her... but he also wanted to use her as a prop for the human representative. A precocious child running about, making the alien seem less alien. He’d kept her along for dealings with other Tslao as well, ever the family man. Alex got the impression he was some sort of bureaucrat.

They skipped forward. By the time she was ten she was still going along with her father on these business trips, but interactions were much more orchestrated. In a dark, ornately decorated side room, her aunt regarded her with cold eyes and coached her on what to say (nothing) and what to do (sit still and look proper and interested in what is going on) before ushering her out to some function. The memory ended abruptly, much more so than he was used to her memories ending. There was no trailing off here, just a jarring move to another memory, whatever the function was, she didn't want him to see it.

Another meeting about trade deals, a long table with several Tslao and Humans at either end. She was bored with politics and humans. She barely saw them as different now, just a little unusual. She still loved spending time with her father, but the political theater wasn’t something she liked. Too much dishonesty and backroom dealing, too much saying one thing while thinking another. Both her father and her aunt assured her she’d learn the ways of politics and fit in perfectly when she was older. That prospect frightened her.

Carbon rolled them forward again. Tightly controlled snippets of her life showed him the experiences leading up to her becoming Lan. She enrolled when she was fourteen, the youngest one could start training. She had spent a few years pushing herself to be an acceptable candidate at that age, ignoring most other aspects of her life. She hadn’t done it out of personal interest - though it did interest her, the whole thing was tinged with spite. It was prestigious, Lan was one of the highest titles you could earn, and no one would stop her. No one would make her be part of something she didn’t want.

It had been a rigorous process, burning through eight years of her life between school and several long apprenticeships. She did it easily. Driven to excel so she could have some control over her life. But that wasn’t what she got.

Her first assignment had been a huge step, the Kshanev class dreadnought. The memory was rife with nerves and excitement. It did keep Carbon away from her father’s politics but the duties swallowed her whole. It was a powerful ship and needed constant maintenance. The crew saw a lot of combat. She had a large pool of engineers and medical personnel but she still had to check everything. Paperwork was endless. On a slow shift, she’d put in a half-day on the decks and then spend a few more hours reviewing logs.

Her life never slowed down until she came aboard the Kshalvo. She switched between doing maintenance on the waveriders and the sublight engines, occasionally some other system while ignoring Alex as best as she could. He initially had struck her as kind of annoying and a little offensive. He awkwardly tried to talk to her off duty and worse, passed messages from his still living mother to her. She hadn’t meant to take it out on him but the strange, cramped conditions on the ship and years of untended stress showed through. The Carbon part radiated regret, knowing well that he could not have known during that time.

The Ehom attack changed everything. Almost nothing needed to be done after it, aside from fixing the waverider engine and tending to Alex while he healed. Her daily reports dwindled from pages to paragraphs, and then to paragraph. For the first time in 16 years, despite the situation they had found themselves in, she had free time.

Carbon had time to think. She had time to enjoy things again. She had taken long showers while he had been stuck to the medi-board, able to use both shares of water without guilt. The Alex portion laughed at that, or did something as close to laughter as he could.

She continued on, determination now firming up her presence. Carbon had started to develop feelings for him. She didn’t find him annoying as she had before, since she had gotten to know him better. Unable to communicate with the outside world, shielded from all but her most basic duties in a ship that pretended to be dead, she found that she was just a girl and he was just a boy. The shorts had been an incredible turning point for her. She knew better, but she wanted to believe that he trusted her so deeply, wasn’t put off by her station and perhaps wanted more in their relationship.


Carbon had pressed ahead, awkward as she felt but wanting him to know how she felt wasn’t his fault. She’d never tried to court anyone before, nor had anyone expressed that kind of interest in her. She pressed another memory into him, this one not even weeks old. She was returning to her cabin from a long day, brimming with excitement, but everything else was unspecific. It was a Tslao ship, the deep reddish-purple arched hallways and doors were familiar to her, but not a specific ship... It was just in her imagination. She keyed the door controls and walked in, and there Alex was, reclining on her bunk in his short pants and reading a tablet. He looked up and smiled, said something in flawless Tsla and she warmed with happiness before crawling up onto the bunk and relaxing in his arms, perfectly content and secure in the knowledge that they belonged to each other.

The memory drifted off at that point, into some sort of public event... Alex towered over the generic crowd halfway across the room and she lorded him over whoever she was talking to, like some sort of prestigious item. Yes, those ankles are mine. Please stop staring, that makes him uncomfortable. Carbon stopped the memory there, the end clipped neatly.

When he had turned down her offer to stay in with her, had been struck by the realization that the politics she had sought to leave behind were more deeply entrenched in her than she had thought. She treated him as her father had treated her. She did like him, perhaps loved him, but she expected him to do what she wanted with little regard for what he wanted. Carbon had unintentionally began to turn him into a cherished prop in the background of her life.

The engine would be ready in a week and if it worked they would be back to known space a month after that. Maybe less if Search and Rescue was prompt. If things didn’t go as planned, they’d be dead well before then. Carbon felt as though she had destroyed their budding relationship and she didn’t think she’d ever have a chance to try again.

The solitude Cabon had imposed on herself for so much of her life broke free of the controls she exerted over it and came back as a terrible, uncontrollable rush of loneliness, crushing them both beneath its weight.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sandcastle

It had been an awkward few days. It hadn’t started out too badly, Carbon had just looked sad the first day and progress continued on the engine. Something had been going on that he hadn’t been aware of and his reaction to finding out had not gone as he would have liked, in retrospect.

He had just spun around in the doorway slowly, trying to process exactly what she had meant in those few seconds. She had looked up at him from the couch, hands folded in her lap. So hopeful and expectant, so terribly vulnerable. He had laughed nervously and dismissed the idea out of hand, a little surprised as he pushed into the passageway toward his cabin and away from whatever damage he might have caused.

After that first day, she had started to deteriorate. That worn-down look he hadn’t seen in a month returned and he could just see the hurt in her. Talking to her wasn’t much better. Always distant, sometimes thin and frail. That actually worried him. He may have only known her for a few months, but the idea that she’d ever sound like that was entirely foreign.

They had kept eating meals at the same time but all of the camaraderie was gone, replaced by the gentle hum of the life support and the hollow click of synthetic utensils on synthetic trays.

Alex had stopped sleeping well.

Five days in, it had come to a head for him. He wasn’t sure what he needed to say, just that he needed to say something. He pushed a piece of chicken around his tray for a few minutes before he managed to screw up the courage to do so.

“I’m sorry.”

“There is nothing for you to be sorry for.” No animosity, anger or sadness. Not even a sigh. There was nothing in her voice.

“Yes, there is. I should have reacted... better. I should have asked you what was going on. I should have known something.” He barely managed to keep his frustration in check.

“Even if that is so, there is nothing for you to be sorry for.”

“Why?”

She stared through him, idly stirring her food for a long moment before she spoke “I deluded myself. Engaged in fantasy. I made myself believe you liked me when you did not.”

“I do like you.”

Carbon made a dismissive sound. That kind of pissed him off.

“Is that what you really think?”

She went back to looking at her food, picking it apart into separate piles of ingredients. “Yes.”

“If I didn’t like you, why would I have tried to understand you better?”

“You were recuperating, you had to fill your time with something.”

“Oh, that is bullshit and you know it.”

Carbon’s head snapped up and she looked at him with shock. He wasn’t sure if she was familiar with swearing in English, but at least she got his tone. Her eyes darted away from his and her reply was obstinate but weak. “It is not.”

“Yeah. If I didn’t care we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We wouldn’t be eating together. You don’t eat with people you don’t like!” Alex was starting to fail at keeping himself calm.

“Sharing a meal is an intimate act...” She sighed, at least sounding resigned. “I am sorry, Alex, I made you a pawn in a game when you should not have been. I rationally knew you could not have known our ways, but I still convinced myself that they applied to your behavior.”

“Ok, that’s a first step. Apology accepted.” His curiosity quickly got the better of him, ”what did I do?”

“You bared your legs in my presence. You could not have known how much that meant to me.”

“When I wore shorts? That’s what that was about? Yeah, you’re right. I couldn’t have known. That doesn’t even make sense to me. But you could have told me what that meant, I would have been happy to listen.”

“No.” She took in a rough breath before she continued, “I was not willing to admit that you did not know.”

“Alright, fine. Explain it to me.”

“What good would it do?”

He closed his eyes for a moment, tamping down his frustration again. “I really like you, Carbon. I enjoy working with you and spending time with you. But there is a lot I don’t know about you, your people and your ways. If you just want to have your fantasy, fine... But if you want anything more, I’m going to need some help.”

She was confused for a moment, then surprised. “What exactly do you mean?”

“Show me what I need to know,” he tapped his temple and smiled. “At the very least, I won’t mislead you again.”

“That is- I do not know if it is safe.” Worry crossed her face, but she still looked like she wanted to jump at the chance to mind link with him again.

“Why not?”

“I have a lot of baggage, as you put it. I do not know what the effects on you would be.”


“Will it kill me?”

“No, but I do not know how-”

“Good. Let’s do this.”

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Movie Night

“There is something I do not understand.” Carbon’s brow creased in concentration, lips pulled back in a thin line. They had watched three movies on the enormous display that unrolled from the ceiling, locked in place on the wall across from the fold-out couch. Alex had turned the lights down while the screen was on, the room now dimly lit with it turned off.

“What’s that?”

“You said he was supposed to be a bad ass, but clearly he was not.” She turned the phrase carefully. It had taken Alex the better part of a half hour to successfully explain ‘bad ass’ to her as he though of it. There was no direct translation into Tsla, apparently.

“What... How can-” Alex sputtered, unable to believe the shot she just took at one of his childhood heroes. He looked down at her, still leaning against his side. Personal space had gone out the window for her at some point. She had settled down shoulder to shoulder with him at first, leaning ever harder into his upper arm. He had scooted as far over as he could, then finally just tossed his arm over the back of the couch. Curiously, she looked a little smug for a few minutes after that. “But he’s- he’s awesome!”

“He was defeated by a blinded man waving a stick indiscriminately. That is the antithesis of your explanation.”

“That was an accident, the jetpack malfunctioned.” He got defensive for a moment, then grinned at the absurdity of the conversation.

“A properly designed jetpack will not malfunction when with struck with a stick. It apparently lacked basic safety features and the overall design was deeply flawed.”

Alex made a dismissive sound, waving his hand to go with it. “What do you know about jetpacks, anyway?”

Carbon stared at him, mouth agape. “What do I know about jetpacks? The current combat issue jetpack has three hardware refinements I submitted as an apprentice Lan. I could still strip and rebuild one in the dark if it were required of me.”

“Well, yeah. That’s a pretty good background,” he admitted before taking a different tack. “The supplemental television shows and books really give a better view of him as a character than this movie...”

She stopped him with a narrow look.

“So, I mean, what did you think of the movies?”

“They were entertaining. Simplistic, but I still found myself engrossed in the story. I can understand how this would have caught your attention at such a young age.”

He smiled, glad that she actually did like them. “Good. I keep expecting that the next time I watch them I’ll realize just how terrible my taste in movies was when I was five, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

“It does appear you chose well. Most of the entertainment from my childhood would not be something I would return to as an adult.”

“This is about the only thing that made it out of mine.” Alex covered his mouth as he yawned and unclipped himself from the couch. It was after midnight ship time, the latest he had intentionally stayed up since coming on board. “I’m going to bed. See you in the morning.”

Carbon worked her jaw silently for a moment before managing a weak protest. “I am still not sure that is safe.”

“What, the life support? It’s fine, the cabin has had all day to air out and there’s a vent blowing right in the door.” He had slept without issue the previous night, which was proof enough for him that it was safe.

“I just- I do not think it wise considering the sensors in the room also do not work. You were just released from the medi-board a few days ago, if something was not repaired properly...”

He considered that one, at first only because she hadn’t brought it up last night when they had almost this same discussion and then because it really creeped him out. The medi-board was supposed to be fool proof as far as fixing injuries was concerned. This did not stop him from playing a game of what-if with the various horrible things he knew could go wrong with the human body. What would a blood clot traveling from his femoral artery into his brain feel like? He actually shivered at that thought.

“Yeah, ugh. I’ll grab a scanner and give myself a once over really quick.”

“But- That is not-” she started and stopped repeatedly as he unlatched the screen and rolled it back into the ceiling. “It- it is not sufficiently safe.”

“I’ll be fine. It’s only a couple of hours, nothing will go wrong. Besides, where would I sleep? On the couch in here?” Alex laughed and tapped the door control, lighting himself with the soft red light from the passageway.

Her reply was so soft he almost wasn’t sure she had spoken. “You could stay with me.”