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.


  1. I really like the description of the way their minds interact this time. Alex smoothed himself out and tried to present a calming front for her. I can just picture his mind as all nervous bristles until he consciously tries to smooth them out.

    If their food or fuel stores were inadequate, they could easily starve or freeze to death. This is kind of vague. They'd starve because one family member couldn't hunt? Or farm? Or catch those really big bugs they were eating?

    deliriously durable looking leg joints Awesome.

    Why does the political theater scare her? (instead of disgusting her or something)

    the whole thing was tinged with spite. Spite sounds like her family (or he father) had plans for her that she rebelled against. Carbon doesn't seem like the spiteful sort, it might be good to have more explanation here.

    Yes, those ankles are mine. Please stop staring, that makes it uncomfortable. This should have come with a spit-take disclaimer. Luckily I turned my head a little and didn't spray my keyboard.

    By that time, the engine would be ready in a week, and if it worked they would be back to known space in another month. This is a little confusing (by what time?). Could cut to, 'The engine would be ready in a week, and if it worked they would be back to known space in another month.'

    Um... after reading the last mind joining chapter I'm worried about how crushing loneliness is going to effect them. Everyone is going to need a hug. And maybe a lot of rum.

  2. "had deliriously durable looking leg joints." spectacular line.

    I am really enjoying this tale, and you did a good job developing a history for Carbon without making it boring. or sound out of place.