To Be Or Not
A playful science fiction romp toying with ideas of consciousness and pandemics.
Jessie opened his eyes, taking a long moment to focus. His brain slowly registered the faces of those within his field of vision, but not his surroundings. Concentrate on the familiar advised some remote part of his brain that remained calm, rational. He took in his companions’ military camouflage, their weapons, grenades, knives, ammo. Familiar, but not pleasant. He wanted to shut his eyes again as memory came pouring back in. Five in his escort. Huge specimens, who didn’t need gear to look intimidating. These were gods; the crowning jewels of genetics and training, no doubt with some illegal cyborg enhancements. All five looked right over his head behind them, fear visible in each pair of eyes.
No one spoke. They were listening with some unknown sensory organ.
“Right. I don’t feel it,” said The Captain, his gruff voice strained. “Anyone else?”
The others shook their heads.
“Where are we?” croaked Jessie, taking in the unfamiliar grassland surrounding them in all directions.
Everyone else looked around as well.
“How the hell would we know?” spat The Captain. “Every time you blackout the scenery changes.”
Jessie nodded, trying to form a solid thought. Last he remembered they were in a forest. Then the pain.
The first time it happened was a year ago. A headache so bad he thought his skull was splitting. Then he blacked out and woke up three hundred miles from home — instantaneously. It wasn’t two days after seeing a doctor about it that the military showed up. He hadn’t been without an escort since. Jessie suddenly realized he was standing. How does one black out standing up? His knees felt wobbly and he eased himself down to the ground, head in his hands. He head was hurting as it always did now. If he could rest for a bit, it might recede to a duller ache, but it never let him go.
“Get him up,” growled The Captain. “I want to know if he still doesn’t sense our pursuer.”
Jessie allowed himself to be lifted by the armpits, and he managed to stifle a whine. He shook his head. “No. Nothing,” he said, closing his eyes to hold back tears of pain.
In response The Captain turned to a soldier on his right. “Rick, check his vitals and then we need to get moving.”
Jessie felt thumb and forefinger pry open an eye and he saw Rick’s face behind a pinprick of light shining into his pupil. Then the next eye. Fingers gripped his wrist and Jessie could feel a pulsing under the pressure. It matched the throbbing in his head.
“He’s stable, but we’ve never warped like that in succession. He’s gonna need to recoup.”
The Captain grunted and added, “Let’s get out of the open.”
The group headed out and Jessie stumbled along as best he could.
Several hours later Jessie was laying down in one of the group’s two tents. He was on his back, eyes closed with pain, but his breathing had eased. He was spending so much time with his eyes shut he imagined his other senses were getting sharper. He could tell just by the body odor that the second in command, Philip, was lying nearby, and he could also smell the twang of the medical kit that Rick was rummaging through. Fingers lifted the sleeve of his tee shirt and he felt the sting of a syringe taking blood.
“I thought you didn’t think it was a genetic issue,” sighed Jessie.
He pictured Rick nodding.
“I’m a scientist. I cover my bases. We’ve never warped twice in one day before, let alone in a week. And I figure if something were to show itself, this would be the time. Besides, there’s a part of me that would love the irony.”
Jessie’s curiosity was piqued. He turned his head and opened his eyes enough to take in Rick sitting cross legged at his portable lab.
“Well, yeah. We’re all FF-20 and up, and The Cap is one of the few FF-30’s. The pinnacle of genetic manipulation. And then there’s you; naturally born. Naturally conceived, even. A product of a random egg and random sperm, you’re a conundrum to the perceived projection of evolution. The least evolved among us exhibits abilities we’ve never seen before. A scientist’s wet dream.”
Jessie snorted softly. He appreciated the way the doc tried to get him to smile, he really did. But the pain was insistent.
“Nice spin, but I know the military would only go to such lengths of protecting me if they hoped to be able to use my ability or whatever it is.”
Rick shrugged. Just then The Captain’s head popped through the tent flap.
“Wake up Philip. Your turn as chef tonight.”
Philip said nothing but slowly sat up. A moment later he slipped out of the tent.
One day’s rest was all The Captain allowed them and then they were on the move. Very little was left for Jessie to have any say in. Rest. Walk. Eat. Respond to a question. It was just easier to be told what was next. Besides, managing his pain sapped up his energy. Not having to make any choices meant there was little motivation to notice details. A few things broke through the fog, mostly if they were unusual. Like the sight of The Captain and Philip arguing over an archaic paper map. Apparently his second warp the other day had caught them by surprise and they weren’t able to turn off all the devices. That was the other thing that happened to him. Electromagnetic devices and warping was a disastrous combination. The Captain was pissed that their Global Location Devices were useless, and Jessie felt all the frustration bending towards himself.
He may be a FF-30 thought Jessie, but The Captain sucked as a diplomat. Jessie suspected The Captain had jumped at the opportunity of a unique assignment a year ago, but as of late there was only resentment. Every word was tainted with it. Jessie imagined he could smell the resentment in The Captain’s sweat. A babysitting job gone haywire, that’s what I am.
Sluggishly a thought worked its way to the forefront. Perhaps warping was not the military’s main interest. Could it be his device scrambling thingy? He thought about posing a question, but when he looked around, he noticed how much everyone was on edge. Furtive glances behind them. The agitation in the voices arguing over the map. Rick was tapping his gun at his hip and shifting the weight of his pack. Strange how all the soldiers seem driven by fear and he felt none of it. If he thought about, it felt to him more like they were being drawn. To what or where, he had no idea.
Just then a distant engine could be heard from farther west and the soldiers were immediately alert.
“Let’s pick up the pace,” said The Captain. “J-n-J, you two take the rear and make sure warp-boy keeps up. We head for the reservation.”
As the band began to jog, J-n-J silently took their places behind the others. Jessie had rarely heard them make much sound. They were identical down to the last toenail cell and had had the exact same training from the day they were born. In truth, they had been trained as one organism, and it was eerie how their movements felt synchronized even in the most casual of activities. As they were not much for socializing, Jessie figured they probably communicated with each other with some sort of ESP. But you sure as hell wanted them around when there was trouble. Once, when a warp had taken them into hostile territory, Jessie had seen what Philip called the Death Ballet. Even the other super soldiers mostly stayed clear and gave the twins room.
And yet, thought Jessie, they’re as scared as the others.
The reservation town was small, but the Captain was still able to figure out their coordinates, contact HQ, and even find a place to spend the night. Just a small room for the six of them with only one bed, which the soldiers gave to Jessie while they spread their gear mats on the floor. Jessie’s headache was nearing his pain threshold and it took some time to calm his breath to the point of meditation. The others remained restless.
“HQ seems in an awful hurry to get us home,” Philip said, voice on edge.
The Captain grunted.
“A jet?” said Rick in disbelief.
“Tomorrow, early,” answered The Captain.
“You’re willing to risk mixing a jet and a warp?” insisted the doctor.
“We’re to sedate our ward.”
“What’ll that do?” asked Rick scornfully.
The Captain clenched his jaw and let out his breath through his nose.
“I tried to tell them. I said our medic thinks it happens to him, especially when he’s not conscious. And they told me your theory was full of shit.”
Rick sat up and looked at The Captain with a critical eye.
“You feeling alright?”
“What do you mean? Don’t give me that look.”
Rick walked over medic bag in hand. “Let me see your pupils.”
The Captain was about to protest, but Rick was already taking vitals.
“Never seen you be a push over. This is more than just stress.”
The Captain rubbed his eyes. “It’s true. I may be compromised.”
“How?” asked Rick pulling out more instruments.
“I’m not processing clear. I feel mentally sluggish.”
Philip piped in. “We’re all feeling that. It’s been a year of stress. How does one process a warp?”
“Not stress,” said The Captain. “I’ve been in hellish situations for long periods of time and my mind stayed sharp. Crystal clear.”
“You’ve got to call HQ back,” said Rick. “A warp in flight is suicide.”
Jessie suddenly felt a surge of pressure in his head. Philip was up on the bed in a second, the rest turned and froze. Jessie was falling, losing sense of space and where he fit in. Arms grabbed at him and he groaned.
“Forget the jet,” Philip said.
“All instruments off?” hissed The Captain.
Jessie was still groaning. A trash bin was thrust at him just in time for him to lose his dinner.
“Hasn’t conked out yet,” remarked Rick. “Maybe it’s just the pain.”
The Captain shook his head vigorously. “That thing’s caught up with us again.”
There was panic at the edge of the soldier’s eyes. The others cursed and scrambled about as they felt the presence as well.
“He’s not warping,” said The Captain decisively. “We need to get out of here.”
“Does he feel the presence?” Rick asked Philip.
Jessie felt hands grabbing at his face. They tilted his head up slightly.
“Do you sense it?”
“What does it feel like?” asked Jessie weakly.
“Like panic. Short of breath. Heart feels like someone’s squeezing it. Thoughts come staccato.”
Jessie shook his head.
“Just this fucking headache…”
“The science can wait,” interjected The Captain. “Let’s move!”
Philip grabbed Jessie under the armpit and hoisted him off the bed. Jessie stood up, only to crumple back to the ground in a heap, holding his head. His mouth screamed, but little noise came out.
“J-n-J,” The Captain said curtly, motioning to the twins.
Packs and all, the twins hoisted Jessie up, who remained curled in a fetus position, and they were out the door before the others. The cold night air seemed to calm Jessie somewhat, and his breathing evened out. After a bit Jessie touched the twins on the shoulder and they let him down so he could walk. That’s when he noticed the state of the others. Without the burden of Jessie, J-n-J began to run and the other soldiers followed, wide-eyed and panicked.
On the other hand, Jessie’s pain seemed to be clearing, but without the adrenaline surge that drove the others, he quickly fell behind. His pain continued to clear until, inexplicably, it was gone altogether. He could see again. Hear again. Smell. Everything was fresh. All that his senses took in no longer had to pierce the fog of pain, and instead of trickling into his conscious brain, information now poured in. God, it had been so long.
Earlier, his brain had vaguely registered that he was running down a street, but now Jessie took in the details like a kid binging at a candy store. The lights. The lanes. The poles and wires and ancient billboards; all indicating that this was still a street used mostly by the old cars with rubber wheels. Who cared if it was ugly? He was sensing and processing without effort. Any scene would be heaven. Jessie could hear the others far in front of him. He kept expecting them to stop and double back for him, but they only pushed on. The street they were following was deteriorating the farther they went into the reservation. There were fewer lights and the pavement was getting rougher. Jessie had slowed to a leisurely jog, avoiding more and more pot holes as he went. Eventually the pavement ended and became gravel. Jessie could no longer hear the others, but he kept to the road, now at a walk. He passed occasional buildings in the dark, but though he couldn’t be sure, they looked abandoned. Trees and other vegetation encroached on the sides and the road narrowed to one large lane. The middle of the road now sprouted tufts of grass and the gravel lined only the two ruts on either side.
Hours passed and Jessie kept walking. He was tired, but the elation of being pain-free was far from wearing off. He was concerned for the others, but it was hard to think about them much as he plodded on. His mind was being drawn more and more to the odors around him. It came as a relief to leave the hot, stale stink of asphalt for the ever growing plethora of green and brown smells. It was some time before he finally realized that his sense of smell had augmented far beyond normal. He was differentiating between different trees and grasses, and he could even smell small critters off to each side of the road. When dawn broke, he was still using his nose even more than his eyes.
So when he finally came up on J-n-J, he actually smelled the twins before he saw them. The two soldiers were curled up right in the middle of the road, fully geared but fast asleep. He shook them to wake them, but they only opened their eyes long enough to give him a blank, uncomprehending look before falling back asleep. Not too far off Jessie found Rick sitting down and rummaging through his pack. He held some unknown instrument in his hand and his head bobbed up and down, lost in a trance. It took Jessie a little longer to locate Philip and The Captain further down the road. Philip was standing with his hands clasped behind him and facing The Captain, who was pacing back and forth. When Jessie walked up, Philip stared at him wordlessly. The Captain stopped and shook his fist at nothing in particular.
“It’s here,” The Captain strained to get the words out. “Neutralizing us.”
The Captain slammed his fist into his palm. “Have to stay angry or it gets control.”
“Let’s go join the others,” Jessie ventured and was not much surprised when the two soldiers placidly allowed him to lead them back to Rick and the sleeping twins.
Suddenly, Jessie smelled something he could not identify. It was close, but he could neither see nor hear anything. The Captain started swearing up a storm, firearm in each hand. Rick looked like he had fallen asleep hunched over his pack, and Philip sat down staring off into the trees. At last, Jessie saw an outline of movement. Using his peripheral vision, Jessie made out an upright figure that seemed to be made of shimmering heat waves. The Captain had noticed as well and, with a shout, began firing repeatedly into the figure. Jessie drew in a sharp breath from the surprise of the outburst, and then felt the figure’s attention turn to The Captain. A moment later the giant soldier crumpled to the ground unconscious and Jessie felt the figure’s attention on himself.
Can you see me?
It was not words Jessie heard or felt, but he understood as clearly as he had ever understood another being. Almost as if he was forced to be in the figure’s own mind, just for the space or time of the communication.
“Not very well,” Jessie managed to say.
The figure shifted and became denser, resembling something more like flames.
It has been millennium of your time since I have materialized.
“Who are you?”
I am of the race of Nefesh. I gave life to your planet’s creatures and prepared it for the Neshama.
Absolutely not. I am the prerequisite of Gestalt. The fore and the after of leaps. My gift is what holds matter in a pattern which you call the ‘life’ of an organism. From the singular creatures to the birds, the fish, the land creatures; all have patterns that hold their cells together. You as well. Though your cells die and are replaced repeatedly, the pattern remains from embryo to death. Your species, as well, is a pattern; as is the system in which all species interact. We know how to shape and connect the force of Structure. Without my race your galaxy would remain inanimate.
As the figure was communicating, it grew more solid, now resembling something akin to a shrub, then a tree. Jessie’s mind raced, trying to choose from the myriad of emotions and questions flooding him.
You need not speak. My purposes are far beyond your scope, but for what I will explain to you.
The censure struck something deep in Jessie, and his mind reeled.
“You’ve harmed my friends,” he blurted out, taking a step back as fear rose in his chest.
They are neither harmed nor your friends.
Both truths brought Jessie up short.
“Why me? Is this what the headaches are about?”
An unfortunate side-effect. I am restructuring the patterns of your mind.
The Neshama came too early to your race. The Neshama have become impatient.
“I don’t know the Ne-sha-ma.”
We, the Nefesh, give the life-patterns. The Neshama give you Knowledge, or at least the ability to know of yourself. To be self-aware. To be sentient.
“You’re saying humans became sentient too early?”
Yes. You are like a plant that grows too fast for its roots and falls over. As you struggle to stand up again, you curse the ground for not supporting you. Your species no longer has roots. In order to be aware of yourself you must separate in two so that one part of you can recognize that you are yourself. Yet at the same time, your roots are needed to keep you grounded to the Nature you emerged from. These roots keep you from tearing yourself asunder. In their impatience, the Neshama taught you how to separate before you were ready, and ever since every human struggles to remain whole. Now you are not just separate from yourselves. You are separate from the Life you emerged from and are even separate from each other. From this has risen your evil. The Neshama should be ashamed, but each solution they attempted has only served to separate you more.
“Uhhh….” managed Jessie.
I am making a New Covenant with you. From you will come the seeds of redemption; a return to wholeness. Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars. From your loins the whole earth shall be blessed.
“The hell it will!” Jessie retorted, his voice rising.
Why the resistance? I am showing you the utmost favor.
“And what do you get? What’s the trade off?” insisted Jessie.
What cost? To be whole again is all gain. You will no longer be the threat of annihilation to yourselves or this planet.
“But I won’t know it? I won’t know who I am?”
This is a cost to you? I give you life!
The tree-like figure was suddenly bearing over Jessie, holding his arms, legs, body and head in vice grips.
YOU ARE SELFISH!
The anger seared into Jessie with unbearable pain. Self. Fish. I. Random words and fragments were all his mind could hold. Then a drop emerged from a branch of the figure. The drop grew into a fruit shape and hung directly over Jessie’s head. Woody fingers gripped his head and pried open his jaws. The fruit was lowered into his mouth and his jaws were forced closed. He had no will to fight. He swallowed. The figure let him go and stood back. Jessie felt a warm sensation start from his stomach and before he knew it, his body was awash in pure pleasure. The ecstasy spread to every cell till he could no longer breathe. Then all went dark.
The next thing Jessie knew was the bandaged face of Rick shining a light in each of his eyes. Rick was saying something, but he couldn’t make it out with all the noise around. He realized then that there were airplanes roaring overhead. Bombs detonating. Gunshots zinging. Next he felt his side. He looked down and saw Philip, following Rick’s instructions, pull a large metal fragment out of a bloody wound. It took a moment for him to register that the wound was his and a groan escaped him. Rick’s light came back to flash in his eyes, making Jessie blink.
“I believe he’s back with us,” Rick said. “Hang in there Jess, we’ll get you sewed up in a second.”
They were in a small grove of trees, and Jessie suddenly remembered his encounter with the Nefesh. He took in a sharp breath through his nose, half in pain, half in panic. He could still smell everything crystal clear. Blood dominated everything. Not only was Rick bleeding through his bandage on his head, but he was holding his arm close to him, wrapped in a sling. Philip wore no bandages, but Jessie could smell the blood soaking his fatigues.
Suddenly the tumult of noise grew even louder. Shouts and gunfire and flying bark exploded all around them. Soldiers came charging in. Philip and Rick crouched low, but did not rise to meet the onslaught. From the corner of his eye, Jessie saw two identical figures detach themselves from the underbrush. Laser knives flashed, arms whirled, bodies ducked and in a matter of seconds, five soldiers lay on the ground in their death throes. Just then a huge soldier stumbled into the grove, but instead of attacking, the twins rushed forward to catch him. It was The Captain, and as he approached he lost his footing. He groaned, crashed to his knees, and twisted to fall onto his back. His hands slid to the side, revealing the mess that once was his chest and stomach. Rick and Philip immediately knelt next to The Captain, but there was nowhere to start to patch him up. The Captain ranted incoherently and then slowed. His head rolled back just a bit further until his eyes locked with Jessie’s. One more ragged breath and then the eyes glazed over.
Philip was the first to react, as he was now in command. “Hover jet 500 meters to the south. J-n-J clear our path. It’s now or never.”
In a blur of pain, adrenaline, and panic, Jessie ran as best as he could, supported by Philip. From the cacophony behind him, Jessie couldn’t tell if they were being pursued. In fact, he couldn’t even distinguish who was supposed to be on their side and who was trying to kill them. Halfway to the hover jet, the pilot began laying cover for the approaching soldiers and the going became easier. In one final rush, the five of them had jumped aboard and were strapped in as they roared away from the scene of battle. Sometime later Rick gave Jessie a shot and he fell into painless unconsciousness.
The next thing Jessie knew was pain in his wrists and ankles. The strange thing was, he came to his senses in the middle of strenuous activity. He found himself yanking and bucking and screaming. He was on a chair, ankles chained to the floor and his hands cuffed behind him. There were half a dozen men in the room with him, but he only recognized the scent of Rick. As he settled down, the room grew quiet and all eyes turned to him. Jessie turned to Rick, wanting to ask him what was going on, but the uneasy look on the medic’s face made him hesitate.
A short, intense man in a highly decorated uniform also turned to Rick. “How did you know that not sedating him would calm him down?”
Rick shrugged. “Just a hunch, sir.”
“Well, your hunch was more effective than everything everyone else tried. You were on the expedition with this animal, why haven’t you been part of the research team?”
“They had to make sure I wasn’t infected.”
“Infected! You mean those idiots still think he has a disease?”
“No, sir. Just covering their bases.”
“Then you aren’t infected?”
“Then start talking. Why did he calm down?”
“I think you should ask him, sir.”
The short officer turned slowly from Rick and stared at Jessie from under some ridiculously long eyebrows. In front of Jessie was a table, and the officer sat himself down in a chair facing him. Jessie could smell the officer’s entire lunch on his breath.
“You have something to say?”
Jessie just shook his head questioningly. The officer responded by pounding a fist on the table.
“Dammit! Can you say anything intelligent?!”
“Yes, sir,” managed Jessie.
His words changed the whole feel of the room. Everyone became calmer and yet more expectant.
“Well, a ‘sir’ is a nice change from you. Now tell me what the hell is going on.”
“How convenient,” said the officer. “What’s the last thing you do remember?”
“The Captain’s eyes,” Jessie said, recollecting. “And Rick and Philip and J-n-J.” His senses began to fog over again and he struggled to concentrate; his head felt heavy as lead.
“Oh no you don’t, little bastard!” The officer turned to Rick with his intense eyebrows, “Do something! I want him coherent.”
Rick moved slowly behind Jessie. He mumbled an apology and then reached under his armpit and squeezed the bundle of nerves connecting to his pectoral. Jessie’s eyes refocused, his face stuck in a silent grimace. Rick didn’t let up.
“What’s going on?” asked Jessie.
“You tell us,” demanded the officer.
Just then Philip and the twins entered the room.
“Who the hell…?” said the officer, whirling around.
“Colonel Stotch,” said Philip quickly. “General Luge sent us in. We were all on the original expedition.”
Colonel Stotch paused for the briefest of moments. “Fine, but there are too many people in here. Those of you from the expedition, inside. The rest of you can watch from behind the glass.”
Stotch whirled around to bristle at Jessie. “It’s now or never. Say what you want before I have you locked up for life.”
“Sir,” interrupted Philip forcefully. “You need to look at this.”
Philip handed the Colonel a small flat pad. Stotch glared, but he put his palm to it and a message appeared. The room fell silent but for Stotch’s cursing under his breath. Then abruptly Stotch stood up and stormed out the room. The others let out a collective sigh.
“Rick, is that necessary?” said Philip, sitting himself in Stotch’s vacated chair.
“’Fraid so, if you want him coherent.”
Jessie nodded in agreement. “What’s going on?”
“You remember nothing?” asked Philip.
Jessie shook his head. “Not since The Captain died and we got on that jet.”
Philip let out a long airy whistle.
“That was five months ago.”
Jessie squinted hard and shook his head.
“We were all quarantined together. We figured you were just in shock. Then we got separated for tests and stuff. We were about to return to the field when the four of us were suddenly brought back for more tests. Something strange was going on with you and they needed to be sure they hadn’t overlooked anything with us.”
“Strange like what?” asked Jessie with a grimace.
Philip continued. “Well…you have a weird effect on some, especially the most modified of us. Remember how The Captain always blamed you for his mistakes? It was kind of true, in a way.”
Again Jessie shook his head, but kept quiet.
“We were quarantined, so I got the story second hand, but somehow those in charge of you kept laxing security and let you do as you pleased. It’s as if, well, unless people don’t focus on you with a good deal of emotion — negative emotion, I guess — they kind of don’t notice you.”
Philip stopped, brow furrowed.
“OK, so…” primed Jessie. “Colonel Eyebrows is pissed at me.”
Philip smiled slightly. “You affect women as well. It’s taken a while to figure out what was going on, because the women don’t remember anything.”
“Really?” asked Philip, incredulous. “You don’t remember shacking up with any of them? They say you must have drugged them, only no trace of any kind of substance has been found anywhere. But your DNA is popping up in the pregnancy tests. Even some officer wives are pregnant.”
Jessie’s mouth had fallen open. Then it dawned on him. “Stotch?” he asked.
Philip nodded. “All women are getting tested and the Brass is ordering abortions like you’re the plague.”
In the silence that followed, Jessie’s focus veered back to his armpit and he squirmed uncomfortably.
Philip noticed and asked, “What are you doing, Rick?”
But Jessie answered. “Pain keeps me aware.” Then he added almost inaudibly, “aware of myself.”
“So you’re just on automatic pilot the rest of the time? That doesn’t — “
Rick interjected, “ninety-nine percent of what we do is automatic. Some think consciousness is just a fluke anyway.”
“Does this have anything to do with warping or what happened in the reservation?”
Jessie nodded. “I met some Thing. Some creature. It tried to take away my sentience.”
“As in, an alien?”
“Yes. I don’t know. He said he was a Nefesh.”
All four super soldiers looked at each other, and then glanced at the others outside the glass.
Philip rubbed the back of his neck. “You’re shitting me. Alien? I thought The Captain was delirious before he died. How come we didn’t see it?”
“You were all out cold. The Captain put up a fight, but the Nefesh just looked at him and he crumpled.”
Suddenly the room was full of officers, General Luge included.
“Our location is compromised. Again. We must evacuate,” announced the general.
“How much time?” someone asked.
“We have 30 minutes. I want only level one and others directly related to this project to relocate, and the rest will stay to fight.”
Awareness came in blips after that. Usually it was Rick at his side, pinching his armpit. Jessie was full of questions and the medic filled in much of their story. They had made it to another ‘safe’ bunker, though in the end the assault had been defended. Eventually he became less of a priority as he no longer warped or scrambled electromagnetic devices. A few blips later and Philip and the twins were redeployed, though Rick stayed on. As far as Jessie knew, he was kept in a cell at all times; fed and kept healthy, but isolated. A blip later and Rick said farewell. In response to Jessie’s questions the doc said it had been over three years since the Nefesh incident, but time was losing meaning. To Jessie it felt like no more than a few hours ago or some story that someone else altogether had experienced.
The next blip, Jessie was thrashing wildly as he was slammed against a wall. His nose was broken and bleeding. He was completely naked and a large man was yelling in a strange language. Jessie was gasping for breath that wouldn’t come and he realized he must have had the wind knocked out of him. The large man was striding forward when a woman, also fully naked, jumped on the man’s back and scratched at his face.
The man roared. He twisted her arm and peeled her off him, throwing her backwards where she landed on an unmade bed. The man advanced towards Jessie, swinging as he came, and all went dark.
Jessie felt his whole body ebb and flow with pinpricks. He was seated in a dentist type chair, restrained and with multiple wires running from his body to several whirring machines around him. A stern woman in uniform was peering down at him. He smelled lavender covering a host of pheromones.
“The eyes don’t lie,” she said with a lilt to another woman next to her, also in uniform. “It is subtle, but anyone trrained can see it.”
She turned. “Hello, Jessie,” she said.
“Uunnghh,” he replied, his whole body aching.
“Sorrry,” said the woman. “But your thrreshold is quite high.”
The other uniformed woman approached. She wore no perfume. “So we not waste your time.”
“Who?…Where?…Uunnghhh…” mumbled Jessie.
“We have brrought you a friend.”
A moment later an old man shuffled in, his arms cuffed in front of him. His unkempt hair and beard were completely white, but Jessie recognized him all the same.
“Hey, man,” said Rick as he approached. His voice was hoarse and his eyes tired.
“A bit, but not much.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Where to start? What do you remember?”
“You said goodbye and then, well, I was getting the living daylights punched out of me.”
“That’s it? Oh, God!”
Jessie tried to sit up, forgetting his restraints. Pain coursed through him. He groaned but managed to say, “Tell me.”
Rick drew in a long breath, gathering his thoughts.
“Therrr isn’t much time,” interjected Lavender. She was checking panels and Jessie saw some blood pass from a tube on his wrist into a machine.
Rick cleared his throat. “Wow, this is like history already…but our army didn’t catch all the pregnancies. During the evacuations, over 50 years ago, some privates were overlooked and returned home on sick leave. Their kids were like you but no one realized. Basically your DNA spread far and wide. You were so top secret even the government was slow to put the pieces together. They tried to contain it, but kids just got pregnant earlier and earlier. By the time they had a grip on what the pandemic was about, over half the population was affected. Nobody had the will to eradicate anything like that at the time.”
Jessie felt his eyes watering. Maybe it was just the pain, but he didn’t feel like hearing anything anymore.
“Jessie,” Rick said loudly.
The pin pricks got more intense.
“What? What could you possibly want from me?”
Rick came up close. “You were allowed to be captured by the Southern Bloc so that you could wreak your havoc on them as well. The same thing happened there.”
“Why should I care who wins?”
“The old alliances are completely gone. It’s just those of us aware against everyone else who’s been affected by you. And we’re getting our asses kicked.”
“As numerous as the stars,” said Jessie.
“What?” asked Rick. “Is that a quote?”
“That’s what the Nefesh said.”
“Yes!” Rick said animated. “The Nefesh. But I remember you said it was pissed at another type of alien.”
“Neshama,” said Jessie.
“We’re some type of proxy war aren’t we?”
“I don’t know,” mumbled Jessie. Then the pain increased and his breaths grew shallow.
“I can’t…tell you anything…more, Rick.”
“Jessie, we think a Neshama is here. It spoke of you. We said we would bring you to it, but it said only if you could come on your own volition.”
Jessie’s eyes widened. “What?”
Rick nodded vigorously. “Yeah. The other alien.”
“It’s actually just outside. But it said you had to choose.”
“But how? Won’t I go wild again before I even get outside?”
“That is wherr we come in,” said Lavender. “We can strrap you up with painful device, but it will be much worrse than now.”
Jessie looked hard at Rick. The old man reached out with both cuffed hands and placed one on Jessie’s arm.
“You’ve suffered so much.”
“Total ignorance is not bliss or suffering,” said Jessie slowly.
“What about the pain now?” said Rick softly.
“Pain? Pain’s a pain in the ass.”
Then with the first inkling of resolve, Jessie added, “I feel like a cube being forced back to being a square. Not really a moral thing, but it doesn’t feel right.”
A few minutes later, Jessie was stumbling down a hallway with Rick and Lavender on each side. No Perfume was walking behind, helping support a thick wire mesh that ran down Jessie’s spine, from the nape of his neck down to his tailbone. It hurt like a mother, but for the first time in forever, Jessie felt the urgency of a goal. He wasn’t even sure what he was choosing, but whatever it was, he wanted it badly. Had to, or he wouldn’t keep putting one foot in front of the other. At the end of the hallway, a large door slid open and the four of them worked their way outside. Lavender veered them to the right, towards a patch of grass with a bench in the middle. Resolve waning, Jessie’s entire world shrank down to simply reaching the bench.
“I need to sit,” he whimpered, his legs shaking uncontrollably.
The women began to argue in a language Jessie didn’t understand, and Rick stood there helplessly trying to take as much weight as his cuffed hands could. Then the air shimmered and everyone fell silent.
Oh relief! Blessed relief! The pain was receding. Jessie reached behind his head and wriggled the wires off his neck. Rick reached over and peeled the contraption off his spine, while the two women simply gaped.
There were two shimmering presences, Jessie realized. One slowly formed into a dendritic shape that he thought he recognized. In contrast, the other shimmer came into sharp focus. It had the torso of a man, wings like an angel, but the lower half was that of a giant serpent.
“Does this work for you?” said the mythological creature in an audible and crystal clear voice. “It is an old form, but still captures your imagination, I believe.”
Jessie managed a nod.
“So Lith, this is your Abram?” The Neshama held Jessie’s gaze, but he was clearly talking to the other form. The Nefesh shimmered more intensely and everyone felt anger communicated directly in their minds.
“He has chosen to keep the Knowledge.”
Yes. Foolishly. You win.
Suddenly Rick piped up. “This was a fucking wager?”
The Neshama turned to the old man. “You think wagers are insignificant.”
“You’re playing with our lives,” retorted Rick resentfully. “And what’s the prize? Who gets to rule us? Who gets to gloat?”
The Neshama laughed. “I suppose there is an element of play. But it was not with your lives. Your species was fighting before Lith made the changes. It is fighting now. Not much has changed. I made the wager and it is my life on the line. The Nefesh lose nothing but their pride. Had your friend not chosen Knowledge, I would have lost my life.”
“Why?” interjected Jessie.
The Neshama smiled as its wings spread out, rising up higher on its serpent coils. “To use the language of the wager, I was betting my sense of purpose. The fact that you chose Knowledge, despite the pain, proves my value. I am grateful.”
Lavender stepped forward. “So you will help us?”
“I will reverse what Lith did to this man. He can know himself without such intense pain.”
It is still too early.
The Neshama turned to the shimmering tree. “Do you still not see? It was never our choice. Even your Abram chooses without my influence.”
Perhaps it’s too late.
“What about the war?” insisted Lavender.
The Neshama turned back to the humans. “The war? That is yours to deal with. I will, however, give you back your advantage. It is with some deceit that Lith made the non-awareness affect more than just the individual. If those in proximity to the unaware did not lose a measure of their own awareness, they would never have defeated you so easily. But they will continue to multiply. You will have to decide what is to be done if you regain control. Do not forget that they are you, without my gift.”
With that, the Neshama began to dissolve back into a shimmer, and another moment later both the Nefesh and the Neshama were gone. The four humans were left, staring at each other. Rick was shaking his head.