TBOTSG-Chapter 4

March 26, 2024

An eerie sensation of freedom enveloped me when I finally glanced to my right and saw the second starone unlike any seen before in the earthly sky was just rising from the sea, which, at its junction with the heavenly body, seemed to be engulfed in flames colored as if made of the clearest water. A star that demanded veneration from nature itself, and one which I would have worshiped myself. I gazed in awe at the wonder growing in the sky, changing all the colors around us, making the whole world take on a strange hue.

‘Locals call it Eebtiiti, meaning the light of fire in Ramaala Sahiiae, their second language,’ Fox said to me in a slightly contemplative tone.

‘It’s blue…’ I replied, a bit surprised that this mostly turquoise star was associated with fire. And even stranger was that I didn’t remember itjust as I didn’t remember the bridgeinstead, I was expecting to see a red dwarf in its place.

‘Reeza’s fire is blue as well,’ she replied with the same air, ‘the fire with which she scorches the lands, called Iioedi Siiesiiralthe Soul of Life.’

The Soul of Life?

‘Here, every fourteen years, the land starts to become infertile… that’s when it needs to be scorched and left fallow for about as long until it regains its breath. And then anything planted on it grows bigger and more beautiful than before. But a legend says that in ancient times people didn’t need to do that because Reeza would scorch for them, in one breath, all the evil from the land, and silver apple saplings would appear. A very rare tree around here, rarely grown outside of laboratories, because it’s very sensitive to the increasing heat outside. Its beauty is incredible. I’ve seen a few, and each time I was left speechless.’

‘And does it make silver apples,’ I joked. ‘Or golden, perhaps?’

‘It makes a fruit that looks like it’s covered by a silver film instead of skin. It’s not silver, obviously, but rather resembles the skin of a fish just taken out of the water. It looks extremely beautiful, especially in this blue light. And it’s more than just tastythe skin is so good after is cooked into some kind of honey that its intense taste goes beyond the limits of taste buds. It’s almost psychedelic–it’s considered a kind of nectar of the gods, and rightfully so, something like this shouldn’t even exist. It’s so special that once you’ve tasted it, you can’t escape a kind of craving hidden deep inside. Some people have done all sorts of horrors just to get to taste it one more time.’

‘So it’s like a drug?’

‘Yes, one without side effects.’

‘Other than the addiction you’re telling me about?’ I asked somewhat amused by her contradictory statement.

‘No, there really are no side effects,’ she said, pausing to search for better words. ‘It’s like when you know how it feels to be in love and you want to experience those thrills again… Or how happiness feels like. Or how it feels to be in your mother’s arms when you’re little. It’s normal to want these things.’

Thinking about what she had just said, I noticed how, beyond the edge of the bridge, from the right, from the midst of the dust clouds, a sparkle could be seen now and then. I didn’t get a chance to ask Fox what it could be because in front of us a flickering symbol appeared, on a background representing a kind of map where you could clearly distinguish the bridge, the endless lava sea around us, and two points: us and those who sent us the message. Fox gave a vocal command and, after a short animation, a man who had the same type of eyes and skin as Fox appeared before us. He wore rather official attire, reminding me of someone who works in the police or the military. For a moment, it seemed so real to me that I wanted to step back, feeling suffocated by his presence, but then I realized he was nothing but a holographic representation of the officer in the vehicle flying very low alongside us, which I could see perfectly to my right.

The vehicle, which looked more like a hybrid of a drone and a fighter jet, was full of insignias, but it still maintained an official air. I suspected it was a bridge patrol. The man, a captain of the Allied Forces, as he introduced himself, with slightly androgynous features and extremely beautiful jet-black hair, requested permission to scan us. Jarhala Sornad from Saharaliithe first name I heard in this new world seemed extremely exotic, just like the person bearing it. Another name was Fox’s:

‘I am Sela Koro from Firal-Afal,” she said proudly, then grumbled discontentedly as she entered an access code into a now two-dimensional dry little box that stood in the captain’s place.

A series of inscriptions then appeared systematically on the screen, forming a kind of verification log, apparently marked in red for the requests and green for their responsesit seemed that this world wasn’t so different after all, I thought somewhat amused. In the end, after all the paperwork check was done, the captain appeared again, almost indecently close in the somewhat cramped space for two women and a hologram. I glanced at Fox, who responded with a look that suggested I shouldn’t say a word. And indeed, I didn’t say anything, feeling somewhat diminished, just like earlier. Not even when the conversation turned somewhat bizarre, I couldn’t even muster a gesture.

‘I found nothing in the documentation regarding the android you’re transporting,’ the captain said, turning his gaze towards me.

I didn’t immediately realize I was the android he was talking about as I was more focused on the fact that probably we were as uncomfortably represented in his cockpit, though smaller than him, we were surely taking up more space.

‘It’s a prototype I’m taking to the fair organized for winning the elections. I have a special permit allowing me to transport such items on my responsibility, with maximum discretion,’ Fox looked somewhat meaningfully at the captain, but he didn’t respond immediately, as if carefully thinking a few moves ahead.

‘Ms. Koro, I apologize, you do not yet appear in the system as head of the Koro Laboratories, but I have heard of your success. Congratulations. I assume you wouldn’t risk compromising your career by engaging in illegal transports, however.’ Now it was the captain’s turn to look meaningfully at Fox.

‘So it is, I haven’t been officially appointed yet, but I hope an exception can be made just this time. Otherwise, it would mean going back and perhaps even missing the inauguration party. But if that’s how it should be, I’ll turn around and let my family know right away…’

Fox now looked doe-eyed at the hologram, which made no gesture. But I already knew the result, and two minutes later we were alone again in the belly of the machinery, rushing towards a destination still hidden to me. After seeing how the captain and his ship disappeared again among the clouds, I felt safer and whole again, so I mustered the courage to ask Fox what was going on, why she was transporting an android, and why she was doing it illegally. Somehow these questions seemed more pressing to me. I was planning to ask her about where she had gotten her name and function later.

‘Our family has been making custom androids for centuries.’ She paused, then continued: ‘…and we’ve improved them beyond the barriers of the tiny minds that were working in the field until then.’

‘Our family?’

‘Her family… let’s say.’ She looked at me and gestured toward her body, then continued simply: ‘…since we’re going to share this body from now on, probably for a lifetime, I guess what’s hers is now mine too.’

For a second, I felt like my brain couldn’t process the information, as if it was so new that it had to pass it through all the filters first, just to establish its nature. And it established it as unrealistic, or downright impossible. I wanted to ask her what she meant, but even that seemed senseless, everything starting to spin like a whirlwind and transforming rapidly into incomprehensible meanings larger than I could handle. Somehow I chewed on the information for a long time, unable to escape the spiral of senselessness and unable to utter a word. I felt like I was dreaming. The music was playing again, placing me once more in a dual dimension of here and there.

As I sat there in this state, without exchanging a word with her, I noticed ahead a growing silhouette of something that at first was hard to grasp but started to make sense as we approached. ‘That’s exactly how it should be with Fox, too,’ I told myself, resigned, focusing more on what was ahead. We were approaching what seemed to be a road accident with a dizzying speed. It seemed strange to encounter one when we hadn’t seen any other vehicle on our way—neither going nor coming back. The whole scene was even more bizarre because, as we approached and slowed relatively abruptly but smoothly, we saw something completely different from anything we had encountered before in this world. I felt the fine veil squeezing me gently in the seat for a moment until we stopped completely, and I felt safe. Fox switched a few screens, including the surroundings map, which still showed only two points: us and the strange vehicle lying on its side, seemingly injured by the unyielding hardness of the perfect glass underneath. Fox scanned the electronic map, probably looking for the captain’s vehicle, just like I was. But it was nowhere nearby. We were, apparently, the only possible rescuers of whoever was struck by misfortune. Fox gave a vocal command, and this time the result was that our seat belts released, and then both doors opened, forming the steps much faster than we could rise from our perhaps too comfortable seats. Fox got down decisively and went straight to the overturned car. I, on the other hand, remained rooted next to our bear, a voice from within clearly telling me to stay there, and unable to resist, I found myself stroking the bear’s fur.

Her texture reminded me more of Aunt Martha’s cat fur. An indescribable fluffiness, with a flattened nose, welcoming us all when we visited, unsure of which one of us to rub against first. Fox was her favorite, and then mom. The two of them seemed to perfectly meet the old cat’s need for affection, and I always felt it was betraying me a little. Danthat was Fox’s father’s name, whom I could never bring myself to call ‘dad,’ even though Fox always referred to my mother as ‘mom’was quieter when we visited our aunt, and he didn’t like cats much either. That’s why my aunt always told me when she caught me alone that she couldn’t understand how he managed to get such a woman as my mother. Of course, when Dad was alive, she would grumble about Mom half-jokingly asking how he could stand her. Dad would immediately shut her up with some nasty remarks: my aunt was unmarried. She had had enough lovers throughout her life to leave both me and Fox wide-eyed. Some were in politics, and sometimes when we would see them on TV, Mom would say, ‘Look, Martha and him were together when I met your father, he proposed to her, but she didn’t want him,’ or about another, she would say, ‘What a scene he made at a wedding, he left with the maid of honor, but she forgave him… they separated after many years, who knows why.’ I was fascinated by the stories about Aunt Martha because they seemed to be from another world. A much more interesting one than mine, and my aunt, despite her age, had a special charm: she was a true lady, with manners, and her style was just enough for her age. She had a kind of wisdom she didn’t rush to share left and right, as most old people do. Now that I look back, our world, my world, was interesting too, I just couldn’t see it. I still remember an essay I wrote around fourth grade, just before Dad died, about how we had been in the mountains and a bear chased us through the woods. The whole class listened captivated until the end of my little story, and after I finished reading and the class came to its senses, the teacher asked me directly if my story was realafter all, the assignment was to share how we spent our summer vacation. Just as directly, I replied that no, and that I didn’t see why it had to be. She didn’t say anything, just gave me an A. I took it as a compliment, and from then on, my stories began to take on new dimensions. I wrote a story and I was suddenly as free as a bird in the sky in a world that seemed several times more beautiful and more interesting than the one I actually lived in.

I had spent an entire holiday with my aunt’s cat when Dad was getting worse. We would go to see him in the hospital, but then, when the visit was over, I wouldn’t go home with Mom, I would go to my aunt’s instead. They would tell me that mom was busy. And she really was… I found out later that because he could die at any moment, Mom stayed with him a lot more, even ending up sleeping on the chair in the simple room of the private hospital. When it happened, she was right there, holding his hand, there was nothing else to do. And, my aunt, when she received the call, had that look that any parent has when they hear the news of their child’s death. She had taken care of Dad since he had come to the capital to go to high school. He had stayed with her until he had married Mom, around 27 years old. I still remember playing with Napoleon, pulling him by his paws, already feeling slightly scared by the phone until I saw my aunt’s expression and stopped completely, realizing what had happened. I didn’t start crying immediately like I saw Mom and Fox do many years later when they found out about Dan. It was a shock back then. With Dad, it wasn’t. Even I, who was just a child, expected that news at any moment. It had almost become an obsession, not being able to bear hearing that loud ringing of the phone without jumping in horror, afraid of receiving the news. Sometimes I had nightmares because of it. Maybe that’s why Mom didn’t let me stay home alone while she was at the hospital. She knew those thoughts tortured me too much.

At Aunt Martha’s, things were different; there were large windows that opened into a beautifully landscaped courtyard, with immense bushes from which she occasionally cut a flower for the vase on the dining room table, the warm and focused sunlight flooding the room, the gentle breeze moving the curtains with a unique rustle—all of these tempted me to daydream. And it was then that I first imagined a completely new world made of suns and dreams. Of warmth and magic.

Now, stroking the fur of the mechanized bear, I remembered all of these, staring into space, Fox fading somewhere at the periphery of my senses. I only half-saw her, as she spoke to someone who was completely hidden by the huge machinery stretched out to one side. A thick liquid was oozing from beneath the lazy vehicle, and I wondered if I was safe. And I also wondered who was beyond this strange barrier, with a look so futuristic yet so vintage at the same time. A kind of steampunk beyond the boundaries of my imagination, at least that’s how it seemed to me as I was half-daydreaming. It seemed to operate on a different type of engine than the two vehicles I had seen there before, or so I presumed, judging by the multitude of pipes coiling like serpents around her slender body, poised to open their mouths wide towards the sky, or towards me, in its current state. Unlike the captain’s vehicle with its straight and well-defined lines, which seemed solemn and elegant, and whose design seemed aimed at commanding respect, among other things, this machine in front of me looked more like its main role was to attract attention. And it had completely captured mine. So completely that, without realizing it, my hand stopped its foolish stroking of the bear, and my steps began to follow that impulse of curiosity which now made itself heard louder, much louder than the distant stay here, almost as inaudible as the music with its flying source. Gradually, I heard nothing else but my own inner voice telling me now that I wanted to see more closely what was in front of me.

Walking on this glassy surface, I discovered that it wasn’t as shiny as it first appeared, but had small scratches that crossed its entire expanse, without making it ugly, however. Just as expression lines often make a person look even better than before, more multifaceted and interesting, and, in conclusion, more attractive. What had caused the myriad of overlapping abrasions that formed a kind of hatched texture, one that became part of the design of the giant snake writhing now from one horizon to the other, without actually moving? What could have left such a clear mark, I couldn’t tell, especially when it was evident that the overturned machine seemed not to have left even one. When I approached Fox and began to circle her to see who was hidden behind the car, she almost jumped with an expression that only said one thing: she was afraid. She looked at me, and before she could stammer a ‘What are you doing here?’ I had already met the gaze of the mysterious hidden figure.