There are no dreams in the tree. There are no memories upon rousing. Our engineers referred to the time we spent in a tree, not as a sleep, not as a stasis, but rather as an atomic progression. From the time we closed our eyes to the time we blinked back the intrusive lab lights, there was simply nothing. All of it seemed to pass, pun included, in the blink of an eye. Still, the return of consciousness came with the jolt of surprise. It was not a matter of where or when you were but why. Why were you conscious? One should not just come to with all his thoughts activated -- hurts like hell!
Eyes open, eyes closed; I saw my brother's face. Somehow, it was both twisted and beautiful. He vented his rage at me and I just stood and admired his beauty. I didn't know just how much I hated him until then. His reptilian features seemed muted in my painful vision of him. Nothing was left but a few iridescent scales at the corners of his black eyes. LUC – how he screamed at me! His arms flew in all directions, his fists clenched and opened, he jabbed his finger repeatedly in my face. I felt so small in the glare of his wrath.
I held a hand between my eyes and those damnable lights as the technicians helped me sit upright. A small measure of water was forced down my throat. At only cycle nine, I was still not completely atomic. I needed hydration. As the techs helped me dress, my senses registered the return to reality with annoying and painful clarity. Every move, every gesture, touch, and sensation was frustratingly acute. At least the light seemed less bright as I was turned to view the new me in a mirroring wall. They had dressed me in trousers and a sleeveless shirt the color of turned soil. My hair was shoulder-length, the color of chestnut with darker waves at the ends. My beard was full yet not overstated. It was a good look.
I turned to my assistants and managed to croak a simple thank you from a parched throat. Automatically, they placed a water cup in my hand and I swallowed with returning appreciation of my vestigial tactile nature. The techs left the room having failed to respond. I sat on the padded bench to consider if my choice of visage had put them off. Everyone knew that a technician must be a mandatory cycle ten; all technicians are fully atomic. Both of my attendants were Olipharean, whose racial preferences for personal appearances ran the gamut from fantastical to just plain wrong. Their round and flattened feet with gilded toenails were typical of their bent. The large trunk noses covering their mouths were, likewise, typical. The bright pink skin and ornate golden crowns were a trending fashion. I looked at my own hands, at my plain flesh tones, and wondered if they thought me overly primitive. I was not as hairy as the Kee primates but I resembled them in some aspects.
I studied my reflection. I remembered the two faces of my brother, LUC. I remembered the face I had known since father rescued us from a world in the throes of self-induced extinction. We had annihilated ourselves. Our two races had known nothing but war. Yet, father stumbled through the ruins of the world he had planted and harvested two small boys he found huddled and teary-eyed behind a smoldering tree stump. I was a Huim, LUC was a Drake. We were too small to know the difference.
I peered deep into my reflected brown eyes and, for a moment, I saw my brother's reptilian eyes. They had always been black slits surrounded by intricate rings of gold. I recalled the new eyes from my vision of him. They were Huim eyes like mine. They were round and black like two gemstones set in rings of deep green. His new nose had replaced the nasal slits with human nostrils. His new human chin sported black hair. His Drake face had always seemed bland and amiable. I loved the old face and wondered why such a vision had assailed me. I wondered why I felt such dread and hatred for someone I had always loved.
I could hear through the door the hustle of those, like myself, who had just been roused. They spoke in muted tones as they made their way each to his place. As for me, my place was on the Seed Ship, and as I thought of it, my desire to be among my Kee workers was penetrating. I could have stepped into any transport tree and been instantly whisked to my destination but other thoughts stirred. I wanted to see my friend, R1J1, which we all preferred to vocalize as Rigil. I also wanted to ride his shuttle to the Seed Ship as the slow view of the armada was a spectacular treat. The door opened at my approach and I walked with great deliberation down shining metal hallways past gently pulsing lights. I found Rigil sitting outside his vessel in an empty four-hub dock. His was the only attended vessel as most new returns preferred the use of transport trees. Rigil looked up at my approach.
Of the Axerri race, Rigil sported nothing more than a line of small blue feathers running the length of each outer arm from elbow to little finger. Many of his race sported the heads of dogs or birds but Rigil was not as extravagant in his progressions. In a simple white loincloth and with braided black hair, blue eyes, and a ruddy complexion, I thought he looked quite normal. Rigil had a cheerful manner that guaranteed him many friends. We smiled, we embraced, we spoke.
"My first passenger, just as I expected," said he.
"I must confess, I do love the passage," answered I.
Most people I knew, including the Kee, vocalized my name, 5E5, as Sais. Rigil being Axerri, called me Jees. I was not sure if the Axerri had difficulty with the leading 'S', or if it was more of a cultural affectation. In any case, I think I enjoyed hearing him call me Jees more than all other people calling me Sais. He held me at arm's length for his initial appraisal. There was a twinkle in his blue eyes and it was at that moment I began to feel anchored more in our bond than in the thoughts of my mind.
"Jees," he asked in wonderment, "are you going native on me?"
I took my friend by his shoulders and looked deep into his twinkling eyes. I answered, enlarged, "When you fly, I will be with you."
Rousing does strange things to the perception of reality. It takes time to adjust. Until you do, everything seems surreal and distant. Reality is just a concept and things you touch or think are empty of any personal sense of connection or ownership. Now that I felt anchored again, I could sense the floor beneath my sandals, the air that I still breathed, and open space just beyond the shuttle. The atomic nature of our being tried to dull and delete those senses altogether. For example, an atomic being emitted no scent molecules. Even though I was not fully atomic, Rigil was. I could see him and hear him, I could feel him in my grip. I could not, however, smell him. It was different with the moleculars. As he threw his arm around me and walked me in through the sliding shuttle doors, I could instantly smell a Kee primate, warm and musty.
We walked into the passenger seating bay, a roomy hold with two rows of padded benches, one facing each wall. Rigil had not changed the color scheme of the hold, earth tones I had often expressed my satisfaction in. He looked for my smile and I could see he had left things just so for my return. The walls had no windows into space. Instead, either wall was a single floor-to-ceiling view screen. The control area was an open space in the forward hold with two padded swivel seats placed behind a view screen and two diminutive control kiosks. As I seated myself on the bench of the shuttle's starboard wall, Rigil spoke again.
"As you can see, Jees, I left things the way you like them."
Immediately, the port control seat swiveled to face me. A small gaping Kee looked imploringly into my eyes. His umber mane seeming somewhat at odds with his bright orange flight jacket, I noted a tight-fitting control collar around his throat. I had always hated such devices of cruelty and had campaigned vigorously to have them banned. It grieved me that Rigil had employed a collar for this Kee. He slapped the Kee playfully on the back of his head.
"Eyes forward," he commanded, and the Kee obeyed.
"Rigil, what are you doing," I asked, starting to my feet.
Rigil sighed and his shoulders slumped. He lost his smile and looked away.
"I knew this would happen," he said.
I pulled my friend around to face me; I searched his wounded blue eyes.
I said, "Rigil, I've only been away for a hundred revolutions. What happened?"
A sheepish grin answered. "You know me," he replied. "I'm easy." Rubbing the back of his neck, he explained, "I was talked into taking on a copilot. Redistribution. I don't like it either," Rigil declared. "Besides, with traffic so slow, I really don't need the help. I guess the powers that be thought I needed a second job -- but I'm not cut out to babysit monkeys."
"Rigil," I interrupted, "I can help. My Seed Ship will always need workers; I'll take him off your hands."
He asked with returning glee, "Really? Truly?" The Kee had spun back around in excited anticipation and Rigil reissued his initial command, but with exaggerated emphasis, "Eyes Forward!"
I said, "Truly. I will take him now. Remove the collar and let him sit with me. This ship only needs one Captain."
As Rigil took command of his craft, speaking softly with Navigation Control, I comforted my new Kee, Odum was his name, and together we enjoyed the spectacle of the fleet.
I loved the armada. Thousands of interstellar craft made insignificant by the unthinkable vastness of black space. Some seemed as remote as the stars themselves, each of them reflecting the light of distant suns. There seemed no particular order to their placement, and yet, I knew there was. Such details, however, were wasted on me. I loved the lights, the near, and the distant. I felt as though I could hold the whole of it in my palm and roll it around. The lights seemed like bright specks in a dark gel. Some of the nearer specks moved slowly as Rigil, Odum and I spoke.
I learned as we spoke. Rigil, for example, had opted for an early atomic progression; we called our tree time A. P. Full atomics, such as Rigil, really did not need the whole progression, from such as I had just been roused. Rather, they took the periodic treatment of a single revolution. He did not want to be in the tree when I roused. Our friendship was the gossip of some, who claimed it drove a wedge between my brother and me.
I learned that Odum had been an attendant in the recreational arena of the military vessel, Thrust, where Mikal, my brother's new friend was berthed. The attendant position, I understood, was something like a junior porter or steward. I also learned that he had been mistreated there, and on the occasion of biting the ankle of a tier-one warrior, was placed on the block for redistribution. I felt bad for Odum. I felt bad for all the Kee. They deserved better.
As we came to dock with the Seed Ship, Rigil turned his ferry so that I might see our approach. It was a beautiful ship, dome-shaped with a spear-like anchor jutting from her underside. She blazed brightly with reflected starlight. The pulsing lights about her docking port, red and blue, were strangely calming. I had not been aware of my tension. Rigil's craft slid into the dock with minimal recoil. My A. P. was behind me; I was home.
I stood in the dock of my Seed Ship. Rigil and I had embraced, said our goodbyes, and promised to see each other before the lottery. Rigil seated himself on a covered bench by the open door to his ferry.
“It's not like I have to hurry,” said he, “so, I think I'll sit here for a turn or two. I have no desire to see Siri any sooner than need be.” He looked up at me with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and concluded, “Make her wait, I say.”
Odum stood behind me, shifting his weight from foot to foot. He seemed to want some distance between himself and his former boss. Rigil noted Odum's shying gesture and said, “I'm sorry I hit you on the head monkey.” But then he looked up at me with a wink and a roguish grin to correct himself. He said, more to me than Odum, “I mean, I'm sorry I hit you on the head Odum.”
Odum snorted from behind. I turned and placed an arm around his slumped shoulders. I hugged him to me and to his wide-eyed surprise I said to Rigil, “Oh, we forgive you.”