Awakening, Part 3

There were perhaps other, more surprising ways to wake up… But on the spot, none came to mind that would beat ‘I still exist?’

She’d come to terms with her accidental introduction to individuality, short as it was. That she’d been given a taste of self-awareness was both a tremendous gift and a massive fluke. Letting it end, simply the greater good. In giving up autonomy, sense of self… For giving up simply being, the one who’d unwittingly given her the chance to experience that life - at the cost of his own - would continue on. She’d simply be reabsorbed, regressing back into a collection of ancient instincts. That was all she really was. Echos of genetic hand-me-downs from generations past.

Or so she’d thought.

Somehow, here she was. Awake, aware… Confused and a little rattled, most certainly, but otherwise in good health. Where ‘here’ was, however… That was a puzzle. The darkness around her gave her no true idea of where she stood, able to see herself, yet nothing else in the expanse about her. From the moment she first realized she held an independent consciousness, she’d still perceived surroundings and sensation from the mortal body of Tarioshi. This darkness was devoid of everything. Tari’s presence felt close, yet lingered strangely beyond reach.

Fatigue swept her, pressing her quickly into unconsciousness. More than anything, it was a blessing simply to still exist. Everything else could be dealt with in time.

Jadyn squinted at the mirror, eyeing his unkempt pelt and hair. It’d been a rough couple of days and he hadn’t managed much sleep. Tari oscillated between moments of perfectly rational thought and downright feral behavior in the first few hours. After that, when she finally got used to what nature expected of her, she discovered that ever-so-delicate balance between lucidity and insanity that all Val’Traxan females eventually must find, while occasionally still drifting away from coherent thought.

She’d be awake soon. Her sleep cycle had gone all over the place, from short fifteen minute dozes to slightly longer one-hour catnaps. Every time he’d just about managed to drift off she’d wake again, itching for more. It’d almost grown into more of a chore than an enjoyable activity.

Slipping out of the room, Jadyn quietly shut the door and made a quick pass through the shower to clean up and alleviate some of the semblance of self-neglect. Other than the electrolyte drinks, Tari hadn’t eaten a thing in two days. With any luck she’d wake up hungry for a good meal, and he held every intention of ensuring breakfast was ready long before that happened -

“You sound happy.”

Jadyn blinked, stopping midway down the steps and peering at his couch. Alecha gave him a slight smile, her attention quickly drawn back to the datapad in her hand. The fact he’d neglected to don anything more than what the Spirits had blessed him with upon his birth did not appear to bother her in the slightest. Nor was it a cause for embarrassment or concern or even any apparent interest.

After all the years living in comparatively modest societies, the first impulse was to simply go back upstairs and at least throw on some pants. It wasn’t even personal modesty. Just to smooth the waters, he tended to fall back on not making others uncomfortable - unless they deserved it. This seemed as good a time as any to break the habit.

“I sound happy?” he queried, proceeding down the steps.

“You were whistling to yourself. I don’t recognize the tune.” She didn’t look up as he stopped beside the couch. Peering over her shoulder revealed her attention focused on diagnostic dumps of the cryo system. “I’m assuming since you invited me to breakfast it’s safe to be here.”

“I did? When?”

“T’bia passed along the message, that you were fixing breakfast and suggested I come down… And you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about…” The salt-and-pepper vixen chuckled, shaking her head. “I should go.”

“Stay. It should be all right. I think she’s on the downhill run. Before the last time she fell asleep she mentioned the urges weren’t as bad, and what a nice glow she was feeling.”

“The post-estrus buzz. The whole thing can be a hassle at times, but I think anything less interesting in celebration of creating a new life would be an insult. I almost feel pity for the races who evolved hidden cycles.”

“Agreed. Although, that trait also creates its own variety of celebration. In any case, it’s good to see you up and about.”

“I’ve been moving around without leaning on nearby walls and furnishings since yesterday evening. Not quite ready for a marathon, but… Feeling good. I still can’t explain why. T’bia and I both have poured over my blood workup, physiological scans, and diagnostics of the hardware. There’s nothing we can find that’d account for my quick recovery from that long in cryo.”

“I’ve learned that the more I want to know something, the less interesting it is once I actually figure it out.” Jadyn gave her a pat on the shoulder and moved to the kitchen. “Chalk it up as a happy mystery and move on to more important things. Bee.”

“Yo,” the AI greeted, suddenly present and reclining in a chair. “What’s for breakfast?”

“Carnivore special, unless our guest would prefer something more balanced.”

Alecha shook her head. “That will be fine, thank you. It’s either been weeks or centuries since my last homecooked meal.”

“I’d better make it worth the wait. Did I miss anything important?”

“Yes,” T’bia confirmed. “You should have seen the look on Alecha’s face when Pakar walked into medbay. I thought she was going to run and hide.”

“I would have if my legs worked right at the time!” the vixen defended, setting her datapad down with a laugh. “Spirits, she’s a scary one until she starts to talk. I was a little surprised when she greeted me in a little bit of broken Kametian without using a translator.”

“She knows a formal ‘hello’ and I think she might still remember ‘pass the salt.’ She just walked in without any warning?”

“I might have provided a little bit of preparation,” T’bia replied.

“You did not! ‘Someone’s here to see you’ does not count!” Alecha protested.

“And what could I have said to prepare you for a seven-foot-tall, green, scaly, winged reptilian?”

“Well…” The vixen sighed. “I don’t know.”

“Then I stand by my method.”

Jadyn laughed and shook his head. “You two have a good chat at least?”

“It was a little short,” Alecha replied. “She had a council session to attend to, I believe? Asked me questions about the project, what kind of authority I have to make decisions… Basically none outside the cryo portion at this moment, for your own reference. She took a copy of the planetary requirements, just in case I missed something in my searches.”

“Mm.” Jadyn dropped a huge handful of chopped bacon into a pan, loud sizzling rising up from the hot surface. “I’m hoping I can get a hearing with the Velorian ruling council this week, to see if there’s a place they’d be able to take everyone. You’re welcome to join me.”

“Thank you, but…” She shook her head. “I realize you’ve put up with it, and it’s really a beautiful world - the little of nature I’ve seen so far really reminds me of home. I could certainly adapt to life here if there were no other choices. I just… I didn’t leave everything behind to wake up as a refugee. I’m sure everyone else will agree with me. We trained to sculpt a new home out of a raw planet. Despite the things we’ve missed during cryosleep, we’re still a colony crew, an outpost waiting to happen. This can’t be our home. Not permanently.”

“It’s been my ‘temporary’ home for a long time. Maybe I’m finally about to find a better option.”

A smile touched Alecha’s muzzle. “You and your mate both certainly will be welcome.”

“That’s… a complicated thing. Her sightseeing trip around the quadrant is scheduled to be far more temporary than my lodging on Veloria. Tea?”

“Ah. Thank you.” The vixen dipped her head, accepting an offered mug and inhaling deeply of the minty aromas rising with the steam. “It’s odd. From my point of view, I had dinner with your grandmother not two weeks ago, the night just before we disembarked. She wanted to know if I was having any second thoughts.”

“And you said?”

“Lots of them. Nothing I’d give up my spot over… But lots of worries and concerns. I knew in my heart I’d never see the homeworld again, and I thought I’d accepted that fact. I just was of the understanding it would be due to distance, not because it wasn’t there anymore…”

“Well, technically -” T’bia started, immediately falling silent with a glare from Jadyn. Making sure she wasn’t going to spout something else off, his gaze settled back on Alecha.

“Did you have any family still back there?” Jadyn inquired.

“My mother and my fathers, two sisters, two brothers… With all the time I’ve been asleep… That alone would have… Well, they wouldn’t still be there, anyway… Not after three centuries… Maybe a niece or nephew or three, but they wouldn’t really know me…”

Jadyn thumbed at T’bia to take his place in the kitchen, whispering quick instructions on his planned preparation before stepping back into the living room. Alecha gave him a warm smile through the tears in her eyes, resting her head on his shoulder as his arm encircled her.

“Ugh, just look at me,” she appraised distastefully, wiping her eyes. “Bawling over nonsense after all the things you went through.”

“It’s not nonsense. The very few of us that survived lost everything. You may not have been there to see it, but you’re part of that survivor group. You’ve all lost so much more in just the time you’ve spent asleep up there.”

“It still just seems so unreal. It’s one thing to hear ‘it’s three and a half centuries later and everyone we ever knew is dead’ after waking up. There’s something of a disconnect, it’s almost unresolved in that we can’t go back and see for ourselves… It’s entirely different for you. You must have witnessed so many terrible things… How you can even get a good night’s sleep is beyond me.”

“It’s not always a good night’s sleep, but -“

“What in the hell are you doing?!”

Alecha looked up in time to see a white blur making a beeline in her direction; Jadyn quickly placed himself in the middle, blocking the livid vixen’s approach. She screamed at him in another language, repeatedly pointing in Alecha’s direction and shoving at him as her tirade continued. Despite his flattened ears, his composure remained relatively patient and resigned as he took the brunt of her anger.

Her reaction wasn’t completely meritless; she’d just found an unfamiliar female close with her mate during her most territorial time of the year. Had the two met before, it may have been different. If this truly was her first cycle as Jadyn had claimed, the hormones were likely getting the best of her judgement and rational thought and it wouldn’t matter who was sitting next to Jadyn. She was defending what she saw as hers from an outsider. Details were irrelevant.

The white vixen was quite the curiosity, though… At first glance she was the spitting image of the Goddess of Val’Trax - a dead ringer if Alecha had ever seen one. A few minor differences in colorings, but in the initial moments of surprise at the assault attempt, she barely noticed.

But then something even more startling appeared on the edge of her senses. This vixen’s aura was just plain wrong. There was a sense of spiritual strength there, far more than in an average individual. Yet, inexplicably - it wasn’t the Art. Something completely unexpected and alien stood out in her aura, a power that Alecha had never seen before.

“What…?” she managed, cocking her head sideways and closing one eye. Sometimes the maneuver had helped her focus on another’s aura by taking depth perception out of the appraisal. Whoever she was looking at was not a val’traxan, regardless of her visual appearance. And yet, somehow… she could be nothing but.

The vixen noticed the engrossed observation, turning her attentions entirely to Alecha and screeching unintelligible obscenities at her. Alecha suspected it was better she didn’t know entirely what was being said - the translator’s sudden failure to translate was likely on purpose. In any case, from her own experiences of being that very upset and confused female, there was only one practical solution. Remove the offending female from the room.

“I think I’d better take a walk,” she announced, heading for the door. “Going to get some air.”

Jadyn gave a nod without looking at her, holding onto his mate as her fit continued. Whoever she was, she certainly was full of spirit.

He stood in the same place for hours before T’bia finally felt comfortable interrupting his thoughts.

“Anolis?” she probed gently, as her avatar took form in the Serin’s medbay. Remotely, her mobile emitter allowed her to continue efforts in a lab aboard the J’Ruhn, assembling gene sequences for replacement parts. The holographic hardware wired into the cabin enabled her to continue her impending breakfast creation at the same time.

The lizard looked up from his son’s unconscious form at the sound of his name, extending her a polite smile before his gaze fell back to the bed. “I never expected he would cause so much trouble.”

“Kids defy expectations all the time. In a way it’s a good thing. If he hadn’t tried to instigate a war, we wouldn’t be on the verge of reviving the last survivors of the society that created both of us. Given, my upbringing was probably a little more warm and cuddly than your own…”

“Of that I have little doubt.”

“I suppose all this talk about reviving everyone is a little uncomfortable for you.”

“My discomfort does not matter. I will not condemn the few survivors of that tragedy over the unpleasant treatment inflicted upon me.” He inhaled deeply, looking upon the skunk once more. “Was I wrong to accept the Haropikuen’s offer?”

“What do you mean?”

“Lady Anastasi granted my freedom in exchange for bearing her correspondence. Had I declined, I too would have perished with the rest of the Val’Traxan people. Khamai would not have existed… And all the discord he spawned…”

“Between you and me? It was getting a little dull around here. That little bit of ‘discord’ helped liven things up. Don’t worry about it.” T’bia lifted a scanner, running through a routine check of her patient. “I’m curious… Where exactly would the ship be if you had died with the rest?”

“I discovered the J’Ruhn in orbit of a star on the verge of supernova. Tier was confused, lost, waiting for assistance to arrive… I believe the ship came in contact with a quantum filament in the years before I happened across it. I could not determine anything else that would so thoroughly corrupt the storage banks. Not to mention the structural damage.”

“You weren’t on board at launch, then.”

“No. To the best of my knowledge, the voyage began several years before planetfall. It seemed purely by accident that I found the vessel. Yet, it cannot entirely be chance… It did in fact lead me to this place at the appropriate time…”

“No matter where you go, there you are.” T’bia shook her head, laying down the scanner. “She forgot everything?”

“At first. We worked together on recovery for decades while hiding in deep space, moving from inhabited world to world seeking supplies and parts without letting the ship be seen… In all that time we managed to restore some of her lost memories, but never could find her mission, nor her destination.”

Anolis grasped his son’s hand, squeezing it gently. “As the years passed, I realized I could not continue to maintain the ship alone. I divided my time between repairs, data recovery, and clone research. Khamai was my first full-scale attack on the blockades encoded into my own DNA. I refined the process with Iguano but neither was a complete success - I did not know how long I should expect to live, but I knew their lifespans would be greatly truncated. Even with their physical flaws, they both inherited everything I knew… And look what they did with it.”

The medbay door slid open; Pakar stepped inside, a large book under her arm. Taking a quick appraisal of the room she dipped her head. “I can come back.”

“Please, Lady Tubor. You are here to see me?” Anolis queried.

“Yes. We found this book in one of Khamai’s labs, but we weren’t entirely certain what to make of it. I’m hoping you can shed some light on it.”

“May I?” Gently placing the book on top of a console, the lizard delicately opened the cover and leafed through the tome. “Yes, I recognize this.”

“At first glance, it appeared to be nothing more than a photo album.”

“You most certainly ordered the pages analyzed and discovered unique DNA base pairs bonded to each photo. Yes?”

Pakar nodded. “I’m assuming he put this together as a catalog of forms he could take.”

“No.” Anolis sighed. “I did. It was one of my earliest hobbies, collecting templates to use… I discovered a method through which I could create an imprint on a gelatinous media, then use it later as I would a direct contact with the original donor. The imprint does unfortunately decay with time. Occasionally I must take on the sample and restore it to the page to ensure it remains viable, but even doing that will not indefinitely preserve it.”

“Interesting.” T’bia stepped up beside him, watching as he looked over the photos. “You must have several of these tucked away.”

“For a time I kept nearly a thousand templates, records of stolen personas I used at most once and twice. The few hundred in this book are the last. Even most of these are no longer usable for the purpose of shapedancing, but they do serve another purpose for me.” He flipped to the front of the tome, leafing in a half-dozen pages and tapping at a crossed-out photo with his gloved finger. “This alone is the sole reason I have not parted with this volume.”

T’bia stared at the page, running her finger along the photo’s border. Staring back at her was a young mottled brown and red vixen, her hazel eyes sparkling happily above a wide smile. “Wow.”

“Who is she?” Pakar asked.

“It’s Melichanni. Jadyn’s first mate.” The skunk smiled to herself, tracing the word scrawled over the image. “‘Courtesy.’ You kept her genome print, but not to use.”

“For some, a familiar scent brings back memories of childhood. A song reminds them of their first romance. The tactile sensation of an old book calls forth a parent reading bedtime stories. Genetic imprints awaken similar recollections for me. Whenever I touch these imprints, I remember exactly how I came upon each and every one. When I touch hers… I remember the young fox who valiantly argued for the freedom of one he was ordered to detain. Having this imprint gave me a sense of purpose, reminding me of my own mission in the times when I saw no reason to go forward.” Anolis nodded to himself and shut the book. “Well. Now you know its purpose, Lady Tubor.”

“Yes. It’s still basically a photo album. No, no - keep it. I’m sure we have all we need.”

“Thank you.”

Even with Alecha out of the room, Tari continued to fling obscenities in the direction of the door. It wasn’t until she’d vanished into the woods that Tari brought her attention back to Jadyn, still seething with anger.

“That was completely uncalled for,” he stated simply, releasing her arms.

Fire flared in the eyes of the Forest kitsune, internal wars raging between rationality and compulsion. There was little doubt in his mind she was considering ways to remove his head for interfering in a territorial dispute. Baring her teeth, a growl left her throat. “You are mine.

“As you are mine,” he confirmed, his hands cupping her cheeks. “I realize it’s difficult, but I need to you get a handle on yourself. Alecha is a friend of my family - of this family, the family you’ve become a part of. She’s not trying to steal me away. I won’t have you running her off just because you’re feeling a great deal of territorial angst.”

Tari closed her eyes, squeezing his wrists. It took several minutes, but she finally gave him a nod. The apologetic look in her green pools was backed entirely by sensible thought rather than unchecked instincts when she looked at him once more.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I stepped out of that room smelling bacon and onions and saw her in your arms, and…” A growl started in her throat once more; she made a fist and choked the outburst back, shaking her head. “My Gods. There I go again.”

“It’s just the nature of the beast. In another day you’ll be back to your happy self, I nearly guarantee it. For now, you absolutely have to focus if you want to hold even a shred of sanity. Also, this is going to seem a little demeaning based on where you’re from, but it will help. Bear with me, I don’t want to mix our scents by touching it and get you too riled to focus…”

Tari looked on with curiosity as Jadyn made an ‘up’ gesture at the coffee table. Obediently, Alecha’s datapad lifted into the air, gently floating toward her. He took a step back, guiding the slate to stop right in front of her nose. A brief pang of rage reared its head as the vixen’s scent registered.

Friend,” Jadyn immediately commanded, as though he’d just corrected a dog barking at a stranger.

“You’ve got to be kidding…”

“I’m totally serious. Take a deep breath, and think ‘friend’ over and over.”

Tari shook her head in resignation, inhaling deeply of the vixen’s lingering scent while repeating the mantra to herself for nearly a minute. She didn’t want to admit that such a silly thing worked, but it actually seemed to help.

“Think you can sit in the same room with her and not tear her limb from limb?” Jadyn questioned, plucking the pad from the air by a corner and laying it back on the table.

“Only one way to find out. Bee?” Tari called out, sniffing at the air. “What is that you’re making in there that smells so much like breakfast?”

“It’s a surprise!” The skunk immediately snapped the pass-through’s shutters shut. Moments later the kitchen door swung closed, the click of the latch signaling they weren’t welcome on the other side. “You’ll see it when it’s ready, and not a second before.”

That it was an embarrassing confession was an understatement. For any Artisan to succumb to their own elemental affinity, to let it get the best of them, was a definite mark of humiliation. For a high master? Unspeakable. Yet, it was undeniable. She finally had to admit defeat to herself.

Alecha was lost in the woods.

For a Nature Artisan to be lost in her element took some doing. She’d started out following a path. On a whim she’d cut into the brush, crossing a small stream and wandering along its bank. Taking another turn she wound up deeper and deeper in the woods. It wasn’t a problem. She’d gone on hikes like this back home, heading into the bush for days at a time to meditate and connect with the living things around her. The forest always seemed to welcome her in. Occasionally, while finding the path back out, she’d be thrown a loop as though it didn’t want her to leave. Playful wrong turns, nothing vindictive.

What she sensed in the plants and wildlife around her on this morning was downright malicious. The sense crept up on her, a definite feeling she was not welcome. Roots seemed to come out of nowhere as she took a step, repeatedly sending her sprawling to the ground. Her steelsilk pants and shirt, designed to resist damage and dirt, repeatedly snagged in brambles and shrubs. It wouldn’t rip, but instead became inexplicably tangled in the underbrush and thorns. She finally grew tired of untangling it and simply took everything off. The brambles pulled at her pelt instead, tugging out small tufts of fur.

And the creatures living in the woods… Every glinting eye in the increasing darkness focused on her. A few birds even made passes by her head, startling her. Clouds of gnats and other pests buzzed overhead, a constant angry droning that followed her every move. They didn’t want her there.

The exit route should have been simple. Retrace her steps, find the stream, then the path. Instead, every turn she made sent her further into the dark as the forest canopy blotted out the sky. The forest didn’t want her there… But it wasn’t going to let her leave.

“Enough of this,” Alecha muttered, gazing up at the surrounding trees. “You want me out? I’ll go.” She poked at her wrist - and frowned. There would be no calling for a transport to remove her from the situation. Her bracelet was gone.

“I’m sure she knows something’s off about you.” Jadyn leaned against the exterior wall, looking out over the lawn. Fallen leaves dotted the clearing, a sign of the impending winter season. “She’s not an amateur. The look she gave you before you invented a new field of linguistics…”

“Don’t remind me.” Tari let out a troubled sigh and sat down on the swinging bench. “How many people know the truth now? You, Bee, Pakar… Your grandmother, technically… What about Toy? Especially after my rather large ‘oops’ on the bridge.”

“He’ll continue to say you’re val’traxan even if he suspects otherwise. It’s not necessary to tell him more than what he already knows - I doubt he’d want the details, anyway. Big fan of plausible deniability.”

She gave a brief nod of acceptance. “I really wasn’t sure about telling Pakar. I didn’t know her well enough to make a judgement call. Went with that entirely based on your word.”

“I wouldn’t give her such a high recommendation if she wasn’t deserving.” Jadyn crossed his arms over his chest and shut his eyes. “Honestly… I can’t say the same thing about Alecha. I haven’t worked with her enough. It’s not that I don’t trust her - she wouldn’t be Ropiakuen if she didn’t deserve it. Dad definitely wouldn’t have made her his assistant if he’d thought she was iffy.”

“How many more Artisans are up there, still asleep?”

“Forty-seven. There’s six each of the eight main disciplines, counting her. I would assume there’s different specialties represented within each discipline as well, but I’m just guessing.”

“In any case, I’m going to be dealing with this a lot. Lucky me.”

“Not just you.” Jadyn smirked, taking a seat beside her on the swing. “Ninety-seven percent of the sleepers will accept the lie that I’m the descendant of the Jadyn Tzeki they’ve probably heard of from back home. The other three percent, the Artisan compliment… I’m hoping they’ll buy it, but there’s probably a couple more Ropiakuen like Alecha who knew of me on some level. Even if I try to keep the same cover with the rest, a lie will stand out in my aura, plain as day for them.”

“Why lie? Tell them all the truth, that you are who you are.”

“That’s a peculiar argument coming from someone who’s not going to follow that same recommendation.”

“I can’t because of who and what I am. You should, because of who you are and what you know. Didn’t you say that there were immortals rumored in your cultural history?”

“Rumors, yes. Legends and myths and fantasies. If I start telling those people that I’m as old as I am and that everything we had is gone, they’ll think I’m full of it. It’s going to be hard enough getting them to understand we’re all that’s left. They don’t need my personal history in the mix to confuse everything.”

“So we’re both stuck living lies.” Tari grinned and gave him a nuzzle. “At least we’re keeping each other good company.”

“Mm. How are you faring?”

“I think my outburst is explanation enough. I feel like I’ve got the urges under control, but then suddenly I just lose my cool. If we didn’t have a guest that could come walking into the yard at any moment, I’d jump you right here and blow off some steam.”

“She wouldn’t care,” Jadyn observed. “If she was here I bet she’d agree we don’t need her permission to ravish one another in our own home.”

“We’re outside.”

“Details. She’d still look at it as a non-event.”

“Well, I don’t know about you, but there hasn’t been once yet that I’d consider a non-event.” Tari stood up, stretching as she eyed the treeline. “That attitude will take some getting used to. Maybe I should go find her…”

“I’ll come with.”

“Actually… I’d rather you didn’t. I’d prefer to apologize to her on my own. Maybe try to prove that I’m halfway sane and don’t require a chaperone all the time.”

“All right.” Jadyn gave her a loving nuzzle on the cheek. “Remember -“

“‘Friend.’ Got it.” Shooting a smile in his direction, Tari made her way to the treeline and stepped into the woods. She hadn’t taken a half-dozen steps down the path when she stopped dead and looked around. Something was off. This was not the peaceful place she’d come to know. The forest radiated anger, but the target of that displeasure was deeper in the woods.

Reaching out to the nearest tree, she lay her hand on the trunk and closed her eyes. The fury was baseless. There was no quantifiable reason she could sense to explain the raw hatred pulsing through the land. She quickly found herself looking at the target of its ire through the eyes of a small creature - a bird, most likely, by the angle of the view. Far below, huddled on the damp ground, Alecha gazed around at the forest in confusion and fear, trapped in the center of a small thicket.

“No… No, this is my fault… Stop this!” Tari ordered, jogging along the path. “I didn’t ask you to do that! Gods, I hope she’s all right… Let her go, this instant!”