This is part two of “Divine January.” You can read part one here.
Twenty-One does not enjoy scouting missions. Even less so when they end with a splitting headache and a crashed ship on a primitive planet. He makes a mental note to file a complaint about this particular flightpath, then adds a note to find a new job as soon as that complaint goes through. Shaking the stars from his eyes and rubbing the spot where his skull met the dashboard, Twenty-One puts in a signal for pickup. As the irritatingly pleasant operator puts him on hold, he pulls up intel on the blue planet that might be his temporary home for the near future.
Luckily for him, the planet is inhabited. Unluckily, the master race has not mastered space travel, nor have they established intergalactic diplomacy. Also unluckily, their language and physiology are too far removed for Twenty-One to make contact without rousing massive public panic. Luckily, they have discovered alcohol.
The atmospheric scanner broke in the crash, but Twenty-One can tell by the surrounding foliage alone that the nitrogen-oxygen ratio of the planet is incompatible with his race. He could breathe it in a pinch, but it would be a rather draining affair. Life support is functioning without a problem and there’re enough rations for a short stay if he exercises a bit of portion control, but the thought of being trapped on this planet for days irritates him to no end.
The operator chirps back after what feels like an eternity that pick-up is on its way and will arrive in three cycles’ time. He sighs and runs the numbers quickly. Eight of this planet’s days to kill and not even a book to read, crammed into the tiny scouting ship with barely pacing space.
He tries to be a good scout and follow prime directive: stay out of the way of the natives and keep to himself until pick-up arrives. He lasts half a day before deciding he’s not that good of a scout to begin with and his pounding headache deserves to be nursed with whatever form of booze this planet has invented.
Going out unguarded into the nitrogen-heavy air is out of the question. Exhaustion would overtake him before he’s able to locate a single drink. The standard-issue disguise suit is unfortunately lying in a smoldering heap along with the storage compartment a few hundred feet away. Twenty-One is not a fan of the only option he has left, but it must be done. He takes a deep breath and wiggles the damaged door on the small ship’s stern. He should be able to go at least a few miles before the exhaustion sets in. Surely a candidate will be within range.
Twenty-One mentally shakes himself. His host turns left at almost nauseating speed. He collects himself and attempts to gain hold of his surroundings, but the ride is rougher than he expected. He hears others calling. Heard through the host’s ears and filtered through the shared consciousness, he acknowledges that someone is calling a name. The boy’s name. The host is young and male. Through his eyes, the world is shiny and bright.
Symbiotic travel is tricky business. Though it has never been his first choice, Twenty-One has to admit that seeing the world through another’s eyes offers interesting perspective, and nothing helps with speedy acclimation than having a wealth of information about the local culture piped in directly through a native’s brain. Sifting through the child’s subconscious, he’s already been able to gain an understanding of what the boy deems to be the best foods in the area (something called “nuggets”), the general climate (rainy), and surprisingly detailed locations of every business within twenty miles. More importantly, using the child’s language bank, he’s also able to identify which locations are “pubs”, and to his delight, there are quite a lot of them.
The drawback of symbiotic travel, however, mainly lies in steering. For the most part, he is left to the boy’s whims as far as direction. Were he to reach forward, he could influence the boy’s actions to some degree, but doing so is highly discouraged per his training, as it could rouse suspicion by causing the host to act in unusual manners. Not to mention excessive meddling could cause brain damage both temporary and permanent. For the moment, he sits back and enjoys the ride, taking in the scene as the boy runs about.
The boy sees lights. Everything is light or nothing. Reflective surfaces dance with every color of the spectrum. The sun is a ball of gold. The sky is a sheet of brilliant blue. He sees shapes and people and things that do not dance with light and he passes them over. His mind does not actively acknowledge them, though Twenty-One can feel his brain working to archive and store away the information. The child knows every tree in his neighborhood, every house, every address. He knows roads that lead twenty miles away to a beach house he has been to once, and the nooks and crannies behind the alley of the nearest bowling alley. Twenty-One isn’t clear on what a “bowling alley” is, but based on the information at hand, it’s a place with lots of noise and flashing lights.
He’s learned nothing of how exactly to get a good drink. The boy had never actually been inside a “pub.” Sadly, it seems the youth of this planet are not given alcohol, or at least this one isn’t.
The sound registers. Twenty-One feels the gears in the boy’s brain turn, but he does not stop running. The voice calling is soft and shrill and growing more and more distant behind him. The boy named Asher is running and running still.
A light changes color. Twenty-One suddenly feels information rushing at him. The boy’s brain is working. Moving vehicles. Blue Car. Moving vehicles is danger. Red is danger. Or is green danger? Moving vehicles is danger. But he does not stop, because the word “danger” means nothing to him. He’s still moving at top speed toward the road, where massive metal vehicles are lumbering past.
“Asher! No! Stop!”
Screw prime directive.
Twenty-One reaches forward and seizes the boy’s mental shirt collars, just in time to stop him in his tracks. His toes hang just off the curb and an enormous vehicle passes inches from their tip.
A slim figure bounds up beside them, a slender female child. She’s panting and bent over, but before catching her breath, she grabs Asher’s sleeve and pulls him back from the curb to look him over. Twenty-One searches through Asher’s information banks.
The girl stops. “What?” she said.
Startled, Twenty-One realizes he’d made the mistake of saying those words out loud through the boy’s mouth. He quickly steps back and Asher’s consciousness snaps back into control and lets out a shrill, joyful laugh.
Naomi-Sister stares at them. Her dark, piercing eyes make Twenty-One uncomfortable. He wonders if she can see past her brother to the alien hitchhiking on his brain. Can this species do that? He has no idea. Some species are more in tune than others, and he wishes he’d performed a more thorough check before hitching this ride. Thankfully, Asher lets out a squeal and makes a dash for the road again. Naomi quickly grabs his shirt tail and pulls him back, nearly falling herself as she is quite a bit smaller in stature than her brother.
“Come on,” she says. “Mom will worry. You’re not supposed to be out here by yourself.”
She takes Asher’s hand and leads him back down the road. Asher squeals and giggles and drags her this way and that, but she holds firm and directs him the best she can. Thoughts and feelings flood through the boy’s mind as they make their way home.
Sister. Love. My sister. Naomi. Love.
The children return home to a tiny, quaint house connected to other tiny, quaint houses. Twenty-One rides along, careful not to overtake the boy’s subconscious again. Information flows through him as the boy evaluates his surroundings.
Home. Mom. Love. Blue Car. Toys. Bath. Dad. Naomi. Love.
The child’s thought process is simplistic and somewhat broken. It comes and goes in tidal waves as Twenty-One struggles to catch up. It hadn’t taken long to figure out that the host he’d chosen is rather different from the “normal” populace. The boy seems to store information as if happily drinking from a firehose, but little is accessed or processed. Sensory sensations dominate his cognitive faculties.
Wet. Water. Cold. Fun. Soft. Hard. Prickly. Ouch.
The boy lets out a shrill cry and his mother rushes to his side to bandage the new wound he has just acquired. The mother speaks but the boy’s brain does not comprehend. A moment later he is flittering off again. Twenty-One resists the urge to steer his host away from numerous imminent dangers. Overturned chairs, toys with hard corners, plants in breakable pots.
Fortunately, his Naomi-Sister is always close behind, pulling him this way and that, moving things out of his way, removing things that irritate or upset him, singing softly when he cannot calm down. When the girl sings, Twenty-One notices, it’s as if all of the boy’s clouded senses suddenly clear. The noises of the world shut down and he pauses his constant motion to listen.
“March and May are pretty”
The boy smiles.
“September is just fine”
The lights around him, all the reflections and sparkles, seem to dim.
“But love if you are with me”
She lights up. He experiences her voice as if it’s light itself.
“January is divine.”
For the moment, Twenty-One decides, he might put off his search for that pub.
The children are washed and dressed for bed. For the boy named Asher, the water used to clean him felt like the most magnificent pleasure in the world. He squealed, splashed, and laughed as his ever-patient mother smiled and cleaned him. Then, dressed in soft clothes, the children sit together to be read to from a book. The contents are beyond Asher’s comprehension and thus beyond Twenty-One’s. But there is something called a “blue truck,” and Asher points to it repeatedly.
Blue Car. Blue Car. Blue Car.
His mother smiles and agrees. Yes, the car is blue. His sister claps for him and before bed stays to sing to him again. Twenty-One has come to truly enjoy the girl’s voice. Whether it be Asher’s influence or his own appreciation does not matter. Her presence washes over both of them like a warm wave. Then the lights are out and it is time for rest.
Twenty-One would have to agree. Though the lack of access to a pub was initially disappointing, he supposes this wouldn’t be the worst way to spend a few cycles waiting for rescue.
For a moment, hazily drifting off to sleep, he does not realize the question is addressed to him. Startled, he does the mental equivalent of sitting up in bed.
The boy is speaking to him. He has heard of hosts who become aware of symbiotic hitchhikers but has never encountered one. Only highly intelligent and sensitive life forms can detect the presence of hitchhikers, and usually the results are a mixture of fear and panic that resulted in public incidents and mass mind wipes.
But this boy isn’t alarmed. Twenty-One has no idea how long this boy has been aware of him. Deep inside the boy’s mind, he detects no fear. No panic. Only curiosity. The boy wants him to answer a question. Treading carefully, he does so.
Yes, your sister is the best.
He feels the boy swell with pride and satisfaction. There is pause. Then:
What about the blue car?
No answer. The boy has fallen asleep. Twenty-One sleeps, too. Chilly January winds whisper outside the window.
The boy wakes with a burst of energy that shoots through Twenty-One’s head like a thousand exploding suns. He groans and tries to wave away the lights and shapes coming at him from Asher’s neural inputs. The boy is charging down a flight of stairs, jostling him like a wild stallion. He groans. It’s far too early.
Toy. Hard. Fun. Dismantle. Fun.
Please, he begs. Please sleep a little more.
Fun. Fun. Fun.
Twenty-One wakes himself up. The headache from the crash is improving but this was still one rude awakening. He braces himself for the onslaught of Fun, but finds the boy has stopped moving.
The front door is open. He can hear the boy’s parents outside, talking loudly. No, not just loudly. Worriedly. Fearfully.
“Naomi!” The mother is calling, and shouting to the father. “She was just here! Naomi!!”
Asher has frozen on his spot. Twenty-One feels the gears turning in his head again, almost an audible click, click, click as pieces shift into place. Then, he begins to scream, inside and out.
What? Wait . . .
Wait, calm down.
To be concluded in part three.