Staring at the two holoscreens, May began her investigation with one question.
“EVE, what is incor?”
The strange word prefaced both the lists, but it rang no bell in her, admittedly, lacking memory bank.
While the knowledge of this planet’s alien language and glyphs somehow stayed in her head, just like none of the local names meant anything to her, its slangs also baffled her.
Ask her not why it was so – she’d pay to know that as well. Her only hypothesis so far placed it as some sort of macabre inheritance from her ‘host’. Like software that came with a newly-bought second-hand PC. May would prefer to have the full memory-set, but compared to waking up and not knowing the language at all…yeah, she’d take what she’d been given, thank you very much.
Shaking her head to clear away irrelevant, existential issues, May listened intently to EVE’s explanation.
“Incor is a colloquial abbreviation of Instant Correspondence, the main communication method that utilizes CINe as its intermediary,” the AI replied. “It is further classified into two main groups: Visual and Aural Correspondence.”
Which explained the two lists.
“What a…pragmatic name,” May mumbled absently.
“In the interest of avoiding misunderstanding due to mistranslation, the Federation Common Language is designed to be as precise and unambiguous as possible. Facts have proven embellishments could spark nation-wide –”
“Right, right,” May cuts the history lesson short with a wave of her hand. “So these are the incor to the house?”
“No. Most of your correspondences went through comm-bracer, which is linked to my database after you lost it for the seventh time,” EVE clarified, a third holoscreen appeared, split in the middle to show a very short list compared to the one from May Ling’s comm-bracer.
Seventh time! May’s eyes widened at the revelation. And from the sound of it, the trend continues after.
Reading through the list of names and time-log, helplessness once more passed through her. “I have no idea who these are,” May admitted, shoulders drooping as her newfound excitement left as soon as it came.
EVE’s silence told her that there would be no help coming from that corner unless she asked.
“Are calls recorded?”
“No, unless specifically requested,” the AI responded, summoning another screen. “As of now, there is no recorded message in the archive.”
“Because normal people don’t usually record their calls, right,” she exhaled slowly. “Any voice messages?”
That caught her attention. “From who?”
“From Uri-sa,” EVE stated as if it explained everything.
The amnesiac woman rolled her eyes. “And that is?”
“Euri Makina Lakitha. May-sa’s best friend,” came EVE’s dutiful report.
Without prompting, the AI projected a pair of holographic May Ling and a girl her age frolicking about on the couch across from where the real May sat. Though there was no audio, no one could deny the closeness between the two mock-fighting girls, especially not when it had happened in the Ling household’s living room.
But only one thought ran through May’s head at the sight the woman nicknamed Uri’s prehensile, light-purple hair.
May Ling’s best friend is a Gorgon.
The pink eyes did not help, nor did the lack of nails on her hands. Though the hair was bunched together in a loose ponytail, the ends wiggled like live snakes ready to strike at a moment’s notice. A shiver ran down May’s spine at the autonomous limbs that grew on the pale-faced female’s head.
At least she has five fingers, not six, she thought hysterically.
“What is she?” the sentence came out unbidden. By the time May realized just how rude she was being, EVE had already responded.
“Euri Makina Lakitha, designated Uri-sa. Daughter of business mogul Lani vtir Sah’ra, a pure-blood Ernan, with voyage and security specialist Arodin Mera Lakoth of Loulidi Tribe,” the AI elucidated.
A picture appeared, where a slender green woman with a smile that reached her red eyes stood beside a tall, pale man, whose expression was placid but in no way unhappy. In front of them, two teenagers half-squatted, posing more haphazardly while grinning like loons – Uri and May.
May noted with interest the green lady’s six-fingered hand that rested on Uri’s shoulder and the man’s eyes of pure blue sans pupil and iris, shining like an aquamarine pearl.
The snow-white man’s appearance intrigued her the most. Unlike his daughter, he let loose the lavender tendrils that grew from his head, allowing it to reach the small of his back like pale dreadlocks. Where Uri’s obviously showed its prehensile nature, his looked like tame vines, incapable of movement. He had an arm around his wife’s shoulder, so May could see the nail-less hand, which Eru took after. The difference was, his had sharper tips, resembling talons.
She does not have her parents’ eyes, May observed, trailing a finger over her lips as she marked the difference between the three different aliens in the holopic.
Catching herself before she could digress further, May commanded, “Play her message for me.”
With that, all the screens migrated to one side, giving space to a larger screen that showed a disheveled Uri sitting in what appeared to be a spaceship. She looked paler in her black spacesuit, and her unbound hair curled up and down, mirroring the agitation etched in her frown.
That selfsame frown only lasted a second before a bright smile replaced it once the message started.
“May-may, you overslept!” May’s eyebrow rose slowly at the unique greeting. Now that Uri was ‘talking’ to her friend, her demeanor brightened, even her hair danced with a liveliness that had been absent before.
“If you’re seeing this that means I’m not back yet when you woke up. Good for you! But not so much for me,” the pink-eyed girl continued, lips pursed into a pout. “I wanted to be there when you woke up. But Mom and Dad kidnapped me, can you believe that?”
No, I truly cannot, May thought as she recalled the prim and proper Ernan lady and her serious husband.
Uri waved her hand at the ship innards behind her. “I’m calling from the Wyndia, in case you missed this breathtaking scenery. I slept in my comfortable bed and woke up in a hard, subpar berth. It was – guuuuh.” The girl bit her own hand, presumably to stop herself from cursing out. Taking a deep breath, Uri then donned a helpless smile, shrugging as if saying ‘what can you do?’.
“Now, we’re only a standard hour away from leaving the Al-jurba System altogether. I’m going to Nuphar, that’s Dad’s home planet – city – ugh one of those. I’m really bad at names,” she waved her hand dismissively before her expression adopted a serious mien. “I have something to tell you. Something I had wanted to tell you long before, but…since Uncle and Auntie…well, it was one thing after another, I didn’t want to add to your burden.”
A talon-like hand, blunter than her father’s, reached up to take one of her tenta-hair, playing with it as she looked up and away from the camera. Then, with a determined scowl, Uri plowed on, “I’d like to say I’m surprised by all this, but I can’t. Not honestly. This…isn’t a sudden thing, you know, going to Dad’s old place. If you didn’t sleep for so long, you’d be helping me pack.” Pink-eyes glared at the screen. “So this is half your fault.”
May couldn’t help but quirk her lips up at that.
Sighing, Uri leaned back on her seat, arms folded over her stomach. “Why am I going to a backwater, non-Federation planet – ain’t that something; non-Fed planet oh stars! – you ask? Well, since you really want to know: it’s to treat my empathic dissonance.”
“What’s that?” May inquired. The name itself was rather revealing, but she preferred facts over assumptions.
“A condition where one’s empathic abilities become uncontrollable, resulting in the patient and their surrounding people’s emotion to go haywire,” EVE explained after pausing the message. “All empathic races are required to undergo training to keep their abilities under control, otherwise they would have to use limiters, as dictated by law. Recent research has proved that limiters actually have adverse effects on the empathic races as they rely on their empathy as an extra limb, as such – ”
“So either Uri went to find a solution, or she’s going to have to be shackled,” May concluded. At EVE’s affirmative answer, a frown settled on her face. With a wave of her hand, EVE resumed Uri’s message.
“It’s getting worse now that I’m approaching adulthood. Dad’s tried you know. Loulidi Tribe is famous for their empaths, but I’m not a pure Loulidite. Not all his training methods growing up work for me, so we have to find someone who specializes in empath’s problems,” Uri said, fingers picking at one another as she avoided looking at the screen directly. “It’s hard to control it lately…and honestly, I am a little happy you’re not here to see me like this.” She grinned to take away the sting from that confession. “You always have been one of the most emotional Terrans I’ve ever met.”
“I don’t know how long I have to stay in Nuphar, but shouldn’t be longer than a couple of months,” Uri pumped her fist as if to convince herself. “Dad doesn’t really want to stay there for long, anyhow. Problem is,” she grimaced, spitting out the words like each one required a great sacrifice to verbalize, “that place has no CINe.”
The disgusted look on Uri’s face drew a chuckle from May.
“After this incor, I’m not going to see you until I come back. Which means you have to be hale and hearty so I can show off my brand new empathy skills,” Uri threw in a cocky grin, tilting her head up slightly. “You don’t get to be angry at me for this, by the way, seeing that you are also hiding something from me. I know. I can tell.” Her proud demeanor fell into a thoughtful frown. “Is it for Kajakh? I have a feeling it’s got something to do with him. Why can’t you do a secret surprise for me too? I’m your best friend!”
Oh, Uri. Stop being jealous of Kajakh, May thought fondly, her lips lifted up into a smile before ice flooded her veins. What was that?!
Before she could process the stray, unfamiliar thought, Uri’s next sentence caught her attention. Mainly because of the alien’s exaggerated hand-beside-mouth gesture, as if she was imparting a great secret.
“That thing we talked about? Yeah, I’m still in. You get me? We’ll talk more about it when I get back,” Uri said, giving the screen an over-the-top wink. “Though, I might make a long stop in the Capital before going back to Nimuth. I’ll see if I can’t scout the place out…ah, well, better not talk about it here. I’ll contact you as soon as CINe is within my reach again.”
“So – ” for a split second, the cheerful visage broke as her voice cracked. Uri swallowed before regaining her smile – a brittle, hopeful smile – and said, “So I want you at my place the day I come back. That’s non-negotiable. Okay? Okay! Sleepy people don’t get an opinion.” Then the girl shifted her pink eyes at something outside of the screen, before concluding the transmission with, “Dad said we’re jumping into warp soon. So I have to cut it short…I will see you soon, May-may. Don’t you dare replace me with Kajakh!”
With that, she blew a kiss and the holoscreen went black.
May exhaled heavily, leaning forward with arms on her knees, face hidden in her hands. “She doesn’t know yet.”
Her friend is long gone, replaced by someone definitely not-May Ling, the Earth-native sighed again, sagging further with the weight of her guilt. Is it so wrong to be happy that she’s gone off-world? At least, Kajakh is too busy working to bother too much with me more than a couple of hours a day.
Had the little gorgon been around, May was sure she would hang about every hour of every day, keeping her company.
The look on Kajakh’s face – those wide eyes filled with disbelief, horror, and a tiny shred of hope that it was all a bad joke – still haunted her to this very day.
May did not fancy adding another name into the list of people whose heart she had broken.
Though she had learned many things from the little gorgon’s message, the incor raised more questions to be addressed. Groaning, May pressed her face further into her hands, as if it could hide her from the world’s problem.
But the most prominent of her problems, the most caustic, the most dangerous –
Without moving, May demanded, “If Uri is my best friend, what is Kajakh? My best friend forever?”
“Kajakh-jo is your childhood friend, May-sa. You met Uri-sa in your primary education center,” EVE replied in her soothing voice.
Straightening up, May cast an inquiring gaze upwards. “And their relationship?”
“A turbulent friendship held together by their fondness of you,” EVE said. “May-sa once pointed out that they should stop being jealous of one another and start being friends without the antagonism since it has been years since their first meeting.”
The seemingly innocuous detail of May Ling’s life confirmed her suspicion that she was starting to receive May Ling’s feelings, if not her memories. And it had begun to encroach upon her own feelings, creeping in like dodders climbing up its host tree.
Biting her thumb, May recalled the fondness with which she regarded the little gorgon whom she never met before. When it had happened with Kajakh, early in their acquaintance, May had justified it using the hybrid’s kindness; after all that he had done for her, it was impossible not to feel some sort of affection towards the hybrid.
Now she knew she had only been fooling herself.
The assimilation, if one could call it that, had begun early.
It wasn’t just her losing her memory. It was more than that.
Then, like a strike of thunder, a terrible epiphany dawned on her.
May had originally thought she was taking over a dead person’s body, but what if…what if that dead person was not as dead as she thought?
Pieces of May Ling’s feelings, her knowledge, her memories.
Bile rose in her throat, threatening to make another mess for the cleaning bots to clean up, but May held it back. She didn’t want to go back to the hospital again.
I need to get home, fast. May fretted, the feeling of being chipped away little by little and replaced by something else entirely gnawed on her.
Oh Gods, please don’t let me disappear in this terrible place. I want to go home. This is bad.
This is horrible!
It took her all to resist the urge to cry for the second time that day.
What do I do now?
The sudden mechanical chirp sounding right beside her ear startled her so badly, she almost fell off the couch.
“It is past time for lunch, May-sa,” EVE’s voice kindly reminded her.
May stared blankly at the cone-bot that brought a floating glass above its flat top, not unlike the one she just threw in her fit of anger. It contained a familiar liquid, the only thing she could ‘eat’ right now.
Nutrient solution. As the name stated, the clear liquid provided the right balance of nutrients, vitamins, and fibers needed by the body. Healthy and hypoallergenic.
The perfect solution for all species’ dietary needs.
Except for taste.
Wrinkling her nose, May reluctantly took the glass, her stomach reminding her that she hadn’t had anything since breakfast in the hospital.
Had it only been this morning? Felt so much longer.
“Thanks, EVE,” she said, “and you too.” The cone-bot bobbed and retreated to the kitchen.
She sipped her lunch slowly, her body making intimate friends with her chair’s backrest as she slid down on it as slothfully as a human could. The energy and enthusiasm and rage and confusion that warred within her forcefully muted as she enjoyed her tasteless nutritious liquid meal.
Several waves of her free hands later, Little Gorgon’s message was put to the side and the lists of incor claimed center stage.
May absently perused through the aural incor list, despite only recognizing three names: Kajakh, Uncle Ozi, and Uri. The three of them occupied the bulk of her list. She scrolled further and further until the first ‘Mom’ stopped her dead in her track.
Not because she was surprised no, but due to the sharp pain that pierced through her chest.
Mom who is no longer here. May thought morbidly, rubbing her aching heart with a sad scowl.
She brought the lists up to the first log again, intending not to go that far next time. There was no point in panicking about May Ling’s influence in her current deeds, but similarly, there was no point in aggravating that particular connection either.
Focus, May thought. Find the answer. Then go home.
As she reread the list, she realized a strange thing.
“EVE, did I had a fight with Uri before I…slept?”
Just as the word left her lips, May frowned. Somehow using Little Gorgon’s nickname for her predicament felt more natural than it should.
“Not at all, May-sa.”
“But…how come we didn’t correspond much few weeks before that?” May pointed the stretch of time mentioned. “Did we switch to visual incor?” A quick check told her that was not the case. The frequency of contact through that channel had also decreased in the same period.
“Most likely because May-sa has procured an alternative means of communication unattached to my network to communicate with Uri-sa,” EVE responded shortly.
“Ah?” was May’s dumbfounded response.
“Since any of such possible communication is conducted in your room, I cannot confirm what method was used, how frequent your interactions were, or what was being discussed.”
“Wait, wait, are you saying May – I went around you to talk to Uri?” the Earth-native asked, tone high with incredulity. “Why?! How?”
“Exactly two standard months and three days ago, you have implemented a blackout for your room. The reason being you were preparing a surprise for Kajakh-jo, something to work on in secret,” the AI explained. “The order has not been lifted since the clandestine affair began.”
May’s head began to pound in tandem with her heartbeat. “Play Uri’s message again, please.”
She watched it with more care this time, until the moment Uri said, “That thing we talked about? Yeah, I’m still in. You get me? We’ll talk more about it when I get back.”
That thing we talked about.
That thing that EVE had no idea about.
Because May Ling had apparently made her room a ‘secret hideout’ in plain sight to concoct a stealthy plan she shared with her now-absent best friend. From the sound of it, said best friend didn’t know it was for Kajakh…
…or May Ling lied to EVE about that too.
May gripped her glass tight, knuckles turning white with the force of her ire.
The conspirational wink Little Gorgon had shared at the end of her message signaled something very different than she first thought. Not a harmless hinting between friends, but something bigger, something that required secrecy from the house’s AI.
Something that might lead to May Ling’s hospitalization.
Now May wished with all her heart that Little Gorgon was around for her to interrogate. Unlike Kajakh, she was sure the cheerful girl could be swayed to her way of thinking, seeing that the empath had no qualms about conspiring behind Kajakh’s back to plan something without a clear ending.
Rather than throwing the glass through the holoprojector again, May pressed the chilly container to her forehead as she craned her neck up over her backseat.
…Goddammit, May Ling, aren’t you supposed to be a simple rich, civilian girl? What’s with all these 007 maneuvers?! If this girl ends up being a spy or some underworld minion, I’m jumping off of the balcony!
Not for the first time since starting her independent investigation, May resisted the urge to scream her head out.