Morning came with orange invading dark purple, turning the sky pink. Daylight washed away the vibrant colors of Er-na’s ‘moons’, waning them into silhouette, barely visible on the pink sky.
May watched the transition with detached apathy. Sleep eluded her, slipping away from her tired grip like grains of sand.
Grains of sand much like time that flowed on undisturbed by mortal concerns, stopping for no one, marching on, leaving those who couldn’t keep up behind to be buried and forgotten.
Time – that pesky illusionary construct that regulates people’s life – certainly did not, would not turn back no matter if it could make life easier. The people caught in its flow could only do one thing: move on, more forward. Time wasted was time lost.
Even after giving herself that strangely poetic pep-talk, May could not convince herself to move from her half-curled position on the egg-shaped hover-chair that now parked by the large window, giving her a prime spot to watch the sunrise.
Her sleep-deprived mind refused to rest while her body screamed for it.
Rather than abhorring the contrast, May took comfort in the familiar sensation. This was how she felt when she was about to close a project back on Earth. Her mind worked in overdrive, vetoing her body’s signals to take a breather with a gratuitous application of caffeine – not always from coffee too.
So on this strange planet, May basked in the uncomfortable feeling with a smile, watching the strange sky city came to life as light suffused the atmosphere. Hover-vehicles began to emerge from their abodes, not unlike bees coming out of their nest in search of honey.
I miss honey, she thought morosely. And food.
Nutrient solution fed her body, but as someone who loved to eat, being barred from solid food and other tasty-looking alien delicacies she’d seen Kajakh ate…
May could not think of better torture.
Another reason to avoid sleeping at this juncture was to prevent oversleeping as Kajakh had promised to come for breakfast after leaving late the night before.
She wished he hadn’t – he represented a temptation, with all that he knew and refused to share with her. May did not know how long she could last without breaking her cover as a docile post-hospitalization patient who waited obediently at home. Her deception was but a thin veil depending on Kajakh’s constant tiredness from dealing with other affairs other than her.
The memory when he discovered one of May’s many secrets replayed in her mind, along with the gentle smiles he had managed to summon for her sake since she first woke up in the hospital.
I am a burden to him, the realization stung, a wound made worse by the fact that there was nothing she could do about it.
She did not want to hurt his benefactor. She did not want to give up on her search.
May was torn, and tired.
It culminated in her sitting half-sprawled on the hover-chair thinking all sorts of useless thoughts because not choosing was a choice in itself.
Morning had arrived, and as the sun freed itself from the horizon, so did Kajakh’s message, its notification blinking in the corner of her eyes until she gave permission to open it.
It said: Sorry, can’t come for breakfast. Father calls for a meeting. Will see you at lunch.
She replied: Okay. Don’t worry. Take your time. Take care of yourself. Don’t forget to rest.
He responded: I will. Thank you. Rest well.
Looking at the semi-formal, nondescript conversation, May managed a small ironic smile, and wondered what the other side was concealing.
Perhaps what he didn’t say: don’t do anything stupid. Don’t leave. Don’t go behind my back and make me come back to another mess to clean up.
Or perhaps he wanted to say: please be there when I get back. Please don’t kill yourself when I’m not around to watch over you. Don’t keep secrets from me.
May didn’t know. She wasn’t an expert on Kajakh, not like May Ling who had called her friend Zach in that Earth-British-like intonation and used that knowledge to do clandestine errands with him none the wiser to her schemes.
Well, it wasn’t like they were married, she thought ungraciously. Girl had a right to privacy.
The justification only alleviated a little of her guilt for not being completely transparent with the kind man. And for wanting to tear that smiling façade so badly just to get to the answers brimming behind it, even if it meant tearing open a wound that had yet to stop bleeding.
When the sunlight became too strong for comfort, May pushed away from the window, flicking her wrist in a silent command to transform its surface into a semi-solid dark-color, regulating the sunlight passing through it to an amenable level.
Upon reaching the bed, she threw her body onto its silky surface, curling around a box, a ball, and a filled sock.
Sorry Kajakh, she apologized, genuinely filled with remorse. Your May Ling is long gone. I cannot – will not stop my life for you.
Having reached that conclusion, once more cementing that her life was more important than a misplaced sympathy, May felt a great burden lifted from her heart. She gazed at her loot, wanting to disassemble them to see what lied within, but her limbs refused to cooperate.
Maybe in five minutes, she thought, eyes getting heavier by the second.
Before long, exhaustion caught up with her, and sleep finally welcomed her into its warm embrace.
In the darkness of the night, after Kajakh left, when her mind worked overtime going over all that she found that day and thus preventing sleep from stopping by, May decided to do something more productive than turning and tossing in the cloud-like bed.
She searched every nook and cranny of the expansive room, leaving no stone unturned and no crevice unchecked. She began her search half-hopeful, half-dreading what she would or would not find.
Will I find a diary of a girl spiraling down into madness? One that makes her takes her own life?
If May had a choice, she wouldn’t want to be mixed up with all this drama at all. Then again, if the choice truly had been hers, she’d be back on Earth attending boring meetings and losing sleep from going over her next project’s budgeting.
She had never once thought she’d ever miss those times, but she did.
And she would do anything to go back to it.
Hence the midnight treasure hunt in a potential-suicide-victim’s room.
In a reversal of fortune, May managed to discover a couple of potential leads, all hidden in inconspicuous yet obvious places. The clues she gathered drew a picture of a resourceful girl who had prior experience in protecting her secrets, something she would not expect from a normal girl.
At the very least, May hadn’t been so paranoid when she was younger and each inconsequential secret seemed to carry the weight of the world.
The first was the box, the one she saw May brought into the room just after activating the Blackout Protocol. An ornately carved wooden box with light and dark brown herringbone pattern on its cover, the only embellishment on the container that she could see.
May Ling kept it in her vanity’s drawers – as May had previously guessed – in the bottom right with her beauty paraphernalia. A luminescent label tacked on top of it said ‘portable beauty kit’ in a beautiful calligraphy May had no hope of imitating.
One interesting fact about this discovery had been the white powder scattered on it, as if by accident, covering not only the box but also most of the items kept in it.
Another interesting fact had been how the powder film was still pristine white. A blank slate. No sign of being moved, disturbed, or even touched.
It raised so many questions about the investigation team’s capabilities, ringing all sorts of bells, and greatly reducing her confidence in the professionalism of the team. If an untrained someone like her could suspect such a box, wouldn’t a team of professionals be even more curious about it?
Had they really taken the label at face value? Didn’t they check EVE’s surveillance at all?
An ugly premonition reared its ugly head.
Did they stop after finding the Thranh leaves?
If they had made their conclusion based on that, patted their assed and each other’s shoulders for another day of a job well done, then the investigation team had truly missed a lot.
While it was also possible that she might have more of May Ling in her that she intuitively knew that ‘yes, these are the treasures you sought after’, but after that display in the kitchen where the blue alien disparaged Terrans so obviously, May wouldn’t put it past the police to half-ass their investigation.
Even with Kajakh’s friend at the helm. There was only so much one person could do, not to mention with his team so openly prejudiced against his race.
Experienced in keeping secrets or not, May Ling did not actually have spy-grade hiding places and had the team put an effort to actually search for anomalies, they would definitely find something other than a bag of tea leaves.
Case in point, as May continued her hunt, she unearthed several chip-like items from May Ling’s underwear drawers, inside one of her old socks.
And lastly, the second box she found hovering – yes hovering in plain sight – on the only workstation in the room. May had saved that for the last, seeing how the investigators had found the Thranh leaves there, assuming that it must have been inspected from top to bottom, inside out.
She assumed wrong.
Though the workstation itself did not yield any other mystery in its shelves, or in the computer attached to it – May had to call on EVE to teach her how to operate it – a metallic ball floating in the corner over a small circular base pinged her ‘here be treasure’ senses.
Particularly the chaotic non-linear geometrical lines that run on its surface.
There were two types of lines on it, parallel ones that resulted from the ball’s layered construction, as if the ball was an assemblage of rings put together into a spherical shape. The other was painted blue and black lines, crisscrossing one another in a flowery pattern.
Or what should have been be a flowery pattern.
The misaligned painted decoration was what caught her attention in the first place. They looked like someone had twisted the balls around hastily, leaving the outline just shy of recognizable. Like a key that was twisted just enough to lock the door and then got left behind in the hole.
Very careless. But it also spoke of a habit that suggested May Ling used this particular box often, and the last time she locked the puzzle, she did it with the expectation of returning soon.
Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Plucking the ball from the air, May juggled it between her hands, feeling its weight and listening to the rattling coming from within. Sure enough, something was inside this spherical construct.
While May could see how it could be dismissed as a decoration, but one glance at how the patterns on the box didn’t quite line up already screamed ‘Puzzle! Solve me!’
May would have hated the investigators’ unprofessionalism and/or incompetence if she wasn’t benefitting so much from it. As it was, she could only send a prayer to May Ling and promised the late girl that she’d get to the bottom of this even if the officials couldn’t.
And so the spherical puzzle joined the strange box and the chips-in-socks on the bed while May jumped back into her foray to unearth anything this room possibly had to hide.
Afternoon found May sitting on the workstation, feeling the rectangular box after giving up on getting the chips to work. She would have to ask EVE about them later, but not before taking precautions so that their content wouldn’t be leaked to Kajakh.
Also this box. May Ling hadn’t wanted EVE to know about this, as she enacted the Blackout protocol right after she got it. May wanted to see what was so special about it that the AI could not be in on the news.
However, as simple as it looked at first sight, the box was much more perplexing compared to the ball. May had been complacent. She had thought this was a simple box; one that only needed a small pressure to open and yet.
It had no flaw, no gap to exploit on its smooth surfaces, no hinges, no protrusion, nothing to indicate a keyhole or pattern to move. She had even tried to shuffle the dark and light brown weaving pattern on the cover, the only clue she had, only to find it didn’t budge at all.
May was tempted to use break it, if logic hadn’t set in properly, reminding her that there had to be a reason May Ling had not cracked the box open with force. Perhaps an auto-destruct mechanism?
May could be thinking too much about this, but in this strange world, she’d rather not take her chances. So she put the rectangular box aside and moved onto the ball.
In contrast to its compatriot, the ball adhered to her first observation. The rings that overlaid its surface had varying width, going larger closer to the middle. Upon experimenting, the rings moved, sliding right and left easily. As they moved, so did the black and blue painted lines. Except for the middle, largest ring, that remained static.
This puzzle I can solve, May thought triumphantly, fingers deftly sliding the patterns back into shape. Slowly but surely, with several alterations here and there, the shapes of overlapping flowers began to emerge.
Until the last ring slid into place and a small click sounded. May didn’t even bother repressing her smirk. The flowery box split into two with little effort and within, lied a small comm-bracer and a few transparent cards with circuits embedded on its surface.
May didn’t know what the cards were, putting them under the same categories as the chips, but the comm-bracer…
She lifted it from the box almost reverently.
I wonder what kind of delights you keep, little one.
Her fingers trembled with a mix of excitement and dread as they fumbled with the one Kajakh gave her. Once she put on May Ling’s clandestine communication device, it synced with the implant in her brain and booted up once the owner ID was confirmed.
A light voice saying, “Welcome, Ishtar,” was soon followed by a light screen appearing in her sight.
May’s eyebrows climbed up to her fringes as she took in the items listed on the screens, a vivid reminder of what Ishtar – May Ling’s nom-de-plume she assumed – still had to do. All comm-bracer had that function, Kajakh had explained when he gifted hers.
To have it pop up when the Ishtar’s comm-bracer loaded up was a surprise. People who sought death should not have plans for the future and yet.
“This…” May murmured, eyes running through the detailed planning that spanned months after today, one of which did involve surprising Kajakh and several travel itineraries with tickets booked and hotels tentatively chosen, “…doesn’t look like something a suicidal girl would do.”