A deep breath. Air in her lungs, not blood.
Nan considered her hands, opening and closing them deliberately. They were off, too. Not nearly as bad as her legs, but they lagged behind her commands for less than a moment. It became noticeable when she stopped abruptly then started again.
Nan looked into Izusa’s eyes. Doctor, soother. The only difference was that one used magic to help people get better and the other didn’t. The titles were interchangeable to an extent. Nan frowned. That distinction didn’t feel new at all. It wasn’t invasive enough to warrant a complaint, but the lack of informed consent bugged her.
Of much more immediate concern was that the cold sensation sinking its way into her ankles was no passing discomfort. Rather, an invisible figure cloaked in black that whispered true; she should not have been capable of drawing breath.
“Is this the afterlife?”
“Nope. You’ve been reclaimed.”
Izusa must have caught on to Nan’s bewildered expression. She took a step back, running a finger along the twisty lamp. It’s light paled, shifting into her whym’s shade of gold.
Izusa placed a palm in her fist. “When you die, your soul separates from your body and goes wherever it goes, right?” Izusa made an upward wavy motion with her hand, leaving the closed one behind. “Reclamation is like casting a net into the meridian, the place soulstuff traverses. ” Izusa caught her fleeing hand and made the palm in fist motion in a new location. “People that get snagged are stuffed in artificial bodies that shape themselves after whatever flesh bag they were previously anchored to.”
“People get put back together from ‘mostly dead’ every once and a while, but ‘literally dead’ is an achievement if you discount necromancy.” Izusa faced Nan, arms spread wide. “So be happy, this is a second chance!” She chirped.
“I can’t ask you to send me home, can I?”
Izusa gave a start, only to croak out the remains of a word half formed. It was easy to sympathise with her; few wanted to affirm another’s worse suspicions. Her ears drooped, giving Nan all the answer she needed.
It was to be expected really, but being told that there was no way to see her family and friends again made her die a little inside.
That waning feeling movies portrayed with a spinning camera right before a revelation? Nan thought it was a particularly garish use of creative license, but now she wasn’t so sure. She felt herself drifting backwards into a sea of oil.
This sucked. She wanted to drink for the first time at Uncle Richard’s bar. She wanted to finish her criminal justice degree and become a game warden. She wanted to fall in love and have two kids. How could she keel over before her folks? How could she leave Mom, Dad, and little Greg?
Nan’s breath hitched. A warm feeling enveloped her again. She lifted her chin to see the other side of the room. Izusa, having kneeled to her level, covered her foggy peripherals. For a moment, she was content to let Nan ruin her dress with quiet sobs.
How long did it take for the worst to pass? Minutes? An hour? Nan didn’t know and Izusa seemed to not care. She exhausted all but the occasional sniffle before Izusa spoke up.
“I can’t promise that everything’s gonna be sugar and rainbows.” Izusa rubbed circles into her back, earning a strangled hiccup. “But I’ll always be here; so see me as often as you want, as long as you want, okay?”
“Mm.” Nan squeezed back. Tough bumps fluttered against the soft fuzziness of Izusa’s dress. She wasn’t lying about the wings.
At times, Nan wondered if she ever got the science behind the whole big sister thing. But the warmth, the closeness of simple contact. It was the same gentle sanctuary she gave Greg after his first rejection from a pretty girl. Needless to say, the sensation was much more calming than screaming into a pillow. At least she got something right. She should have done this for him, and her parents, more.
Another moment passed. It would be easy to let herself fall asleep, to deal with reality another time, but that would be lazy of her. Nan loosened her grip, letting Izusa stand, dust off her dress with one hand, and flick the other at the desk. Whym flowed. One of Izusa’s cogs flashed over the handle of the lowest drawer, extending it. Another lofted a tissue box within reach.
Nan pulled a few out. Over a sink in the wall, a mirror reflected brown eyes rimmed with red along with a small nose on the verge of dripping. Nan looked very much the part of a kindergartener post-tantrum.
“Sorry, Dr. Keme.” She scrubbed at the moisture and embarrassment on her face.
“Just call me Izusa, Nan. And there’s nothing to be sorry for. I may look scary, but I actually enjoy a hug or three in the morning.”
The half giggle wasn’t quite as happy as she wanted it to sound, but it helped. “You don’t look scary.”
Izusa laid a palm over her collarbone in a faux-shocked expression. “Really? Not even with these?” She opened her mouth a bit wider, giving Nan a view of straight teeth surrounding four sharp but underwhelming fangs. Nan was very thankful for whoever gave Izusa her job.
The next half hour or so passed with small talk and jokes. Izusa’s favorite color was indigo, not blue (“There’s a substantial difference!”). She wanted to do theater before the government found her to be a mystic of high potential, and she had an aunt in the military. In the meantime, a golden, cinnamon scented, cogwheel contraption about half Nan’s size spat ticklish motes of light through her loose patient’s gown. A minimally invasive whym assisted screening, or MIWAS, Izusa called it.
The MIWAS decided to have mercy on Nan’s sides and collapsed. Izusa produced a tablet with a blue feather icon on the back. A cog held the device up, while Izusa used both hands to type at it.
“Well, your soul isn’t rejecting the new body, but it looks like you’ll need to learn how to walk again. I was kinda hoping I’d be wrong about that.”
“That isn’t normal?”
“We haven’t drawn a bead on ‘normal’ for reclamation. There’s a strong correlation between problems with a new arrival’s body and the circumstances of their passing, though.”
The door slid open with a two-toned chime, ushering in a floating chair with a back tall enough to reach at least a few inches above Nan’s head. It was silver with a red cushion that covered most of the front, yielding for a control stick on the left armrest. It advanced with a dull hum until it met the edge of Nan’s bed.
“You’ll have to use a wheelchair for now, but I’ll get you up and running as soon as I can. Promise.” Izusa sounded apologetic, like her loss of mobility was more harmful than a minor inconvenience.
“I don’t mind.” Nan wrapped her arms around Izusa while she hoisted her into the chair.
Just outside was a cul-de-sac of doors. Nameplates, either blank or bearing flowing letters that she had no hope of making out, hung from each. Plain beam lights ran from one stretch of ceiling to the other, no whym passed through them, unlike the lamp in her room. Affixed to the walls were the occasional poster or painting. A hazy green sunset over a beach with three moons on the horizon, someone in a space suit pressed palm to foreleg with a giant spider, an eel-lamprey-thing coiled around an underwater lightning rod. Or maybe it was shooting lightning through the rod? Nan didn’t know.
“Why is this thing called a wheelchair? It doesn’t have wheels.”
“Why would a wheelchair have wheels?” Izusa asked.
“Because it’s a wheelchair.”
“Nonsense. What part of the word ‘wheelchair’ makes you even think about wheels?” Something within her reserves twinged. A golden strand faded ever so slightly against a field of purple.
“Zip!” Izusa looked back so she could pinch the air past Nan’s lips. “The translation isn’t perfect, let’s just leave it at that. Ask me anything else.”
“Okay,” Nan said. “Where are we?” So far, magic proved intuitive. She could extend her senses like a muscle, picking up traces of motion above or below her. Still signatures laid just past the closed doors, easier to track, but dormant. Past a certain point, say more than several dozen paces in any direction, she couldn’t quite gauge how dense they were, only their presence and sometimes a vague hint of color. Had she been able to stretch farther, she could get a feel for the building’s dimensions. Judging by the hallways long and wide enough to make two lane roads, her best guess was somewhere in the ballpark of “not small”.
“You’re aboard the LAV Vespa, a research and development vessel contracted to-” Izusa took an exaggerated breath. “The Lian Consolidated Worlds Emergency Abyssal Defense Pact Auxiliary. We build stuff that blow up, and keep our guys safe from getting blown up. Yes we are in space.”
“That’s usually the answer to the next question. After that, comes we do have energy shields, faster than light travel, and giant robots. Did I miss anything?” Izusa turned on her heels and stared at Nan for all of three seconds before letting out a defeated sigh. “You’re not making the face. The face is the best part.”
Clawed feet pattered from the side of the intersection. A mop haired man in a lab coat with boxy ears laid flat and a long, bushy tail of brown darted by, clutching a stack of papers to his chest.
“A disbelieving gasp would also work, or you could laugh and say space travel’s impossible.” Izusa tried again, a glimmer hope poked through her eyes.
“Magic is real, and I’m back from the dead. I’d believe you if you told me you rigged a cow to make chocolate milk.”
Izusa’s drooped her ears in disappointment, continuing the march with a hand held to her chin.
Nan stopped counting the number of turns at fifteen. Izusa seemed to know where they were going, she could bug her if she got lost on the way back. Nan was about to channel her inner child and ask “are we there yet?” when they passed through a sliding door that lead to a dead end with a circle cut into the ground. Beside it, a platform with a flat projector lamp protected by a metal grate lazily guided motes of glowing blue dust up another hole in the ceiling. She couldn’t read the sign between them, but by the yellow “X” over pictures of a stick figure entering a hole upside down, on its back, when another stick figure was already using the hole, and while surrounded by fire, it probably said: “don’t do these stupid things”.
Nan leaned so she could peer into the hole without sticking her face in it. The edge of another projector greeted her at what she could see of the bottom. Unlike Izusa’s signature or her own, the whym flowing through the projector had no scent up close. Nan was unsure if magic meant more stability than conventional technology or less, but it most certainly lacked something. She wouldn’t call it cold or lifeless in the literal sense, but it was close.
“Come on, we’re taking the grav-shaft down,” Izusa said.
“I don’t want to jump into a hole in the ground.”
“Your room has no fridge, the breakfast train won’t make its rounds for another five hours, and I’m not carrying you down a flight of stairs.” Izusa stepped around her, turned, and backed into the hole with a parting wave. The dust shifted yellow, letting out the same dull hum as her chair before returning to normal.
Nan let out a groan and pushed the control stick to its limit. Inching her way in was liable to tip her over. The inside of the shaft wasn’t unpleasant, just odd. It felt like sinking into a pit of ooze that clung to her everything. Breathing against it proved a bit difficult.
Metal flooring met her this rather time than wooden boards, the ceiling seemed to stretch on a bit higher and the regularly spaced art pieces were missing from the walls.
“Wasn’t so bad, was it? Sometimes the shaft misjudges a person’s weight and they break a few bones but I guess our maintenance guys did their jobs recently.”
“Wh- what?!” If that was the case, why did they even use the things? Was there no analog to OSHA in this universe?
Izusa looked back, lips curled into a smile. “There,” She said. “That was the face I was looking for.”
Nan chewed at her lip. Not cool. She was legitimately worried for a moment.
The next stop was a door at least half as thick as she was tall. A wheel lock the size of her head kept it barred. “A shortcut.” Izusa explained, grasping the wheel with both hands. Its creaking nearly begged for an entire quart of grease.
The door dragged open against hard, grainy flooring. Warm steam filled a room laden with the scent of salt and metal. Tall, yellow bars warded a circular pool that occupied a majority of the space.
“You have a communual bath?”
“That’s a purification vat. It’s full of tiny robots that strip organic contaminants from our machines and converts them into soil. If you try to bathe in that, you’ll be ripped apart.”
Nan inched her chair away from the pool until it nearly hugged the wall.
“We do have a salon though. We should go when you’re done with rehab so I can brag about you. I know some girls that would kill for smooth hair like yours.”
“This?” Nan ran a hand through her black, face hugging bangs. “I just pick up any shampoo that has aloe in it.”
“I have no idea what that is,” Izusa chirped.
The cafeteria (or was it a galley?), reminded her a lot of her elementary school. Long tables with integrated seats made up two aisles with plenty of room to shift about in a desperate search for a familiar face. On the outskirts were smaller setups with actual chairs. At the end of no man’s land sat a serving line with no attendants, most of the platters were empty or reduced to bits and pieces of various foodstuffs.
People with at least one kind of animal feature occupied the odd pocket of space, lending small voices and smaller whym signatures to an otherwise quiet atmosphere.
More than a few cast her long glances. It likely had nothing to do with how underdressed she was. Not among the collection of pajamas and t-shirts. Nan swore she heard someone mutter “humie” on their way past a group.
Izusa lead her up a ramp off to the side that curved until it met a raised platform well above the assortment of tails and ears and claws.
“Here’s fine.” Izusa pulled back a chair to make room for Nan’s wheelchair at a strangely curved table. “What would you like? Something sweet? It’s a little early but they usually serve breakfast dishes all cycle.”
The odd scene around her and quick change of pace may have been enough to blind Nan’s stomach before, but at the mention of food, it cried out in realization that it was empty. Completely empty. Mouthland experienced a flood of unseen proportions.
Nan swallowed. “Pancakes and bacon?”
“Sit tight, I’ll see what I can do.” Izusa gave Nan a light pat on the head.
Food, Nan supposed, was universal. There were only so many ways one could cut, cook and display products. If one civilization was similar enough to the next, then a translation thingy, spell or not, wouldn’t really have trouble lining up one thing to its analogue. Or she
A certain fuzziness sprouted in her head. Again the golden thread of whym waned in color within her reserves. She couldn’t literally see it, not through her eyes, but it still held the impression of color, almost offensively different than her own. If she pressed against it just so she could probably push it out; it felt like the natural thing to do.
‘Oh. That’s probably the translation spell. Think of something else, anything else.’ Nan kicked her leg out, wincing as it went too far, jarring her ankle against the chair in front of her. She winced. Fine, something that wasn’t physical then. She valued her bones more than her ability to hold on to a spell that could be redone.
She occupied her senses with the varied signatures around her, feeling out Izusa’s weaving through the others. It wasn’t hard. Everyone else was a light breeze. The only ones that came to even a close comparison was her own and… Nan frowned.
There was another raised platform diagonally aligned to their own. It held a white-haired woman with glasses and long curly horns that rimmed floppy ears. She had her nose buried in a green book, a steaming mug laid untouched at her side. Her whym was odd. Not as big as Izusa’s signature but denser by a wide margin. If Izusa’s whym was a twister spread freely about a space a little larger than her body, than hers held the same severity shoved into a thumb-sized vial. Nan “reached” towards it like a child discovering a rare letter in a bowl of alphabet soup.
Faster than she could gasp, the vial erupted, smacking away her glance with a stinging sensation she felt outside her body.
And ram lady crossed the distance between them in the time it took for Nan to blink. She leaned forward with a scowl.
“That.” She prepped up her glasses. “Was quite rude of you.”