Wednesday, October 27, 2010

TTU: My Friend June from the Planet Xartex, Chapter Two

Okay, so here is another installment of...

True Tales from University: My Friend June from the Planet Xartex


What the hell was this? Was June some kind of spy? Agent, Commander, meeting place... it was all seriously mysterious. I had to know then. I couldn’t possibly back out.
And I’d be silly to not admit that yes, I was very excited and I felt, childishly, like a spy myself, about to uncover a huge secret.
The three people with June in tow set off towards a far point in the park. I had no idea how long I would have to tail them for. Perhaps, if it had been a kilometre or two, I would have just given up and gone back to the party. But the journey was short enough that I stayed following.
The journey was short, physically, but mentally it was bloody light years. Every new tree I came up to, hoping to slink in its shadow, was a potential hazard. In the dark, anyone could be using that tree for a hiding place, besides me. But as it happened, my fears of the park seemed to be a little unfounded that night. I saw no one else in the park besides one laughing group lying in the wet grass in a pool of light. Obviously high. Students. Probably harmless. I ignored them and kept my eyes on the group of four.
They kept to the park’s paths, the soles of their shoes scraping with the sound of wet pavement as they travelled. They were all tall, and so was I, but I still had trouble keeping up with their long strides. Eventually, they finally turned off the path and walked on the wet grass.
Following them across the open was a no-no, so I had to try and keep up with them by hopping from tree to tree around the large, circular area of grass. I almost lost them. But then I saw them, in the remote part of the park, descending to the submerged concrete mouth of a tunnel.
I had read about the tunnels before. Months ago, the student magazine had an article on the tunnels in the park. I had only briefly skimmed it, but I knew this much: the tunnels had been constructed during the Second World War. They were air-raid shelters. But they had been sealed off pretty much straight after the war. This city was never important enough to raid. Hardly any time after the tunnels were ‘finished’, the wooden supports began to rot. The tunnels had apparently been filled in then to stop the park from caving in. But different people had tried to reignite interest in this historic complex: engineering students and lecturers, tourism entrepreneurs, and others. There had been an article in the local rag a couple of years ago about a subsidence in the park caused no doubt by some collapse in the tunnels. But they were sealed. People couldn’t get in there: importantly, criminal elements and homeless people couldn’t get in there.
No, actually. They weren’t sealed at all. I had just seen June and three mysterious figures go in through a door which should have been sealed.
I wanted to run away then, and I should have. But the allure of the tunnels was too much for me. These things – supposedly – hadn’t been explored in years. And you know how much I’m into being the first.
I saw a hand draw the door to, with an ominous crunch. It took all I had not to run down there and grab it. But I was calm, and made my way down slowly to the door, under ground level. There was a short concrete ramp running down from the park ground level to the door, and there was a small barrier to keep people from walking or running over the lip of the small submerged doorstep. I gently grabbed the rusty door handle, scared that my passage was blocked. But it wasn’t. Opening the heavy metal door ever so slowly, I wriggled my way in.
I let my eyes adjust. The group of four were carrying on, not seeming to mind the darkness. I hung back, and then followed, letting each foot down slowly.
The tunnels were everything I could have asked for. They were terribly smelly. There were new supports, I could see, or at least I guessed they were new, because I didn’t see any wooden supports as were mentioned in the magazine article. The tunnel began as a narrow corridor, perhaps a service entrance. Finally it joined the main artery of the tunnels. This was more like it. Floods of people could have come through here, escaping an air-raid – the operative word there was could. They never did. The four people were walking towards what was no doubt a central area. I hung back in the shadows, relying mostly on my ears to hear their footsteps getting further and further away.
They passed out of my field of vision and I scurried after them. It wasn’t nice, being alone in this place, and I was already regretting my incursion. But I was too far in to back off now. And I was still a little afraid for June. Who were these people she had fallen in with?
They were heading into a lighted area, and I hung back even more than before. But they headed down some stairs, so I followed cautiously. They walked into the central, lit area, a round pit. I was about to back off, for fear of discovery, when I noticed there was an upper level, overlooking the round central area. Pressing myself against the cold wall, I slipped into this balcony-like area. It had arched windows looking out over the pit, like the windows around the Coliseum. There was no glass. I could peer over the top of the ledge and look at and overhear the meeting that took place.
June and her three companions joined a group of about twenty people. The one similarity between them all was their height. Besides that, they were all very different. All kinds of skin colour and different ages. There seemed to be an equal spread of male and female. They were just milling around, talking now, but eventually the tallest, the same deep voiced male who had spoken before, raised himself above the others, on a step. They all wrapped up their conversations and obediently went to sit on the bench-like step lining the circular area.
The leader, or Commander or whatever he was, was a man of blackest skin. But he had no accent, so I couldn’t with authority say what his background was. He looked African, but he could equally have been from the Caribbean or the States, or even England. He looked very young, surely less than thirty years old. His skin was very smooth, and his eyes were still the wide eyes of youth.
He clasped his hands together and smiled, his white teeth a shock against his skin. ‘Greetings to you all.’ The various people around the circle all gave him the strange gesture that I had seen June give him in the park. It was weird, and I hardly caught it, but it seemed to involve them bowing their heads to him and placing their hands over their necks. Was it a salute of some sort? He carried on, hardly noticing their formal gestures. ‘The Supreme Commander wishes me to relay to you how impressed and pleased he is by you all. So far we have had no incidences of blown cover or other such mistakes. I take it you are all settling in well? It has been a few years for most of you now. Now is the time for you to speak up and share with the circle any mistakes you might have made since our last meeting, or any urgent questions you might have.’
He sat down and looked around the group. A woman who looked maybe eighty was the first to speak. ‘Commander, the other day I went to the supermarket and a checkout worker remarked that I seemed very spry for my age. I was wondering, am I perhaps too unusual for the citizens to accept? Should I change assignments, perhaps?’
The Commander smiled. ‘Yes, you are rather spry for an eighty year old. It is rare here, but not uncommon. I doubt anyone can accuse you of anything based on how “spry” you are. Please carry on your assignment as you are. Perhaps in a few more years we may have to change you.’ The old woman just nodded, seeming pleased with the judgement of her superior.
What kind of place was this?! Did they use old women as spies? What kind of messed up organisation...
The next person to speak was a teenage boy. ‘Commander, I’m experiencing some very odd changes in my body. I was wondering if there wasn’t some defect in it.’
The Commander nodded sympathetically. ‘Yes, there can be some odd changes in these bodies, especially around the age your body is in. Agent August knows more about bodies than I do. Perhaps after this meeting you can have a discussion together?’ The boy looked over at a middle aged woman with auburn hair. She nodded to him, smiling. He nodded back, with a smile.
Then, to my surprise, June spoke up. ‘Commander, I may have a problem.’ She looked very worried as she spoke, and didn’t meet the Commander’s eye.
‘What is it, Agent June?’
June sighed and told her tale to the circle, looking around at everyone in it as she did so. I could see her quite well from my vantage point. ‘Well, you see, I’m taking a course in astronomy this semester at the university. I thought I would be fine at it. But unfortunately, I keep getting their names for the stars and planets mixed up with our own.’
‘That’s fine, Agent June,’ another agent reassured her. ‘They can’t possibly know that the words you use mean. They may just consider you an eccentric for a time.’
June frowned still. ‘I was embarrassed in front of a friend the other day. Her name is Louise, and I have formed a close bond with her. She was testing me on the name of things, for this astronomy paper, and I gave her all the wrong names. Then she asked me if I even knew what planet I was on. I panicked, and I told her Yalathos.’
The group all laughed politely, and June relaxed a little. The Commander smiled. ‘I’m sure it’s fine, Agent June. The humans have no idea that we call their planet Yalathos. She would have never heard of the name before. She will forget you ever said it. She will just think you’re a little crazy, which won’t hurt.’
I stopped looking over the ledge and stared at the concrete wall less than a metre before me. What had he said? “The humans have no idea that we call their planet Yalathos...”
‘Are there any other problems Agent June?’ the Commander continued. ‘Has your body been acting up again?’
‘As a matter of fact, it has, Commander,’ I heard June saying. ‘My soul is reacting strangely to my electronic components at times. I’ve never had such trouble with any of my manufactured bodies before, not even my Thayren body, despite all those tentacles.’ There were some murmurs of nostalgia or agreement here, but I wasn’t looking. I couldn’t be sure. ‘This human body is insufferable. The time when I mistakenly spoke of Yalathos to Louise, my droid body was experience something akin to a human migraine. That’s why I couldn’t concentrate, and why I gave away those names.’
I hadn’t moved an inch, but I froze all over again here. A drop of sweat ran in a straight line down my spine. I felt something brush against my consciousness. “Aha. There you are,” it said, its voice cold, male.
‘I’m sorry to hear that, Agent June. After this meeting, we can look over your body again. Now, I was wondering, Agent April, Agent Octavius, have there been any more threats from the anti-alien-zombie-droid movements?’
‘Hang on a minute, Commander,’ came a cold voice, awfully familiar. It sounded like a middle aged man, but by this stage I wasn’t looking anymore. ‘Agent June,’ the voice came again. ‘Your friend Louise... she wouldn’t be the same person who happens to be spying on us right now from the balcony?’
I didn’t move. My muscles had all frozen stiff with fear. I heard the group murmuring, and then suddenly, I was lifted by one shoulder by an incredibly strong person.
The Commander held me in front of him and the rest of the group of alien-zombie-droids. I stared at them. Each and every one of them was... was one of them. Even June, the only one in the room whose eyes were registering panic.
‘Lou!’ she gasped. I couldn’t respond.
‘So, this is the one?’ the Commander asked, unnecessarily. He continued without an answer. ‘Agents Scorpio, Aquarius. Take her to the cell.’
‘Commander, I didn’t know!’ June cried out.
‘Of course, Agent June,’ I heard the Commander reply as I was dragged out of the room by two other aliens. I looked up at them as a silently struggled, incredibly weak in their steel-strong arms. Two normal looking people. People I would walk past in the street, never noticing any difference between us. Aliens?
I heard the voices of the aliens drifting down the corridor as I was taken into a narrower tunnel. I couldn’t identify voices anymore. I couldn’t identify June.
Funnily enough, even though I was the one in danger at this moment, I was still thinking about her safety at the time. Would she be punished for my intrusion? She knew nothing about me following her, but they might not realise that.
As the two men – no, not men – threw me into the ‘cell’, a tiny, circular room, and the metal grating came swinging down with all the force of a guillotine, I finally stopped thinking about June, and started thinking about myself. I was going to die, surely. No one could hear what I just heard and expect to live. I tried to take stock of the few things I could hold as true, though any cogent thought slipped right out my grasp in my current state of panic.
There were alien-zombie-droids living among us. I wasn’t sure about the zombie part (Why zombie? Were they undead? Did they eat brains?), but I could fully understand that they were aliens from another planet in electronic bodies similar to human bodies – droids. But why were they among us? Were they going to take over the world? What was their purpose?
If it was taking over the world, I couldn’t believe it. That was always what all the movies were about, wasn’t it? The aliens always wanted to take over the world.
But even now, in this cold, damp cell under the earth, I could never believe something so hateful of June. Even if she was an alien, a zombie, a droid, or all three, she was the most peaceful, understanding, and loving person I knew.
I just couldn’t be true.

My fears were unfounded. I’ve no idea how long I sat there in complete darkness, expecting some kind of monster to creep up on me. But it felt like a very long time, as I’m sure it would feel for anyone who has had to wait in a time and place like that, in mortal fear. The thing I was expecting never came. I was imagining a lot of things, but I didn’t imagine that the heavy metal grating might open again.
When it did, I got to my feet and scampered across to the other side of the tiny room. There were the two men again, at the door. My mouth worked by itself now, embarrassing me. ‘Don’t kill me!’ I shrieked. ‘I won’t tell! I promise!’ I turned to threats too. ‘People will know I’ve gone missing! You can’t just make me disappear!’
June came in from between the two men. She had an electric lantern with her, which she set on the floor, raising her shadow up on the wall behind her, skewed, the shape just like the monster I had been imagining. The two men locked the guillotine-like door into an open position, and departed.
‘Don’t worry, Lou. We’re not going to kill you. We’re not going to hurt you, even. So long as you cooperate. I told them you were likely to cooperate. Your curiosity impulse is much stronger than your violence impulse.’
I nodded uneasily. Of course, she was right. She always was right about people’s characters. After all the time she had spent with me, it was no surprise. Yes, I was curious. Very curious. Since she had just told me I was unlikely to get hurt, I was able to calm down a little, and stop acting like a cornered animal. Instead, my curious mind kicked in. I wanted to know everything I could. If they were truly aliens, what did they know? Where had they been? Where had they come from? What had they found? What was their purpose?
‘OK. Go,’ I breathed.
‘I’m at liberty to answer absolutely any question you have. Absolutely any question. But bear in mind that I’m just an agent. I don’t have any secret information or anything...’
‘... Except for the fact that you’re an alien.’
She looked at me apologetically. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you, Lou. If there was anyone I could have told, I’ve have chosen you. And I’m glad it’s you here now and not someone else. I think you can handle knowledge like this. But we can’t just tell anyone. We only have permission to tell in extreme circumstances. And this is one.’
I had my arms folded across my chest, and I knew she was reading something into that. Yes, I was a little shut off from her. That hurt her somewhat, I knew, but she understood it. In order to not completely freak out, I was having to shut down any subjectivity and simply be objective. ‘Okay June,’ I said, with a hint of a sigh. ‘Question. Why haven’t you just zapped me with some kind of memory wiping device yet? Why tell me anything?’
She smiled now. Though she might be some kind of robot, she clearly did feel, like any human – no, not human. My mindset needed some rethinking. Like any ‘sentient being’ was the best I could come up with now. ‘We don’t have such a thing, Lou. The physiology of the human brain is still quite a recent study to us, you realise. We’re pretty much nose to nose with the human scientists in working out things about the human brain. Of course, in our own technology we are much more advanced, but we’ve only been studying humans for just over a century.’
‘So Roswell and all those sightings... were those you guys?’
She smiled again, and laughed a little. ‘No, no. Those were fakes. There have only ever been a few sightings of us. A few humans know of our existence.’ I wondered if she knew that the information hurt me. So, I wasn’t the first to know about these aliens. I was a little disappointed. But she continued. ‘Unfortunately, a few individuals had to be taken away because they threatened to unveil us. But they were unfortunate people, conspiracy theorists and the kind. They wouldn’t, couldn’t accept the simple truth about our mission.’
‘And that truth would be?’ I asked her. So much weighed on the answer she gave. What would I do, if it was world domination? I would have to be an excellent actor, fake my cooperation, and somehow get out alive and report them to... who? Who would believe me? And how would I get out anyway? I couldn't act in front of June. She would see through anything I tried.
June said, as simply as she could, ‘We are scientists, Lou. Scientists and explorers. We have no need to take over your planet or any of the other planets we quietly occupy in our studies. You would call us, in your language, anthropologists, although we study not just man, but other sentient species on planets throughout our galaxy. The one you call the Milky Way. Back home, others are working on technology to send us outside the galaxy. But for now, we have to stick to our native galaxy. Which, really, as I’m sure you know well, is not so tiny as to be boring to us. Maybe only one percent or less of the solar systems in the galaxy have life, and an even smaller percentage have sentient life.’
I did the math in my head. There was estimated to be over a hundred billion stars in the Milky Way. One percent of that was a billion. So that amount, or less, had basic life on it, and there were others that had civilizations on them. June and her kind had found them.
‘So you live among the civilizations you discover, learning about them. Like anthropologists.’
‘Always in robotic bodies?’
‘It’s the only way.’
‘Then what are you, really?’ June sat down, and so did I. This brought us closer together. I came off the wall, and stopped being so stand-offish. I was really interested now. ‘You’re aliens, and you’re droids. But how are you zombies?’
June smiled, but it was with a touch of nervousness. ‘We’re zombies in the sense that we are, technically, dead.’
My mouth gaped open, and I politely closed it. ‘Dead? But how?’
‘Back on my planet –‘
‘Which is called?’
‘Xartex.’ I rolled the word around in my head as she continued. ‘Back on my planet, Xartex, we have two bodies. We have the shell. It is bipedal, like your own body, but the physical characteristics are probably closer to birds or lizards. It’s hard for me to describe. Perhaps I can show you a representation sometime. We were similar to your dinosaurs, except, of course, our planet had a much different composition and atmosphere... anyway. That’s going into technicalities. We live very long lives in our first bodies, something like a thousand of your Earth years. Once we finally reach a point of full consciousness, when we grow out of our infant stage into childhood, we develop our second body within our first. The second body is very small, and feels like jelly to the touch. It can be bounced like a rubber ball, and it can be moulded into shapes like clay or dough. But it cannot be destroyed, no matter what you try. Once the first body dies, whether tragically early, or naturally at an advanced age, the second body remains. For eternity.’
The gravity of June’s admission finally hit me. ‘Like... like souls?’
‘That is the closest translation in your language, yes. Our souls live eternally. In the past, before our people were technologically advanced, souls were sent to live in... well, the closest concept for you would be a kind of sea. Not exactly water, but you get the idea. There, our second bodies dreamed, and travelled non-physically across the universe, discovering other sentient beings. Once we were finally advanced enough to begin travelling to these other worlds, the souls could actually be used, in fake bodies. Droids.
‘The Xartexans of the first body would build things for us: ships and droids. We observed from afar at first, getting to know the languages of each world, knowing the basic customs and learning basic anatomy, allowing us to design the droid bodies so similar to the real thing. But to actually get to know what it was like to be another species, we had to get down on the ground level with them. And so that is what we have been doing all this time. Living with others, documenting our findings.’
One logistical problem occurred to me, and I was still, obviously, thinking in a paranoid vein. ‘But... if you Xar... Xartexans never truly die, won’t your planet become overrun with souls?’
‘The birth rate is very low in Xartex. Of course, yes, there are a lot of souls. But the ‘sea’ there takes up even more space on the planet than the sea of this planet does. And Xartex is a lot bigger than Earth too. But, of course, we always have options if we wish to expand. Some of us decide to just float through space, going on an eternal journey. Others have colonised planets without sentient life, or revealed themselves to the civilizations on other planets and asked for their permission to live among them. It’s happened before, maybe three or four times. We only ask the most peaceful of species. I don’t think we could ever ask the humans. Too many of you are... well, you know what you are like.’
It made me sad that she was right. There were people on Earth who would never accept the intrusion of aliens. But then again, so many other people never used to be accepted. White people used to think themselves superior to every other race. That much has changed (although, proving June’s point, there were still too many backward elements, unfortunately). Homosexuals were, and still are persecuted, but acceptance is growing. There were many prejudices in this world. They took time to overcome prejudice, and if there was anything that the Xartexans had, it was time. They had the whole of eternity. But apparently, over-population wasn’t one of their problems.
‘Any more questions, Lou?’ June asked, after I’d been silent for a long time.
‘Millions,’ I replied. ‘I just can’t think straight. I’m going to take like... forever to ask you everything I want to know. I can’t believe you’ve been out there. In distant space. I’m so jealous.’
She smiled, and I felt radiating from her the understanding of my jealousy. However ugly a feeling it was, she understood it was only me admiring her and wishing I could change places with her.
‘How many planets have you been on, June?’
‘Far too many for you to comprehend,’ she said. Well, that was easy enough. It was hard enough for me to even truly comprehend the number a hundred, really. The billion planets with life on them... I could say the word billion, but would I ever truly understand it? Never. Words. All words, clear concepts, but never comprehended. Hundred, thousand, million, billion. Life. Death. Soul.
‘I’ve been in many different bodies. The bodies can be destroyed. They are false replications, and feel nothing.’
‘Except,’ I began, unsure of myself, ‘You just told the others that you were feeling things in this body.’
For the first time I really noticed her physical presence. This outer shell – it wasn’t her. She was a bouncy ball of jelly, if what she said was true. But I had always associated this body with her identity. She was the intimidating height. She was the crazy hair. And yet, at the same time, she really wasn’t.
She frowned deeply. ‘Yes, that is true. It’s the first time in all my experience that I’ve ever had it happen. I don’t know how to explain it. All species in the galaxy feel pain, except for souls, and some rare individuals who have conditions blocking the sensation of pain. So humans are nothing special. But you do have an astounding understanding of your pains. Not many species have your capacity for science.’
I felt a little bit proud about that. I had heard before, in a documentary about astronomy, that we were in a very special place in the galaxy, one that meant we had the perfect position for observation. Our views of the galaxy were relatively clear, free of the massive dust clouds that would block out the view from other suns. We were at the outer edge of the galaxy, which meant we could see a significant portion of it. That was why, to the ancients, the Milky Way looked like a streak of milk across the sky. It was a galaxy, filled with stars, filled with light.
‘So how many of you are there on Earth? Or Yalathos,’ I added, watching her face.
She winced at my speaking of the name, but smiled. ‘There are small cells like us in most countries around your planet. Roughly five thousand of us altogether.’
I was amazed at the number. But I should have been expecting that. There were almost two hundred countries on Earth, but some of those countries were huge. So if every country had at least one group of twenty aliens in it, the number made perfect sense.
‘Come on,’ June suddenly said, breaking my reverie when she stood up. ‘The others should be gone now. They didn’t want to talk to you, so we had to wait for them to go. If you recognise any of them in the street, just ignore them, okay? They won’t acknowledge your existence. You are my responsibility.’
I nodded and followed June out of the cell. As we walked through the corridors with her electric lantern swinging before her, casting awful shadows, I thought about how serious the situation really was. I was June’s responsibility, and I understood exactly what that meant. She must have promised them I wouldn’t talk, so if I ever did, it would be on her head. She might be immortal, but I’m sure there were ways of punishing an immortal.
But it didn’t matter. No way in hell was I going to talk. I loved this new secret that I was keeping.
She turned off the electric lantern once we reached the exit. It had taken us not very long at all to get there, seeing as I wasn’t crouch-running anymore. We got out the door and she shut it and locked up securely. In the past, the tunnel entrances had been a haunt for homeless people, but the Xartexans must have done something about that when they moved into this new hideout of theirs.
Suddenly the park wasn’t such a scary place. I was in the presence of an immortal. Presumably, if we were attacked, her droid body – which was probably very strong, if those two male agents were anything to go by – would be able to defend us. I had many questions buzzing in my head.
I picked up her hand, and she was surprised by me at first, but then understood. I gently pressed her middle and fourth finger, and turned her hand over and prodded her palm. I dropped her hand. ‘It feels just like skin,’ I told her.
‘It is,’ she answered. She started leading me across the park as she explained, ‘The first droid to come down the planet was of course, not quite right. The texture of his skin was a little wrong, and he had no organic smell, so dogs and other animals were frightened of him. Touch and smell are two things we can’t judge from our surveillance up in space, or from our sea-dreaming. We always send one agent down first to take some DNA of the sentient species. That way we learnt what makes a human, and we were able to render correct texture of skin and basic smell. Of course, animals which rely on smell aren’t completely fooled by our smell. But it is sufficiently natural to fool other humans. And we can use perfumes and soaps and deodorants to further disguise ourselves.’
So she couldn’t sweat, I presumed. But that raised another question: energy. How did they get it? Where did it go, once they used it? ‘Do you have to plug yourself into the wall every night, or what?’
She laughed a little, and shook her head. ‘No, we’re self-sustaining beings. Our technology is sufficiently advanced that we can almost completely replicate normal human functions. Think about it. You’ve seen me eat.’
I realised this was true. I had no idea that robots could eat. ‘So a lot of your body is organic then?’
‘Yep. I lot. Except for the soul port. That part is electronic. It is located in my left shoulder.’
I stared at her left shoulder. ‘That’s the real you then? Just in there...’
She nodded, a little nervously it seemed. She was, of course, giving away a huge secret by telling me this sensitive knowledge. ‘I have real nerves and veins and arteries, but each is shadowed by a ... in your language nano-wire would probably be the best equivalent. Essentially we have two of every system in our body. Our organic organs have within them electronic parts. As such, these are the only mostly organic bodies that can truly be immortal. Or course, they can be destroyed by outside forces. But they will not age unless programmed to, and they will not “die”,’ she emphasised the word.
It was scary to think about. Here I was, talking to someone who, if she chose to, could occupy this body for the rest of forever. I, in comparison, would wither and die rather quickly. And then what? Would my soul fly through the ether forever? Human souls were a spiritual concept. They had no physical form like Xartexan souls.
‘Do any other beings in the galaxy have physical souls?’ I asked her.
She stopped and took a deep breath. I think she knew all along it was going to lead to this question. ‘This is what we have been searching for all along,’ she said quietly.
‘No. We have been forced to watch all our study subjects wither and die, leaving no immortal remains.’
The way she said it struck me as a little selfish. She wasn’t the one who had to die, after all. But then I realised, in the next breath, what it meant to see so many die. It saddened her, no doubt. She had been to more planets than I could comprehend, immersed herself in the life there, made friends, possibly even had lovers and maybe – if it was possible – families. But she had seen them all die. The Xartexans were looking for another species with the same gift as they had. Did they realise that probably every sentient being alive envied them this? And yet eternal life surely had its disadvantages too.
Past the trees with their arms stretching out to claw us, past the giggling students passing the reefer around the circle, past the half-imagined shadows in the nooks and crannies. We made it to the gate of the park un-accosted. But I was assailed by an imaginary opponent. Something nagged at the back of my head, trying to worm its way through my excitement over today discovery.
I had never been a greatly religious person, although my family were churchgoing. I hadn’t attended any church since I moved out of my family house, into a flat closer to the university. But even though I wasn’t practicing, and not much of believer, one thing had stuck with me, among all the morals and life lessons.
The human soul.
Wasn’t it the point of all this effort during life? As atheist as I might seem to others, still the idea had stuck with me, always, that what you did on Earth was just a prelude. After all, what was the point of being a good person, of being charitable and kind and not backstabbing everyone on your climb to success? Heaven, that is the thing everyone, whether they know it or not, is subconsciously aiming for. To reveal the existence of Xartexans to the world would not be just mean a great political upheaval would take place. Religion would need serious rethinking. And the existence of physical, immortal souls would go against everything that a lot of people believed in.
No, not just that. It was much deeper down, striking fear to the very root of me.
It raised questions.
We thought we were so special.
We had no physical souls. The Xartexans, as peaceful as they seemed, couldn’t possibly resist looking down on us, and every other sentient life form in the galaxy, as inferior. After all, humans, discovering their sentience, began to subjugate animals and justify their subjugations on intellectual superiority. And yet all we do is die. Xartexans live forever. Nothing human lasts forever.
I considered, for the first time in my life, what it was like to be a dumb animal.
June could not have known all this, as we walked back to the party. No doubt she knew I was thinking things through in my head, but she surely didn’t know the angle my thoughts had taken. After all, a dumb animal couldn’t, shouldn’t be able to think these self-referential and existential thoughts.
And yet we do.
So why don’t we have souls?
‘Are all Xartexans peaceful?’ I asked June. She looked at me as if she was trying to figure out why I was asking the question. I was simply wondering about them. Were they all some kind of linked up consciousness, or were they individual?
‘There are some who are young and unsteady,’ she said softly. ‘Like your profiling types or star signs, there are methods of categorising the Xartexans according to the motivation of their soul. I’ll show you a guide on it, one day.’
We rounded the street corner and the bass of the party music rolled over us like a wave. I wasn’t sure that I was quite ready to walk into that mass of people, not when I was still stuck on problems of souls and other grave issues. But at the same time, I wanted to lose myself in the dizzy atmosphere. I didn’t want to think anymore.
June stopped me before we got too close. ‘Lou, in all seriousness now. I know I can trust you. You can’t breathe a word of this to anyone. Not Leigh, not Gary, not Toby, not anybody, okay? I will have to kill you if the secret is revealed.’
She was serious, I could see that much. It saddened her to say that to me. I felt guilty for what I had done that night. Why hadn’t I just walked into the party? Why hadn’t I just left her alone?
‘Oh course, June. There’s no way I’d tell anyone. Your secret is safe with me.’
She smiled, hugged me briefly, and we resumed our walk to the party. Leigh was sitting with a crowd on the front steps. ‘Hey!’ she said loudly, drawling a little. ‘You came back! Is everything all right?’
I nodded, and put on a brave smile. ‘Yeah. I found June. We hung out with some of her friends for a while, and grabbed a bite to eat.’
June was distracted by other friends now, and I used the opportunity to get inside and away from her. It was the weirdest impulse. I’d never felt anything but the want to be close to her and enjoy her company. But now I wanted to be far away from her. I didn’t want to envy her immortality. I didn’t want to hate her for it. But the things she had revealed had brought out some nasty emotions in me. I really regretted following her that evening. Everything I had learnt had come with an awful price.
I found the back stairs to the building and sat down, taking in big gulps of night air. I just wanted to be alone, but I wasn’t entirely sure if that was best. It wasn’t really my choice either. I heard footsteps behind me and hoped to God it wasn’t June. I turned my head to see who it was.
‘Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else,’ the guy said as our eyes met. He had dark hair. He was a lanky, tall guy, and his grey and black stripy jumper did nothing to stretch him horizontally. He carried two bottles of beer, both opened. I smiled weakly up at him. ‘Hey, are you okay?’ he asked, with a friendly kind of concern.
‘Yeah, don’t worry about me,’ I said. I couldn’t really explain it to this guy. I couldn’t explain it to anyone.
He sat down. I really wanted him to go away, but part of me knew that his company might help. I was feeling so small, compared to the rest of the universe. ‘Here, do you want this?’ He offered me one of the beer bottles in his hands. I knew I shouldn’t have, since I had to drive Leigh. But I wasn’t thinking anymore. Or rather, I was thinking, way, way too deeply, about other things. I took it, only because it was a Corona and it had a slice of lime in it. That’s pretty much the only beer I have. I almost snatched it out of his hand, and took a great swig, forgetting I was supposed to be the sober driver. I was subconsciously desperate to push all cogent thought out of my mind.
‘Thanks,’ I murmured.
‘I’m Silas by the way.’
I took his outstretched hand and shook it once. ‘Louise.’
‘Have you been out here all night? I haven’t seen you in this whole party.’
‘Oh no, I just turned up. I was here earlier, I just went for a walk with a friend.’
‘You go to uni?’
‘I’m doing Political Studies.’
‘Oh? I’m doing Physics.’
‘Physics?’ He seemed a little amused.
‘What?’ I said confrontationally, though I was outwardly calm. ‘Astrophysics. You don’t think that’s a girl’s field?’
He raised his hands defensively. ‘I didn’t say that. It’s just not every day you meet a girl doing physics.’ He took a swig of beer. ‘Is it good? Do you enjoy it?’
‘I’m good at it. But it’s maths-heavy.’
‘I suck at maths.’
‘It’s not easy if you’re not good at maths.’
‘What made you take that?’
I gestured up at the sky, but when my eyes followed my hand the sky was still clouded over. ‘I’m just really curious about space. The more I learn, the more curious I become.’
He smiled warmly. ‘That’s the best thing then. A self-propagating interest. Surely you’ll never tire of it, your whole life.’
‘That’s what I’m hoping.’
And that’s pretty much all I remember.

Until the next morning, when I woke up in his bed.
I didn’t quite scream, but the shriek got caught in my throat just in time. I scrambled to hold down the covers on my naked body and stared wild-eyed at him. He looked just as confused as I was.
‘I don’t remember any of this,’ I told him flatly.
He rubbed his head, and looked a little hung-over. ‘I can’t say I remember much either.’ He grabbed his boxer shorts off the ground by the bed and got out of bed, putting them on. I looked away. ‘Don’t worry. I don’t think we actually did anything. As far as I remember, we were both so drunk we just came in, got undressed, and fell asleep as soon as we hit the bed.’
His back was turned to me as he added, ‘Do you like pancakes? I’m famous for them.’
‘Sure... thanks...’ I answered, unsure if I should stay or go.
He left the room and I scrambled for my clothes as soon as I heard his footsteps going down the hall. The second thing I did, after struggling back into yesterday’s smelly clothes, was get out my phone. No new messages. Was Leigh upset with me?
I called home. Leigh answered after several rings. ‘Lou? Is that you?’
I was quiet, trying not be overheard. ‘Leigh, Leigh, thank God! What the hell happened last night?’
‘You don’t remember? Geez, you must have been drunk.’
‘Are you sure I wasn’t drugged?’
She stopped, and I heard her breath catch as she thought. ‘No, Lou, I’m pretty sure you weren’t drugged. In fact you were hyper-active. And you were all over that Silas guy. I was excited for you.’
‘I just woke up naked in his bed.’
Her breath caught again. She sounded deliciously surprised. Usually it was her having the one night stands, not me. ‘You both left together. As far as I could see you were still pretty much functioning. He wasn’t dragging you out or anything. You hugged me and told me how much you loved me just before you left.’
‘How did you get home then?’
‘Well luckily June and I had the forethought to get your keys off you before you left. She drove me home and parked the car in the building. Then she walked home. I offered to pay for a taxi for her but she said she was fine... and you know, she’s so big I thought she would be.’
I breathed a sigh of relief, more for my car than anything else. June, I knew, could take care of herself. But the interesting thing was me. What the hell had I gotten myself into?
‘Okay Leigh. Sorry about last night.’
‘That’s fine, Lou. So long as you’re okay?’ She sounded genuinely worried about me.
‘Yeah, I’ll be fine. See you later today.’
‘Kay. Bye!’
I shut my phone and slipped it in my pocket. I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror and did my hair again, pulling my hand through the knots and retying my ponytail. I didn’t wear makeup, so I didn’t have to worry about panda eyes, but my breath was nuclear. I found his bathroom and borrowed some toothpaste, rubbing it against my teeth with my index finger.
I headed out to the kitchen. He’d thrown on last night’s clothes as well, probably too embarrassed to go back into the bedroom. His accommodation was small, possibly shared, but I couldn’t see anyone else living in the apartment with him. I looked out the window and saw the outside. Barely a second later I realised where I was: a road not too far from Harry’s flat, where the party had been last night.
He said nothing at first, giving me time to think. My decisions, silly as they were, made perfect sense. I had no soul. I really was just an animal, and so, like an animal, I had let my mind go and given into carnal imperatives. It was so unlike me, but made perfect sense, in an objective way.
It was so unlike me. But who am I, really?
‘Pancakes up,’ he said, and dressed the table with a pot of sugar, a bottle of maple syrup, and three plates: two empty, one with a large pile of pancakes. I came closer. They were perfectly round, flawless pancakes. I was impressed. I could never get my pancakes perfect.
‘Wow,’ I said, and sat at the table across from him. There was icing sugar, different fruits, all sorts of stuff laid out on the table. ‘No wonder you’re famous for them.’
‘Go on,’ he said, waiting for me to take the first pancake.
I did, eagerly. I drizzled maple syrup all over it, and got some strawberries and blueberries and dropped them on. Then I cut myself a slice and wrapped it around a sliver of strawberry. I ate it, trying to avoid his eyes. It was good. I smiled widely. ‘It’s great!’ I finally said once I’d swallowed.
‘I’m glad you like them,’ he said, and took a pancake for myself.
We ate in silence for a little while, and then finally, I had to say, ‘I’m sorry about last night. I must have been so drunk. I don’t usually go with anyone after parties. In fact I don’t usually drink. It tends to hit me pretty hard. I was just having such a bad day yesterday, I felt like I needed something to help me forget.’
‘I’ve no idea where you went before the party,’ he said, cutting up his pancake into thin strips, ‘but, even though I was drunk too, I made sure you took your boots off before you came in. They were absolutely covered in mud.’
I grimaced as I remembered why that was. I had spent a significant amount of time sneaking through the park on the wet ground. ‘Geez, sorry. I was a real mess yesterday.’ I still was a mess, inside and outside. I was very worried about my current state, both immediate, and eternal. ‘Thanks for the pancakes. They’re really good.’ Eventually the silence was too much for me. I spoke again. ‘How much do you remember of last night?’
‘How much do you remember?’ he threw the question back at me.
‘I remember sitting out on the back step, talking with you quite sensibly. The rest is just a black hole.’
He looked down, grinning slightly as he told me, ‘I remember a little bit more. I can’t remember much of what we talked about. Somehow we started making out. By that time we were inside the house. We got so heated that someone got really pissed at us and told us to get a room. So that’s when I invited you home.’ Our eyes met and we both looked away again. ‘Not that I usually do that.’ After a further moment’s silence, he added, ‘I can see why I did though.’ I quirked an eyebrow. He smiled awkwardly, and laughed uncomfortably. ‘Why don’t we do this properly, instead? Do you want to go on a date sometime? Or like, not even a date, we could just grab some coffee or something. We should both probably avoid alcohol for a while I think. But I’d like to get to know you. Sober, this time.’
I chewed my mouthful carefully and thought. Then I shrugged. ‘Yeah. Okay. Let’s do that.’ We exchanged numbers, and arranged to meet in two days time in a time between classes that we both had off. I was a little bit uncertain about this, since I had woken up nude in his bed this morning. But he was cute, and pretty easy-going, and he could make great pancakes. He was worth a try, I guessed. I could do worse.
And what did it really matter, anyway? In the back of my mind, all I could think was that there was no point in not doing it, because my life was essentially meaningless. I might as well do what I want, within reasonable limits. A date was a reasonable thing to do. It could even be fun, and distract me for a small time from the idea that my soul wasn’t a real thing.
We actually spent the rest of the day together. I had study I should have been doing, and I’m sure he probably had some he needed to do too. But I found he had some really awesome old games on his computer, and we spent the most of the day playing against each other. I got a very knowing look from Leigh when I walked in at dinnertime.
She probably knew far more than I did.

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