A gentle breeze blew through the flowers and grass in the garden. The movement of the bell arconen flowers created the lovely ringing sound they were named for as their lustrous pink blooms waved in the wind. Their powerful scent was accompanied by that of the calistans, small pink and spherical, and the cardon in bold red, whose scent though sweet, was the weakest of all. Awbil inhaled deeply of the rich air. She sank deeper into the sponge-like powder blue grass that cradled her as she lay on the ground. Above her, the sky was, as always, filled with thin clouds that blocked most of the bright pink sky and diffused all light from the sun to a soft ambient light pink glow.
It was a perfect moment that felt suspended in time, and Awbil closed her eyes to fully appreciate it with her much stronger sense of touch. Her limin, small receptors all over her skin, moved with each minuscule vibration from the sound of the bell arconens. They shivered in the wind and hummed with the feel of the grass on her back. A variety of pleasant sensations spread through her body, driving her into a state of pure bliss and heightened awareness that all Orlians experienced when all their limin were fully activated, a limin-aura. The tingling started from the base of her neck, spread all over her scalp, then began making its way through her arms, down her back, past the waist, and to her legs. The sensation halted there and abruptly terminated. Her limin deactivated from her aura state and returned to normal levels of perception.
Awbil opened her eyes, quickly wiped the tears away from her face, and smiled. She sat up, looked to where the limin-aura had been terminated and stared at her left leg. Unlike the rest of her soft, pale pink skin, the flesh on the lower half of her left leg was hard, rubbery, and had turned a sickening yellow-green. All the limin on it were petrified, and so she would never be able to achieve a full limin-aura experience again. Awbil’s hand shook as she stroked the dead limb. It felt like plastic on her hands, and the leg itself was numb to all sensations. She stroked it harder, dug into it, pinched it as hard as she could, and still nothing. The limin on her hands spread the pain on her fingers up to her elbow, but there was no reaction from the leg. Dead flesh was all it was. Her first of many limbs, she expected to fall to the petrification sickness.
She snatched the hand away from her leg as the limin on her back picked up a subtle vibration. Soon a shadow fell over her, and she looked up to face Ivol. His shiny metal body reflected the green energy that connected his disjointed hands and unique iclaxian feet, which looked like small cylinders. Awbil gave him her brightest smile and greeted him.
“Hello, Ivol. It’s good to see you today?”
“Sof. Awbil, you are late for your appointment. As usual.” His voice projected from his small gray head, and his one green eye squinted.
Even with Iclaxian’s typical lack of emotional intonation, Awbil was certain Ivol was irritated with her. “Oh! I’m so sorry. You know how bad I am with keeping time when I’m among the flowers.” She said, making sure her tone conveyed exactly the right level of unapologetic cheer she knew would push his annoyance. “I hope you’re not upset.”
“I am not. Do you need help standing?”
Awbil said nothing. She’d hoped for a slightly stronger reaction. After all, this was the twelfth time he’d had to come find her for her check-up. Well, she’d have another chance tomorrow. “No, thank you, I can get up myself.”
She picked up the crutch at her side and stood up. She still had three functioning limbs, and she would use them to their fullest while she was able. “So what are we testing today? A pill? Lotion? Scrub?”
“Today, we will attempt to treat the petrification with a topical solution developed by Cal’elcoran. The result in the lab shows effects against the petrification samples. As we have found, with all our previous attempts, the disease seems to behave differently on live subjects compared to our samples, so we can only guess the effectiveness of this solution. As always, we are grateful for your cooperation in testing.”
Maybe she was reaching, but Awbil thought she heard some sarcasm in his last sentence, and her smile grew “Of course, you’ve all come to an insignificant planet like Orl to help try to cure the disease, this is the least I can do.”
Awbil limped her way to the med center entrance while Ivol floated beside her, moving at her pace. The gracelessness of her limping walk was made more pronounced by the smoothness of Ivol’s movements. Damn Iclaxians, Awbil thought and smiled softly. Their feet didn’t even touch the ground. They just hovered. Neither of them spoke again until they reached Ivol’s treatment room. Without being prompted, Awbil limped over to the bed floating slightly above the ground at the center of the room. She leaned her crutch against the wall, then threw herself on the bed.
She glanced to see Ivol’s reaction, but he’d already turned away and was looking at data on the info-server. Awbil scrunched her nose, then leaned into the bed. Her limin hummed pleasantly at the subtle textures on the surface. She sighed and allowed herself to lean into the calming sensation. From the corner, one of the auto-servers, with its cylindrical body and small rectangular head, hovered over, carrying a sealed package. Ivol barely glanced at it as he collected the package and flicked his fingers over the glyphs to open it. Inside was a see-through bag filled with bright yellow liquid.
“Tell me that’s not what you’ll be putting on me.” Awbil wrinkled her nose in distaste.
“It is,” Ivol replied and moved toward her.
Ivol glanced at the bag. It looked more orange to him.
“Sof. Ivollllllll…” Awbil groaned.
“Your disgust is understandable, but treating you is my priority… lay back down, please,” Ivol said as she attempted to reach for her crutch.
Awbil groaned again and slumped on the bed. “Just get it over with,” she closed her eyes.
It must have seemed silly to him, but for orlians, yellow was associated with only two things. One was the galctus birds which, at the beginning of the year, started a long migration from the island of Glacfuna. They flew in a full circuit around the globe to return to the island after a year-long trip. During their flight, the horrendous creatures released a nauseous yellow fluid called cardon that fell like rain to the ground. There was no feeling as unbearable and repulsive as the feeling of cardon on limin. All orlians had unique preferences regarding limin sensations, but universally, the feel of cardon was viscerally disliked. The second yellow thing on Orl was the petrification disease.
Ivol flicked a finger, and a set of tools from the table beside the info-server floated over. Awbil was used to the Iclaxians’ casual use of telekinesis, but it was still interesting to watch. He held her leg and carefully took off her shoes. She couldn’t feel his hands, but she knew from experience that although they were metal, they were warm but far too smooth, so they felt uncomfortable on her limin. He plucked one of the floating tools from the air and turned it towards her leg. It was shaped like a large bean, and once he turned it on, it shot a stream of green sanitizing light toward her leg. Ivol moved the light upwards from the tip of her toes to the point where the petrification ended.
After that, he allowed the tool to float upwards, then held his hand beneath the green light. The tool floated back to its place, then Ivol flicked his fingers, and a pack of gloves flew toward him. Awbil noticed that the gloves were designed to make the tips of his metal finger feel blunter. It wasn’t like she would feel it either way, but she appreciated the thought. He put the gloves on, then opened the package of the sicking yellow substance. He scooped out a substantial amount, then began to massage it into her leg.
“Is it cold?” Awbil asked as she watched him meticulously apply the creme, inch by specific inch.
“Yes. The solution must be chilled.”
Awbil nodded in mock understanding. “I’m glad I can’t feel it. How long before we start to see results?… if there will be any.”
“One week, and I’d like to apply it at the same time every day, so please make an effort to be on time.”
“I’ll consider it,” She said, then laughed. She knew he was annoyed, and his bringing it up again made it all the more amusing, causing her to laugh harder.
“Sof. Awbil, stay still.”
“Sorry, it’s just so fun when you show some emotion.”
Ivol squinted his eye but said nothing. He wasn’t sure what she meant by that, as he hadn’t really felt any emotions during their conversation, but he chose not to dampen her joy.
Awbil calmed down, and Ivol continued the application. “You know, I’ve never asked what you think about all this. You’ve all been here for three months now, trying everything to cure this disease. I guess Iclax had to do something as it’s our parent planet, but what do you feel, personally?”
Ivol made a humming sound that Awbil had come to associate with him thinking, then answered. “It is a parent planet’s duty to aid its colony planets. Those are the standard practices cited in the Expansion Accountability Accords.”
Awbil rolled her eyes, then rolled them again to make sure he saw. “Ivol, I know you know what the word personal means. Why did you volunteer to come here?”
Ivol took another scoop of the goop, then began to apply it to her ankles. “This was an assigned role. Not voluntary. I, along with many of the other medics and researchers, were simply selected based on a variety of criteria as the best options to produce results with the cure development for grifal.”
“Oh… that must be awful. Forced to leave your work and come all the way here, only to have your patient late to each appointment.” She laughed, but the sound felt flat.
“We all had the option to decline the assignment. A few did.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“It had been a while since I’d dealt with purely protein-based sophonts. I thought this would be a good way to get back into it. I was also curious about the way grifal spread.”
Awbil said nothing for a while. She was the one who asked, so she should have been ready for whatever answer he gave, but the offhanded way he spoke and the monotonous tone and cadence of his voice grated on her nerves. She sighed and looked away. He’d finished applying the creme, so he took off the gloves, tossed them in the combustion bin, then held his hand under the sanitizing light again.
“If you hadn’t worked with organics for a while, why were you chosen?”
Ivol tilted his head to the side. “You have a lot of questions today, Sof. Awbil.”
“Facing my own death seems to have made me more curious,” she said with a smile. She should have stopped there, but more words spilled out. “I’ve always been content to stay on Orl. I love our flower fields, the way the grass molds to my body, the soft ambient light, and the singing of the Kewl as they fly in the night. I’ve been to Ugwan to feel the fuzzy wind of the moss desert.”
She remembered how the light pink moss stretched to the horizon, and when the wind blew, it carried microscopic spores that buzzed against her limin in the most pleasant way. She’d stripped down completely to fully indulge in one of the most fulfilling limin-aura’s she’d ever experienced. “It was incredible, but all I’ve seen is this planet. There’s a whole galaxy out there, and the first time I meet another race, it’s because I’m dying. Now, I’m so curious about iclaxians, winforans, and all the other sophonts.”
“If one of the treatments works, you will get to see all those things.”
“‘If.’ My sister said ‘when.’ ‘When we get better, I’ll take you to all the planets I’ve been to.’ You know what happened to her?” Ivol said nothing, and Awbil smiled. It looked like a smile reflected from a broken mirror. She leaned into the bed and rolled her shoulder into it to allow her limin fully rub against the fibers. She exhaled slowly. “Anyway, I’m just curious.”
“Before returning to Iclax 23 years ago, I spent 356 years on a small planet called Fimal near the Lond system. During my time there, there was an outbreak of a disease similar to grifal. Fimalians’ bodies are normally gelatinous. The disease caused their bodies to become brittle and crack. The situations are not exact, but the overseer must have decided that that experience would be valuable.”
“Makes sense… were you able to cure the Fimalians?” Awbil sat up, swung her right leg down, then lifted her left leg over the edge. The bed floated down, and she stood up, then grabbed her crutch.
“Their ailment was caused by an infection from a mutated version of a silkan. It’s a common insect on Fimal. Once the cause was identified, a cure came soon after.”
“I wasn’t part of the team that developed the cure.”
Awbil threw her head back and laughed. “You could have just said thanks… but you’d never do that.” She sighed. “Well done for taking care of your patients, and thank you for taking care of me.”
“If you are grateful, be here on time tomorrow.”
Awbil laughed as she limped out of the room.
# # #
“Thank you for coming to find me again,” Awbil said as Ivol helped her out of the hover chair and onto the bed.
“As I have mentioned previously. I would prefer you were here on time, and I didn’t have to come to find you.” Ivol replied.
“I’ll definitely keep that in mind for next time.” Awbil smiled and laid back on the bed.
Ivol stared at the woman as she tried to adjust her body to be more comfortable. It wasn’t an easy effort as her entire lower body and the lower half of her arms had fallen to the petrification disease. She smiled up at him as she rolled her shoulders again. Ivol’s eyes picked up the pinprick points of her limin, which vibrated and responded with each move. The beds were, of course, Orl-made, which meant that the fabric was created with fibers whose molecules vibrated at frequencies that brought the most comfort to orlians. Ivol had made sure this bed was specifically tailored to Awbil’s biology. Now that most of her body had fallen to the disease, no amount of customization would ever allow her to feel comfortable.
“Would you like me to adjust your arms?”
“I’m fine,” She answered and gave one of her habitual smiles.
Ivol turned to the info-server, and looked through the information for today’s session. He’d already memorized all the data but had a habit of double-checking. Given his and all iclaxian’s perfect recollection, his father would have called the behavior unnecessary redundancy. Ivol would have agreed, but still, he re-read the information. This would be Awbil’s 24th session. They’d tested the solution by Cal’elcorn for one week with no noticeable improvements to her condition, and the disease continued to spread. Today would be the second day of testing the paste synthesized by Il’caltin.
“Have you noticed any improvements since yesterday?” Ivol asked after he finished looking through the data.
“Hmmm, I’m not sure. My left pointer finger might have twitched a bit.”
Ivol glanced at the finger. It was the same desaturated yellow as the rest of her petrified flesh. His immediate observation told him that nothing had changed with the finger, but he still picked up his tools and went to examine it. He took the tool and held it over the finger. Three short beams of light were shot into the finger. Ivol turned to the info-server and read the information displayed. As expected, not only had the petrification not been reversed, but it was still spreading.
Ivol felt a subtle flare in the energy behind his eyes, signaling his frustration, but it quickly calmed. They’d been assigned to Orl for one standard month, three local. Within that time, he and the rest of the galaxy had expected that the cure for the disease would have been quickly developed, but still, they were far from even understanding what was happening to the people of Orl. They knew what the disease did. Once it set in, it began breaking down and converting the molecules that made up their bodies into a rubber-like material called hilon.
Hilon was naturally occurring on multiple planets across the galaxy, and Orlians have been in contact with it for millennia, so it wasn’t that the material had somehow become dangerous to them. The worst part was that the petrified body parts behaved differently when connected to a living body. Ivol figured some kind of mana interaction was causing the discrepancy between their lab tests and live subjects. Unless they moved to testing on live orlians they would have to keep on with this guessing game.
It was obvious that this medication would also be a failure, but Ivol proceeded with administering it again. He absently answered Awbil’s usual bombardment of silly questions as he used a brush to paint on a thick white paste that should have broken up the molecules of hilon and converted them back to regular orlian proteins. Ivol had no expectations for it to work.
“This one smells great,” Awbil said. “Is it powdery?”
“It’s more like a paste.”
“Hmm, will it work?”
He felt her staring at him but didn’t look up. She was silent for so long, Ivol thought she was done speaking, but then she spoke again, in a tone he’d never heard from her.
“I kind of scared, you know?” It was somber, and her natural voice was much deeper than the forced high tone she usually spoke in. “Have some sympathy, Ivol. I’m scared.”
Ivol paused briefly to allow an emotion he couldn’t decipher pass through, then he continued with the application, making sure to leave no gaps. He couldn’t see her, but he knew she was smiling. She carried on the conversation with her usual lightness, and Ivol answered a barge of silly questions before sending her off.
He helped her into her mind-linked hover chair and watched her leave. Once she was out, Ivol slumped slightly and began re-reading the data again and adding new findings, of which there were none. He could already picture the diatribe he would receive from Vin’Colax, the mission’s leader, about how their failure was reflecting poorly on Iclax and the criticism they were receiving from the rest of the galaxy. Ivol released a whirring sound of irritation. He couldn’t care less about the galaxy’s criticism and certainly didn’t see why he had to be held accountable for another planet’s genetic weaknesses. After all, it was common for weaker races to succumb to illnesses.
Ivol tapped his metal fingers against the table, staring at the door Awbil had left through. Yes, he couldn’t be held accountable for the disease or the fact that a cure was proving difficult to develop. He felt no guilt towards that at all, but… he tapped his fingers again, listening to their sharp clinking. The solidity of each tap, tap, tap, a declaration of the infallibility of his own body. Awbil, even without the petrification disease, could never hold such certainty. Her body, as with all orlian bodies, fully healthy, had a shelf life of only a couple centuries. Such a short span of time would not even be enough for him to read one section of the books in the Recalson library.
A beep sounded, and he glanced at the info-server. He flicked a finger, and the message opened. A quick glance committed it to memory. Another promising lab test. Another serum to try. Ivol wondered how many more potential solutions Awbil would live to test. At the rate they were going, he knew she would die or be too far along with the disease before a cure was finally found. He closed his eye and allowed a brief moment to acknowledge the hint of pain that thought caused. He opened his eye and signed off on the message to acknowledge that it had been received.
# # #
Awbil was already on the bed when he entered the room. The disease had progressed so much that she couldn’t control her hover-chair anymore, even with a neural link, and so a nurse was in charge of bringing her to her appointments, which meant that she was always on time now. Ivol briefly glanced at the info-server, but instead of reading the information like he usually did at the start of each session, he turned towards Awbil and started massaging her body, starting with her hands. As he worked, her bright pink eyes followed his every move. They were the only part of her body that could still move. From the tip of her toes to the top of her head, bald except for patches of her blue hair, everything had turned dull yellow and was unyielding as hard rubber. Of course, all her limin were dead now, and for an orlian, there could be no greater punishment. Her mouth was forced open as several pieces of equipment helped her breathe and take in nutrients, all in an attempt to keep her brain alive.
With his acute senses, Ivol could tell that the petrification was growing each second. She would die today, probably within the hour. He kept uselessly massaging her unyielding limbs. It was a futile effort. Nothing he did now would help her or make the petrification process less uncomfortable. He stopped and floated back a step. He met her gaze and held it. If she could still move her mouth, she would probably have smiled. She always smiled for no reason, and the smiles were hardly ever real. Each one felt like an attempt at joy or a prayer for hope. Each time she was late, and he was forced to go find her, it was all an attempt at something, a reach for levity she could no longer truly feel but couldn’t give up on.
Ivol watched as her left eye, bloodshot from being forced open by petrified eyelids, also began to yellow and harden. In a matter of seconds, there was no longer any white of the sclera or pink of pupils. Just hard, yellow, hilon. He could immediately see the panic she was feeling in her other eye. It seemed he would have to watch her die. She had no living relatives. Her one sister had passed a local month before Ivol arrived on the planet.
Ivol tilted his head at a slight tingle at the base of his skull. It was so minuscule that he might have missed it if he had not been so still and in tune with his mind. He was going to ignore it, but then he felt it again. He glanced back at Awbil, and the desperation in her eye was unmistakable. Even as she stared hard at him, the edges of the whites of her remaining eye were already yellowing.
“What is it, Sof. Awbil?” He asked, establishing a mind link. The tingling he’d felt was her attempting to use her ridiculously weak orlian telepathic abilities to try to talk to him. He wanted to ignore it, as he wasn’t sure what good it would do him to hear her dying words. But knowing her, she wouldn’t stop until she got a reaction out of him, or… died trying.
“I can’t speak anymore.” She sent back. Her unskilled and untrained mind could not control what was shared.
All her emotions poured into Ivol. The immensity of her pain overwhelmed him. It was deeply emotional, filled with sadness, fear, and regrets. He could also feel the facade of lightheartedness she was hoping to portray, as well as the deeply buried resentment she had towards him. He quickly cut the link.
Ivol shook his head several times and tried to reassert his mental balance. His body trembled, and green sparks bounced between his limbs. After a few moments, his mind reasserted itself, and Awbil’s feelings, along with his own, settled beneath the surface as they were supposed to. He shook himself out one more time, then reestablished the mind link, this time carefully moderating what he received from Awbil to surface thoughts.
“Are you ok?” She asked, and the concern she felt transferred to his mind with nothing more. “I’ve never seen you react like that before.”
“I’m fine. I made a mistake with the initial link. It was pulling too deeply from your mind.” He made sure only his words and no emotion were transmitted.
“Oh, sorry. This was the only way I could think to speak with you. I have all these tubes shoved down my mouth.” An attempt at levity
“Yes, your vocal cords are also petrified.” An unnecessary statement.
“Right.” A wave of despair. “I just wanted to thank you. You know I’ve been deliberately making things hard for you. I guess I needed something to rebel against or a way to express my frustration.”
Ivol remained silent and allowed her to speak. He didn’t even know how he would respond if he wanted to.
“I worked at a flower shop. I liked the feel of petals on my limin… For my sister and I, flowers and grass created the most wonderful sensations. I wanted to feel a limin-aura one more time.”
Her mental voice was weakening, and Ivol watched her pupil turn yellow.
“I was mostly happy, but I guess I didn’t know what I was missing, so I couldn’t really compare… I admit I’ve been a bit envious of you, so I teased more than necessary… I… Sorr… Thn… you.”
The mental connection cut like the snapping of a cord. Ivol turned to the info-server and logged her time of death. He also began documenting her final moments. Information about the final body parts petrified and the speed of petrification could be helpful for future cases. He had all the data in his head and only needed to input it. Yet, his fingers did not move. His eye remained stuck at the time of death. The numbers, lit in a subtle blue glow, seemed to stare back at him. Death. He turned back to Awbil’s body. Death. He stared at the corpse and could not look away. Death. A lump of hilon, the shape of Awbil. Strands of blue hair still falling. Tubes forced into the mouth.
He, too, would die one day, but it would not look like this. He knew that with certainty. Unless he was met by some freak accident, his death would be forecasted for at least a year by signals from his brain. He would have enough time to get his final account in order. Enough time to do anything he’d put off. When the moment came, he would report to a raigol, where his peers and offspring, if he had any, would visit him to say their final goodbyes. He would lay his body in a prepared casket, then fade away as the krynor within his body lost power. His body would be melted down, made into a sculpture and plank honoring his greatest achievements, and placed among others in the spiraling gallery of the raigol. It would be a natural thing that most sophonts were bound to experience. It would not be the horrid fight against one’s own body. It would not be to disease. It would never be so ugly and unbridled.
The shaking started in his hands, then worked its way to the rest of his body. His gaze was fixed on the corpse as the moments he’d spent with the woman flashed through his mind with perfect recollection. The way she had laughed so heartily and smiled when they’d first met. The petrification had only been on her toe then, and she had full confidence she would recover. As time passed, the smiles became more forced, her voice raised to an unnatural pitch of feigned joy. The lateness to appointments, the lapses when her true feelings showed. Each moment highlighted her fragility.
He recalled when she compared his metal body to the stiffness which the disease forced on her. She used to joke that she was becoming more like an Iclaxian: cold and unfeeling. But in that, she was wrong. Ivol felt. All iclaxians’ felt, but feelings could be kept at bay until a more appropriate time to digest them was available. He had done just that. His priority was her treatment. The healing of her body. He’d made all the best choices available for him to do that. He rigorously vetted and studied any potential cures brought to him. He checked and re-checked all information to ensure that he missed nothing in her treatment. He’d wanted her to live. Her death was not his fault, but irrational guilt hammered at his mind. What could he have done differently? He had seen many patients die. Some genetic weaknesses could not be overcome. There was no reason to feel so strongly about the death. It was not his fault. Rationality should have asserted itself, but it did not. Still, his mind reeled.
“Awbil.” His voice was filled with static. His body trembled so much, he could no longer keep himself afloat, and for the first time in thousands of years, he fell to the ground, body parts piled atop each other like a heap of scrap metal.
He stopped fighting, stopped trying to rationalize his emotions back to their proper place, and let himself feel. Sadness and guilt were the primary emotions. He sat with each of them. He may not have been able to stop the course of the disease, but perhaps he could have indulged her flights of fancy more. Made her more comfortable mentally and emotionally. He hadn’t even tried. The next emotion was a different type of guilt, which disconcerted him more than any other because of the sheer irrationality of it. For the first time, he questioned why he would live over a thousand times the life span of Obil’s even at her healthiest. What sort of power and coincidence stacked the cards so unfairly.
His body shuddered on the ground. His mind became too overwhelmed and forcefully shut down. As Ivol faded into forced sleep, his eyes lingered on Awbil.