A Single Soft Step

by D. A. D’Amico

“You were difficult to find.” Puja shouted into the air, unsure where to direct her attention. The chamber crawled with a greasy pink light, illumination sliding to the corners of her vision like wind-blown tears. The delicate aromas of jasmine and saffron tickled her tongue, proof they’d been rummaging through her mind.

“You were not.” The broken glass syllables shattered in her head, words sharp and high-pitched. A cold shimmer ran up Puja’s spine.

“What has become of the many others sent to find you?”

A cascade of pale yellow membranes, flexible and dry, fluttered past her face from an unseen source. “They were found… wanting.”

The words tasted purple, a grainy synthasia of aromatic turmeric and rich lilac. Puja spat. Grass slid over the tops of her thick boots, branching bamboo-like through her fallen helmet.

Her voice trembled. “And am I wanting?”

“Are you?” It seemed to be laughing, playing with her.

At the core, she knew. She’d done so many bad things after Raj Shish’s accident, hurt too many people. This was her penance, her last chance to redeem herself. Stealing the ship might have been a bad choice with which to begin, but it was fight or flight by the end, and she wouldn’t kill. She thought of Raj Shish’s body, suspended, frozen in time in his beryllium coffin. Would the teksh save him? Did any sentient beings have the power to defy death?

“I came a long way to find you.” Puja breathed deeply. Olive-colored plasma, radiant and ferocious, melted into small protrusions that jostled back and forth like mice beneath a carpet. She resisted the urge to stamp on them.

“When all that was required was a single soft step.”

“What do you mean?”
Raj Shish had told her, near the end, she was a single soft step from enlightenment. She hadn’t understood him then. She didn’t understand the teksh now.

“The beginning of the journey sets its direction.”

“You speak in riddles.” Her vision wavered and darkened, snapping back as if someone were playing with a light switch. They were in her mind.

“We speak in truths. You hear in riddles, because you do not know the answers.”

“What truths?” Puja licked her lips, wondering if the stories were true. The teksh were an ancient race, elusive. Sightings were rare, contact even more so. Raj Shish had wanted this, but now he was gone and Puja’s reasons for coming had changed.  I think this is implied in the previous paragraph, and finishing with the previous sentence gives more impact.

“My need is urgent.” She shifted her focus, concentrating on nothing, examining everything. Reality faltered. Her skin became soft and gummy, and her thoughts fled.

The air chuckled. A statue carved from smoke appeared, ethereal, inconstant. It vanished as she turned. “You do not even know time. It teases you, tickling as a lover whose lips quickly brush the nape of your neck and move on, leaving you flush and incapable of reason.”

Raj Shish came to her mind, his thin oval face hidden by a sumptuous black moustache as he peered at her with shining obsidian eyes. It wasn’t memory. He stood at the edge of an endless abyss, a landscape of flowers in violet, ochre, and teal. Then he turned, fading from her mind. Frantically, she searched her thoughts for him, but found only the lingering scent of musk. The teksh had excised Raj Shish, leaving only crumbs for her to weep over.

#

Puja plummeted into an elongated funnel, spinning as quickly as her mind had tumbled when the teksh had cornered her craft. They’d spat her ship into the bland blackness of Einsteinian space-time like an errant pomegranate seed, and had taken her as she’d shifted frantically in and out of the craft’s mechanical systems.

At first it’d seemed like a blessing, the answer to her prayers, but as the interview progressed she realized the teksh were far too alien. Raj Shish’s passing meant little to them.

“Am I going to vanish like the others?” She gasped, her tongue swollen and dry, her breath catching like bile in her throat. She trembled as she awaited an answer.

The atmosphere seemed to solidify, congealing into thick tar. Ripples divided oxygen from nitrogen, carbon dioxide from trace elements.

“Can you tell the difference?”

“In the air?” Pujah feared to draw breath, afraid to disrupt the molasses flow of currents around her.

“In yourself.”

Frantic, she lifted her hands, expecting–something. She felt her chest, her face. “Have you done something to change me?”

“Every being changes in contact. We all rub off on each other.” The teksh found this very amusing, and the laughter went on for minutes.

The air compressed, fractured. Puja felt as if she were in the center of a diamond. The continuous maneuvering of reality made her nauseous.

“What do you want of me?”

“You are the last.” A frail stick frame appeared, its immense flattened head studied her with thin slit eyes. Violet facets twinkled. It was a face she recognized, or rather a collection of features she was familiar with, pieces taken from various men she’d known.

“The last what? Have you done something to my people?” Humanity rested on a million worlds spread throughout the Milky Way. Were the teksh powerful enough to extinguish them all?.

“You are the last contact, our final attempt.”

Puja stumbled as reality compressed. Walls of brocaded silk the color of old bone fluttered once, flexing as if drawing a single deep breath.

#

She was back in her own craft.

“Wait! I need your help.” Her mind reached for the ship’s neural interface. She didn’t know if the teksh even had a vessel in the traditional sense.

“Indeed.”

Silken walls became diamond, unyielding, oppressive. Crystals of ice pierced her veins, frosted her eyes. She couldn’t breathe. She tried to build calm over her panic, but there was something deeper at work.

“I cannot live without him. He means everything to me.”

“You possess all you can of him. Your dreams are his existence now.”

The ship turned inside-out. Puja stood on a curving plate of gold metal, bathed in starlight from the nearby Oudjji Nebula. Memories of Raj Shish returned. They knocked her to her knees as love and anger, friendship and passion, surged into her mind. She fought for breath as the craft flexed beneath her.

Raj Shish’s sarcophagus had vanished.

“Please.”

“The humblest soul is the sum of the universe. A single grain of sand causes ripples in the largest ocean.” The voice came from everywhere in a flare of neon fire. “Now, he means this much to us.”

Puja could not believe it. She’d done so much, changed so many lives in her single minded quest, and still she’d failed. How could she go on?

The teksh presence touched her lightly, like a mother’s kiss. “Begin with a single soft step.”

In February of 2015, the author underwent emergency open heart surgery. The event, including a slow and painful recovery, profoundly altered the author’s vision of life, the universe, and everything. This story reflects that altered state.

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