transcending silence... 2005 Issue

 

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Women of the Skies

 

Angie Torres *

 

Le’lan winced in pain, but she did not cringe from Neri’s touch. It was a soft touch, a caress that softened the muscles and brought a smile to Le’lan’s lips. Neri helped Le’lan stand. Le’lan was weak, and painful coughs racked her lungs. There were no spots covering her body yet, but they would appear soon. Already the doctors and the Grand Chancellor had been in contact with her. From there the contagion would spread, hitting the settlement hard. But right now all Neri could think about was taking care of Le’lan. She knew that this was necessary. Le’lan had already chosen to die. Now Neri just had to accept that. Accepting was the hardest part.

_________________________________

Neri’s lips split open in a grimace as she gasped for air. Her body grew and contorted as she struggled to win the battle against sleep. Her eyes fluttered as rays of artificial illumination pressed against her lids. Pulling the covers off her stiff body, she yanked herself out of bed and thrust herself onto a hard metal chair before her body utterly collapsed. Neri was not a morning person and had never been. Perhaps it was better to say that she simply did not enjoy waking up from an immense, wonderful sleep, since there really is no morning in space. There is the sun, there are planets, and there are stars, but there is no morning as she had always known it. She took naps when she was told to, but when she awoke she was never quite fulfilled. She always awoke gasping and contorted, fleeting images of her dreams lost in the vastness of the human mind.

While quietly nestled within her thoughts, she heard the beeping of the food accommodator. This wonderful machine, by monitoring her body signature, was able to prepare food when she was hungry. She would have a craving, a sudden rumbling in her body, and the accommodator would already have the food prepared. True, the food was brown and mushy and looked like budong. Anyone simply judging by looks would have quickly grown nauseous. But it tasted amazing! There was simply nothing like it on Earth and it contained all the nutrients you could possibly need. She reached over and grabbed the bowl, bringing a mouthful of brownness to her lips. Having grown up on earth, Neri still relished the technological wonders that were so abundant here. She remembered the first time she was modified for space travel. They had inserted bio-mechinoid translation chips. These chips could translate any language in their database, which included just about every language ever spoken on earth. It was amazing technology; something she could never have imagined existed in her childhood. It was a technology of dreams. She had to be operated on many times before they would accept her petition to live here.

Specifically, ‘here’ was BOSA, also known as Base of Scientific Analysis. BOSA is the biggest scientific research and analysis vessel in the ever growing armada of space vessels. It is owned by a contingent of various governments and countries, who were, for once, brought together by their need to outdistance each other. Neri thoughtfully rolled the mush around her mouth, allowing certain enzymes within the brownness to cleanse her teeth. As she swallowed her mouth felt minty fresh.

She stood up, placed the bowl and spoon back in the food accommodator, and quickly dressed. The room was at more than optimal temperature, but she felt a chill creeping around her skin as the little hairs on her arms and legs grew rigid with expectation. Before she was completely robed, she heard the door to the outer chamber swing open as someone punched in her access code. She finished dressing and stood at attention just as Commandant Pleizar sauntered in. He took a seat in the chair she had just vacated, and she continued to stand.

“Relax, Neri. Have a seat. I just wanted to see how you were doing with your big flight coming up soon and all. I thought maybe you would reconsider my offer. It has been a long time since you have had a partner and I’m sure the Generals are beginning to wonder what’s wrong with you,” he uttered while slowly tracing the metal outline of the chair.

Neri sighed. People were usually very relaxed in space. Perhaps it was the nagging feeling that you were constantly on the verge of death, like playing soccer at the edge of a cliff. Rank was almost never bandied about, and no one bothered to stand ceremonially whenever the Grand Chancellor walked into a room. Unfortunately, Pleizar loved to make the hierarchy apparent. If it wasn’t for the fact that she was a woman, she would have been Commander a long time ago, and he made sure she understood that. It seemed that Pleizar had gotten it into his mind that she would be his next partner no matter how he would get her into bed. He had taken to cornering her when he could, sneaking into her place, and making sure she realized that he had the power in their relationship. As much as she enjoyed his company, she had learned a long time ago to trust her urges on such matters—right now her urge said run.

She smiled at him. “Actually, I’m feeling a little tired. I’m afraid if I sit for too long I’ll simply fall back asleep. I was just on my way to see...” Neri was interrupted by a loud eruption from her communication device.

“A422 called to R78 repeat A422 called to R78.”

Neri rushed out the door leaving Pleizar behind her: “I’m being summoned!”

She threw the words over her shoulder at Pleizar and ran. She just wanted to put as much space between the two of them as possible. Within a couple of minutes her heart was pounding in her ribcage as she coded her way into research room 78. Not a single person looked up as she entered the room, but she quickly found Le’lan—the head researcher at the wormhole project—nestled in the corner of the lab, sifting through various data entry logs.

“How would you like to make a quick trip home?” Le’lan asked, as Neri sat down.

“How quick?” Neri replied, smiling. Le’lan finally looked up from her data entry to see Neri’s smile, and she reciprocated.

“Well, it seems that there might be a change in plans. As far as I’ve been able to plot, we should have a wormhole occurrence within the next week. You’ll need supplies for your vessel, and I thought maybe you’d like a few days on earth before...”

“Don’t we have supplies here? I’d rather not make the extra trip,” Neri exclaimed, unable to explain why she did not want to take the trip. Her last trip home had produced less than satisfactory results. In truth, she wanted nothing more than to stay in her quarters all day entertaining Le’lan. They had once shared a bed, why not again?

“I thought you’d want to see your home planet! I’ve heard wonders about its beauty, though I’ve never seen it myself. I would take the trip down with you if I wasn’t busy trying to map out these last entries.”

Le’lan said these last words quietly, but she could not blanket the pain that she felt. She had been born on this ship and had never set foot on earth, and she knew that she would never be allowed to. It was all part of an experiment that would gage how well humans could do living their entire lives in space. Along with most of BOSA’s population, she would never get to set foot on the planet of her ancestors. The long-term affects of space travel must be discovered, and these people were the lab rats.

“How about we forget about this trip home and meet for dinner tonight?” Neri asked, her heart pounding as she finally decided to trust her voice to speak for her body.

Le’lan looked somewhat uneasy. “I just have so much work to do…”

Neri sighed, “Le’lan, you cannot avoid me forever.”

“Nor do I wish to. How about we go grab lunch now?”

“I’m not really hungry now, but…"

“Well, don’t worry. Neither am I. My place?”

Le’lan stood up and walked over to Neri placing her lips agonizingly close to Neri’s ear.

“Why don’t you meet me there? I’ll be out of here in a couple of minutes?” Neri, unsure of how to respond, simply stood up and walked out of R78. Le’lan sifted through a few more data chips and glanced around to see if anyone would notice her sudden flight before she followed Neri out the door.

_________________________________

A few hours later, Le’lan strolled into the lab with a big smile on her face. As more time passed, the same expression brightened her features. She couldn’t wait to escape her work and to find Neri. She was called to a last-minute meeting that would once again make sure that everything with the experiment was running as planned. It had also been decided quite some time ago that somebody should accompany A422 on her journey. It should be a scientist, someone to gage readings and help guide. Many names had been thrown around and finally brought to the astronaut’s attention. Apparently, Neri had chosen Le’lan. Le’lan wasn’t the least bit surprised—she was already prepared. Neri and she had decided to do a test run tonight. When the meeting was over, Le’lan tried to escape, but the Grand Chancellor summoned her over. As the other board members retreated, she sat down and attempted to smile.

“I suspect everything is going as planned?” The Chancellor spoke quietly.

“Oh yes,” Le’lan replied. “Absolutely perfect.”

“I’m afraid you might be getting too involved. Remember that your job always comes first. Many people here do not appreciate certain kinds of relations. Watch yourself. That is not a threat, it's a warning.” Le’lan, visibly upset, stood up and made a motion to leave. The Grand Chancellor spoke again before she could leave.

“Le’lan, I like you. You know, you are a beautiful woman and a great resource here. I hate to see you upset.” He grasped her arm forcefully and pulled her back down into her seat. “You have such intelligence! Just imagine how far you can go,” he said while stroking her cheek.

Le’lan’s facial expression made it quite obvious that she did not appreciate this unwanted contact. He removed his hand from her cheek and placed it on her thigh.

"I suppose you’ve gotten wind of the protests?”

“Well, I’ve heard them mentioned.”

“Well Le’lan, let me explain something to you. There are a lot of people on earth who do not think we should be out here in space. There is no need to worry over them. But you do need to worry about yourself. This is a big money project. You know that. Where do you think we get the money from? Do you think that taxes from America and England and a few other shitty little countries could possible pay for all of this? Let me warn you now; the people who are really paying for this, they do not reward failure. You better not fail.”

The Grand Chancellor waved her away, and she stood up and walked out of the room. She laughed quietly to herself. Did he honestly think she didn’t know whom she was working for? It was preposterous that she would work her entire life in a research lab and never question what the research was for. Le’lan knew that Truecore, a conglomerate of 6 major companies, were really paying for this knowledge. She knew why they wanted it too. In the end she would come out on top.

_________________________________

Le’lan had just returned to work, and Neri could think of nothing but the wonderful afternoon they had just spent together. She was glad she had avoided another trip to Earth as the last had been absolutely disastrous. She remembered walking out of the Space Center and seeing throngs of people yelling and chanting, “Space is not our place!” It was a disturbing scene, and Neri had wondered if these people were afraid of technology, afraid of taking that extra step forward. Those were the type of people who held on to traditions and feared any disruption of their lives. Neri’s attention had been caught by a beautiful woman, about 50 or so, with long, radiant grey hair and charcoal eyes. These same eyes glared at Neri. Such mystery was held underneath the lustrous lashes and within the glimmering charcoal pools.

“Are you one of them?” she had whispered in Neri’s ear.

“I don’t know what you mean” was Neri’s reply.

“Do you know what they’re going to do?”

“Who?”

“The space settlement, their research—do you know what they plan on doing with that information? Most of it is classified, but that doesn’t make it a secret. We know what’s going on up there. The companies that sponsor all that research are also the companies that outsource jobs to developing nations and argue that they’re helping those people by giving 12-hour shifts with one piss break. These are the very same people who don’t give a shit about humanity. If there is anyone else out there in the universe, these people will destroy them. If you think these companies are doing this research because they are generally curious, then you’re an idiot.”

The protestor turned away from Neri and began her chant again. Neri fled, unsure of her safety in the middle of this protest. A few hours later, looking down from the roof of the Space Center, she had seen the police coming. What had been a calm protest eventually turned into a riot, and police ran in with nightsticks, arresting anyone they could catch. As the protestors became an angry mob, the police pulled out the hoses. Neri remembered the tears slipping down her cheeks as blood and water mixed in the street.

_________________________________

That evening Le’lan and Neri were seated in the tiny RW3 and ready to take their first flight together. Strapped in, Neri glanced back at Le’lan, gave a quick nod and the cargo bay door opened. The sudden atmospheric drop in the bay shook the ship for a second, but then it was smooth flying. The two soared through space, Neri practicing her flying, Le’lan testing her meters and machines to be sure they worked. Everything seemed as if it would run perfectly. Now they simply had to wait for the wormhole.

“We should probably go in now. It’s getting late,” Le’lan said, somewhat bored with all the stars.

She had seen the vastness and emptiness of space her entire life. To Neri it was exciting to navigate among the stars, to maneuver through null gravity. Neri turned for one last loop when she saw an opening. Le’lan’s whirring technological devices began to beep faster and faster. Neri was only a pilot, but she realized that something was about to happen without the whirring, beeping machinery.

“The wormhole is early!” Le’lan cried out in alarm.

“Oh,” said Neri. She had already figured that out but now didn’t really seem like a good time to say that.

“Oh Budong! It’s beautiful! We must get closer so that I can get better readings!” Neri manipulated the ship closer in order to please her co-pilot, but something was nagging her.

She didn’t feel quite comfortable with this whole thing. Something was telling her to go back home and crawl into bed. Reaching down, she felt for her pulse weapon, knowing that it wouldn’t really help, but feeling comfort in the simple knowledge that it was there. She felt the weight of the gravity from the wormhole pulling on her ship. It was mesmerizing. It throbbed and pulsed and swirled like a tornado in space. It pulled her in, made her want to dive into the vastness of its anonymity. Without a second thought, Neri dove in.

Le’lan began to scream. “No, what are you doing? We aren’t fully prepared! We don’t have any supplies!”

Neri ignored her and expertly navigated the turns with speed. It was a tunnel that seemed to stretch on forever. The end came into sight, and Neri aimed for it. As she watched, the hole began to eclipse, their only way out closed. Thinking quickly Neri aimed for the nearest wall. Perhaps it was solid, perhaps not, she concluded. There was really only one way to find out.

With a sudden explosion of sound they burst through the wall of the wormhole and came to a complete stop. BOSA was gone, but earth could be seen in the distance. Neri headed for earth. She wanted to say so much to Le’lan. She wanted to call Le’lan’s attention to the fact that BOSA was missing for one, but the gagging noises coming from behind Neri was enough to keep her quiet about her observations for now.

Neri was uncontrollably excited. Her toes wiggled with happiness, her knees shook with excitement, and her fingers throbbed with exultation. She had navigated a wormhole! Yes, of course others had done it before but she had done it and come out without a single scratch. It was almost too much energy for her body to contain. It seeped out of her pores and threatened to explode within her gut.

Le’lan, on the other hand, was not full of happiness. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t full of much because she had just vomited her entire dinner in a little baggie and flushed it out of the air lock. Gaining her composure, she threw a withering glance at Neri.

“What the hell did you just do? You just completely ignored my orders! We could be dead! Get back to BOSA right now!”

“If you hadn’t noticed, BOSA seems to be gone. Earth is our second best option.”

“BOSA can’t be gone! Dammit, I can’t go to Earth!”

“We’re about to make an exception, unless you want to die out here,” Neri continued, flying a direct path to earth.

When they arrived they hid RW3 as best they could before they continued on foot to find someplace to rest. The sun beat upon their backs, and they became tired very easily, not used to the heavy gravity of the earth. Neri glanced at Le’lan and realized that she already needed a break.

“Not a great way to spend your first day on earth, huh?”

Le’lan turned to Neri and spoke softly. “Neri, there is so much I must tell you! On BOSA we were constantly watched. This is the first time I have felt truly free. Nobody is watching over my back, nobody is listening to me speak, and nobody is checking my papers to make sure my work is progressing sufficiently. Even when we stole away yesterday and spent the afternoon together, they knew!”

“Le’lan, I think that perhaps the oxygen or the gravity or some kind of bacteria must be affecting you! You sound quite paranoid,” Neri said with a little uncomfortable laugh.

“This is true, I must sound completely mad, but I assure you I have never spoken more truth in my life! My entire life I spent on BOSA, and I know that it is not just a ship. It contains knowledge you could never imagine. Our section does research on wormholes. Another section does research on communicable diseases and another concentrates on human genetics. We are kept completely separate from each other for a reason. By keeping the projects separate, they are making sure that we don’t piece everything together. Imagine if someone could harness the wormhole and use it for safe travel throughout the universe! Imagine if someone could harness all communicable diseases and possess not only the antivirus but also the means to begin a plague! What if someone could splice human genes and create a genetically improved human? Now just imagine if the power to all this lay within one group of people. The power of life and death lies in the hands of Truecore if they discover this knowledge.”

Throughout his time Neri seemed a little more than confused. This sounded like the rambling of the protestors, but lately she had realized that the impossible was often quite the opposite. In one day she had flown through a wormhole, landed on earth with Le’lan against orders, and heard that her whole life as a soldier and pilot was in fact serving some evil purpose. For the third time that day she decided to trust her urges. Neri quickly grabbed her pulse pistol, set it on stun, and shot Le’lan. If they were going to figure out how to get home, it wasn’t going to happen if Le’lan got heat delirium and passed out while walking. Perhaps they both just needed some sleep.

Neri picked up Le’lan and carried her back to RW3. When they returned, she made a fire and watched the sunset over the horizon. Before long she was drifting away into a deep sleep.

_________________________________


Le’lan awoke first and screamed. As Neri’s eyelids lifted, she saw a great many torches surrounding her. She could not see the faces holding the torches or Le’lan. She felt many hands grabbing her and a prick on the base of her spine before her mind completely blanked out.

When she awoke again she was covered by some rough blankets and she felt the curve of Le’lan’s smooth body next to her’s. Her first thought was about the wonderfully deep sleep from which she had awoken. She had dreamt a wonderful dream! She whispered to Le’lan, intending to share her dream, but before they could speak to each other, Neri heard footsteps coming forward.

“We saw you come from the sky and we know you are here to help us,” spoke a deep and reverberating voice.

Neri could understand the stranger, but if she spoke could the stranger understand? Let’s see how well that translator chip works, she thought to herself. And when she thought the words, they came out in a strange and unfamiliar language.

“Who are you?” she asked gravely, trying to keep the fear from shaking her voice.

“We are the people of the trees, the people of the rivers, and the people of the land. You are the people of the skies. Will you help us?”

Neri wanted to explain that they could help no one; that Le’lan and she needed more help than they could possibly give.

Le’lan interrupted her, “What ails you?” Neri heard the words, foreign and distant, but understood their content.

“I am called Macias. My people are sick from an ailment carried by the men that come from beyond the endless river. I am a medicine woman, but I cannot help them.”

Le’lan stood and extended her hand to Neri. Neri, grasping it, pulled her weight upwards to stand. Le’lan spoke again. “Show us,” she said. Neri and Le’lan followed Macias to the tent far away from the fire. Inside on the floor was the body of a young boy, dead. The boy was covered with giant red bulbous lesions, and his empty eyes stared upwards. Le’lan quickly looked away before walking out the tent. The other two followed.

Talking in her familiar tongue, she spoke to Neri. “Neri, that kid had smallpox!”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s been eradicated since the 20th century! No one has seen smallpox for 200 years! Of course I’m not sure, but it is the best guess that I have! We cannot help these people.” Neri quietly pondered words before speaking to the old medicine woman.

“We need a place to sit and consider this.” Macias nodded and led them away to a private tent. She bowed out into the darkness of the night and left Le’lan and Neri to talk.

“What do you know about this disease?” Neri asked.

“Maybe you’ll believe me now instead of stunning me.”

“I am sorry about that.”

“Shut up. Just listen. When I was just an intern I was pretty interested in communicable diseases. I remember listening to the doctors and the scientists talk about how smallpox was used as biological warfare to conquer and control various groups of people. If that is what’s happening here, then we most certainly aren’t on earth as we know it. Look at this place. We’re in the middle of nowhere living in tents! It’s like we’ve been thrown backwards through space and time!”

“Enough with the theoretical budong! Are you saying that we’ve been hijacked by time?”

“Yep.”

“And now we’re stuck in this place where people are being exterminated through means of biological warfare?”

“Right again. More specifically, I think that this is one of the tribes of Ancient America. The tents, the language, everything is ancient. These people were almost exterminated by smallpox in an effort to colonize the area. The Europeans came to the Americas and made sure that the native populations couldn’t fight back. If all your people are dying, and there is an invasion on your soil, what can you do about it?"

“So what do we do?”

“We can’t help these people. If we try, we might just make things worse. If we have actually traveled through time then this is our history. Theoretically, if we alter our past we also change the future."

“You are suggesting that we just leave these people and save ourselves!”

“What else can we do?”

“We must help them!”

“That isn’t even an option. Don’t you understand? Now we must do what we can to help our own people. I know what’s going on up there, even if you don’t believe me. I will stop it.”

Neri nodded, trying to find another option. Le’lan was right. It seemed as if Le’lan was always right. Neri had waited her entire life for this mission. She had given her life to become a soldier and an astronaut. Now she was beginning to question the very thread that held the fabric of her life together. The protests, Le’lan, everything was beginning to come together. Neri’s mind was conflicted, and the only option she had left was to trust Le’lan. If this was in fact earth, they could irrevocably alter the future without meaning to. It was vital that they escape. Neri sent a messenger for Macias.

“What have you concluded?” she asked as she entered the tent.

“We must return to our ship in order to better decide how to help your people,” Neri replied.

Macias nodded. Two tall bronzed statuesque men appeared in the doorway.

“They will take you to your ship.”

The men began to walk, and so Le’lan and Neri followed. While they walked the two men showed signs of sickness. One sweated profusely, as if overtaken by fever. The other had the beginnings of the lesions covering his head and arms. Both were unable to control their coughing and sneezing fits. The two men were no fight for Neri. When they reached RW3, Neri quickly stunned them and climbed up into her ship, lifting Le’lan behind her. Le’lan began to take measurements with her many bleeping machines as Neri powered up the ship.

“We should have enough fuel to get us back if the wormhole is still up there,” she said after many minutes of intense concentration.

“I can’t be sure from down here. I can’t get an accurate reading,” Le’lan replied.

“Well,” Neri spoke confidently, “better now than never…” She looked out at the two stunned figures, feeling a sense of regret.

“Do you think they’ll be o.k.?” she asked Le’lan.

“No,” Le’lan responded softly. “I think that they will die. So will we one day.”

_________________________________


Neri awoke to a stabbing pain in her neck. Her eyes opened, and before her stood the Grand Chancellor. Lying on the table next to her was Le’lan. She watched as someone injected Le’lan in the neck with a long needle. Le’lan’s eyelids fluttered as she awoke. The Grand Chancellor spoke.

“You two have done well. My superiors should be happy. You should of course enter your experiences into the databanks as soon as possible. You may return to your quarters as soon as you are ready. I must first congratulate the two of you for being the first human beings to travel through a wormhole and survive. Tell me, what was on the other side?”

Neri looked over at Le’lan. She was utterly speechless. They were safe. Or were they? Le’lan had said much that Neri would never forget. Neri almost wished they had stayed on Earth.

“You will receive a full report as soon as possible,” Le’lan said. The Grand Chancellor nodded and turned to exit the room. Le’lan and Neri were left alone as the doctors followed the Grand Chancellor out of the room. Le’lan looked feverish and tired. She looked as if…

“I'm sick.” She spoke quietly as if only to herself.

"From the planet?” Neri questioned.

“Yes,” Le’lan replied, every word forced out painfully. “Soon I will have the pox.”

Neri nodded, finally understanding. Le’lan had been born on BOSA. She had not received the smallpox vaccination as a child like Neri did. Soon she would succumb to sickness as would most of the people living here on BOSA. Once the disease got started, it would ravish the entire settlement. Anyone born here would die simply because they had not received the vaccination. Truecore would be thwarted because of a little thing called smallpox. Millions of dollars would be lost. It seemed quite silly actually. Neri climbed off her cot to join Le’lan. She placed her body next to Le’lan and just held her, comforting the woman that she loved: the woman that would give her life to save so many.

_______________________________________

 

Angie Torres, currently a student at the University at Albany, is a Presidential Scholar and part of the Teaching Collective in the department of Women's Studies. (Return)

 

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