That Same Afternoon
Tuesday the 31st, Lunar 3, Luka 16
Somewhere in the Dimensional Divide
Onboard the Neptune’s Rhapsody
The Captain’s Quarters
Legato led me back to the Captain’s Quarters, taking me there by a shortcut engineered to ensure as few people as possible could see me, and even fewer, with Jane and the others busy working on a diversion. We walked right overtop of them, on the upper levels of the stern and the bridge, without anyone noticing as we passed down into the corridor that led away. Jane and the others were below, readying into an evening of sea shanties, popping bottles and songs to celebrate this sudden and completely happenstance turn of events.
When we arrived at Legato’s door and he punched in the access code, he motioned for me to enter first. I was happy to, relieved when I heard that door lock shut and pressurize behind me.
“Now, you don’t have to worry about the palm swap tomorrow, per se. We have a temporary solution in mind for then. It’s later I’m concerned about. You might not always be able to get our help when you need it, and this is one area where you definitely don’t want to be caught off guard.” Legato motioned to that sitting area we’d used before. “How familiar are you with palm swapping, anyways?”
Familiar? It was a sacred, special thing to our people, and an intimate one. I was probably more nervous about doing that with a stranger than about any blood tests.
“Familiar enough to know this isn’t going to end well,” I muttered.
“Nonsense. It’s quite easy to control what your partner sees and feels in a swap,” Legato said, as he led me back over to the sitting area where I first agreed to all of this. This time, he sat down right beside me. “All it takes is a bit of practice, Pietro.”
Gross. I was afraid he was going to say that.
There was such a thing as palm deceit, where a person could lie in a swap, showing either not the full truth or an outright mistruth to whoever they were swapping with. We frowned upon it on Lumeria. The whole point of a palm swap was to share your most private and personal feelings, memories and experiences with someone you love, so that they could feel the Worlds in the way you lived in them. If you needed to lie to a person, you shouldn’t have been swapping with them in the first place, especially in cases where the other person was being completely genuine. Something like that was worse than a regular lie with words. Swaps are more than words, after all, and with people worth more than words, too.
Still, adults do it all the time.
“The key thing is to believe everything you want the other person to believe,” Legato said, as he began to shed off his right glove. “It takes some getting used to, but it really isn’t that hard.”
I hesitated, keeping my glove on. “But how can I believe something that isn’t true?”
“You just have to convince yourself that it’s the real truth, first. People do it all the time, sometimes without even realizing their truth wasn’t really true to begin with.”
“You mean they get so mixed up they can’t tell the difference anymore?”
“People have a way of seeing what they want to see in the Worlds, Pietro. In a palm swap, you can see the Worlds from another person’s point of view, but that doesn’t mean it’s like looking at photographs or travelling back in time. Sometimes the things a person has seen or felt reflect a reality that’s theirs alone, not one as plain to see from the outside.”
“I don’t think I follow,” I said, finally pulling off my glove. “Can you show me?”
Legato closed his eye and held up his hand, signaling that I was free to have a look for myself, so I did.
The first thing that rushed through my mind was the scent of frying foods and a bonfire in the humid night air, a street crowded with vendors. Aching feet. It was a summer festival, on what looked like Tianjin, and I–Legato–must have been walking for hours, eating some kind of sweet on a stick. Though the atmosphere was happy, his heart was racing. He was sweating–cold–queasy. Quail was there, too, but he looked much younger–almost my age–though one of his eyes were black, and his face swollen in a way that suggested a recent beating. He was pushing someone in a wheelchair as they walked. I didn’t see them, but I knew it had to have been Kipley. And then there was–
Legato pulled his hand away first. “I never went to that festival,” he said, flatly. “But I heard it every night for a month from the apartment we lived in at the time.”
My eyes snapped open. “Wait, what? How’d you know exactly what I–”
“Because it was what I wanted you to see. Now, let’s–”
“Uh, hang on. What did you see, exactly?”
“You, shoved up against a locker by a boy your age offering to, and I quote, ‘straighten you out,’ and then you told him he’d ‘catch your weirdness’ if he tried. Seemed like it scared him.”
Yeah, that happened. It wouldn’t have been my first choice of memories to share with someone, let alone Legato. It wasn’t something important to me. Hell, it wasn’t even anywhere near my top ten list for ‘most traumatic bullshit that happened to me at school.’
“So that festival,” I began, changing the topic. “It didn’t really happen?”
“Like I said, I heard it, but we never went,” Legato said, glancing away. “But I wanted to go so terribly that I imagined it every night, and so now, I can share it as though I’ve lived it.”
“So what actually happened that you couldn’t go?” I asked. “What’s the truth?”
Legato paused, seeming taken aback. Without saying anything, he raised his hand again, and I did the same.
That horrible sweat and nausea came back, except this time I–he–was laying on the cold tile floor of an apartment, one with yellowed wallpaper peeling back in sheets. Much of his body was covered in bandages, filthy, some bloodied, others stained with his own vomit and tears, with vision from only one eye–a new, still-foreign sensation. Every muscle stung with fire, and he could barely breathe. In the distance were the same sounds and smells from that festival, coming through the frame of an absent window. Quail was there, still, just as young as he had been before. His eyes were wide and terrified, and some kind of syringe in his hand, and a wedding ring on his finger…
I pulled my hand away first, not able to take another second of it. Residual tension and pain flared through my body for a moment or two even after it stopped. It took longer for my breaths to normalize.
“You are the one who asked,” Legato said, completely disaffected.
I coughed, my chest still a bit tight. “Quail d-drugged you?”
“Is that what you think you saw?” Legato smiled.
“Well he had a–”
“A syringe, yes. An anti-opioid, without which I likely would have died that time. Quail saved my life that night–not the first or the last time.”
Legato shed his usual white coat and uncuffed his left sleeve, pulling it up as far on his arm as he could. It was covered in long-healed scars of pricks and marks. Some of his veins permanently distended and dark beneath his skin.
“So there’s a perfect example of how unreliable the truth in a swap is, Pietro. I didn’t even lie that time, and you felt exactly what I felt, and somehow, you still saw something completely different than what happened.”
“But Quail was…” I shook my head, dismissing the thought.
What I wanted to say was that Quail was only my age, which meant Legato had to have been, too. He was my age when he got that eye? And on drugs? This had to be deceit, too.
Remembering the wedding ring, instead I decided to satisfy that curiosity. “Are Quail and Kipley really married?”
Legato nodded. “Indeed they are. You are right in assuming it’s not a typical arrangement, although I do believe they love each other very much.”
“Then why bother getting married?”
“Some forms of love are much greater and more sacred than romantic or sexual love can ever be, Pietro…and I believe it was the only way Quail could take care of Kipley after her treatment. They wouldn’t have released her otherwise.”
“They?” I asked. “Her family?”
“No, her family disowned her, I’m afraid.” Legato shook his head. “I mean the State. Once a person is lobotomized, they can’t legally consent to sign themselves out of hospital, and with her family situation… well, she would have stayed there forever.”
“So Quail’s her guardian, too,” I said.
“On paper, yes. And before you ask, this time for me, it was you on your father’s lap, learning to read. Quite wholesome, really,” Legato said, stroking his chin. “The Very Hungry Pipefish, I believe.”
I couldn’t help but smile. That book had been mine and Portia’s favorite.
“You should try it next,” Legato said. “Try showing me a lie. Any one you want.”
“Okay, but one condition: you have to lie to me, too. I don’t want to be the only one doing it.”
Legato raised his hand up once again. “I assure you, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
I tried about six different lies before I got anywhere close to pulling off even the slightest fib. First I tried that I had an extra sibling than I did, then an extra toe. I wasn’t very creative at first. Legato figured it out each time. All the while, all I saw from him were variations on the same memory of that festival — the fake one, where he actually went to it–repeated enough times that I was starting to forget the details of the once he showed me the truth. It felt like hours passed with me trying out different stories, ideas. Some of them were finally beginning to take shape when Legato suggested I practice being Lucasta a bit more, so I did.
It seemed to be going well enough. I imagined a scenario where I was her, living in a very dark place without sunlight, wanting desperately to go home. The feelings I put into it were genuine. I did want to go home. I also felt like at times, I lived in a very dark place, being unable to be the real me. It was starting to feel real, to seem real.
“Hm. I think that one will be useful,” Legato said, as he pulled his hand away from our most recent bout of shared lying. “One more before bed?”
I opened my now tired eyes and nodded, closing them again as I lifted my hand. My arm was getting tired, too.
There I was in the same, fake memory, walking down the crowded street of that festival with Quail and Kipley beside me. This time I was eating some grilled squid on a stick. Quail was holding a bag of goldfish he’d won in a carnival game. I still felt as queasy and sick, and my whole body was sore, but I could manage. There was something…odd this time. Something different. All of the sudden, one of the faces in the crowd caught my eye, a woman walking from the other direction. Her hair was short and white, everything about her neat and prim, and…I knew that face. In the memory she was dressed like everyone else, just a face in the crowd, but she was not supposed to be there. Neither was I. Then as if she’d spotted me, she locked her eyes on mine, but her eyes were dead eyes–empty ones with no light left in them.
The festival was gone in an instant. Quail and Kipley were, too. I was alone.
I was locked in a room in relative darkness, only able to see from glints of light under doors from outside and through cracks in the walls and ceiling. The strong scent of fresh lavender hung in the air, but it wasn’t a perfume, or even remotely pleasant. It was so overpowering and pungent that it made my eyes water–or I was already crying–and it burned my skin, coating my mouth when I opened it. Unlike all of the swaps before, I suddenly felt I was outside my body, watching myself from above. I couldn’t see much in the darkness, only heard this feral grunting, like some kind of bestial animal was on the loose and I was trapped with it, but I also felt no fear, no pain, no sadness… nothing.
My body was covered with something–something warm and thick, and when I looked at my hands, my fears were confirmed: blood. Mine, and someone else’s. Lots of it, pouring from my neck, my chest… my face. And then I turned and in a mirror I could see there was no animal, just me, and the eviscerated body of that woman, whoever she was, on the floor behind me. Her dead eyes were fixed on me, and her bloodied fingers extended, still reaching…
Legato pulled his hand away. He cleared his throat, awkwardly. “My apologies. I lost focus a bit, there. But you did much better that time–only a few things slipped in.”
My hands trembled. I gazed down at them, only to find no blood, nothing there, that I was still on the ship, sitting in that room with Legato, everything as it had been before. The scent of lavender still burned in my nose and throat, and tears were streaming from my eyes.
“I take it you may have seen something disturbing?” Legato asked, lifting up my chin. I averted my eyes, and scooted away from him. “I’m afraid my life has been full of things that make me a poor choice for this sort of thing but, we don’t have much in the way of options…”
I gulped, feeling up around my neck area, thankful for a moment that my body was all still there. Halfway confident I’d just felt and witnessed the aftermath the murder that gave him that eye, I tried to ward off the thoughts.
“Damn. I’m sorry. I thought I had it that time,” I managed, still unable to bring myself to look at him. “What slipped in?”
“Ahem… erm, well, a memory of you and Jane, I’m afraid. Hence the faltering on my part. I didn’t realize you two were, well…” he paused, his lips spreading into an awkward half-smile. He almost looked embarrassed, somehow much worse off than me. Now he couldn’t even look me in the eye. “I’m no one to pass judgement given the things I was up to at that age, but please do be… careful.”
“NOT HAPPENING. THAT IS NOT–NOT HAPPENING–I MEAN WE–” And now I was crying again, my whole face hot and beet red as I just sat there, shaking my head.
Legato covered his mouth with his hand. “Oh dear. You see, I heard something about trying something on someone’s back and I assumed–”I screeched, covering my ears. “Swimming. We were swimming, damn it!”