The Mirage

By Atom Mudman Bezecny

* If you want an introduction to the ideas that went into this story, I recommend checking out our Heleos Primer!

 

What is your favorite kind of mirage?

a. Heat haze

b. Fata Morgana

c. False-hope fake water

d. Drug-induced hallucination

 

Choose an animal.

e. The Frog of Renewal

f. The Whale of Wonder

g. The Pelican of Uniqueness

h. The Beetle of Patience

 

How do you think the universe feels right now?

i. Happy

j. Sad

k. Bored

l. Wrathful

 

Which word sounds most like a friend?

m. Bald

n. Bejeweled

o. Scarf

p. Skilled

 

Heleos glanced up at the purple sky and scowled.

 

It wasn't really a scowl—just a harsh squint. A scowl, to Heleos, implied malice, bitterness, ennui—but she was just shielding her eyes from the particularly sunny sky. These 5D stars were especially bothersome to the eyes, but if she was going to get these grotatoes sprouting, it would take a little almanac alchemy. That meant looking up towards the blazing violet star. She'd been a farmer before, lifetimes ago, and that gave her the experience she needed to predict the weather. David was impressed with her powers of prediction, but as she told him: “It just takes a deep breath and a good sense of smell.” Somehow, he got what she meant by that.

 

David was glad that she was as working-class as him. Her tales of tilling the land inspired the same proletarian pride that swelled in him behind the customer service desk in his game shop. They were of a kind, as the saying went. Now he spat gungo seed shells onto the ground as he sat on the corroded storage-barrel, looking at the sky with her. He still wasn't over the beauty of the 5D sun. This was his first.

 

“I never knew there were violet stars,” he said. “Last I knew in high school, a super-hot star like this should shine blue, because of how the human eye perceives color. But it's just coming out as purple...and magenta...”

 

“Magenta is a strange color for a star too,” Heleos replied. “Strange color for anything. Magenta is fake. There is no singular light frequency that shine magenta. But we see magenta when we look at a frequency between blue and red. Our brains create it for us.”

 

“The more you know,” laughed David.

 

“Come over here and give me a hand,” said Heleos, with a scowl.

 

David had been working, he just took a little break. No foul there as far as Heleos was concerned—but now that she was female again, she wasn't likely to let any man be lazy on her watch. If David wanted mashed grotatoes for dinner, he'd have to work at it. To say nothing of the squarshes and the sugar-snap peas.

 

Heleos and David had spent the last five months stranded on this nameless desert planet living in a shack made from the hull of a long-crashed cargo ship. Heleos recognized it as being of Saturnian origin. It hadn't been the ship that brought them here—they had arrived in Heleos' usual manner. Despite the dryness of the terrain around them, they had started trying to grow some of the seeds preserved in the crashed ship's hold. It probably would've failed if Heleos hadn't located the ship's water-factory. She and David had been drinking the brackish water out of the external cooling cells until then, so this was a strong relief.

 

The water-factory had even had a few of its synthesis compounds remaining. Using her knowledge of chemistry, Heleos had used this to make sunscreen for herself. David insisted his dark skin wouldn't burn, but she reminded him that this planet's sun shone in five dimensions, and at least two of those dimensions could cause cancer. At that he relented, taking care to rub the foul-smelling jelly on his bald head as well.

 

He still wore his work uniform from the game store. On their previous adventure, when Heleos had been a man, they had bought an entire fresh wardrobe for both of them, but when they had shifted onto this planet, those new purchases were left behind. Heleos was especially disappointed, but knew now that her new body was the wrong size for what she—or he—had picked up.

 

This time she was a pale, wispy white woman with large dark eyes, and a small, softly curved nose and mouth. Her white hair, which shone purple in the sun, was long and hung down in blade-like strips layered on top of each other. The ends of these locks had been sliced off at precise angles, so that the tips of each segment of hair looked razor-sharp. Yet it also looked like she was wearing a fur coat made of her own hair. Beneath this complex bundle of styled strands her body was covered in a fine silk dress, which hung loosely around her; dangling from her neck was the one purchase the shift had let her keep. To the people from whom she'd bought it, it was known as the Frog of Renewal. She considered it a fitting symbol for her unique experiences in life.

 

Dirt covered Helios' sandal-clad feet. She found herself missing socks, though she knew that most civilized people considered socks and sandals to be a sacrilegious combo. The sandals were all she had to keep her toes safe from the worms that crawled in the earth (which, as she'd learned the hard way, were poisonous), plus her own clumsiness with a hoe. Though she was indeed forever proud of her farmer background, she was rapidly tiring of the hard labor which yielded them their relatively unpalatable food. But if they were to live here, they'd have to get used to it. The pale veggies they'd attained were nutritious if not exactly gourmet cuisine.

 

The red soil around them hissed as the bitter winds drew in across from the open desert. On both sides of their shack were tall, dark cliffs, many miles distant. To the north, or what the ship's compass said was north, they could see the shadow of an enormous mesa that would have dwarfed the greatest found on David's native Earth. There was nothing to the south but the open space which shimmered in the eternal heat.

 

The red-and-purple sky seemed to dance as massive flares broke out across the sun's surface.

 

“Heleos?” David asked, once he'd brought in a few bushels of crop. “What are we doing here?”

 

“That's the question we always ask when we arrive, isn't it?” she said. “We never go anywhere for nothing, do we?”

 

“Don't throw questions at me like that. You know I know the answers.”

 

“To why we're here? Or...”

 

He laughed. “You know what I mean.”

 

Heleos stabbed the end of her hoe into the dirt and leaned on it like a cane. “Once upon a time, I shifted into the middle of a war. One side convinced me of the righteousness of their cause, and I joined up. That war turned out be the Hundred Years' War, in Earth's 14th and 15th Centuries. And I fought in nearly every battle of it, for all 116 years of its length.”

 

“Well, I don't have 116 years,” David laughed.

 

“Don't you? I'm still certain about my theory that my abilities have put you in a state of grace...”

 

It was true that David hadn't visibly aged over the last six years. But there were other details.

 

“I'm just saying that if I go back home and I start talking like someone who's spent a century-plus living in a desert...”

 

Heleos grinned. “Don't worry. We won't be here that long.”

 

“How can you tell?”

 

She sighed and got back to work.

 

The two of them kept at it in silence for a short time. Overhead, the sun pulsed like a beating heart. There were two dimensional layers to it, an inner and outer sphere, which Heleos wasn't able to fully explain. It was possible that the star achieved 5D curvature by being interphased with another star—this unique type of binary star could be so massive as to distort time-space in its distinctive way. Yet, this planet was fairly close to the star, and while the heat was rough sometimes, it was livable. That shouldn't have been the case—they should have vaporized the instant they shifted over. While Heleos did believe that her shift suspended David's aging, it couldn't be protecting them from the sun.

 

She didn't know enough about fifth-dimensional stars to give any answers. She had heard of them, in science conferences and the like, but she had no idea they were anything more than a theory.

 

Truth be told, she didn't even really know how she recognized this one.

 

Eventually, David looked up from his work, gazing out towards the north. He blinked and tilted his head. Heleos saw this and stared at him.

 

“What is it?”

 

He pointed. In the far distance, there was a man—the shape of a man. The longer they stared, the more details became clear: he, if he was a he, was dressed in a long, dark, hooded robe. With a long thin hand he gestured to them to come closer.

 

Obviously enough, they were immediately suspicious.

 

“That's not the Grim Reaper, is it?” David asked.

 

“No. At least, I don't think so,” Heleos replied. “It's been a little while since I met the Grim Reaper, but if that's him, he's changed his fashions lately.”

 

“I just had to check,” said David.

 

“I'd say that black robes are a bad sign, no matter what, but...I wore black robes once. Or perhaps I will, sometime soon.” Heleos slung her hoe over her back, and started walking forward.

 

“I don't think this is a great idea,” David said, “which is why I'm coming with you.”

 

“You flatter me,” Heleos said, grinning. “You know, now that I think about it, there is something funereal to this guy's outfit. He looks like a mourner.”

 

“I thought this planet was uninhabited,” David said, and Heleos did not reply.

 

The heat was murder, but it was only a short distance to the robed man. His finger continued to beckon them, drawing them on. He didn't seem to view Heleos' tool as a threat, though ultimately she had brought it with her as a weapon. Best to be prepared, she'd always felt. Or at least, that's how she'd always felt in this form.

 

They were within ten feet of him when he suddenly dropped into the ground.

 

It happened in less than a second—both Heleos and David froze. It was like water slipping away over a rock. In an instant they were alone on the naked desert.

 

They both failed to resist a shiver, despite the heat of the scorching sun above. The air seemed to shiver with them, shuddering briefly in a pulse of heat-haze.

 

“I believe we have a mystery on our hands,” Heleos proclaimed. She looked down, realizing she'd dropped the hoe in her shock.

 

“Heleos, I don't like this,” David said. “Let's head back to the ship, it's safe there...”

 

“Tut, tut, young man! Too easily, you fall into the trap of domesticity. We didn't come to be farmers. I suspect that this strange mirage-figure is part of why we shifted here.”

 

David accepted this. But he asked, “What do you think he was doing? You said it looked like he was heading to a funeral.”

 

“Yeah, I felt a glimmer of sadness come off him. I'm no telepath, so—it's probably just psychological projection on my behalf.”

 

“Projection? You feeling okay?”

 

“I am...sort of. It's just sort of lonely here, you know? And it's been a long time.” Heleos sighed. “I'm not as patient as I was in the Hundred Years' War.”

 

David looked around, wondering if perhaps he'd missed some trace of the mysterious figure they'd seen earlier. As his eyes glanced back down the canyon, towards the ship that was their home, he jumped. In an instant, he saw three large, hairy shapes scuttling their way towards them. “Heleos!” he screamed.

 

She turned and looked, and jumped as well. She realized only now her nerves weren't as strong as her predecessor's—he wouldn't have jumped at the sight of fifty-foot tall spiders, such as those which were now coming at them. It was just a jump, though, and then she was used to them. Well—as used as anyone can get to the concept of building-sized arachnids. They were approaching at fast speed.

 

Very fast speed.

 

As she studied the titanic monsters, Heleos' hand darted to the amulet of the Frog of Renewal about her neck, and she remembered, as she often did, the ill-sitting truth of her existence: that victory and death were the same. If she completed whatever task she'd come here for, she'd wake up somewhere and somewhen else, in a new body, with a new mission. And if she was killed, she'd wake up somewhere and somewhen else, in a new body—with a new mission.

 

But David would die. Poor David, who she could not bring home.

 

Like all of her friends, the day would come when he would have to find a place to settle down. There was no guarantee they'd ever shift back to Earth, much less the right time period, so like all the others, he would make do with what he had.

 

But he would not die. Not now, not today. They would solve this challenge as they had all the others.

 

Run!!” she called, as if she needed to tell him.

 

The pair took off at lightning speed towards the northern mesa. Heleos had never had to run before in this body, but her to surprise, she could run quite fast. She felt like naught but skin and bone most of the time in this form, even after months of hard physical labor. David, meanwhile, had gotten his legs toned up in the time he spent shifting around the Multiverse with her. Plus, there were thieves who came to his game shop back home, and he had trained himself to stop them.

 

The spiders, however, were just as swift. They each had eight legs propelling them. With no cover, it was only a matter of time before the anomalous arachnids overtook the pair. There weren't enough rocks large enough to use as weapons, and while the sand at their feet could be thrown into their eyes it would be but a moment's distraction at best.

 

“David!” Heleos called out. She could nearly feel the spiders' breath at her backside. “I'm sorry!”

 

“Maybe they won't eat us right away!” he shouted. “Maybe it'll be like Lord of the Rings, and they'll just web us up first!”

 

“That's not comforting!”

 

He laughed, for his words had been a joke. She was happy to see that laugh—for it would be best if he faced the end laughing.

 

The rumbling footsteps grew closer and closer, until at they stood in the great spiders' shadows. As one they pinched their eyes and ears shut, and prepared for the end.

 

The end! It reared up before in black night-clothes, mourners' clothes, made darker with the stains of tears. So many tears—rich and overflowing, cascades of wetness and delirium. A delirium so rich that it clouded out all else, until they was only...grief...

 

At once, the physical presence of the spiders, the gaze of those myriad eyes, disappeared. Behind their closed eyes, the pair felt them vanish.

 

They opened their eyes and turned around, finding that their senses hadn't betrayed them. The three colossi were nowhere to be seen. Now they were in the middle of the open desert. To their growing concern, they both observed that the canyon their crashed vessel sat in was also nowhere to be found.

 

“Our luck,” hissed David.

 

“Surely the cliffs and the ship can't be gone,” Heleos intoned, shaking her long and unusual hair. “It could be another mirage, like the figure and those spiders.”

 

“You think the spiders were a mirage?” David asked. “They made noise, Heleos. I think they were real.”

 

“But we were both afraid, David. The element of fear, which everyone seems to believe is shameful, could have filled in absent details about those 'creatures.' Based on the media we've both consumed over our lives.”

 

“I was getting some Mesa of Lost Women vibes,” David confessed. “Should we head back towards the canyon, and hope that we can't see it because of that damned sun? I suppose bent light could disguise it...”

 

Before he could on, the air around them once more began to shudder. And whether it was in their heads or not, this shimmering heat-haze seemed to hiss like a rattlesnake's tail. At once, they slipped into a sense of confusion, for the haze was disorienting by its very nature. The confusion grew and grew until it became dissociative, and in short time that precarious mood lapsed into melancholy. David remembered the city job he had before he started running the store—4 AM start-times, with the morning sun just coming over the cold skyscrapers. The sun shimmered, like this haze, over a lonely and desolate city, which cared nothing for his pain.

 

In the haze Helios saw the distance that separated her from her other selves. There was a smell that came with the shift, and with waking up in new flesh—like the dry, dusty smell of the hundreds of deserts she'd been trapped in over the course of her lengthy existence. When she was done or dead, she walked through a pillar of sand, choking and struggling the whole way. And then she woke up—with her past self long dead.

 

Beyond that, she felt a greater question: the question of when and why it all began.

 

She cried, grieving that which she couldn't grieve.

 

And David grieved his younger self.

 

After a few moments, the mirage vanished, and they realized they had fallen to their knees. David stared at Heleos and felt his sorrow deepen. He had never seen her cry before, and to see her strength waver was hard on him.

 

“We—we have to get back to the ship,” he said. “I think we were lured out of here by...something.”

 

“I'm forced to agree. I think that canyon shielded us from whatever is out here.” She looked at the northern mesa. It seemed closer than it should have been.

 

“Let's head away from that thing. That will take us back.”

 

David agreed, and they started heading back the way they came. Heleos noticed that if they had left footprints in the sand, they were all gone. There were no marks in the sand from the spiders, either.

 

Heleos walked ahead of David, never blinking. She waited for the curtain of light to part, and reveal the familiar canyon that represented safety. But the horizon refused to comply. They walked on for an hour, and they still didn't see the canyon.

 

Eventually, however, a shape did appear: that of the northern mesa.

 

“Oh, dear,” mused Heleos. “I'm starting to hate this.”

 

“Me too,” David murmured.

 

“I suspect we're the victims of another mirage. We thought we were turning one way, but as we turned...” Heleos winced. “No, that doesn't make sense. David, I feel like I'm on fire in this body. All passion and impatience. I can't think things through.”

 

“Don't blame your new form, Heleos. I feel weird too. It's...really hard to concentrate, suddenly. For some reason.”

 

Heleos looked up at the sun. “I have to wonder if these mirages shift through dimensions. That is to say, they are more than mirages. The planet itself could be a mirage, a solid illusion-form.”

 

“That's your explanation on how we turned away and still ended up going north?” David asked skeptically.

 

“Don't you feel it?” she said. “Ever since we left the canyon, everything's felt like a dream. A sad dream. I'm distracted because I—” She thought again of the inexplicable and wild terror of shifting identities, forever homeless. It was a terror so great she had only grief for herself.

 

David understood, even without the rest of her sentence. “It's so lonely out here. It feels like it did when my grandpa died.”

 

Heleos looked over at her friend, and saw that he was crying once more. So too was she.

 

“We—we can't let these feelings get in the way,” she said. “We need to head towards that mesa. I'm sure now that that's our mission.”

 

“Yeah...it's as good a guess as any,” David said, trying to wipe his tears away. The two once again started walking.

 

Every so often a sparkle of light seemed to shine off the mesa—a blue lantern, guiding them in. They hoped they wouldn't burn up like insects when they reached this lantern. For all they knew, this was still a lure.

 

But the journey was not a long one, now that they were playing along. It was as though the desert contracted, drawing them closer to the structure. Heleos guessed there was a building up there. Whoever lived there must be the one calling to them. But she could not be sure—her mind was getting more and more buried in this endless and terrifying grief.

 

Beyond remembering all the times she had died, she remembered the thing far more dreadful—

 

—she remembered all her friends who'd died—

 

When they were almost there it was at the worst. Now they couldn't even remember what they were grieving, and the absence of that, in itself, cut into them like a knife. Heleos and David felt the loss of loss itself.

 

But when they reached the foot of the plateau, it seemed to break—like a fever. The empty memory faded away, leaving them chilled upon the rock. They had to stop. Their legs couldn't carry them any further.

 

“Fuck this planet,” Heleos said. “It's been a while since I've said that about a world. This is like walking over my own grave.”

 

David managed a thin laugh. “That's a way of putting it. How are we going to climb this thing?”

 

“I don't know. If we could get back to our farm, I could weave a vegetable-fiber cord—I feel like I'd be a knitter if I had half the chance. In any case, it's unlikely we'll find a rope anytime soon.” She wiped off her forehead. She was soaked in sweat. “You know, David, through everything we've faced, I've always told you that the Multiverse has a way of disposing of its own evil. Though, it does tend to do so in small doses, usually just in ways that open things up for people like us make a difference. It leaves the disposal of evil—whatever that evil may be—to the choices of mere mortals.”

 

“You're neither 'mere' nor 'mortal,'” said David.

 

A cheerful expression crossed Heleos' face. “Likewise, my friend.”

 

David didn't know how the latter term could be true—but he remembered he was in that state of grace thing she'd talked about.

 

He remembered the 116-year sentence, and decided it was best to get back to studying the mesa. He didn't have long to wait, however. With a clicking hiss, the stone wall besides them slid upward, revealing a dark passageway. Heleos pulled herself up from the boulder she'd sat down on, and approached this tunnel cautiously. In a moment her surprise faded, as it had with the spiders—now there was no apprehension as she stepped into the dark. Her eyes were like those of an owl. No shadow could obscure her vision, provided said shadow was real and not another disorienting mirage.

 

It was possible that this mesa, and consequently this passage, were just as fake as the robed figure, or the giant spiders. But there was a different feeling here than had haunted them outside—the shimmering nausea of the heat-haze was gone. But before long it was clear the airborne sorrow had returned. Heleos struggled to conceive of chemical elements which could be causing this emotional disturbance, but then, in an instant—she was overcome.

 

The tunnel spiraled downward into a violet-lit space. It was like the conical shape of a hermit crab's shell, inverted—the lower she climbed, the harder it became to go on. David was suffering, too, she knew it. But for all her best intentions, she could not turn and help him.

 

Reality broke away.

 

In an instant, the inverse seashell was gone. She stood elsewhere.

 

She watched a middle-aged white man walk through an alien marketplace, with David by his side. Dressed in a formal-looking sort of coat, with a crimson tie, this earlier Heleos was purchasing an amulet in the shape of the Frog of Renewal. Soon, he would be renewed—his mission would end, and David would take his hand for the next shift.

 

A glimmer of sadness. An echo of what was yet to come. Her future—and her past—she rewound

 

It was before she met David—right before, in fact. She was he again back then, another white man—she was tired of being white, honestly. The Heleos from that mission that blondish-white hair that was swept back over his round, wise-looking forehead; he wore a crimson tunic and a canary-yellow cloak that was popular among the Athynian species. He had been with someone who was very special to him...and they were separated. Separated separated. In the way they hated most of all.

 

A round of star-bullets had done it—they had made their strike at the enemy's command bunker. It was back during the Durastis Wars, which they had somewhat unwillingly become participants in. It should've been a routine attack, and he had thought he had the guile for it. But instead some grunt with a shatter-rifle picked him off. Another failure on his personal record—he was his worst and only judge—but beyond that, a new shift, a new mission—a new life. One that was somewhere far away from his loved one. Now he was they, for they were sometimes female and sometimes male. Behind a new pair of sci-fi sunglasses, they cried their eyes out, for shifting without the hand-hold meant the Separation.

 

In all that time, they had never been reunited with that person who had meant more than anything. No doubt they would never meet again, even in the long infinity of their existence.

 

Behind her, David cried out. His pain suddenly broke through hers, and at once, her protectiveness emerged. She forgot her pain and looked to him, wanting to help.

 

She saw his pain. He was a child, standing on the streets of his hometown, Chicago. Before him lay the body of an old man on the ground, not moving, not breathing. Heleos looked away, but forced herself to look back. She saw the tire mark crossing the old man's backside. There was no sign of any vehicle, and while there was a crowd gathering around the man's body, some people only glanced aside before continuing on their way.

 

David's shock only passed when the crowd around the body was thick. And so when he finally went to the body, no one saw his smallness, and they didn't let him pass.

 

He had to sit by the sidelines as they took his grandfather's body away. They loaded him up into the ambulance, and that was the last David saw of the old man until the funeral.

 

They never found, or even bothered looking for, the hit-and-run driver.

 

David was still in the body of a child when he saw Heleos. He said, “I know how long ago it was. I shouldn't care anymore.”

 

“It wasn't just the death,” she said. “It was the apathy. You saw the eyes of people who didn't care. Even when you looked at them, with the eyes of a child—they didn't care.”

 

“It was the first time I saw the world for what it was. Mean! And it was like being torn in half!”

 

“Earth is mean. I know. I've seen a hundred thousand terrible things happen there...” She smiled. “But we're not on Earth now. And we may not go back to Earth for a while. There are better places we can go.”

 

She hoped he would manage that laugh of his, and he did. “You mean the desert, where the tastiest thing we get are sugar-snap peas?” He seemed to be getting better, because there was someone there for him.

 

“I think we're close to the problem. There's a pattern here. This whole planet...” And she stuck her arms out and spun. “...is grieving.”

 

“You think the planet itself is in pain?”

 

“Precisely.”

 

At this, David's Chicago mirage vanished, and once again they were in the cave; he was in his adult body again. They could now detect the sound of breathing very near to them. Heleos offered David a hand and he took it. The two of them went down the last few yards into what turned out to be a larger chamber.

 

Darkness surrounded them at first. But slowly, their eyes adjusted, picking up on faint traces of violet light. They realized they were standing over a figure laying stricken on the ground. At once, they both knelt down to inspect him.

 

The figure was a glowing, pseudo-reptilian humanoid with long, skeletal fingers. However, he only had one hand, and indeed one arm—for the entire right side of his body was missing. The ragged edge indicated it had been violently torn away. He moaned weakly, and writhed only faintly. His mouth opened curiously as he cried out, for part of his head was gone.

 

“Please...” he whispered. “Please help me. I can't bear the pain anymore.”

 

Heleos said, “Who are you? What is your species? I'll do all I can to help.”

 

“I-I am born of the Fifth Dimension. It is my natural home...”

 

“Did you come here because of the 5D sun?” she asked.

 

“I-I...” He struggled for breath, with only one lung. “I am the sun.”

 

Heleos took a moment to understand. “Are you the planet as well?”

 

“Y-yes. When the dimensions shifted...in that horrible time-space storm...I was cut in half...but my power was still great enough...to create..a place...to rest my essence. A place formed from my own psyche. This place is the physical manifestation of my mind...while this body...is a three-dimensional avatar I've created...so that I can be healed.”

 

“You were injured so badly that you were shoved down to the Third Dimension,” Helios said. “But you adapted! You created a part of you that could be healed, and you made a place where beings from this dimension could survive!”

 

“I hoped that the 'stars' that exist in my dimension were rare enough manifestations in your dimension to attract scientists,” the being said. “Unfortunately, my planet is surrounded by the uncontrollable psychic emanations of my...negative emotions...as I die. My sadness...became...the robed figure of death. My angry helplessness, my fear...became...the giant arachnids.”

 

“You're grieving yourself,” Heleos whispered sadly.

 

“I am many billennia old. I-I do not want to end this way.” The singular eye, which Heleos now knew had been created for her benefit, shed a tear.

 

Heleos realized that within this dying being was a shadow of herself. A fellow immortal now faced with a final end. She had not yet been forced into these circumstances, but she could still feel for him. In this psychic place, the compassion she and David felt was tangible.

 

A light flashed around Heleos' throat, and all three looked down. The alien's eye blazed with a strange recognition.

 

“That pendant you wear around your neck...what is that...?”

 

“This is the Frog of Renewal. Or a symbol thereof.”

 

The alien seemed to laugh, which surprised David. “G'hnnortpl!” he proclaimed. “Good old G'hnnortpl. He is one of my people. He is indeed worshipped on many 3D worlds as the Frog of Renewal.”

 

“Oh! Well, I hope you get to tell him I like his work,” said Heleos. “His iconography has a...special significance to me. Tell me, can this amulet help you?”

 

“Help me? I think you've...saved me...”

 

Hope bloomed in Heleos, and as soon as this feeling coursed through her, the amulet flashed up again. Here, in the center of the psychic nexus, the pendant was responding to her positive emotions. She looked eagerly to David.

 

“Picture him healing!” she said. “Imagine him getting better.”

 

David closed his eyes, and thought of his grandfather. He thought of how badly he wanted him to get up after the car hit him. But there was no grief, not this time; he knew his grandfather was dead. But this man wasn't. He could save him—he hoped with all his heart he could.

 

The amulet began to glow, and Heleos moved frantically to remove it from her neck. She set it down on the ground, and at once the alien took it up his hand. He closed his eye and his purple light grew brighter. Heleos and David backed away as the light swelled to a near-duplicate of that of the sun. From within the purple light, a voice echoed, with many voices chiming behind it.

 

“In the Fifth Dimension, symbols are the same as what they represent,” the creature said. “And so my old friend, the Frog of Renewal, heard my prayer. He has healed me—you have healed me.” And at once, they felt the air fill with unshakable emotion: sweet catharsis, and honey-scented bliss.

 

“Thank you,” he whispered.

 

“It's what we do!” David told the entity. He pointed at his friend then. “Stick with her long enough, and it gets contagious.”

 

“I do feel the urge to help others, as you have helped me,” the entity replied. “So I believe indeed that this valor spreads.”

 

Heleos beamed.

 

The entity vanished then, leaving them in the dark cave. He journeyed, as they soon would, to parts unknown.

 

The ground below them began to rumble.

 

“You know, this planet was sustained by his thoughts. I have to wonder how stable it will be without him,” Heleos said.

 

David groaned. “Not again!”

 

“Yes, it does seem things always end with geological cataclysms for us...but I'm not concerned.”

 

“You're not?”

 

“Oh, no. Not while you're here.” Heleos gave him a fond look. “Take my hand, David. In a few minutes, I won't be myself again.”

 

Somehow, after all this time, he didn't know what she meant at first. Then he understood, and clasped her outstretched fingers.

 

“Victory,” she laughed.

 

“Better than death,” David said. He paused before asking, “Does it hurt you, when it happens?”

 

He'd asked before, she was sure, and she'd avoided answering. Now she said: “Yes. I get used to who I am, and then...I'm someone different.” Her face was sad, but the slight humor of nostalgia was apparent. Around her, the planet's roaring grew louder. “I enjoyed these months as me. I had my faults. I feel I was a little too old, a little too timid, a little too soft. And David, let's face it—the hair really is dreadful.” She looked at him. “Especially when it gets humid.”

 

“Here's to better hair.”

 

“Yes.” She blinked, and shrugged her shoulders. “It's not sad. Not wholly. It's exciting...what comes next?”

 

David shrugged back, knowing they would know soon.

 

The planet crumbled into a sandstorm of atoms, but when it did, the two travelers had gone on to their next mission.

 

TO BE CONTINUED!

178803206_10224292251390291_914957418812

An image of this version of Heleos, recovered

from the sketchbook of David Parson.