The Trance dragged on far longer than Skai anticipated, perhaps due to her inability to drift off a second time and having to sit in silence, awaiting the words meant to coax them all from their otherworld. When it was over, Skai glowered down at her numb legs as though they were foreign creatures gnawing at the rest of her.
“Every night before sleep,” Tempus reminded everyone as they stretched and headed for the exit. Skai stuck each of her legs in front of her, though she didn’t budge. She had to talk to Tempus.
Staying late after Trance was something she’d grown accustomed to over the course of her life, even before her declared aberration. In the past, it had always been to ask Tempus questions she was too shy to ask in the presence of others.
“Skai,” Pakka called, leaning in to poke at Skai’s ribs. “Skai!”
Skai pulled her hood further over her eyes, inwardly begging the girl to leave along with the rest of them. She winced as Pakka’s finger went on jabbing her.
“Pakka,” Tempus interrupted, “she’s still recovering. Let her be.”
“Oh.” Pakka slid upright and trudged off, albeit reluctantly. Skai peered at the backs of her heels from underneath her hood. They stopped just short of the veil leading outside. “When can she come back to the arena? Our team’s been losing badly without a mystic.”
Skai chewed at her lip. She’d almost been convinced that Pakka had been genuinely concerned for her; apparently, it was only about their game and the role Skai filled for them. “Find someone else,” she mumbled.
She didn’t catch Pakka’s expression, only the bottom half of her legs as she left the veiled enclosure with a defeated sigh.
“I thought you loved playing a mystic,” Tempus said.
Skai glanced up at where he towered above her. “Thank you,” she said as he helped her to her feet. His palms were warm despite their appearance. She let go and brushed at the fronts of her pants, half expecting real sand to fly loose from the folds. “I do like it,” she added at his expectant look. “Did.”
Skai wasn’t sure how such a massive creature came off as comforting, but she couldn’t help but blurt out even her most inane observations, things she often kept to herself. “It’s pointless.”
Tempus’ eyes focused intently on her own. Skai watched, almost mesmerized, as his transparent eyelids slid over their cyan light. She felt her own grow heavy.
“Pointless,” he repeated her word choice, his tone thoughtful. “The others find it fun.”
“Fun,” Skai scoffed. “It’s pointless distraction.” She poked around at the corner of her pocket for the broken wisp and offered it to him on the end of her finger. “I broke this on the way here.”
Tempus held it at eye level. “Distraction from what?”
Skai chewed at her lip and gestured toward the wisp. “Can you fix it?”
Without answering her, he exhaled a soft breath through pursed lips. A faint ribbon of light accompanied it, swirled around the broken wisp and reignited its light. It hovered in the air before proceeding to make lazy circles around them.
“Distraction from what?” Tempus persisted, moving around the room to collect forgotten items.
Skai busied her eyes with the wisp’s hypnotic movements; she already missed having it in her hand. “Pointless distraction,” she said again, “from our pointless existence.” She stuffed her hands back into her pockets and made a slow turn to look her mentor up and down. He had paused and, without looking at her, shook his head.
“Not pointless. Nothing is pointless.”
“You always say that,” Skai almost laughed, “but here I am proving you wrong again.” She gestured to herself with a half-hearted shrug as if to say, look at me.
Tempus did. He faced her, crossed his arms and mirrored her thorough inspection. “You aren’t proving anyone wrong or right, and you aren’t pointless.” He paused to gaze at the ceiling as though it would help him find his words. “You’re Skai. You’re thoughtful and unique—”
Skai laughed out loud this time. “Unique!” She glanced over her shoulder to study her reflection. Her grayscale visage sneered back, bland in comparison to the others: pearl-white skin, an almost metallic look to her hair and two fierce, penetrating eyes that even she avoided looking into. “Why did you make me like this?” she demanded.
Tempus exhaled another breath and approached her, but Skai dodged his touch. “I did not design you,” Tempus explained for what must have been the thousandth time since Skai first started asking questions. She still didn’t believe him. “There’s infinite possibility, endless variety—”
“Variety,” Skai groaned. Tempus loved the word variety. “Was this empty head part of your plan, too?” She jabbed a finger at her temple.
“None of this is my plan, and your head is not empty.” Tempus made another effort to reach out and touch her. Skai evaded him. “Clearly not empty. Listen to yourself.”
Skai grit her teeth and stomped toward the exit before turning back. “Then why don’t I feel anything?” she almost shouted. “Why am I so empty? Everyone else just goes on—” She gestured toward the exit with an irate swing of her arm. “—like they don’t see the stifling dome over their heads or these ao’set numai drifting around—”
“Skai!” Tempus snapped, his eyes widening in disbelief. “You know better than to call them that.”
“What am I supposed to call them then?” Skai raged. She regretted her choice of words once she recognized the shine to Tempus’ eyes, the twist of his lips.
“People,” he answered, his voice shaking. “They are people. And they have taken care of you since you were a cell on a sheet of glass.”
Skai sucked in a startled breath and turned away. Tempus had never made her feel so insignificant in her life. “Maybe that’s why I emulate them so well,” she ground out, livid with the outcome of their conversation. “Inhabit the world because it needs inhabiting. Wake up and walk around because I have legs. Open my mouth and make sounds to say nothing at all.”
She curled a fist at her side and focused everything she had on stabilizing her breaths — in just a few moments she’d blurted out what the numai might have been trying to get her to say for countless sessions. I am nothing, she realized, and I feel nothing.
She wouldn’t turn around. She didn’t need to see the look on his face to know he regretted what he’d said. But he was right. She had been nothing but a cell, and now she was nothing but a vessel, walking around without any hint of an ai —a colorless body without a spirit.
“Skai, I’m so sorry.” Tempus’ hand closed over her shoulder and offered a gentle squeeze. “Even I suffer from anger, but I should know better than to act on it.”
Skai cringed away from him and lowered her head. “I deserved it.”
“No. You came here for help and I became aggressive.” He came around her side, collected her other shoulder and gave her a small shake. “We are all lost sometimes. We all question our place, our existence.”
Skai found solace in his dimmed eyes. Everything about him screamed numai, but there had always been something different about him, something beyond the glossy exterior and whirring brain.
Tempus gave her shoulder another squeeze. “You want to know something interesting?”
Skai grunted in response.
“We have the freedom to go out and find our purpose for being. We have everything we need around us. You may just be blind to those things in this moment.”
Skai sighed and rubbed her eyes. Just blind. “Can you fix my eyes then?”
“If there were something wrong with your eyes,” Tempus laughed, “then I would. But that’s not—”
“—my ‘aberration’,” Skai finished. “I get it. It’s all in my head.”
“Which is much more difficult to fight, especially on your own.”
“You’re talking about the companion thing again.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” Tempus shrugged and dropped his hands. “I speak from experience,” he went on, turning away to resume cleaning up their surroundings, “when I tell you life is not worth living without someone to share it with.”
Skai didn’t answer. She stared at the back of his head, attempting to imagine what it must have been like to be the last being alive — completely alone. And he made us, she realized, gazing at her open hands.
“What if I’m meant to be alone?” she wondered aloud.
Tempus glanced back at her with a stray jacket clutched in one hand. A small smile pulled at his lips. “Skai, let’s not pretend we don’t already know who your companion is.”
Skai’s heart gave a sharp jolt and a knot formed in her throat. In moments, she was covered in a sheen of sweat. Tempus’ smile served to embarrass her further.
She scowled. “I’m sure you find this all very amusing.”
“Sometimes,” Tempus laughed.
Skai’s cheeks burned as she turned toward the exit for the last time, considering herself fortunate her supposed companion hadn’t shown up for Trance.
“Skai,” Tempus called after her.
She turned to face him with a small huff.
“Thanks for coming back. You’re an interesting one.”
She furrowed her eyebrows, unsure of how to respond. “Yeah, okay.”
“See you next time?”
Skai eyeballed the wisp that went on orbiting her head and shrugged. “Maybe,” she said before leaving. Maybe.