“Misses Shao, There’s a fate better than death.”
The man adjusted his thick, rimless bifocals. His toothy grin seemed to put her at ease, despite the bizarre circumstance of their meeting.
“This sounds so strange to me.” She said, gesturing toward herself. “But I want to spend the rest of my life with Jason.” She quickly folded her hands together on the patio table.
“Would you two like anything to drink?” Asked a waiter impatiently.
“Yinzhen, please.” Asked the man in the glasses.
Shao addressed the man in Chinese, and he nodded earnestly. “Very well ma’am.”
“Misses Shao, I represent powerful individuals. This group has means that a good, normal person like yourself wouldn’t even consider. Believe me when I say, this is a wonderful opportunity for you.” He smiled again and took her hands in his from across the table. “You can stay with him forever, and at the same time, you can help protect the future of humanity.”
Qi Shao smiled nervously.
“Engaging abdominal gauss cannon!” Sci-Fi’s robotic voice screamed as she adjusted her torso to best target the massive, roaring lamprey-dragon above her.
The dark, floating island was being torn apart by swarms of the dragon’s clones. Deathbell’s outer leaves began to disintegrate as his poisonous power sapped his remaining mental energy. It sprayed out of his orifices in violent, twisting streams at the clones, burning away their hard shells and revealing the nothingness inside.
Qi Shao roared past Sci-Fi, leaving a trail of sticky black glitter. Sci-Fi leaned forward in pursuit, putting every ounce of concentration she had into her thrusters. Just as it seemed she was within her reach, Qi Shao performed a loop, diving directly toward Deathbell.
“Urooj get out of the way!”
Qi Shao’s spiraling mouth emerged from between the fog-covered columns of the desolate island, and from it emerged a long, sharp appendage. Deathbell turned and looked up to see Sci-Fi dashing toward him from in the frame of the moon, and felt a sharp pain in his chest.
“I don’t think I could do that to Jason.” Said Shao, reading over the materials the man behind the glass had given her. “Why are you behind that glass all of the time? Why is that?”
“Safety precaution, you’ll understand soon why this barrier is required.”
“Okay,” She said, flipping through the sheets. “‘Oneiroinautics’. You already have eight people who can do this? This is fantasy. Magic.”
“What we’re beginning to understand is that it isn’t magic at all. Any… willing entity can do this. I am personally very excited about it. It means so much for psychology and human communications. Not just humans. Plants, animals. Zeitgeists. Did you notice the bit about the K-9 unit? It’s marvelous.”
“This sounds like a big scam, but I am desperate. Let us continue. What is this right here?” She took the dull, gray pamphlet and pressed the black and white illustration against the glass. It depicted what looked like a dragonfly, only its face only had a circular mouth.
The doctor began laughing softly. “Our artists can be a bit creative. It’s a speculative drawing of what a nightmare creature could look like. Of course, they could look like anything, they reflect a person’s hopes and fears.”
Shao eyed his silhouette behind the thick pane pensively. For just a moment she could catch the glint of his glasses.
Qi Shao slowly plucked away Deathbell’s petals, placing them each in separate jars in the hollow grooves of the temple interior. “He loves me, he loves me not. Funny? Yes.” She said plainly, buzzing down from the impossibly tall shelf.
Deathbell was incoherent; he had long lost his ability to concentrate, and it seemed like the only thing real now was the pain. All around him were thick piles of brown leaves. Skittering Xiupanians tended to them with plastic rakes. In his fever Deathbell imagined that these were his uninteresting parts.
“Are you with the mister glass? Why are you here?” She asked calmly, plucking away the individual white bulbs that rooted in Deathbell’s skull. Luckily, escaping sap had quickly crystallized into a clear amber around over his eyes. “I think you are here to bother me. I think you are part of his funny game.”
Qi Shao tilted her head at the small flower, conveying an expression in her mouth-face that he wouldn’t understand to be restrained amusement. She produced the sound of broken gears grinding meat. Tenderly, she brought the hairy stalk of one of her arms to the base of his stem.
“I am not. You are. That does not bother me. That is why I am here.”
“Fuck off and die! Kill yourself!”
Qi Shao shook her head. “I am patient. I will give you one other chance. Answer this question. I think you are with Mr. Glass, and you are trying to manipulate me. Yes?”
“Who the fuck is Glass?”
“The man who talks to you from behind the glass. You know who I am referring to.”
“I’m with the Collective, I don’t know shit.”
Qi Shao scratched her head. “That is an ignorant lie. Transparent. You are not very learned,” Shao twisted his stem clockwise, then counterclockwise, maintaining surgical precision with her tiny fingertips. “You are a whole, tangible individual, with individual fears.”
“You will have one less fear now, you are welcome.” Very tenderly, she brought her nails together and plucked away his stamen, tossing it on the ground.
“Forever and a day ago we lost inside the spiral quarry.”
The doctor’s voice filled Shao’s chamber every night when she slept. A very slight electrical pulse ran through the bedframe when Qi wasn’t sleeping according to the program, and each time, the doctor would repeat his mantra. Every night, he observed the spikes and loops that appeared on his view screen with morbid fascination.
Qi Shao sat up and removed her eye mask. “Doctor? Is that you?”
“Yes. This is part of the conditioning process. Ah, the thought training outlined in the materials.”
“I thought sleep learning was a lie. I saw a show.”
“It is a lie. Please try to go back to sleep now, misses Shao, or this won’t work.”
The rotund slug creature rolled up the foot of the gargantuan seat. Across the vast distance sat Qi Shao. Hundreds of thousands of buzzing and chirping Xiupanians flooded the monolithic arches of the dining room, creating crawling windows. Moonlight escaping between their bodies caused the room to shift from dim to pitch black.
“Thank you for taking the time to interview, miss!” The slug squirted happily.
“I am a misses.” She maneuvered a bit of lettuce out of her teeth with a toothpick, dropping it to the floor with an enormous crash.
“And this lovely floral arrangement.” The slug man lifted a crown of white bulbs with its invisible limbs, placing the decoration on his head.
“I made it myself. It should fit you. It is nothing. Tell me again, what is your name?”
The creature slapped its own body several times, causing orange liquid to escape in drooping streams. “Lordite White Water the Fourth, PHD, Esq, of free consciousness, of course.”
“You are a ‘deather’. That is what I gathered from you when our minds first met. It seemed prevalent.”
“Oh but of course. You could kill me right now and I would be very happy.”
Qi Shao nodded.
“You could kill roughly five hundred thousand oneiroi and they would be very happy.” He added, wobbling earnestly.
“That is interesting. I did not know such a sentiment existed. Even so, why would I do such a thing. What motivation would I have.”
“Well, forever and a day ago we lost inside the spiral quarry, so to speak, and so on.”
Shao paused, her eyes resting vacantly on the moon inside the churning windows.
“So you’ll do it then?”
The Xiupanians all chirped in unison. Their bodies began to flood into the room and carpet the floor, causing the temple to be filled with soft moonlight.
The slug ball chuckled, producing a pipe from thin air and plugging it into a large orifice. “Very well! I’ll make my way back and spread word to my compatriots!” It rolled away, following the trail of slime it had left. Just as it reached the floor, it was ambushed by several Xiupanians, who with their incisors efficiently divided him like one might eighth a breakfast grapefruit. “Oh happy day!” It squealed.
Qi Shao snorted, and bumped her head on the ceiling. “Okay, yeah.” she whispered, absently slurping the waterfall of drool that had descended from her mouth.