Late that night, or what counted as night for a ship circling the earth, Winnie lay in her rack, propped on pillows. Her tablet lay wedged against the steel wall such that both she and Helena, who sat on her lap, could see it. Scattered over the bed were ignored food pellets, assembled berries, and crumbled food bars.
After much waiting, Winnie finally got some pages to load on tortoise physiology. It had taken nearly twenty minutes of back and forth as each page request went to the orbiter’s mainframe proxy, which fetched the website through a satellite internet connection. For soldiers reading and writing email back home, it was adequate. For anything else, it was crap.
“Watermelon,” Winnie said. “That’s something you can eat. It says you shouldn’t have a lot of it though. Would you like some?” She looked at Helena. “Water. Melon.”
“Okay.” Winnie read through some more. “Green leafy vegetables, but those dark kinds that nobody likes. Kale? I think that’s what these pellets are, but we could make some that actually look like kale. How about it? Kale?”
In Helena’s mind, she saw an image of a mother trying to feed a toddler baby food. The mother swerved her spoon around. “Open up for the airplane.”
The meaning was clear.
“Okay, I’ll stop,” Winnie turned off the tablet. “But you really should eat more. I know you’re still hungry.”
Confusion came from Helena’s mind.
“Hungry,” said Winnie slowly. “You are hungry.”
“I don’t feel hungry,” Helena thought. She then expressed her memory about their talk of getting Helena a body.
“Sorry. Victoria won’t do it right now, and she’s making me choose the body you get. I think it’s her way to spite me.”
In Helena’s eyes, Winnie saw that the only word she’d understood was sorry. It was what she had been expecting to hear. Helena already assumed she’d never get a body again.
But there was hope, sort of. Except Helena wasn’t understanding that. Communicating with Helena was getting frustrating.
Winnie wrestled her glyph card from her pocket. Multiple people could use the same glyphs if they held it together, but what was Helena supposed to do? Bite it?
After some thought, Winnie mashed a berry between her fingers. She cradled Helena and carefully traced the mind-reading glyph on her shell. Helena craned to see. When she couldn’t, she settled and waited. It was slow going. Each stroke took multiple dabs, but Winnie finished.
She looked Helena in the eyes and thought, “can you hear me?”
Helena could. Winnie heard her own voice in Helena’s head. Helena, however, was startled. She’d never used a mind-reading glyph before.
“Take your time,” thought Winnie. “It’s me. You’re not thinking these thoughts. I gave you the mind-reading glyph.”
“What? I uh… how do I answer? Oh.”
Helena fumbled through several of Winnie’s memories before realizing what she was doing. Thoughts would echo in Winnie’s mind, and Helena would focus on them, causing them to echo again in Winnie’s. The feedback was chaotic, but it eventually settled down.
“I think I got it,” Helena said.
“Can you understand me better?”
Then Helena had a concern about accidentally seeing Winnie’s private thoughts. It immediately brought some of her own to surface.
Helena shut her eyes.
Winnie smiled. “Take your time.”
After a while, Helena reopened them. Her surface thoughts were locked on basketball. Right behind them were her private thoughts.
“God!” Helena thought. She shut her eyes again. This time, when she opened them, she conveyed a single thought. “How do you control this?” Then eyes shut.
Winnie laughed. “Relax… Focus on my mind… Not yours.”
Helena waggled her head. Her eyes stayed closed.
Winnie waited. As flustered as Helena may be, her mind was finally off her depression. Her aura was something other than it’s usual barren haze.
Helena tried again. Mentally, she repeated the same babble. “Her mind her mind her mind her mind her mind.” Helena pilfered through Winnie’s head, picking out random childhood memories, the past few days, some Korean words Winnie knew. There was no pause to breath. Winnie hadn’t been nearly this bad when she first linked with Josephine. It helped that death was imminent then. It focused her. Afterward, while working with Josephine, if Something came up, they both ignored it. It was no big deal.
Everyone secretly believed they had the dirtiest thoughts of all. In this week alone, Winnie had seen enough dirty thoughts in the soldiers around her that she’d stopped caring. Helena just hadn’t realized yet that her thoughts couldn’t possibly be worse than those men.
Helena snapped her eyes shut.
Winnie felt her cheeks heat up.
Helena withdrew into her shell.
“Umm. No, it’s okay,” Winnie said. “You uh… don’t have to hide.” Then slowly. “Please come out.”
All Winnie had to go on now was Helena’s aura. It had become a knot so tight and overwhelming, Winnie felt nauseous simply imagining what it felt like. Cautiously, she laid her hands on Helena’s shell, but it turned Helena’s aura darker.
“Please… It’s Okay.”
Helena’s eyes snapped open. “Take it off take it off take it off take it off!”
“The glyph? But why? I’d still be able to read your mind.”
“Don’t. Okay? Don’t read my mind.”
“But then how will I know what you’re saying?”
“Oh God, I want to diiieee.”
“Helena. I don’t care.”
“I swear. It was just a thought. I was just thinking about what would be the most embarrassing thing for you to see, and it just popped into my head. I’ve never thought stuff like that before.”
“It’s fine. The soldiers think stuff like that all the time.”
“I swear,” she mentally yelled. “I don’t!”
Winnie laughed.”It’s okay,” Winnie yelled back. “I seriously don’t care.”
“But how could you not?”
“It’s kind of flattering actually.”
“Stop! Stop making fun of me.”
“Yes, you are. Stop it. I—” Helena’s thought trailed off. “What’s the point? It’s not like it matters. It’s just another reason to hate my life.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Why not? I’m a tortoise. I’m going to be one forever. Why should anybody care what I think? They never did before. I’m a joke. I always have been. I just didn’t know it until now. So go ahead. Read my mind. I don’t care anymore. Look at what a joke my life is.”
“Your life isn’t a joke.”
“Yes, it is. I’m the princess who goes shopping and brags about how she’s going to rule. Everybody nods and laughs and puts up with her. It won’t matter. I’m nobody. No. I’m worse than nobody. My mom made me so I was a nobody on purpose. My life was just an inconvenience she put up with for her future body. It was the only thing about me of any value, and now I don’t even have that anymore.”
“We’ll get you another body?”
“From what? My mom? Why would she?”
“I made a deal with her.”
“Yeah. To get somebody else’s body. I’ll never have my own again—the one I worked so hard on. She gets to enjoy it, after everyone else is done with it. You know what? I’m glad she doesn’t get my body. It’s the best way I could have ever spite her besides killing myself. Now I can’t even do that anymore. She wouldn’t care.”
“But you’ll get a body. I know it won’t be your own. And it does kind of suck having someone else’s body. I would know.”
“But you have to pick one out for me. She did that on purpose, you know. She hopes you’ll chicken out.”
“I know, but I won’t,” Winnie thought. “I was thinking we could pick one of the exemplars Alex swapped out with his people. They’re all criminals who are already using a stolen bodies, and the original owners are dead. There’s no way Victoria will let them go free once she’s in control, so they’re practically doomed anyway. Here, look. These are some that I was thinking about.” Winnie visualized some exemplars. None were as young as Helena, and none had paid as much attention to maintaining their own bodies, but plenty were young and attractive.
But Helena wasn’t paying attention.
“Come on, Helena. Please. Look at these.”
“Why? Even if Victoria does let me have one of their bodies, which I don’t think she will, what then? I live somebody else’s life while my mother gets to live mine? I’d rather just be dead. And you know what the worst part about it is? It’d probably be for the best. I’d be a horrible ruler.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“Please. Nobody wants me to be queen. Not even you. I can see it in your head.”
“But I would.”
“You told my mom you didn’t think I was ready. You thought I was a spoiled princess who wouldn’t take it seriously. And you were right. I wanted to make you my fashion advisor. The world is in ruins and I wanted to outlaw fabrics. I would have been the worst ruler the world has ever seen.”
“Helena,” Winnie said. “Your mom killed, like, most of the world. You literally could not do worse than her.”
“What!” Helena scanned through Winnie’s mind. “Oh, wow. Yeah. I guess that’s true.” A flicker of mirth came from Helena.
“And you were a pretty good at leading the basketball team.”
“I guess that’s true. I did lead them to win nationals. And those girls were the worst. Seriously. I know nobody else cared as much as I did, and I yelled a lot, but I made them try. Those girls would have sucked if not for me.”
“I believe you.”
“Watch. Who’s going to get them to regionals now? Bridget? Please. They won’t even qualify.”
Helena imagined the team failing under Bridget’s passive guidance. Helena knew no one would miss her pushing, but they’d learn that she was the reason for their success. She was proud about that.
But the daydream only lasted a moment. Inevitably, Helena recalled why she wasn’t leading them anymore. Each memory found their way back to her mother, or the maniacs who’d stolen her perfect body, or the helpless tortoise body she was left with. Gloom fogged over her mind until her little pocket of pride evaporated.
“Considering everything,” Helena though, “being a tortoise is the best future I could have hoped for. My mom was probably going to kill me after she took my body. No one would ever have known. From the moment I was born I was supposed to die. I just wish… you know… I just wish I’d had a chance.”
“I know.” Winnie folded her legs toward her chest, cocooning herself around Helena. “Hey. You want to see something cool?”
Winnie cleared her mind and focused. She visualized herself cradling Helena, as though looking from a small camera floating above their rack. The berthing quarters was cramped with bunkbeds with just enough room to sidle between them. From near the ceiling, Winnie could see over the bunks to all the hatches leading from the room.
“Where do you want to go?” Winnie asked.
“Me? I don’t know. Where can we go?”
“Can we leave the ship?”
Winnie focused on a tiny port window across the room. She soared through it, and the world opened up. The quarters were gone. The ship was just a tiny dot floating above the boundless expanse of the earth below them. The grayish continents were sprawled out with sapphire blue ocean stretching into the horizon. From up here, they could just make out curve of the planet.
“Oh wow,” Helena thought. “Is it always this vivid?”
“It wasn’t at first. I’ve gotten better over the months. Where to now?”
“I have no idea.” Several destinations floated through Helena’s mind: The north pole, the Asian mountains, remote islands. “I can’t decide. You pick.”
“Me? If you insist.”
Her mind turned upward, to where the blue tinge of the atmosphere turned black and the stars shown through. At a speed no human had ever gone, she soared toward space. Earth shot away behind them, its vastness becoming nothing more than a marble. And then there was the moon, as vast and monumental as the earth, but Winnie didn’t stop. Soon both were dots behind them, indistinguishable from the stars.
Still she went on. The sun became a mote. The stars shifted around them. They seemed so close now, but it was only an illusion because of her speed. She was moving faster than any particle man had ever known, and each moment she moved faster still. The stars parted. An infinite black lay beyond. Winnie glanced back to see the swirled galaxy they’d just emerged from—an unimaginable number of dots mixed together in a glittering mass. From this perspective, she was a giant overlooking it. She could reach out and touch any star. But Winnie looked back out at the dark. It took her a moment to adjust her mind to see what the human eye would not, like adjusting her vision to the dark.
And there they were—the other galaxies. Each one was so faint and far away that the light years Winnie had just spanned were nothing but the step of an ant in comparison.
“There are so many of them,” thought Helena.
“Have you been to them before?”
“A few. Where do you want to go now?”
“Can we go even further?”
“Yeah, we can.”
And so they did.