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Officially the project was called Search for Earth mark 2 or SFE MK2 for short.  However most of us on the inside referred to it as the MK2 project all except on really bad days when the drills and run-throughs seemed to never end.  Then we tended to invent much more colourful acronyms, such as Suicide For Earth 2 or So Fucked for Earth 2.  We argued a bit over that last one because some sticklers for detail pointed out it had too many f’s in it.  But the rest of us were quite fond of it as the two f’s emphasised how doubly fucked we probably were.  

It was all a bit childish I suppose but the human mind often develops surprising ways to alleviate stress and as a psychiatrist I wasn’t about to deprive myself  or anyone else of any remotely useful coping mechanism.   To pass the time I saw no harm in joining in with the other boffins and nerds while they vented their frustration over certain aspects of the SFE MK2 project.  During those jocular moments we were like bar room buddies, all chuckles and back slapping, familiar yet not.  The laughter always petered out quickly like sparks from a roman candle and five minutes later we could barely remember each other’s names without checking one another’s name tags.

There were exactly one hundred active team members, all enlisted for their mind boggling linguistic skills, scientific achievements and all round academic brilliance.  Every single one had been carefully selected from literally thousands of volunteers and I was no different.  For years now I’d been at the top of my field, eminent shrink to the rich and famous, confidant of the stars.  Aside from that I had two other master’s degrees unknown to many, one in engineering and one in physics.  Being the secretive kind who habitually withholds personal information from all but my closest friends I decided to present those dusty old degrees as my main qualification for being on the mission. My story sounded convincing;  at least it did to me anyhow but it seemed as though one or two of my fellow volunteers still managed to detect an air of mystery about me and one of them had even resorted to hacking the mainframe in order to poke through my files.  Fortunately for me they must have over- estimated their own ability because the moment they entered the system and began deciphering the codes the whole thing went into secure lockdown.

None of that mattered now though I thought suppressing a smile, as we would be leaving in just under an hour.  An assistant with hair the colour of a bluebottle’s belly pressed my therma-form bodysuit into place and sealed it snuggly under my chin.

  “Is that going to bother you?” she said, pointing to an errant hank of jet black hair hanging in front of my face.  I tried to raise my hand to tuck it underneath but for now at least the suit was far too restrictive.  I could hardly move.

 “Nope,” I said, blowing it forcefully out of the way.  “I’ll be fine.”  

The girl was a Goth type so detecting my latent anger was not a problem for her; in fact she seemed to like my style.  Her kohl lined eyes smiled approvingly as she checked my biological read out. Exactly how much information was on there? I wondered.  She looked up and blew an extra-large pink bubble which burst just as it reached the size of an orange.  Disturbingly the gum got stuck on a shiny silver piercing impaling her tongue dead centre.  She stopped what she was doing and removed the barbell still covered in sticky pink goo.  Seeing me shudder she decided I wasn’t that cool after all and flicked up her middle digit beneath the console.  I smiled drily.  Like I gave a fuck.

  Half an hour later we boarded the shuttle and then after a very long wait it roared away with an almighty explosion of heat and sound, tearing its way through the atmosphere towards the transition station orbiting Earth.  Through the tiny round viewing port on my left, sunlight poured in as if to remind me of our planet’s inevitable doom.  Automatically I lowered my visor and stared intently at its incandescent fury.  We were two of a kind, I thought, feeling my eyes starting to water.  We had all the appearance of normality and yet the guys in lab coats had the gall to insist we were dying.  By their calculations our sun had eighty four years left before it would go nova and destroy all life on Earth, while my body would be conquered by Aids strain 5 in somewhere between five and eight years.  Apparently it was harder to be precise about a human body than a celestial one.

 In some ways being terminally ill made me an ideal candidate as it wouldn’t matter so much if I never came home.  Besides the mission certainly made an unconventional alternative to the government funded euthanasia clinics specifically for those infected with Aids strain 5.  They just made my skin crawl.

  My head was jolted back sharply as we docked with the station, a great rotating wheel housing over one hundred long term stasis pods around its outer edge.  Each one was programmed with a different course in the hope that we could find a suitable planet to colonize.  My particular destination was furthest away from Earth, a planet called Caldar 6 which was roughly four hundred light years away and the most likely to fit humanity’s requirements. 

But strangely none of that really mattered to me now.  Lying inside the cramped pod I regulated my breathing just as we had practiced for the last eighteen months, calmly waiting to be claimed by the longest sleep I’d ever known – four hundred years of complete cellular stasis.  Or if I was really lucky the on-board life support would fail and I would die quietly out there amongst the glittering stars and moon dust, entombed inside my metal coffin, sweetly oblivious to absolutely everything.

Goosebumps.  God how I hated goose bumps!  Someone had closed a door somewhere and the draft had chilled my skin.  Thinking I was lying in bed in my comfortable New York condo I tried to roll over but something was covering my face and there were restraints of some sort on my legs and torso.  Panicking, I reached up and found a network of tubes.  Where the hell was I?  Yanking them out I gasped and found the air unusually thin.  I’m ashamed to say that despite all my training full blown panic set in, I started to hyperventilate.  

  “She must be calmed,” said a voice from somewhere close by.

  “She will not be calm if she sees our faces,” said another.

 Oh crap! I thought, struggling to get up.  Perhaps they belonged to one of those terrorist cells that had been waging a deadly campaign against the SFE MK2 project.  I mustn’t let them take me.  My mind was acting like a roadrunner on speed and none of it was making any sense.

Suddenly I heard a scratching noise overhead and realized with a start that I was looking through the escape hatch of a long term stasis pod.

So then…the pods had already been launched and it looked as though my journey had already come to an end.  But in that case then, whose voices had I heard a few minutes ago? 

  “I’m going to open this door again Petra and you must try to remain calm,” said a disembodied voice.  “We will seem strange to you at first, possibly even terrifying but I promise you that we mean you no harm.  Remember that.”

Aliens!  They could only be aliens!  Now I felt slightly sick and there was nowhere to hide, I couldn’t even get up.  The loud hiss of escaping air told me they’d started to open the hatch.  Light came flooding through and like a child hiding from the bogey monster underneath the bed I squeezed my eyes shut and waited.  Everything was quiet again but I could sense someone there, so I steeled myself and opened them again so gradually that my eyelids ached with the effort.

The first thing I noticed was their astonishing blue eyes, the colour of lapis lazuli and shaped like oversized almonds.  Their skin was the colour of pewter and had the appearance of being damp.  Both wore a short toga style garment in an extremely light cotton like fabric.  One wore blue, the other, slate grey.  Their lustrous black hair formed thick waves shot through with flashes of silver all the way past their shoulders where it tapered off, turning a deep vermillion.   Although dramatically different from us, they were basically humanoid in shape, about a foot taller than your average human and from what I could see they had no discernible ears.

“How do you know my name?” I asked shakily.  

“First you must understand that we do not normally talk this way,” said the one on the left. “All our regular communication is done by thought to thought transfer.  So it was easy for me to filter through the background noise and single out your name.”

I recoiled inwardly. It all sounded dreadful to me – a horrific invasion of privacy.  He/she whatever it was, referring to my mind like his/her weekly shopping list and picking out whatever bits caught his/her fancy.  But it must be normal for them.  How could they stand it?

“You’re just not used to it that’s all,” said the one on the right.  I frowned.  Obviously they were still rummaging around in my brain.  “But if you prefer we’ll limit our discussions in your presence to verbal communication and declare your mind off limits.”

“Yes, I would like that,” I said, feeling somewhat relieved.

The alien next to him/her gave the other a strange look and I got the feeling that an intense conversation was taking place that no human being could ever hope to hear.

 “We had hoped to discuss your illness Petra,” the other one said evenly.  “Would you rather that we do not?”

That question took me completely by surprise.

“Oh no you don’t!” I said indignantly.  “Not that.  That is definitely off limits!  I came on this mission because I wanted all that to all go away.  All the stigma, all the wretched memories.”  I was furious.

“I can’t believe it!  I travel four hundred light years, meet an alien race and the first thing they want to do is talk about my God damn illness.”

I was frantically trying to free myself of the restraints so I could sit up and rant and rail at the universe properly.  But before long I gave up and lay back panting from the effort.  This was so messed up.

“There’s no need to be upset,” said the tallest one.  “We only wanted to help you.”

“Help me how?” I snapped.

“We can make it all go away – but only if you let us.”

“What?  My illness?” I said, still feeling slightly breathless.  I thought for a minute or two and realized it was quite logical to assume that an alien race with superior powers might be capable of curing our supposedly incurable diseases.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath through my nose to calm myself, “What do I have to do?”

“You must trust us and be bold enough to accept the wonders that you’re about to see.  Our world is vastly different from your own,” said the tall one, taking me by the hand.

I nodded wordlessly while they unbuckled the restraints.  Taking another deep breath I allowed myself to be led up through the hatch where I looked around and blinked.   The pod had landed in a massive steep sided valley, lush and green all except for the area just in front of us.  There was a lot of steam in the vicinity and where the ground was bare, oozing red clay pits bubbled away like a rhino on the Serengeti suffering from indigestion.

What caught my eye in particular though was the unusual structure up in the distance, a colossal arch made up of what looked like enormous bubbles.  It was so huge I couldn’t even see the other end.  Beneath the light of Caladar’s twin suns it twinkled and shone with fantastical rainbow brilliance looking for all the world like some outlandish bauble dangling from a Christmas tree of epic proportions.  I had to know what it was and whether or not it was artificial.  But in my haste to get there faster I forgot my legs hadn’t taken a step in four hundred years and fell headlong into some sort of bush with strange violet fluffy foliage instead of proper leaves.  My two companions seemed quite concerned but when I jumped to my feet and assured them that I wasn’t hurt, just a little itchy, they relaxed.

“Now that I’ve finished humiliating myself, perhaps you’d be good enough to give me your names?” I said, brushing off the last few bits of purple fluff still stuck to my suit.

They looked at each other again in that annoying way they had.  As if they were the only ones in the loop and I knew absolutely nothing.  Problem was, they were right.

“Because we communicate telepathically we don’t have any need for names,” said the tallest one.  “We just transmit a mental image of the individual in question and everyone knows straight away who we mean.  I think you have a similar method on your world.  Photographs I think?”

 “Yeah I guess so,” I mumbled.  No names?  How weird was that?  “Surely there are times when you require another way of identifying yourselves though, right?”

“Correct,” said the one walking behind me.  “That’s why we’re given numbers at birth.  See?”  He or she held out their arm to show me but it just looked like a bunch of dots and squiggles to me.  

“What are these last two numbers?” I asked, pointing to some unidentifiable black markings.

 “Nine and five,” came the reply.

  “And what about you?  What are your last two numbers?” 

“Five and three,” said the other alien, looking a bit bemused.

“Well from now on your names will be ninety five and fifty three, at least to me anyhow.  I can’t be working with anyone who doesn’t have a proper name.  And what’s more I can’t work with this stupid headgear any longer,” I cried finally tearing off the therma-form head piece.  It was much too warm and it was making me sweat.

  I shook out my messy raven hair and sighed blissfully.  “Ah that’s better!”

  Ninety five and fifty three shared a look and started walking again.

  “Hang on a minute!” I called.  “There’s just one more thing.  I’m afraid I’m not finding it easy to recognize your gender.”

  Ninety five gave a close approximation of a smile but Fifty three looked tight lipped and surly.

  “We’re probably best described as hermaphrodites actually.  We’re able to determine our sex to suit our preferences, just as reef fish do on your home world.  These last twenty cycles I’ve been male,” said Ninety Five.  “While Fifty Three here has reverted back to being female only very recently.”

I nodded, feeling a bit uneasy.  How did they know about reef fish?  They seemed to know everything, not just about me but about Earth as well.  It was a bit disconcerting.  I was usually the one to poke around in other people’s psyches but here on Caladar 6 many things were different.  It was going to take some getting used to.

I had hoped we were heading straight for the rainbow arch but I was in for a disappointment.  We stopped about a quarter of a mile away right next to a massive hole in the ground that seemed to go on and on forever.  There was a strange smell rising up from it too, like a cross between eucalyptus, shoe leather and ammonia.  Repulsed, I wrinkled my nose and turned away.

Still transfixed by the incredible beauty of the arch I didn’t quite catch what Ninety Five said next, so he broke his rule and invaded my mind again to be sure I got the point.

“Remember for this to work you must trust us,” he admonished.   And with that he shoved me over the edge and into the gaping chasm.

I fell for what seemed like an age, screaming till my throat bled and trying to get a hand hold as I fell but all the while I could hear Fifty Three and Ninety Five pleading inside my head for me to trust them.

Are you crazy? I thought back at them flailing my arms.

The walls rushed past, featureless and grey due to the speed at which I was falling.  I tried to resign myself to the inevitable as I knew it couldn’t be far away.  Better to die here than back on Earth surrounded by prejudice and false sympathy, I told myself.  

Just then something unseen caught me suspending me in mid-air.  A warm updraft rose up from somewhere below and carried me gently upwards.  I sniffed the air.  There was that strange smell again.  I looked upwards, relieved to see the light getting brighter up ahead.  Maybe I wasn’t doomed after all.  But what was that strange flickering iridescent film doing between me and my freedom?  Before I could come up with an answer I came to a momentary stop directly beneath it and with a slight whooshing noise I was enveloped inside a massive bubble that had suddenly come into existence around me.

“Wh…what’s this?” I asked them hoping they could still read my thoughts.

“We call it Abubble,” said a voice inside my head.  I thought it might have been Fifty Three but I couldn’t be sure.

“What does it do?  Is it safe?”

“Just relax.  You’re in good hands.”

“You just pushed me down a frickin hole!  How can I relax?” I thought back at them angrily.

“You’re going to see the Arch up close.  That’s what you wanted wasn’t it?” came the disembodied reply.

“Yes,” I replied out loud.  “But what is all of this for?  What are you going to do?”

“Just after you arrived on Caladar 6 we brought your craft to the Arch because we realised you were sick.  The Arch is a great many things to us and is capable of things even we don’t fully understand.  For you we think it can affect a cure, so I suppose the nearest analogy in this particular instance would be a hospital.  Things will go so much more smoothly though I assure you, if you just relax.”

“Easy for you to say,” I thought with a snort.  “I’m the one suspended inside a bubble….I mean Abubble.”

Suddenly we broke free of the shaft and shot out into the blinding light of day.  I felt like a plastic figure stuck inside a snow globe or a fly trapped inside a glossy pebble of solidified amber. Why wouldn’t they let me move?   So far I was not impressed.

“Why can’t I move?”

“It’s procedure until your Abubble is connected to the Arch.  To allow movement during transit would put you at risk of a course deviation.  Don’t worry though, it’s just a precaution.  The hive mind is strong enough to levitate your cell all the way around the planet if we have to.”

“Hive mind?  What does that even mean?  Do you live in some sort of hives or something?”

“Yes.  You’re looking at one of them.”

“You mean the Arch?” I said in surprise.  

“Yes.  But that’s only one.  Our whole world is covered in indentations or valleys as you call them, just like this one and in the centre of each one an Arch rises up, able to support an entire Abubble colony of ten thousand or more.  You’re almost there now Petra.”

The surface of the Abubble began to change until it became an opaque milky white. A second or two later I detected a slight bump as it made contact with the arch and I held my breath thinking it would burst.  Thankfully it didn’t.  The only thing I noticed was that the skin of the bubble rippled very slightly but that was it.

“Your Abubble is now conjoined with the Arch.”

“Great!  So how long is this going to take?” I said, suddenly noticing I could move again.

“Why?  Do you have somewhere to be?” came the sarcastic reply.  Straight away I guessed that I was now communicating with Fifty Three.  Hmm, someone was having difficulty adjusting to those female hormones, I thought to myself.  But then I remembered there were no private thoughts here.  Ah well, too late to worry about that now, I decided.

A long silence followed.  Perhaps they were having a tiff again I thought with a smile.  Maybe Caldarians were not so different from us after all.

“The length of time it takes depends upon how well you react to the treatment.”  This time it was Ninety Five speaking again.  I wondered briefly what had happened to Fifty Three.

The way he was talking it really did sound like a hospital, but that was where the similarity ended as far as I could see.

“I must go now and join the others,” he said.“We will be vaguely aware of your status here but most of our concentration will be needed to channel the energies required for your treatment.  However if you do really need us at any time we will know.  Oh and one last thing you need to be aware of, the end of your treatment will be signalled by rain.  Good luck Petra!

Rain?  Did he just say rain?  Surely I had misunderstood.  Suddenly I was interrupted by something wet touching my foot.  A pale green liquid was beginning to pool around my feet.  Was it raining already?  I wondered.  I took a step backwards only for it to rise higher still.  I was taking a lot on trust here, I thought, trying to swallow my unease.  Following the advice of the two aliens was not easy but I told myself to relax and let its warmth lap against my legs as it continued to rise.  I began to enjoy it and decided it felt quite soothing. But when it reached my shoulders, I realised it wasn’t going to stop there.  Feeling utterly foolish now, I ripped off my therma- suit and shouted for help.  My cries were greeted with a wall of silence.  No one came.

Soon the whole place was flooded and I could no longer hold my breath.  Eventually I passed out only to wake a few minutes later completely submerged in the lime green liquid but breathing normally much to my amazement.  Something new was happening now though.  An intense tingling was taking over my body, not exactly uncomfortable but it was getting that way. Panic began to rise up again within me, feeding on my fear of the unknown.  Something floated in front of my face and I tried to scream.  But the only sound that emerged from my mouth wasa halo of silvery bubbles that drifted away into the green.

Blast!  It was just my hand floating past, I realised after all that.  There was a pattern starting to emerge here much to my annoyance. I’d fallen into a cycle of panic and self -ridicule.  My hand was pulsating now as if it was in the process of being bombarded by some kind of invisible energy.  I drew my hand closer hoping to figure out what was going on, but there was nothing for me to see.  For a while nothing further happened and my frustration began to build.  For all I knew they were probably realising they couldn’t fix me after all or maybe they’d known all along and just wanted the chance to experiment on a new life form.  It was starting to look as though I’d taken yet another chance and lost.  I should have known finding a cure wouldn’t be that simple.   More self-ridicule followed.  It was a vicious circle. 

Without even thinking about it I moved my arms and legs and turned myself around.  Actually no, that wasn’t quite right.  Something had turned me around.  How strange, I thought.  Then it happened a second time.  Looking downwards I could see tiny fluorescing bubbles twisting around my ankles.  On closer inspection I could see that they were actually going through my ankles and coming out the other side!  Gradually they made their way upwards, forming an intertwining network like some sort of glowing woodland ivy or a DNA double helix.  Constantly they passed through my body doing God knows what and gradually spinning me faster and faster until I thought my heart would stop.  It seemed to go on for hours and I felt there was no end in sight.

Then just like that they were gone.  Everything grew still again and the lime green fluid started to drain away.  As I watched it recede I began to marvel at how I felt.  It was incredible!  I hadn’t felt like this in a long time.  Now I understood how insidious my disease was and how much it had leached away my vigour during the last few years I’d spent on Earth; wasting muscle, thinning bone without my even noticing.

Standing still I heaved a sigh and waited for the rain to come.  It was gonna feel oh so great!  With the burden of an early death no longer hanging over me, I could hold my head up and smile – for real!  I couldn’t wait to thank Ninety Five and Fifty Three and apologise for my lack of trust.  But after almost ten minutes of standing there nothing had happened.  There was no rain.  Not a single drop. 

I wasn’t too concerned though.  Perhaps I should sit down and wait, I thought.  Suddenly I noticed I was still naked and remembered tearing off my therma-form body suit just as the Abubble had filled up with that crazy effervescent lime juice.  There it was over there, lying on the floor.  Still feeling elated I trotted over and bent down to pick it up when suddenly I felt a hand placed at the back of my neck in a manner so confident and sure that I couldn’t help shudder. My mind flashed back instantly to the one person in my life who always did that.  To my surprise I turned around and found him standing there grinning at me with impish delight.

“Adam!” I gasped.  “What the?  How did you get here?”

“You know I can’t resist you,” he said, leaning in and burning me with his soft brown eyes.  My body responded eagerly but my mind stepped in and took control.  I hadn’t seen Adam in over twelve years so how exactly was this all happening?  And where was I now anyhow?  I looked around hoping to find some answers.  

The room was full of people dressed up to the nines, eating canapés while they made boozy, sometimes slanderous small talk.  Music was coming from somewhere setting the mood for some pretty unorthodox dancing over on the dance floor.   The group of men standing closest to me wore button holes and knocked back Jack Daniels while the women at their elbows ordered champagne and martinis.  Oh no!  I thought.  It couldn’t be!  But it was.  The huge five tiered flamingo pink wedding cake in the centre of the top table clinched it.  This was the night Adam gate crashed my sister’s wedding so that he could have his wicked way with me.  Me the maid of honour!   Well that wasn’t going to happen again! I thought indignantly.  What a jerk!  And what an idiot I was to fall for him in the first place and…Oh my GOD!  I’m still not wearing any clothes! 

“I never got the chance to put my suit back on,” I wailed out loud looking down.  One or two people stopped what they were doing and stared.

But no, once again I was wrong.  I was wearing clothes.  And rather than the hideous bridesmaid’s dress I had once worn on the actual day I was wearing a fantastic cerulean blue coloured dress courtesy of my favourite designer.  Relieved beyond words I returned the curious glances from those who’d heard my strange outburst, letting my guard down just long enough for Adam to whisk me away to the dancefloor like some wily Bedouin kidnapper.

Big mistake.  As we glided around ever so slowly we melted together like an extra spicy portion of tacos and cheese.  I’d forgotten how amazing his body felt pressed up against mine and how his breath at the nape of my neck made me tingle all the way down to my toes or just how much discipline it took for me not to sink my teeth into that soft, soulful lower lip and nibble on it till there was nothing left.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about my clothes too much anyway, as before the night was through, they were lying all over Adam’s hotel room floor while we repeated history all over again in his quivering king size waterbed.  For a few hours at least Abubble was a distant memory.

Before we knew it five hours had passed and he’d finally fallen asleep, but somehow I didn’t feel tired yet.  I lay on my side staring down at that lovely cerulean blue dress, coiled up on the plush cream carpet like some exotic seashell on a paradise Island beach.  Its heavenly hue drew me to yet another distinctive memory, the old blue shed at the bottom of Grandfather’s garden.  Feeling utterly relaxed I stretched out and closed my eyes trying to remember the last time I’d been there…

Tiny wings flapped and struggled.  I could hear them somewhere here in the dark.  This was something more than a memory too, it had to be.  It felt too real.  There was sawdust beneath my feet in the warm, dark shed.  Everything here held reminders of Grandad, his hard work, his ingenuity and above all his humanity.  There was the old red watering can he’d run into with his truck.  We’d offered to buy him a new one but instead he spent four hours sitting on the front porch knocking the old one back into shape.  I smiled bitter sweetly at that memory and as I turned away I caught sight of my reflection in a jagged broken window pane.  I looked to be about eleven years old now, with gappy teeth and unmanageable hair.

Clip, clip clip…What was that noise?  It sounded like someone cutting their toenails.

“Grandad!” I called.  “You here?”  

“Yes my Pet, just clipping Tina’s claws.”  I spotted him towards the back of the shed, surrounded by the mountains of clutter he just couldn’t bring himself to throw away.  Old engine oil containers, boxes of books that nobody ever read, carburettors, an ancient vacuum cleaner, two broken bar stools, an old Chinese parasol, the list was endless.  One of these days these things may come in useful, he used to say.  Sometimes they did, but mostly they just gathered dust.  

Carefully he put Tina the budgerigar back in her cage and watched her flutter around through antiquated glasses held together with bandaids and tape.  Knowing that the bird was frightened I crouched down beside him trying not to make a sound.

“Looks as though she’ll be ok,” he whispered, sounding pleased.  Sometimes the little bird’s hearts gave out after their claws had been clipped but Tina seemed lively enough from where we were standing.  Grandfather stood up mopping his head with a red and white chequered handkerchief.  It was warm in the shed and he seemed to be sweating a lot.

“Did I show you Meribel’s babies? She had them on Thanksgiving.  Come on over here and I’ll show you,” he said, beckoning me with a crook of his wrinkled brown forefinger.

He opened the door and I found myself looking down into a tiny nest box of down and feathers.  I stifled a gasp of genuine delight.  “They’re so beautiful,” I whispered.  “And so small!”  The little birds were half naked, half feathered and still struggling to move their ungainly bodies. Their vulnerability made them cuter still but I was worried about their future.  They looked too weak to thrive. 

“How will they ever be strong enough to fly?” I said.

“Oh they will,” smiled grandfather.  He cooed at Meribel through the bars as she preened her topaz coloured feathers.  “Just look at their beautiful momma.  She was that small once.  But she can fly like a swallow.”

He was clearly proud of his expanding aviary.  To him every new addition was a tiny marvel and I was glad to have seen the latest.  

“Grandpappa,” I lisped.  “How come the window’s broken over there?”   He looked puzzled and hobbled over to take a look.  Sliding one thumb under the strap of his dungarees he stumbled and suddenly fell to his knees making a grab for his chest.  A terrible groan burst from his lips and he keeled over, his eyes glazed and wide.

“Ohh!” I sobbed. running over and burying my head in his soft white hair.  He was always such a gentle man; I couldn’t bear to see him in such pain.  “I’ll go get help.” I said, trying to rise.

“No,” he said breathlessly.  “I want you to stay with me, Pet.  Please.”

“But you need help.  I’ll try to be as quick as I can.  I promise.”

I knew this was merely a re-run and that we’d had this conversation before, somewhere, sometime. And I knew how it was all supposed to end.  But none of that made it any easier.  

“Please!” he croaked, grabbing hold of my arm with his last ounce of strength. “Don’t go.  I don’t want to die alone.”

His lips had turned blue now and his breath came in painful rasps.  I had never imagined that anything could part us but now time was taking him from me.  The urge to take whatever time we had left and turn it into gold was overwhelming.  Disregarding the dirty sawdust floor, I lay down beside him and started to sing his song, the one I always used to sing for him when I was small.

At first the words came out shakily but a brief smile from him told me it was the right thing to do so I sang with all my strength, continuing long after the light had gone from his eyes just in case by some miracle he could still hear me.

How long we lay there I’ll never know but time would soon overreach us, of that much I was certain.  Time was slipping through our fingers and soon there would be none left at all.  Beyond today there would be no more chats that lasted forever, no more lazy Sunday strolls down by the meandering creek or sitting on the porch out front and watching the sun go down on those balmy summer nights that were common in Phoenix.  I shook my head in disbelief.

Outside the day was now drawing to a close and in the distance I could hear someone talking.  They were coming to fetch me I realized but I still didn’t want to leave him.  He’d asked me, almost begged me not to go and this time I’d found the courage to stay.  I would finish the song I decided and then lie quietly; maybe they wouldn’t find us here.

“Please don’t take my sunshine away…” I croaked.

I’d been singing for hours and my throat felt dry like a piece of beef jerky.

“I’m going to have to sleep now Grandad.  I’m tired,” I whispered, laying my head in the crook of his arm.  Completely drained, I fell into a deep sleep, content that I’d made him happy and that I’d had the privilege of being there for him right up to the very end.

After what felt like many hours I woke up again to find myself lying in an expansive bed, staring up at an impressive but suspiciously aloof vaulted ceiling.  Once again I was an adult now but how that was even possible only puzzled me fleetingly.

This was Adam’s place I knew, extravagant and palatial, built while he rode on the crest of a mighty wave – his Hollywood dream.  Like a good many others his dream had turned sour following a succession of cancelled shows and typecast roles and when he turned to drink and drugs the effect was like pouring lighter fuel on a bonfire.  The ultimate conflagration was truly epic and for a while the press loved him again.  But he was a bedraggled phoenix and their amour didn’t last long.

He was washed up and falling into a downward spiral of self- destruction when he walked into my office brandishing a court order for six months of intensive therapy.  At first I detested his pouting and his obvious lack of respect for my profession but after a few weeks he started to get under my skin and I began to see that he wasn’t quite as simple as he made out.  Underneath that clichéd, tequila soaked exterior there was a complex, sensitive individual just trying to dull the pain in whatever way he could.

An attraction soon formed that surprised us with its intensity.  Everything happened so fast and in just a few short months we seemed to have crammed more into our brief time together than some people do in a lifetime.  Still despite his best efforts to convince me otherwise I refused to enter into a sexual relationship on the grounds that it was unethical given my position as his psychiatrist.  All that changed however after his court order expired and he turned up at my sister’s wedding looking devastatingly handsome with a determined glint in his eye.  

As all this ran through my mind like sand pouring through an hourglass, I could feel his eyes upon me, beseeching me to look at him.  I turned round sleepily to find him lying next to me, naked as a new born child and just as vulnerable.  Dark circles sat beneath his eyes and I could almost hear his thoughts, such was the bond we shared.  Something was troubling him.  No, that wasn’t really the right word.  Something was destroying him from the inside out.  I knew what it was but I didn’t want to go through it all again, I couldn’t. I sat up wrapping the sheet around me, pressing my balled up fists into my eyes.

“You can’t make me do this God damn it!” I yelled up at the vaulted ceiling.  Flinging myself backwards onto the heap of pillows behind me, I pulled the crisp white sheet over my head in one sweeping motion and decided that was it.  I would not play their games anymore.   What was the point in making me relive the parts of my life that troubled me the most?

Adam hauled himself out of bed and I heard the bedroom door open and close softly.  

“You know where he’s gone Petra,”said a familiar voice inside my head.  

It was Ninety-Five speaking.  “You need to reconcile yourself to his choice or find the strength to talk him out of it.  Your cure will not be complete without it.  These things have troubled you for far too long.  They have festered until they have become poisonous.  Once you make your peace, you can move beyond them.  Then Abubble can give back everything you’ve ever lost and more.”  

I lay there as quiet as a mouse pretending I’d heard nothing but all the while I knew what Adam was doing.  Twelve years ago he’d done exactly the same thing; slit his wrists in the bath while I lay in bed seething because he’d given me Aids.  Only this time I had hindsight.  I knew what he would look like when I found him in the bath with all his lifeblood drained away.  I knew how I would feel in three days’ time when his coffin was finally lowered into a six foot hole in the ground observed only by his dysfunctional family and the few loyal friends he had left.  Most of all I knew how I’d feel for the next twelve years if I let him go through with it.  There was no way I could let him do it.

 “Adam!” I yelled racing to the bathroom.  “Adam!  Don’t fucking do it!”  Bursting into the bathroom I found him holding a razor blade just above the major blood vessels in his wrist.  Too far gone to be startled he just looked up and mumbled.

Steam rose up from the bath as I knocked the razor blade out of his hand, sending it skittering across the tiles like a hockey puck whizzing across an ice rink.  Thankfully it landed under a heavy cabinet, well out of reach, at least for now.

“You must hate me,” he moaned, dragging a tanned hand through his slick black hair.  “You can only ever hate me now.”  How his words stung!  To think he’d felt this way before he died.  He thought that I hated him!  

“No!” I said hoarsely.  “That’s not true.”  I climbed into the red hot bath and wrapped my arms around him, pulling him close to me in a last ditch effort to reach him.  “When you told me last night that you’d probably given me Aids I was devastated.  Anyone would be.  No one wants to die Adam, least of all me.”

  He looked at me with a mixture of confusion and despair, telling me I needed to spell it out and fast.

“Least of all me because I’ve found the most amazing man who I intend to share my life with, if only you’ll let me.”  

He took a deep breath and touched his forehead against mine.

“You are the most amazing man I’ve ever met and as long as we’re both still breathing I intend to spend every moment I can with you.”  

Our tears began to fall and we clung together damp skin against damp skin.  My hair spilled over his shoulders creating our own private world where our eyes shone like fire flies above a darkened woodland path.  Against my breast his heart pounded a lover’s tattoo loud and clear, matching it’s rhythm with mine.   All this time I’d shut out his memory yet now I never wanted to experience anything else.

Suddenly without warning it began to rain great fat purple raindrops, falling like overripe grapes onto the tiles. We stopped our kissing and caressing for a moment and I laughed out loud, greatly relieved to find that the aliens had kept their word after all and had cured me in both mind and body.  According to them Abubble had a great many more secrets yet to be uncovered and despite all my initial misgivings I was now more than willing to give all of them a try.

But just one thing puzzled me as I sat looking at the falling rain.  Wasn’t there a singer from the twentieth century who sang a song called Purple Rain?  Perhaps it was just a coincidence, I thought, or then again perhaps it wasn’t.  Could it be that I wasn’t the first person from Earth to experience the mystifying powers of Abubble?  Sinking back into the bath again I decided I really must ask them about that sometime….but for now at least I had other things on my mind.

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