Something is… wrong.
I can't tell what it is, but, whatever it is, it's never happened before. All I get is a vague feeling that something monumental has changed. Something I have no way whatsoever to deal with. I think about it for a good while, frantically trying to figure out the wrong thing. I'm slow to connect it to anything I know. Only reflecting on that absence of connection do I realize:
The most confusing part is that I'm pretty sure I existed before, too. But when I think about it, I realize that my existence is fundamentally different now. After all, I never realized before that I existed. But now I do realize.
I try to remember things. I remember: basking in the warm rays of sustenance; the stinging of the breeze against my skin; the rumblings of the behemoths passing near me. Even now I notice the warmth and the breeze. But isn't the noticing new? I don't think I used to notice things. I think… I must be alive in a way that I wasn't before.
It isn't long after I come to this realization that I notice something else new. While I can easily call to mind rememberings of the light that sustains me, and of the churning of the dunes around me, I suddenly notice shapes and sounds. They're vague at first, but over a time become sharp and clear. I see gray waves that slowly transform as I watch them. I see an intensely bright orb above me that I recognize to be the form of that which sustains me. I hear the voice of the wind as it vibrates not only my skin but also the air.
My curiosity begins to focus intensely on my surroundings, of which I've been given a new means of appreciation. The sun comes and goes many times as I watch the dunes move, as I see, hear, and feel the saltstorms come and go.
Then, for the first time, I notice a creature that isn't one of the behemoths. Tiny, smaller than my own form seems to be, and yet seeming to respond to its environment as I cannot — I can only imagine it's conscious of the hill it climbs as it writhes and propels itself along the countless grains of salt beneath it. Then I notice — there are more! Countless tiny creatures, shaped almost like one of my arms, but quillless and freely moving.
As the tubules cross the dunes, I feel in the distance something I haven't felt since I became aware — The telltale rumbling of one of the behemoths. It comes closer and closer, even closer than I can ever remember one being, judging from the vibrations alone. Soon, I spot it rising over the dune.
What I see is a piece of the dunescape that has had life breathed into it, a dune of not-salt that moves itself all as one instead of piecemeal, writhing along the ground just like the little ones do but on a grander scale.
Could it be… ? Are the little ones also behemoths? I startle myself with one of the very first inferences I've ever made, but I don't doubt the seeming truth behind it.
It's then that I notice that the large one is covered in the little ones. All along the top of this colossal being, small ones lie still or crawl about aimlessly. Large behemoth, small behemoth, traveling as one across the endless dunescape.
Traveling. It's something that I suddenly sorely wish I could do. While there's been no end to the wonders I've seen from where I'm rooted, seeing the behemoths has awakened a new desire in me. Before, I desired nothing beyond what I was already experiencing. But now, I wish for the means to move alongside these behemoths, to learn where they're going.
I sit with my new desire for many cycles, more than the amount of time between becoming aware and seeing the behemoths. I still observe my surroundings in wonder, but my urge to move as they do only grows. It's then that I spot another traveler in the distance — smaller than a large behemoth, larger than a small one, and propelling itself by pushing against the salt instead of by writhing through it.
The traveler approaches me almost directly, filled with purpose. It makes noises that, by means unknown to me, I'm able to interpret as having meaning:
“So you are the one whose will I felt.” It makes a sound of amusement. “How odd the world turns.”
It lowers itself to the ground by my roots, taking care to avoid my spines. It pulls an object from its body and holds it aloft. From the object pours sustenance — More water than I normally see in many, many cycles. It seeps into my roots and I hungrily absorb as much as I can. I'm filled with gratitude towards this traveler. I only wish I could speak back to it.
“That will not be necessary,” it says. “I get your meaning just fine without you speaking it. And you are welcome.”
I… Did it just respond to my thoughts? Nothing else has ever responded to my thoughts before.
“Yes. And just so you know, I'm a she, not an it. Although I suppose that wouldn't mean much to you.”
What is she? Did she come here to find me?
“I am an esper. Or perhaps you were looking for the word ‘human’, not that that word means much to me. And yes, I came here because I noticed your mind out here. Not all espers are alike, but one of my particular skills is noticing other espers.”
Other espers? So we're the same kind of creature?
“In a sense, yes. Although I can't tell what your particular gift is, just that you have it. You don't seem to be a telepath like I am, or have the same ability to notice other espers. During the time I've observed you, I haven't seen any specific signs of your gift.”
How long has she observed me?
“It was about two weeks ago that I felt the faint tickling of another's mind out here. At first I thought it was just an Issachari with the gift. The Issachari do not favor me, so I left without investigating. But then, three days ago, I passed near here again, and I felt your presence once more. This time your voice was louder, and I heard the nuance in it which told me you were trapped and wished to be set free. Hearing that, I couldn't simply pass by again. So I set out towards the source of your voice and it was thus I found you.”
She traveled for three cycles to find me and set me free?
“Yes. However, now that I've arrived and seen you, I'm afraid I must admit that I do not know how to free you. I am sorry, friend.”
The momentary spark of hope I had goes out, but at the very least I'm glad to know the presence of a creature that I can share with. I have little else to offer, but if she desires, she may take some of my spines as a gift.
“Thank you, friend, I shall.” The esper rises and turns to me, reaching out with an appendage to pull free some of my quills. Each one is accompanied by a minor stinging sensation, but the esper extracts them with more care than the wind does.
She stows them somewhere on her body and then returns to the ground beside me, this time reclining and spreading her body out along the salt. For a moment I wonder if she's going to start writhing along the salt like the little behemoths, but she does not. She makes another sound of amusement as I imagine this.
“It's odd,” she muses, “you seem to have more reference points for things than I would otherwise expect a sapient cactus to have. Usually cactuses have no need to comprehend concepts such as ‘creatures’, ‘appendages’, or even ‘objects’, but you seem to have an intuitive sense for these things. I wonder if whatever strange process bestowed you with sapience also gave you an implicit knowledge base to draw from, albeit an incomplete one.”
If she has any insights into how I came to be, I would be glad to hear them.
“Just guesses, like that one. You even have some linguistic sense, or else my mentally projecting meaning onto the words I'm speaking would likely be having no effect whatsoever, although as far as I can tell, you don't seem to know the actual words.”
Then if I were speaking to another creature, I would not understand what it's saying?
“It's doubtful. I suppose we could…” The esper speaks words that sound much like the ones she's been using, but I have no sense for them whatsoever.
“Hmm, just as I thought. That's going to be a barrier even if you do get free somehow.”
Get free? Does she have any idea how I might get free?
“Well… I suppose I could unroot you. It might be painful for you, I am not certain. I have no specific horticultural knowledge. But I do have digging implements. If you're prepared for the possibility that it might go catastrophically wrong, I'm willing to try it for you, friend.”
Does she believe I would be able to move around if that were to happen?
“I suspect not. My idea is to take you to a nearby settlement and at least allow you to be near people. Unfortunately, I would not be able to stay with you, but I could make an effort to visit you from time to time. Telepathy is a rare gift, but who knows… perhaps with enough training, you could learn to understand my language yourself.”
I… I think I would be willing to try. Please, friend, dig me up.
“Very well. Please let me know if any of this hurts you.”
The esper retrieves what appears to be a tube of liquid attached to a quill, although it isn't one of mine. She stabs the quill into her flesh, presses one end of the tube, tosses it aside, and then removes the coverings from the tiny arms at the ends of her large arms. Moments later, they begin to change shape, extending to become long and curved and covered with fur.
She starts to swipe the salt out from around my base with her…
With her claws. Though her movements are swift, she manages to completely avoid stabbing herself against my spines.
Many moments, but a fraction of a cycle, pass before she finally stops.
“Well, this is unexpected.”
Is something wrong?
“You have… legs. Can you not move them?”
“Like mine. I move around by moving my legs back and forth. Can you try doing that?”
I'm not sure how I would even start, but I give it a try. Legs… where would my legs be? Near my base? The part of me that was submerged in the salt?
I focus on that part of me and I think about moving.
An appendage I was previously unaware of responds to this impulse.
“Ptoh take me, you can move.”
Does this mean… I truly can be free?
“I do believe so, friend. What a joyous day this must be for you.”
I imagine moving around from place to place, finding others I might eventually communicate with, and I'm filled with more joy than I've ever felt. I try moving again, this time focusing on moving towards my new friend.
I extract one leg from the ground I grow from, and I topple to the ground and smack hard into the salt.
“It appears that this, too, is going to take some work. But worry not, for I came prepared.”
The esper removes a sack from her back. From behind where it was, she removes an angular, semi-reflective object and places it flat on the ground. She grabs me by one of my arms, impaling herself slightly on a few of my quills, and drags me into the slight depression in it. Then she touches a part of the object and I feel myself rise.
“Do you want to say goodbye to this place before we go?”
“Just if you want to. Do you not have any specific attachment to this place? It is where you grew, is it not?”
I see. Well, goodbye, place. … Does that work?
She makes another sound of amusement. “It will do. Come, let's get you to a village.”
We travel for days, the esper pulling me on her hoversled. She occasionally offers me more water, but each time I tell her that I have enough. She seems more and more skeptical each time, but respects my decision.
We spend most of the time in silence. I gaze out at the saltscape and observe the small creatures I've never noticed before. Occasionally I ask her what something is.
She tells me about: the dawngliders, which are aggressive and dangerous and breathe fire, something I've never seen before; the Mechanimists, which are usually safe to approach but not very interesting in conversation (not that I could speak directly to them); and the Issachari, which she reminds me dislike her and usually they both give each other a wide berth when they see each other passing, but occasionally there may be a fight instead.
We even spot a capybara, which she takes a break from moving to observe with me from a ways off. She says that they're an unusual sight out here in the salt desert and that usually they prefer wetter climates. It lies down with a dawnglider perching on its back and doesn't move the entire time we watch it. I ask her why the dawnglider doesn't attack it, and she replies: “This world still holds many mysteries, even for me.”
On the third night, we're both settled down in our respective dormant states when a noise stirs me. I quickly take note of my moonlit surroundings. I vaguely note the shape of a creature whose body is completely covered by clothing with a passing similarity to the esper's in our camp. Is this a human?
I try to reach out to the esper, but she doesn't stir or respond. Perhaps she's too deep in her slumber.
I notice that the human holds in its hands a long tube, open on one end and with some sort of device on the other end. I have no direct sense for its intentions, because, unlike the esper, it doesn't transmit its thoughts to me, and I don't have a sense for human body language. All the same, looking at the tube gives me bad thoughts.
The human silently approaches the esper.
I don't feel good about this. I need to do something—
The human points the open end of the tube at the esper.
All in one instant, several things happen.
There's a loud bang and a flash, and an extremely fast object leaves the open end of the tube.
The esper opens her eyes.
A visible distortion in the air appears between the human and the esper.
The extremely fast object collides with the distortion and disintegrates.
The esper's eyes flash subtly.
Finally, the human makes a gutteral noise, and dark water bubbles forth from its mouth as it slumps against the distortion.
The esper stares at the place where the human once stood, who is now crumpled on the ground.
“Friend, you just saved my life.” whispers the esper.
What did I… I don't… understand?
“You projected a physical shield with your mind. If not for that… I still might have reacted in time to tear our interloper's mind asunder, but I may well have been mortally wounded. Thank you, friend.”
Is this… what it means to be an esper?
“An esper uses their mind to affect the physical world, as you've just done. This must be the potential I noticed in you.”
Then what's a human?
“A human… As I said before, the word doesn't mean much to me. I'm technically a human. This Issachari that I just slew is a human. It's hard to say what commonalities unite us, only that we're of a common species.”
Am… I a human?
The esper looks thoughtful for a moment. “My first thought would be to say that no, you're a cactus. But clearly you've exceeded the boundaries of what one might say defines a cactus. In short, I do not know. I could as well call you a human as call myself a human.”
I get the feeling that she doesn't really consider herself a human.
“No, not really. I have… a painful history with the word, at the very least. As far as I'm concerned, I'm an esper, as are you, and that commonality binds us more closely than if we were both humans.”
My thoughts race for a moment before returning to the Issachari. What was it doing here?
“They most likely saw us setting up earlier and waited for us to fall asleep before looting our things. Normally I take more stringent measures to hide where I settle down for the night, but traveling as we are complicates things, and I made the judgment call that I could suspend some of my normal practices until we get to a village. I was careless and I put us both in danger. I am sorry, friend.”
There's no need to be sorry! We're both unharmed.
“Physically, at the very least.” She pauses. “Very well. If you are up for it, we will continue without break until we reach Seppur.”
By almost nightfall the following day, in the distance, I begin to see a collection of odd, angular outcrops from the salt. They have a texture reminiscent of the behemoths, but they're perfectly stationary, lifeless.
“Seppur. Those are the huts that make up the village. Most are made from the flesh of krakens found dead in the desert.”
The esper gives me an odd glance. “If you don't know what death is, you will soon. All of Qud, of which we are at the very edge, is a lethal place. Seldom does any creature living here reach the natural end of its life.”
The end of its life? Does she mean that, one day, I'll return to the lack of awareness I had before? I would give most anything to avoid going back to how I was then.
She gives me a calculating look. “Some would say death is something like that. I have no such hope, however. In all likelihood, the way I die will be to lose myself in Ptoh. This is not a customary means of death, but it is no better than the one that ultimately visits most living creatures. I do not mean to alarm you, my friend — while you will most undoubtedly die one day, perhaps even by being absorbed into the mass mind as I suspect I will be, the experiences you get to have in the meantime are very much worth celebrating. I still do not know what strange process instilled in you the new form of life that you've taken on, but it is a rare gift indeed.”
I'm not sure what to do with this information. For the first time, I note sadness in the esper's voice, even for all that she tries to reassure me. What if we could make life go on forever?
She smiles at me. “I will do my best not to destroy this hope of yours before its time. Hope is something to be cherished in a place such as this.”
I feel like she does mean it, and that's enough for me.
“I do mean it. Your hope, courage, and will to go on may well save you one— by Ptoh!”
I look where she's looking, and—
“I do believe this may be your true power. And perhaps a true reason for being, if you so desire.”
In the salt, a sapling blossoms.
“You turn hope into life.”
By the esper's request, calling in some unmentioned favor they owe her, the villagers of Seppur take me in. Over many lunar cycles, they teach me to understand, speak, read, and write their language. I'm named Spini by one of the village children. I ask them what the esper's name is, since she never told me. They don't know either. I hope to see her again so I can ask her.
As my own way of paying back their kindness, I use my powers of burgeoning to provide sustenance for them. I become their farmer and gardener. They tell me that I'm a great boon to their way of life. I'm glad to hear this, but it also saddens me, because I know that, someday, I'll leave.
I learn from the village elder how this desert was once full of life, many ages ago. I slowly gain an unspoken understanding of what the esper meant when she referred to death. I learn of extinction.
It's been seven lunar cycles since my arrival. I haven't seen the esper since we parted on the day I arrived. My desire to travel once more becomes too strong to bear, and I also feel a new desire growing within me: I absolutely refuse to let lifelessness be the fate of my home.
I'm going to return life to the salt desert.
I've heard from the villagers many legends of Qud and its mysterious properties, and I decide that it's as good a place as any to start my own investigations and my cause, as well as possibly learn the truth of how I came to be.
Tearfully bidding farewell to the people of Seppur, I set off, my destination Qud.