Binya stood on the roof of her building, looking out over the moon-drenched skyline. Even in the dark she could see the smog from the clumped group of unexplainable factories. Although there were groups of these buildings planet-wide, no one seemed to know what they were for. However, what everyone did know was that whoever went in never came out.
Turning away, she pulled a rolled, narrow cylinder out of her pocket and held it between her fingers. She looked at the green, paper-like wrapper for a moment, recalling what Valo, her dealer, had told her. Demetrians, he said, referring to his own race, had been smoking halluphorigens long before humans had come to this planet. He’d insisted the stuff rolled inside the tube was clean, and not the “street shit” most dealers sold. Since
Binya had never had a bad experience, and rather liked the places the drug took her, she quickly came to trust Valo.
She placed the cigarette – often called a “’genic” by humans – between her lips and pulled her lighter from her pocket. Slender and sort of an ovular tube, the word “Bic” etched into the metal neck, the lighter had come from Binya’s grandmother, who still lived on Earth. None of Binya’s friends had lighters like this, preferring the reusable ones they could get here on N’Kia.
As she inhaled, the effects were almost immediate. The full moon spun slowly in the sky, like a lollipop on an unseen stick, turned by the invisible fingers of a child. Its light rippled over the surface. She turned back to the skyline. Behind the factories, which now pumped out purple smog instead of grey, stood tall mountains whose tops glittered in the moonshine. She took another drag and the air before her began to ripple and take shape.
She kept smoking until the form resembled a jumbled rainbow of humanoid energy. If she continued smoking, the form would take on human qualities – long, silvery hair, pale yellow skin, and deep brown eyes. But that hallucination had unnerved her so much the first time she saw it that she now stopped when the rainbow appeared.
Crushing the end of the ‘genic against the wall of her building, she tucked the cigarette into her pocket. This high would last her for hours.
Leaving the roof, she walked along the street towards the beach. The road rippled with colour beneath her feet as it always did after a smoke. The beach, which normally consisted of soft, brown sand, and blue water, looked so much nicer when she was high. Its water gleamed azure, the sand glittered silver and gold, and the cliffs were striped with rainbow-coloured rocks.
Stepping onto the sand this night, she saw someone kneeling by the water. As the being rose, and turned towards her, she noticed that he looked like Valo except he had that long silvery hair and pale skin of her hallucination.
She smiled and, even though she knew he wasn’t real, said hello. To her surprise he returned the greeting, then held out his hand to her. Curled in his palm was a tiny creature, like an octopus with a round muzzle, and one arm longer than the rest. This long “arm” was curled around one of the man’s fingers as the creature licked his skin. “It’s a sea monkey. She’s after the salt in my skin.”
Binya looked up into the man’s brown eyes. He smiled at her, and then she looked at the little monkey again. Such a funny looking creature, yet Binya wanted one of her own, and where there was one, there had to be more. “You got this in the water?”
“Yes, but – “ started the man, stopping when Binya headed to the water. “What are you doing?”
“I want one too,” she replied.
“No, you can’t – “ But before he could finish his sentence, Binya was ankle-deep in the water.
Kneeling, she asked, “How do you catch them?” She remembered a river she’d been to once, so full of fish she could reach in and grab a handful. Real or imagined? She couldn’t remember now.
“Please come out of the water,” begged the man.
Binya shook her head, laughed, then stuck her hand into the water. Maybe she could just catch a sea monkey.
Suddenly, something bit into her flesh. She screamed out in pain and yanked her hand out of the water. Attached to her hand was a creature with a purplish, cylindrical, jelly-like body. Black wing-like fins stuck out on either side of it. Just in front of those were tiny projections like ears, and below the ears was, apparently, its mouth, or whatever it was using to hold on to her. She shook her hand, but it bit down even harder. “Get it off, get it off,” she screamed, leaping out of the water.
The man put the sea monkey on his shoulder and reached out to take Binya’s hand in his. He pushed at the ugly, purplish thing but it refused to let go. “I told you to stay put. You got bit by a vampire. They won’t bite Demetrians but they seem to have a taste for human blood.”
Pain pulsed as she looked at her hand, the vampire’s body swelling as it ingested her blood. The man’s touch felt so real, his voice sounded strong. She turned her gaze up to him. He glimmered in the moonlight, his body fading in and out. “It hurts, get it off,” she whimpered, poking at the thing attached to her hand.
“I can’t.” He grabbed her shoulders. “Binya, calm down. Calm yourself. Binya!”
He knew her name! Of course he does, she thought as she swiped at the tears on her cheeks, he’s just a hallucination. She reached out to touch him, somehow needing to know what a delusion would feel like, despite the pain. As she did, everything around her swirled and she was falling, falling. Then arms caught her. . .
*** *** ***
Binya awoke in her bed. Before opening her eyes, she took a moment to recall last night’s ‘genic adventure. Sometimes the memories were hazy, but not this time. Sea monkeys and vampires indeed. Chuckling inwardly, she yawned and then rolled over to look at the time on her alarm clock. She hated when she woke up before it went off. But instead of her clock, she saw her sister, Linny, in a chair beside the bed. A bed which she now realized wasn’t hers. “Where am I?”
“The hospital.” Linny frowned, and leaned close to Binya. “Why do you do that stuff?” she hissed. “It’s illegal and – “
Binya groaned. “Don’t start that. Why am I in the hospital?”
Linny ignored her question. “One day you’re going to get caught. Then what?”
An image of the factory with its smoke pumping out, and the people that went in but never came out popped into her head. Maybe that’s what happened to ‘genic smokers. “Maybe I’ll just disappear.”
“It’s not funny.”
Before Binya could respond, the door to her room opened and Valo came rushing in. “Hey, I heard you were in here. How ya doin’?”
“Um, okay.” How did Valo know she was in here, and why would he come see her? She glanced at Linny, who glared at Valo with suspicious eyes. Did she know who he was?
“Linny, I’m hungry,” said Binya, before Valo said anything more. “Can you get me something to eat?”
Linny rose slowly from her chair, still eyeing the two of them. She opened her mouth as though she wanted to say something, but then changed her mind. Pivoting on her heel, she left the room.
Without a beat, the moment Linny was gone, Valo leaned over Binya and whispered, “You need to get out of here.”
She looked at him. A strand of blond hair hung out from beneath a striped toque, and his dark brown eyes stared into hers. The image of the Valo look-alike from her hallucinations flashed into her mind. Then it was gone, pulling most of last night’s memories with it.
“Why? What’s going on?”
“I don’t have time to explain. Do you trust me?”
“Well, yeah,” she started.
“Look, if I don’t get you out of here, they’re going to come and take you away and no one will ever see you again. All because of – “ He reached under the covers, grabbed her arm and pulled it free of the blanket. “This!”
Despite the lack of pain, there was a thick bandage around her hand. “What’s that?” Foggy images formed in her head again, fading images of sea monkeys and Valo with yellow skin.
“I told you, I don’t have time to explain. Come on.”
“Can I get dressed first?”
“Where are your clothes?”
“I don’t know.”
Valo looked around the room, found a small metal locker and opened it. He pulled out the clothes she’d been wearing last night and tossed them on the bed. “Hurry.”
He sighed, but did as he was told while she changed from the blue johnny-shirt into her clothes.
No one paid them much attention as they moved through the hallways, Valo clinging to her good hand. When they got outside, he led her to a bicycle-powered cart. “Get in.”
“Where are we going?”
“I can’t protect you from them forever, but I can make it harder for them to find you. They’ve probably already reported you. I want you to know what’s going on before they catch up to you.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“Come on, Binya!”
His desperate tone got her moving. As soon as they both were in the cart, the bicyclist began pedalling furiously. Valo remained silent as they moved away from the hospital. He didn’t speak until they were well on their way out of the city. He touched her hand. “Do you know what this is?”
“A bandage on my hand,” she deadpanned, trying to lighten the mood. When Valo didn’t crack a smile, she asked, “What happened to me?”
“Does it hurt?”
“Then they have you on painkillers. You don’t remember what happened?”
“Yes. . . “ she started, but then realized the memories were too blurred to recall in detail. “No. Well, vaguely, but sometimes that happens. How did you even know where I was?”
“I was there, Binya. I know I don’t look the same, but I was there. Come on, remember!”
As she looked at him, he pulled off his toque. He shook his blond hair as it fell around his shoulders and framed the lightly tanned skin of his face. Then he took her hand, looked into her eyes and said, “They have a taste for human blood.”
Pain slammed into her hand. She gasped and looked down. The pain withered away as she recalled something about a vampire. She lifted her hand, then looked at Valo over the top of the bandage. For a moment, she could see bite marks in her skin as if the bandage wasn’t there. But when she looked directly at the bandage, it was gone. “I was bitten,” she said slowly, testing each word, unsure if she could trust the memory in her brain.
He nodded. “Yes. Come on, put it all together. I know you got fucked up, but you have to try.”
“No,” she said, pulling her hand away. “That wasn’t real.” She turned away from him. She couldn’t even remember; how did she know it wasn’t real? But she remembered smoking the ‘genic. That had been real. And she knew that for hours afterwards, nothing she experienced was real.
“It was Binya. It is. It always is. Just look at your hand.”
Betrayal skidded into her heart. She turned back to him, looked directly into his eyes. “You promised me clean ‘genics! No street shit!” Tears filled her eyes. What had he done to her?
He put his hands on her cheeks and held her face tight, refusing to let her go, even when she struggled. “I never sold you shit,” he insisted. “I always gave you clean stuff.
But everything you know, everything you think you know, is a lie.” He glanced at their surroundings. “We’re almost there. They will find you, eventually. I can’t stop them. But I want you to know it’s all a lie. Do you remember what the beach looked like last night?”
“Of course.” Even if her memories from last night were gone, she knew the beach well enough, on a high or off.
“That was real, Binya. Real. It’s what this place is really like. But this,” he said, sweeping his arms in an arc, “this is what they want you to see.”
She stared at him. The scenery blurred by in her peripheral vision, scenery that, according to Valo wasn’t even real. But how could that be the truth? How could hallucinations be real and reality be. . . hallucinations? No, Valo had to be wrong.
They both sat silent until, moments later, the cart stopped. The cyclist climbed off the bike, kicked down the kick-stand, then pulled out a bottle of water and sat down on the sand. Brown sand, not silver and gold.
Valo climbed down from the cart. “Come on.” He held out his hand to her. She stared at it for a moment – his long, slender fingers, pinkish nails. Hands that handed clean ‘genics to her, that took her money. He’d never lied to her before, had never entered her high before. Had he come to trust her enough to do so last night? Was she the one to betray him? She took his hand and followed as he led her down to the shore.
At the waterline, Valo waded into the water and plunged his hand beneath the waves. A second later, he pulled it out. A tiny creature sat in the palm of his hand, one long arm curled around his finger, licking his skin.
Valo looked at her. “You see? It’s real. The bite on your hand is real. Why else would you have a bandage? That’s why I tried to tell you to stay out of the water. Vampires don’t bite Demetrians. But I knew you’d be attacked.”
Binya’s head ached. She still didn’t see how this could be true. “But how? Why?”
“Walk with me.”
She glanced back at the cyclist. He was back on his bike, riding away from them at a much slower pace. She didn’t ask where he was going, or how they would get back. Instead, she turned away and fell into step with Valo.
“Many years ago, when your people colonized this planet, my people already lived here. The problem was we lived on another plane of existence, in another dimension. Even though we could see you, you couldn’t see us. It wasn’t a problem for most of us. We were content to co-exist with those who knew nothing of us. But our leaders grew frightened.
“Ever since creation my people have smoked ‘genics. It was a way of life for us. And, it brought us into this dimension. We can live in both dimensions, but in this one only with ‘genics. Our leaders were afraid that our peoples would connect in this dimension, and corrupt our world, fracture our society. Suddenly the ‘genics were illegal and we weren’t allowed to continue that way of life anymore.
“I . . . I don’t understand. You can see us even when you’re in your own dimension?” Binya hoped she was asking the right question.
“It’s hard to explain, but yes. You’re like – “ he paused and frowned as if deep in thought. “Like corpses. No, like wraiths, spirits.”
“Ghosts?” Not until now had Binya wondered how Valo spoke English so fluently. It occurred to her that if the Demetrians could see them, maybe they could hear them as well. She didn’t want to ask.
He smiled. “Yes. That’s what you N’kians call it.”
Binya pressed her fingers to her forehead, trying to understand what he was saying. “So you enter my dimension when you’re high?”
“Yes. But I see it differently than you do. What you saw last night, what you see when you’re high, that’s reality. That’s N’kia as it really is. It’s what I see, what all Demetrians see. In both dimensions.”
She tried to process this information, but there were so many questions. “N’Kia,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “I’m N’Kian, and my ancestors came from Earth.” She shook her head. “Why are you Demetrian?”
“That’s not what we call ourselves. It’s only the name your ancestors called us. But that’s not important right now. If I get caught here in your reality, I’ll go to prison for a long time.”
She digested more of the information. “So every time you come into my reality, you risk going to prison.”
Valo nodded. “That’s why I only come at night. Less chance of being caught.”
Then it hit Binya. Her knees went weak. “And every time I’m high, every time I’m in your reality, I risk the same.” She dropped to the sand and stared out over the water. He’d known that, yet he’d risked both their lives. And for what? The money? Before she could ask, he sat beside her.
“Yes, but I’m not the only one. There are many of us who desire contact between our people. We risk it because we feel it’s worth it, because we want to continue our traditional way of life, because we don’t care about the ghosts in our space. We don’t fear you, Binya, and we don’t want you to fear us.”
She wanted to scream at him. He hadn’t asked for her permission to take that risk. If he’d told her. . . her thoughts trailed off, her anger subsided. Would she have done anything different? She tossed a handful of sand into the water and watched the grains fall – hallucination into hallucination. No, the water and sand were real. Their appearance was the hallucination, created to protect the Demetrians. But created how?
“Why can I see reality when I’m high?”
“I don’t know. We didn’t even know humans saw it differently at first. Eventually we figured it out.”
She thought about the rainbow energy form, tried to put it into words, but none were exactly what she wanted to say. Nothing sounded right in her head. But she knew now what the form was – Valo, or another like him, coming into focus as she entered their reality, the planet’s reality. She held her bandaged hand in the air. Proof. Proof of another reality.
“How did you know I would get bitten?”
“I’ve seen it happen before. The vampires only bite humans. And when they get bitten, the hospital reports them. Then my leaders know they’ve been in my reality. N’Kians disappear then, Binya. They don’t want anyone to know about the dual dimensions. They work as hard as they can to eliminate the ‘genics. And those who know the truth.”
The truth! As it all came together in her head, she understood. “The smog,” she said. “That’s what the smog is for.”
“What smog? I don’t understand.”
As she pointed to a factory in the distance. She realized that Valo couldn’t see the smog as she saw it. “Those factories you see, they pump out smog. They’re all over the planet. That has to be what keeps us in our own dimension, in their version of it. That’s why ‘genics are illegal here too. They show us the reality. Our leaders are working together to keep us from realizing it.”
Valo nodded in agreement. “They control us that way, and their fear controls them.”
“But what –”
Suddenly Valo looked past her and grabbed her arm. “They’re coming, Binya. They must come from those factories. They’ll be here soon to take you away and no one will ever see you again.”
“But I could have gotten bitten even if I hadn’t smoked a ‘genic.”
“No. The vampires only exist in my dimension.”
Her mind whirled as panic rose. A crazy image of the purpley, blobby sea creature trying to bite a ghost flashed in her mind. Vampires and Demetrians in one dimension, N’Kians in another. But Valo was here, in her space. “ Do you have something?” she cried, shoving her hands into his pockets. “Hide me! Take me to your dimension.”
Valo pulled her hands out, empty. “No, Binya! That won’t work. If we get caught over there, we’ll still be taken away.”
Tears filled her eyes. “What’s going to happen to me? To us?”
Valo reached behind his neck and pulled off the little sea monkey. Binya had forgotten about her. He turned to toss her gently back into the sea waves. “I don’t know,” he said without facing her. “I’m sorry, Binya.” He turned back to her. “I can’t stay in this dimension, not without another ‘genic.” He began to fade away. But it was different now that she was straight.
She reached out to grab his hand in an attempt to get into his dimension, but her hand slid through him with little resistance. She heard his last words as if they were nothing but leaves in the wind. “I’m sorry. This was my last. I’m giving up ‘genics, Binya.”
Their vehicles stopped. Someone shouted. Tears streamed down Binya’s cheeks. She turned to face her arrestors as they rushed towards her, shackles in their hands. Falling to her knees, she held her own hands out for them to bind.