The starship Theraf hurtled through space at the blindingly fast, abysmally slow speed of forty-four light-seconds per hour. Theraf wasn’t built for interstellar travel; it had never been further than the system’s outermost planet, Hidao. Kyle Rowan had been its pilot – and its only passenger – for over two years now.
Rowan wasn’t particularly paying attention to his route that day. He’d flown it dozens of times, enough to make even the trip through the asteroid belt seem routine, and so he didn’t notice as the shimmering blue haze enveloped his spacecraft. He did notice, however, when his speed suddenly dropped to nothing, his forward momentum ceased.
Perplexed, Rowan started his engines and accelerated once more. There seemed to be a little more resistance than normal, as if he had taken on extra cargo, but eventually he got it up to speed.
“Independent motion?” said a voice from somewhere over his left shoulder. Rowan spun around, but the cockpit was empty. “What is its origin?” the voice came again, and he turned to face the view screen, but saw nothing unusual beside a faint blue haze obscuring his view of the stars.
“Who’s there?” Rowan asked, immediately feeling sheepish. He had heard that pilots who spent too much time alone sometimes began hearing voices, but he’d never given it any credit. He wondered if he should just pretend that nothing had happened.
“An intelligence? Yes. But it is corporeal. Finite! How can this be?”
Rowan jumped around more quickly this time, but there was still nothing to see. He peered at his comm panel, but all the lights were off. He peeked under his console, wondering if somebody were playing a trick on him, but saw no unusual equipment there either. He sat up, and noticed a flicker of movement reflected off his viewscreen. He turned around.
Rowan stood behind himself, identical but for a distinctly blue cast to his features.
“Ahh!” the first Rowan articulated, reflexively shying away from his cerulean duplicate. “Who are you?” he demanded.
The copy mimicked his motions and expression, but when it spoke again there was no movement of its lips. “Corporeal being,” it said in the voice from just over his shoulder, “you will explain this corporeal existence. What is its purpose?”
Rowan couldn’t help glancing over his shoulder once more, despite seeing his blue twin in front of him. “My purpose?” he asked nervously, still uncertain that his visitor was more than mere hallucination. “I’m a cargo pilot. I take food and supplies from the planet Roset to the space station Moeh, just beyond the asteroid belt.”
“Food and supplies. What is this?” This time the blue Rowan’s lips moved, though completely out of sync with his words.
Rowan eased himself out of the chair and waved a hand at the door behind his doppleganger. “I’ve got food in the kitchen, there,” he said, deciding to believe that the conversation was really happening. “Why don’t I just show you?”
The alien remained stationary, its bluer-than-life eyes fixed on Rowan, so he worked his way past the intruder and through the door, trying not to touch it lest it decide not to be friendly anymore.
In the ship’s tiny kitchen, Rowan opened a can of salted meat and another tin containing sliced bread, and began making sandwiches. The alien watched him through the doorway until he was finished.
“Here,” Rowan said, proferring the finished product. “Try one.”
The alien eventually realized that Rowan meant for it to take the sandwich from him, and clasped it with an inexpert grip. Rowan grimaced as half the filling fell out onto the floor.
“Now eat,” Rowan prompted as the alien continued to hold the squashed bread. He demonstrated, taking a bite of his own sandwich. The alien complied, imitating his jaw movements, but dropped food everywhere.
“You need to swallow too,” Rowan said with a wince, and tried to demonstrate. Though there was no change in the expression on his blue double’s face, its disembodied voice registered recognition.
“Ahh! Ingestion and consumption of matter, extracting energy from chemical reactions between various molecules!
“Something like that,” Rowan mumbled, finishing his sandwich and rummaging around for a rag to clean up the floor with. The creature didn’t even move its feet out of his way.
“What is this behavior?” it asked, inclining its head in an imitative, not-quite-natural manner.
“What? I’m cleaning up the mess you made.”
“Cleaning. What is its purpose?”
Rowan sighed and shook his head, trying to decide how to answer without generating more questions. “Well, this food here will spoil if I leave it. Chemical reactions, germs, that sort of thing. It sets off a chain reaction that could eventually make me sick. That’s, er, non-functional. Broken. Got it?”
His blue-tinged guest gave no indication one way or the other, but it asked no further questions, which Rowan took to be a good sign. He tapped his fingers pensively against the metal cabinet until a gentle chime alerted him to an incoming transmission from the space station.
Rowan squeezed his way past his creepy double and went back into the cockpit, listening to the message and sending off a reply. The alien approached so silently that Rowan didn’t notice until he straightened from sending his message and bumped into it. “Oww,” he complained, glaring at the oblivious offender.
“What is this behavior?” the blue nuisance asked, and Rowan had to catch its hand before it could fiddle with the controls.
“Hey! That’s my comm panel. I was sending a message.”
“Communication in the form of low-level vibrations and modulation of the corporeal form. Fascinating.” Up until now, the alien had been using that same disembodied voice to speak with him, but now the blue Rowan opened up its mouth and began producing the most ungodly racket.
“Stop that! Stop it!” Rowan shouted, covering his ears. “That hurts!”
“What is ‘hurts’?” asked the voice-over-the-shoulder, moments before blue Rowan ceased howling.
Rowan warily uncovered his ears. “It’s caused by overstimulation of the senses, or by damage to the, er, corporeal form.” Hurriedly he added, “I’m not going to demonstrate. Anyway, you go somewhere else and do that. Please?”
Suddenly the bluish form of the alien doppleganger disappeared, and Rowan breathed a sigh of relief. That is, until he saw a bluish, luminescent version of his ship appear through his viewscreen, facing him but moving at the same speed, despite being backward.
“This has been very enlightening,” the voice spoke to him again after a few moments. “We must continue this experiment. I will accompany you to your destination.”
“For how long?” Rowan complained. “I’ve gotta sleep eventually!”
“What is ‘sleep’?” came the perhaps inevitable response.
“Well,” Rowan said, thinking quickly. “It’s a state of immobility, when the consciousness is cut off from, uh, external stimuli.”
“Interesting. What is its purpose?”
“To rest. To, um, conserve energy. Don’t tell me you’ve never slept.”
“Such an activity is unnecesary to an incorporeal existence.”
“You’re just saying that because you’ve never tried it,” Rowan cajoled, crossing his fingers.
“I will try this ‘sleep’. What is its duration?”
Rowan grinned. “Well I sleep for eight, nine hours a night, but I’ll bet you could do it for a lot longer. Days, months maybe. The longer the better!”
As the minutes passed, Rowan realized that the alien had taken the bait. Cautiously he maneuvered his ship around the drifting blue ship and accelerated to leave it behind. To his relief, it let him.