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Aberrant: Infinite Earth - Cosmos Nova - Traveling with a Ghost

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The path up the mountain stretched above her, but Kitty didn’t mind the coming climb. She’d done three like it already, traversing other peaks in the looming mountain range. The beautiful American drew the cowl of her hoodie a little lower over her forehead, concealing more of her features. Most of her traveling companions already had seen her, and those who didn’t know who she was had been told by the others. They were giving her privacy, trying to covertly take pictures of her rather than overtly like they had done on Mt. Fuji. Kitty was grateful for the privacy, even if it was false.

The Jade Spring Temple was their starting point for the difficult climb, and Kitty and the twenty other climbers fell into step behind the tour guides. Another two natives brought up the rear, ready to assist those who lagged behind. At first, the tourists were talkative, chattering in Chinese with the companions, while Kitty walked in silence. When the climb began to take its toll, quiet descended on the whole group.

The only sounds were the steps and pants of her companions and guides. Kitty lasted longer, but even she started to breathe hard after a while. If I had Connor’s stamina… The thought of her ex brought a small smile to her face, but it didn’t last long. This was not the place to think about Connor. This was Harley’s trip.

Harley had planned it out before her death; after the movie, she wanted to see some of the Taoist monasteries in China. Her sister had been dabbling in Taoism a bit, nothing serious. But she’d said that the monasteries were worth visiting, regardless of one’s devotion or lack. So they’d decided to go after the shoot. It wasn’t until the travel notice had come from the travel agency that Kitty had remembered. She’d almost cancelled but the moment she’d considered it, she dropped the idea. Harley couldn’t go, but she’d wanted to, so Kitty went for both of them. There was a place at one of the monasteries, she recalled, where you could buy a golden padlock and fasten it to an iron chain. You could then pray for health and safety for family and friends. It sounded stupid, but Kitty admitted deep inside herself that those small gestures meant more to the ones making them than to the receiver. Harley would understand.

It was still dark when they left the hotel; the guides assured them that they would reach the summit by dawn and be treated with the most beautiful vista of the rising sun. Kitty hoped so; the climb was killing her. Her legs were starting to hurt by the time they finished climbing the three hundred and seventy steps called Qianchi Zhuang. She might have turned back at that point, but they were almost there and so they all pushed onward.

The cable car met them at the top, its passengers eyeing them with a mixture of pity and adminiration. Kitty didn’t care. Harley would have wanted to climb it, just as she would have wanted to see the sunrise. The riders and walkers met together to walk into the temple and cluster together at the spot to watch the rising sun. Kitty smiled sadly as the golden light slowly suffused the mountains around them, knowing that her sister would be boasting about being right. The climb totally was worth it.

When the sun had risen and the show was over, the tourists proceeded to the next stop on the circuit: the Guo Dixian’s altar. Kitty watched them go, lingering at the back of the group until she was sure they were busy with the altar and Rootless Tree and their prayers. Then she slipped away from the others, trying to find a quiet place to be alone. That proved difficult: this was a working monastery, its space limited by the impositions of the mountain it perched upon and the number of monks in residence. Some of them were very young boys but as Kitty walked around, she quickly realized they were all in supreme physical health. She wasn’t surprised when she wandered into the training area.

She kept expecting them to stop her, but beyond some wide-eyed staring, no one impeded her. Leaning against the wall, she watched a middle-aged man without an ounce of fat on him instruct the boys. She was about to wander on when a nova entered the room. His status was unmistakable; no human could sustain musculature like that, nor did they have purple skin, white hair, pointed ears or a face that could have doubled for Victor’s in the 1980’s TV show Beauty and the Beast. Kitty thought about leaving, but that would just be rude. Besides, she was curious if he was instructor or student, so she remained where she was, her painfully beautiful body slouching with casual elegance against the stone wall.

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  • 5 weeks later...

Wu Zhihuan was having trouble not staring. The Western woman who’d walked into his training session (as only Westerners were ever oblivious or arrogant enough to actually do – Chinese tourists always knew better!) was easily the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen – including in his dreams – and Western woman weren’t even his type! His students’ eyes were wandering even more than his own, however, so none of them saw their master nearly fall out of White Crane Spreads Its Wings – the 24th form out of 108 neigong forms that he was currently leading his students through – because of his own wandering eyes. Pressing the tip of his tongue against his teeth as he corrected his posture, Wu Zhihuan let out a short, sharp *tss!*, which had the desired and immediate effect of drawing his students’ eyes – and attention – away from the stunning foreigner and back to what they were doing. As the Shifu’s senior-most disciple and his most experienced and skilled instructor, Wu Zhihuan quickly found his balance and his rhythm again as he led his students through the 103 traditional movements of ‘long form’ Yang-style tai chi chuan.

Kitty watched as the instructor and his students performed a series of languorously slow movements, some taking as long as ten or fifteen seconds to complete, and each one following smoothly after the one before it, seemingly without end. Admittedly, the movements of some of the younger students – boys no older than their mid-teens – were not exactly ‘smooth’, and it was easy to see where one form ended and the next began, but the movements of the older (or at least more skillful) students, and especially of their teacher, were so smooth and driftingly effortless that it almost appeared they were practicing underwater or that she was watching a slow-motion recording. To the eyes of the impossibly-beautiful nova watching them, some of their movements seemed almost childishly simple, while others she knew would be much more difficult to perform.

With her years of experience in dancing, Kitty knew that even many of the simpler forms she was seeing were more difficult than they at first looked. Most of them seemed to require the practitioner to maintain perfect balance on only one foot while the other three limbs, and, often, the torso, flexed and twisted with torturous slowness and as much smoothness as could be mustered through a seemingly endless series of precise and elegant motions. With her nova-level coordination, Kitty felt confident she could manage most of them, but she recognized that any baseline would require superb balance and coordination to pull such moves off with such apparent ease. She was particularly impressed when they got to the super slow-motion high kicks. White Crane Spreads Its Wings was certainly one of Yang-style tai chi chuan’s more impressive forms – when the teacher wasn’t losing his balance due to distractions posed by superhumanly beautiful novas barging into his training sessions, anyway.

For his part, Wu Zhihuan didn’t know whether to be relieved or distressed when Anton Solzhenitsyn walked in. The purple-skinned, enormously-muscled, vaguely cat-like Russian nova was a student and resident at the Jade Maiden temple, so of course he had as much right to be in the training room as Wu Zhihuan or any of the other students, but to say he had an aggressive personality was a true understatement. Wu Zhihuan and the Shifu’s other baseline disciples had to be careful around the big Russian, and only the Shifu ever trained him directly. Anton had reacted poorly when other novas had shown up unannounced at the temple before now. Who knew how he’d react to this one, no matter how attractive she was.

For his part, Anton hadn’t covered even half the distance of room before he felt it: a nova. It wasn’t hard to guess who he was sensing, either. Ohooiet! Even in his best fantasies Anton had literally never seen a woman so beautiful! The burly, purple-skinned nova didn’t need esoteric quantum senses to tell that she was a nova.

Needless to say, the sight of Kitty Price in the flesh, in the same dojo as he was, was enough to get Anton’s blood (whatever color it might have been, under that violet skin of his) pumping. Of course he had no idea whatsoever who she was, as he’d been living a near-hermit-like existence on top of Huashan for several years now – which was probably one of the only ways for a human being living on planet Earth to not know who Kitty Price was, actually. Regardless, Anton’s enhanced quantum-charged physiology was quick to respond to Kitty’s presence. Unfortunately, almost the only sort of ‘strong reaction’ that Anton was capable of anymore was anger - regardless of the source of said reaction - often with a large sprinkling of paranoia thrown in for good measure, too.

The SASA and MSS frequently sent young novas to train under the Shifu and Anton had so far liked precisely none of them. Government-sponsored killers! That’s all any of them were, no matter how pretty they looked on the outside. They came here and they stole the Shifu’s priceless teachings and then, just as quickly as they arrived, they left again to go do god-only-knew-what with martial skills meant to heal and to help, not to hurt and kill!

Fortunately for Kitty, Anton had been training under the Shifu long enough to recognize when his temper was threatening to spiral out of control, and, while it wasn't easy for him to prevent that from happening, the Shifu had trained him in methods that at least gave him a fighting chance. So Anton closed his eyes and took a moment to center himself, slow his breathing, and regain a mindful sense of where he was, who he was, and why his anger was not something he should let control him. And then he opened his eyes.

With what felt to Anton like a truly stupendous amount of refined self-control - and what, no doubt, looked to Kitty like barely-restrained outrage - Anton stomped up to the world's most beautiful woman and demanded in quiet but forceful tones, "Why are you here?"

Too bad for Kitty that he'd asked this in Chinese...

To Kitty: Anton does speak English (and Russian, of course), so you can feel free to clarify that with him. In fact, it might well improve his mood to know she's American (since that would at least imply that she couldn't be yet another nova agent sent by the Chinese government), but I'll leave that for you to decide.

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Kitty felt something in her relax as she watched the boys practice. Their movements weren’t perfect, but there was a pattern to them that was comforting. For the first time since Harley’s death, the knot of grief in Kitty’s heart eased.
The purple-skinned man immediately caught her eye. At first, she didn’t mind him, but he was clearly agitated. She didn’t need her nose to tell he was beyond pissed. Kitty resisted the urge to run from him when he paused to gather himself. It was only a sliver of doubt that he could really be that angry at her stopped her. She hadn’t done anything wrong; why would he be mad at her?
She was quickly proven wrong when he stomped up to her and hissed at her in Chinese. “I… I…” Kitty couldn’t do more than squeak that vowel for a couple of moments. Her tail was puffed out in fear, the golden fur standing on end. An irrational fear that the nova was going to shoot her clutched her by the throat, defying the logic that he didn’t have a gun. The nova’s eyes narrowed at her further and Kitty finally found her voice. “I’m sorry!” she managed to say, drawing her hands up to hover in half-curled fists at her chin. “I didn’t… I’ll go!”
Tears shone in her eyes as Kitty stumbled away from the enraged man, but she only made it to the hallway outside before the panic swept her to her knees. Knowing she looked like a melodramatic fool, the woman barely managed to get out of the center of the stone hallway. Crying, she curled up in a ball, desperately trying to breathe. It’s PTSD! she screamed at herself, but that didn’t help the fear; nothing helped since anxiety medication wasn’t able to penetrate her stamina. Rationally, she knew that she was fine, but there was nothing rational about the panic attack that left her sobbing on the floor.
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  • 2 months later...

How long Kitty remained sobbing on the floor was hard to say, given her emotional state, but after some number of minutes had passed a very strange thing happened. A tiny bird, a finch of some kind by the looks of it, with soft gray feathers along its back, wings that started out the same soft gray color but with black edgings, a black mask of feathers over its eyes and around its beak, and white feathers underneath with a ruff of brilliant orange feathers on its chest suddenly appeared before her, landing on the concrete of the hallway mere feet from where she lay sobbing. The little bird regarded her curiously with one eye, its head turning this way and that in the sudden, jerky fashion of birds everywhere and, as it did so, a second finch, and then a third, landed on the ground to either side of the first. Each of the birds carried a single flower in its beak.

After a brief pause, the finches approached her silently in quick hops, stopping directly in front of her and depositing the three small, brilliantly pink and white flowers on the ground at her knees: they were cherry blossoms.

“They’re meant as a peace offering”, said a gentle voice, speaking in softly-accented English. “As I understand it”, the voice continued, “one of our students has treated you rather poorly. Please accept these in recompense”.

Kitty lifted crying eyes at the voice’s sound, unconsciously tracking the flight of the three little finches, which had turned to leave immediately after delivering their gifts, and found herself meeting the searching gaze of possibly the oldest man she had ever seen, who was, in his way, as tiny and harmless-seeming as the birds who were just then flying over his shoulder on their way back out into the wider world of the outdoors. One of the birds stopped its flight, however, to land on the man’s knotted, branch-like cane, regarding him with the same, jerky, curious gaze it had used on Kitty. The old man turned his own gaze from Kitty to regard the little bird; he lifted a leathery, wrinkled hand and gently stroked the bird’s downy chest with the back of a single gnarled finger while making a soft cooing noise that, somehow, conveyed a feeling of gratitude. The finch let out a rapid sequence of happy chirps in response and then leapt from the top of the old man’s cane and rejoined its brethren in their flight.

“My wife”, the old man said, turning his fathoms-deep gaze her way again, “taught me many years ago that the simplest and best way to brighten a lady’s day is with a gift of flowers.” With a smile in his eyes, he added, “It has also been my experience that small and cute animals can sometimes help as well.”

The sudden appearance of the three little birds, followed by the equally sudden appearance of the little old man, had temporarily stemmed the tide of Kitty’s sobbing. Confused and wiping tears from her eyes, she picked up one of the delicate blossoms and considered it for a moment before looking back up at the old man. “I…”, she started, but got no further, her voice trailing off into sniffles as her embarrassment at being found like this by a stranger, and her confusion at the very strangeness of the entire situation, left her unsure of what exactly she should say.

“Those are cherry blossoms”, the old man offered, glancing down at the blossoms and indicating them with a dip of his white-crowned head. Of course Kitty knew cherry blossoms when she saw them, but he hadn’t sounded patronizing as he told her – it was more like he was as genuinely pleased to see them as he seemed to hope she would be to receive them. “They were my wife’s favorite”, he told her, “she loved everything about them; their beauty and vitality, of course, but she also loved their transience – when the flowers wither their petals fall from the tree, and the wind scatters them far and wide like a living snow fall, making their ending as beautiful as their beginning.”

As he spoke, the old man began to make his way to Kitty, moving with the deliberate care of the very old as he did. When he reached her he lowered himself to the ground across from her, leaning heavily on his cane as he descended. Once seated, he folded his legs under him and, reaching out, he picked up one of the two remaining blossoms. With a faraway look in his nearly-black eyes, the old man examined the tiny flower for a moment, and then looked back up at the woman sitting across from him whose beauty entirely eclipsed that of the simple little cherry blossom and held it up between the two of them.

“A long time ago”, he told her, “a Japanese poet said of these; ‘split a cherry tree’s wood and you will find no blossoms within, but let the spring breeze blow, and watch a thousand flowers bloom’.”

A small, bittersweet smile touched the elder man’s lips, and Kitty felt like she could almost see the memory that was being conjured behind his ancient eyes as he spoke. “My wife”, he said, “speaking of that poem, once said to me, ‘I do not know where the wind comes from or understand how it helps the cherry trees blossom. I don’t know where the beauty of those blossoms comes from, or how they reflect the sun’s light so brilliantly. I don’t understand why they die so quickly or why their passing is so bittersweet, and I can’t say where the wind takes all of their petals as they fall from the tree, or where the wind goes when it is all done. I only know this: the flowers are beautiful, and the wind is beautiful, and I am not sorry that the flowers lived, or that the wind blows.’”

After one of those timeless pauses that are common to any conversation that delves deeper than casually asking how the other person “is”, or what they think of the weather, the old man sighed wistfully and eyes that may possibly have been the tiniest bit moist refocused on Kitty. His smile flared briefly into a grin that showed a mouthful of remarkably healthy teeth, given his apparent age, and then subsided just as quickly as he told her, “She was a very wise and wonderful woman, my wife, and I miss her very much.”

Though he hadn’t introduced himself yet, it had long since become obvious to Kitty who the old man was; that he was “the Shifu”; he was Guo Dixian, the man at whose alter her fellow tourists were even now presenting offerings and prayers. He was China’s so-called “Ninth Immortal”.

All of which was only another way of saying that he was a nova like her – though everything about him seemed so profoundly mundane and “un-nova”-like that his very ordinariness seemed extraordinary – and, Kitty had supposed, his being a nova was the likeliest explanation of how he knew about Harley. And it had seemed obvious to her that he did know; his cherry blossom story – with its topics of transience, beauty, and death was sort of paper-thin as an analogy for what had happened to her sister, after all.

But then he lowered the blossom he’d been holding up between them and extended it towards her, its petals balanced delicately on all five fingertips, and asked her with perfect, incontestable earnestness, “Would you consider sharing your loss with me, young lady? I would be happy to listen.”

And it hit her: he was “the Shifu”, and he was a nova, and he was perceptive enough to see that her crying on the hallway floor of his temple wasn’t truly a result of being groused at by an angry purple-skinned nova, but was instead because she’d recently gone through something terrible and traumatic, and that it had stolen something precious from her and left her feeling helpless and out of control as a result. But he didn’t know about her sister or what she had gone through; he’d simply seen she was hurting and, wanting to help her and to reach past the walls she’d erected around her hurt, he’d chosen to first open himself up to her as a form of payment for his presumption in asking her to open herself up to him.

He hadn’t been talking about Harley at all – the cherry blossom was his wife. He’d been talking about her all along – he'd been talking about his own pain.

Kitty looked down at the flower she'd picked up, where it was lying in the palm of her hand, held close to her belly as if to protect the delicate blossom, and then back up to the flower Guo Dixian was offering her where it sat in his fingers, beautiful and vulnerable, and then past the flower to the old sage himself to see him watching her, waiting.

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