I liked her…Wolf. I hope we see her again. And if we do, maybe…maybe I could…I…Oh, no. No. No-no-no-no-no!
Wren? Wren, what’s wrong?!
I…I was thinking about how maybe I could try to split for that Wolf girl…maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, and–and–
And what? The thought of doing something nice made you panic?
No! I’m panicked because it doesn’t feel like I can split anymore! It doesn’t feel like I can leave your head at all!
Isla froze. The flamingo went right on flying, but the landscape passed underneath her with her barely aware of it. It was a wonder she kept her grip on the bird and and didn’t go tumbling out of the sky.
You have to be mistaken. Of course you can leave.
Try to spit me out! Try it! Come on!
Isla was about to argue that this was a terrible thing to try up in the air, but if it would calm Wren down…she took several deep breaths and imagined Wren not as an ally but as a parasite in her brain. This should have triggered her body’s rejection of the little mute and forced her out. But instead, all Isla got for her efforts was a headache. She focused again, harder this time, but again, nothing happened. She could even feel Wren struggling to leave.
By the time the bird landed back at Scarlemagne’s palace, Wren’s panic had all but consumed Isla’s mind. Her breaths came far too fast, which led to her being dizzy, which led to her breaths picking up speed all the more.
Gerard approached to take the bird from her, and instead of dismounting, she fell off it and collapsed into a heap at its feet. The bird hissed in annoyance as Gerard struggled to pull it off where it wouldn’t trample her. She could just barely make out the orangutan’s confused voice as darkness consumed her. “Um…King Scarlemagne, sire? We hath a problem here! And it, um, art not my fault!”
Isla was dreaming. Or maybe she was standing in a memory? Her feet were cold as if they’d been buried in icy slush, and freezing water licked her ankles. She opened her eyes and looked down at first, then scanned the area all around her. Nothing. She was standing in this freezing shallow water and could see no land in sight from any direction.
“Well, well,” boomed a disembodied voice. “What have we here?” At at once, the water at her feet began to glow a strange electric blue. The temperature rose steadily; the numbness in her feet receded. Isla opened her mouth to reply, but instead it was Wren’s voice that came out.
“Who’s speaking to us?”
“Calm down, little pup. Calm down,” the voice replied. The gentle ripples in front of them shifted direction, briefly forming an eerie smile on the water’s surface before returning to their natural flow.
Isla felt her throat, unsure of whose voice would come out if she spoke again. She could feel Wren struggling to make it hers. Well, if this was a mute they were dealing with, perhaps Wren would be the better communicator. Isla relaxed and let the little mute take control.
“Have we…met before?” Wren asked, staring through Isla’s eyes where the face in the water had just been.
The deep voice gave a hardy laugh, which echoed despite the lack of visible walls. “Oh, it doesn’t take much for two mutes like us to connect, little pup. I’ve seen you pass through my territory on your travels a few times. And I might have even passed through yours on one occasion. But that’s on me for not saying a proper ‘hi’ I suppose. I confess, when I first sensed you nearby, I thought I might be dreaming myself. I was so sure I was the only one of my kind.”
“Only one of…wait, are you saying…you’re a tardigrade mute? Like me?”
“Indeed. You may call me Tad.”
“Me too!” Wren replied excitedly, then shook her–or rather, Isla’s–head. “Um, I mean…don’t call me Tad. I mean I thought that, too. About being the only one. Call me Wren. The human I’m living in named me.”
The water level rose slightly, and the current moved a bit faster. The temperature was now warm and soothing. Wren liked it. She thought Isla liked it, too. This was certainly strange (and pleasant) being the one in control. She eagerly turned Isla’s head to take in the vast stretch of water around them. “Is this…all of you?” she asked Tad. “You’re so big!”
“Me too!” Wren said excitedly. “I thought that, too! But is this…all of you?” Isla’s head turned at Wren’s command to take in the vast stretch of water around them. “You’re so big!”
The voice chuckled. “Well, I will take that as a compliment, friend. Now, what can I do for you?”
“Do?” Wren cocked Isla’s head in confusion.
“I heard you crying out like you were scared. So I connected with you to see if I could help.”
Excitement, shared by Isla and Wren both, welled up in her chest. “Can you tell us how to separate? I’ve been in this human’s head a while, and when I tried to leave a few minutes ago, I couldn’t.”
“Hmm…time is a relative thing. How long is your ‘a while’, pup?”
Wren had to think about this a moment. “I don’t know, really. At least a few months. So can you help us?”
The current slowed, the temperature lowered, and the electric blue water took on a deeper, sadder tone.
“I am sorry, little friend. But I’m afraid us tardigrades just aren’t meant to stay in human brains so long. We’re made to flow and move like the water, not to stagnate.”
Wren didn’t know what “stagnate” meant. Isla struggled to form words and explain it, but she remained only a spectator in the back of her own mind. “So what can we do then?” Wren asked Tad.
“If you mean what can you do to change your current situation, I’m sad to say there’s not really anything. You and your host here will have to learn to live with each other. But–” The color of the water brightened a bit. “–if you’re asking me what you can do with your life in general, well, I believe that door is open to all sorts of possibilities.”
It was a nice thought, but in practice, it felt hollow. This couldn’t be happening. What possibilities existed for a mute without her own body? Wren already felt kind of bad moving and speaking through Isla. Especially when avoiding this sort of control was the exact reason Isla let Wren into her head to begin with.
“You mustn’t fret too much,” Tad continued. “You need to look at the positive in the situation.”
Wren failed to see any positives, but she did make her best effort to brainstorm some all the same. Buried somewhere behind her, she could feel Isla’s mind working towards the same goal. There wasn’t any anger for Wren taking control. Well, not yet. Isla still had trust that Wren would hand control back when this conversation was done. And with that trust came another surprisingly optimistic thought.
“I guess…now that we can’t be separated, that means we don’t have any reason to be afraid of Scarlemagne. We could…we could leave if we want. Wait…is that what we want?”
Confusion swirled within Isla and Wren’s shared mind. On one hand, Scarlemagne had always been a source of fear for them both. On the other, the worst thing he could do–separate them and use his puppet pheromones on Isla–was no longer possible. The duo had always been valuable for their competency. Would he value their services enough to keep providing this body with food and shelter, even when he could no longer control it?
At this thought, Isla summoned enough emotion to push her words into Wren’s consciousness. Hold on! You think I’m going to volunteer to stay in Scarlemagne’s army?
Wren huffed. If we volunteer, it’ll be a decision between both of us. We shouldn’t take the possibility off the table.
Yes, we should! He’s enslaving humans!
I hear what you’re saying, and I understand that as a human, that upsets you. But as a mute, it’s not so much a deal to me. I’m after safety and nourishment first. What’s
big plan for survival if we leave?
I…that is, um… I would… Isla’s thoughts receded as neither good ideas nor good retorts came to her.
Meanwhile, Tad hummed to himself as he mused, either oblivious to their argument or indifferent to it. “Scarlemagne…” he said slowly. “Scarlemagne…that name sounds familiar…I think I met him before. Though he called himself something else, then. I made a wonderful dream for him. One of my best works, in fact. Do you want to see the memories I pulled to make it?”
Wren felt mildly interested, though not intrigued by this offer. Isla’s curiosity, on the other hand, burned bright and strong, allowing her a brief moment to speak. “Yes, please. We want to.” Once Wren sees how twisted and terrible Scarlemagne’s mind really is, she’ll realize there’s no way we can stay. I know she’ll understand.
The ripples in the water formed a smile once again, and for a brief moment, the strange world around them went dark. Then Isla and Wren heard a voice–a very young voice–speaking.
“Hoo…go. Hu…go. Hugo!”
Two older voices gasped and started speaking at once. “Hugo…that’s right!”
“That’s your name! You did it!”
“Welcome to our world, Hugo!”
Isla’s optimism soured. So far this was not panning out how she had hoped. Not at all.