There were a lot of uncanny things with Heather. Bill hadn't noticed at first, or she just had ignored the signals. She had merely known her as a human, after all, and she couldn't blame an alien for being, well, alien. However, time passed and even if Bill often forgot it, she was an alien too, and she didn't feel alien. She never had. Nanobots or not, her body was still her body, with the same property if she wanted to. Being herself didn't require any effort, it was shape-shifting that didn't feel natural.
With Heather, everything was backward. Keeping her human shape seemed to require efforts and Bill cringed at her obvious discomfort.
“You don't have to keep this shape, love.”
Heather blinked and turned transparent, the tips of her limbs becoming watery and shapeless.
“You are beautiful the way you are” Bill said fondly.
She meant it, Heather was always pretty, but to Bill she was never as beautiful as in this loose shape, when she looked relaxed and comfortable. The young woman took her girlfriend's wet hand in hers, shivering at the coldness of her water limb. They walked a moment on the desert planet made of amethyst and soft purple sand shining with the bright colours of the nebula above their heads. It was breath-taking and Bill understood why it was Heather's favourite place. Space, deep space, only colours and silence.
Heather didn't talk a lot either. She didn't talk at all in space. Well, of course she didn't speak, no one can speak in space, but she didn't use telepathy either. She just stayed silent by Bill's side, sometimes leading, sometimes following. Silence was comfortable most of the time, but almost a bit frustrating to Bill. She would have liked a true conversation with Heather, at least knowing her last name or where she came from, just basic information from her past as a human being.
This time, Bill was leading. She took Heather on a planet close enough from Earth culture, because she missed civilisation and social contact. They stayed in a holiday resort, Bill finding them a part time job for money. Heather didn't put so much dedication in it, she gave a hand in the kitchen but didn't really interact with customers, letting Bill doing the service.
“I know you're probably the most competent person for washing the dishes and swiping the floor, but we can exchange the tasks for a while” Bill once said jokingly as Heather was effortlessly using the high pressure water spray, plates piling up at an impressive speed.
“You're better than me for service” she answered with a shrug. “I'm clumsy and I'm not presentable as you.”
“Don't say that, you're not clumsy and you can make a very good impression if you dry your hair and smile a bit.”
“You want to wash the dishes that much ?”
“No, I want to see you out of this kitchen, away from this sink and why not using your words.”
Heather glanced a painful look at Bill before returning to the washing.
“Whatever” Bill said grimly.
They were walking by the beach in a companionable silence. It was still early and the tourists weren't there yet. Ice cream sellers were installing their booths in the last moments of fresh air. Bill was wearing a woollen cardigan, out of habit. Grey sky, cool breeze, woollen cardigan, it was an automatic association. Heather was already in her swimsuit, walking in the sea foam but leaving no foot print. Bill didn't comment. After all, she was the weird one, it wasn't logical to wear extra layers at the beach when you can easily swim in the freezing vacuum of outer space.
“Do you remember the first time you saw the ocean ?” Bill asked innocently.
“Hmm ? No, not really. I was born by the coast, so It was probably one of the first thing my eyes saw.”
“I remember my first time very well” Bill said with a smile. “I was 7 and Moira wanted to spend our first summer together by the sea. We took the ferry to Calais, just both of us because dad was working, and to be honest I don't think he cared.”
“You were 7 when she adopted you ?”
Bill smiled. It was nice to see Heather care, or show any sign of curiosity.
“Yeah, before that I'd been in a children's home, and in different temporary families. It wasn't that horrible, I mean, they were nice people and all, but Moira didn't treat me as a guest. She wanted so badly to be my mom. I never felt like calling her mom, I think it's why she sometimes acted a bit cold. Anyway, I'm an adult now and I understand the past better. Those first holidays are probably my best childhood memories and everytime I see the ocean I remember how lucky I am to have met everyone I love.”
Heather smiled and playfully splashed Bill who was now walking in the foam too.
“I hate the ocean” she simply said, becoming serious again. “Well, I think I hated it but it's nice being here with you.”
Bill didn't ask more, she simply let Heather send her mental images of a grey sky and icy tides hitting violently against a sharp cliff. Scotland, maybe ? Heather didn't sound Scottish, but she didn't sound from Earth anyway. It was a desolate landscape, and if it might have been majestic, Heather's feelings just made it feel like a prison. Bill bit her inner cheek and took her girlfriend by the hand. She sent her waves of memories back. A hot day in a small beach resort next Calais. Blue sky and blue water, calm and friendly. Parasols of all colours, soft sand and cheap beach bucket and shovel bought at the morning market. Ice cream and fun park, and too many pictures taken, as if Moira, still young and joyful, wanted desperately to keep every single memory with her new daughter. Heather smiled back and Bill felt a salty drop running on her cheek, too hot to be sea water. Good memories always felt like this, warm but a bit sad. She promised herself she would go back to Calais with Moira some days, and take Heather with them.
They were back to space, floating near a beautiful nebula. Heather was more open in space. Not talkative, just transparent with her feelings. No mental shield, no painful effort to form words or constructed sentences. She was in her element and Bill wondered if she would become an alien too, some days. It was a scary perspective, even if Heather didn't seem sad or in any pain when she was floating around.
I never asked you, how long has it been for you ?
I don't know. Does time still exist out there ?
Heather wasn't wrong and the sudden idea of eternity, actual eternity as a timeless state, sent shivers through Bill's spine.
Back on a civilised planet, Bill observed Heather as she was returning a runaway kite to a kid. She was talking to strangers now. And she was talking to Bill too, rather than use telepathy. Her speech tone was still unsettling, but it wasn't a problem. Why would it be a problem ? Bill loved her as she was and wanting her to become more “normal” would have been cruel. Bill hated the word “normal” anyway, and it didn't mean anything now she was able to travel the whole universe. Heather was her kind of normal. But seeing her merging with people made her happy because it gave her hope.
They were spending more time on civilised planets now. Even after months, maybe years of being some sort of space puddle, Bill never had felt different. She wasn't made for outer space and loneliness. A little trip in the stars once in a while was great, but only because it was a break in her life. She wondered if she could ever become fully human again. It was probably physically possible, but could she deal with mortality again after experiencing the infinity of space ? She wasn't sure for the moment, but she missed her family, and she didn't want to imagine witnessing their death stuck in an eternal youth.
“Don't you miss Earth, sometimes ?” she asked Heather.
“I don't remember Earth very well, except for the fact I felt trapped there. But we could go back and see how it's like. If I'm with you maybe it will be nice.”
Bill smiled and hugged Heather. A weak voice whispered in her head.
Do you think I can go back to life ?
Sure, you can do whatever you want.