Free Association

Light, shadows, soft dappled patterns of leaves arching overhead, high branches forming a bright latticed canopy. A cool breeze shakes the trees, steam rises from the hot spring, and I sink farther into the bubbling water as the symbiont stirs within me. Or it may be that I am the one who has begun to stir, as the warmth and weightlessness of the pool evoke memories of a distant home. No matter. Every Trill knows that it is unwise to ponder such things too deeply.

The only sound is the distant warbling of a bird. This small planet, not far from the Cardassian border, has been uninhabited for the past several years, since a group of Federation colonists realized the extent of their folly and moved on. It’s certainly not what most people would call a prime vacation spot; in fact, Starfleet has a travel warning in effect for the entire sector, so I am quite assured of being alone here.

Alone. I turn the word over in my thoughts and watch as it bounces and comes to rest again, like a smooth, gleaming pebble dislodged from a riverbed. A joined Trill is never alone. In ages past, when our ancestors bargained with the symbionts for immortality, the loss of solitude must have seemed a small price to pay.

A yellowing leaf detaches itself from an overhanging branch and drifts silently to the ground, coming to rest in the tall grass beside my towel and my clothing. I can almost imagine that I hear a woman’s light footsteps swishing through the grass, but surely it is the wind, no more. Another gust picks up the leaf and tumbles it toward a drift of fallen leaves. I lost her so many years ago, although it was only yesterday that she left me.

“Lenara.” Her name forms on my lips, a plaintive whisper. I hear the inward echoes as my past hosts murmur it back to me, the echoes repeating and darkening like a row of double-mirrored images curving endlessly away. It is one of our strongest taboos, what we call reassociation, the choice to resume a loving relationship from a past host’s lifetime. The symbiont should not desire this, for its nature is to seek new experiences, not to dwell on the past. Reassociation is seen as proof that a joined Trill has become dangerously unstable; thus, when the host dies, the symbiont is left to die as well. This is deemed a merciful end.

I close my eyes, watching the shadow-patterns of light and dark flitting across my eyelids, unwisely pondering my existence. I would have sacrificed immortality for another chance to love Lenara, but she was unwilling to defy the taboo. Did she fear death so much? Did she love me so little? Is her symbiont stronger and more stable than mine? Is her spirit weaker, more easily overborne by social expectations?

The shadow-patterns dance silently over my closed eyes, yielding no answers.

Around me the water goes on bubbling, hot and tangy with the scent of alien minerals. Sharp and compelling, it is a scent of life, or death; after so many experiences, so many hosts, the dividing line between the two has become blurred in my thoughts. Death is no more of a mystery than life, and it holds no fear for me. It is just another transition.

The wind ripples through the tall grass again, now sounding even more like Lenara’s footsteps, a cruel trick of the imagination. Surely she must be very far away.

“Dax. Jadzia Dax. My dearest one.”

Her voice, soft and familiar and, of course, quite thoroughly impossible. I open my eyes, blinking up at the apparition who now stands at the edge of the hot spring.

“I found out your flight plan. I couldn’t stay away . . .”

She is undressing even as she speaks, flinging her clothes down into a disarrayed heap next to my neatly folded stack. Then she is in the water with me, her hands and lips eagerly roaming over my body, the pleasure of it filling me as I respond in kind. Although we have never been together like this, not as Lenara and Jadzia, her deft fingers move without hesitation, somehow knowing exactly how I want to be touched.

I am Dax. I am Jadzia. I am all of my previous hosts, a formless blurring of identities. As my body arches instinctively toward Lenara’s touch, I am female, soft and yielding; then in an instant I am male, hard, erect, demanding. Lenara begins to change shape as well, her features shifting from those of one past lover to another. The images multiply in the dark mirrored chambers of my mind, cresting like a wave of destruction.

It is too much. I close my eyes as my release builds. I can hear myself crying out, but I cannot say if it is in rapture or terror. The wave overtakes me, and I fall, endlessly. I do not know who I am.

Lenara withdraws, and I slowly regain my awareness of myself. One female Trill body, one symbiont deep within, both of us lying quietly in the soothing waters of the hot spring.

It is death. Or life.

I take a deep breath of the mineral-scented air, and I open my eyes.

The branches above me are almost completely still, only the tiniest leaves quivering in a very slight breeze. The sky has darkened toward twilight, and the birds are silent. I am alone in the hot spring. The tall stalks of grass stand upright, completely untouched, where Lenara’s clothing should have been.

A long moment passes before I am able to comprehend the fact that she was never here at all.

I climb out of the bubbling water, the cool air on my bare skin making me shiver as I reach for my towel. I think of my Trill ancestors as I dress, those foolhardy souls who sought immortality so long ago, exchanging one death for many. Did they know, when they made the bargain, that there would be no way to go back, no way to reclaim what we were? Did they know that the joining would result in such a precarious existence, perched forever on the edge of madness, bereft of the simple comfort of a lover’s familiar touch?

My hands are cold. I rub them together, seeking warmth that is denied me. I am alone, or so it seems, but even this is not true, never true. Lenara chose wisely when she left me, I know. We have left behind too much of what we once were, surrendered too much to the symbiont’s needs for any other choice to have been possible.

Perhaps we were never meant for immortality.