The river is low and stagnant and I wish for a burst of current as my pseudopods muck through the water, changing my shape to move. My membrane feels sticky. The weight of my nucleus drags me down, center first. I have to fight to stay afloat.
I call out. The sound is a pathetic warble in the muck. "Proteus!"
There is no answer.
Wriggling through weeds, I make my way to the river's hidden pocket, Proteus' private sanctum. He loves this place, but to me it's an impenetrable jumble of shadowy clumps and weedy things, and farther down in the river than I dare go for any reason other than an emergency.
This is an emergency.
"Proteus?" I cry, louder this time. My breath comes in exhausted heaves.
"Tiffany!" Proteus pops out in front of me, grinning madly. "You're just in time, come in, come in."
"Good, you're still…" I take a deep gasp of oxygen and let it filter. "You're still alive."
"Very much alive, very much so indeed!" He laughs. "You were worried?"
I don't answer. He reaches out a branchlike pseudopod to me and I shiver at the near touch of our membranes.
The shivers started the day Proteus and I met. He simply reached out to say hello and I felt vibrations in the water, this odd humming ran through me, and I recoiled rather than let him touch me. I didn't want him to know what I'd felt. The sensation wasn't unpleasant, but strange, and intensely voyeuristic, like I could read his mind, or something. Lucky for me he never noticed. Not even now, and I'm shivering like crazy.
I take another breath. "Everyone's talking… about—"
"And you're out of breath?"
"I came as soon as I heard—"
"Funny, the oxygen's extra thick here, what with the leaves and all. Maybe the problem's you?"
"You're trying to distract me, aren't you?"
"Come in, already! You'll feel much better." He gives me that look, that, you-know-you-want-to look.
"Fine," I sigh. I follow him past the weeds. He's made improvements on the space, since I was last here, only a day ago. The shadowy clumps (floating leaves, I realize now) are shaped into a sort of canopy. There is even a shaft of sunlight breaking through. I wouldn't go so far as to call it comfortable, but progress is progress.
Proteus ushers me to the sunlit spot. "Catch your breath. I've got something to show you."
"Not now, I need—I need to talk to you."
"I promise it'll be worth it."
I shake, no. "Some other time. This—this is an emergency."
Proteus bounces with energy. "There is no other time, Tiff! We live such short lives, two, three days, at the most, and then we're gone, all split up and nothing like we used to be. Live a little, while you still—"
The words spill out of me. "They say you're trying to grow another nucleus!"
Proteus stares at me for a moment, and then erupts in laughter. "Another nucleus? Another nucleus indeed!"
"Is it true?"
"So much for my surprise," Proteus says. He bounces. "Well. What do you think?"
"I think you're crazy."
He looks disappointed. "I suppose it's hard to understand, isn't one nucleus enough, and all, but it's not crazy, it's… it's ingenious!"
"You've got to be joking. Ingenious?"
"If I do say so myself."
I sigh. "Why didn't you just tell me? I had to hear it from the paramecium, and you know what they're like."
"Tired, stiff, miserable old gossips."
"I'm your best friend, I…" I look down. "I should hear about your crazy ideas from you."
"That's silly. I tell you all of my crazy ideas. I told you about this place." He motions to the sanctum. "No one else knows about this. Nobody but you and me."
"Well… fine." He has a point, and I know it.
"But a new nucleus is different! I definitely shouldn't have heard about it from some miserable old gossips, as you so eloquently put it."
"You forgot tired and stiff."
"Proteus, I'm serious."
"Some might say too serious." He smirks and gives me a friendly shove.
The shove makes me bristle, but can't help but chuckle. "I bet you knew I'd show up. I bet you thought, good old Tiffany, she'll get all freaked out, and then she'll have to get involved."
"You did, didn't you?"
"You know me all too well." He pulls me in close, secretive. "So what do you really think? Pal to pal."
The sensation of touching is almost unbearable, but this time, I don't pull away. For a moment I wonder why, if I expend so much effort trying to avoid contact, why is it sometimes nice to be touched, why my body can't ever make up its mind, I wonder why Proteus has never noticed the sensation, I wonder if I'm the crazy one for noticing—
I break contact with him. "I think you're out of your mind."
"On the contrary, with another nucleus I'll have more mind than ever!"
"But that's impossible."
"Isn't it?" He smirks at me, challenging me to say otherwise. Tell me I'm crazy, I can almost hear him think, tell me I'm crazy, I dare you.
I accept the unspoken challenge. "You're crazy. Two nucleuses?"
"Nuclei, I think."
"I think the correct term is nuclei," he tells me, shooting me that challenging look.
"Are you sure? Nuclei sounds pretentious."
"So what, that's the correct term."
"If you want to sound like a—oh, what are we doing, arguing over semantics, the whole thing is just crazy." I throw up my pseudopods in exasperation. "Never mind crazy, it's dangerous!"
Proteus laughs. "How do you know? Has any other amoeba tried it?"
"I like the nucleus you have now," I say quietly.
Proteus, apparently not having heard me, begins to pace. "Every amoeba in creation has one single, pathetic little nucleus, and does anyone think twice about it? No. It functions, and we survive. I'm tired of just surviving. Even after I reproduce, that's all I'll have, it won't even be my nucleus anymore. I'll have to share it to make some new half. I'll be diminished."
"You don't know that," I tell him. "You won't know until it happens."
"I can sense it, Tiff. Don't you ever just sense, just... know something completely?"
Of course I do, I think, I sense everything you feel, whenever you're close to me, funny how you can sense all this nonsense about nuclei—nucleuses—whatever—but nothing about that.
I say none of this. I just shrug.
Proteus continues to pace. "All my life I've wanted to be more than one single cell. I could be the first of a new kind! That'd give the old paramecium something to gossip about, wouldn't it?"
"I mean, they'd gossip about anything, so…"
He grabs me by the membrane. "Don't you see? I don't want to be simple anymore."
I feel his energy charged tenfold and I smile, trying to hide the feeling. "You were never simple."
"My whole life, my whole short life, this is all I've wanted."
"What if something else happens when we divide, what if we, you know, share something with the new half?"
"I can't risk becoming nothing."
"But what if growing another nucleus kills you?"
Proteus looks at me very seriously. "We're all going to die, Tiff. We should make the most of our limited time."
"So you're willing to risk dying, to avoid the risk of being nothing? What's the difference?"
"What's the difference?" He exclaims. "What's the difference? You know, I thought you more than anyone might understand!"
In the heat of the argument and with him clutching me tight, the humming is rampant. You're so selfish, I think, why don't you just ever listen to me?
Proteus lets go of me. "What did you just say?"
"Listen to me!" I cry, gasping from the hum still clattering through my membrane.
"Maybe you should go." Proteus backs away. He steels himself. He folds inward. His membrane begins to shake.
"Stop, just stop! I do understand, but you can't—"
"I can feel everything you feel!"
Proteus looks up. "You can do what—?"
I can give no answer, and Proteus is instantly consumed. The split takes hold.
The nucleus contracts and explodes into a blur of activity as the molecules gather and shake and then break apart, throwing Proteus back against the leaves, pseudopods flailing, he reaches out his branchlike arms to me but I can't quite grasp them, he shrinks inward again and a burst of energy starts ripping his nucleus in two and I can feel it, watching him I feel a raging surge of pain, and he cries out.
"Make it stop!" The voice is thin and foreign. He sounds diminished. "Make. It. Stop!"
I rush to him despite the absent current, panic takes control of me, and for lack of a better solution I grab on to him, try to keep him from sinking to the bottom of the river, but I am not strong enough, and the pain is worse now. I lose my grip. He sinks.
The water grows cold with depth but it doesn't stop me. Proteus drops to the dirt, motionless. I try to sense some life left. I feel nothing, and that almost kills me, I am not used to feeling nothing.
Looking behind me, I see the open water. The current picks up and I know it could carry me back to a safe place, but I'd just keep feeling nothing, and nothing is so much worse than any amount of—
A rush of pain stops my thoughts and I am at once so grateful to feel again that it hardly feels like pain. I look to the bottom of the river. Proteus gives a shake of movement.
An odd thought takes shape in my mind. I am no longer afraid to touch him.
He spots me. He groans, and I sense a new feeling in him—defeat. He moves only one part of himself at a time, still dazed and splayed out in the dirt.
I float down beside him. "Are you—"
"Bad?" I ask.
"I'll live." Proteus shivers his way upright and glares at his one nucleus in disgust. "This stupid thing."
"I'm really sorry, Proteus."
"For what?" He coughs. "You were right, I'm completely… completely out of my mind."
I smile. "I think that's okay."
He meets my gaze. "Thank, um… I would have—mm. If you hadn't… I mean thank you. You didn't have to stay."
"I'm your best friend."
Proteus looks at me, really looks at me. His expression is curious. "Can you really feel everything I feel?"
"But I can't feel what you feel. How is that fair?"
I reach out a pseudopod. "Try it. I dare you."
Proteus stares at me.
"What, afraid you might like it?" I say, smirking.
He returns the smirk. "Challenge accepted."
With a burst of energy, he reaches up and we are touching, membrane to membrane. The humming surges. I expect Proteus to recoil, but he doesn't.
"Whoa." He wiggles his pseudopod in mine, testing out the sensation. "It's like I can feel everything you're thinking, kind of like…"
He laughs. It is a quiet, ironic laugh. "Like I have second nucleus."
I grin. "Whoa."
We look at each other and do not laugh, but feel.