If You Take My Meaning

As an ex-smuggler and two-time reluctant revolutionary, Alyssa is used to staring into the razor-sharp jaws of death. But now she’s embarking on the most terrifying adventure of her life—journeying into the darkness to become a new type of being, one who can help humanity to survive. And deep at the heart of the city in the middle of the night, the price of transformation could be higher, and more terrible, than Alyssa ever expected.

 

 

They woke up stuck together again, still halfway in a shared dream, as the city blared to life around them. The warm air tasted of yeast, from their bodies, and from the bakery downstairs.

Mouth lay on one side of Sophie, with Alyssa on the other, sprawled on top of a pile of blankets and quilted pads. Alyssa couldn’t get used to sleeping in a bedpile out in the open, after spending half her life in a nook—but Sophie insisted that’s how everybody did things here. Sophie herself hadn’t slept in a bedpile for ages, since she went away to school, but it was how she’d been raised.

“I guess it’s almost time to go,” Sophie whispered, with a reluctance that Alyssa could feel in her own core.

“Yeah,” Alyssa muttered. “Can’t keep putting it off.”

Sophie peeled her tendrils off Mouth and Alyssa carefully, so Alyssa felt as if she was waking up a second time. One moment, Alyssa had a second heart inside her heart, an extra stream of chatter running under the surface of her thoughts. And then it was gone, and Alyssa was just one person again. Like the room got colder, even though the shutters were opening to let in the half-light.

Alyssa let out a low involuntary groan. Her bones creaked, and her right arm had gone half-numb from being slept on.

“You don’t have to,” Sophie whispered. “If you don’t…if you’d rather hold off.”

Alyssa didn’t answer, because she didn’t know what to say.

Mouth laughed. “You know Alyssa. Her mind don’t change.” Mouth’s voice was light, but with a faint growl, like she wished Alyssa would change her mind, and stay.

The tendrils grew out of the flat of Sophie’s ribcage, above her breasts, and they were surrounded by an oval of slightly darker skin, with a reddish tint, like a burn that hadn’t healed all the way (just a few inches upward and to the left, Sophie’s shoulder had an actual burn-scar). Someone might mistake the tendrils for strange ornaments, or a family of separate creatures nesting on Sophie’s flesh, until you saw how they grew out of her, and the way she controlled their motion.

Whenever Alyssa’s bare skin made contact with that part of Sophie’s body, she could experience Sophie’s thoughts, or her memories. Whatever Sophie wanted to lay open to her. But when the three of them slept in this pile, Sophie didn’t share anything in particular. Just dream slices, or half-thoughts. Mouth still couldn’t open herself up to the full communication with Sophie most of the time, but she’d taken to the sleep-sharing.

All three of them had their own brand of terrifying dreams, but they’d gotten better at soothing each other through the worst.

“So that’s it.” Mouth was already pulling on her linen shift and coarse muslin pants, and groping for her poncho. “You’re going up that mountain, and the next time we see you, you’ll…you’ll be like Sophie. The two of you will be able to carry on whole conversations, without once making a sound.”

Mouth looked away, but not before Alyssa caught sight of the anxiety on her face. Alyssa could remember when she used to have to guess at what the fuck Mouth was thinking, but that was a long time ago.

Sophie noticed, too, and she sat up, still in her nightclothes. “You don’t ever have to worry about a thing.” Sophie’s voice was so quiet, Alyssa had to lean closer to hear. “No matter what happens, after all we’ve been through, the three of us are in this together.”

“Yeah,” Alyssa said, punching Mouth’s arm with only a couple knuckles. “No amount of alien grafts are going to mess up our situation.”

“Yeah, I know, I know, it’s just…” Mouth laughed and shook her head, like this was a silly thing to worry about. “It’s just, the two of you will have this whole other language. I’ll be able to listen, but not talk. I wish I could go through that whole transformation, but that’s not me. I need to keep what’s in my head inside my head. I just…I want you both to fulfill your potential. I don’t want to be holding the two of you back.”

Alyssa leaned her head on Mouth’s left shoulder, and Sophie’s head rested on the right. “You speak to us in all the ways that matter,” Sophie said.

“It’s true,” Alyssa said. “You already tell us everything we ever need to know.”

Alyssa had grown up with romances, all about princes, duels, secret meetings, courtships, first kisses, and last trysts. She’d have said that real life could never be half as romantic as all those doomed lovers and secret vows…except now, those stories seemed cheap and flimsy, compared to the love she’d found, here in this tiny room.

For a moment, Alyssa wanted to call the whole thing off. Climb the Old Mother later, maybe just go back to bed. But then she shook it off.

She pulled on her boots.

“It’s time.”

 

Alyssa had handled all kinds of rough terrain in her smuggler days. She’d even gone into the night without any protective gear one time. So she figured the Old Mother would be nothing. But by the time she got halfway up, her hamstrings started to throb and her thighs were spasming. Next to her, Mouth spat out little grunts of exhaustion. Only Sophie seemed to be enjoying pulling herself up from handhold to handhold.

“Shit shit shit. How the fuck did you ever get used to climbing this beast?” Alyssa wheezed.

Sophie just rolled her shoulders. And mumbled, “It wasn’t a choice at first.”

Behind them, Xiosphant had gone dark and still, just a valley of craggy shapes without highlights. Except for one light blaring from the top of the Palace, where the Vice Regent could never bring herself to obey the same shutters-up rule that all of her people lived by. Alyssa didn’t want to risk falling, so she only half-turned for an instant, to see the storm damage, still unrepaired. And the piles of debris, where the fighting between the Vice Regent’s forces and the new Uprising had briefly escalated to heavy cannon fire.

Everyone knew Bianca couldn’t last as Vice Regent, but they had no notion whether she would hold on for a few more sleeps, or half a lifetime. Alyssa tried to avoid mentioning her name, even though her face was impossible to avoid, because Sophie still nursed some complicated regrets, and Mouth still felt guilty for helping to lead Bianca down a thorny path. Alyssa was the only one in their little family with clear-cut feelings about the Vice Regent: pure, invigorating hatred.

Alyssa wanted to stop and rest mid-climb, but the cruel slope of the Old Mother included no convenient resting places, especially for three people. And it would be a shitty irony if they almost reached the top, but slipped and fell to their deaths because they wanted to take a breather. The air felt colder and thinner, and Alyssa’s hard-won aplomb was being severely tested.

“My fingers are bleeding,” Mouth groaned. “Why didn’t you mention our fingers would bleed?”

Sophie didn’t answer.

They reached the top, which also formed the outer boundary of nothing. Ahead of Alyssa were no sights, no smells (because her nose got numb) and no sensations (because her skin was wrapped in every warm thing she could find). No sound but a crashing wind, which turned into subtle terrible music after a while.

Alyssa’s mother and uncles had sent her off to the Absolutists’ grammar school back home in Argelo, when she was old enough to walk and read. That was her earliest distinct memory: her mom holding one of her hands and her uncle Grant holding the other, marching her down around the bend in the gravel back road to the front gate where the school convened at regular intervals. That moment rushed back into her head now, as Sophie and Mouth fussed over her and prepared to send her away to another kind of school.

Mouth was pressing a satchel into Alyssa’s hands. “I got as many of those parallelogram cakes as I could fit into a bag. Plus these salt buns, that taste kind of like cactus-pork crisps. And there are a few of your favorite romances tucked in, too.”

“Thank you.” Alyssa wrapped her arms around Mouth’s neck. She couldn’t tell if her eyes stung due to tears or the wind, or both. “I’ll be back soon. Don’t let Sophie take any more foolish risks.”

“I’ll do my best,” Mouth said. “Say hi to the Gelet from me. And tell them…” She paused. “You know what? Just ‘hi’ is plenty.”

Then Sophie was hugging Alyssa. “I can’t get over how brave you are. You’re the first person ever to visit this city, knowing exactly what’s going to happen.”

“Oh shut up.” Alyssa was definitely starting to cry.

“I mean it. Your example is going to inspire a lot more people to go there. I think Mustache Bob is close to being ready.” Sophie choked on the mountain air. “Come back safe. We need you. I love you.”

“I love you too. Both of you.” Alyssa started to say something else, but a massive, dark shell was rising out of the darkness on the far side of the mountain. “Shit. I need to go.”

Alyssa let go of Sophie, clutching the satchel, and gave Mouth one last smile, then turned to face the writhing tentacles of the nearest Gelet. These two slippery ropes of flesh groped the air, reaching out to her.

 

As soon as they swathed Alyssa in woven moss and lifted her in their tentacles, she freaked out. She couldn’t move, couldn’t escape, couldn’t even breathe. Her inner ear could not truck with this rapid descent down a sheer cliff, and somehow she wasn’t ready for this disorientation, even though she’d talked through it with Sophie over and over. Alyssa wanted to yell that she’d changed her mind, this was a mistake, she wanted to go back to her family. But the Gelet would never understand, even if she could make herself heard.

She kept going down and down. Alyssa tried to tell herself this was just like being inside the Resourceful Couriers’ sleep nook next to Mouth, except that she was alone, and she couldn’t just pop out if she wanted to pee or stretch or anything. She held herself rigid as long as she could, and then she snapped—she thrashed and screamed, twisting her body until her spine wrenched.

A random memory popped up in Alyssa’s head: huddling with the other Chancers in the hot gloom of a low-ceilinged basement on the day side of Argelo, after the Widehome job had gone flipside. (Because they’d burned down the wrong part of the building.) Lucas had squatted next to Alyssa, listing chemical formulas in a low voice, his usual anxiety strategy, and Wendy had fidgeted without making any sound. Every bump and croak above their heads instantly became, in Alyssa’s mind, the Jamersons coming to murder them for what they’d done. This was the most terrified Alyssa had ever been, or probably ever would be, but also the closest she’d ever felt to anybody. These people were her indivisible comrades, any of them would die for the others, they were safe together in horrible danger.

Alyssa would always look back on that time in her life as the ideal, the best, the moment when she had a hope-to-die crew by her side, even though she could see all the flaws and the tiny betrayals. Honestly, she’d had way better friend groups since then, including the Resourceful Couriers, but that didn’t change how she felt.

Alyssa did not do well with helplessness, or chains, or trusting random strangers. But wasn’t that the whole point of this leap into darkness? Alyssa would get this mostly untested surgery, and then she would be able to share unfalsifiable information, and have massively expanded threat awareness thanks to the alien sensory organs. Sometimes you have to be more vulnerable in the short term, so that you can become more formidable later.

They must’ve reached the foot of the Old Mother without Alyssa noticing, what with all the turbulence. She had a sensation of moving forward, rather than downward, and her position in the web of tentacles shifted somewhat as well, and then at last they came to a stop and the Gelet unwrapped her tenderly. She landed on her feet inside a dark tunnel that sloped downward. This was almost scarier than the aftermath of the Widehome job, or at least it was scary in a different way.

They led her down the tunnel, patient with all her stumbles. She couldn’t see shit, but at least she was moving under her own power.

Alyssa kept reminding herself of what Sophie had said: she was the first human ever to visit the Gelet city, knowing what awaited her there. She was a pioneer.

The air grew warm enough for Alyssa to remove some of the layers of moss, and there were faint glimmers of light up ahead, so she must be entering the Gelet city proper. They needed to find a better name for it than “the midnight city.” Something catchy and alluring, something to make this place a destination.

“I’m the first human to come down here with my eyes open, knowing what awaits,” Alyssa said, loud enough to echo through the tunnel.

“Actually,” a voice replied from the darkness ahead of her. “You’re not. You’re the second, which is almost as good. Right?”

 

His name was Jeremy, and he had worked with Sophie at that fancy coffee place, the Illyrian Parlour. Ginger hair, fair skin, nervous hands, soft voice. He’d been in the Gelet city a while already, maybe a few turns of the Xiosphanti shutters, but they hadn’t done anything to alter him yet. “I can show you around, though I don’t know the city very well, because large areas of it are totally dark.” He sounded as though he must be smiling.

“Thanks,” Alyssa said. “Appreciate any and all local knowledge.”

Jeremy kept dropping information about himself, as if he didn’t care at all about covering his tracks. He’d been part of the ruling elite in Xiosphant, studying at one of those fancy schools, until he’d fallen in love with a person of the wrong gender. Fucking homophobic Xiosphanti.

So he’d gone underground, slinging coffee to stressed-out working people, and that had been his first real encounter with anyone whose feet actually touched the ground, instead of walking on a fluffy cloud of privilege.

The Gelet had cleared a room, somewhere in the bowels of their unseeable city, for human visitors, with meager lighting, and some packs of food that had come straight from the Mothership. Alyssa and Jeremy opened three food packs and traded back and forth, sharing the weird foods of their distant ancestors: candies, jerky, sandwiches, some kind of sweet viscous liquid.

They bonded over sharing ancient foods, saying things like: “Try this one, it’s kind of amazing.”

Or: “I’m not sure this stuff has any nutritional value, but at least the aftertaste is better than the taste.”

Alyssa chewed in silence and half-darkness for a while, then the pieces fell into place. “Oh,” she said to Jeremy. “I just figured out who you are. You’re the guy who tried to get Sophie to use her new abilities as a propaganda tool against the Vice Regent. She told us about you.”

“I know who you are, too.” Jeremy leaned forward, so his face took on more substance. “You’re one of the foreign interlopers who helped the Vice Regent to take power in Xiosphant. You stood at Bianca’s right hand, until she had one of her paranoid episodes. We have you to thank for our latest misery.”

Alyssa couldn’t believe she’d shared food with this man, just a short time ago.

“I’m going to go for a walk.” Once she’d said this out loud, Alyssa was committed, even though it meant getting to her feet and walking out into a dark maze that included the occasional nearly bottomless ravine. At least the Gelet would keep an eye on her.

Probably.

Alyssa tried to walk as if she knew where she was going, as if she felt totally confident that the next step wouldn’t take her into a wall or off the edge. She swung her arms and strode forward and tried not to revisit the whole ugly history of regime change in Xiosphant, and her part in it. She had trusted the wrong person, that was all.

What was Alyssa even doing here? All she wanted was to bury her past deeper than the lowest level of this city, but soon she would have the ability to share all her memories with random strangers. And she knew from talking to Sophie that it was easy to share way more than you bargained for—especially at first.

Alyssa might just reach out to someone for an innocent conversation, and end up unloading the pristine memory of the moment when she’d pledged her loyalty to a sociopath. The moment when Alyssa had believed that she’d found the thing she’d searched for since the Chancers fell apart, and that she would never feel hopeless again. Or Alyssa might share an image of the aftermath: herself wading through fresh blood, inside the glitzy walls of the Xiosphanti Palace.

“This was a mistake,” Alyssa said to the darkness. “I need to go home. Sophie will understand. Mouth will be relieved. I should never have come here. When they offer to change me, I’ll just say no, I’ll make them understand. And then they’ll have to send me home.”

She almost expected Jeremy to answer, but he was nowhere near. She’d wandered a long way from their quarters, and there was no sound but the grumbling of old machines, and the scritching of the Gelet’s forelegs as they moved around her.

 

“I’m not sure I can go through with this,” Alyssa told Jeremy, when she’d somehow groped her way back to the living quarters. “I can’t stand the idea of inflicting my past on anyone else.”

“I’m definitely going ahead with it,” Jeremy replied after a while. “When Sophie showed me what she could do, I couldn’t even believe what a great organizing tool this could be. This is going to transform the new Uprising, because people will be able to see the truth for themselves, without any doubt or distortion.”

Alyssa had wanted to avoid Jeremy, or shut out his self-righteous nattering. But they were the only two humans for thousands of kilometers, and she couldn’t go too long without another human voice, as it turned out.

“So you’re about to become one of the first members of a whole new species,” Alyssa said, “and you’re just going to use it as a recruiting tool for another regime change? So you can take power, and then someone else can turn around and overthrow you in turn? Seems like kind of a waste.”

“At least I’m not—” Jeremy barked. Then he took a slow breath and shifted. His silhouette looked as if he was hugging himself. “It’s not just about unseating your friend Bianca. It’s not. It’s about building a movement. I spent so much time in that coffeehouse, listening to people who could barely even give voice to all the ways they were struggling. We need a new kind of politics.”

“Bianca’s not my friend. I hate her too, in ways that you could never understand.” Alyssa found more of the rectangular flat candy and ate a chunk. “But if enough people become hybrids, and learn to share the way Sophie shares, we could have something better than just more politics. We could have a new community. We could share resources as well as thoughts. We could work with the Gelet.”

“Sure, sure,” Jeremy said. “Maybe eventually.”

“Not eventually,” Alyssa said. “Soon.”

“What makes you think a lot of people will buy into that vision, if you’re not even willing to go through with it yourself?”

Alyssa groaned. “Look. I’m just saying…You have to be doing this for the right reasons, or it’ll end really badly. You’ll lose yourself. I saw it again and again, back in Argelo, people burning up everything they were just for the sake of allegiances or ideology or whatever.”

They didn’t talk for a while, but then they went back to arguing. There wasn’t anything else to do, and besides, by the sound of it, Jeremy had been a good friend to Sophie, back when she’d really needed someone. So Alyssa didn’t want him to wreck his psyche, or his heart, or whatever, by turning his memories into propaganda.

“I can be careful.” Jeremy sounded as if he was trying to convince himself. “I can share only the memories and thoughts that will make people want to mobilize. I can keep everything else to myself.”

“Maybe,” was all Alyssa said.

These Xiosphanti believed in the power of repression, way more than was healthy. Or realistic.

“I wish we could ask the Gelet.” Jeremy was doing some kind of stretches in the darkness. “It’s a terrible paradox: you can only have a conversation with them about the pros and cons of becoming a hybrid, after you’ve already become a hybrid.”

Alyssa went for another walk in the chittering dark—she shrieked with terror, but only inside her own head—and when she got back, Jeremy said, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m going to regret this. Maybe I should stick to organizing people the old-fashioned way, winning their trust slowly. I don’t know. I’m out of options.”

Alyssa was startled to realize that while she’d been trying to talk Jeremy out of becoming a hybrid, she’d talked herself back into it. She needed to believe: in Sophie, in this higher communion. Alyssa kept dwelling on that memory of cowering in a hot basement with the other Chancers, and pictured herself sharing it with Sophie, or Mouth, or anyone. What would happen to that moment when it was no longer hers alone? She wanted to find out.

 

The Gelet surrounded Alyssa with their chitinous bodies and opened their twin-bladed pincers, until she leaned forward and nuzzled the slick tubes, the slightly larger cousins of the tendrils growing out of Sophie’s chest.

An oily, pungent aroma overwhelmed Alyssa for a moment, and then she was experiencing the world as the Gelet saw it. This Gelet showed her a sense-impression of a human, being torn open to make room for a mass of alien flesh that latched onto her heart, her lungs, her bowels. Alyssa couldn’t keep from flinching so hard that she broke the connection.

But when they offered her a choice between the operating room and safe passage home, Alyssa didn’t even hesitate before peeling off her clothes.

Alyssa had always said that pain was no big thing—like the worst part of pain was just the monotony of a single sensation that overstayed its welcome. But she’d never felt agony like this, not even on all the occasions when she’d been shot or stabbed or shackled inside a dungeon. Sophie had made this operation sound unpleasant, pretty awful, a nasty shock. But Alyssa started screaming cursewords in two languages before she was even half-awake, after surgery.

The pain didn’t get any better, and the Gelet were super-cautious with their hoarded sedatives, and Alyssa was sure something had gone wrong, perhaps fatally. All she could do was try her best to shut out the world. But…she couldn’t.

Because, even with her eyes closed and her ears covered, she could sense the walls of the chamber where the Gelet had brought her to rest, and she could “feel” the Gelet creeping around her, and in the passageways nearby. Her brand new tentacles insisted on bombarding her with sensations that her mind didn’t know how to process. Alyssa had thought of Sophie’s small tentacles as providing her with “enhanced threat awareness,” but this was just too much world to deal with.

Alyssa screamed until her throat got sore. Even her teeth hurt from gnashing.

She looked down at herself. The top part of her chest was covered with all of these dark wriggling growths coated with fresh slime, like parasites. Like a mutilation. Before Alyssa even knew what she was doing, she had grabbed two handfuls of tendrils, and she was trying to yank them out of her body with all her strength.

Alyssa might as well have tried to cut off her own hand—the pain flared, more than she could endure. Searing, wrenching. Like being on fire and gutshot, at the same time. And even though her eyes told her that there were foreign objects attached to her chest, her skin (her mind?) told her these were part of her body, and she was attacking herself. She nearly passed out again from the pain of her own self-assault.

The Gelet rushed over, three of them, and now Alyssa could sense their panic even without any physical contact. Her new tentacles could pick up their emotional states, with more accuracy than being able to see facial expressions or body language, and these Gelet were very extremely freaked out. Two of them set about trying to stabilize Alyssa and undo the damage she’d just caused to her delicate grafts, while the third leaned over her.

Alyssa looked up with both her old and her new senses. A big blunt head descended toward her, with a huge claw opening to reveal more of those slimy strips of flesh, and Alyssa felt a mixture of disgust and warmth. She didn’t know what she felt anymore, because her reactions were tainted by the sensory input from her tentacles. The Gelet leaning toward her gave off waves of tenderness and concern—but also annoyance and fear—and this was all too much to process.

“I would very much like not to feel any of what I’m feeling,” Alyssa said.

Then the Gelet closest to her made contact with her tendrils, and Alyssa had the familiar sensation of falling out of herself, that she’d gotten from Sophie so many times now. And then—

—Sophie was standing right in front of Alyssa, close enough for Alyssa to look into her eyes.

“What are you doing? How are you here?” Alyssa asked Sophie, before she bit her tongue. Because of course, Sophie wasn’t present at all. This was a memory or something.

Sophie was looking at herself, with her tendrils as fresh as the ones Alyssa had just tried to rip out of herself, and she was reaching out with her tentacles to “feel” the space around her, and Alyssa was doubly aware of Sophie’s happiness, thanks to her facial expression and all the chemicals she was giving off. At last, Sophie seemed to be saying. Thank you, at long last my head can be an estuary instead of just this reservoir.

Alyssa wanted to reach out for Sophie, but Alyssa wasn’t even herself in this memory. Alyssa was a Gelet, with a huge lumbering body under a thick shell and woolly fur, with a heart full of relief that this operation might be working better than anyone dared hope—

—Alyssa came back to herself, and looked at the Gelet leaning over her. The disgust was gone, and she “saw” every flex of the segmented legs and every twitch of the big shapeless head, as if they were the tiny habits of a distant family member.

“I’m sorry,” Alyssa said, hoping they understood somehow. “I didn’t mean to do that, it was just instinct. I hope I didn’t ruin everything. I do want to understand all of you, and go home to Sophie as her equal. I really didn’t want to, I’m sorry—I didn’t want to, it just happened. I’m sorry.”

Maybe if her tendrils weren’t damaged beyond repair, she’d be able to tell them in a way they understood. As it was, they seemed satisfied that she wasn’t going to try and tear herself apart again, and that they’d done everything they could to stabilize her.

Alyssa lay there cursing herself and hoping and worrying and freaking out, until she heard shrieks echoing from the next room. Jeremy. He’d gotten the procedure too, and he’d just woken up, with the same agony and loathing that had struck Alyssa. She wished she could think of something to say to talk him down. Or at least they could be miserable together, if she could talk to him.

This operation was supposed to help Alyssa to form connections, but she was more alone than ever.

 

The pain ground on and on. Alyssa would never get used to these stabbing, burning, throbbing sensations. Alyssa couldn’t tell how much of this discomfort was from the operation, and how much was because she’d attacked herself when she was still healing.

Alyssa rested on a hammock of moss and roots until she got bored and the pain had lessened enough for her to move around, and then she started exploring the city again. This time, she could sense the walkways and all the galleries, all the way down into the depths of the city, and she was aware of the Gelet moving all around her. She started to be able to tell them apart, and read their moods, and all their little gestures and twitches and flexing tentacles began to seem more like mannerisms.

One Gelet, in particular, seemed to have been given the task of watching over Alyssa, and she had a loping stride and a friendly, nurturing “scent.” (Alyssa couldn’t think of the right word to describe the way she could tell the Gelet’s emotions from the chemicals they gave off, but “scent” would do for now.) This Gelet stayed close enough to Alyssa to provide any help she needed, and Alyssa found her presence reassuring, rather than spooky.

Alyssa’s new friend had survived the noxious blight that had killed a lot of her siblings in the weave where all the Gelet babies grew. (But she was still a little smaller than all the older Gelet.) When she was brand new, the other Gelet had made a wish for her that boiled down to “Find reasons for hope, even in the midst of death.”

That thought reminded Alyssa of a nagging regret: she and Sophie still hadn’t succeeded in helping Mouth to figure out a new name, mostly because Mouth was impossible to please.

And this Gelet, whom Alyssa started calling Hope, had devoted most of her life so far to studying the high wind currents, the jetstreams that moved air from day to night and back again. Hope’s mind was full of designs for flying machines, to let people examine the upper atmosphere up close, and find a way to keep the toxic clouds away from the Gelet city. But Alyssa’s communication with Hope still only went one way. Her new grafts, the tendrils she’d tried to rip out, still hurt worse than daylight. She tried to shield them with her entire body, as if exposure to air would ruin them further.

What if they never worked right?

What if she could never use them to communicate, without feeling as if hot needles were poking in between her first few ribs?

That moment when she’d grabbed with both hands, tearing at her new skin, kept replaying in Alyssa’s head, and she wanted to curse herself. Weak, untrustworthy, doomed—she cringed each time.

Hope kept offering her own open pincer and warm tendrils, which always contained some soothing memory of playing a friendly game with some other Gelet, or receiving a blessing from the Gelet’s long-dead leader, in some dream-gathering. Alyssa kept wishing she could talk back, explain, maybe learn to become more than just a raw mass of anxiety with nothing to say.

At last, Alyssa decided to take the risk.

She raised her still-sore tendrils to meet Hope’s, and tried to figure out how to send, instead of receive. Alyssa brought the awful memory to the front of her mind: her hands, grasping and pulling, so vivid, it was almost happening once again. She felt it flood out of her, but then she wasn’t sure if Hope had received it. Until Hope recoiled, and sent back an impression of what Alyssa had looked like to everyone else, thrashing around, and the Gelet rushing in to try and fix the damage.

Alyssa “saw” them touching her body, in the same places that still hurt now, and felt their anxiety, their horror, but also their…determination? Bloody-mindedness, maybe. She had the weird sensation of “watching” the Gelet surgeons repairing the adhesions on her chest, while she could still feel the ache inside those torn places. And the strangest part: as she watched the Gelet restore her grafts in the past, Alyssa found the wounds hurt less fiercely in the present.

The pain didn’t magically fade to bliss or anything like that, but Alyssa found she could bear it, maybe because she could convince herself that they’d repaired the damage. She started thinking of it more like just another stab wound.

And once Alyssa decided she could use her new organs (antennae?) without wrecking something that was barely strung together, she started opening up more. She shared the memory of this caustic rain that had fallen on her in Argelo, which had seemed to come from the same alkali clouds that had doomed some of Hope’s siblings. And the moment when Sophie had first given Alyssa a glimpse of this city and the Gelet living here, suffused with all of Sophie’s love for this place. And finally, the first time Mouth, Sophie and Alyssa climbed onto the flat shale rooftops of the Warrens while everyone else slept, the three of them holding hands and looking across the whole city, from shadow to flame.

In return, Hope shared her earliest memories as a separate person, which was also the moment she realized that she was surrounded by the dead flesh of her hatchmates, hanging inside this sticky weave. Tiny lifeless bodies nestled against her, all of them connected to the same flow of nutrients that were keeping her alive. The crumbling skin touching hers, the overwhelming chemical stench of decay—with no way to escape, nothing to do but keep sending out distress pheromones until someone arrived to take away the dead. And then later, when Hope had left the web, and all the other Gelet had treated her like a fragile ice blossom.

Alyssa felt sickened in a deep cavity of herself, somewhere underneath her new grafts.

She tried to send back random scraps of her own upbringing, like when her mom and all her uncles died on her, or when she got in her first serious knife fight. But also, cakes, cactus crisps, and dancing. And kissing girls and boys and others, in the crook of this alleyway that curled around the hilt of the Knife in Argelo, where you felt the music more than you heard it, and you could get trashed off the fumes from other people’s drinks. Always knowing that she could lose herself in this city, and there were more sweet secrets than Alyssa would ever have enough time to find.

Soon, Alyssa and Hope were just sharing back and forth, every furtive joy and every weird moment of being a kid and trying to make sense of the adults around you—and then growing up but still not understanding, most of the time. The intricacies of the Gelet culture still screwed Alyssa’s head ten ways at once, but she could understand feeling like a weird kid, looking in.

Alyssa started to feel more comfortable with Hope than with 99 percent of human beings —until a few sleeps later, Hope showed Alyssa something that sent a spike of ice all the way through her. They were sitting together in one of those rooty-webby hammocks, and Alyssa was drowsing, finally no longer in so much pain that she couldn’t rest, and Hope let something slip out. A memory of the past?

No—a possible future.

In Hope’s vision, hybrid humans were moving in packs through this city, deep under the midnight chill. Dozens of people, all chattering with their human voices, but also reaching out to each other with their Gelet tendrils. This throng seemed joyful, but there was this undercurrent of dread to the whole thing, which made no sense to Alyssa.

Until she realized what was missing. Hope could see a future where the midnight city was filled with human-Gelet hybrids—but the Gelet themselves were gone.

 

“I have something I need to show you,” Alyssa said to Jeremy.

He jerked his head up and gaped at her, with his new tendrils entwined with those of two Gelet that Alyssa hadn’t met yet. He blinked, as if he’d forgotten the sound of language, then unthreaded himself from the two Gelet slowly and stumbled to his feet.

“Okay,” Jeremy said. “What did you want to show me? Where is it?”

“Right here.” Alyssa gestured at her tendrils.

Jeremy pulled away, just a couple centimeters, but enough so Alyssa noticed.

“Oh,” he said. “I hadn’t…I didn’t.”

“Don’t be a baby,” Alyssa said. “I know you bear a grudge, you blame me, I get it. You don’t want to let me in.”

“It’s not even that,” Jeremy stammered. “I don’t even know. This is all so new, and even just sharing with the Gelet is unfamiliar enough. Being connected to another human being, or another hybrid I mean, would be…plus I heard that you…I heard you did something. You tried to damage yourself. They won’t show me the details.”

Fucking gossip. Alyssa shouldn’t be surprised that the Gelet would be even worse than regular humans about telling everyone her business. The look in Jeremy’s eyes made her feel even worse than ever, and her scars felt like they were flaring up.

“This isn’t anything to do with me,” Alyssa said. “I promise, I won’t even share anything about myself, if you’re so worried about mental contamination.”

“I don’t mean to be…” Jeremy sucked in a deep breath. “Okay. Okay. Sure. Go ahead.”

Among the thousand things that the hybrids were going to need, some kind of etiquette would be one of the most important. A way to use their words to negotiate whether, and how, to communicate with each other non-verbally.

Jeremy leaned forward with his tunic open, and Alyssa concentrated, desperate to keep her promise and avoid sharing anything of her own. But of course, the more she worried about sharing the wrong thing, the more her mind filled with the image of herself inside the Xiosphanti Palace, tracking bloody footprints all over the most exquisite marble floor she’d ever seen.

No no no. Not that. Please.

“Wait a moment.” Alyssa paused, when they were just a few centimeters apart. “Just. Need to clear. My head.”

Curating your thoughts, weeding out the ugly, was a literal headache. If only Sophie was here…but Alyssa didn’t want to open that cask of swamp vodka, or she’d never conjure a clean memory.

Breathe. Focus. Alyssa imagined Hope’s scary vision, as if it was a clear liquid inside a little ball of glass, cupped in her palms. Separated from all her own thoughts, clean and delicate. She gave that glass ball to Jeremy in her mind as their tendrils made contact, and felt Hope’s dream flow out of her.

A few strands of thought, or memory, leaked out of Jeremy in return: a slender boy with pale Calgary features and wiry brown hair, pulling his pants on with a sidelong glance at his forbidden lover. Bianca and her consort Dash, smiling down from a balcony as if the crowd beneath them was shouting tributes, instead of curses. A woman holding a tiny bloody bundle on a cobbled side street, wailing.

“Ugh, sorry,” Jeremy said. And then Hope’s vision of a possible future sunk in, and he gasped.

“That’s…” Jeremy disconnected from her and staggered like a drunk, leaning into the nearest wall. “That’s…”

“I know,” Alyssa said. “I don’t think…I don’t think I was supposed to see that.”

“We can’t let that happen.” Jeremy turned away from the wall and sobbed, wiping his eyes and nose with his tunic sleeve.

“Our ancestors already invaded their whole planet. This would be worse.” Alyssa looked at her knuckles. “Way worse than when I helped those foreigners to invade your city. I’d rather…I’d rather die than be a part of another injustice.”

The two of them walked around the Gelet city for a while. Watching small groups of children all connected to one teacher, puppeteers putting on a show, musicians filling the tunnels with vibrations, a team of engineers repairing a turbine. A million human-Gelet hybrids would need centuries just to understand all of this culture. Sophie had barely witnessed a tiny sliver of this city’s life, and she’d spent way more time here than either Alyssa or Jeremy had so far.

“We can help, though.” Alyssa broke a silence that seemed near-endless. “They didn’t turn us into hybrids for our own sake. Right? They need us to help repair the damage that our own people did. Hope showed me some designs for new flying machines that could help them figure out how to keep the toxic rainclouds away, but they can’t stand even partial sunlight.”

Jeremy covered his face with one hand and his tendrils with the other. His new tentacles retreated behind his back, wrapping around like a pair of arms crossed in judgment. He shivered and let out low gasps. Alyssa wasn’t sure if he was still crying, or what she ought to do about it. She just stood there and watched him, until he pulled himself together and they went and got some stewed roots together.

“We’re not going to make it, are we?” Jeremy said to his hand. “We can’t do this. We won’t change enough people in time to help them. I know you did something terrible, right after they changed you, and I…” He couldn’t bring himself to say what came next. “What I did was much worse. I can’t. I can’t even stand to think about it.”

Between her new tentacles and all her ingrained old skills of reading people, Alyssa felt overwhelmed by sympathy for Jeremy. She could feel his emotions, maybe more clearly than her own, almost as if she could get head-spinning drunk on them. That sour intersection between fellowship and nausea. At least now she knew that she wasn’t the only one who’d had a nasty reaction after the Gelet surgery.

Jeremy was waiting for Alyssa to say something. She wasn’t going to.

After a long time, he said again, “We’re not going to make it.” Then walked away, still covering his mouth and tendrils, shrouding himself with all of his limbs.

 

Alyssa didn’t see Jeremy for a few sleeps.

Meanwhile, she was busy gleaning everything she could from the Gelet, even though her brain hurt from taking in so many foreign memories, and concepts that couldn’t be turned into words. She learned way more than she would ever understand. She kept pushing herself, even when all she wanted to do was to be alone.

Hope kept turning up, but Alyssa also got to know a bunch of other Gelet, most of them older but not all. Some of them had come from other settlements originally, and she caught some notions of what life was like in a town of just a few hundred or few thousand Gelet, where everybody really knew everyone else by heart. She got to witness just the merest part of what a debate among the Gelet would feel like.

In her coldest moments, Alyssa caught herself thinking, I need to learn everything I can, in case one day these people are all gone and my descendants are the only ones who can preserve these memories. That thought never failed to send her into a rage at herself, even angrier than when she thought she had ruined her own tendrils.

She thought of what Mouth had said to her once, about cultural survival. People died, even nations flamed out, but you need somebody left behind to carry the important stuff forward.

“You were right.”

Jeremy had caught Alyssa by surprise when she was dozing in a big web with a dozen Gelet, waiting for their dead Magistrate to show up. Jeremy seemed way older than the last time Alyssa had seen him, his shoulders squared against some new weight that was never going to be lifted away. He faced her eye to eye, not trying to cover any part of himself or turn aside.

“Wait. What was I right about?” Alyssa said. “The last time I won an argument, it involved handfuls of blood and a punctured lung. I’ve stopped craving vindication.”

“There’s so much more at stake than who sits inside that ugly Palace back home in Xiosphant.” Jeremy shook his head. “I came here hoping to find a new way to organize people against the Vice Regent, but we have more important work to do. You were right about all of it: being a hybrid isn’t just a means to an end, it’s way more important than that.”

“Oh.”

Alyssa looked at Jeremy’s shy, unflinching expression, and a wave of affection caught her off guard. They’d gone through this thing together, that almost nobody else alive could understand. She couldn’t help thinking of him almost as a sleepmate—even though they’d only slept near each other, not next to each other.

“We can’t just send people here and expect them to handle this change on their own. Anyone who comes here is going to need someone to talk them through every step of the process, someone who understands how to be patient,” Jeremy said. “So…I’ve made a decision. I think it would be easier to show than to tell.”

Alyssa understood what he meant after a moment, and she let her tendrils relax, slacken, so his own could brush against them.

She was terrified that she would show him the moment when she tried to rip these things out of her body—so of course that’s what she did show him. The screaming panic, the feeling of her fingers grasping and tearing, trying to rip out your own heart.

Jeremy stumbled, flinched, and let out a moan…and then he accepted Alyssa’s memory. And he gave back a brief glimpse of his own worst moment: Alyssa was Jeremy, lashing out, with a snarl in his throat, the heel of his hand colliding with the nearest terrified Gelet, a blood-red haze over everything. I’ll kill you all repeating in his head, I’ll tear you apart, kill you kill you. The new alien senses flooding into Jeremy’s brain, bringing back all the times when he’d needed to look over his shoulder with every step he took.

“It’s okay,” Alyssa said, wrapping her arms around Jeremy under the roots of his tentacles. “It’s really okay.”

“It’s not okay.” Jeremy trembled. “I’m a monster. At least nobody was badly hurt.”

“You’re not a monster. You were just scared. We both were.” Alyssa clutched him tighter, until he clung to her as well. “We prepared ourselves, but we weren’t ready. We need to make sure it goes better next time.”

“That’s what I was going to tell you about.” Jeremy relaxed a little. “This is what I decided.” He sent Alyssa another vision, this time of a future he’d envisioned.

Jeremy was here, still inside the midnight city, studying everything the Gelet could teach him. And then, when more humans arrived from Xiosphant, Alyssa saw Jeremy greeting them. Guiding them around the city, preparing them, talking them through every step of the way. The Jeremy in the vision grew old, but never went back to the light.

Alyssa had to say it aloud: “You want to stay here? Forever?”

“I…I think it’s the right thing to do,” Jeremy whispered. “I can organize, I can be a leader, all of that. Just down here, rather than back in Xiosphant. Humans are going to keep coming here, and there needs to be someone here to help. Otherwise, more people will…”

“More people will react the way you and I did.” Alyssa shuddered.

“Yeah.”

Alyssa found herself sharing a plan of her own with Jeremy. She imagined herself going back to Xiosphant, back to Sophie and Mouth—but not just helping them to convince more people to come here and become hybrids. She pictured herself carrying on Jeremy’s work: finding the people who were being crushed by all the wrong certainties, helping them to form a movement. Maybe opening someplace like that coffee shop where Sophie and Jeremy used to work. Giving people a safe place to escape from all that Xiosphanti shit.

“You were right too,” Alyssa told Jeremy. “People in Xiosphant need to come together. If they had someplace to go in that city, maybe more of them might be open to thinking about coming here.”

“Can you take care of Cyrus, though?” Jeremy sent a brief impression of the biggest marmot Alyssa had ever seen, purring and extending blue pseudopods in every direction. “I left him with a friend, but he needs someone reliable to look after him. Sophie already knows him.”

“Sure,” Alyssa said, hugging Jeremy with their tendrils still intertwined.

Alyssa stayed a while longer in the midnight city, healing up but also keeping Jeremy company. After she left, he might not hear another voice for a while—and weirdly, the longer Alyssa had these tendrils, the more important verbal communication seemed to her, because words had a different kind of precision, and there were truths that could only be shared in word-form. Alyssa introduced Jeremy to Hope, and explained in a whisper about everything she’d been through, and Jeremy introduced Alyssa to some of his own Gelet friends, too.

Her surgical scars settled down to a dull ache, and then slowly stopped hurting at all, except for when she strained her muscles or slept weird. The new body parts and what remained of the pain both felt like they were just part of Alyssa, the same way the Chancers and the Resourceful Couriers would always be. “I guess it’s time,” Alyssa said to herself. She walked up towards the exit to the Gelet city with Hope on one side, and Jeremy on the other, though Jeremy planned to turn back before they reached the exit.

Almost without thinking, Alyssa extended her tendrils so she was connected to both Jeremy and Hope, and the three of them shared nothing in particular as they walked. Just a swirl of emotions, fragments of memory, and most of all, a set of wishes for the future that were just vague enough to be of comfort. They stayed in this three-way link, until the first gusts of freezing air began to filter down from the surface of the night.

 

“If You Take My Meaning” copyright © 2020 by Charlie Jane Anders
Art copyright © 2020 by Robert Hunt

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