CW: firearms, war, trans chaser, emotional abuse, religion, cult abuse, radical feminism
A lilac-coloured crescent of coruscated matter, something in between hard flesh and soft stone, floats in the eye of a storm. From point to point it is almost long enough to scrape the edges of the churning red and black bruise of cloud. Lightning bolts reach out from the clouds to each of its points, several arcs at a time branching and reconnecting, like tethers attaching and detaching. Along the length of the crescent, translucent bubbles rise and fall like breathing, though each breathes in its own rhythm. The “sound” of the many pulses through the whole, a polyrhythmic heartbeat I can hear, feel, in something deeper than any sensory organ. I am connected to it even though, in the dream, I am seeing it all from outside. I am connected to it as they all are, all the beings I see as waving fronds and crosses and wings. Smaller than the bubbles, these line the surface of the crescent like microscopic hairs, though having seen them in real life I know they are closer to my own size. They aren’t the only things on the surface. In trenches or ridges between the bubbles, there are more things than I can process at once, scribbles by a mathematically prodigious child or supercomputer. There are more of the cross things than anything else, and they are everywhere, in places other life does not go. They move across its surface, very slowly, and intertwine fronds one to one or in groups, tips simply touching and mingling or in more intricate patterns like cat’s cradles, some so intricate you can barely tell the basic body shapes underneath. Others curl up and unfold their wings towards the window of sky, catching light on the shimmering membranes. Others are perfectly still, perched on cubes of light grey stone. The ones on the cubes are thinking more, experiencing more than the ones doing anything else. Some of them are larger than any one cross. The largest, bigger than any of the bubbles, big enough to be noticeable on the silhouette of the crescent against a particularly wide thunder-flash, is pinned down in a depression near the centre of the crescent by several slime-blobs at each of its corners (there are creatures of a similar slime in the forests, but none that size) and has about three dozen crosses clinging all over it, swaying. A number of creatures that look like vertical starfish attached at the lower two points to horizontal disks float deliberately around it. In incredibly intricate melodies and counterpoints, in voices like MIDI keyboards, they sing to each other. It is the only sound in the entire ecosystem aside from thunder and wind. It is as alien and out of place here as it would be on Earth. Through things like tiny spiral horns at the ends of their tendrils, the crosses sing back.
For a second, the singing stops.
It changes tone, becomes more hurried and dissonant as the star-things stop drifting and bobbing, floating still in place. The crosses stand still and tremble. But it is not them, it is the cube that is shaking. Vibrating at first ever so subtly, but then in more and more violent spasms as if to shake them off. Stars and crosses from across the surface gather around it, while other creatures as far as they can feel it run away. Some attach other blobs to it; things like fungi; things like plankton; things like electrodes. Others remove them. It stops, then starts again. The music goes back to normal, then buzzes with tension again. Repeat on time scales I couldn’t have made sense of watching were it not a dream; something like time-lapse; a sense of familiarity keeping me fixed on this one subtle, discontinuous, yet dreadful pattern out of all the other rhythms of colour and movement in what might as well have been a coral reef.
Then the singing slows down into a mournful keening harmony. It’s not even a harmony that on Earth would be classified as mournful, but it’s not necessarily a harmony that on Earth would be classified period. Yet it feels like the time when I was a kid and heard wolves from my bedroom and just thought about how lonely they must be in this world we had torn away from them.
Several of them disperse from the cube, flying across spaces vaster than they had appeared at first to other cubes, other concentrations of population on the floating crescent’s rugged surface. Others cling more closely to the sides of the cube, almost still. Cross-things collapse and run down its side in rivulets, setting themselves up at a nervous distance, while others, conveyed by star-things or other creatures? automatons? that look like winged drills, land on the cube and began interfacing with it, attaching smaller cubes or fractals of colour-changing ooze that spread and retract over its surface or branching structures like rooftop antennae. Action ripples over the surface of the floating giant, including to other cubes, which send out their own ripples of anxious motion, in which it is impossible to tell what is alive or simply moving. Tall structures so like trees I could have almost put the word to them fold up around the crosses now hanging from them, unfurling cells of crystalline armour that cluster in cones around their central axes. Even the pulsing of the bubbles speeds up and becomes irregular, and the whole bobs ever so slightly from end to end. The clouds churn, an uncountable baseline of time.
Then it happens, and it is so quiet I almost don’t notice it has happened in the midst of all the other commotion. The giant cube cracks, from top to bottom. Nothing on or around it moves. Increasingly it becomes apparent, as the keening of the star-things starts up again, worse this time, high-pitched and dissonant, that nothing still attached to it can move. It cracks again, intersecting the first, then again. A baleful blue light is seeping out through the cracks. In smaller fragments, then smaller, but still holding together - then there is a horrible snap, so loud it’s physically painful, and as the cube disintegrates into dust, the stone-flesh below it spasms. Things on its surface bend, fold, collapse as a ripple runs through it. A whole row of the bubbles tears, bursts. Every other cube cracks. The crystalline cones begin to lift off, as if pulled by invisible pulleys, towards the star-gap in the storm above, as does everything, winged or propellered or ballooned, that can sustain itself in the air. Like a cloud of spores from the surface - but not nearly enough. More spasms ripple through the surface. More bubbles blow open. There is now, bass drone to the stars’ soprano, a groaning rising from the crescent-shaped giant as a whole, and it is beginning to tilt towards one of its ends, the lightning bolts shooting out from its end more erratic, a constant mad discharge at one end and thin, faltering at the other.
Then I am up close to the crater where the cube had been - extending deep, at least as deep as another cube, as I can now see, into the thing’s body. I am there; I am in the scene; I am a cross-thing, waving, desperate, and a star-thing is descending hesitantly towards me. Most of them have left, spiralling up into the funnel of motionless air, dots of colour on the white stain of the galaxy’s arm. The air still has if nothing was happening, the storm not doing us the dignity of closing in on us. The star hovers near me, and I grab on. I relax the network of internal fluid and gas pressures that supports me in this shape and flow towards the matrix of small gaps in bottom of its disk. I spread throughout their body. My mind spreads throughout their brain. There is music everywhere. Everything I have just seen is gathered in one mournful symphony. I forget I can sense anything else, but take one last glimpse back behind me as they begin to lift off. The crescent, the creature, the city, the island, my world, is tipping on one end and sinking into the hole in the storm.
We had agreed to go back to the trap house an hour before his appointment with Alastair. At first it had seemed obvious to cancel, but Jax insisted Alastair was someone we almost had to tell about an alien - he was a big conspiracy theory and UFO buff. And he was also the one who had helped Jax get a lot of the chemicals, so I grudgingly admitted he could be a valuable ally. Alastair lived on his own in the middle of nowhere and could do all kinds of shady stuff without attracting suspicion. But I had never met this kid. All I knew was that he had gotten my brother involved in shit that was irresponsible even by my standards. I wasn’t going to expose our guest to another human without at least asking them. Telling Jax, like touching that puddle of prismatic sludge in the first place, had been a leap of faith I was immensely glad to have made, and had made my mind up upon waking with my head clear not to endanger by making any more. If I had been granted miracles, I thought, it was because I was someone who could be trusted not to take them for granted. Not to take anything for granted. And from the kinds of things Jax was telling me about Alastair, I had a compromise in mind.
Anyway, I could only care about Alastair so much. He wasn’t the person I was looking forward to getting to know.
I hadn’t heard them in my head since they had formed in the bathtub.
When we went into the bathroom they looked like the same as yesterday, except they seemed to have drooped or shrivelled up almost imperceptibly. I might not have noticed if I hadn’t seen so many of them in my dream, seen the subtle ways they moved while staying rooted in place. That was also how I knew they weren’t dead - because there were no signs of life in the way of movement. They weren’t doing well. “We’re going to need more gas within a few hours.”
“So, how do we talk to it?”
“Well… there’s only one way I’ve done it before.” I hesitated. I uncovered the gap where I had poured them in, which I had duct taped over. I lowered my hand in almost immediately, filling the space with my wrist, not wanting to let out more than a little of what gas was left. Maybe we should wait until we refilled the tank? but I didn’t want to do anything until I could talk to them again. I didn’t remember enough to know how to take care of them. The dream had made clear that I didn’t have the slightest frame of reference on my own.
But by that same token, I wondered momentarily, would they… understand?
The simple gesture of my hand curling, as if to take another human’s hand?
There was several second’s lag; and then the tendrils of one end of its cross extended, like plasticine squeezed out of a tube. Actually, I think I picked that metaphor because of its texture as much as anything else. It was a combination of soft and dry unlike any organic thing I had ever touched. But as we touched the ends rippled out into the prismatic liquid I remembered from last night, and as it spread over my fingertips, over my palm, up my wrist, I saw the rest of its body dissolving. I glanced back at Jax’s eyes. Hollow with shock. They were the last thing I saw.
- Are you… OK with this…
- What is this? Exactly? What are we doing? I want to help you, tell me what you need…
And then, the first thing I saw. It was like waking up again. I was hyper-aware of the light filtering in from the windows of the shack through the bathroom door. I was hyper-aware of the angles of everything around me. The colours of shadows. Spiderwebs. And of course, the bodies of my brother and his friend, which looked like new products of a character creator. But then I refocused on my brother’s eyes. His mouth hanging slackly open.
“It’s gone.” Then, after trying to form words a couple more times, “it’s inside you.”
They echoed in my head, and I conveyed the message.
And now there was nothing for Alastair to see when he got here, except what we let him.
“The… species this is…” I hesitated, recognizing the new information in my head, “is a sort of symbiotic fungus. They normally live on a kind of… giant floating whale thing but can live in the body cavities of nearly any other lifeform that isn’t toxic to it, connect their nervous system directly to the host’s nervous system, and adapt its own metabolic process to reconvert digested materials from the host’s digestive system, even if these were in their original form too alien for them to eat. They’ve adapted to several planets through this kind of symbiosis already. Although most of these were gas giants, and in our case our biologies are different enough that they’ll need to go back into their own body to breathe their natural atmosphere every 48 hours. And is going to need some other weird nutrients we’re gonna have to figure out how to make sooner of later.”
“Why are they here?” Jax cut to the chase. “Do they uhh, come in peace?”
That was… a sore word. They hadn’t known peace in so long they didn’t think about before.
(But there was a perverse relief, that I felt guilty the moment I noticed, that the concept, such a subtle mesh of a concept I would have had to write a paper to explain, was familiar to them. That we had one line of communication as straightforward as a word.)
You can have peace here, if you want,
Is this planet at peace?
Well… there wasn’t exactly a good answer to that, either, unfortunately.
(I had an ache where that concept was supposed to be, too.)
“…towards us, yes.” I paused and gathered my thoughts again. “Their ship malfunctioned at the edges of our solar system.” It had been a purely technical malfunction, but it had arisen as a long-term result of physical damage. “They were able to guide it into our gravity well before its systems would have given out and it would have been lost in space forever. Hence the… crash-landing we saw.”
Well, Jax hadn’t seen. I had been worried about what we would do about the pieces of the spaceship - there had been physical pieces in the field that night, the sort of glassy plates I’d seen on the tree-cone things in the dream - worried about Mom and Dad finding them and bringing first contact to an abrupt, violent end, like a parody of what they wanted to do to me - but when we got back, they had dissolved, or sank into the ground, or something. The plates were apparently an extremely simple liquid held together in a crystalline state by a kind of energy flow I had no idea if our science had words for; other parts, the “brain” of the ship, were fungal in a sense closely related to the alien themselves, and capable of the same dissolution, though they bonded to machines instead of lifeforms.
“So you weren’t… looking to come here. Do you know about Earth? Like, have you visited before? Are UFOs…”
Jax was talking to them now, and I had a brief crisis over whose voice to respond in. I couldn’t let them “directly take over” and answer questions as themselves if I wanted to - they didn’t know their way around my brain, my language well enough. I was still amazed I was able to piece together as much as I was; every sentence felt like winging an exam I’d crammed for the night before.
“It’s on the star maps, it’s listed as having… sentient life and technology,” (the concepts they used here were far more confusing), “but it’s not a planet anyone at least in the… fleet they’re part of has paid much attention to. Mostly if a planet hasn’t discovered interstellar travel yet, planets with interstellar travel don’t visit or pay attention. It’s not exactly like a Prime Directive, it’s just like… how people from big cities don’t come out here a lot, I guess.” It was a complete guess! I hadn’t even tried to explain urban-rural dynamics to them, and had no idea if they had picked up on them just from being in my head for a few minutes. But they essentially… shrugged when I said it, so maybe it was close enough? There was also something cultural about gas giant life not spending much time on land planets, but I couldn’t get this clear enough to include it.
Jax nodded. “Makes sense. Oh man… I can’t even think of questions to ask. Let’s wait until Alastair gets here. He’s going to know what to ask an alien.” He paused. “Pleeeaase let us tell him. Like, if I made first contact and didn’t tell him, he would
me. I think he’d consider it a fundamental breach of our friendship.”
I nodded. “We’ll tell him, but not show him. So if he believes us, he can work with us. But if he runs to anyone else, they won’t believe him.”
I had slipped into ‘we’ without awkwardness or even thinking about it. There was something exciting about it.
We (the visitor and I) slid onto the ratty couch.
Jax hadn’t even thought to ask: “Do you… does it… have a name?”
Their species “spoke” primarily by direct neural connections, so for them “words” were more or less the same as “concepts” - a sort of mental abbreviation. This came down remarkably close to speaking in language
I woke to the silver Jeep pulling into the driveway.
And a name
Alastair looked more like I expected than I had dared expect. With his bleach-blond bowl cut and heavy sunglasses, he looked like something out of a 90s gaming ad - which was probably his inspiration, I'd seen enough aesthetic posts like that on Tumblr, and his Hotline Miami shirt confirmed everything. His wrists and fingers so delicate (I knew girls who would kill for those hands) I couldn’t picture them on a gun, but there it was slung on a single leather strap over one shoulder - the Zenith Z-5RS.
a little when he introduced himself, holding his hand out stiff and trembling like it was paralyzed, looking up over the shades as they tilted down. “I’ve - heard a lot about you.”
God, did Jax respect me or not? Did
Well, Jax had said I wouldn’t have to worry around him. And if I didn’t have to worry, Jax wouldn’t have had to worry either… and without someone to not worry around, who knows how much he would have worried. About me. Because of me. On one hand it didn’t seem fair that I was something Jax couldn’t just keep silence about, because that made me something that he otherwise had to keep silence about, not for me but for him, a
; but better that he had talked to someone than collapsed into my parents’ way of seeing me to deal with the pressure. “I hope you didn’t hear anything that weirded you out.”
“Not at all!” At that he lowered his sunglasses from his eyes, sliding them down his straight nose like some kind of runway, and looked up at me, so straight up he didn’t quite meet mine. Staring somewhere between my hair and the sun he said, “I can see it.” “Huh? See what?”
“The real you. You still look like her.”
I recoiled and caught myself. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cough. He sounded… like a voice actor in a video game! Like a Metal Gear Solid voice actor! There was that kind of uncanny valley cadence like he didn’t quite understand what any of the words meant or didn’t, on some pre-linguistic level, intuit what a sentence was. But it hadn’t sounded prepared either. It had come spontaneously.
“I meant… about me and the alien.”
Jax hadn’t told him anything about the alien yet. I was changing the subject out of sheer awkwardness and nervous desire to move ahead with it.
He blinked. “Oh, you mean your… friend who makes all that space themed music? With the whole personal cosmology? That stuff’s really cool.”
He listened to Mai’s music?!
That ought to have been even more invasive, more of a red flag, but… honestly, 80% of my distrust melted away right then. My shoulders softened.
“I’m not talking about Mai. I’m hoping to tell Mai soon. But…”
“We made fucking first contact, man. For real. In this building.” Jax took over from me.
I watched him reset emotionally several times per second. Jax saying this was probably a lot heavier for him than me.
“Dead serious. You know I wouldn’t troll you about this.”
We retreated to the couch. Jax told the story as I’d told it to him, while I sank deeper and deeper down the cushions, staring up at the ceiling. Alastair looked periodically over at me, trying to gauge something of my reaction, and I tried to look more and more dead. Sleep was crawling back out from my hair.
He also asked about names a lot, as soon as I gave the alien’s name. Helpfully, their language was easy to translate as it didn’t use sounds or any other sensory signs and “named” things by associating them strongly with simple concepts, almost like a sort of mental hieroglyphics. The concepts, if I dwelt on them long enough, were
translatable into words. Their planet, for instance, was called Contemplation.
When Jax got to the explanation I had given for why they hadn’t visited Earth, Alastair stopped him. “I mean… tourists don’t really come here,” he added skeptically. “But the government doesn’t exactly leave us alone. Do you guys have like… deals with the government? Is it true that…” and he rattled off a bewildering list of conspiracy theories that all turned out to be, as I would have suspected at a glance, complete bullshit.
“The things out there aren’t like… aliens like you’ve heard of anywhere, or could think of.” I remembered the dream and momentarily shuddered trying to process it all. “They’re not guys with big eyes or reptilians or even tentacle monsters. A lot of them people wouldn’t recognize as
if we found them.”
“What about… the things Mai talked about?” He paused. “I mean, I don’t really know, like you do. I’ve just read the Soundcloud blurbs.”
I understood that he had switched to a track of disbelief, an entirely reasonable one - he was assuming, at least for good measure, that I was playing the same game as her - and, despite never having understood it as other than a game, despite her having been clear about this with me when she had taken me home and started telling me about her home among the magnetic stars on her ceiling, it hurt to deny it. If she had been there, I would have found another way; I wouldn’t have said it wasn’t real. Finally he narrowed his eyes and made eye contact with me (over his sunglasses). “What do they want? Do they want to go home?”
“They want…” And here an absolute storm of conflicted messages and desires hit me, some of which I wasn’t sure how to decipher. “I kind of want to be alone,” I confided. “It’s hard to absorb all this information while trying to answer questions. They have questions I want to answer. Can we just… hang out here for a while.”
“Got it. No problem. We were planning to play video games.”
This took me a second; there hadn’t even been a TV yesterday; but Alastair literally dragged a tiny archaic plastic cathode ray tube, along with a console that wasn’t the newest but wasn’t as old as the TV, in from the back of his truck (a substantial black pickup, the kind there were hundreds of men who’d look more grown into around here), and plugged it into the powerbar connected to the rusty generator.
“You were planning to show me the Zenith.” Jax sounded crestfallen.
“Do you wanna fucking scare the shit out of them first thing?” Alastair snapped back.
I couldn’t tell how seriously he was taking any of this; except I knew that if he listened to Mai’s music, he would play along even if he didn’t believe me, and if he took her music seriously, he would play along with the care and kindness of someone who believed all the way. I wasn’t sure I dared to hope for that much. (Hadn’t I had enough to hope?)
This seems way too casual.
The more I relaxed, the less relaxed I felt. And yet, I needed to relax.
Jax and Alastair slid an FPS game I hadn’t seen anyone play since high school into the console.
What do you want to know?
I asked Halation.
But for a while, they were silent. They were relaxing too.
I could feel their memories seeping into mine. Things that hadn’t made sense to me before, from the dream, from their explanations, made sense now, if I thought about them.
“Dude, you look uncomfortable,” said Alastair, and slid off his end of the couch. He wasn’t wrong; my butt was hanging in the air. He positioned himself cross-legged on the gravelly floor in a lotus position. He looked like a gamer Bodhisattva. His eyes were almost unblinkingly focused on the screen, while Jax’s bounced back and forth between me, him and the screen. “Jax, move over, let her lie down.” Jax pushed me in a way I wouldn’t have let anyone else push me and all the way over on the arm of the couch. I moved over to where Alastair had been and lay down across the cushions, my hair brushing Jax’s lap. Alastair had left almost no heat in the couch. Was he a zombie?
The soldier didn’t move on the screen, the world moved around him, hallways churning and clanking into place.
“There’s a Zenith
this game, isn’t there?” Jax mused.
“Z5P, not Z5RS.” Alastair’s eyes didn’t move from the screen; but his arm stretched back, and brushed my foot that was dangling from the couch.
Enemy cyborgs with grenade launchers for heads came around corners firing. When Jax and Alastair fired at them, the human jaws that jerked as their triggers unhooked bloodily from their barrels and the screen splattered red.
What is that.
It was the first outright question they had asked me since I had taken them into my body.
It’s… not real.
They had not-real things, although they typically plugged directly into them and fed the simulations directly into their nervous system. (Even at “lower” levels of technology, before their equivalent of the digital revolution or anything resembling “virtual reality”; there was a complex art history grounded in neurochemistry I wasn’t quite sure I could wrap my head around.) What are they… simulating. What are they doing.
What I dreamed about. What you… escaped. War.
Has it reached here too then.
There was a note of panic that made me almost sit up.
What side are you on.
The event I had seen in the dream had been an act of war, a war they had hoped wouldn’t come to their planet, Contemplation. The floating reef-whale (I choose to call it that because it was a single enormous animal, but one so deeply symbiotic it mostly lived off the waste and decay of the lifeforms that used it as an anchor in the atmosphere) they called home was a kind of religious community - everyone who lived there, apart from the wildlife, had lived a life of peaceful scientific, contemplative and poetic dedication to the tenets of the dominant religion - or something like a religion - on Contemplation, which they called Meteorology. The cube that had exploded, a sentient mineral quantum supercomputer, had been tapped as an asset by an “informational life” spy-form from another arm of the galaxy that had been dormant in it since it had been embedded in the reef a hundred years ago, and had sabotaged its own physical form along with every computer on the reef’s network (computers powered by, and thus deeply enmeshed in, the reef’s electrical circulation system) in exchange for being copied to a vastly more powerful network in Contemplation’s rings. (The network had been disintegrated with sonic mining pulses in retaliation.) The suicide mission had been ordered to halt the research occurring on this particular reef - research the visiting Ahasurunu scientists (the star people) had finally found what seemed like a quiet, unsuspected place to conduct, on the theoretics of developing a signal-jamming field to block something called the Causal Adipose. This blocking field, the Ahasurunu hoped, would help bring calm the conflict the Adipose had spread across the galaxy.
Not the same war. We have others.
The panic was replaced by shock.
Lots of them.
I floated the most common explanations of war - not that I found these especially convincing myself - through my head to see if they were even familiar. They weren’t. Nobody on Contemplation, or the rest of the galaxy was that was familiar to Halation, had fought a war over territory, religion, ethnicity, political ideology or resources not only in Halation’s lifetime (about 150 years - of an expected 500 or so) but in all the history they knew since interplanetary contact. Alastair’s question about interstellar empire had been understandably confusing to them (though they had ultimately mapped it to what Contemplation held over its local nebula - a primarily diplomatic monopoly of resources and decision-making, maintained in large part by strategic symbiosis). The factors I had listed were the stuff of ordinary politics, but this was conducted diplomatically, under the shared assumption that the galaxy had more resources than life that needed them; that in any sufficiently contentious territorial dispute, the side that backed down first could easily go somewhere else; that cultural differences bordering on incomprehensibility were the fabric of interstellar relations, and anyone who was uncomfortable with them could stay on their own home planet and not have to deal with them. And class warfare - another kind I was especially personally curious about - was not unheard of but fought largely with subtle control of information networks, more and less hierarchical and horizontal architectures fighting through local argument and proprietary code for control of enormous resource flows that were, ultimately, destined for everyone because it would be both an outrage, a blow to legitimacy, and a waste if anyone didn’t get a cut. War was a historical tragedy or, more recently, a specific and seemingly unavoidable, despite everyone’s best efforts, response to the Causal Adipose, which represented an exceptionally destabilizing combination of all factors.
I felt… simultaneously elated and deeply humiliated as this information sank into my brain. On one hand the politics I had known I would be ridiculed for every time I ventured outside of specific social niches all my adult life were vindicated. War, slavery, nations, armies, empires weren’t the basic cost of living in a world of other people whose views or needs or intentions might be different than yours. Aside from whatever this Causal Adipose was,
the universe looked like Mai thought it did.
In light of that, how was I supposed to explain anything about humanity? That this land we were living on, we were living on because of a war - hundreds of years ago, but only a generation ago to one of their species - where the last time members of our species discovered a new world with new people, they had stolen their land and exterminated them with diseases and sent them to schools to unlearn their culture by force because of differences as small as skin colour? That my entire life, my country - founded on this genocide - had been at war with a series of countries whose resources dwarfed its own, because when I was an infant, three thousand innocent civilians had died in an attack, not unlike the one I’d dreamed, on two buildings by religious extremists who didn’t even represent those countries and had been funded and armed by our government to fight
country? (Not to get into any of the conspiracy theories…) And of course, that the chemicals currently keeping Halation alive not only had recently been destined for the production of drugs we used not really for pleasure the way, in my best memories, I remembered pleasure, but to numb ourselves to death (because - there were reasons you numbed yourself to death out here), they were produced on the other side of the planet in huge metal hives by thousands of tonnes a day by same workers every day, who might spend their whole lives there, not because they were needed for any special skill or expertise but because they never were rewarded with enough tokens of their right to exist as determined by a committee of faraway people they had no control over (depending on what part of the planet you were born in, different degrees of ‘no control’) to do more than trade them for the food and shelter they needed to live, as well as a variety of technological luxuries made by people in the same conditions they couldn’t simply opt to forgo because outside of cities built to the specifications of more decision makers faraway, they couldn’t obtain food or medicine or physical necessities, most of the land where you could live self-sufficiently was hopelessly polluted and/or set aside for other such projects by the people who were allowed to make decisions about the use of the machines that made the things like plastics and chemicals and the hormones I’d used to change my body to what I felt like it always should have been because there were ways you could only live if you had certain hormones in your body, that were exchanged for tokens representing the hours the workers used the machines and given back to the workers but less than the hours they spent using the machines so the people who controlled them could exchange them for more machines so they could be given more tokens in exchange for the products by workers for other people with machines and -
I stopped. Halation had been silent with horror for several minutes.
Yeah. I’ve felt that way a lot.
While I had been… thinking, Alastair had backed up into the couch; the hair of the back of his head was now brushing my shoulder. And his arm was brushing my foot that was dangling off the couch - it had to be deliberate - it was at a subtly, but detectably unnatural angle - but his face didn’t budge an inch from the game to indicate any cross-purposes.
Have you lost anyone? Have you seen people die? Have you… killed?
I had lost people, not in war like on the screen in front of us, not in war like in my dream last night but to this world, to this interlocking structure of endless quiet wars it was made up of.
I don’t know if you can understand - my family, by the standards you’re used to, is a war. The city I lived in to get away from it is a war. We have peace, but it’s a different kind of peace, it’s a getting used to it.
But then, that had been even more true for Mai than for me, and one of the things she’d told me she reminded herself to be grateful for was that she’d never seen war. She’d brought that up when I had been talking about
She’d read the newspapers, every single war story, when she was a kid. And then at 13, when she’d started cutting herself, she’d stopped -
We’ve suffered differently. I understand and I don’t understand.
Tears sprang to my eyes. No one was looking at them.
I idly moved my foot around Alastair’s elbow, prodding at it. Without shifting the position of the controller he took one hand off it, gripped my heel and started rubbing. I was startled to feel a practised awareness of the bones, soft points, pads. I relaxed into it.
The Causal Adipose was alien science that made my head spin, but it seemed to amount to a means of instantaneous communication, independent of space or the speed of light, that worked by modifying reality itself - or the “low-level information processing of space”, whatever that meant - at connected nodes. Primarily this was used by computational lifeforms, which could use it to transmit themselves across space and reproduce themselves. Many computational networks regulated these capacities closely - their capacity for endless growth and replication led to precarious balances of power, usually sustained over millennia. And bodied civilizations feared the advantages it would give computational networks that used it. The alteration of reality itself was controversial at the level of even the baseline ethical and philosophical principles by which interstellar differences were mediated. At the furthest extremes, both sides saw each other as an apocalyptic threat to cosmic civilization itself - the Adipose had been invented to compensate for cosmological inflation, which would eventually make all interstellar contact impossible, but with sufficient energy its mechanism could theoretically have far more dangerous effects on the space around its nodes than mere communication necessitated. It was a lot more complicated than that, like the War On Terror or World War 1 was more complicated than I… even knew how to explain in this half-deliberate confusing way yet. “Hey what the fuck are you doing?” Jax’s voice broke the non-silence.
“I told you about the massage shit I was learning on Youtube bro. I told you I would do it on you but you wouldn’t let me.”
“Yeah because it’s gay as hell and that’s my sister.”
“Leona, tell him this isn’t gay.”
“Yeah dude, you should let your bro play with your feet, obviously, what are you, a hick?” If I had been in a different state of mind I might have kicked Alastair in the face by now, I had done as much over less and at an earlier stage of my life considered myself obligated to, but the sheer weirdness, the hiccuping laughter rising in my chest, my brother’s face shifting several times per second, were all anchors in being human I appreciated right now.
It was over in a second anyway. Jax bent down, dropping his controller outright, and crossed his arms across Alastair’s throat, pushing his pale neck up into his chin, his forehead rolling up with strain and destabilizing his glasses. “H-hey, fuck, now this is gay, man!”
“It’s a massage, how am I doing?”
When I started to seriously worry for Alastair’s safety he let go. The game lingered on an idle screen - one of them, I hadn’t been paying attention, had managed to pause it before the outburst. “Do it to me more, man,” Alastair smirked. Jax backed noncommittally away.
I half expected to have to explain human family dynamics and sexuality and gender to Halation (or at least find out how much they had or hadn’t parsed already) but instead I pulled myself back up on the seat, into the position Alastair had been in before moving for me, and spoke without premeditation: “Hey, pass me a controller.”
“Oh hell yes, we’re gonna have an alien gamer!”
Halation, to my surprise, wanted to play themselves; I had to explain that the controllers didn’t connect directly to my nerves like their technology, that there was no way they had the familiarity with a human body to develop the reflexes for video games, for translating the abstraction of movement on the screen into the physicality of wrists and thumbs. (It had taken me ages;
had felt like an alien playing both these and sports, relative to the facility I had with clambering around brush and climbing trees; I had been worse at it than other kids, other boys especially, but I could hold my own now.) I could teach them, but the best they’d be able to do for a while is give me commands.
“Didn’t you have like. An alien gamer shirt.”
“No I just saw it on a dead webpage I couldn’t order from, but I used it as my Steam profile pic for a month, remember?”
The thing you’re pointing at the enemies is a gun. I can show you a real one in a bit. It uses explosives to fire projectiles at incredible speeds. You don’t have… anything that does that? That you point at a thing and kills it? The country I’m living in was colonized using these. Sometimes kids take them into their schools and shoot everybody they see until they get shot by cops or shoot themselves.
No, nothing here has them for heads or hands or dicks yet, the enemies in the game aren’t real.
Wait, I should probably switch out for the grenade launcher here.
We ended up hovering on the inventory for almost five minutes. Jax and Alastair had gotten pretty advanced in this game - further than I’d ever bothered to get - and accumulated a stockpile of obscure weapons: flechettes, railguns, gatlings. All of which Halation wanted me to explain - a few of which I had to explain were just made up, or theoretical. All the while I was feeling something I hadn’t felt since the very first time I’d looked at them as a kid. That feeling when trying to imagine how something works is like looking at the shadow of mountains in the sunset. When it starts to eclipse that feeling, even, and you start staring into your tablet screen on long rides… (car rides. the thing I took you here in last night. transports just a few people at speeds up to 150 miles per hour, higher if you really gun it; driven by internal combustion engines that are fucking up our atmosphere with CO2 emissions right now, there are designs that don’t do this but we mostly aren’t using them yet because…)
That feeling when you’ve started to think about death, and you’ve been thinking about it since before you remember thinking, since the monsters under your bed and stepping on ants and you-kill-me-I-come-back-to-infinity-plus-one, but you’ve experienced it a few times now just from the very edges, grandma, your friend’s dog, your parents talking about the news, you start to realize it has a depth, a depth deeper than sleep, a depth that can make you sick, but it’s a depth you can peer into at any time, that books and games and newspaper clippings and Wikipedia articles are able to measure in numbers, kill count, high score, casualties, 25,904 dead or missing, 43,557 wounded, that it has something to do with power, or that power, which killing only used to be a metaphor for, has something to do with death, with the ability to make a hole in the world, and stare into it whenever you want, of course if it was real right there in front of you would get sick, but it is real just on the other side of a thin veil, and you want to see how thin it can get…
(In the meantime, Jax had laid back on the couch, a look of worry on his face more raw and real than any emotion I had seen him display since before puberty, and Alastair, my opponent, was rubbing with a free hand between his toes.)
After firing to our hearts’ content we sat down on a ring of stumps with our shoulders on our knees. I was glad no one seemed to want to go back inside because Halation was fascinated by everything out here, the sound of birds, the colour of light through the clouds, the shape of fallen shreds of cedar, the scales of bark and torn clover on my shoes, the green and yellow of everything, how few colours compared to back home, like a filtered photograph, and how little movement, but every ambiguous startle of it a signal, a signal nine times out of ten I couldn’t read.
“OK, at the rate that thing is breathing -“
“Can you not call them that?”
“Right. Sorry. Are they OK with person? Or is there word for…”
My brother’s cluelessness didn’t feel the same to you as it did to me, as cringe-inducing as it was to recognize, and as awkward as it was to envy you this - yes, you owed him your life maybe even more than you did me, but even in a situation where my literal life was on the line I don’t think I’d be able to let go of this kind of resentment. And that was me deliberately shutting out the nagging voice that tried to compare… Technically, I’d always theorized, average people, not government or corporate weirdos but Jax types, would be better at first contact with an alien species than with a trans person because they’ve seen it in media so many times. But that was the kind of analysis to apply long after the fact, not while you’re figuring out how to keep someone alive. Which I guess means now but nah, I’ll wait till I edit all these to publish some day when I’m retired on a distant planet.
“At the rate they’re breathing, we’ll be through all my supplies in a week. I can get more but I don’t know how we’re gonna afford it. Alastair, I know you probably don’t wanna give it to the feds, and Leona you probably don’t want to either, but what else are we gonna do with this? We could make hella money. Leona, do you know anyone at your university, like a real lab or something? Or Alastair, do you know like… weird alien researchers?”
“If you give them to anyone legitimate, you’re giving to the feds.” Alastair would not brook any ambiguity on this. “Nobody has the right to keep an alien to themselves. Now, which feds is an open question, if you don’t believe they’re all working for the same people. I don’t know if you have any geopolitical loyalties…”
I sighed. I knew people who would swear by the anti-imperialist bona fides of Russia and China but I’d never been able to make it click in my head. And would that even matter in a case like this? “We need to wait for their decision on this kind of thing, before anything else. And keep her safe as long as she needs to decide. And if we can’t, then…”
Was I being selfish? Was I afraid of handing over the first thing that had ever made my life special? But just handing them over to any old human would be dangerous - not just to her. They didn’t seem to have much in the way of weapons, but the cube supercomputers and force fields and asteroid disintegration meant they weren’t technologically primitive - and what if their brain-symbiotic biology could be used for mind control or surveillance? Maybe to them - the human track record with unfamiliar civilizations was something I had only begun to broach.
But there was one thought that they kept floating to the forefront of my mind that I didn’t want to admit, that I didn’t want to say out loud because I didn’t know what to do with it
(I’ll figure out what to do with it, once I understand your world and you understand mine):
I want allies.
If they wanted allies, we would have to go to the feds. Somebody’s feds. Sorry you ended up with me then - I’m probably the last person on Earth to do that. But please trust me -
“If we wanna do anything like that, I think we should make it public - at least then the world’s eyes would be on us. That would be the best leverage I can think of. But it also opens us up to the most danger. If we hand them over privately, on the other hand, we need some way to have terms. Some way to have leverage.”
“And what would those ‘terms’ be, aside from like, just treating them decent? I’m sure they’d give us money and shit, but, what do we want out of this?”
They both turned to look at me.
“I’m working on that,” I began slowly. “But we definitely don’t want the government sitting on us before we decide.”
“I know places that have some of the chems we need.” Alastair lifted his glasses dramatically. “If we like, steal them.”
“You mean like, businesses? Or…”
“Nah.” He grinned. “Other dealers.”
“Oh man.” Jax gulped. “We’d really be breaking bad this time.”
I raised my eyebrow. “Don’t you even want… proof this alien exists before you do something like that?”
“I mean.” He paused. “I’d love to see it. And if this is real, I feel like I will at some point, when you’re ready. But in the meantime” - he bent down and - lifted my hand - “I’ll do it because I think you’re cool, and I think it’s cool that you came up with this, if it’s a LARP or whatever” - and kissed it - and immediately I curled my fingers and drove it into his mouth. He spat blood and smiled. Boundaries established, I smiled back.
Dad was at home again. Two days in a row seemed ominous - until Mom reminded me, shortly before dinner, that she had wanted to show him a recipe I’d sent her a year ago. It was an obscure, extremely spicy Mexican pork shoulder stew Mai had shown me how to cook when we were living together. Mai was an endless, and still growing, repository of recipes but whenever she wanted to try anything new she'd invite me to cook it with her the first time; eventually I’d end up cooking it the rest of the time, sometimes while she struggled to get out of bed, agonizing out an addition to a loop every half hour. Cynical as the ploy for bonding was, I had to admit it did feel kind of good to have actually brought at least one of the kind of Campbellian boons back from the Big City that Jax had, most acutely, been expecting. (Admittedly, she had no idea that a trans lesbian lover was responsible for it.) And I didn’t have the energy left to feel bad about not having helped her cook it - which would have drawn Dad’s attention to another thing effeminate about me, anyway. (Though I did feel a little bad about letting her present it without attribution.)
This forced me to bring up with Halation something that I could tell they were aware of, just from its saturation in my thoughts, but wasn’t sure they had connected to my species’ embarrassment of atrocities: we were descended from pursuit predators. And eventually, we had given up pursuing and trapped our prey. I wasn’t particularly a fan of any of the social arrangements, inter- or intraspecies, that had followed this decision but I wasn’t a vegan. I had never bought the biological explanation of violence myself (look what good biological explanations had ever done me), but it didn’t seem implausible to them; apparently social species being descended from predators of any sort was rare in the universe, not to mention that many ecosystems had evolved without them entirely. Nonetheless, there were predators in the galactic polity; most had moved on to synthetic meat, and it was frowned upon in their specific ~religion, but Contemplation had not elected to interfere in its ecosystems to uplift their predatory animals, as some had, either, and Halation had merged with a predator, and “eaten meat”, in a “biology class” a long time ago.
The mood at the table was genuinely relaxed up to and through the saying of grace. While I was sure he would see through the symbolism, I even allowed myself to hope mere curiosity would tame him. It very well could have, until I bit in. I hadn’t eaten this in a
time - since I’d given Mom the recipe, practically - and I wasn’t that adventurous an eater. The first time I failed to swallow was, I supposed, within my margin or error for involuntary reactions - the second time, I realized the panic seizing my skull was not
- What’s wrong?
- That’s poisoned.
I gulped - tried to hide my gulping - hovered my fork awkwardly over the plate -
- Oh no. I thought you could break down - I’m so fucking dumb -
- No. It’s poison to you.
“No worries, I think [deadname]’s just lost in thought.” Jax giggled.
My dad was crazy, but he wouldn’t
me, right? My
My mind raced - and theirs was racing faster. (I could tell it was as awkward for you as it was for me - and you were just as afraid of making a wrong guess.)
Your body’s telling me it’s poisoned. You don’t feel it? Your
telling me this.
I could feel it was spicy, yes - very spicy - so spicy it felt like it was searing my whole body, every cell.
“Ha ha! It’s not great, but I’ve forced down so much worse. Come on, did that liberal university make you so sensitive you can’t swallow food like we made you do when you were five?”
“Dear, he might be having an allergic reaction. Or some kind of… episode. It might be something to do with…”
“It was always a fight, remember? We still have pictures of that time you spewed carrots across the table at Moira’s wedding. Why don't we get those out, or is that going to offend you?”
“OK Dad, seriously.”
At that second the last bolus they’d managed to hold in my throat leapt down my esophagus in outrage. I slammed my palms on the table: “I just swallowed wrong, God!” Even Dad was silent; somehow, impressed, I wasn’t sure by what. Then I took a swig of milk like a pirate downing rum.
I ate the rest of the meal without issue. Halation’s warning receded into the back of my mind as it became clear nothing was happening to me. Except… through the entire rest of the meal a dark feeling rose in me. At first I thought it was just defiance at my own humiliation, at my family. But as I chewed through those feelings , and watched the dinner cool from a ceasefire to a genuine, if self-enclosed peace, I realized it was indistinguishable from when we were shooting, from my sternum resonating with recoil. That depth at the bottom of my stomach. That shadow dwarfing me, and my own shadow dwarfing them all at the table.
Helping hosts detect poisons and toxins that they weren’t necessarily genetically wired to react to was one of the symbiotic advantages of their species; as well as aiding to trigger the production of certain hormones (I tried not to start).
But they had misunderstood. I had reacted to the poison already.
You ate the poison, because it felt good.
I struggled not to burst out laughing.
Did you know they came to this continent looking for this. Did you know there’s a book about human civilization once it’s spread across the stars you’re from, and the catchphrase of it is,
the spice must flow.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was the first part I wanted to tell Mai. I thought I would need to spend as much time with her as Halation spent with me to do justice to everything she’d want to know, everything she’d love knowing even if she couldn’t think to ask. And because of that, I was actually afraid to face her on Skype. When I mentioned it to Alastair he was surprised I hadn’t told her already; he seemed almost ashamed to know before her. (I still couldn’t bring myself to ask what exactly her music meant, could possibly mean, to him.) I didn’t call her that first night. I didn’t call the night after that. By a third night I was starting to feel desperate and realized I actually couldn’t call her, so I would have to write a letter. I needed, she would need that deliberateness and the weight of silence to process what was happening. At least, until I could see her -
could see her - face to face. And I would do that, once I knew what to face her as.
As much as this had been a miracle for me, I felt it had to have been a miracle for her too. For her more than me. Who could have possibly justified this happening to me instead of her? Well, Halation told me, nobody could have, why would you even think of it that way? and I had to believe the ideas of miracle and providence and God, which I didn’t believe in, but which had happened to me anyway.
Their consciousness exhaled with startled understanding, and told me about Meteorology.
The word had been floating around my head since I had first met Halation; and ideas that seemed connected to it, but that I couldn’t get a solid grip on, they were too diffuse and wide-reaching without anchoring in anything I was familiar with at even a single point of literal translation. “Meteorology” is the most direct translation for the thing that comes closest to a religion on Contemplation, but they have their own word for the study of weather without the capitalization, and the form I’m capitalizing in this text is a loanword - well, in a weird sense, because the languages are completely different even in physical expression, but it’s a complicated translation of a word that means “Meteorology” in the language it comes from, which is Ahasurunu. Most loanwords from Ahasurunu, a language expressed primarily as musical phrases, Halation likes to translate into my language through the same algorithm I don’t quite understand as nonsense phrases, for instance “Ahasurunu”, but I didn’t think “Meteorology” would have quite the same impact without the meaning, and it reminds me of how we met, and the way the weather is changing here and we can change it, and what things coming from the sky mean to Mai and me, what the sky means when you’re stuck on land, which is different from when you live in it.
Actually, you’ll want to read this, won’t you, so I suppose this can double as my letter from now on. When I grasped Meteorology, Mai, I knew it was the first thing I had to tell you about. Well, apart from all of it, but if I had to pick one thing for you to understand about the world of the stars, before anything else, it would have to be that, wouldn’t it. I didn’t grasp it until they told the story, once I had showed them two of your concept albums and a few episodes of your favourite anime, and they had understood
oh, your species likes stories,
likes stories, that’s good because we have a lot of stories.
The story was the first thing since the dream I dove into in that level of detail, completely giving up any attempt to translate or anchor myself. What’s remarkable is that it had that level of detail in the first place, because it wasn’t a memory of Halation’s, or even a memory Halation would have been capable of experiencing with their own senses. In fact I had to adjust to another entirely unfamiliar set of qualia to understand it, but they were overlaid with Halation’s like a familiar city with your bird’s eye view of its map. Halation had spent years in the body of the Ahasurunu missionaries on the reef, learning what the stories they had long been familiar with in adapted, conceptual outline meant to the people who had first experienced them (although to consider that original sense-meaning more authentic, the Ahasurunu insisted, would be more than anything against the spirit of Meteorology).
The Ahasurunu, on their hand, do not have the sense-sharing capacities the people of Contemplation do. The ideas and stories of Meteorology have only been transmitted between them in their musical speech. There is a sacred song of Meteorology, the Precepts, which I heard in its original musical form, which Halation has not only memorized but preserved in what they imprinted of a native speaker’s understanding of its meaning (though this they learned not from the Ahasurunu but from their own people - the ability to directly transmit mental states liberates them of the need to “translate” originals at all). The legend of Mira has no authorized version; successive generations of Ahasurunu storytellers and historians have elaborated on it, telling perhaps a more accurate version than would have been possible to tell at the time; and the vivid, sensory experience of it Halation shared with me was their own co-creation with these generations. Without the legend I might never have understood the Precepts (though, Halation wants me to insist, I don’t understand it yet and won’t until its whole history stretches out before me; the “story” of Meteorology is that of its elaboration throughout the galaxy).
Once again, the dream begins in a storm. The Ahasurunu float on dense, complex wind-currents in the clouds of a half-gaseous, half-oceanic moon called Orchid. When they do not gather in calm patches like oases, where they are capable of moving mostly independently, they are deeply dependent on these currents to move from place to place, to receive nutrients from other life-forms that live in the storm, to carry their songs across long distances to each other. However many words any culture on Earth has for snow or sand, Ahasurunu have more for wind. Indeed, they do not even have words; they have names. Every weather phenomenon regular enough to be relied upon and identified from one Ahasurunu to another has a name of its own, as an individual. (Only a language as schematically minimal as Ahasurunu, with trillions upon trillions of possible combinations of notes and tones, could adapt to such a proliferation of entities; without this conspiracy of necessity and possibility, Meteorology might never have arisen.) Respect for this principle is why, instead of the mental shorthand of concept-names Contemplation imposes on just about everything, Halation gives me most Ahasurunu names as unique sounds, translating the notes through some slapdash syllabary. When I meet you, I’ll make sure to have them give you the actual notes. I’m sure you could realize them beautifully through one of your trackers. For now, call the storm Hayashura.
This storm is a different colour, a rich indigo shot through with streaks of lilac violet, fletched with spontaneous eruptions of a golden foxfire. It is as full of life as the reef on Contemplation, but most of it hidden, even from the low-range radar and complex scent Halation translates for the sake of my memory into sight; flashes of dark symmetrical petal-wings vanish in a twist of impenetrable turbulence; crystalline balloons glint in clearings of dull orange sun before a gauze of cloud drifts over them again; call-and-response waves of gurgling rise and fall from humps of white cloud that drift past. The most constant thing in sight, the centre of my world, is a single stream of lightning, flickering on and off but never moving far from a single updraft clearing, lancing from miles above to miles below.
Inviter of life. Great schools of creatures that resemble koi pennants, except split into two or three long ragged tubes at the back, cluster up and down around the white tear in the cloud and its pillar of fiery yellow-white backlight, like sprays of leaves off a narrow, bending trunk. They slide up and down, seeming to anticipate new branches as they split off the current, dart in and scatter as the stream of lightning is renewed in a slightly different place. The closest wrap around and circle it. Here and there, one falls from the sky.
But slightly further around the lightning, I begin to discern a consistent shape, a structure amid the clouds. A ring of what resembles a number of giant Venus fly-traps, connected like kudzu, with iridescent webbing stretching out between their dendrites and crystalline fruiting bodies along their stems that seemed to be made of the same material, which also stretched out in wings or sails that balanced them in the clouds. When one of the fish fell from the lightning the reef below stretched out to catch it, digesting them in bladders of blue fluid in their stems.
Among these - this reef or forest - the Ahasurunu float and sing. They tap the stems and dendrites of the plants and vibrating until they open up and let trickles of rich blue liquid pool in the Ahasurunu’s saucer-bases. I watched them until I felt like I could understand the rhythms of their lives here. A great proportion of what they did, day in and day out, was ceremony - songs and aerial dances of appeal and thanks to the plants, the fish, the winds, the clouds, the lightning - especially the lightning. On Earth, we would have called them animists. In fact, that was the most intuitive translation my mind landed on over the course of the entire vision. Ahasurunu - ancient Ahasurunu, before Meteorology - regarded everything they could name as social subjects, possessed of the same consciousness and will as themselves, receptive in the same sense to music and language and beauty, even to their own language which they heard out of the winds and clouds in dreams, which everything surely heard and understood even if their elder siblings in creation were teasingly silent.
Once I felt a sense of the community - the Yurusunu, long ago bonded by ritual and friendship to Yayaraya, one of the most fertile locations in Hayashura, a landmark and a place of pilgrimage for other Ahasurunu scattered throughout the rest of the storm - I focused in on an individual: Mira.
Mira was something like a scholar; she (I will be using gendered pronouns for convenience of localization) kept records of past rituals and the lightning’s behaviour. The Yurusunu, in exchange for their privileged access to such a desirable location, had a particularly intricate set of rituals, even by Ahasurunu standards; not unlike the Jews in the camp of Moses, with the cloud of YHWH settling over the arc of the covenant in their midst. But the rituals were not fixed; they had to be adjusted in response to Yayaraya’s actions. Sometimes it arced into a different part of the sea, and the flytrap-coral had to be carefully moved; sometimes it landed right in the midst of the Yurusunu’s habitation, which looked like a chain of spherical birdcages of reedy white dead fibre that dangled on the edges of the flytrap-coral like a holiday wreath; or even struck individuals, for the expiation of whose sins the Yurusunu held extraordinarily strict proceedings. It almost always kept flowing; but on rare occasions it had gone out. For hours, days, at the longest a month; Mira knew the date of every time this had happened in recorded history; all the rituals that had been attempted to bring it back; all the failures or acts of disrespect that might have been to blame, and the reparations that had been made for them. Of course, she had never seen it. Mira directed the entire tribe in the correct execution of the rituals. She had no formal, coercive power, but who would listen to anyone else?
Can you imagine blinking, only to find your eyes can no longer open? That was what it was like when Yayaraya went out. It wasn’t there for a split second, but there were always those split seconds, that shock you first felt at them as a child, that you learned to stop feeling - but then it had been more than a split second, and the absurd fear didn’t feel that absurd after all, but it would still come back - but it didn’t come back. And imagine the splitting of time when you were Mira, who knew every time the primal fear had been realized and could count, down to the tenth of a second,
OK, this is the longest it’s been in six months - and we passed the longest it’s been in two years - a decade -
each time thinking, it’ll have to come back after this, with no less reason but more and more desperation… until it became clear that whatever they most wanted to avoid, couldn’t be avoided any more.
Imagine a darkness you’d never seen.
To the Yurusunu, Mira must have betrayed them; but to Mira, she was the one who had been betrayed. Her whole life she had struggled to make friends with other Ahasurunu but had come to regard Yayaraya as her closest friend; and up until it disappeared, they could not have been closer. She defends her innocence half-heartedly at the council; it is not her innocence she is defending. If she had made some mistake in the ritual, if someone else had - she had enough respect, still, at the beginning, she could have easily chosen a scapegoat and been done with it - if she had been guilty, that wouldn’t have been enough for her. Yayaraya had been
now it wasn’t; if it had been
why not just talk to her? Didn’t she deserve that, after all they had lived together? The night before it had disappeared, she had been perched in an empty pod of the flowering rhizome, luxuriating in Yayaraya's light, humming a new song, rare and delicate notes that had not been entrusted with meaning yet, though she had whispered (she was sure she had whispered, she wasn’t sure she had whispered, she couldn’t be sure, memories didn't work like that and she had never been more aware of it) the disclaimer that this song was not addressed formally to the lightning on the behalf of the community, that she would bear its approval or disapproval herself. She had paused, unsure of how to continue; the clouds had gone dark, their rich purple rushing out towards her like a sucking tide; then they had been lit again, three brilliant branches almost entirely separate, spiralling and twining around each other, their soft halo of light ebbing and pulsing faintly; and new notes came.
If this wasn’t friendship, what was? If the goal of ritual wasn't this, what was it?
Those memories burned within Mira as she was driven from the Yurusunu into the dark foliage of uncharted cloud. Yayaraya never went out in her heart. Every doubt was lit in the fullness of lightning, both the coldness of its wick and the warmth of its flame, and shown insufficient. Driven away by any Ahasurunu she encountered, observing only the beings of the storm on their own, with no ritual to maintain it, the rites they observed without language or interpretation, she became more as she was, convinced someone, something would show her an answer, if she maintained the devoted attention she had practiced. She did not speak except to record, to name. She recorded thousands of notes of names alone. Lacking the magnetic abacus-like weavings on which the ancient Ahasurunu wrote, she memorized everything she observed. Overheard only by crawling predators of the lower clouds with segmented magnetized bodies, low pressure eddies of hydrogen and helium, stalks that extended from the ocean into the clouds to breathe when the winds blew from the poles and retreated when they stilled to doldrums, sudden sprays of rare, diamondlike H2O, she sang of relationships, societies, that did not resemble the relationships of the Ahasurunu, but were certainly relationships nonetheless.
I felt years pass overnight. My dream was a storm of time.
At last Mira came to, what she was almost certain, based on ancient histories, was where Yayaraya had descended into the ocean. Here was a field of methane-emitting algae several miles wide, and vacuum pockets in the storm near the surface that trapped the methane. In high winds driven by the formation of tornadoes nearby, these bubbles “popped”, dispersing the methane throughout the clouds. Ahasurunu rarely interacted with anything this low in the atmosphere, but recorded phenomena when they observed them as omens; all the major breaks in Yayaraya's lightning had corresponded with tornadoes in a range that would affect the methane bubbles. She had observed other interactions between lightning and algae in her wanderings. She discovered the vacuum pockets had shifted a few miles away, where the algae was thinner, and spent years experimenting with moving the algae, inventing new rituals to ask them, but suspecting they didn’t matter anyway; that whatever her duty to the algae, the vacuum, the methane, it had to be observed in silence, the same utter silence and sightlessness of the soul as when Yayaraya had first disappeared from her.
Where the extinction of the light had been instant and dragged out only in the lingering afterimages of doubt, its return was slow enough to be certain. One bolt struck, then vanished. Then another struck, six feet away. It took almost a day for lightning to strike the same place three times. She kept moving algae. She let the pool percolate and change the atmosphere for what on Earth would have been months. Twice became three times, four times a day; a dozen; more; until at last, the regularity of the lightning’s appearance suggested that these were not random, unnameable strikes, but a single phenomenon, one that deserved a name, a song. The sky-fish were beginning to cluster. The shadows of scouting Ahasurunu were beginning to dart and skulk around the edges of newly lit clouds.
Yumayura, she called it, and was forced to accept Yayaraya was not coming back. Her only friend had died, and there was no answer to death except new life, and the promise that everything in the universe could change, perhaps some day even death itself. Along with all her knowledge, along with her Precepts, she wrote a memorial that is sung across the universe to this day.
Mira did not return from exile; the Yurusunu, following the beacon of Yumayura, came to her. When they found her she had not only farmed lightning, not only immeasurable knowledge of the wilderness, but the Precepts of Meteorology, a system of principles for material and religious investigation that would avert both the injustice of her exile and the helplessness that had led to it. The full Precepts would fill a book approximately the length of Wittgenstein’s
, and since Mira claimed no special authority, they have been added to over the generations, though “official” additions became sparser as the “religion” became a precarious balance between schisms. The task of translating it is one I may well set myself, but will probably take me years to fully understand. Yet what I do understand has been enough to stir my soul to such a commitment:
Every being in the universe is different, though beings can also be similar.
Every being in the universe is a “person”.
Every being in the universe has the right to be treated as it wishes to be treated, so far as its “will” can be discerned.
The very identity or existence of a being cannot be assumed or proven except by its “will”, which is to say its agency in causal relationships.
We cannot know the will of any being that is different from us without asking.
If we do not share a language in which to ask, we must attempt to discover their language.
If they do not possess a language, we can only understand them in the universal language of all being, which is the laws of action and reaction, by studying their actions and reactions with other beings around them.
Where beings are similar in action and reaction, these can be considered similar in “will”, until a difference is discovered - at which point we must respect and seek to understand the difference.
The will we can understand of a being that cannot express it through language is what it seeks to do consistently - though if it does something that breaks this consistency, we must attempt to understand this also as its will.
All will nonetheless includes the will to change and adapt, and we can and should change the universe as long as we respect its consistency through change and do not seek to break it.
The best society of beings is one in which they conflict the least.
One’s own will, and that of those with whom one can communicate internal states by language, can be determined by pleasure and suffering.
We have an obligation, not only to ourselves, but to all other beings, to understand as best as we can each other and all other beings in the universe.
Within three generations the Meteorologists had unlocked the secrets of electricity, and had not only converted all of Hayashura but were proselytizing to the rest of Orchid as well. The spread of Meteorology, in keeping with its own principles, was overwhelmingly peaceful, though occasionally, where pre-Meteorological principles were enforced by local authorities, people who wanted to adopt Meteorological advances rose up in revolution. It was under Meteorological precepts that the Ahasurunu developed space travel and made first contact with other worlds. Meteorology could not easily be displaced as it was the basis of the scientific method, not only for the Ahasurunu but for several of the peoples they contacted; though eventually they would come into contact and debate with other “scientific” methods. There were, nonetheless, conflicts throughout its history, as the precepts were extremely open to conceptual interpretation, especially as unforeseen discoveries were made both about the physical world and other lifeforms, and as non-Ahasurunu cultures tried to adapt it. Controversies arose, for example, over whether and what distinct status could be afforded to “consciousness” in the sense that, for instance, allowed a species to use the Meteorological method itself; how much technology should be allowed to reshape ecosystems; how broadly “wills” and “beings” could be extrapolated, and how much these were compatible with other models of reality like “laws”. On several occasions, these controversies did break into war; but any hostilities had cooled by now to the point that Halation assures me they will do their best to clarify the different interpretations so I could decide which ones I aligned with, without pressuring me any one way or the other. (The exception was the Causal Adipose, which by a ratio of about three-to-one among believers, was held to violate the fundamental level of consistency at which beings and wills could even be defined. Halation was, in this respect, orthodox.) At first a handpicked line of succession from Mira within the Yurusunu had held an assumed authority, but it soon became clear that this was arbitrary and incompatible with the Meteorological precepts; though the line retains a symbolic prestige to this day. Authority decentralized into a network of scholars that developed a formal criterion of qualifications, and arbitrated both doctrinal and empirical questions through a process that could be likened to both jurisprudence and peer review; though maverick practitioners would reject the necessity of such formalization, and in many cases make significant discoveries outside it.
I guess it makes sense - maybe too much sense - for my discovery of an existence that changed the horizons of my world (not to mention that for a moment had answered my prayers) to be paired with finding religion again. If a framework to make sense of everything hadn’t been waiting for me, how could I have made sense of any of it? Would I have broken down? (And the fact that it
- how could this be treated as something other than miracle or providence - although this idea did not exist in Meteorology, except some obscure branches that held that the universe itself had a “will”?) “Religion” of course may not be the right word. There are good reasons to call Meteorology a science, or a philosophy, or an ideology, as much as a religion. But rest assured I didn’t just choose to call it a religion because it personifies inanimate things, or some colonialist reason like that. It was branded on my soul with the mark of a religion in the moment when, finding myself nearly converted - when I noticed I was considering how to write it down and explain it to humans, how many of Earth’s problems it might solve - immediately the crescent claw of Black Domnu loomed up over my mind.
If anyone other than Mai reads this, I advise caution in researching the Coven of Black Domnu. Don’t look at the Fox articles, or KiwiFarms, even though I still look at the KiwiFarms page sometimes, morbidly curious what Mab’s doing now and occasionally hoping I’ll stumble across some biographical detail that will make it all feel explicable, all feel less real. It was as real as any religion can be; whenever I read about other cults, I struggle to imagine them having the same hold over me, over anyone. Someday I will explain what She meant to me, what it felt like to believe what Mab taught us, to feel her screaming like a banshee around the edges of reality; but now I am tired, suddenly tired, like a 19th century woman about to faint (Mab said this was a sign of spiritual sensitivity) and even thinking about how tired I am feels like the veil thinning, like the approach of Her vengeful oblivion. For the moment I will simply correct the worst misinformation. It was not a “trans cult”. The cis women were almost invariably older and more confident than us, Mab’s lieutenants, and several were clearly still straight - they would latch onto any man they found attractive and try to convince him to “divest from his masculinity”. As a mating strategy the group was terrible, but considering what most others led to, I can’t even blame them. Contrary to popular narratives that would emerge in conservative and anti-SJ media, the men almost never went through with it. There was only ever one detransitioner, he whose punishment will pursue him through every nightmare and whose name will be seared in the Akashic Records as the Double Traitor - to me, as much as to them, because he ran to fucking Breitbart with his story and used it to discredit millions of people who had nothing to do with him or Mab or Domnu.
Nor was it, as I occasionally hear on the trans internet now, transphobic radical feminism. TERFs have felt free to co-opt its aesthetics because they know it’ll never be used against them, and Mab seems to have some shell game of posting her Discord in both anti-trans femcel and vulnerable trans teenager spaces, but as far as I know its concept of gender is still entirely metaphysical. The Divine Feminine as the creative, destructive and harmonizing force of the universe, and maleness a metaphysical aberration analogous to Lucifer and Original Sin. As a purely occult principle, this isn’t necessarily tied to any specific bodily characteristic. Changing those to reflect your inner desires, in fact, was frowned upon, since the will of the Goddess was reflected primarily in physical reality, and that’s why I had to get out before I transitioned, even though I might never have transitioned without them. But they regarded me as a woman, with or without any physical changes, as long as I went along with them; that’s how their grooming works. Gender is not a matter of desire but of devotion, of primal morality. Indeed, the first and more or less only moral principle - to the Goddess good and evil are one, and all is permitted. The aspect under which the Coven served her was one of her most terrible - Domnu, goddess of the prehistoric barbarian Fomorii, who bleeds the oil from under the ocean bed that drives male civilization to madness and self-destruction, whose black crescent moon will flash like an eviscerating sickle claw on the night that war finally breaks out in Hell.
Mai, your visions and worlds helped me see beyond Mab’s, but you always told me you didn’t want them to be a religion. Maybe you won’t need this one either, maybe only I’m this weak. But when I held all the pieces I could gather of Meteorology together in my mind, they felt true together, in a way nothing had felt true together in my life. In a way maybe only we felt as true together. I feel as if that the hope I had nurtured within me as the world had bared its horror, the hope I’d never have been able to name if Dad or someone asked what, exactly, I thought I was fighting for, had a shape. Was part of the structure of the universe, and wasn’t contradicted by all the evil, all the suffering. Theodicy is so simple in Meteorology. Things - beings - don’t understand each other. Why would they? No one created them to. But maybe one day they all can; or at least, those beings with the capacity to understand can help find peace between them all.
And after I weathered the doubts, the recriminations, the old certainties, and tried to write all this, it all still felt as true as before. I feel like I could go to sleep and it would still be here in the morning. And Halation would still be here, and the world would still be different. And I thought to Halation, just wait, you have things to share with us, and we have things to share with you, awful as we are, I will make it worth it having come here, I will take you to my leaders, and I will protect you against them, just wait and let me think.
And as every thought eventually fell away, the one that was left beating into the monotony of sleep was not mine. It had been burned into the silence by a day of not being said; and had transformed.
I want allies had become I want you as allies.