"Empathic Mirroring," The Song of Spores, by Bogi Takács

"Empathic Mirroring" is the first chapter of The Song of Spores by Bogi Takács for Eyedolon. (First chapter now free to read.)

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Empathic Mirroring

by Bogi Takács

Dovber was standing in utter darkness, listening to the soft gurgling and clicking noises of the spaceship. He had been praying, but he stopped. Even after many years, his mind would sometimes roll along its well-worn tracks, inertia making his lips trace the words he was taught as a child. Blessed are you, G-d, our Lord, King of the universe, so that you have not made me a woman.

He coughed nervously and corrected himself. Blessed are you, G-d, our Lord, King of the universe, so that you have made me in accordance with your will.

The ship declined to comment.

***

Mawu was peeling out of the ship's connection berth, nerve-tentacles detaching from their back and their own tentacles folding back in an intricate overlapping pattern. They sighed and ran their hands along their loose turquoise robe, which obediently closed its slits. They turned around and smiled at Dovber, nodding their head, black curls bouncing.

“Good morning,” they said, as perky as ever.

“Good morning to you too.” Dovber fought the urge to groan in response. He leaned back in one of the shapeforming chairs. He didn't feel like he knew anyone on the ship well enough to be informal, even the operations team who he'd been working with for years—let alone Mawu, a newcomer. He knew all too well he appeared out of place. People looked at him, and they saw a short, round, pale Jewish man with long sidecurls, a reddish-brown beard, and the traditional attire of the Olimpianer Chasidim from Mars.

That was, of course, unless they saw someone else entirely.

He ran his fingers along the sides of his long black kaftan, belatedly noticing that he was mimicking Mawu's gesture. He looked up at them and grinned. “So what's the situation?” he asked. It came out more formal in the Alliance trade language than it would have in Hebrew. He hadn't spoken Yiddish in a long while.

“Anayāun spoke to Command, and she said there was some kind of, er, difficulty on Hidi-Niruy that they wanted us to investigate.”

Dovber grimaced. “That's what, five jump points away?”

“I don't mind! I've totally recovered from the last round!” Mawu shook their head. Indeed, their skin had regained their healthy light brown shade from the previous ashen pallor, and their motions were firm, their hands no longer twitching.

“If you say so,” Dovber shrugged.

“I can jump to Hidi-Niruy any time!” Mawu frequently spoke in exclamations.

“What, directly?”

“Sure! Would I need any effort to go through the jump points?”

Operative Hlaz-mlan Mm strolled into the ship's control room, her six legs rhythmically clacking on the hard flooring and her carapace glittering with age. Click-click-CLACK-click-CLACK-click, and again; her two artificial limbs making a different, louder sound. She was the only sentient on the operations team with a non-humanlike body template. “I don't think we need to rush,” she said, her speech resonant with soft buzzing. “The Alliance hired you for transportation, not for heroics, young one.” She shook her torso for emphasis. Dovber was wondering when would Hlaz-mlan start calling him "young one" too. If you're three hundred years old, everybody looks young to you. 

“But I—”

Dovber chuckled. “You heard the lady.”

***

Mawu turned to the three Alliance operatives. “Open flag?”

Dovber, Hlaz-mlan, and Anayāun nodded in unison.

Mawu scratched their head, but went ahead—expecting some kind of ambitious false-flag operation, no doubt: the ship masquerading as traders, tourists, or even pirates. But none of the operatives felt they had any reason to hide their presence from the local authorities, who'd requested their visit.

“Mawu of Dahond, jump pilot of the sentient ship Kheinu of Downstream Clutch, requesting permission to board the station. We are an Alliance Treaty Enforcement vessel with three operatives on board.”

“Permission granted. We've been expecting you. Our police liaison will be waiting for you in the docks.”

They're not wasting any time, Dovber messaged the rest of the crew on the backchannel. Is this really such a backwater as Command made it sound?

On the outskirts of the Alliance, you never know what you might find, Hlaz-mlan replied.

Dovber stopped himself mid-sigh—he realized he'd never heard anything about Jews living on this planet.

***

Dovber and Mawu were sitting in one of the small, badly aged dock lounges while Anayāun was trying to sort out their incorrectly transmitted credentials with the local police, and Hlaz-mlan vanished in the maze of the dockworks.

Dovber was vaguely annoyed at himself. This would be a great opportunity to change, go stationside as a woman, but he didn't feel woman today. He would soon need to go back to his home planet for the holidays, and there he would need to present all man, all the time. He wasn't looking forward to it. It felt like by not changing right now, he was wasting an opportunity.

He wished he had someone to discuss his complicated feelings with, and Mawu also came from a people who, like his own, were quite invested in their binary gender concepts. But the young jump pilot was content to ignore gender for the most part and was not genderfluid at all.

Maybe he could have a good, lengthy heart-to-heart with the ship. His options: a brash teenager and a giant pufferfish.

“I'm hungry,” Mawu said. “Let's go find something to eat?”

Dovber resisted the urge to explain Jewish dietary laws. “I can only eat what comes from the ship's fabricator,” he said. “And probably so should you, who knows who might want to poison us here, G-d forbid.”

Mawu blinked at him, eyes shimmering with the promise of adventure.

“Don't get your hopes up,” he added.

***

The police liaison, a tall white woman in a charcoal gray uniform, was not in good spirits. She stared at Mawu and Dovber with open hostility. She glanced over the ship, now safely berthed. Kheinu's gray skin was tinted more purplish than navy-blue; probably from anxiety or aggravation, Dovber thought. They'd also withdrawn their surface spikes almost completely.

“I said you will all need to present your credentials in person,” the police liaison said. “I need to verify you are who you claim to be. Where is the third operative?”

“Hlaz-mlan Mm will also be back shortly.” Anayāun replied, and then added mildly, “From the restroom.”

Dovber suspected this answer was untrue, but he also knew most humanlike, I-type sentients knew very little about insectoid anatomies and would be hesitant to betray their ignorance. He was happy to cover for Hlaz-mlan, who had a special talent for finding exactly what she needed, while ostensibly looking for a restroom.

“You first,” the woman barked at Mawu. “I have in my file—Mawu of Dahond, union jump pilot employed by Alliance Treaty Enforcement, body type I, subtype J/O. What does this even mean?”

Mawu blinked in confusion, opened their mouth and closed it.

She pressed on. “Is this your original subtype?”

“Sorry?” Mawu finally managed to say.

“Were you born with this or were you modified?” She enunciated every word slowly with rising anger.

Dovber decided to intervene. “J/O is a jump pilot subtype, officer. No one is born with it.”

The officer shot him an aggrieved glance. Dovber smiled. She snorted and looked in the distance, no doubt consulting some kind of visual interface. “Let's see the rest—cognotype Ereni. So you are Ereni, I take it?”

“Um, no, maybe, not yet, I don't know,” Mawu said all with one breath and paused, perplexed. “I am on a temporary . . . immigration thing . . . I applied . . .”

“Why is this relevant, officer?” Dovber crossed his arms. The officer grimaced at him. He knew he did not look threatening—he looked amusingly traditional, from one of the many religious splinter groups dotting Alliance space. Even if the officer had no idea which group, she likely got the impression correct.

Oh well. Almost.

“I'm just going through the file,” the officer said. “You do your job, I do mine.”

Hlaz-mlan strolled in, waving her antennae. “Is it my turn yet?” She chuckled deeply, warmly. “I can tell you all about my body type.”

***

Finally they were allowed to pass through. They walked along a seemingly neverending, narrow, and damp corridor in single file. The officer had not even told them about the case, just instructed them to head to Central Police Headquarters for more information.

“They could've sent a car or something,” Dovber complained.

“I don't think this station is big enough for cars,” Anayāun told him. “I wish! I miss racing. Maybe I can get some downtime out in space, among the asteroids . . . want to come with?”

Dovber made a noncommittal noise. He liked sports but from a safe distance.

Mawu ran their hands along the scratched and dented panels of the corridor but was otherwise quiet. When they had to stop at another gate and wait for entry, Dovber decided to message Mawu.

Are you afraid of the police?

Well, I guess I shouldn't be. I mean, we're also the police now, aren't we? Mawu responded, their thoughts erratic with worry.

We're counterintelligence, technically, Dovber replied. Local law enforcement is supposed to cooperate with us . . . in the best case scenario.

I'm not an operative, Mawu messaged back after a pause. I'm just helping you jump around. Another pause. Do I even need to go to that meeting? With the police investigator?

If you're interested.

Mawu fell silent again. Dovber would have liked to have them on his side, include them as much as he could. And as a high-level operative, he had the right to make these decisions about need-to-know. But he felt like he couldn't trust anyone.

With a loud hiss, the door opened wide.

***

“My apologies,” the tall Nesker man said. “My colleagues do not quite understand the urgency of this investigation. I came out here to meet you as soon as I could, so we can go back to the station together.”

His golden fur shone even under the annoyingly cold artificial light, and he seemed aware of the effect. He brushed his mane back with his left hand, his large claws still extended. Then he retracted them and offered his right. Anayāun shook hands with him firmly, Hlaz-mlan bowed—he returned the bow—and Mawu waved hi from the back. Dovber hesitated.

It was sometimes impossible to observe the Jewish rules of touch. How to avoid touching members of the opposite sex when it is no longer clear what is your sex—let alone what is its opposite? Dovber shrugged internally—right then, he was a man. By the time he made up his mind, the Nesker man already decided he wasn't about to shake hands—the moment was gone.

“Well met,” the police officer said, grinning in a massive show of teeth. “I am Bih Avhadessen, junior investigator, Central Police Department, Hidi-Niruy Station Orange.”

Dovber smiled back, not showing his annoyance. A junior investigator? It was no doubt his pet project to drag an entire team of ATEF operatives here to the back of beyond. Trying to prove something? He was probably one of the only Nesker on the station, so he stood out even more than Dovber himself in his kaftan. But he must have convinced the Alliance somehow—maybe his case had some merit or maybe someone in Dispatch was having a bad day and decided to foist the case upon them, let them sort it out.

The officer opened a secure channel. As the five of them walked along more narrow corridors and damp storage-caverns streaked with fluorescent mold, he explained the case.

“With our government's current Isolationist policies, you can probably imagine how strictly we control the flow of people in and out of the border stations.”

A chill ran over Dovber. Was this an immigration case? Hashem, let this not be an immigration case.

“ATEF does not ordinarily handle immigration matters,” Anayāun said. It was good to know their thoughts ran along parallel lines—while strictly speaking the team had no leader, Anayāun did often take the lead, even though Hlaz-mlan was senior in age.

The officer shook his mane. “No, no, we are quite clear that there is a possible counterintelligence angle to this.”

“So is it clear or is it possible?” Hlaz-mlan said mildly.

He said on a defensive tone, “We know there is one additional person on the station than we have records for—someone who entered but didn't exit. Also, we're not managing to locate anything out of the ordinary with our monitoring equipment—there is an additional person, but whenever we're running checks on any given group, everything appears in order.”

Dovber held up a hand. “You're not able to run a check on every person at the same time?”

“When we do that, the additional person vanishes. The only explanation we've come up with is that someone is tinkering with our systems. Someone who's beyond our means to catch. Someone who's desperate enough to go to such huge effort.”

“I still think this is an immigration case,” Hlaz-mlan said. “Someone came, and you want to deport them.”

“This is not the only tinkering we've noticed. There has been . . . infrastructural damage. Most worrisomely, ventilation related. I don't think I have to explain to you how on a small station this can endanger everyone.” He paused and puffed up his chest in a very humanlike manner. “I was the investigator who managed to correlate the damage with the appearance and disappearance glitches.”

“Do you think it's malicious or just someone poking their head into where they don't belong and accidentally breaking things?” Dovber asked.

“I would err on the side of malice,” the officer said, “Checking to see what can be blocked, how to redirect flow—it looks like someone is planning on flooding the docks and the main public areas with something airborne. A pathogen perhaps? We do get the impression that the instances of smaller damage are leading up to something bigger.” He looked embarrassed for a moment. “We know how stragglers hide in the ducts, and believe me, this is nothing like that.”

“We can definitely look into this,” Anayāun said quickly, glancing at the ceiling vents. “If you could share the details . . . ? And we will need a secure area as our living quarters.”

The officer nodded vigorously. “That's where I'm taking you. If you can bear with me for just a bit more, we'll be there shortly.”

More storage-caverns. The fluorescent moss was replaced by giant flatworms stuck to the plastic paneling and creeping slowly forward to their mysterious destination. Dovber idly wondered if they produced oxygen.

Wouldn't they need some kind of computer hacker for this? Mawu pinged Dovber.

He tried not to roll his eyes. They think we are experts in everything.

But . . . ?

We'll try to do our best not to prove them wrong.

Mawu sighed loudly behind him. I only know about jumping a ship and other magic stuff. Um, māwal, sorry. I'm still not used to Alliance terms. All I know about electronics is how to avoid breaking them with my power. Er. Energy. Something. With my mind. Sorry, I'm babbling.

Dovber replied, Don't worry, we'll figure something out.

The officer turned into a narrow side corridor, and Dovber wondered if the flatworms would follow them all the way into their rooms.

***

“I actually don't think it's an issue with the sensor systems,” Hlaz-mlan said. She was sitting on a sizable ottoman and munching on one of the flatworms she had snatched from the living room wall. “It says here that they also physically checked people.”

Dovber leaned back on the sofa. It made a cracking sound, and he winced. “I'm not the only rapid response shapeshifter in the universe.”

Anayāun had been pacing around the entire living area, but she stopped behind Dovber and put her hands on the back of the sofa. “The Alliance has records on all of you. And on the transformation containers left over from the Old Empire.”

Dovber craned his head. “That's not true,” he said. “There are plenty of those barrels out in the universe still, just beyond Alliance territory. There might be any number of worlds not re-Contacted yet after the collapse of the empire.”

“So you think this is someone from beyond Alliance space?” Hlaz-mlan asked.

Dovber nodded. “That's possible. Wasn't there a case just a few months ago when ATEF sent two Ereni operatives . . . ? And they stumbled into a bunch of containers and people turning into trees and giant flying bats and whatnot?”

Hlaz-mlan rose from the ottoman with difficulty and bent her head toward Mawu. “Hmm?”

Mawu startled. “Uh, me? I don't know anything about that!”

“And you shouldn't,” Hlaz-mlan said, the vague threat in her voice more directed at Dovber and Anayāun.

Dovber sat up, ready to defend Mawu. “They—”

Mawu paled. “I can't disclose anything—to third parties—I mean, like—the things you tell me! At all!” Dovber noticed they were trembling slightly. “I'm literally not able to! They made sure of that!”

“I was about to suggest we include Mawu of Dahond in our deliberations,” Dovber said slowly.

Hlaz-mlan chirped. Dovber knew this was the sound of strong disapproval. “We shouldn't have brought them into the station,” she said.

“We had to bring them into the station,” Anayāun said. She was keeping her calm. “I can't jump all three of us back to the ship by myself if there is an emergency.” 

Mawu nodded, their mouth tightly shut.

Dovber was becoming aggravated. “So do you want to just shut them out of our communications altogether, so that when someone ambushes us, Mawu will have absolutely no idea what's going on and will not be able to react?”

Hlaz-mlan chirped again. “I don't like this. I see your point, but I don't like this. If we still had Syuf . . .”

“Syuf retired,” Anayāun said wearily. “And retired for a reason.”

“Yes, because the Alliance loves to go through young māwal-active operatives like disposable—”

“Hlaz-mlan!” Anayāun gripped the back of the sofa with such force, Dovber was afraid she would crush it altogether. “That was inappropriate.”

Mawu sighed. “I know how it goes, okay? I'm from a backwater but a warlike backwater. I'm not an ATEF operative for a reason, either. I didn't want to sign up.”
 “Well, watch them force you into it,” Hlaz-mlan said, but she was already lowering her nether segments back on the ottoman. “Until you have no other choice because you know too much.”

“That was not my intent,” Dovber said with forced calm.

“What it comes down to is, do you trust Ereni psychotechnology?” Anayāun said. “If we say Mawu will not speak, Mawu will not speak.”

Mawu shrugged. “I consented. It was a precondition.”

“We still need to minimize risks.” Hlaz-mlan shifted around on the ottoman.

“The question is, which risks do we want to minimize?” Anayāun pushed herself off of the sofa and started pacing again. “I'm in favor.”

“Well, well. Fair enough. Just don't say I didn't warn you. I've been around longer than the two of you combined,” Hlaz-mlan chirped. “And young one, know that it's not about your person. It's about operation security.” She paused. “Keep your eyes on these two, they are crafty. You might trust them for your own reasons, but . . .”

Dovber sighed heavily and leaned back again. He wished his biggest problem would be presenting as a man or a woman—that would be big enough.

***

Their bedrooms were little more than curtained-off sleeping berths. Dovber contemplated going back to the ship, but it was a lengthy walk.

He didn't even have enough space to say his evening prayers. He stood on top of his bed, but it wobbled. He tried to lean against the wall and bumped his head on a storage shelf jutting out from the wall. He stopped himself from swearing and yanked the curtain open, strode out into the common living area.

“I'm going for a walk,” he half-grunted, half-yelled. Mawu looked up at him. They were sitting on the floor with their back against a wall and looked likewise uncomfortable.

“Can I come along?” they asked.

“I'm trying to find a place to say my evening prayers,” Dovber said.

“I don't mind it if you don't mind me.”

“I—” Dovber paused. Why not, he thought. "Fine.” He motioned the young pilot to come along.

They headed in the opposite direction to where they had come from, and the corridor widened into a well-trafficked public space. Dovber took a deep breath—the air smelled stale but otherwise ordinary. He looked around, trying not to think of the possible death toll. Tiny stalls stood on either side of the passageways, offering finger food and brightly colored drinks that looked like local fruit mixes. In a corner, people were queuing up in front of an industrial-size fabricator—Dovber was surprised to see that despite the wealth of hand-baked snacks on display, many people were using the fabber to produce meals.

“Can I get myself something? I'm hungry.” Mawu steered them toward the queue. “I have to eat a lot, you know. Because I use a lot of energy.”

The line seemed to move fast enough. Dovber nodded. He was wondering if he could imitate Hlaz-mlan, bump into the most important people and find the most crucial locations on the station simply by accident. He suspected he didn't have enough māwal for it, though neither did Hlaz-mlan, she was simply very savvy. Then he realized Mawu did—

“Hold on a moment,” he said.

Mawu was leaning forward to see what kinds of foods people fabricated. “Mmhm?” they murmured without turning back to Dovber.

“Do you ever wander around and accidentally bump into something important? You know—”

“Sure, all the time.” Mawu still didn't turn around. “It's because of my māwal.” They shrugged.

“Do you think we could try doing that together?” It seemed more fruitful than spending dreary days tracing an elusive hacker across the networks and crawling in ducts.

Mawu finally looked at him and furrowed their brow, tilted their head sideways. “I don't think that's how it works,” they said on a dismayed tone. “Now that you've said it, it's going to be harder because we're expecting it to happen. I could try to do something still, but . . .” They sighed. “Can I eat first? And then we can try to figure it out.”

Dovber nodded. The line had ground to a complete standstill. Mawu turned back to stare. Dovber closed his eyes and rocked back and forward on his toes, even his body eager to get his prayers over with—he was wondering if he could say the entire ma'ariv while standing in line, though it did not quite strike him as properly respectful.

Someone ahead of him was yelling. Dovber opened his eyes. The person was thumping the lid of the fabricator. Dovber frantically searched for a translator package. There! His interface worked surprisingly well with the local nets. Maybe this place hadn't always been so Isolationist—but he had no time to reflect.

“Your circumnavigable male genitals should wave in the wind!” the person shouted at the fabricator.

The translator package was clearly trying.

“YOU - ARE - A - GONAD!!!”

Dovber pulled up the stranger's public profile, almost by reflex. He was a local man in his fifties, a dockworker, he played some kind of instrument that looked like a tin whistle in his spare time—

Someone was trying to pull the man off the fabricator. “Hey, you're ruining my dinner!”

“GONADS! Ovaries! Testicles! Ovarian duct!” The man shoved back.

Dovber pushed people aside and stepped closer. “Can I help, comrade?”

He really, really did not want to pull his newly assigned police privileges, but he thought everyone would be better off if he could stop the fight that was about to break out. At the same time, he was tired at the end of a long day.

The two men glared at him. He could feel their anger seeping into his skin.

“They were late with my compensation, the hermeneutic dockworks,” the man grunted. Was hermeneutic also a swearword? “And now this accursed machinery doesn't allow me to log in to create my nourishment either.”

Dovber nodded. He hoped the translation worked better in the other direction. “I can try to log in for you,” he said, fervently hoping the system wouldn't display a blatant police override. He was just a stranger passing by.

He stepped to the fabber. It was an old-fashioned model with a handprint reader. He put his palm on the surface.

ACCOUNT UNRECOGNIZABLE, it said.

“Gonads,” Dovber hissed at it.

The man looked confused. Clearly the word didn't make it across. “See what I'm explicating?” He nodded at the fabber and kicked abruptly from the hip.

“Stop!! My dinner! My nourishment!!” The other man jumped on top of him. Dovber tried to grab them both and push them apart—so much for not having a fight—so much for not creating a spectacle—so much for not having to use force—

The fabber made a cheerful tinkling sound.

“I logged in for you,” someone said. Dovber was twisting his neck to see the third stranger, but they had already vanished in the crowd by the time he managed to shake the two hungry brawlers loose.

“Who was that?” The swearing man asked.

“That fellow, he lives in our dormitory where he has recently moved, I gather. A repairman of wind processing?”

They both shrugged and turned to the fabricator.

“Did you see that?!” Mawu yelled in Alliance Common.

“See what?” Dovber was trying to downregulate his fight or flight response now that the trouble was past.

“It works backwards!” Mawu pulled up a scrambling ward to keep other people from overhearing their conversation. Dovber wasn't sure why they wouldn't just message him, but they seemed so agitated that maybe they didn't realize. “Backwards!”

“What works backwards?” Sometimes it was harder to understand people across cognotypes than across unwieldy translation algorithms. Dovber had no idea what Mawu was saying.

“You wanted to see something important but accidentally! And I said it was too late and you shouldn't have said! But we were already there where the something important was happening when you asked!” Mawu waved their arms in utter desperation.

“What was important?” The pieces weren't clicking into place.

“That person logged in!”

“Sure, they had an account . . . ?”

“No, they logged in with the angry person's account!” Mawu grimaced.

“The hacker . . . ?”

“They changed their handprint! They physically changed it!”

Dovber was perplexed. “How did they know the other man's handprint?”

“Maybe they saw? Just now? Snapped a pic while those two were fighting? Or in their dorm? Wait, that was the other guy. I don't know, okay?” Mawu's eyes were open wide. They clearly did not downregulate their fight or flight respo—Dovber gasped.

“Wait, you mean we should pursue?”

Mawu looked as if they were about to cry. “Yes? No? I don't know? I was trying to track them and lost them right away? There are too many people?”

Dovber shook his head. He suddenly felt exhausted.

“You can only track them with the māwal, but I can track them with my police account,” he explained.

The line was already moving, people planting their hands one by one—he probably wouldn't get a good organic sample from the palm plate any more.

He quickly reloaded the swearing man's public profile, put in his override, and looked at the man's list of interactions. The other brawler was listed twice, as he expected. Dovber wanted his address. The dormitory entrance was right behind him, half-covered by a curtain smeared with food grease.

“Well then,” he said. “Let's grab some food and then I can pray.”

Mawu was confused. “We're not pursuing?”

“We will, but we need to work out our strategy. Hlaz-mlan might have been right—it's possible that this infiltrator isn't hacking systems but rather changing their body.”

“How fast can one do that?” Mawu frowned. “I'm sorry, was that offensive? My planet doesn't have much Imperial leftover technology.”

“I can show you after I'm done praying.”

It was out of his mouth before he knew it. He never offered to demonstrate. He never offered. He just did.

He didn't want to be comfortable with Mawu. He didn't want to trust people. It was always a risk. But if the infiltrator realized people were on to their plan, they might push it into action. The air might be contaminated already.

Anayāun trusts Mawu, he reminded himself, and Anayāun was probably the safest person in the entire universe. But Hlaz-mlan remained skeptical . . .

He took another deep breath, smelling the damp and maybe a faint undercurrent of mold. Spores?

He hoped it was just his overactive imagination at work.

***

He wanted to rush through his prayers, but the familiar words were such an unexpected comfort in an unfamiliar place that he held onto them, allowed them to linger.

He did his three steps at the end of the Amida and straightened up, closed his eyes. The thoughts that had been quieted down came to the fore again; his mind running through hypothetical sequences of Mawu asking questions of varying intrusiveness. He began singing the final Aleinu prayer, loudly, firmly, his voice resonating in the deserted corridor. He felt there was no space for his voice. The station constricted around him, the air maybe unsafe already.

Then it was done, and all he had to do was slog back to his room—that, and . . .

“Thank you for letting me listen,” Mawu said.

Dovber murmured something and waited for the moment he'd just imagined.

Mawu remained silent.

“Let's go back,” Dovber finally offered.

Mawu only spoke up when they were almost back at their lodgings, past the crushing crowds and into the deserted final stretch. “Um, I just want to let you know that I don't want to push you into doing anything? Like when I was still training for the Navy, back on my home planet, some people treated me like . . . you know. Do this, do that, work your magic . . . can you teleport to the top of the shrine . . .” Their voice trailed off.

Dovber sighed with a measure of relief. “I hear you. But I offered first. Can you hold on a moment?” he said to Mawu's back, the teen so intent on marching back to their rooms that they didn't realize Dovber had stopped.

They turned around, a lopsided, embarrassed grin on their face. “Sorry about that. I was just thinking . . .” They looked away. “This is so hard! I was just thinking, you also have a nonstandard body shape like me, you're also trans like me, and people constantly demand you to perform something rare. These are three separate things. One would be hard enough. But also for example—"

Dovber held up a hand, interrupting the rapid-fire words. “Ssh. It's fine. Watch.”

He smiled broadly and let his face go slack and then allowed the flesh to mold into Mawu's features—just the face. This was easy enough, his systems had a subroutine for this. He shivered as his beard retracted into his head.

Mawu gasped. “Wow, that's cool. Can you do"—they stopped themselves—“I shouldn't ask.”

Dovber chuckled. “I'll guess.”

He had a subroutine for this too—to assume the shape of someone the person in front of them would like to see. He didn't have to know.

“Wow, you look just like my niece!” Mawu frowned. “I miss her a lot . . . how did you do that?”

“My systems track your very subtle reactions in real time and adjust accordingly. Your eye muscles relaxing a fraction, your smile. It doesn't use any māwal, just pure physiological data.” He had to admit he enjoyed talking about it. “It's called empathic mirroring. Sometimes the end result is a composite of people, not a specific person.”

“Can you do the reverse too?” Mawu's eyes shone with enthusiasm. “Like make yourself into someone really terrifying?”

Dovber laughed. “I certainly can, but do you want me to?”

Mawu laughed too, their voice pitching high. “You would turn into my Navy trainers!”

“Watch! This is going to be different.” He was used to imitating Hlaz-mlan, and it was especially easy to do just the head. He rubbed his antennae together and chirped. “You shouldn't trust Dovber, he is very dangerous!”

Mawu slapped their knees. “Stop, stop, they're going to hear—” They dissolved into childlike giggles.

Dovber hesitated only for a moment. “I might as well.” He'd designed the eldritch monster shape for a Purim party, but he never actually used it. His jaw cracked open wide and tentacles spewed forth from his mouth, marched around his face, heavy like a beard but much more sinister. Crests split his scalp and his skin hardened into scales. He enjoyed the tickly sensation. He waved his tentacles gleefully.

“By the Powers, that's amazing! I'm totally a fan! You should do this all the time!”

“Might help me with local law enforcement,” Dovber said through a mass of tentacles and then retracted them and shifted back—slowly, gradually, drawing out the change fish scale by fish scale.

He felt less conflicted about Cthulhu than about his ordinary man-shape. Or the ordinary woman-shape, for that matter.

“I think it's time to return. The others are probably already asleep,” he said.

***

He lay in his bed, pondering how Mawu still hadn't seen his woman-shape. But he didn't feel a woman now, he didn't feel like women's grammatical forms, he didn't feel like any of that. Sometimes it seemed to him it always happened at the most inopportune moment. He would pray in the men's section and suddenly feel an unassailable certainty that he should be in the women's section. Once she tried, back on Alliance Central, to go to an entirely unfamiliar synagogue as a woman, Dvora Kalonymus instead of Dovber Meyerson, but people quizzed her on her relatives, and she found herself stammering. And then once the prayers finally started, he was again sure that he should be on the other side.

He heard a series of soft pops from the air ducts and got up, stood on his wobbly bed. He couldn't see anything—whatever it had been, it must have echoed through the entire station. The pops hadn't sounded purposeful, probably just his professional wariness at work. He lay back down, but his thoughts were still churning.

He had to admit to himself that he envied Mawu, entirely undecided about their gender, or if anything, entertaining the possibility of having none. He could leave Orthodoxy and go for some interesting third option.

He didn't want to leave Orthodoxy. But even his family didn't know about him being a shapeshifter . . . or being a senior operative of ATEF. They only knew he had a job that took him all over Alliance space.

Bigender, genderfluid, and a shapeshifter. He thought the shapeshifting would come in handy. He'd signed up for the transformation. He'd been enthusiastic. But he still remembered the gaze of the ATEF doctor who stuffed him into the giant silver barrel—a leftover of Imperial technology—and as the nanomaterials tore his body apart and reassembled him on the molecular level, he held on to that complicated expression of sadness and concern.

He could change himself into any shape now. But he would never be able to tell his family. He could not turn into Cthulhu to entertain kids on Purim.

As for his colleagues . . . they mostly came from planets and cultures where gender changes were commonplace even without shapeshifting. Except Mawu, but Mawu was still an unknown—and against his expectations, somehow a fan of his?

He turned to the wall and wrapped himself tight in his blanket, but sleep wouldn't come; in the end, he had to manually override his askew biorhythms and force himself into unconsciousness.

***

In the morning, Dovber knew exactly what he had to do. Sleep didn't bring rest, but it had brought a solution.

Anayāun was unconvinced. “So we go stake out this dormitory, but what makes you think our target is going to be there? They could've fled many times over.”

Dovber adjusted his large black kippah on his head and put his wide-rimmed black hat on top. “They are staying for the same reason they intervened to break up the fight. They want to keep out of sight of the local police, and a fight would bring more attention from law enforcement—patrols, maybe even a raid on the dorms.”

“I'm sure that person didn't realize who we were,” Mawu said. “Even if they are māwal-active, we are shielded tight, and there was a big crowd.”

Dovber chuckled. “We look like strangers, but we look entirely unlike dangerous strangers.”

Mawu looked down on their jump pilot's robes. “I look like a jump pilot, but, um, a small and slightly confused one?”

Anayāun tilted her head, surveying the two of them. “Fair enough. So you say you got . . . lucky.”

“The kid has enough māwal to blink the station out of existence, including their own self if they're not careful; I don't think it's about being lucky,” Hlaz-mlan added dryly.

“Well, it wasn't pre-planned . . . ?” Mawu looked apologetic, possibly even for their own existence. Dovber felt sorry for them.

“But you deliberately don't pre-plan,” he said. “Let's just go.”

***

The cafeteria was large and crowded with workers getting ready for their morning shift in the docks. People grumbled and yelled, chatted about any number of topics, elbowed each other out of the way as they made their way to the small, mushroom-like stools around the haphazardly arranged tables.

Anayāun shook her head. I can't sense anything out of the ordinary, she messaged them. They must be warded well too.

Mawu kept on frowning. I thought I wasn't doing it right the first time around, but I guess it's not just me. They're really hard to spot.

“I need to go to the restroom,” Dovber said out loud and then messaged them: Watch this.

He had a plan, something that was clearly not regular procedure, but still within the flexibility allowed him as part of the team. Anayāun nodded at him to proceed.

He didn't go to the restroom. He stepped outside, into the swirling crowds and found himself a secluded space.

He fashioned himself into someone most people would find attractive—the latest Alliance looks, straight black hair, a muscular androgynous build. Sleek clothes like on a current drama serial set in the Emerald Spires. He made himself as gender-ambiguous as possible, knowing the crowd's attentions would pull his appearance in multiple directions.

This wasn't his shape, but it was the shape he would need.

He walked back to the dormitory and engaged the subroutine he'd shown Mawu, the one that adjusted his appearance to his conversation partners' delight. Dovber was glad there were very few non-humanlike sentients in the crowd, and he made a point to avoid them. From the corner of his eye, he noticed Hlaz-mlan slip out of the room, understanding his plan right away.

People stared at him as he passed by. Workers of all genders commented, sometimes loudly, sometimes rudely. There were whistles and catcalls. Some people flushed. The air was stuffy; too stuffy? He pushed the thought away from himself.

His skin tightened and loosened, its color paling and darkening from the medium brown shade he started with. His chin wavered ever so slightly as the people near him preferred a more masculine or feminine bone structure. He walked around slowly, hoping the changes wouldn't be as noticeable to any given person if he just kept on moving. He grabbed a bowl full of hot soup, giving him the excuse to walk cautiously and a reason for others to get out of his way.

“You're gorgeous, sweetie,” a woman told him in an eerily fetishizing tone. “Are you a boy or a girl? Oh I do hope you are a girl.”

Dovber was growing frustrated. The moment he'd been waiting for hadn't arrived, and his soup would soon get cold. He murmured, “Check my profile, that's what it's for,” and passed by the worker—he had no attention to spare for a snappier comeback.

Get ready, he messaged the rest of the team. A fight might break out. He looked around to see if he could spot the plainclothes officers they'd requested from Investigator Avhadessen, but he couldn't—that was probably good. He turned on his police overlays, which helpfully tagged the officers.

They were positioned well. Better and better. Now if only . . .

Another circle around the cafeteria, and he might need to call this off.

He slowed even further and stopped by a crowded table. “Hey, I'm looking for my friend,” he said. “I'm sorry. I'm not from around here.” He hoped the translation would not enrage them, but they seemed to understand.

“The offbeat newcomer, correct?” a woman said, glancing up from fidgeting with a complicated-looking tool. “Those fellows at that table, they might be aware.”

Another table and then another. Dovber felt like he was being sent on a wild goose chase, but at the same time, he was sure he must be closing in—his scalp tugged.

His scalp wasn't supposed to tug.

He took a deep breath and turned around. Took a few steps ahead. He closed one eye to see his own nose better—was it acquiring a subtle turquoise shade?

He felt his tongue split in three inside his mouth.

This was it.

Another step forward, then another gingerly to the right. He was feeling his way toward the unfamiliar change.

The infiltrator might have been in human shape, but their preferences still followed their original.

Dovber was sure he got the right person—an average-looking dockworker in grimy overalls but clearly a professional at his trade. Though that trade was probably espionage rather than ship repair.

Then he realized he forgot about something. Where was Mawu? Mawu was supposed to help him remove the target from the crowd.

He could have slapped himself. With all his convoluted thoughts, he simply forgot to tell them.

He needed to gain a moment of time. Just a few seconds would be enough.

He pretended to trip and dropped his bowl, careful not to splatter anyone. He didn't want to start a fight before the fight that would inevitably break out once he was out of here. “Gonads!” he yelled out. “This was fine nourishment!”

He hastily marked the target and sent it over to the team. If Mawu can jump them back to the ship, now, he messaged. He turned off empathic mirroring.

“Aw, too bad for you,” someone said.

He slowly rose. Behind him, Mawu kicked out their stool and made a dash for them. The person in front of him made an odd, soft noise—suspicious? Scared? There wasn't enough time—

Suddenly he saw the cafeteria from an entirely different vantage point, rushing forward, then he fell, fell across expanses of swirling gray—

He was sprawled on the floor of the ship, lying on his belly. He struggled to all fours, still disoriented.

“Power,” Anayāun said, the tone clearly an order. “More. Now.”

What was Anayāun doing here? How?

Dovber looked up to see the dockworker utterly terrified, eyes bulging outward.

“I said now!”

Mawu coughed and mumbled something like “Sorry” behind Dovber. Then he felt Anayāun grab ahold of Mawu's power and direct it—even with what little māwal he had, he could sense a vast surge slamming into the stranger's wards, annihilating them.

The dockworker slumped on the floor, unconscious, and as Dovber got up on his feet, he could see them melt into an iridescent silver puddle, losing their shape as long as their consciousness wasn't holding them together.

“We got the right one,” Anayāun said. “Hlaz-mlan is on the way, and in the meanwhile, we can figure out what kind of containment we can use.”

Dovber turned around, the world turning a bit too fast. He was still dizzy from the jump. He took a deep breath.

Mawu was lying on the floor. “I'm okay . . .” they croaked. “I just need to . . . rest a bit . . .” They closed their eyes and were out cold, though Dovber gladly noted they were still breathing.

He spun around again, coming close to losing his stomach contents, and glared at Anayāun. “Did you have them jump four people?!”

Anayāun shrugged. “I also joined in. They can do it. It got us out of harm's way, and it was easier than knocking the target out first and risking who knows what kind of reaction.”

“Well, I clearly didn't expect a puddle.” Dovber carefully bent forward. He could see a set of small fan blades and some screws and clips amid the goo, probably the contents of the infiltrator's pockets—something they'd just removed from a duct. He shivered and sent a quick message to Avhadessen to check if anything had been deposited in the ventilation system, even in the smaller ducts. The Nesker man was probably in for a major promotion. Dovber leaned even closer to the puddle.

“Don't poke at it,” Anayāun said. “This might be a Contact situation. And we need biohazard containment.”

Dovber knew that was correct. “Will Mawu be all right?”

“After some sleep, yes.”

Dovber summoned a floater pallet. “I'll get them to their room to rest. You know, they gave me the idea.”

He gently rolled Mawu onto the pallet. The back flap of their robe was open, their ship connection tentacles dangling out in disarray. He closed the shirt flap but was unsure about what to do with the tentacles. He queried the ship.

I can help, Kheinu said, their vast mental presence echoing in his mind. Just get them back to their room.

As he pulled the pallet along, he was wondering about transformations, differences, and trust.

___

Part 2 >> 

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person currently living  in the US as a resident alien. E writes and edits short fiction, poetry  and nonfiction. Eir work has been published in venues like Clarkesworld,  Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Uncanny, among others. You can find em  at http://www.prezzey.net or as @bogiperson on Twitter and Instagram. E also writes about books at http://www.bogireadstheworld.com and has a webserial in the same continuity as this story at http://www.iwunen.net

Broken Eye Books is an independent press, here to bring you the odd, strange, and offbeat side of speculative fiction. Our stories tend to blend genres, highlighting the weird and blurring its boundaries with horror, sci-fi, and fantasy.

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