3.14: TRANSPORTER LABORATORY
Prof. Chakat Veritas, MD, PhD, FCCS, FRCS, FAANS, FRS
Dr. Rawani Chen, PhD, DSc
Chakat Silvergleam, PsyM, MA, CRC
reads a plaque beside the door in luminous letters.
Maria hesitates in the corridor, shuffling her sneakers on the tan microfibre carpet. She knows she should knock, but she’s so charged with nerves that she can’t bring herself to commit. Instead, she brings up her recent messages on her smartwatch, scrolling with trembling fingers through recent conversations until she reaches one that bears the same information as the bronze plaque before her. Yep, definitely the right place.
Which she already knows, of course, but she’s procrastinating now. The knowledge of what’s beyond the door simultaneously thrills and terrifies her. She’s paralysed; caught between the desire to press on and the urge to turn on her heels and sprint-walk back to the spaceport post-haste.
Apropos of nothing, the laboratory door opens with a snap that makes Maria jump. Standing before her is a tabby chakat the colour of a foggy spring morning. Hir hair is drawn up into a loose platinum-blonde bun, and shi’s dressed in a green scoop-neck shirt and a crochet jacket that runs along hir back and ties off under hir tail. ‘Maria, hi! I thought I felt you out here,’ says Chakat Silvergleam, sweeping Maria into a customary chakat hug. Shi smells like frangipani and patchouli, and Maria feels her nerves ease by a few decibels in response to the tabby’s warm embrace.
Maria is invited into a salmon-pink anteroom of the main laboratory. One entire wall is a floor-to-ceiling window. Parked beside the glass is a cosy-looking tangle of blankets and floor cushions and beanbags. In the middle of the room stands a tiger taur, hands clasped expectantly, looking resplendent in a royal purple tauric pantsuit that spectacularly complements hir bright orange fur. Maria has never been good at distinguishing the age of chakats, but hir strikingly long tail, the light dusting of grey in her brown hair and muzzle, and her dignified demeanour put hir at least a hundred by Maria’s count.
‘This is Professor Veritas,’ Silvergleam continues, sweeping an arm toward the tiger.
‘It’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person,’ says Professor Veritas, beckoning Maria in for a hug. The implications of hir sentence incite a sharp spike of nerves. She’d spoken to Veritas on the phone about this appointment plenty of times, but their conversations had seemed so abstract and far-fetched that Maria simply hadn’t been able to internalise the reality of the situation. Now that she’s actually on Chakona and looking the professor in the eyes, she’s struggling with the realisation that shit is about to get very real.
‘Likewise,’ Maria replies with a quaver, her voice betraying her nerves. Professor Veritas tightens hir hug.
‘I’ll be acting as your rehabilitation counsellor for the duration of your recovery,’ Silvergleam informs Maria. ‘We think it’s best if you have a chakat therapist to guide you through your first few weeks — someone who can answer any questions you might have, and to help you get used to your new body.’ Shi invites Maria to sit on one of the beanbags while the professor concludes hir preparations.
Maria sinks into the burgundy memory foam facing the window, looking out over the gleaming azure coastline and trying to focus on the explosively colourful plant life below instead of her impending procedure.
Silvergleam settles to hir belly beside Maria. ‘Quite a lot different from Earth, isn’t it?’ shi says of the magnificent view, and lays a comforting hand on Maria’s shoulder. At hir touch, Maria feels her churning nerves dampen somewhat, and she supposes the psychologist is using hir stronger-than-average talent to suppress her anxiety.
‘It’s so colourful,’ Maria says, grateful for the distraction. ‘I’ve never seen plants with so much purple and blue. And I can’t get over the sky — it’s like it’s golden hour all day long. I used to think the Mediterranean was as beautiful as a planet could be, but this place is just so peaceful and warm.’
‘You’ve never had images from Chakona show up on your feed before?’ Silvergleam asks.
‘Of course, but seeing it in a holo is nothing like actually being here.’
Silvergleam shifts, tilting hir head and crossing hir forepaws, regarding Maria with friendly opalescent eyes. Shi’s undoubtedly empathetic to her churning apprehension, hir talent cluing hir into the girl’s allegro pulse; the butterflies in her stomach; her sweaty palms. But shi nonetheless asks ‘How are you doing?’
‘Uh, I’m fine. Just a bit nervous,’ Maria says with tremendous understatement. ‘This is kind of a big deal, you know?’
‘Absolutely,’ Silvergleam nods soberly. ‘Getting bestowed with a brand-new body is very much a ‘big deal’. It might be one of the biggest deals a person can experience.’ Maria twitches as though the psychologist has just confirmed some dreaded expectation, so shi adds ‘Don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal to be anxious right now. Every one of our subjects has come in that door feeling just as tense as you are right now, but they leave in greater spirits than they’ve ever been in their lives. It’s like they’re a whole new person.’ Shi can’t help but grin self-mockingly at hir own little joke, and is pleased to see Maria crack a tiny smile herself; the first positive emotion the girl has shown today.
‘Would you like something to eat or drink before we begin?’ Silvergleam offers. ‘Fresh fruit? Maybe a calming herbal relaxant? There’s a replicator down the hall in the tea room.’ Shi tosses a hand vaguely of to hir left, toward the eastern end of the outer corridor.
Maria is tempted to accept, but she knows the only way she’s getting over these nerves is to plough ahead with the process. She shakes her head and mumbles as much to Silvergleam.
‘It’s not too late to back out if you’re having second thoughts,’ Silvergleam offers. This is a gambit on hir part to determine whether Maria’s nerves are the result of cold feet or just good old-fashioned apprehension. Hir answer comes immediately as a rush of desperate, almost indignant determination before Maria even opens her mouth.
‘No.’ Maria shakes her head emphatically. ‘I don’t want to back out.’ Her heartrate goes up, but her will remains resolute.
‘Alright, then,’ Silvergleam says, apparently satisfied. For a moment, the two of them gaze silently out over the extraordinary beauty of the scene below. Maria can see people coming and going down on the coastline avenue in the near distance. Mostly taurs, of course, but also a smattering of bipedal morphs and even the occasional human. Miniature figures going about their inscrutable business. She distracts herself by imagining what each of them might be up to — commuting to and from the nearby spaceport, perhaps. On their way to visit loved ones. Heading to their jobs, or their hobbies. Certainly, none of those strangers are barrelling toward the same kind of monumentally life-defining event as she is.
‘And I suppose you still haven’t told your parents about what you’re doing today?’ Silvergleam asks with a gentle glance that belies the weight of this query. Shi's referring to a conversation they’d had a few months hence over videocall in which Silvergleam, as part of hir evaluation of Maria’s motives, had asked about the opinions of her loved ones regarding her proposed transformation.
‘My mums both have pretty hardline views about body modifications,’ Maria had expounded. ‘Whenever the subject of augmentations or cosmetics or anything like that comes up, they’re always quick to insist that, since there's only one you, you're your own template and are thus perfect by default. They say things like “there's no such thing as imperfection because every person is unique”.’
Silvergleam had stroked hir chin thoughtfully at this. ‘Are they staunchly anti-technology?’ shi’d asked.
‘They aren’t luddites, if that’s what you mean,’ Maria had begun, and then reconsidered. ‘Actually, I suppose in this sense, maybe they are luddites. They have no problem with technology — Mumma Ioanna is forever replicating paints and brushes and stuff for her work. They just have a problem with combining biology and technology. They say it dilutes people’s humanity.’ Maria had sighed at that point, Silvergleam reading her frustration loud and clear over the hyperspace link, even without the help of hir talent. ‘It's not even a consistent belief by their own standards! Because they readily accept necessary medical treatment, and that's changing their body. That’s accepting technological intervention on a biological level.’
‘How exactly do you think they would react to you abandoning your humanity altogether?’ Silvergleam had asked.
Maria had sat forward at this and spoken with assurance. ‘I doubt they’d try to talk me out of it, but I know for a fact they'd be really upset. They have absolutely nothing against chakats, of course. But they gave birth to me and raised me. I'm their biological child and that means a lot to them because of their naturalistic worldview, and also because of the sheer amount of effort same-sex parents have to go through to get a bio child. I'd be throwing away the body they gave me, throwing away the genes they gave me, and I guarantee you they'd see that as me rejecting them as my parents.’
‘Which is not the case at all,’ Silvergleam had stated.
‘No, of course not!’ Maria had affirmed. ‘I’d still be the same person on the inside. I’d still be me. I’d still be the daughter they created and raised and love. But they couldn't help but see me as a different person.’
‘Well, in one sense, you would be a different person,’ Silvergleam had posited, opting for a spot of devil’s advocate. ‘With a chakat mind and chakat senses, your experience of the world would be quite different to that of a human. If you decide to go ahead with this, you would emerge at least a slightly different person despite the unbrokenness of your mental continuity.’
‘As far as I see it…’ Maria had fumbled for words at this point, trying to sum up a complex perspective as succinctly as possible. ‘...you aren’t so much a product of your body as you are a timeline of continued consciousness. As far as I see it, you are your thoughts and memories and inner machinations, and anything beyond that is just so much animated chemistry. Besides—’ Maria had insisted ‘—I’m certain I’d emerge a happier person. And doesn’t that alone make this entire thing worth it?’
‘Oh, absolutely,’ Silvergleam had smiled.
Maria pulls herself up from the well of her memory and makes a point of pushing her fingers into the burgundy memory foam upon which she’s slumped, using the texture of the material to ground herself to the here and now. She turns her head from the technicolour landscape outside to look Silvergleam in the eyes.
‘No.’ She says in answer to the psychologist’s question. ‘I haven't told anyone about this because, at the end of the day, it's my decision to make and nobody else's. I don’t want someone to try and change my mind. I don't care what anyone else has to say. I know what I want, and that’s the only thing that matters to me.’
Silvergleam takes Maria’s hand in a gentle grip. ‘Well said.’
Veritas calls for Maria a few minutes later. Maria and Silvergleam cross the room to where the professor is sitting on a plush red rug behind hir desk (a minimalist number made of a dark, indeterminate wood, cantilevered out from the wall so it seems to float in midair). The wall behind hir is festooned with a halo of framed diplomas and accolades, interspersed with pictures of Veritas standing proudly shoulder-to-shoulder with a number of beaming morphs.
‘Shall we begin?’ Professor Veritas asks over the screen of a rose-gold tablet. Maria nods.
‘Let’s start with your name and birthdate,’ shi says, a note of professional crispness creeping into hir genial tone.
'Maria Petrou; seventeenth of September, 2305. Terran calendar, obviously. I thought you already had that info.'
'Oh, we do,' Veritas explains, waving the tablet with one hand. 'It's just standard medical practice to have you say it out loud to make sure we have the right person.' Shi scrolls down a number of pages on the screen, lips moving silently as shi reviews the information in Maria’s file.
The door opens and in steps an impossibly tall maned wolf wearing a cyan backpack. ‘Sorry I’m late,’ she apologises by way of introduction.
‘You’re right on time,’ Veritas smiles. ‘Maria, this is Doctor Rawani Chen.’
Doctor Rawani Chen shakes Maria's right hand with both of her own. ‘Nice to meet you. I’ll be your transporter engineer for today.' Her arms are decorated with multiple sundry bracelets that clatter softly with her movements, overtop long black gloves that start at her knuckles and end at her elbows.
Maria has to crane her neck to make eye contact with the woman. Her long lavender undercut is held back from her forehead with a floral headband, and she sports a glossy black-and-lime sleeveless thing that’s neither vest nor tank top but some intersection of the two, plus a pair of cargo shorts festooned with extraneous straps and buckles.
‘We’ll be a few minutes yet, if you want to start warming it up,’ Veritas informs the new arrival, pointing to a doorless archway on the opposite side of the room with one forepaw (both hir hands are still occupied with the tablet). Rawani nods and disappears into the laboratory beyond. The sound of fans and capacitors and other electronic witchcraft can be heard spooling up as the engineer boots her equipment.
Veritas checks a tick-box on hir tablet, then lays it on the desk and clasps hir hands, fixing Maria with a sober gaze. ‘We are planning to use a transporter to transpose your consciousness — your soul, your essence — into a wholly different body, using a method of connectome mapping known as the Oceanwalker process,’ shi says, laying it out bluntly for the record. ‘This is a highly experimental procedure with no absolute guarantee of success and no easy method of reversal.’ Shi can see Maria starting to sweat, so shi adds ‘but please, rest assured that every previous subject has made a complete recovery and adapted to their new life without incident.’
Maria nods. She knows the professor’s disclaimers are a legal necessity, but wishes shi’d dispense with the alarming ‘no guarantees’ rhetoric.
‘Do you understand the nature of this trial as it has been explained to you?’ Professor Veritas asks.
‘Yes,’ Maria says.
Veritas glances at Silvergleam, who nods once, and the professor picks up hir tablet in satisfaction. Maria senses an ungraspable psychic exchange has taken place between the two 'kats, and wonders what it would be like to communicate such volumes of information telepathically.
‘And do you consent to participate?’ Veritas continues.
This is it, Maria realises, and her heartrate accelerates. Her mouth is so dry that her first attempt to speak comes out as a voiceless croak.
Rawani appears in the doorway from the main lab, backpack dangling from one hand. ‘I’m about to load the target pattern into the buffer,’ she tells Veritas, pulling out a huge-capacity data drive. ‘Are we still going with Cocoa?’
Professor Veritas fiddles with hir tablet for a second, then turns it around to show Maria a chocolate-brown chakat bounding and cavorting with carefree abandon, clearly showing off for the camera. Shi is smaller than the average chakat by half a head; lean and graceful and handsome.
This isn’t a dream. This isn’t a prank. This isn’t a trip. This is the real deal. She is about to inherit this person’s body. She is going to become a fucking chakat. Jesus Christ almighty, what the hell is she signing up for? And why does she need it so badly?
‘I can tell by your emotions that you’re ready to commence,’ Silvergleam says, all smiles of the second-hand psychic wonderment. ‘But we need verbal consent before we can put anything into motion—’
Maria clears her throat. ‘Yes,’ she says quickly, as if afraid the opportunity will be yanked from under her.
Veritas checks one last tick-box in Maria’s file, then pushes the tablet toward the girl. With trancelike slowness, Maria presses her index finger against the fingerprint sensor. Her signature appears at the bottom of the page next to Veritas’.
‘Come with me,’ the professor says.
Maria allows herself to be led into the transporter laboratory. It’s a perfectly round room sporting the same salmon-pink aesthetic as the outer office. A window takes up a third of the western arc of the wall; tangerine sunlight pours in, splashing up against a plethora of humming electronics and the transceiver dais itself. Upon seeing the latter, Maria falters in her stride. The sight of the machine incites a cold shock in her belly, like she’s just swallowed ice water.
Rawani waves at them from beside a terminal. She’s chewing gum.
‘Where are we up to?’ Veritas asks her.
‘Ready to energise,’ Rawani says, looking very unlike a doctor in her antiquated techwear-revival getup. She blows a little pink bubble that bursts with a wet smack!
‘And you’re sure this doesn’t hurt?’ Maria asks in a small voice.
Veritas lays a comforting hand on her arm. ‘Like I’ve said in the past, it will be a bit of a shock,’ shi admits. ‘We’re grafting your nervous system into a completely different body, one with different senses and a completely different layout. It’ll take a few seconds for you to start interpreting the new stimuli correctly, during which time you’ll feel very disoriented and dizzy. You’ll struggle to move at first, and you may lose consciousness.'
‘Great,’ Maria deadpans. Rawani chuckles.
‘Try to relax through it.’ Veritas concludes. ‘Just let it happen, and you’ll be fine.
‘Is this reversible?’ Maria asks. She tries to sound offhand so they know she’s cool and not at all trying to hedge her bets, but fails.
Veritas and Rawani exchange a glance.
‘Yyyyes,’ Rawani says slowly, ‘but it’s really not a good idea. See, transporters are not supposed to be used this way at all. We’re actually operating in what’s technically a very specific failure state. The transposition algorithms my team and I are working on are giving us a success rate of about ninety-nine point six at this stage, and chakat brains are similar enough to human brains that the leftover neurons should map with enough congruence for synaptogenesis to take over. But the same can’t be said for the reverse.’
‘You’d have two extra limbs,’ Veritas says, making a fist with one forepaw to demonstrate. ‘Your spine would be at least three times as long. Think of it like this:’ Shi holds up a tiny imaginary glass, pinkie extended, like shi could really go for a shot of whiskey or vodka. ‘If we say that a human brain is the size of a shot glass, then a chakat brain would be more like a coffee mug. Sorry—’ shi says with an apologetic smile ‘—not trying to call your old species simple, that’s just the way it has to be with all the extra nervous system you’d be carrying around. Point is, pouring the contents of a shot glass into a coffee mug is easier than pouring a full mug into a shot glass. Does that make sense?’
Maria nods silently.
‘Essentially, there’s no guarantee that all of you will make it back into your old body,’ Rawani clarifies. ‘And the you that results would end up carrying a whole bunch of chakat-specific neural circuits. You’d be human again, but you’d have a phantom tail and forelegs, a hallucinogenic empathic sense that you wouldn’t have the cortex to decipher, your skin would feel raw and naked—’
‘That’s okay, I was just wondering,’ Maria says firmly, cutting off the engineer.
‘Anything else you’d like to ask?’ Silvergleam says. ‘There’s no such thing as too many questions. We want you to be as informed as possible.’
Maria tries to think of more queries, but she is staring fixedly at the transceiver dais, and her willpower being spent on not thinking about the impending dematerialisation of all her atoms.
There’s a weird greyish-green oblong sitting in the back of the machine — a flaccid thing that looks like the 2001 monolith if it were made of algae-flavoured jelly. ‘What’s that?’ Maria asks.
‘Amino acids, nucleic acids, lipids, polysaccharides…’ Veritas explains, ‘basically all the raw ingredients of carbon-based life.’
‘Ballast, essentially,’ Rawani says. ‘You’re about to nearly triple in size, and that mass has to come from somewhere.’
Maria is numb as she walks across the room. Silvergleam holds her hand as she takes her place beside the rectangle of amino acids in the centre of the quantum discombobulater. Her heart is racing now, like an out-of-control engine. She wonders if that’s going to affect the machine’s read on her.
‘It’s going to be okay,’ Silvergleam soothes, having read her emotions. Shi squeezes Maria’s hand. ‘It’s okay. You’re doing great.’ Then shi stands well back, leaving Maria alone on the dais.
‘Ever used a transporter before?’ Rawani asks Maria. ‘No.’
‘Easiest thing in the world,’ the engineer assures. ‘All you have to do is stand there. This stuff is all latest-generation.’ She gestures broadly at the myriad tech scattered around the room — the brains of the transporter mechanism itself, laid bare for easy diagnostic access instead of being built into the walls. ‘Best motion compensation in the business. You don’t even have to focus on standing super still, like the old days of transporting. We're just going to beam you up and then right back down again. You’re lucky you don’t have any neural implants, because that would complicate things.’
'Should I, uh, undress or something?' Maria asks, realising that almost tripling in size within her jeans and hoodie would probably be claustrophobic at the very least.
‘We can separate you from your clothing during the transportation,’ Silvergleam explains, ‘but if undressing would make you more comfortable, then by all means.’
‘Oh. No, that’s okay,’ Maria whispers. ‘Just use the machine.’ ‘I want you to relax,’ Veritas says. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Yes,’ Maria says, and her voice cracks.
‘I want you to close your eyes, then take a nice deep breath and hold it.’ Veritas instructs. Shi demonstrates by inhaling slowly, counting to five, and exhaling.
Maria does as she’s told. She squeezes her eyes shut and sucks in a lungful of breath. Her heartrate skyrockets, pounding deep in her inner ears. She wonders if she might faint from nerves.
‘Energise,’ says Veritas’ voice, sharp with authority.
Maria is suddenly aware of a ringing in her ears like tinnitus. It gets louder and higher and more piercing until it makes her teeth hurt. Then, with a colossal wrench that she feels in the pit of her soul, the universe lurches inward.
No, not silence. A chorus of ultrasonics. Hir eyes fly open reflexively.
The colour is off somehow, like when you’ve spent too much time out in the sun and come indoors to find that the world is bluer than you remember.
But so much worse is the realisation shi can’t feel anything below hir eyeballs. Shi has full-frame dead leg syndrome.
It hits like a truck, all at once — the worst pins-and-needles episode of all time. Sensationless agony erupts, encompassing hir arms, legs, face, hir entire being. Cosmic white-noise of unholy intensity.
Pure, dreamlike unreality descends. Every muscle in hir body tenses in a single mighty convulsion. The world sways and suddenly tilts at a weird angle. There's a long whipcrack of static all down hir right. It’s possible shi’s just collapsed onto hir side.
It’s like shi’s trapped in two different psychedelic music videos at once. There are sounds, but they mean nothing. There is movement, but it's random and sickening. Hir every nerve ending screams under the assault of Satan’s acupuncture.
Shi’s panting. In and out. That's all shi’s aware of. Great, impossibly deep lungfuls of air, straining against the binding of hir rigid muscles. Pulling each one in like there's not enough air in the room, and letting it out in a guttural infrasonic that seems to well up from somewhere deep in hir core.
The fizzing, crackling numbness is beginning to abate in patches. Sensation is tentatively returning like god-rays shining through storm clouds. Only that makes it sound nice. The parts of hir that shi can feel are stiff; cramped.
There's a period of between five minutes and four hundred years where shi just lies there, panting, letting reality and sensation bleed back in. The dominant quality is a pervasive fog of crimson pain. Shi’s dizzy and sick, like shi’s just downed a few litres of something intensely alcoholic. As exhausted as if shi’s just run a marathon.
Hir heartsbeat pounds in hir ears, throat, fingertips, and toes — a syncopated polyrhythm, like a never-ending fill on a drum kit.
Something is stroking hir head and neck in long, gentle motions.
It's soothing. Comforting.
'That's it, just breathe,' a voice is saying – has been saying for some time. The ringing in hir ears resonates painfully with each syllable. 'Just breathe. It's okay. You're okay. Breathe, that's it.'
Shi does as the voice says. Hir surroundings are resolving into something resembling a coherent picture. A round room, pastel pink.
Someone is lying on the floor beside hir. A silver chakat, stroking hir neck and talking. Shi recognizes this person from somewhere.
'Whaa...' shi starts to say, and it comes out astonishingly throaty and reverberant and deep.
'Take your time,' the chakat says. 'Take it easy, you're okay. Just take it slowly.' And as shi's saying this, it's like there's an invisible field coming off hir. It's the colour of soothing vibes, and smells like the sound a Tibetan singing bowl makes.
From directly behind hir comes a string of gibberish about de-synchronisation and polarisation. This non-sequitur seems to emit from within a second invisible corona that gleams the bright cobalt-blue of razor-sharp concentration, a blue that shi sees not with hir eyes, but behind them.
'I want you to try and move your fingers for me,’ the silver chakat suggests softly. ‘Can you do that? Wiggle your fingers?'
Hir world is swaying and gyrating nauseatingly, which makes it very difficult to concentrate on anything other than not throwing up, but shi gives it a go. Hir fingers are stiff and sore, still pinging with high-frequency numbness, but they move. They're also covered in chocolate-brown fur, and there are little caramel-coloured beans on the tips and a velvety pad across the centre of the palm—
Shi just stares at hir hands. Head empty, no thoughts. ‘What’s your name?’ the silver chakat asks.
Shi opens hir mouth to say Cocoa, but no, that’s not right, is it? Shi’s confused. Nothing feels real. Shi doesn’t feel quite real,
somehow. Is this a dream? Is shi asleep?
‘You’re okay,’ says the silver chakat. ‘You’re at a research facility in Amistad, Chakona. You’re participating in a series of ongoing trials led by Chakat Oceanwalker. My name is Silvergleam. We’ve been speaking on videocall for months. Do you remember me?’
Yes, shi does remember. Silvergleam: the kindly silver face from the interviews. The psychologist.
‘I need you to tell me your name, honey,’ Silvergleam implores softly. ‘What’s your name, shir?’
Shi has to think for a bit, but eventually it comes to hir. ‘Mar—’ hir voice is deep and husky, like mega morning-voice. Shi clears hir throat, but nothing changes. ‘Maria… uh, Petrou,’ shi slurs. The sound, a rich and sonorous contralto, seems to well up from the region of hir stomach.
Silvergleam beams. The tone of hir aura grows pinker, sweeter; the taste of strawberries in F major.
‘Shi’s coherent,’ says the voice directly behind hir. From the corner of hir eye, Maria can see an orange-and-purple somebody brandishing a handheld scanner about hir head.
‘I should hope so,’ says someone else, and Maria realises there’s a third person in the room, emanating a similar shade of relieved pink as Silvergleam, undercut with a triumphant lemon-zest power chord. The second person pads into clearer view — a tiger taur in a purple power suit, scanner in hand, still radiating sharp ultramarine focus. The word Veritas floats up in Maria’s mind from unfathomable depths.
‘Can you try to lie up for me?’ asks the tiger, hir crystal-blue eyes flicking between hir screen and Maria’s face. Something about this turn of phrase strikes Maria as odd, but shi’s too dizzy to figure out why.
Silvergleam stops stroking Maria’s neck. Shi gets hir legs under hirself and rolls onto hir belly, laying like the Sphinx — thus, ‘lying up’. Maria thinks this would be an ambitious undertaking in hir current state, so shi moans and remains sprawled on hir side.
‘I know you’re dizzy, but you have to try and lie up,’ the tiger (Veritas?) urges. ‘The dizziness won’t go away until you start moving around. You need to get used to your new vestibular and somatosensory systems.’
This is a lot of big words at once, but Maria understands the gist. Shi plants one hand on the ground and pushes. Silvergleam stands up to assist. With heroic effort and assistance from two pairs of hands, Maria manages to haul hirself upright. But this is a lot of movement, and it throws hir ailing sense of equilibrium into chaos. Shi swoons, heels forward onto hir palms, and retches.
‘I’m so glad we started telling the pattern donors to fast before being scanned,’ the third voice comments. ‘This is much less messy.’
Maria groans. Silvergleam rubs hir gently between the shoulders, saying ‘It’s alright. It’s okay. You’re doing great.’
As hir head-spins abate, Maria comes to realise that shi’s in kind of a weird position. It feels like shi’s lying prostrate on hir stomach. It also feels like shi’s bent double, propped forward on hir arms.
Shi looks down, fighting the urge to heave. Hir hands are splayed at shoulder width on the studded rubber surface of the dais, in between hir second pair of hands, which are stretched out ahead of hir.
Maria has no idea how to react to this. Shi just stares, dumbfounded.
‘I’ve got four arms,’ shi rumbles.
'Yes, you do!' Veritas confirms. 'All mammals are based on the same “template”—’ (shi makes air quotes with hir fingers) ‘— with the same joints bending in the same axis, moved by the same muscles connected to the same parts of the brain. Your arms are one variation on the “standard” mammalian forelimb, and your forelegs are another.’
Hir forelegs. Hir fucking forelegs. Christ on a bike. Transfixed, shi runs hir right hand down the limb on that side. It… feels like shi’s touching the back of hir forearm, only that arm is as big around as a leg, thickly muscled. And the fur! It's medium length, freshly conditioned, amazingly soft. Hir fingers reach the wrist of hir right forepaw. Bringing hitherto unknown extremities to action, shi clenches the fingers (toes?) on that leg, curling them around to hold hir right hand with hir other right hand. It comes so naturally that shi doesn’t even think about it until shi realises shi’s got two thumbs on each side now.
‘Uh,’ Maria says. Hir head-spins resurge as shi tries to accept this impossibility. The room wavers dangerously.
‘It’s okay.’ Silvergleam, ever reassuring. ‘I know this is quite a shock, even if you’re prepared for it. But you’re safe and everything is going just fine.’ Shi resumes hir gentle petting of Maria’s neck.
Maria is too busy flexing HIR HUGE FUCKING PAWS to concentrate on the pleasant sensation. But then shi notices that Silvergleam is reaching further down hir back with each stroke. Neck to shoulders. Neck to upper back. Neck to the small of hir back — and here, the psychologist’s hand makes a sweeping, impossible plane change, sliding between a second set of shoulder blades as Maria’s body curves gracefully outward at what had previously been hir waist to become parallel with the floor. Maria, still reverently clutching hir forepaws, freezes as Silvergleam’s hand travels horizontally along the rest of hir body for what seems like an irrationally long distance. It reaches hir hips (what Maria interprets as hir ‘classic’ hips, where hir body used to conclude above the cleft of hir ass) and somehow keeps going.
Shi has a tail.
An ebullient shudder fires down hir spine, making all the muscles in hir long body contract, bunching hir fingers and toes, arching hir back involuntarily. Hir mouth drops open and shi lets out a prolonged rumble that’s half moan, half purr. Shi breaks out in goosebumps, all hir fur standing on end in a wave that races out from Silvergleam’s touch at the terminus of hir being.
‘Nothing like a good butt scratch,’ the third voice laughs appreciatively, sounding much closer now.
As Maria comes more to terms with hir surroundings, shi starts to feel a weird Alice in Wonderland flavour of vertigo regarding the scale of the universe. Hir recollection from before the procedure is hazy, but it occurs to hir that the two nearby chakats are, in a way shi can’t put hir finger on, somehow smaller than people their size ought to be. And the transporter dais seems too narrow beneath hir. Hir new front legs are within reach of the right edge of the dais. Hir rear legs are up against the opposite edge, and hir tail (hir fucking TAIL for Christ’s sake) drapes over onto the floor. Shi’s the length of the whole machine, and shi’s not even stretched out straight. The universe isn’t smaller — shi’s grown. Shi is fucking huge. Shi’s taking up a lot of space.
Shi’d been aware that shi was a completely different size and shape in the same way you’re aware of the nose on your face. That is to say, not at all, until it’s called to your attention. Now, seeing the rest of hir body (which, as it turns out, constitutes the majority of hir entire being) with hir own eyes completely derails hir train of thought, and the dizziness reaches a crescendo. It’s like looking down at the back of a huge panthera cat, except it’s hir. It’s hir. That’s hir body. Shi is a feline. Shi is a big ol’ kitty-cat taur. What the actual fuck. That’s HIR chocolate fur, HIR four legs, HIR giant paws, and HIR long-ass tail because
A torrent of emotions crash over hir like a tsunami. Shi barks out something that’s part manic laugh, part ecstatic sob. Shi instinctively tries to curl up in a delirious ball and ends up whacking hirself in the face with hir own tail. Shi runs out of breath trying to cry and moan and laugh at the same time and is too excited to remember to breathe. The world starts to get dark.
Veritas is saying something about taking it easy. Maria follows hir directions by violently falling asleep.
Shi’s moving. Walls and ceiling are scrolling by like shi’s sliding along the floor. Shi’s lying on hir side on something white and soft that smells like sterile linen. Groggily, shi tries to look around, but hir eyelids are heavy. Hir body is weak. Shi barely has the strength to move.
Directly behind hir is a turquoise thrum of professional concern, which shi somehow recognises as belonging to Veritas. Beside hir, shi can sense Silvergleam’s presence, and a few paces back is the third emotional field from the transporter room.
‘Can you hear me, Maria?’ Veritas asks. ‘Yes,’ Maria says in a weirdly throaty voice. Oh. Right.
Shi opens hir eyes, looks down at hirself. Brown. Feline. Tauric. Huge.
Hir stomach somersaults like a gymnast. Shi closes hir eyes and moans a stupefied moan.
‘You’re okay. You just fainted,’ Silvergleam explains. ‘Don’t worry, you’re not the first.’
‘At least you didn’t throw up,’ Rawani adds helpfully. That was her name, Maria remembers suddenly — Rawani the engineer. The bipedal one. A fox? Jackal? No; close but no banana.
'I'm taking you to a recovery ward,' Veritas goes on. 'The trial appears to have been a success so far, but we need to keep you for observation during your acute recovery. We just have to make sure you're a perfectly healthy chakat.'
A perfectly healthy chakat. God’s bones, this can’t possibly be real, can it?
Shi opens hir eyes again, pays closer attention to the body shi's going to spend the rest of hir life in. Pays closer attention to the self shi's become.
Where shi'd once had olive skin, shi now has acres of luxuriant fur the colour of French roast. At what had previously been hir waist, shi has a second pair of shoulders, arms, and hands (paws?). And hir body keeps going below that for at least a metre — more than two, if shi counts hir tail.
Veritas takes the stretcher around a right-angled turn and into a sunlit room. Maria just manages to read the sign on the door as shi’s pushed past: 3.141 Non-sterile Recovery Ward A.
At first, shi has the bizarre impression that they’ve wandered into a third-floor greenhouse. The ceiling and one entire wall are made of seamless glass that makes hir forget shi’s indoors. The walls that aren’t glass are thick with climbing vines and vibrant flowers in colours shi’s never seen before. A concert of sweet floral scents reaches hir nose, startling in both detail and variety. Twisting hir head on the stretcher, shi sees in the centre of the space a grassy clearing that’s not quite the size of a tennis court, surrounded by all manner of exotic flora.
The mattress glides into the middle of the room and settles gently to the floor. Veritas pads into view, crouches beside Maria, and lays a reassuring hand on hir arm.
‘Okay Maria,’ shi says, ‘what I want you to do now is just relax. This is quite a significant experience for you, but I want you to know that everything is going perfectly well and you’re in very good hands. We’ll give you something to eat as soon as you think you can stomach it, and then we’ll run a series of coordination and perception exercises, just to make sure you’re taking to your new nervous system properly. But first, if you’d like to, you can go ahead and explore your body a bit. Get a feel for the new you.’
Shi demonstrates by running hir hands down hir front, patting the sides of hir snout, and feeling around hir lower
shoulders withers and the bend of hir union. Then shi points across the room. Maria follows the line of hir finger and sees a towering maned wolf bedecked in retro-cyberpunk who waves jauntily at hir, aura humming a satisfied canary-yellow.
‘Rawani and I will be over there comparing notes and going over the transporter’s debug log,’ Veritas explains. ‘When you’re ready to continue the testing — or if you have any questions or concerns — feel free to get my attention.’
Maria nods, the material of the stretcher inducing a back-and-forth nettling in the fur of hir cheek and nose. Veritas gives one last smile, then rises and walks over to Rawani, hir aura fading from sweet crimson to sober turquoise as hir focus shifts to the engineer.
Silvergleam settles to hir belly beside Maria and takes hir by the hand. ‘How are you doing, Maria?’ Shi asks gently.
Maria is clinically dumbfounded and has no idea how to answer that question. It’s like shi’s experiencing every single emotion at once and they’re all precariously cancelling out.
‘It’s okay,’ Silvergleam coos, stroking Maria’s hand. ‘You’re okay. Just relax.’ Maria can literally feel reassurance pouring out of the psychologist. Shi closes hir eyes, soaking up the borrowed calm, and tries to compose hir thoughts.
‘I’m a chakat?’ shi whispers. Shi’d meant it as a declarative statement but it comes out with a rising inflection that makes it sound like a question.
‘You’re a chakat,’ Silvergleam confirms, and Maria hears the smile in hir aura as well as in hir words.
With hir eyes still closed, Maria tentatively cups hir nose and chin, feels along the profile of hir jaw, and hir stomach performs another of those existential flips as shi realises shi has A FUCKING MUZZLE. Hir throat goes tight as shi probes the lines of hir face, tracing the long, wide bridge of hir nose and the cold damp tip; the ridge of hir brow; hir hairline where hir fur becomes long and flowing instead of thick and fluffy. Hir fingers brush the lobe of hir ear, which is now high up the side of hir head, and the whole thing flicks involuntarily like a twitching eyelid. Breathlessly, shi fingers the long, felt-soft perimeter of hir ear, noting how it comes to a delicate point with a teeny little tuft.
All at once, shi truly, desperately needs a mirror. Shi croaks a request to Silvergleam, who pulls out hir phone and submits a command to the building’s network.
The air above Maria shimmers and seems to solidify as hidden ultrasonic emitters convolute its refractive index. An image emerges, blurry at first, resolving into a hologram of a brown chakat lying on a white taur-sized stretcher in a field of grass. The ‘kat’s golden eyes are wide, hir ears swivelled outward, and hir brows drawn together in a display of overwhelming emotion.
At first, the person in the hologram is a stranger — instinctively, shi expects dark brown eyes; shoulder-length black hair; olive skin; and seeing nothing of the sort, construes the image as pre-recorded. But slowly, trancelike, Maria’s fingers rise to hir face once more, and the chakat in the virtual mirror emulates hir exactly. Shi swallows, and so does the reflection.
Recognition wells up, along with a sweeping rush of something like reverse grief. In the reflection, hir face crumples, hir ears fold, hir tears begin to spill. Hir bottom lip quivers in devastated euphoria. One hand covers hir mouth as hir body is wracked by quiet, disbelieving sobs. Hir reflection, similarly struck, only serves to drive home the undeniable truth of the situation: Maria Petrou is now forever a fluffy brown cat taur with six limbs, a tail, and amber eyes.
Human no more.
Maria’s gaze fixates on Silvergleam’s face, which is drawn into a lopsided grin — shi’s holding back tears hirself, awash in the harmonics of Maria’s own projected emotions.
‘Are you okay?’ Silvergleam asks.
‘Y-yes,’ Maria chokes. Shi looks up at hir floating reflection again, at hir tear-stained face with those big golden eyes, then looks back at Silvergleam, and it’s like shi’s seeing hir for the first time. Maria can’t put hir finger on it, but there’s a subtle air of soothing familiarity about the psychologist’s face. A heretofore unseen world of detail in hir features, hir scent, and the nuance of hir expression. Maria figures out that shi’s subconsciously comparing Silvergleam’s face to hir own, which shi can do now, because
‘I-I’m a chaka-a-a-at,’ shi sobs, unselfconsciously pulling Silvergleam toward hirself, burying hir face in hir fur, and weeping pure rapture.
‘Shi okay?’ Rawani’s voice asks from across the room. Maria feels Silvergleam nod, feels the smile in hir aura. Shi begins to pet Maria’s neck again; long, gentle strokes, while shi broadcasts that soothing Tibetan singing-bowl vibe.
Eventually, Maria’s sobs subside to irregular hiccoughing. Shi releases Silvergleam and flops onto hir back, wiping hir
nose muzzle with the back of hir arm and then immediately regretting it. Shi takes a few deep breaths of deliciously fragrant air. Very deep breaths — it’s like shi’s taking the first truly effortless lungfuls of hir life after being cured of some chronic airway obstruction.
Beneath the all-over smoulder of residual numbness and heavy fatigue, shi feels a dull syncopated throbbing in hir chest and deep in hir belly. The rhythm brings to mind the clickety-clack sound of trains shi’d heard in old twenty-first century media, back when trains had wheels. It takes hir a second to realise that this is hir heartbeat. No, shi corrects hirself — hir heartsbeat, because (Jesus H Christ) shi has two fucking hearts now. Gone is the familiar lub-dub …… lub-dub, replaced with a much heavier and altogether different ta-dub lub-dub …… ta-dub lub-dub.
This is such a trip that hir hand flies to hir chest in disorientation. Having the steady and predictable metronome of hir heart — the organ that’s been keeping hir alive for the last twenty-six years — suddenly switch things up and play double time is definitely the strangest sensation shi’s experienced so far. Shi takes a (very) long, calming breath and relaxes into it, getting used to the rhythm that will sustain hir for the rest of hir life.
‘Wow,’ shi rasps, staring up into hir reflection. Shi bares hir teeth to reveal dagger-like fangs so big that hir bottom lip actually sits behind them when hir mouth is closed. Shi probes hir new ivory with the tip of hir long tongue and marvels at the stark contrast between hir jet black lips and bright pink gums.
Shi lets hir hands play outward from hir chest, sliding experimentally through hir fur. Hir FUR! The very idea makes hir delirious with excitement. Touching hirself through hir own pelt makes it seem like shi's wrapped up in a snug, fluffy robe that's as light as nano-weave silk. It’s the ultimate security blanket. It's so outrageously comfortable shi wonders how shi ever tolerated being totally bald.
Hir fingers glide over hir boobs (no surprises there at least), down the sides of hir waist, and encounter the hard outcrops of shoulder blades where hir pelvis used to be. Shi holds a trembling forepaw up beside the corresponding hand, and it’s easily twice as big. Shi twiddles the stubby fingers, clenches and relaxes all four fists in unison, extends and retracts stunning, curved claws. Wow that’s weird. Shi literally has a second pair of arms. The true mindfuck here is that, despite having just acquired them, it feels as natural as if shi was born this way.
Feeling faint, Maria takes one forepaw and uses it to check out hir lower half. Shi feels out a barrel chest that cinches toward hir hips. And there starting at the top of hir mons is a bulge with a weird concavity that, upon closer inspection, sheaths hir extremely ample penis.
That’s definitely going to warrant thorough investigation.
Below all that is hir tail. Hir motherfucking tail — a metre-long continuation of hir spine. There had been no analogue of this on hir old body, and yet shi can swish and flick the appendage without thought, feeling the fur bristle over the fibres of the mattress. Shi flexes brand-new muscle groups to arc the fluffy whip inward, reaches out with one voracious forepaw and clasps the end, thumbing the brown tuft.
A fit of hysterical giggles ignite in hir throat, which shi can only partially suppress. Shi flops back against the stretcher, sniggering like an idiot. Hir gaze flies up and down hir reflection, drinking in hir appearance in the hovering mirror as shi cherishes the delicious reality of this impossible situation.
‘So,’ Silvergleam asks, ‘do you have a name in mind?’
‘Huh?’ Maria wheezes, tearing hir gaze away from the hologram. ‘I assume you’ll be retiring your human name now?’ Silvergleam
prompts, the corners of hir mouth turned up in an astute smile.
Maria had spent ages scrutinising videos of Cocoa, trying to come up with a name that suited both herself and her prospective body, but hadn’t been able to commit to anything. It had seemed wrong, somehow, to choose a name for a version of hirself that didn’t yet exist, based on the appearance of a stranger. Shi recalls the most promising moniker shi’d come up with, one shi’d tried out numerous times in front of hir bedroom mirror, but which had always seemed disingenuous coming from hir human mouth. Shi looks up into hir reflection, staring into hir big golden eyes, takes a slow breath and says, quietly, ‘Aurelia.’
Hearing hir own husky chakat voice speak the name is all the confirmation shi needs. ‘Aurelia,’ shi repeats, transfixed by the way hir lips and muzzle form the word, drunk on the uncanny sense that this feline stranger is really, truly hir. Shi tries to say the name a third time, but what comes out is a rising squeak as shi dissolves into renewed sobbing. The last time shi’d uttered that name was on a different planet, in a different body, as a different person, not truly believing Professor Veritas’ outrageous claims. It might as well have been in another timeline.
‘That’s beautiful,’ Silvergleam says appreciatively, taking hir hand again.
‘My name,’ shi says, forcing the words past the lump in hir throat, ‘is Chakat Aurelia. Daughter of Ioanna and Willemina.’
‘Welcome to Chakona, Chakat Aurelia,’ Silvergleam murmurs to hir.
‘Oh, god,’ shi whispers. This is a real thing that’s actually happened for real. Hir entire life has just taken a screeching course change and it's going to affect every single aspect of hir existence in ways shi can’t begin to imagine. Shi’s dizzy with the headlong rush of possibility, in no way prepared for this. Shi’s going to have to rework all of hir current relationships, rethink hir goals for the future, open hirself up to experiences shi can’t yet dream of. All of a sudden, shi feels very small (despite having just gained a hundred kilos). Shi feels like a little kid lost in the department store of life, no parents in sight.
Fucking hell, what will shi tell hir parents?
Silvergleam squeezes hir hand in response to hir mounting existentialism. ‘One thing at a time, Aurelia. Do you think you’re ready to eat something?’
Aurelia’s hearts leap at the sound of hir chosen name. Hir stomach rumbles like a mini earthquake at the suggestion of food. Shi’s absolutely famished despite the lingering motion sickness. ‘Yes. Please. I’m starving,’ shi sniffs, glad for the distraction.
Silvergleam raises hir head. ‘Would you mind grabbing The Usual from the tea room for Aurelia, here?’ shi says to Rawani, placing pointed stress on the name.
‘No problem,’ Rawani says. She ducks through the doorway and disappears.
A voiceless communication takes place between Silvergleam and Veritas — a brief cascade of intention and subtle gradients of emotion; a wordless sentence that Aurelia picks up like a radio transmission. Lacking a chakat’s cultural experience, shi can’t decode the nuance of the exchange, but supposes the gist of it could be translated as ‘ready’ or ‘proceed’.
Veritas pads over and crouches beside Aurelia while Silvergleam retrieves a handheld dryer from a cabinet near the wall terminal.
‘Would you like to try standing up?’ Veritas asks.
Aurelia clears hir throat. ‘“Standing up”?’ Silvergleam wafts the dryer over Aurelia’s sodden forearm and face, evaporating the tears and snot.
‘Yes. On all fours,’ Veritas grins.
Aurelia looks down at hirself again. Contemplating the implications of that idea, shi inspects hir feet, flexing hir toes and ankles, and holds up hir new forelegs, flexing each of the digits and turning the paws around so shi can check out hir giant palms and cute brown beans. For the first time, shi realises hir new body is not just an awesome phenomenon, but a tool to be used. A method of interacting with hir environment. An extension of hirself.
Yes, shi does want to try standing on all fours. Shi wants that very much.
Veritas reads hir eagerness and instructs hir to roll onto hir belly. ‘Lying up, like before. Remember?’
Silvergleam dispels the hovering mirror with a quick tap of hir phone. Aurelia tucks in hir legs and rolls onto hir stomach, then, tentatively, bends at the union to raise hir upper body of the mattress. This still feels weird — belly prone against the floor, feet tucked against hir sides, forelegs out straight, while also sitting up. Shi can’t decide if it feels like shi’s bending at the neck or the waist. Shi supposes the correct answer is ‘both’.
‘First we’ll try sitting,’ Veritas says, ‘just to get you used to the idea of being upright.’ Shi drops to hir haunches to demonstrate the position. ‘Just walk your way back with your forelegs, nice and slowly.’
Aurelia looks down and, with intense concentration, shoves at the floor with hir hands. Veritas chuckles and corrects hir gently.
‘Oh, nope — wrong hands.’ Shi taps the back of Aurelia’s right forepaw with hir own. ‘These hands here. Your front paws.’
‘Right,’ Aurelia says, giddy. ‘My other hands.’ Shi plants both paws into the mattress and presses like shi’s doing a push-up. Shi’s still exhausted from hir grand mal in the transporter lab, so it takes a lot of effort, but lo and behold, shi levers hir lower body off the stretcher, tipping back at the hips until shi feels hir weight is propped against hir tail.
‘This feels more like a squat than a sit,’ shi muses. In hir mind’s eye, shi pictures hirself in something like a Slavic squat; heels on the ground, supported by hir forelegs at the front and hir tail at the rear. It’s a perfectly stable pose, and shi feels like shi could keep this up for hours.
‘Yes, I suppose it would from your perspective,’ Veritas answers. ‘And that’s not so far from the truth, really.’
Silvergleam smiles playfully. ‘Except this is more comfortable.’ ‘More useful too,’ Aurelia nods, running hir hands through hir
much shorter hair, enjoying having the ability to brace against the floor and still have a free pair of arms and be at conversation height. Shi’s grinning now, really starting to get into hir chakat fate. This is fantastic!
‘Ready to stand up for real?’ Veritas asks. Aurelia nods enthusiastically.
Veritas holds hir arms out, offering support. ‘You know how you said this feels like you're squatting? Well, the next part is easy — just stand up from the squat. All the way up, that’s it,’ shi encourages as Aurelia uncoils hir hind legs, groaning like a dad getting out of his easy chair.
Aurelia, fascinated by the mechanics involved, looks down to see what's happening with hir multitudinous limbs. This turns out to be a mistake because a lifetime of human learning suddenly clashes with what shi’s observing. Hir proprioception goes nuts as shi mistakes hir forelegs for hir human legs and immediately loses track of the whole hierarchy, crashing gracelessly to the mattress while trying to drive limbs shi no longer has.
‘It’s alright,’ Veritas assures, ‘don’t worry, every new taur has tripped over their own legs before you. You’re actually doing really well. Try to focus on me instead of what you’re doing. Don’t think about it, just do it.’
Aurelia reasserts hir fresh self-image like a truck crunching into gear. With a grunt, shi gets hir legs back under hirself and carefully returns to the stable sitting position shi’s learned. At that moment, the door opens and Rawani returns, carrying a crystal tray the size of a manhole cover loaded with achingly delicious-smelling morsels. Aurelia’s mouth instantly begins to water.
‘Afternoon tea!’ Rawani announces. ‘Oh, I see you’ve mastered sitting. That’s great! Have you taken your first steps yet?’
‘Not yet,’ Aurelia says, accidentally drooling all over hir own chin. Shi wipes hir mouth sheepishly, swallows, licks hir lips (wow, hir tongue is so long, shi can easily lick the tip of hir nose!)
Silvergleam laughs and retrieves the dryer. ‘Perhaps we should take a break before we continue with the exercises?’ shi suggests, evaporating Aurelia’s muzzle clean. ‘It’d be best to get your strength up.’
Aurelia is burning to try out hir new legs, but hir stomach has other ideas. ‘Yeah, okay,’ shi concedes, unable to take hir eyes of the food.
Rawani grasps a metal disc on the underside of the tray and pulls, extending a telescoping stand. She places the tray in front of Aurelia at just the right height for hir to access while
squatting sitting. ‘Bon appétit!’
‘I’m afraid the Earth meats are only replicated,’ Silvergleam apologises. ‘But the cheese is real, and so is the fish—’ shi breaks off as Aurelia begins to shovel the food into hir mouth indiscriminately, and tries to hide hir amusement behind a hand.
‘I don’t think shi minds,’ Rawani laughs.
Aurelia demolishes half the tray in seconds before coming to hir senses. Belatedly, shi thanks Rawani for the meal and apologises for hir lack of table manners. ‘I’ve never been so hungry in my life,’ shi says between bites.
‘You haven’t eaten for twelve hours,’ Silvergleam tells hir.
‘I had pizza before coming here,’ Aurelia corrects. The memory of the moment seems bizarrely distant and colourless for having occurred only a few hours ago, and the recollection gives hir pause as shi realises the difference in sensation and technique between that meal and this one. Shi takes a moment to run hir long tongue around hir mouth, feeling out the unfamiliar geometry of hir new teeth and the sheer volume of hir muzzle.
‘That was your old body,’ Veritas explains. Shi lays a hand on Aurelia’s arm. ‘This body fasted for twelve hours before we scanned it. We found it’s best for our test subjects to emerge with an empty stomach.’
Aurelia sculls an entire glass of water without taking a breath, accidentally spilling some of it from hir cheeks. ‘So, what happened to my old body?’ shi asks.
‘Well, the short answer is that it's still here,’ Rawani says, gesturing broadly to Aurelia. ‘You still have all the atoms that made up your old self, we've just arranged them into the shape of a chakat, plus the added mass to make up for the size difference.’ She jerks a thumb over her shoulder. ‘I have a copy of your pre-transport scan backed up, including your isolated DNA sequence, which we'll archive for diagnostic purposes, so the weirder answer is that your old body is on one of my drives now?’ She shrugs. ‘You'll have to draw your own conclusions there — I flunked out of philosophy.’ With a teasing smile she asks ‘You don’t want it back, do you?’
‘No,’ Aurelia says emphatically, ‘you can keep it.’ Shi pops a sliver of oily yellowish protein into hir mouth and moans with pleasure at the taste. ‘What’s this?’
‘Wairua,’ Silvergleam says. ‘A species of fish. It’s a local delicacy.’
Aurelia swallows, reaching eagerly for the next fillet. ‘Huh. I’ve never liked seafood before, but this is delicious.’
‘Really?’ Veritas says with a raised eyebrow, exchanging glances with Rawani.
‘I could never stand seafood of any kind. Is this some kind of exotic alien fish or something?’ Aurelia asks.
‘Actually, it’s the most similar thing to Earth seafood that Chakona has,’ Veritas says thoughtfully. Shi makes a note on Aurelia’s file with hir tablet. ‘Interesting.’
‘Then did… my tastes change?’ Aurelia asks suspiciously, pausing hir meal to shoot a questioning look at the professor.
‘It’s possible,’ Veritas muses. ‘Right now, we’re working on preserving the muscle memory of the target body during transposition. That’s how you’re able to have so much coordination so quickly.’
‘Um, I can’t even walk yet,’ Aurelia interjects.
‘You haven’t tried,’ Veritas points out. ‘But you can speak and emote, and you’re demonstrating exceptional fine motor control with all your new parts.’ Shi gives Aurelia a gentle push just above hir lower shoulder, forcing hir to shuffle hir forelegs to stay upright. ‘Good sense of equilibrium, too.’
‘Trust me, you’re doing pretty well,’ Rawani says. ‘You should have seen the first person to come out of a transporter with a new body. They needed physical therapy before they could even pee.’
‘Oh,’ Aurelia says, harbouring a newfound appreciation for the amount of hard work these people have put into hir transformation. The two ‘kats pick up on hir gratitude and offer happy smiles.
‘It’s possible that the more procedural memory we manage to retain, the more of the original mind makes it through,’ Veritas speculates. To Rawani, shi says ‘We’ll need to bring that up with our previous subjects at their next follow-ups.’ The engineer nods and records a few notes of her own.
‘You mean there’s still some of Cocoa in here with me?’ Aurelia asks apprehensively, hands rising to hir temples.
Veritas waves a hand. ‘No, no. Nothing like thoughts or memories or psyche, at least. By “original mind” I mean…’ shi gestures aimlessly, looking for the right words. ‘...“properties of qualia”, I suppose you’d say. Tastes and preferences.’
Rawani shrugs. ‘Or maybe cats just can’t resist fish. Gonna have to science that one a whole lot closer.’ She looks delighted by the prospect.
Aurelia takes the final morsel, a handful of tiny azure berries, from the platter. ‘Is that why everything looks purple to me?’ shi asks, popping them into hir mouth.
‘That,’ Veritas says ‘would be your new retinas. Chakat eyes can see a broader spectrum of light compared to human eyes. If everything looks bluer, it’s because you’re seeing UV.’
Aurelia swallows hir mouthful of berries, perks up. ‘I can see UV?’ shi asks eagerly.
By way of response, Veritas walks over to the garden bed lining the walls of the ward and plucks a little yellow flower. ‘You’ve seen daisies before, I assume?’
‘Yes,’ Aurelia says.
‘How would you describe their colour?’
‘Uh, white? White petals with a yellow centre.’
Veritas presents the flower to Aurelia. It’s an ordinary daisy, sure enough, imported from Earth. But the tips of the white petals are a lustrous shade of indigo so intense it’s almost iridescent. The little dimple of pollen in the centre is flecked with lightsabre-vibrant ultra-pink. Aurelia holds it up by the stem, twiddling it back and forth so it catches the sunlight. ‘Wooowww!’
Veritas chuckles, delighted by Aurelia’s abject wonderment at what is, to the professor, just another colour. ‘So, are you ready to continue the exercise?’ shi asks.
‘Yes,’ Aurelia replies quickly. With a last captivated look, shi places the daisy on the empty platter, which Veritas moves aside before coming to stand before hir. Beside them, Rawani’s aura grows pearlescent with scientific curiosity and professional expectation.
Veritas holds hir hands out again in case Aurelia needs to catch hir balance. ‘Like before. Just come up out of the squat. Eyes on me.’
Aurelia stands up. Shi just does it. Inelegant, but instinctive. The unexpected ease with which shi pulls it off takes hir off-guard and shi gives a shocked giggle.
‘Well done!’ Veritas encourages. ‘Now take a minute to feel out your balance and get used to this posture. What does it feel like?’
Aurelia closes hir eyes and takes stock. Shi’s perched on hir fingertips and toes in some impossible yoga tabletop. Shi’d expected that standing as a taur would involve a sort of constantly-held flex of the back, but no. Shi squares hir upper shoulders, pushes hir chest forward, and it feels exactly like the act of drawing hirself up to full height as a human. No — better, because shi’s not bearing hir entire weight on hir lower back, so it’s even more passive than that.
‘Whoa,’ Aurelia breathes. Shi gently orbits hir centre of gravity to get a feel for hir balance, hir tail circulating like a counterweight. Shi’s confused at first because it feels like shi has no balance, until shi realises that being permanently on all fours contradicts the idea of balancing in the first place!
‘Oh my god, this is so stable!’ shi gasps, shuffling hir paws experimentally. Shi’s so low and centred that losing hir balance would be an actual feat. ‘I feel like a table!’
Rawani stifles an amused snort. Aurelia opens hir eyes, grinning. ‘I want to try walking,’ shi declares.
‘One step at a time. Come toward me, nice and easy,’ Veritas says, starting to creep backward, arms still outstretched. ‘Don’t think about it, just step forward and touch my hands.’
Aurelia leans forward, immediately frets about the sequence of hir legs, fails to move any of them, and goes nowhere. ‘Um…’
‘One step at a time,’ the professor repeats, beckoning. ‘Start with your rear legs. Remember, don’t think about it, just do it.’
Aurelia fixes hir eyes on Veritas’s face, lifts hir left hindpaw and steps it forward. All of a sudden, it’s like remembering a word that’s been on the tip of hir tongue; hir left forepaw goes next, almost automatically, then hir rear right, then hir front right.
Shi blurts a ‘Hah!’ of surprise and repeats the sequence, hir stride ponderous but successful. ‘Oh! Oh, wow!’
‘That’s it!’ Silvergleam beams.
Veritas keeps walking backward, keeping just ahead of Aurelia, encouraging. Within seconds, it’s no longer a left-left-right-right sequence, but a single motion: forward. Before shi knows it, they’ve covered the length of the ward.
Veritas halts. Aurelia triumphantly slaps the professor’s open palms. ‘Yes!’ shi cries giddily. Shi throws hir arms around Veritas and squeezes. ‘That was amazing!’
Veritas laughs and hugs hir back. ‘Want to try it on your own now? Nodding hugely, Aurelia turns around (sidestepping hir front and rear legs in opposite directions, a motion so instinctive shi registers it as a single action). Shi sets of more confidently with Veritas at hir side, picking up the pace from a geriatric shuffle to an honest walk. Despite hir fatigue, shi’s shocked at how little energy it takes compared to walking as a human. How little coordination is involved. Hir tip-toe stride feels impossibly graceful and planted. It’s almost like shi’s dancing, not walking.
‘This is so easy!’ Aurelia marvels. Shi reaches the far end of the room, turns, and completes another length. Then another.
On hir fifth lap, shi ups the pace, transitioning from a walk to a trot with no thought at all. Hir gait automatically shifts to a two-beat clip-clop rhythm like a car shifting gears. It’s nothing at all like moving about as a human. This is so much more efficient, so much smoother.
‘This is so easy!’ Aurelia repeats. Shi reaches the end, turns, and, with a laugh, tries out a canter. Again, there’s the sensation of shifting gears as hir legs readjust their rhythm without any real intervention. Hir tail straightens itself and bobs in sync with hir steps, absorbing any untoward inertia and smoothing out hir gait. Here is where shi feels like it’s starting to cost energy — it’s the tauric equivalent of switching from a walk to a jog. If shi were in top shape, shi could trot for hours and walk for days, but this is starting to push the boundaries of what’s sustainable in hir exhausted state. Shi’s panting prematurely, and hir hearts are starting to pound (ta-dub lub-dub!) despite the awesome reserves of strength shi senses within hirself.
Too enthused to give in to hir exhaustion, Aurelia rounds the next turn and then gives it everything in a paroxysm of determination. Grabbing great pawfuls of the turf with hir nails and shoving the ground backward, reaching out with hir front legs, literally leaping between strides, shi whoops at the sheer power hir body possesses. The strength! The grace! The poise!
Rawani pumps her fist. ‘Go, Aurelia!’
Shi covers the clearing in seconds before throwing out the anchor, leaning back over hir hips and digging hir nails into the ground, but this is where hir overtaxed muscles finally give way. Hir rear legs simply collapse and shi bowls headlong into the garden at the edge of the ward, coming to rest in a broad-leafed fern.
‘Ha-hah! Oh, yes!’ shi pants, batting the purple leaves away from hir face and punching the air with a triumphant forepaw.
Veritas and Silvergleam haul Aurelia out of the garden (leaving a big taur-shaped depression in the foliage) and guide hir toward the stretcher in the middle of the room.
‘How do you feel?’ Veritas asks. Shi knows how Aurelia feels, of course, but shi wants to hear it out loud.
Aurelia’s muscles are twitchy and thoroughly cooked, hir eyelids fluttering, but hir expression is a portrait of euphoria. Shi breathes deeply, relishing the feel of hir huge lungs. ‘I… wow, this is beyond incredible! I know I’m really weak right now, but oh my god—’ shi runs hir hands down the bend of hir union and the length of hir back, swishing hir hips and tail, delirious with glee. ‘I feel so alive! I can’t believe how fast I can run! I can’t believe how graceful I feel!’
‘Well,’ Rawani says, ‘it looks like my work here is done.’ She turns to Veritas. ‘I’ll keep an eye on hir vitals as each packet goes live. Ping me if there are any complications, but I think shi’s pretty much out of the woods, neurologically speaking.’
‘Your team has really outdone themselves with this revision,’ Veritas concurs.
‘Oh, y’know. Shoulders of giants and all that. Namely yours,’ Rawani says, trying to project an air of professional humility, but Aurelia can sense the hot thrill of triumph in her aura. ‘Prof, if you’re happy to take it from here?’
Veritas nods. Aurelia pulls Rawani into a crushing three-armed hug. ‘Thank you, Rawani!’
‘No problem,’ she wheezes. Aurelia loosens hir grip sheepishly, astonished at hir own strength, and Rawani pets hir affectionately on the back. ‘Okay, I'm outta here. Enjoy the rest of your life, Shir Aurelia. Peace!’
With a wink and a jaunty wave, she exits stage left. Just before the door whispers shut, they hear her ecstatic voice echoing up the corridor: 'Nobel prize, here we come! I love my job!’
Aurelia steps onto the mattress and sinks to hir belly with a huge, shuddering yawn, tucking hir paws under hirself in a perfect loaf.
‘If you’d like to take a nap, that’s perfectly fine,’ Veritas says. ‘You’ve had a big day, and you’ll need a lot of rest during your recovery.’
‘Yeah. I think I might do that,’ Aurelia murmurs, beginning to sway.
‘Scooch over,’ Silvergleam says, nudging Aurelia with a forepaw. ‘I’ll lie with you.’
Aurelia flops onto hir side, too drained to shuffle over. ‘Thanks, Silvergleam.’
‘Not at all,’ the psychologist smiles. ‘It’d be wrong to make a chakat sleep alone, especially on hir birthday. We’re a very communal species, after all.’ Shi makes hirself comfortable beside Aurelia, who beams at the casual usage of the pronoun ‘we’ in reference to chakats.
‘There’s still a lot we have to get through in terms of rehabilitation, so rest easy,’ Veritas says, bending to stroke Aurelia’s head. ‘When you wake up, we’ll move on to some mental exercises to help you tune your empathy.’
Aurelia’s eyes flutter closed. ‘Can’t wait,’ shi grins. I’m looking forward to it shi begins to add, but exhaustion overtakes hir at that moment and shi slips into a deep, contented sleep.
Story copyright © 2023 Evelyn Gutmann. Feedback is appreciated: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chakats and the Chakat Universe are the creations of Bernard Doove.
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