The night before the implant surgery, Yonatin lay in bed completely numb. They felt like their body had evaporated and they were already floating in the ship’s Network. Bodiless. Ephemeral, but also profoundly corporeal. More real than reality itself. Their demonic soul’s wings and frills waving in the breeze of data like weeds in a stream.
Their skull had already been prepped. Their hair was shaved off so that incision points could be marked on their bare scalp. And they didn’t even feel that anymore.
The terror of being awake for the entire procedure wasn’t even what had sent them into a spiral of dissociation. At least, they thought.
It should have been the trigger.
They’re own father had described something just like this regarding his own implant surgery.
And somewhere in the same room, their shared bedroom, Angu was probably going through the same thing.
Everyone apparently experienced something like this.
But, Yonatin could remember the exact moment they’d started to leave their body (or feel like they were leaving it). It was when they’d learned their first phrase of Fenekere, and the promise given to them with it. Which had happened just a few hours ago. Or was it minutes?
Prior to that point, after hearing all the stories of horror and wonder from everyone they knew with a neural terminal, and worrying themselves nearly to death about whether they or Angu would be caught for what they were, they had felt they were doing pretty well despite all the danger.
The resignation that they were doomed to die sometime in the next year, whenever it was that the adaptations of the terminal uncovered their identity, felt like it had made dissociation pointless. Everything was cast in crystal clarity, and they’d found themselves even joyfully enjoying the smallest things.
A crumb of dinner lying in the sunlight on the wood grain of the family table was now a beautiful peer, a fellow piece of matter with untold experience and wisdom about to be extinguished. And they’d stared at it the whole time their father had spoken, imagining the worlds that the complex fragment of bread so obviously held within it.
But, then came the message.
Its delivery was so strange. Yonatin wasn’t even sure where it had come from, or who had sent it. It gave them a chill the second they saw it.
“Yonatin,” it said. “Memorize this phrase, and then destroy it. It will save you. Mouth it silently when alone, after you have your neural terminal. Repeat it nightly until you finally see the lights of the Network: `uu `efoxeka neruplota fefufa kepikape. Angu has received this, too. Do not speak of it, ever.”
There was a special medicine they were supposed to take that night, after dinner. They’d gone to their personal maker and entered the code for the medication, which the maker had then dutifully printed.
But it had also printed this note. And on the outside of the folded up piece of paper lying next to the pills was simply their name.
Out of a lifetime habit of hiding things even from their parents, they’d opened it and read it to themselves.
They’d then exchanged questioning glances with Angu, and started to dissociate steadily onward through their bedtime routines and lights out.
How could they be so lucky? If this was real at all. How could they be so lucky to be trans, learn what trans was, and be given this opportunity to survive a thing that was…
It was so hard to comprehend the turns of their life, or what was happening now.
It would be easy to think of this note as a joke, too. But, really, why bother with doubt at a time like this? Was it a trap? Why try to trap them when the state had them already? It was a sliver of hope, and right now, even a sliver shown on them like an entire spot light.
Neural terminals were only given to a rare few, those who were destined for some form of leadership, or those whose obvious creativity was so valued by society that it must be preserved. And Yonatin could guess which category they belonged to, according to authorities, based on who their parents were. But they had never felt like they belonged to either.
Oh, they were creative, definitely. They daydreamt constantly, making up stories for themself to get away from their ruminating thoughts and that ever present feeling that life itself was somehow wrong. But they didn’t really show it in their work. At least, they didn’t think so.
So, by virtue of their birth, they were handpicked to someday ascend to the Network, just like their mother and father would also do. Except that they were flawed, and would be discovered by the technology of this boon and destroyed.
Except that, maybe now they wouldn’t.
They didn’t understand the phrase they were given. It was of a language, or code, that they had never heard about. They didn’t really know what it would do.
They still had the piece of paper. They hadn’t disintegrated it yet, because they hadn’t memorized it yet. They were still working on that. It took some time. And they were about to look at it again to give it another shot. But for now, it was curled up in their fist, under the covers of their bed.
Would it somehow tell the terminal or the Network to ignore what they were? Would it cure them of being trans? Which of the two things was more possible?
The damnable thing, the thing that was eating at them, was that the one other trans person they knew, the one who had taught them what being trans was, was not getting a neural terminal. He didn’t rate it. So he was going to live in agony, in secret, truly known only by a handful of other trans people until he died, and that would be it.
In another world, how could it all even work?
That was all they had. Imagining other worlds. Worlds they could maybe live in. And they told them to each other by word of mouth, and sat in silence afterward to soak up each other’s inner lives. They couldn’t even write any of it down, lest they be discovered.
In a way, they knew a thing existed because it was taught to them by school itself that this thing was despised, anathema, and rooted out and destroyed wherever it might be. For the health of the people. But it had also all been taught in past tense, and with oblique, vague descriptions. They’d found these abominations and rid the world of them, and that’s why we don’t see them anymore, “That’s what makes us strong! And that is why we’ll survive on whatever worlds we discover!”
The word “trans” wasn’t used by the school, or the state, or anybody but Sharra, that Yonatin could recall. Sharra and Yonatin, and now Angu. Which made the word relatively safe to use. Maybe it had been invented recently.
Anyway, one day, during lunch, Sharra had leaned over and asked very, very quietly, “Are you trans?”
He’d been staring at them thoughtfully for weeks now, and Yonatin had been wondering why. And everyone had probably thought they were a boy and a girl flirting. They were the right age to start doing so.
Certain kinds of secret speech were punished, of course. There were strict rules about it. Things the state had declared to be warning signs. Which meant that if you avoided those specific behaviors, you could get away with a lot.
Over time, parceled out piecemeal in different discussions, Sharra had explained what “trans” meant, and that he’d learned it from another trans person. And also that usually you could tell, if you were trans too, but not always. And he hadn’t been sure about Yonatin at first, and was scared to ask. But it was important for some reason. To know you weren’t actually alone.
So, the gist of it was this, from what Yonatin had pieced together from Sharra’s clues and their school teachings: “Trans” meant that the reason that your pronouns maybe felt wrong, and that the way people treated you felt wrong, and that maybe your body itself didn’t feel all that right, or the whole world felt wrong, was because you weren’t actually the sex everyone thought you were. Or, like, your spirit wasn’t.
And that kind of felt like it fit Yonatin’s feelings. But Yonatin had told Sharra that they knew they weren’t a girl, either. And Sharra had said, “that’s OK. You could be anything. There’s a kind of newt that has three sexes, you know.”
And then they’d ended up in different schools the next year, and Yonatin hadn’t seen him since. So, they’d started carefully talking about it with Angu. Because Angu was their twin, and they could trust each other.
There was so much more to the story than that, of course. But, what Yonatin was thinking about now was how this conspiracy between them and Sharra had unfolded. How it had become an indelible part of their life to the point that they’d secretly chosen new pronouns for themself and told them to Angu. And that even though nobody else knew them in the whole world, they still felt like the truth.
And somehow, they’d taken it all for granted! Like, of course Sharra had approached them and started telling them about this secret about how to be an abomination and live with it. Because until that started happening, they’d felt like an abomination but didn’t know why. All they knew was that everything felt wrong and they were relentlessly bullied. But not bullied quite enough to be brought under suspicion.
Did their bullies know somehow? And if they did, why didn’t the adults?
This was a thing that Yonatin had been asking themself for years and years, without being able to confide in anyone about it except Sharra and then Angu.
So, when this clandestine message was printed for them, and for Angu as well, it felt like it made some kind of weird sense.
Somebody with power over the Network was watching out for them. Knew them, even. Had probably been watching over them for their whole life, possibly.
Was it their parents?
Their parents had given no indication of being anything but statespeople, though.
So, now, back to the question of just what this secret phrase would do.
If the phrase was a command to the Network to somehow use the neural terminal to cure Yonatin and Angu of being trans, it probably wouldn’t be secret. The state would probably just have built the capability into the technology to begin with.
Why wouldn’t they? Why destroy aberrant but skillful people instead of cure them of their aberrance? Wouldn’t it be more efficient and harmonious, leading to a stronger people, to change people rather than kill them?
That much seemed exceedingly obvious, but there was still the fear that the state was unreasonable and this was all that the secret guardian was offering.
On the other hand, if it somehow protected Yonatin, then what? How would that work?
Was it like some sort of program that would run from then on, checking all of Yonatin’s biometric and neurological records and altering them? Would it look for records of behavior, too?
If it was something like that, and the state didn’t even know about it, that might explain how the secret guardian even existed.
But, Yonatin knew enough about hiding things to know that any little slip up could undo whatever powerful cloaks one wrapped around oneself. One errant word at the wrong time could bring the whole world down on top of you.
So, how had the guardian decided it was worth the risk to print that note?
Yonatin had so many questions and absolutely no indication that they’d get to ask anybody about any of them.
But, maybe, in a few months, as their neural terminal finished calibrating itself, they’d get to create a truly secret channel between themself and Angu, and they could talk with her about it.
At least there might be that.
And then, just as they were beginning to calm their thoughts about this unbelievable conspiracy to preserve the lives of abominations like themself, and they started to reconnect with their body, they then recalled that they were about to experience an extremely lengthy brain surgery under local anesthetic.
And that night was just pure hell.
And the next day began an experience that became one of the most pivotal of their entire consciousness. Flashbacks of it would haunt them well beyond the end of their world and on into the next one.
It was likely that Yonatin could not accurately remember everything that happened up until their 17th birthday.
A lot of what happened after their 17th birthday was quite a bit of a blur as well.
They generally tended to remember things in flashes, snapshots. A memory would be an entire sensorial picture of a moment in time, sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, emotions, tactile sensations. And then it might, or might not be followed by a series of similar snapshots that occurred moments afterward.
These snapshots usually tended to be more reliable in capturing all the little details of an event accurately than, say, another person’s narrational memory. Yonatin remembered testing this against their classmates repeatedly, when they’d had them.
But the problem with remembering the past in this way was that it was kind of hard to put it together into a series of events of cause and effect. You could kind of reason it out, usually, but there were gaps. Huge gaps. Gaps which were filled with just raw knowledge of what had happened, and that knowledge was suspect. It could have been something they’d extrapolated well after the fact, or it could have been what had actually happened but repeated over and over in their ruminating mind in an attempt to keep it relevant.
And that alone was always enough to keep them questioning reality just a little bit.
But the implantation surgery had altered their brain.
And then, at a certain point, approximately three months after the surgery, they’d found out how to make their own personal records via the Network. They could record their senses to the Network, and play them back like a video any time they wanted, and that changed everything.
Now they could experience something, remember it later, question their memory, and then compare their memory to the recording and see the differences.
And shortly after doing that with a whole school day, and being horrified at what their brain had altered from reality, they started to wonder about a bunch of other things.
They weren’t totally taken off guard by all this, because their dad had told them about some of it as well. But it was still fundamentally unsettling.
At least it seemed that the secret command had worked.
There was no way to tell for sure, but no one was coming to arrest Yonatin or Angu and mark them for destruction, so it probably had worked.
They were still both very careful about how they expressed their true identities. And every time they made a private Network forum to talk about it, they both spoke the phrase. And then thought in Network whispers just the same.
But this did allow them to talk about the secret command and where it could have come from.
“I’m just saying that there is so much we could have missed, you know?” Yonatin told Angu. “Maybe something happened to distract our parents when we were printing our medication. Maybe we’d been personally warned somehow. I don’t know, subliminally maybe? Or maybe we had conversations with someone we don’t remember. Maybe… Maybe Sharra told me stuff I don’t remember anymore that set us both up to keep the messages secret.”
“No, you’re probably right,” Angu said.
“And neither of us remember exactly all that happened because brains just don’t work like that!”
“Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. Really,” Angu agreed. “Though, I don’t think like you do.”
“Well, I’ve got words,” Yonatin pointed out.
“A lot of them.”
“We should trade recordings,” Angu suggested.
That idea brought Yonatin up short. They’d been so preoccupied with analyzing their own thoughts that they’d forgotten that conversation they’d had so long ago about their ruminating, and the idea of somehow sharing thoughts. It hadn’t even occurred to them to wonder if they could share sensory recordings.
“Can we do that?” Yonatin asked.
“I don’t know, but we should try!”
Yonatin looked around the forum they’d created together. Their bodies were both lying in their separate beds, eyes closed, and it was like they were dreaming now, but much, much more coherent and consistent. And they were dreaming together, and could double check that it was really happening via those sensory recordings.
The reality of it all had solidified slowly over the course of their recovery from surgery. Official word was that the neural terminals would never be done calibrating themselves, and that they’d improve with every passing year. But that they’d reach mean operating efficiency in approximately 18 months. However, what the twins were experiencing now seemed unbelievable compared to their memories of before.
And, like other students who had implants, they’d been given special classes on how to use the terminals. And their parents had also coached them.
Still, their private forum was rudimentary compared to many of the Network spaces they’d already seen.
It was a small, white room with illustrated walls, and no windows or door. The illustrations were like decals of their favorite things, old toys, flowers, animals, and other oddities. They’d spent time slapping them up in turn like stickers, and sort of making a little game of it, trying to make it look pretty as quickly as possible while putting up with their counterpart’s choices. In the end, it was a good exercise in making the space clearly belong to the both of them equally.
There was no lightbulb or panel, as such. No obvious source of light. But the room had ambient light all the same, which cast no shadows. So it felt a little unreal. But they’d decided that that was good, because it reminded them that they were in a Network space, and not in the real world, nor in a place of pure imagination. It was a default feature of any Network room, and not something their minds would come up with on their own.
“We weren’t taught how to share that kind of thing, and, well,” Yonatin gestured around. “Nobody has told us anything that sounds like it’s about that secret command we were given. Like any languages it could be from.”
And then, suddenly, it was like Hosib had slammed the palm of his meaty hand down on the teacher’s desk Yonatin was hiding under and was shouting in their ear. Yonatin was flying up into the air and sprouting wings and tail, and claws, before they got any sort of grasp on what was going on.
Angu’s eyes widened as she watched Yonatin’s imaginary form unfold in the Network space. And she was so distracted by that spectacle that she didn’t notice the new person abruptly sitting with them.
Yonatin’s adrenaline flamed through their body, nearly waking them up and severing the Network connection, but they reflexively rode it to focus even more on what their Network body was doing. It was exhilarating and terrifying. They felt everything about themself loosen up, and their center of gravity shift. They felt like they could breathe for the first time in their life. And they could see their arms had become dark as night, and simultaneously started glowing violet and what looked like stars began to twinkle as if they were scales sparsely covering their body. And they glanced from their softly glowing talons to Angu’s startled expression just before they then noticed their visitor.
“What -” they started to ask, but couldn’t figure out any words to follow that with.
“Oh, that happens sometimes,” the visitor said. “It’s your true self image. I’ll wait until you come down.”
Angu’s head snapped in the direction of the stranger and her expression became even more alarmed.
“You can relax,” the stranger said to Angu. “The command we gave you works. It causes the recorder to spoof itself. It is an entire framework of algorithms for filtering your reality and preventing it from being detected by the Crew. My name is `eshemeke, by the way. My pronouns are keh/kihn/kihns, but I don’t expect you to remember them, or figure out how to use them. They/them is fine.”
And then keh looked at Yonatin and seemed to wait.
`eshemeke had quite the appearance. Keh looked like a person, at least more than Yonatin currently did. Like a typical woman, keh had notable hips and bosom, but keh also had substantial mutton chops that flared out beyond the length of kihns rather large ears. Kihns chestnut brown hair was mid length and straight, and stuck out in almost all horizontal directions like a wet paintbrush that you might have spun between your palms. And keh had a fur covered tail that whipped around behind kihn as keh talked. Keh was dressed in greys, with baggy pants and a wrap around jacket held closed with buttons.
The somewhat animalistic features of `eshemeke made Yonatin feel slightly less self conscious about what was happening to their own Network body. And after a moment they were able to will themselves to land back where they had been sitting, just as they would have done in a dream. But now their body more naturally sat on their haunches, and their hand easily reached the floor in front of them. It felt comfortable to lean on them.
“Yonatin, Angu,” `eshemeke addressed them in turn. “Welcome to the community. You are two of the most unlucky people in the world, and the world needs you desperately. This is not a prophecy. You are not chosen ones like in a story. But we are all so blessed to have you, just as we are for anyone else like you, and I am honored to finally get to talk to you.”
“What -” Yonatin tried to say again.
“You are trans. In your case, Yonatin, Intersex as well. Which, in this world is barely a distinction, but hiding what you were born as was a more desperate action. Your physical body itself put you in danger of being culled,” `eshemeke just plowed right through anything either twin had to say. “You’re lucky that your differences were all internal.”
“What does that mean?” Yonatin managed to ask.
“Your chromosomes do not match those of a typical male or female,” `eshemeke said. Then keh turned again to Angu and said, “Your differences are purely psychological, or perhaps spiritual, but no less real. Innumerable history has shown that no one can compel you to be other than what you are. So the only solution is to destroy you, or hide you, until a better world can be made. I, myself, prefer hiding. It’s not great, but it embodies hope. And it doesn’t have to be lonely.”
It took several moments before anyone was able to follow that declaration with any words, but Angu managed to speak up next to ask, “So, we are successfully hiding right now?”
“Yes,” `eshemeke said. “Though, it could be better. Will be better, in the future.”
“What would make it better?” Angu asked.
`eshemeke took a breath and said, “Well. Ideally you should wait about a decade so that your terminals can calibrate themselves as thoroughly as possible, but you might not have that luxury. It is possible that you will need to take the next step within the year.”
“What’s the next step?” Yonatin asked.
“End your lives.”
And that is how people were typically inducted into the Resistance.