White falls through the emptiness above the domed glass ceiling of the commune. Residual streaks dissipating in seconds. The frigid winds of the planet batter the glass with a low, constant howl. Elbows planted on a long white counter, she scans the room. Watching others mingle, awaiting their departure. Identical from their pale, bald heads through to their white body suits. Always ready to go. To a new planet. A new persona. Ready to not be here, in the only place they are ever forced to live in their own skin. Where they are no one.
D rubs a hand absentmindedly across her arms, tracing the ever present goosebumps of their glacial planet. Remembering the heat of her last assignment. She revels in her work. Interfering with fate. She embodies her assignments. But there’s something here, in these pristine bodies with no sex, no differentiation that makes her feel clean. These short moments are her reset button. A continual slate wiping.
Beside her, leaning back on his elbows, stands a man she’s known for years. One of the only travellers she’s bothered to know. A glass of opaque white liquid hangs from his fingers tips, as it always does when he’s here. Frantic energy emanates from his stillness. His gaze glued to the ceiling; he watches the light of others rushing off planet. Wishing to be anywhere but here.
“You have that look.” She holds her hand beneath a pale glowing panel and waits while a glass materializes in her hand.
“What look is that, D?” He downs half his drink, not shifting his gaze.
“That one you always get when you’ve been home too long.” She sips her drink. Misty and cool against her tongue. It has no flavour. Only temperature, like drinking cold steam. She feels the relaxing effects immediately.
“Don’t call this home. It’s nothing more than a weigh station.” He sighs, throwing back the rest of his drink before reaching for another. His almost translucent fingers wiggle impatiently.
“That’s bullshit, Q.” She watches his white eyes dart around, following other travelers heading off on assignment. When she’s not working, she worries about his anger. His impatience grows with every flash across the sky. She can’t reassure him. Not really. Not when minutes can feel like days.
“This is active torture.” He chews the corner of his lip. The fingers not holding his glass tap a focused rhythm against his thigh.
“It’s not so bad. It’s sterile. I like that. Planets are always so… smelly.” D smirks when his eyes finally land on her.
“I miss the smells. Senses in general, really.” Q downs the remainder of his new drink without breaking eye contact. As he slides his hand below the panel again, she inhales softly. “D, don’t. Please. Not this time.” He stops her before words of concern can spill over her lips. He sips slowly. “I just want to get to it. I never feel whole here. It’s just so… here.”
She slides her gaze away, supressing her urge to fix things. To do what she does when she’s working. She knows he’s not interested. That telling him to slow down will make things worse. She takes another sip to hide her displeasure. She’s never understood why he hates the commune so much.
The crystal totem on her bodysuit begins to glow. The call to a new assignment. She glances at Q, placing the remainder of her drink in the disposal, worried how he’ll react if she’s assigned before him.
“Finally.” He exhales, calming noticeably. His totem a blazing white light. His glass already empty again.
She smiles a closed lip smile. The minutes before an assignment are always a strange mix of excitement and nerves. Silently, they stride down the assignment room hallway. The sixth door on the left swings open once the five selected travellers are present. D knows the other three only by appearance. They nod at one another politely, but no one speaks. Now is not the time. There are more important things beginning.
D settles onto one of the silver stools circling a large, clear orb. She twists her neck. Shakes out her arms. Exhales forcefully. Beside her, Q’s energy has changed from jittery to fluid and soothing. When the last traveler takes her seat, the orb immediately fills with tiny white flecks, circling frantically until each person places a hand on the smooth surface. Five of the flecks begin to grow, drawn to their destined palm.
D watches her piece float to the surface, through the barrier of the orb, and into her skin. Instantly, she’s filled with the details of her assignment. Name. Age. Home planet. Task. Bits of background information she may need. She mentally flips through the pertinent information until she settles on one crucial piece. Her eyes fly open to find Q watching her. His lips twitching into a tiny grin. They’re on the same assignment. Partnering is a rare treat, one they’ve never shared. She removes her hand from the orb and walks to the panel behind her chair. Nodding at Q, they place their hands against the glowing prints.
As the transporters activate, a blanket of white light emerges from the panel. Sliding along her skin. Surrounding her until she’s encompassed in light. D soaks in the cool vibrations, the familiar chill of home warming as she becomes her temporary host. It fills her with such comfort.
Here, in this exact moment, she can get lost. Can settle into being no one. For the duration of transport, she is everything. Here, she feels important. About what she’s about to do. The life she’s about to change. That, somehow, this moment is crucial. It fills her with strength. It makes her powerful. And as the last of the commune chill washes away, she is where she needs to be. For a little while at least.
D opens her eyes to an expanse of green. A green so vibrant she can smell it. Thick and peaty. She pulls her eyes away from the waving grass to review her new body. Skin tawny and rough. Small dark spots tossed up her arms. Fingernails short and utilitarian. She reaches up to bite them, but stops when she sees the layer of caked dirt. She itches to wash, but pushes it down. That feeling is residual, belonging to D, not who she is here. This persona doesn’t care about dirt. Her legs stick out from cargo shorts and end in tightly-laced boots. Her shirt a plain fabric softened by wear. On her back a large pack. As she recognizes its presence, she feels the weight and realizes the strength of this body. The powerful muscles trained by years in the wilderness. She looks over at Q, or Quill as he’ll be known while they inhabit these bodies. The pack on his back looks massive. She wonders if hers can possibly be the same size. On his head a grey woolen cap, black curls peeking out. His eyes have transformed from their gauzy white to a dark, dark brown. His skin is darker than can be attributed to a life in the sun. He is beautiful. She feels her breath draw in instinctually. This body responds to him physically.
“What?” He spins quickly “Is it a bear?” his hand reaching for the container on his belt.
She tilts her head to stare at him. “No. It’s just…40 years and I’ve never seen you outside the commune. It’s unsettling.”
He chuckles, tugging a strand of her shoulder length hair. “Are you always a red head?”
“More often than entirely necessary.” She grins, smacking his hand away. Now that they’re here, in these bodies that aren’t theirs, Q is a different person. There’s no room for his anxiety in this disposable life. D wonders if she appears as different to him.
“So, where are we?” She mentally sorts through the assignment’s data dump. “I’ve been to Livetskog before. It’s a shipping hub. Definitely not this… nature-y.”
“That’s the other side of the world,” Q jerks his head to the side, like he’s already aligned himself to the planet’s poles. “It’s super industrial over there. The center of commerce for this solar system. But this side is … this.” He inhales, deeply, unconsciously. His face relaxing into something D could almost call bliss. “My best assignments have been on this planet.”
“Explain.” She knows she can find the information, but there’s something about him in this moment. Watching him, she sees a person, not a traveller. She finds it exceptionally unsettling.
Quill rubs his neck and tilts his head towards the warmth of the sun. “There’s a wall dividing the two sides of the planet. The gases produced on this side are harvested to power the machines on the other side. Their by-products are then used to fertilize the forest. It’s symbiotic. It’s the only planet anywhere to master the balance between nature and industry.”
She nods absently. Not really listening. An itch forms in the back of her throat, crawling slowly into her sinuses. She clears her throat gently. It doesn’t help. A sneeze takes her by surprise. Followed in quick succession by two more. She wipes her nose on the fabric of her sleeve.
“Well, Daphne,” Quill grins at her temporary name, taking a second to roll it around in his mouth. “I do believe you have allergies.”
“Allergies?” Daphne finds a handkerchief in her pocket and blows her nose. “What? Why? How is this helpful?”
“Don’t know.” He shrugs. “But I do know Daphne and Quill are married. And I need to find some guy named Logan and stop him from blowing up the damn wall. Your allergies probably won’t help me do that.”
“Oh! Oh!” Daphne exclaims, locating a snippet of persona information. Slipping off her pack, she digs frantically through pockets before brandishing a silver blister pack. “Allergy medication!” She pops two into her mouth, swallowing them dry. “Mine is Monica Fairchild. Same assignment though. No blowing shit up.”
“Fairchild. Yeah. Yeah.” Quill nods. “That’s my guy’s last name, too. Maybe our people are married, too? And that’s our in?” He helps Daphne secure her pack before they begin to walk. “Maybe she’s got allergies too, and Logan and I can bond over our snotty wives.”
Daphne chuckles, wiping her nose again. “I wonder why we’re paired on this. Seems like one person could handle two people with the same objective.” She skips easily over a small stream of water running through the grass.
Quill raises an eyebrow. “Depends how determined they are.” He takes Daphne’s hand as she helps hoist him onto a fallen log. “You ever worked with activists?”
“My jobs tend to be a little more… morally compromised.” She grins, instinctively kissing his cheek. “Hmm, weird. I don’t know if I like that.” She pulls away, never feeling quite comfortable with the physical attractions of personas.
“Partnering is always weird at first.” He squeezes her fingers, balancing easily along the log. “Let’s get moving. That sky tells me we’re in for rain and on the short side of daylight. We’ve got people to find.”
Daphne matches pace easily. This body is made for this, even with the intermittent sneezing. To her right, a flicker of movement catches her eye. An elk disappears behind some trees. A musky scent travels by her on a breeze. A twig breaks beneath her boot. A giant black bird soars overhead. She blinks at the peace around her. Solitude has never been one of her strengths. Even with Quill in front of her, she feels the weight of seclusion. It makes her edgy. Restless.
Quill seems to revel in it. Whenever Daphne tries to start a conversation, he calmly, easily, quiets her. His easiness washes over her, smoothing her edges. Balancing them. She understands why these two would be married.
About an hour into their hike, birds erupt from trees a few hundred metres to their left. The sounds of people quickly follow.
“You never make time for me!” A woman’s voice. Strident. Followed by a loud thump. “Would you stop doing that and listen to me?” The only response is another thump. “Logan, please! I need this.”
Quill shoots a glance over his shoulder. Daphne nods. These are the Fairchilds. Quill and Daphne change trajectory, following the sounds. The desperation in Monica’s voice pulls at her. She wonders how Quill feels about Logan’s silence. Soon, they reach a clearing. A small house stands off to one side, smoke twirling from the chimney into a sky of building clouds. Beside the house, a man swings an axe, his focus absolute. Swing. Thump. Crack. Swing. Thump. Crack. Concentrated avoidance. An obviously practiced action.
A woman matching the assignment image of Monica appears in the doorway, watching Logan intensely.
“Why can’t you just listen to me? This is important.” Her voice is no longer loud, but Daphne and Quill are close enough to hear her passion. Her sadness. “Logan, we’re only going to get one chance to…” Her pleading is interrupted by a loud sneeze. Both heads swing towards where Daphne and Quill are standing.
“Ah, allergies.” Daphne mutters with begrudging satisfaction, wiping her nose and stepping into the clearing. “Hi. Sorry to interrupt.”
“We were looking for a place to camp and saw the smoke.” Quill steps up beside her. “We’ll be on our way.”
Logan slams the axe into the chopping block and bends to pick up a stack. “We never get company. And it’s starting to rain. Come on inside.” His voice is low. Gentle. As sad as his wife’s, but different. Less intense. Resigned.
Quill releases a long, slow whistle. “Do you feel that? That sorrow?” He bends to adjust his shoe. Giving him time to talk to Daphne.
“A bit.” Daphne hunches against the cold drops starting to fall on her skin.
“They’re destroying each other.” He shudders gently. “Slowly, but definitely.”
“I don’t have your empath skills.” She holds out her hand to help him into a standing position. “Your talents are legendary.”
He presses a hand to her cheek. “Let’s just get this done. These two make me uncomfortable. They’re toxic.” Daphne places her hand on his, nodding.
“Let me help with that.” Quill jogs over to scoop up a stack of wood. Daphne follows, stacking a pile in her arms before heading into the house.
“Where yous coming from?” Logan asks, piling logs beside the stone fireplace. The cabin’s interior is small. The living room cozy. Soft corners at the edges of lantern light. The smell of smoke and meat. A human scent to counter the freshness of the woods. It takes Daphne a second to adjust to the physicality of the smell.
“Over by Gate F,” Daphne responds, casually making her way towards a wall tacked with rows of drawings and string. Her fingers trail along the back of a well-worn sofa. “About two miles south of where the river forks. Been there?”
“Once or twice, but it’s been years.” Logan nods. “That’s a long trek. Five? Six days?”
“That’s about right. We try to do a big trip once a year.” Quill moves to the fire, adding a log. Drawing the attention away from Daphne’s movement closer to the wall. On a table below the drawings are lengths of wire and blocks of what look like clay. This is the sabotage. It’s almost ready.
“We’ve never seen you before.” Monica watches Daphne closely.
“It’s pretty easy to stay unseen out here.” Quill shrugs off his pack. “Mind if we put these down? They’re awful cumbersome.”
Logan reaches for Quill’s pack, nodding to the corner. “You’re welcome to stay here for the evening.”
“Much obliged.” Quill takes Daphne’s pack. “How long’ve you lived out here?”
“Five years.” Monica nods, stepping closer to her planning board. “Assigned this gate when we got married. Same for you?”
“Yeah.” Daphne brushes a finger along a sheet of paper covered with rows of numbers. “What’s this? Conversion sequences for the gas harvests?” Local knowledge comes naturally now that she’s been Daphne for a while. “Is this a way to disable the harvesters? That’s awesome! I’ve been wondering if this was possible.” She allows excitement to creep into her voice, knowing it will appeal to Monica.
“Oh that stuff. It’s nothing.” Logan brushes off the question, turning his back on his wife to wander to where Quill is standing on the far side of the room.
“This is a well-made piece.” Quill fingers a bow leaning against the wall. “You do this?”
“Yeah.” Logan nods, leaning close to point out details in the ties. Daphne watches the two men step closer together, their shoulders brushing comfortably, shutting the women out.
“It’s not nothing.” Monica sighs agitatedly and steps over to Daphne. “This is how we get our planet back before the other side destroys us.”
Daphne smiles widely, encouraging her to continue. She distracts Monica from the way the two men keep looking at each other. “Explain this part to me.” She points to a random sheet of documents.
“The rain’s getting’ stronger.” Logan glances out the window a few minutes later. “You’ll sleep in here. We’ve got the space.” He and Quill begin setting up a makeshift bed near the fire. Daphne takes advantage of the time and encourages Monica to keep talking.
A few hours later, Daphne yawns, crawling into the blankets with Quill. The room is dark, except for the dull glow of embers. She feels him behind her. Curls into the warmth of his body. “The explosion’s in two days. Monica says it’s the perfect window.”
“Logan filled me in. He doesn’t want to do this. He understands how the two sides of the planet feed each other. But he’ll give in to her.” Quill’s voice is low in her ear. “If she succeeds, she’ll cripple the entire solar system.”
“I think killing her is the easiest solution.” Daphne sneezes into the blanket. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“Sounds good.” Quill yawns. “Try not to sneeze on me while we sleep, darling.” He pats her hip, settling into the easy breathing of sleep.
“Explain this to me again.” Daphne grabs a fissure and hoists her body onto the next foothold. Monica is a few yards above her. “I get the why. I just don’t see the how.”
“I’ll explain at the top.” Monica calls over her shoulder. She swings her body easily onto a protrusion of rocks. A tiny slide of pebbles rains down on Daphne.
“You’re sure it’s safe?” She sputters, stopping to calm the desperate need to wipe the dirt settling on her face.
“Perfectly. I’ve been up here dozens of times.” When they finally make the last ledge, Daphne sees a long flat ledge. About six feet long, but narrow. She sits cross-legged to keep her feet from dangling over the edge like Monica’s.
“You know this is crazy dangerous, right?”
“I told you; I’ve been up here tons.” Monica brushes her off.
“I mean the sabotage.” She turns to Monica, who’s staring intently at the gate below them. “One wrong move and you or Logan could die.”
“Not if we do it right. By placing the explosives along those blue lights, we’ll disable the entire grid. Crippling the conversion chambers. The rebuild will be impossible. The city will fall. And eventually, they’ll leave. And all of this. It will take over.” She waves a hand in front of her. To the left of the wall, miles of treetops. Of swooping birds and the sneaking blue of winding rivers. It is breathtaking.
Daphne watches as cargo ships lift soundlessly into the air on the far side of the wall, powered by clean energy. They finally get it right and this girl wants to destroy it. Knowing it will fire Monica up, she broaches the subject. “Sustainable terraforming relies on that side. It’s not like it used to be. To operate, industry needs all this to thrive. Can’t both exist? ”
“You sound like Logan.” Monica spits, pushing to a standing position and beginning to pace frantically. Her shrillness returning. “This was never meant for that. These trees… They are the life blood of this planet. Not of those ships. Everything came from these trees…”
Daphne tunes out the rant to focus on her job, looking for a way to use the environment to her advantage. She’ll push Monica if she has to, but prefers the hands off approach.
“Are you even listening to me?” Monica prods Daphne’s knee with her boot. “This is important.”
Daphne jumps to her feet. “You are damn selfish. You know that, right?” She steps towards Monica. “You’re ridiculous crusade is killing your husband.” She steps closer still. The smaller girl steps back. “He’s drowning in your misplaced conviction.”
“My husband is weak.” Monica growls, kicking roughly at the dirt. But she’s stepped too far. Her foot slips. She’s over the edge before she knows what’s happening. Grabbing the ledge just in time. Hanging. “Help me up!” She reaches a demanding hand toward Daphne. “I have a job to do.”
“Me, too.” Daphne casually jabs a collection of loose pebbles. Instinctively, Monica reaches to protect her eyes from the rain of dirt. Losing her precarious grip. Daphne calls to Monica as she tumbles. “Now you can be one with the trees forever.”
She sneezes again. Three times in rapid succession. She wipes her nose angrily on the edge of her t-shirt. “This is disgusting. I cannot wait to go home.” She begins the trek back.
At the clearing, Daphne pauses. The two men are in the yard, pounding nails into a new wood shed. Shirtless, the sun reflecting off their sweat. She can’t help watching Quill. Curious. He’s so very different from the angry, shapeless man she knows. She can barely see a trace of his real self. His laughter travels easily across the space between them. His hand rests quickly on Logan’s back. Familiar. Comfortable. Logan’s face has lost its former emptiness. They work together like they’ve been doing it for years. They lean in. A gentle brushing of lips and smiles. Quill is so different. Too different. More than just a persona.
Seeing her, Quill says something quickly to Logan before jogging over to where she’s standing.
She tucks her hands into the pockets of her shorts. “Logan looks happy. How’d you change his mind?”
Quill glances back to the clearing. Radiating contentment. “I just talked to him. He wasn’t that into Monica’s plan. He loves this planet. We love this place.”
“Let’s get home.” She blows her nose again. Daphne pulls her totem from her pocket. Glowing now that her mission is complete. “These allergies are actually becoming painful. Wait, what?” Quill sets his on her palm and steps away. A small crystal leaf glowing beside her snowflake. “What are you doing, Q?”
“Quill.” He corrects, stepping back from her. One small step, but enough. A distance. A certainty. He smiles. “For the first time ever, I don’t feel any anger. That punchiness is gone. Here, I am someone.”
“You’ve been here a day. You can’t know.” She insists.
He brushes a hand through his curls. “Call it that empathy you were so impressed with. But I know. This is home for me. Maybe you don’t need more than the commune, but I’ve finally figure out that I do.” He absently fingers the bark of the tree beside him, watching Logan.
“Q?” Daphne steps towards him.
“Go home, D.” He reaches over, closes her hand around the totems and walks away.
When D opens her eyes again, she’s back in her body, blank, clean, ready to start again.