Big Echo

Critical SF

Parable of the Cocoon

by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

None of this is a metaphor. Metaphor is open to reconstitution by analysis, by guesswork and hypothesis. Metaphor is fluid and supple; it gives. That which is literal can only ever be one thing, fixed, immovable.

And so it is literal, fatally so, when my younger sister says, "I want to become like you."

We are having breakfast: porridge and patongoh for me, toast and sangkaya for her. It is a clear mountain morning, lightly wreathed in mist, and the TV is crooning early news. At that moment, I am:

A child, aged seven, studious at pre-calculus and anthropological warfare. These and other forms of new combat will make the vertebrae of their education. In ten years they will enlist, integrating into a horizon-craft the aliens have brought us, to fight their strange impossible war a galaxy away.

A father, retrieving his bespoke baby from a vat. It drips, wet with vernix, hairless and nearly featureless. He is a researcher, his mind a geometry of walls and defenses. The baby has been engineered to inherit his intellect, and when of age will become a cognate candidate. This man is a database with which to make alien-ready children, a container of tomorrows.

And then there is a woman sitting in a kitchen, lit by a trapezoid of pale sunlight, half-listening to the broadcast on a meeting between an alien ambassador and a president. This woman is nothing much to look at, a little taller than average and plump. Thick at forearms and thighs, though not weak. She is ordinary; I am ordinary.

"Like that," my sister is saying. Unlike me no one would ever take her for ordinary or plain. Long, elegant neck and eyelashes that don't need mascara, cheekbones that require neither scalpel nor contouring. Bunyawi could have modeled, if her ambition had gravitated to catwalks rather than astrophysics.

I'm looking at her, in this particular second entirely myself and no one else. "Why?"

Her smile is beatific, all industrial edges. "I want to live in the future with you."

Among the cognates I seldom see a farang face. No blonde or red hair, blue eyes or sun-blotched skin. I have asked my liaison why that is the case. She waved it off, dismissing it as coincidence. In actuality I suspect we non-farang make better collaborators. When you've always been in charge, you do not know what it is to bend your arrogance and bow your head. The rest of us have had forever practice, a lesson in survival passed down from generation to generation.

My liaison wears a mannequin body, poreless all over, black chassis and limbs, a white mask for a face. Small-breasted, very gaunt. When we'd first met, she offered to change to a mannequin built more like me, a form less intimidating. I said no, this is fine, and it is: there's an odd beauty to her, unapologetic as stone. She says to call her Sridava. Not that she is a woman, exactly. Their real bodies don't look anything like ours and they experience reality in compound, hence the cognate project. But they have seized on the idea that humans find women more approachable--not wrong. They have a fair understanding of us, the way zookeepers have an understanding of elephants or seals in captivity. But I like to think I have a better understanding of Sridava than a held wolf or bear has of its keeper.

Our session today is at a patisserie garden. All around us, neoregelia are in bloom. Flowers are excellent but bromeliads are better, layered and vivid, pink and magenta and red, striped like tigers. Sridava doesn't eat but has taken note of what I like; when I arrive the table is laden, a plate of scones studded in cranberries, pots of cream and passionfruit jam. Mille crepes layered with tea custard and sangkaya. A bowl of durian ice cream slowly thawing. Sridava is bent on spoiling me, and likely the rest of her charges. Spoiling us the way an adult does with children you don't know how to manage.

"And how are you, Khun Jarukamol?" Her voice is synthesized. Her mouth is immobile, lacks even a hinge. I imagine there are no teeth or tongue inside.

"I'm fine. All of us--me--are fine." The connection is one-way; I don't think of me, us, as a collective in all the six months we have been joined.

"Your results are good. Your adjustment is exemplary." She pushes one of the plates toward me. "We have a lot of hope for you."

I'm not hungry. Still, a forkful of crepe. Perfectly soft and the air is a wealth of aromas, the green and the clean, the sweetly made and baked. In this minute I am thinking of the child, whom I know only as Yaem, their informal name. Only here they are no longer a child but fifteen or seventeen. Fresh cadet, tall and compact, dressed in what doesn't look like army uniform--those awful, shapeless things--but in something sleek and dark, not fabric. It is matte and angular, designed for mobility but also looks editorial, military chic. I can feel how smooth it is against my skin, how it fits without constricting, as Yaem moves into the horizon ship. The nape of their neck glints with metal, an interface collar.

"I'm not really seeing this," I say between a mouthful of crepe that no longer tastes of anything. It sits in my mouth like soggy paper. "Am I? Or is that the future?"

Sridava wipes my chin of drool and sangkaya, watery orange. "You are contemplating it. It has already happened, or won't happen."

"Does Yaem actually exist?" We should, surely, meet face-to-face at least once. Yaem and the engineer and me.

"Of course. Everything exists. We are," Sridava repeats, "deeply pleased with your progress. Is there anything you would like? A bigger house?"

They never have a sense of scale. Bigger meals, bigger houses. Perhaps I could ask for extravagances greater and more ridiculous until I have a palace, wide and airy, staffed by beautiful women dressed as kinnaree. Then I will request that it is expanded vaster still until it outsizes the Versailles or the Taj Mahal, an edifice of mad impractical excess. "I'd like to work. Something that's a bit more--satisfying. Physically. Intellectually."

Even her eyes are approximations, indentations in the mask lacquered black. Pencil-line eyebrows, austere and arched. I do wonder, sometimes, why they chose the aesthetic they did. Incredible severity, no resemblance to any ethnicity. They could have taken on the appearance of farang and tapped into that built-in assumption of superiority, but perhaps they find the idea contemptible, or else they don't understand Earth that well. Anthropology at five removes. She nods. "Yes, what would you like? Your branches work so hard already day and night, barely they rest."

There is an odd disorientation, the sense that Sridava might be talking to someone else or that I'm piloting my own body remotely. I have been cautioned this would happen. There are some fifty of us per country, or even as low as twenty per, selected by the finest of fine tooth-combs. "When I was little, I'd have wanted to be an engineer or a soldier." The things my branches are or will be. "Then a scientist." Which my sister is. "Maybe a photographer. I want to see beautiful things and capture them. Impossible things."

"That can be arranged. Naturally. We can show you brilliant and beautiful things. When would you like to begin?"

The garden seems flat, the other patrons one-dimensional. I'm trying to remember whether they have been talking, and about what. Here is a family behind us, two mothers and a student in graduation gown, her silly hat set aside in a chair. They're wearing impeccable makeup, the sort that looks like no makeup at all and which takes a full drawer of products to accomplish. At another table, a man is sitting alone with headphones on, slowly eating a plate of fusion pasta. Penne tossed with shallots and holy basil, fragrant with fish sauce. Every detail is hyper-real. "Soon, I think. You don't need more cognates, do you?"

Sridava tilts her head sideways, a little too far. Her neck is longer and more tensile than the human sort, as if underneath there are no bones but hard silicone. "No."

"When do I see the other cognates again?" Ours is a thin fellowship, but it is something. We gather for irregular check-ups. Prohibited against keeping in contact, and no matter how private you think those instant messages or encrypted connections are, they always find out. How do you hide from surveillance embedded directly into your brain, after all. They don't punish you, just express a genteel disappointment that makes you feel very small indeed. How they have made infants of us.

Her head is by now almost horizontal, but she seems to remember herself--that she should appear comforting--and straightens it back up. "Why, any time you want, Khun Jarukamol."

"Within this week?"

"Yes, yes. You're doing something monumental, a bridge between your species and ours so we may have common ground. The most ambassadorial mission. One day," Sridava goes on, "there will be no dividing line. Our goal will become yours. We will fight the same enemies, and keep the same peace. In this way you'll be made greater than you ever were. The universe will be yours to see and touch, and all the stars."

I have never seen what the aliens look like.

Rewind back to when they first arrived. That was a strange time, for some the realization--literalization, yes--of long-held fantasies. An extraterrestrial invasion, the stuff of video games and blockbuster films. Unlike in those stories though, they didn't reach us as a single political entity. First contact was not, as in popular narratives, with New York City or even Tokyo under the assumption that all of humanity is ruled by one polity. Instead they sent negotiators, clad in the type of body Sridava uses, to each country. Even small ones, like ours. They had been observing us for some time, they said, as far back as an era when Thai monarchs might have mistaken their ships for deific viharn. Or further back still. The glass between animal and zookeeper.

On that day, I watched their ship blot out the horizon, spindly and seamless. It didn't look even slightly aerodynamic, piscine from the side and blade-like from the front. Flared fins, long winding tail like a kite's. It radiated harmonic frequencies; I'd learn that their ships sang in place of more conventional signals, and the aliens have been incorporating our music to use as code. Two species that could grasp each other's song, Sridava has told me, cannot possibly be at war.

When they landed, I was in my flat in Krungthep, trembling from the day-old news that Bunyawi's flight to Sicily had gone down. The evening was sweltering, the air conditioning unequal to summer. The world was roasting slowly year by year, tossing and turning in the heat. My room: full of dead mosquitoes, their wings crackling underfoot, expired from their short spans and blood-bloated. When I wiped them off with paper napkins they were ugly, brown wings and wet bodies. Insects inspire revulsion so completely. I wondered then, and wonder now, whether alien physiology would inspire the same in us--or vice versa.

My eyes were on the skyline; I heard the music. Jazzy, heavy on piano. They zeroed in on me almost immediately as a candidate for their experiment. Sridava explained that for centuries they had considered us and now, at last, the time had come for our species to meet. We would be uplifted, given access to the dark beyond. I didn't think much of the idea, but was saying no ever an option? We are the sacrifices, twenty to fifty per country.

On meeting Sridava I asked, "What do you stand to gain from it?"

"A species that does not evolve must stagnate, eventually will diminish and die. Your future generations will be very different, and so will ours."

It wasn't an explanation, but I didn't expect a true, clear one either. Human beings can barely be honest with each other, let alone alien overlords with their new subjects. What must we look like to them in our primordial soup, blundering along and believing it an achievement to have landed on Pluto.

Here, now:

Bunyawi and I are walking down a corridor of glass and metal, and the floor beneath us is covered in images of alien ships. High ceiling. This is a building raised for the exclusive purpose of catering to cognates and accommodating the liaisons. I've seen rooms where their bodies are slotted into shelves, upright and immaculate, waiting for--what? A signal, I suppose, that gives them animation and voice. Sridava doesn't touch me and I don't touch her. I could ask whether it is comfortable for her, these bodies, or if it's not unlike a human controlling a drone from afar: indifferent, beside the point.

Immense globes depend from the ceiling, held by the thinnest wires. Some are filled with dyed sand layered like a cake, some filled with amber sculptures full of insect corpses, and others empty. Less avant-garde and more that the aliens don't understand interior decoration as we know it. Circles of chairs, empty, surrounding cobalt tables. "I shouldn't have let you come with me." The acoustics is strange here, sound circling back on itself. Echoes are as frigid as the air; here it is never warm no matter the summer outside, and on the upper floors my exhalation would curl white and wispy. The way it might in Europe, where I have never been.

"It's just a visit." Bunyawi's arm is looped into mine and we walk shoulder to shoulder, the way we always have when young--to school, to home, elsewhere. She has glossed her mouth a faint blue, iridescent. "I always come with you."

"You can't hear their music."

Her face falls a little and at once I'm seized by guilt. "Well," she says, falsely cheerful, "then you don't have to worry about a thing, do you?"

That is true; I don't. But it makes me anxious, her unreasonable, unreasoned want. Life as a cognate is not better. This state of dissolution does not improve anyone and I am a sacrifice already, why should they claim another one, and why should she offer herself? The only family I have left.

Up we go to the top floor, the lift as soundless as their ships. We put on winter clothes, sleek faux fur and equally faux leather, black for Bunyawi and russet for me--she wearing a panther and I wearing a fox. On her it looks good; on me, probably absurd. I should have chosen something taupe or ecru, unless that'd make me look bigger than I already am. Brown then. Brown is safe.

We join the other cognates. The lobby is the grandest in the tower, taking up the entire floor, a landscape interrupted here and there by furniture like black icebergs. No partitions divide anything, no sectioned-off rooms or barriers for privacy. It is all open space, done in pewter. Not a space for humans at all but a habitat for captured wolves to run, perhaps, or seals. I'm nothing like a wolf.

Most of us come alone. Daria Tsui--a Hong Kong expat--comes with her daughter, a quiet ten-year-old with bobbed hair. We are united in being faintly embarrassed to have brought family, though unlike Daria's child, Bunyawi is a social asset. She glides among the crowd, making small talk. She has this knack, especially among the cognates. Maybe she makes us feel more normal because she asks after jobs, family, school. I ask Daria how her soldier branches are doing. We all have at least one soldier each, some more than others. For her, it's two.

"Coming along," she reports. "Wendy's sixteen. Training as a soldier now, I mean actually as a soldier, self-defense and martial art and marksmanship. They're changing her--me--a little at a time. You can feel everything. Everything. I go to bed thinking my calves would hurt from all the obstacle courses or my arms from the weight training. The filter they graft into your lungs, the lenses over your eyes to improve vision, light sensitivity, all that. Sherry is undergoing something similar, very early I thought, but what do I know?"

Sherry being eight, younger even than her actual child. None of us ever know where our soldier branches live or train. We see segments of what they experience, but the location is remote and unrecognizable. Her branches are Jeen, like she is. Yaem is Thai, like I am. Our branches share so much with us, and so little, as much family as strangers. I only have the faintest of idea what Yaem thinks, day to day. Sometimes my longing to meet them in the flesh is a physical ache. What would they think of me. Am I a surrogate parent, a peer?

At this moment:

Yaem is older than I've ever seen or imagined, one seventy-five in height and dense with muscle. They are regarding a class of cadets in gray uniform, the auditorium long and wide, walled in screens. "It requires a precise knowledge of yourself. That is the core of any strategist, but it should also be the crux of any voluntary combatant. Open yourself like a book and read carefully so you know exactly what you are about." They have a sonorous voice as an adult, full of authority, low and rich. "But that mightn't happen until much later, close to your graduation. For now it suffices that you discover what you want to do. Is it to serve your country? Is it to reinvent yourself and transcend the bounds of humanity?"

As a lecture or motivational speech goes, this strikes me as odd, but I know nothing of the military. To Daria, I say, "Do your branches jump around in time? Ages all over the place, backward, forward."

Daria blinks at me, frowning as though I'm slightly mad. Even among outsiders, someone has to be more outside than others. "No." She sounds offended as if my chronological disorder might infect her, throw her branches off-course. "You should talk to your liaison about that." The same tone as You should see your doctor about that.

"She already knows."

"Then there's nothing wrong, is there?"

I try to resuscitate the conversation by asking after her husband (who stays at home--Daria's one of the few heterosexual women in my circles), her work (teaching biology), her Thai lessons. But she would have none of it, scurrying away with the excuse that her daughter needs the toilet. When I turn around Bunyawi is back, steering a tom in crisp clothes toward me. Not a cognate; her twin brother is. Identical twins, and though I find the brother as compelling as cardboard, the same features on her are much more interesting.

We don't hit it off exactly, but she says that she came along mostly so she'd get a chance to wear a trench coat. I offer that she looks dashing and that she ought to take every opportunity to don it, and we charm each other a little. We exchange numbers, emails. Bunyawi is pleased; she thinks romance is the cure to all ills.

The examination is routine, conducted by alien machines and human nurses. Neurological checks and conventional ones--blood pressure, vital signs, dental health, hormone levels. They have to protect their investment.

Sridava summons me for the obligatory session, a status update. I have already asked her all the questions anyone might ask of invading extraterrestrials, from What do you think of humans? to What about other species? Her answers have ranged from occluded to outright evasive, but the other species--which she does not name--must exist, or they wouldn't have enemies to fight. I catch myself saying, "If you were a book, what would you be about?"

If she had a capable mouth, would Sridava smile? Does she smile, with her actual mouth; if she even has a mouth? My imagination has run wild many times. "I would not be a book, but a composition. Some music arrangement. Orchestral, in your terms, a symphony. But yes, a text better suits a human person."

"Do you have a social life? Family?"

"Of course."

"Do you eat?" I used to think I was becoming infatuated with her, this facsimile, a terrible and obscene perversion. The body that doesn't even try to look human. But I quickly discovered it wasn't infatuation, at least not the romantic or sexual kind. Now all I see is aesthetics, striking to look at but nothing else, and she is too indulgent. She infantilizes. To her I am a subject.

She strokes the desk between us, the way you might stroke a pet, long onyx fingers along cobalt surface. "All organisms do, as an inescapable necessity. Khun Jarukamol, why not let us help you?"

"Help me with what?" Panic is making me itch fiercely, the base of my skull burning. Is she going to ask for Bunyawi? Will I plead, how will I make my defense?

"Your trajectory." She has accessorized, I notice abruptly, two brass crescents in the sides of her face. Where the ears would be. "This we cannot do with any directness. The circumspection has stymied us, stymied you. This is not optimal. But here is a fact that we have chosen you to receive." Her body language has not changed, but why would it. "In all the universe, there are only two sapient species. Us. You. Nothing else. The rest of the living are unthinking chaff. We are alone now, and shall remain alone when it all ends."

I'm holding this revelation like some obliterating secret, even though I don't understand what it means. There is a precipice and I'm teetering over it. In a breath I will fall.

Bunyawi is saying that I should give people a try. "What is there to lose? She's handsome and has a nice job. You haven't had a girlfriend for too long."

Since before I joined the program; since before the song chose me. That is the line of demarcation, neatly bisecting my life in half. "What about you? You've been putting your life on hold."

"I've been freeloading." My sister tosses her head, laughs. "You are committed to patriotic duty. The least I could do is to take care of you."

We're in a shop full of hair-things and costume jewelry made from coconut shell, teak, beads. Hoop earrings, leather chokers. Chunky, showy things, the sort I don't like but which Daria does. Bunyawi insists on buying Daria a gift, not that I see why I ought to when Daria was the one who snubbed me. I let my sister go to it; mediation makes her happy. But it feels like a distraction--everything is distracting when I'm grasping blindly for this epiphany that might sweep me up and cast me down.

Bunyawi picks out a mesh of black stones, onyx and cassiterite, filigreed in brass. To me it looks tacky, but Bunyawi is sure that Daria will adore it. As an afterthought, I select a pendant. Unlike most of the pieces in this shop, it's slim and small, gunmetal. The shape of an elaborate arrowhead, inscribed in Sanskrit. My sister thinks this is for my prospective date, but it isn't. I don't quite know who it is for, only that I have someone--something--in mind. Intuition, delusion.

Later, sitting on the veranda and watching the village's stray dogs fight, it comes to me. The dogs are squabbling over a bone, meat still clinging to it. Chicken drumstick, probably. They are well-fed, but deep-fried, over-salted meat may be a treat.

This is not an inspiration, just the obvious. There are no other sapient species, Sridava said.

We've waged war on each other, too; got a long history of that, and the ruins to show for it. So do animals. Lion prides compete over prey, wolf packs contest territory, probably there are birds that form rival flocks. Why should the aliens be different? So that is it, then. Their enemies are not some other--they're fighting their own kind.

Why the cognates?

The next step of the answer seems beyond me, but Sridava wants me to arrive at it without help. I think on this as the branches rotate through me. The engineer turns up less and less. I see him at an age impossibly far in advance, gray-haired, balding. Five decades ahead, or more. He's surrounded by grandchildren, most of them in uniforms like Yaem's. He walks using crutches in a humid garden, after a rain, everything wet and glittering and green. The engineer seems happy. Next to his heart, he wears a brass key, an engagement gift and memento of his husband.

He keeps walking, the garden furling into itself, its breadth interminable. The path is inlaid with stone, roofed by boughs overgrown with moss and colorful bottles roped to the branches. Orchids like dollops of paint, saturated and hyper-vivid. That is the last I see of him. Something is winding to a close; I am running out of time.

"I mightn't be a cognate for much longer," I tell Bunyawi on the way home from our grocery run. The cable car sways slightly as it goes, much more private than trains or taxis, more than even an elevator. There's a quiet wonder to it, like an amusement park ride. "I'd have to find a proper job soon."

"Why?" She puts her phone away. "She didn't give you a bad performance review, did she?"

"No, no. I just think--we all assumed it was for life, or at least for years. But I don't think it will last that long."

"Then maybe I should apply for it." Bunyawi holds up her hand. "I mean--they couldn't just rely on who heard them the first time they arrived? I think I was asleep at the time and anyway, someone'll need to put food on the table."

The stipend I've put away in my savings account will more than provide, albeit not forever. Two, three years in comfort for both of us. I might negotiate for a severance package. "If you want." Knowing she will not get it. Had she been suitable, they would have recruited her from the beginning. That's what I tell myself. She is safe from them, she has to be.

That night I don't sleep. I turn the puzzle of my branches over, waiting for the engineer to reappear. He doesn't--not as an old man, a middle-aged one, or a child. Instead there is Yaem, who grows in frequency and strength. Now they are out drinking, alone or with a girl, in strange establishments where dancers are solid light and the music pours from glacier instruments. Now they are fighting: a dark soi, a mugger. There is blood, not Yaem's. They move so quickly, a crunch of cartilage, an impact of body on asphalt. Yaem stands. Steps away. Pure economy.

I taste the food they taste, a conflagration of flavors. It stings my tongue, sets my teeth on edge. Our palates are little alike.

"The application of main force needs not be brute," Yaem tells their companion, a pretty Kaoli girl in a blue sheath dress. "You can strike first, strike decisively, so devastating the enemy cannot respond. Alternatively you can stop the war before it begins; that is optimal."

Is this what they say to their dates? Perhaps those attracted to Yaem must of necessity be attracted to the philosophy of offense and defense. But Yaem is surely just a soldier, a piece for the aliens to deploy, no more in command than any of us, than me.

What do they need us for? What is it that they can get out of us that their enemies don't have? What special resource do we provide--is the goal for us to become more like them, and if so, what function does that serve? Is it a question of numbers?

In absence of any other information, I write down what Yaem has said, recording diligently the way you might if Praphut Tha Chao himself were to appear before you. Every word a pearl, every sentence gold. Yaem is living the future, I'm sure of that now. The future we would share with the aliens, for better or worse. Sridava's evasions muddle that up, though, and push me to explore other possibilities.

I forego sleep, looking up theories on time travel. Impossible, of course, as far as we know--though all hypotheses on physics are dated now, against alien arrival (which too was thought impossible). I stumble through keywords, publicly available papers and thesis abstracts. Most are incomprehensible.

On the second night of wild-eyed research, I am led to quantum theories, Schrodinger's cat and the rest. Some concepts draw me more than others, a delirium of outlandish ideas and unlikely axioms. But they seem likelier by the moment. In my fever--the need to understand--I latch onto anything. Universal wavefunction. The many-minds interpretation, which posits that branches in reality--the points of divergence--require an observer.

It will happen, or won't, or has already happened; everything exists. Reality is multiple, countless rivers moving in parallel, intersecting and splitting.

I call for Bunyawi. Astrophysics and this aren't alike, but she would know more than I do. There is no answer.

When I enter the kitchen, I find the table is set only for one. When I enter her bedroom, I find it empty of possessions. The bed is smooth, sheets neat and tucked in, the pillow flat. The wardrobe is likewise unoccupied save by wire hangers.

I turn on the light. I turn off the light. I search the house and the veranda and I search the garden. Five times I call her phone--it doesn't ring in my earshot, and the only answer is an artificial voice letting me know that this number is not in use.

Dawn, and she does not come home. I keep looking in our house for traces of her, the pressed flowers she keeps on the bookshelf, the personal mug she keeps at her desk. But there is nothing, not even her textbooks or framed photos of galaxies.

I'm trying to remember whether there are family photos. My phone, my hard drive, anything. In the batik bag from the jewelry store, there is only one piece left, the arrowhead pendant. Not the mesh necklace she chose.

Three days go by before I admit she's not coming back. I call Sridava.

"Quantum mechanics," I tell her. "That's what it is, isn't it?"

She is quiet a moment. "Possibilities are almost infinite. By plucking and pulling at them, we can arrive at a present where we were never at war with ourselves, and so write our historical conflict out of existence. Humans are our instruments. We can't do this with one another and affect that change because we are already compound. It must come from without, from another set of sapient observers. Peace through quantum logic, we are nearly there. Do you see?"

"Give me back my sister."

"I'm sorry. That can't be done. She was effectively one of your branches. Something is lost; something else is gained. A conservation of existence, if you will. You have plucked forth one possibility. Now it is up to you to ask the right question, the last one. One more individual needs to become real."

Every muscle in me is coiled. My cheeks are wet. "Let me see Yaem."

Bunyawi did not survive that failure of engine and aerodynamics. She broke open on the ground among the wreckage, like the rest of the passengers and crew. No one survived. But when my sister turned up the day I heard the aliens' song, I didn't question it. I didn't question her. I didn't think about the fatal flight at all if I could help it. Correlation rather than causation, but because the aliens' advent coincided with hers, it gave me a different outlook to our extraterrestrial visitors. I felt a certain gratitude, and so when pressed, I was one of the first to agree to the cognate program.

Sridava picks me up in one of their small crafts. The entire way I say nothing to her and she does not offer comfort or condolences, nor does she demand my thanks for having given me six months with Bunyawi I otherwise wouldn't have had.

My eyes hurt from crying. All of me feels sore with grief. We land on the tower's summit. I follow Sridava out of the craft. For no real reason, I've brought the cheap pendant, clutching it in my fist.

The room she leads me to is one I have never seen before, the door monochrome gray and faceted. But nothing unusual, not really, that'd mark it as life-changing. She moves aside, indicates that I should enter on my own.

A push; the door swings in. I think, for a moment, that it will be empty. Nothing there at all, only a dream. Or else it will be Bunyawi in there, waiting for me.

I close the door behind me. There is someone in here, of course there is. Not my sister. The person is leaning against the window, their back to me. Taller than average, bulk from muscles rather than fat. Not in uniform, but in clothes so severe they might be. Tailored jacket, a pale silver shirt, dark slacks. These are not clothes I could imagine on myself, but there they are.

They turn. They look slightly surprised when I give them the pendant. Our hands are precisely the same size, down to the length of each finger, the breadth of the palm. Our height, our build.

"This is for you, I suppose." My voice is tight, grudging, though is it their fault--they are a tool, like me. Did they ask to be created from nothing, to be pulled from another possibility to this one? We are the soft moving parts in a relentless machine.

Yaem nods. Smiles. They thread the arrowhead onto the thin choker around their neck, and it fits just right. There is a small badge on their chest. The name on it I already know, their formal name. "Thank you. I've been waiting to meet you."

"Have you?"

"None of this is a metaphor," they say, their voice not a stranger's after all, and open a door at the opposite end of the room. Beyond it, I see everything. "But that which does not break its cocoon must of necessity die within it. Shall we break through ours?"