“What happened?” Quinn said, warily stepping closer to me. “Is it something we can help with?”
Thoughts were flying through my head at a lightning pace. If I didn’t want my voice to sound like this, did that mean that I preferred it to be… feminine? Part of me was scoffing that that was nonsense, that I’d always been totally comfortable with myself, that this was just more anxiety over being an Emissary redirected into other body parts. The other part of me was screaming to do something about it.
“I need to go get something,” I whispered. “But I promise I’ll be back.”
It was already getting difficult to talk with everything else going on. Each sound was a minor challenge to produce, and as I moved for the door my senses turned into an attack. I could smell the slight chemical emissions off of every surface and the sweet, cloying scent of Miri’s pheromones and hear the subsonic rumbling of the fusion reactor, five hundred floors below, the pumping of water and coolant through the walls around me was just so loud and the feeling of the carpet on my feet was so rough and ugly because the air around was so cold and I could feel it on the tiny hairs on my carapace as I stumbled through the open door. My room was just two doors down, though that felt much further with my arms clutched around my chest and my antennae pinned against my scalp. The key was in my pocket, and it took a few tries to get it to stick into the keyhole, turn it, and shoulder open the door.
The first thing I needed was my Ariel. I’d been leaving it behind, both because everyone around here spoke English and also because the publicly available terminals were just as convenient. It was a dumb idea, and I left a mental note not to do that again. I clipped the Ariel onto my arm, and opened up the assisted communication app. The second thing was more essential. I dug through all of my clothes and my notebooks and everything else I owned, printed photos and an old scrapped lock that I’d been using as a stim toy. Panic started to rise up in my thorax as I couldn’t find it, and I wondered if I’d left it behind on Helium Glider or if it had accidentally been destroyed. It was under the bed. Greedily, I grabbed the thin little manual, and sprinted back to Miri’s room.
“Alex, can you still talk to us?” Miri said as soon as I re-entered. “Do you need anything?”
My name was something else I’d never really liked. I never liked the way it sounded, or the way it was so generic that it didn’t seem to fit me. Everything else about the way I understood myself was starting to fall apart, so why not my name as well?
I found a nice corner of the room and collapsed into it, tucking my abdomen up between my legs so that I could properly curl into the fetal position. Once I was settled, I took out the Emissary instruction manual with my lower arms and started leafing through.
“I don’t think he’s in a state to talk to us,” said Quinn. “We’re going to stay here if you need us, okay?”
Do I want to be called “he,” either? When I’d realized that we were going to be giving our pronouns to the crew of The Lance of Croatoan, my immediate reaction was that I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. Obviously, the best way to do that was to be chill and say that any pronouns were fine. Which led to the commander calling me “she.” Just like Ralv had called me “she.” And I hadn’t bothered to correct either of them.
I pulled up my Ariel and started typing with my upper arms while my lower ones continued to flip through the book. “My voice just cracked and I hate it. I hate my voice. I think I hated my voice before and I was just repressing it.”
“What…?” said Miri. “You never said anything…”
“What part of ‘repressing it’ do you not understand?” Quinn hissed. “So, you… prefer talking through the Ariel?” he said to me.
“It’s easier, too,” I said through the Ariel. “Autism thing. Would be easier even if I liked my voice.”
“But your voice only cracked just now,” Miri asked, “so you didn’t hate it before?”
I shook my head.
“The voice you had before was rather high pitched,” Miri said, raising an eyebrow. “Though I guess something more feminine suits you. Not that there’s anything bad about enjoying it, I mean, I liked it too…”
“Thanks,” I said aloud. I found the right page in the instruction manual, passing it to my upper arms, and started skimming through the passage as quickly as I could. Before starting the falthrranta, what felt like a world away, I’d read through the section of the book describing it at least a dozen times. But there was something that I desperately needed to know, a burning curiosity held deep in my core, that I hadn’t been able to pick up before.
“Could you call my parents?” I said. “I need to ask them something.”
Miri nodded, pulling up her Ariel and making a quick, and extremely anxious, call. Quinn, meanwhile, paced back and forth across the room, rubbing his face with both hands. “This explains why you never wanted to do karaoke,” he muttered. “I guess I should apologize for pressuring you to do that, too. So you’ve always hated your voice… ever since it dropped?”
“Pretty much,” I said.
Quinn sighed. “Okay, well, I can tell you right now that I think my voice is sexy as fuck, obviously. That’s… not a common cis guy thing, in general. You do know that, right?”
“I had assumed that it was one of those things everyone’s insecure about.”
“It isn’t,” Quinn said. “Weight, sure. Hair, having clear skin, eyebrows, maybe your butt if you’re a little queer? Sure. Not a lot of people are insecure over their voice, outside of a vague ‘Wait, is that what I sound like?’ kind of thing. And the people I do know who have that insecurity… weren’t cis.”
Miri ended the call. “I don’t think we should be implying anything like that,” she said snappishly.
“I’m not trying to imply anything!” Quinn snapped back. “Just saying what I know from… pretty much every queer person I’ve ever met. It could just be a side effect of the Emissary thing.”
“Except that I was totally okay with the way my new voice sounded up until now,” I said.
“So the only problem was… that your voice was too deep? Too… masculine, maybe?”
I didn’t want to admit it, but what Quinn said hit the nail on the head. I didn’t like the way my voice dominated conversations, I didn’t like the way girls would flinch whenever I spoke too loudly. I hated the way that it didn’t match with the rest of me whenever I’d try for a more femme presentation. Then again, my whole body didn’t mesh with a femme presentation. At least, it hadn’t.
“Um, Alex?” Quinn said, looking down on me with his hands on his knees. “I’d sort of been operating under the assumption that, when you said any pronouns were good, that you were doing it in the cishet guy way where you don’t understand why pronouns are important and have never been misgendered in your entire life, but now I’m wondering if that’s really true. Do you have anything you want to tell us?”
Miri’s eyes shot open, and she softly gasped. “You told me that you hated going through puberty, but not your metamorphosis! Are you…?”
“And I was telling the truth, but I don’t want to say anything that I’m going to have to take back later.”
“You know that I spent, like, eight months considering being nonbinary, right?” Quinn said.
I looked up from the book. “What? I don’t remember—“
“You don’t remember because I never told you. I was experimenting, not sure what I wanted to be, and I only ever talked about it with a few trans people in an online server. I realized I really enjoyed keeping my masculine charm,” he said with a cheesy wink.
“I don’t think that’s how this works,” Miri said, folding her arms.
“Of course it isn’t! There’s no one way that this works, that’s the whole thing I learned! The point I’m trying to make is that it doesn’t matter if you’ll have to take it back later, or whatever, you can be whatever you want. I mean, fuck, you have the benefit of being able to transition whenever you want.”
I nodded. “Thanks for telling me about that, Quinn. Probably something you didn’t want to come up again.”
“No problem,” he said.
“But, wait,” said Miri, curling a lock of hair around her finger. “When you first did the metamorphosis, you were female. You’ve been turning back into a guy ever since we left the planet, right? Why would you do that if you… weren’t cis?”
I typed the answer slowly, the question echoing through my head. “What else was I supposed to be?”
“Whatever you wanna be,” said Quinn.
“I was… alright with being a man. It felt safe. Wasn’t comfortable, but who is comfortable under the patriarchy?”
“Me, Alex. I am. I love when I’m with a boyfriend, and he touches my face and I can feel how I haven’t shaved in a couple of days, and he tells me how rugged I look, despite both of us knowing I’m a fucking twink.”
The image made me want to reel back with disgust, maybe take a shower while I was at it.
“I’m just nonconforming,” I said. “You’ve crossdressed too, and I’m pretty sure that whatshisname taught you to do makeup at the same time he did to me.”
Miri’s mouth fell open. “Alex crossdressed?”
“You realize I was doing that as a gag, right?” Quinn said, ignoring her entirely. “And I’m pretty sure I remember you being bright red the entire time he was showing us.”
I didn’t say, or type, anything for a while after that. My fingers were on the right page of the instruction manual, but my thoughts were focused on the past. Dredging up all those old thoughts and feelings wasn’t an easy task, not with how poor my memory was, but I had to do it. Whenever I’d done something… gender-y, the dominant feeling had always been a mix of excitement and terror. Neither emotion made sense in the moment. Part of me, back then, had loved the way I felt, the way I looked in a skirt or with a foundation and a touch of eyeliner. The other part of me had been scared, not that someone would find out, but that I’d go too far and break some hidden rule.
I started typing. “This book actually says a lot about the falthrranta, beyond just how to do it and what it does. It was a huge part of how the Emissaries presented themselves, defined themselves. Most Emissaries would do it regularly, changing back and forth every year or every couple of years. Of course, some would change only once or twice, just to get a feel for what they wanted to stay as, or remain as one sex for decades and change unexpectedly. When I was reading that, I was fascinated by the idea of of not having to be bound to gender, of being able to change who I am on a whim. But I dismissed the idea, I didn’t even think about it because it seemed so blatantly obvious that I was meant to be a man.”
I paused. Miri and Quinn both had similar expressions of worry and sympathy, looking down at me. “That… doesn’t sound good,” Quinn said. “If you want to talk about it, we’re here.”
I clenched my mandibles, anxiety and fear of what I was about to say flowing through my body like a wave. “I’m looking up if it’s possible to reverse the falthrranta,” I said through the Ariel. “I’ve spent the last week and a half trying to figure out what’s missing. And for the first time in my life, I’m starting to put some actual thought into it.”
Arana and Stellina burst through the door as if they were going to find me in the middle of getting robbed. “Alex, are you okay?” Arana said.
“They’re doing fine,” Miri said. “Just having a bit of a bad time, I think.”
“What would you have named me if I were a girl when you arrived on Earth?”
Stellina shot Arana a quizzical look, then said, “Alex. Except it would have been short for ‘Alexandra’ instead of ‘Alexander.’ Why do you ask?”
I sighed, antennae limply hanging to either side. “Seriously? You couldn’t have been a little bit more creative?”
“What’s going on, kiddo? Miri was really vague when she called us…”
I typed the message and deleted it at least a dozen times. The one benefit to talking entirely through a computer. “I’m trans. I think. Or at the very least I’m not male.”
I don’t think I could have gotten wider eyes and more raised eyebrows from the two of them if I’d announced that I was pregnant and Quinn was the father. Stellina let out a breath, slowly.
“Oh,” said Arana.
“Yeah…” said Quinn.
“I started the falthrranta because I felt like I had an obligation to,” I said out loud, “and it’s been tearing me apart for the last two weeks. Now I’m sitting here trying to figure out what the hell I want to do, and searching through this instruction manual for a way to reverse it, and thinking about if I want to change my pronouns or my name and not being sure what I’d even want to change them to!”
I went right back to reading the manual. At that point, stress pulsating in my guts like a subwoofer, I was skipping over entire paragraphs just to find the one sentence, the one word that I needed. Miri and Quinn left me alone, as did Arana and Stellina, though the latter pair whispered among themselves in a way just loud enough to qualify as “annoying” in my already-frayed state.
“We still love you,” Arana said after some time. “With the falthrranta, we knew that you probably wouldn’t stay the same as you were when you were young… it’s why we gave you a neutral name like that.”
“I don’t like it,” I said, clicking my mandibles. “I was hoping you would have named me something else so I could exchange it for something better, but I guess that’s not on the table.”
“It doesn’t matter if you change your name, whatever it is, whoever you are, we’ll still love you, alright?”
I gave Arana a very slight nod, which was the only acknowledgement I had the energy for. There were only a few more pages in the section on the falthrranta, and nothing about reversing it.
“If you don’t need me around, I think I’m gonna go,” said Stellina, backing away from me.
“I think… I think…” I sighed, and decided it was best to just start that sentence over from scratch. “I’ve been called ‘she’ a few times, by someone I met in Asonazafal, and a couple of times by Commander Carver. That felt… good, but I’m not sure if I’m ready for it yet. I think I’d prefer to just be a ‘they’ for a while.”
I was hit by a chorus of nodding, of “sure”s and “alright”s. It felt weird to even say something like that out loud, like I was being needy just for asking for it.
“And I’m definitely going to change my name,” I continued, pushing through and past the discomfort. “I just don’t know what to change it to, yet. I guess just avoid naming me for the time being.”
No response this time. I shut the manual and gave myself some more time to really, truly think. If I was going to go by “they,” it would make sense to pick a name that was super androgynous, right? Like “Skye” or “Winter” or “Robin” or whatever. Part of me said that those are perfectly fine names, and to just get it all over with by picking one; the other pointed out that the moment I tried to apply any of them to myself they immediately felt dissonant and wrong, more than “Alex” even.
So I started thinking about myself. What names sound like me? For a while I hit a total blank wall. The names that surfaced when I thought about myself were more like insults than actual names. Then I remembered something. It was an embarrassing memory, but one that had been big enough that it must have meant something.
“Catherine,” I said, as if that would explain it all.
“Hm?” said my parents.
“What?” said Quinn, shocked.
“I think that’s a good name. Catherine… Alexandra… Sierra. Has a ring to it, doesn’t it? Or Cathy, for short.”
“You’re naming yourself Cathy?” said Quinn, a little floored.
“What’s wrong with that?” Miri snapped. “It’s a perfectly good name for them. It fits you really well, I think.”
“Yeah, yeah, of course it does, nothing wrong with it.” Quinn forced his most obvious grin. I glared angrily up at him, to carry the point across.
“Alright, Cathy,” said Arana.
Hearing Arana saying the name I’d chosen really cemented it. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the name in reference to myself, but hearing it out loud felt… good.
I smiled, opening the manual again. Arana and Stellina settled into positions leaning against the wall and not really talking. If anyone had asked why I still wanted everyone around, I wouldn’t have been able to answer. Then, finally, I found it. The page I’d been looking for. It was only a single sentence, but that one sentence meant the world.
“The falthrranta can be reversed midway through by simply initiating the reverse falthrranta to the one your child has already begun. For advice on how to do that, refer to…”
I jumped to my feet and screeched with pure, unadulterated joy. “I can stop it! I can stop it whenever I want! Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!”
I leapt forward, pulling Quinn into a four-armed hug. Instantly, he hugged back, and before long I was at the center of a five-person hug pileup. Normally I might have felt suffocated or crushed with that many people around me, but in that moment it felt more like I needed them to prevent me from exploding outward.
I had a name, I had a vague understanding of my gender, and I had a simple way of getting myself into a body that I could actually tolerate. My friends were with me, my adoptive parents were supportive, even if they didn’t have a clue what was best for me, and I felt like I was riding a high that nothing could break.
If only I’d been right about that last bit.