“So what’s the deal?” Max asked. He still wasn’t convinced he wasn’t hallucinating. He wasn’t sure of a lot of things right now. Sure, there was a statistical likelihood of other intelligent life, but that he would be the one to meet it, that it had chosen him… it all seemed a bit unlikely. And then there was the matter of the feminine shape in the mirror. The Amazon that looked like she’d been dipped in tar. He moved his head left and right to get a better view of it. It was weird to think that this was him. Well, in a sense, it was Penny. The real him was still under there somewhere, entirely disappointing by comparison.
The outer layer is me, Max. But I think this shape is just one I felt comfortable with. It’s also still you. Penny paused. This is us. Max had trouble wrapping his head around that idea. He moved his hips left to right. It wasn’t Penny moving them. That was him. It confused him. He wasn’t new to disliking his own body. Everyone disliked what they looked like, after all. Everyone had things they would change about themselves, and Max was no different. He’d done with it what he could, but mirrors had never been his friend. I’m sorry to hear that. Does this help then, at least? Penny asked.
Max nodded. It helped to put on a suit that wasn’t him for a bit. He wondered if Penny could look different if they wanted to. A little twinge in his mind told him that Penumbra was thinking about this too. He was slowly getting used to the feeling of Penny’s presence, and the way their thought processes felt. “It’s good to be something else for a bit. Still, it’s a bit weird. It feels like I’m appropriating something I’m not, you know?”
I have no idea what that would feel like. But does it feel bad? Penny’s question buzzed around Max’s head for a moment. It definitely didn’t feel bad to be a tall, hot monster. But he’d also usually resorted to feminine avatars in games he’d played. It was a matter of what he enjoyed looking at. He chided himself for meeting an alien, possibly the first person on the planet to have ever had an encounter, and that he’d immediately resorted to some light objectification. He felt Penny frown. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of what’s going on here, they interjected. The person in the mirror is also you. You’re not objectifying me. Without a host, I just look like spoiled pudding.
Max laughed softly. “Fair enough. Still, I don’t want to stand here all night ogling y-- th-- myself? Us? Whatever. You said something about needing to do this? What happens now?” He felt Penny tense up and relax for a moment. It seemed they were glad to have the subject change as well.
Can I? I can just show you.
“Go right ahead,” Max said. Immediately after, for the first time in his life, he experienced what it was like to not be in the driver’s seat of his own body. He’d been unconscious before, of course, but this was different. It was like somebody gently pulled his perception backwards without actually moving backwards. He still felt everything but… from a distance. He tried to move his head, and he stirred a little bit, but it wasn’t responding.
“Are you okay?” Penny asked with his mouth.
‘Yeah,’ Max managed. Talking back was strange because he wasn’t talking. His thoughts were being broadcast directly at Penny. ‘Just weird.’
“I can stop if you want to.”
‘Nah, we’re here now anyway. Show me what you wanted to show me.’ Then Penny moved their body. It was strange, like being in the passenger seat of a flesh-robot. He was aware of every movement, could feel them as his own, but he had nothing to do with the information. It reminded him of that one time he’d tried on VR goggles. It had been more disorienting than this was, though. This wasn’t uncomfortable, just weird. Penny moved around the room, walked in a little circle, and then crouched on all fours. They moved the body in a way Max never had before, twisting the limbs to their very limits before ejecting.
The movement was almost faster than Max could register, spinning around in mid air. Just like that, Penny was clinging to the ceiling, fingers extended into sharp claws that had dug into the soft plaster. They craned their neck to look at the room from this new vantage point, before crawling along the ceiling towards one of the windows, pushing it open, and crawling out. They clung to the wall outside Max’s apartment, around the back of the building. It took Max a moment to find his brain and his thoughts again. He was crawling on walls, like a bug! Not only that, but he was fairly certain that, considering the force of the jump to the ceiling, and the strength he’d felt in their legs, that they could jump a lot higher.
I agree, Penny said with no little measure of satisfaction. Do you want to try? It’s exhilarating. Max’s first instinct was to say no. What if he couldn’t do it? But this was it. This was his chance, his opportunity to be strong, for once, to matter, to be powerful. He nodded, and knew that Penny had felt it. There was a strange feeling, like putting on a pair of well-fitting shoes as he slid back forward and he was in control again. Now, don’t panic. Don’t look down if that’s a problem. Focus on the body and what it can do.
Max was way ahead of them, and began crawling up the wall rapidly, mimicking the movements he’d felt Penny make earlier. It came almost naturally to him, treating his body as a tool, as a vehicle that did what he told it to do. It took him only seconds to reach the roof. It was a four-story building -- the top two floors were storage for a different building -- and he saw the rooftops of the adjacent buildings several dozen feet above them.
Are you sure about this? Penny asked, but Max only grinned internally as a response. He felt the front of the black skin respond in kind, grinning its toothy grin with him, and he bent through his knees as far as he could before pushing off as hard as he could, trying to aim. He was a bit clumsy, and didn’t quite get the angle right, firing himself at the upper ledge of the building to his right. He bounced off it with his shoulder and barely felt it, laughing internally as he spun around in mid-air and the elongated claws tore a groove through the brown brickwork. Splinters of stone and cement flew through the air as he clung to the wall and made his way to the top. There he stretched for a moment before perching on the edge of the building. Well? Penny asked. What do you think?
“This is fucking awesome,” Max said. He wondered briefly what he’d done to deserve this. Surely there were better people, people more deserving. Surely he wasn’t good enough. If Penny was a healer, there were people more in need of healing.
Do you tell your doctor that?
Do you go to your doctor and go ‘I’m sorry, someone else needs your expertise more’?
“I -- That’s not --”
I exist. I found you. This isn’t some higher calling. This is just us. Don’t overthink it. You’re allowed to have this.
Max doubted that. Doubted it hard. There was no way that was actually true. He looked like a beautiful monster, perched like a gargoyle on the edge of the building. He was just Max, and Max wasn’t really good enough for the things he wanted. Therefore, if he had something he wanted, that meant that something was wrong and needed to be fixed. That’s how things just worked.
What about this is something you’ve always wanted? You had a lot of fantasies about merging with an extraterrestrial life-form as a kid, or would any kind of symbiote have done? I thought what we had was special! Penny sniffed theatrically.
“I meant being better,” Max said. “I was never good enough, and just having the ability to be a superior version of myself feels like cheating.”
So if you found a five dollar bill on the ground, you’d just leave it there, huh?
“Are you calling yourself a five dollar bill?”
You know I’m worth at least twice that. Maybe even three!
“My own personal fifteen-dollar alien.”
You got lucky and got a good thing. Just because you got lucky doesn’t make it a bad thing. Just because you’re the one who got it doesn’t make it a bad thing.
If you don’t stop overthinking this, I’m going to throw us off this roof.
“That sounds unpleasant. We’re quite high up.”
I’m well aware.
“You drive a hard bargain. You’re right. Let’s enjoy this.” Without another word, Max launched himself across the street. Again, he missed the mark a little bit, and his claws dug long grooves in the wall before he got proper grip and began to climb up. No better way to celebrate newfound power like some minor property damage. He made his way up to the roof in record time and this time took a running leap to the following building. He felt Penny bulk up in their legs as they made the run, and realized that they were responding to what they needed most in the moment. He leapt, and soared through the air this time, landing on the next roof perfectly and immediately breaking into another sprint and a jump.
They bounced from roof to roof, making further leaps every time, sometimes running alongside a wall for a few seconds before pushing off, splintering the brickwork behind them. Max didn’t care, not right now. He felt free for the first time in his life, and tried not to think about the fact that he felt free from himself at that moment. Penny grumbled but didn’t say anything, which Max was grateful for. He wasn’t in the mood for more psychoanalysis. Another roof, and he stopped for a moment, looking out over the city. It was proper night now, and the lights of the city danced off their gleaming exterior. It was a beautiful sight. He’d only ever seen a view like this on a screen, or through a window. It was different to see it while standing on the edge of a building. And for the first time ever, there wasn’t a place in that city he couldn’t reach. Sure, he probably shouldn’t walk through the streets right now, but he could go up any building, climb to every window.
He scanned the skyline for the tallest building and grinned again. Penny sighed. Maybe we shouldn’t push things too far, Max. This is our first time doing this.
“Screw that,” Max said. “I want to see what I can do. How far I can go.” He jumped and ran across a railing. It crumpled like paper in his wake. That was someone else’s problem. Another building, and another one. The building, some bank or another, was the pride of exactly nobody in the city. It wasn’t a very pretty building, a bad imitation of the Chrysler building. But it was tall, and it was getting closer, rapidly. “Right now,” Max said, and he made the last leap to make the difference before slamming chest-first into the building, clamping onto it with all four limbs, “I want to go up.”
He began to climb, first putting one hand before the other, digging his claws into the stonework. This was taking too long. He could walk up the stairs and be faster. He frowned, and pushed off with his legs and found himself shooting up, and only ever so slightly away from the wall. If he was fast enough, he could dig his fingers back into the wall before he started falling. He’d made a ten-foot leap with barely any trouble. The grin was back, and he felt the cold air against his glistening teeth. He pushed off again.
Push. Grab. Push. Grab. Every time he jumped, he felt he was tearing chunks out of the wall. Another push, every time he jumped a little further, a little harder, and he loved how fast he was ascending the building. He was practically running up the wall now, and he was giddy, giddy with the power in his limbs, trying desperately to enjoy this feeling as much as he could. There was no telling when it might be taken away.
It’s not going to get taken away, Max. Please slow down. You don’t have to push yourself this hard. This isn’t going awa--
Max and Penny both froze up when Max made another jump and missed the grab. He tried desperately to claw for the wall but he was falling backwards, now, having pushed himself a bit too far away from the wall, and there was that moment of sick weightlessness he knew from leaning a chair too far back in class. But instead of hitting the floor in geometry and suffering embarrassment and a sore back, they were hundreds of feet up. The street was very far below them, but their descent was neither slow nor controlled.
“Fuck,” Max thought eloquently. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” He waited for a second, hoping Penny might know or do something to save them.
Fuck, Penny said, and Max knew they were screwed. They’d been too high up. He’d been too reckless. He’d been scared of feeling this good and because of that he was going to lose everything in just a few seconds. The air was loud around him, a deafening roar of wind that moved past them. He tried to close his eyes, the fear in his stomach keeping him from trying to relax, trying not to be aware of the fact that he was about to be responsible for turning both of them into a stain on the boardwalk. Some poor city management employee was going to have a terrible morning, and it was going to be his fault.
“If you want you can always say I told you s--” he said, and then he hit the pavement with a sickening crunch.