by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, September 2018
Am-lei had been growing stiffer by the day. Her long, green, tubular body was usually lithe and flexible. She could twist her way through the grav-bubble obstacle courses on the Crossroads Space Station playground better than any Heffen children in her class. Their canine bodies couldn’t bend in half, twist into a pretzel, or grab onto an extra jungle gym bar with a sixth pair of arms.
Lately though, Am-lei had been barely able to bend at all, and all she wanted to do at recess was drape her stiff, itchy body over her desk and play board games with her two best friends, listlessly moving her plastic tokens over the colorful cardboard with her middlemost pair of arms. She’d beaten Anno and Jeko at Starhopper Supreme three days in a row.
Am-lei didn’t think she’d win tomorrow. She didn’t think she’d be at school.
For the first time in weeks, her body couldn’t stop wiggling. It was the middle of the night; her clone mother was asleep in the other room. But Am-lei had woken up with a pressure in her head and an uncontrollable urge to contort and twist and wriggle about. Her mouth felt gooey and tasted sweet. She moved her mandibular mouthparts and felt the sweet goo overflow and dribble down her face.
Silk. It was her chrysalis silk. It was time. She was terrified and thrilled all at the same time.
The pressure in Am-lei’s head built and stabbed until she doubled over. She needed her head down, down below the rest of her. The pounding in her head insisted on it.
She’d always had the uncanny ability to climb up walls. It was probably normal for children of her species, but living on a mostly Heffen space station, her ability to grip a smooth, flat, metal, space station wall with her six hands and climb straight up felt like a superpower. It made the other kids stare at her with awe.
Alone in her bedroom, Am-lei grabbed onto the wall, climbed up to the ceiling, and spat the sticky, sweet goo overflowing her mouth all over her bottom-most feet. She glued herself to the ceiling with spit-silk, and then she let her head drop down. She hung like a seed pod from a tree in the space station’s arboretum. And then she began to wriggle, writhing like mad from the itchiness all over and under her fleshy, green skin.
Am-lei contorted and flailed, and the stabbing pain in her head grew. She wanted to take her top-most short arms and scratch her face right off. But suddenly — relief. The green skin of her face split open revealing a smooth crystalline surface underneath. She kept flailing, and the itchy, fleshy skin she’d worn for years split down the middle, bunched up. She writhed her way out of it, pushing it up her body until it was nothing but a crumpled garment gathered around her feet, still glued to the ceiling.
Am-lei hung calmly now. The itching was over. The stabbing pain in her head was gone. So was her face. So were her arms. She was a crystalline shell — a smooth, faceless body lined with pulsing blue veins — beautiful, peaceful, and ready to sleep for a long, long time.
Over the next month, Am-lei’s mother came into her room daily. Her mother tenderly touched the crystalline surface of her chrysalis lightly with talon-like hands and gently traced the pulsing blue lines of her developing wings with the tips of quivering antennae. The touch tickled Am-lei, but only slightly. Her mother whispered, “I miss you,” and read a chapter to her from The Adventures of Wipple-Bug and Planet Eater every night.
Am-lei marked the time by these visits — but even the visits felt fuzzy, like a dream. She didn’t see her mother with her eyes directly, but through the gauze of her chrysalis shell and the muzzy haze of her drowsing.
Am-lei dreamed that her friends from school visited her. She dreamed they played board games together, but she couldn’t move her pieces without arms. She dreamed that she was back at school, but she couldn’t move or talk — only watch while her friends forgot all about her. Some of her dreams were real. At least, Am-lei thought her friends had really visited her and played a board game at her desk, simply to be near her. It was hard to be sure.
Eventually, the chrysalis felt tight around her, and Am-lei felt the urge to wake up. The urge to wriggle and move again.
When she tried to wriggle though, all of her movements came out strangely — her body only bent in a few places now; she could feel it — head, thorax, abdomen instead of one long torso. And her legs… She had half as many, only six now, and they folded awkwardly — all six of them were so long. And tightly trapped. She couldn’t move right, so Am-lei pushed and strained.
The crystal shell cracked. Am-lei’s new legs finally unfolded. She had talon hands like her mother. She tried to cry out in joy, but her voice tangled inside her newly long, curling proboscis. When she managed to find her voice, the sound of it fluted musically like it never had before. She’d had a child’s voice; a caterpillar voice, formed by stubby mouth parts. Now she could sing like a butterfly.
Am-lei let herself down to the floor with long, spindly legs. Now the chrysalis was nothing more than a broken, empty, crystal vase, hanging from the ceiling.
As she stood on the floor, Am-lei’s wet wings began to unfurl. They stretched out wide. Yellow, blue, purple, veins of black, and dust of gold. Light shone through the delicate membranes and fell on the floor in pools of refracted color. Am-lei flapped her wings lightly, testing muscles her body didn’t used to have. She was an adult now. She could hardly wait to go back to school and show her friends how she’d changed.