by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, January 2018
Sloanee opened her eyes and felt her heart racing. What was she doing? Lying down? She was on the lam. She should be running or hiding. Nowhere was safe from the royal guards pursuing her. Queen Doripauli and her army of photosynthetic tumbleweed-like aliens would stop at nothing to catch and punish the amphibioid who had betrayed them.
Sloanee shook her head, trying to keep memories of the beautiful floral queen from overwhelming her. Instead, she found herself dizzy and confused; she was having trouble understanding her own body. Sloanee put a hand to her face, but the hand wasn’t green and smooth; it was a paw covered in red fur. And her face was wrong: instead of flat and wide, it was long and pointed. She felt her head with her paws and found large triangular ears and a long muzzle. All of it furry.
“You’re disoriented,” a voice cooed. An avian figure with white feathers and a long graceful neck leaned over Sloanee, offered a wing-like arm, and helped the confused creature up.
“This is the Genie Shop,” the white-feathered avian cawed. “You’ve been here for three weeks. You came to us as a female amphibioid and paid us to change you into a male canid. You’re a Heffen now, one of the most common species here on Crossroads Station. So, you’ll be in good company.”
“Drastic gene therapy,” Sloanee croaked. Except, in her new body — his new body — it came out more like a bark. Geez, Sloanee realized, that probably shouldn’t even be her — his — name any more.
On the bright side, Sloanee was well hidden from Queen Doripauli’s royal guards. They would be looking for a green froggy alien; not this red-furred fox. Sloanee supposed that had been the idea. “Why can’t I remember any of this?”
The avian cawed, “The gene treatments interfere with short term memory transfer. Your last day or so before the transition is going to be fuzzy or maybe entirely gone.”
“Right,” Sloanee barked. A fresh start. That was exactly what she needed. He needed. She also needed to start thinking of herself — himself — as a male Heffen. He felt so lost… “What do I do now?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” the avian cawed. Perhaps the white-feathered avian could see how lost Sloanee felt, because it took pity and added, “I did hear that you came here with a human girl. A bartender at the All Alien Cafe. If you trusted her to bring you here, then maybe she’s somewhere to start.”
“Start figuring out your new life,” the avian cawed.
Trust. Sloanee had trusted Queen Doripauli, but the queen had turned against her. What did it even mean to trust someone if that trust had not been true?
“Go on,” the avian cawed. “Whatever you decide to do, you can’t dawdle around here all day. We have other clients to serve, and for obvious reasons, we can’t have you crossing paths with any of them.”
“Privacy,” Sloanee muttered. The word felt funny in her furry muzzle. Her tongue was shorter, and her mouth narrower than she expected. He expected. Dammit. Sloanee would never keep this straight. Clearly, it had been brilliant to change herself into this totally unfamiliar creature; she could live a life free from persecution now. Except, Sloanee couldn’t even remember who he was.
“Right, now get out of here.” The avian walked Sloanee out through a curtained waiting room, through a dingy abandoned restaurant front, and into the refugee quarter of Crossroads Station. Before abandoning the confused new Heffen, the avian pointed out the way to the All Alien Cafe in the merchant quarter.
Sloanee wandered aimlessly through the station, missing the spring in her step from her froggy legs but enjoying the way his new tail swished behind him. His ears turned, automatically, to hear the voices and conversations all around. There were a lot of other Heffen here, just like the white-feathered avian had said. It would be easy to disappear.
In fact, Sloanee felt like she was about to disappear entirely. All that was left of her were some broken, unbearable memories buried deep inside this new body — a body that had no life or story of his own. Who was he?
In spite of herself, Sloanee found that her paws steered her to the All Alien Cafe. She had nowhere else to go. She sat down on a stool at the bar inside. No one gave her a second glance. A handsome male Heffen was commonplace here.
A pink-skinned primatoid with long head fur served Sloanee a drink, and the new Heffen watched her working the bar. This was the human girl that the avian had mentioned.
Sloanee remembered meeting her before. Her name was Clarity, and she’d seemed kind. The last thing Sloanee could remember before waking up in the Genie Shop was Clarity serving a drink and asking, “What’s your name?”
Whatever had happened after that was gone. Except for a feeling of warmth. Sloanee felt more rooted in herself around this human.
On an impulse, Sloanee reached out a red-furred paw and placed it on the human’s hand. “Aren’t you going to ask me my name?” Sloanee asked.
The human looked surprised. “What’s your name?” As she stared up into the red-furred canid’s eyes, there was a glimmer of recognition, even though she could never have seen Sloanee in this body before.
Sloanee felt a rush of relief, as if being recognized by this human she hardly knew meant that she wouldn’t lose herself entirely in this new form. “I don’t have a name yet,” Sloanee said. “I need a new one.” With a deep breath, Sloanee prepared to leave her old self behind and truly become someone new. “Would you pick it for me?”