Shay presses the smoke onto her face with a trembling hand, soot crumbling down her arms. The grey burns up her nose straight into her brain, pools behind her eyes. It smells of broken wounds and annihilated worlds. She takes a deep breath, takes it all in. The warm swirls on Shay’s skin surge towards her mouth and nose, vanishing into the waiting hollow of her lungs.
A blink later and the universe returns, bright stars behind thick windows, drowning in the black of the cold cosmos. Shay touches their reflection. New. Their fingers ball into an awkward fist on the cold duraglass. Behind them the door hisses open. Heavy steps announce Shimbas.
Shay presses their lips into a thin line and then into a smile. Then they turn.
“You look accurate.” Shimbas takes in their new form, nods to himself. “It will do.”
Shay holds out their hand, a new appendage covered in grey-brown skin with a white half-moon pattern. Four fingers with four joints. The material Shimbas and the others collected for the transformation had not been enough. It would have killed Shay in their attempt to merge. But where there is a will to do what was necessary-
Shay nods at Shimbas as they pull up their hood. “I am ready.”
He takes their arm and leads them into the dim corridors of the Ulan, their flagship. The two sets of steps echo – the only sound as they take the fastest route to the centre of the Ulan. A route has been carefully cleared.
Two weeks preparation for this walk. Shay tries to shake the memory, all the others, too – months and months of preparation, infiltration and lies. But they are not her any longer, the woman that will betray everything. Shay straightens their shoulders. They are now the centre of the universe.
It’s not a magnificent door, no markers of status and honour. Shimbas stops, almost puts a hand on Shay’s shoulder and pulls it back as if they were on fire. His white face is serious under the blond buzz-cut. Shay doesn’t have to look up to meet his watery blue eyes any longer.
“Remember, don’t look into xir eyes,” Shimabs voice is imposing even when he tries to speak softly. “The Universe is seductive and will drag you into xir depths if you let xem.”
Shay nods. They know those eyes: black pools of cool water under an endless night sky. No pictures can do them justice.
The door opens silently, recognising the DNA of Shay’s body and their bodyguard. The room behind it is vast – three levels high, two shuttles long. Of course the throne is at the other end. And on the throne –
Shay takes a deep breath. It is their throne now. They lengthen their strides and Shimbas has to put a hand on their arm. No hurry, don’t stumble on the last meters. Shay slows down reluctantly. These legs were made to cover ground – long and slim. The half-moon pattern fades into dark grey towards the feet.
When Universe spots their approach, xe raises from xir throne. The motion is liquid – water in reversed gravity – Shay can feel it mirrored in their new bones. The desire to touch those long-fingered hands rises with them, when Universe reaches out. Shay side-steps the approach, but their fingertips burn. The feather-line separating black hair from grey face beckons.
“So you would do this,” Universe addresses Shimbas.
“It is time,” he replies, his voice as matching his bulky figure. “We need a better Universe.”
“And you,” Universe fixes xir gaze on Shay, “you agreed to this?”
“I am but following orders.” Shay feels the new voice smooth from their lips.
“Then how do you plan to run the galaxy?” The words are soft, a gentle reprimand.
“I do not,” Shay says. “It is not my place to give orders, so I will not.”
Universe shifts xir attention to Shimbas. “I assume you think you have that under control, too?”
Shimbas smiles and Shay tries to like it. They are saddled with that smile for the rest of their life. But there are too many white teeth behind too thin lips. Lines deepen at his eyes that shine in triumph.
“We have thought of everything, your Highness.” He sketches a bow, mocking the Universe.
Shay knows then, that it is over. Universe could have killed him with a curt movement. Xe does not. Xe looks back at Shay, a thin threat on xir lips.
“So you would destroy the universe to rule it. I was afraid it would come to this.”
“It’s nothing personal,” the Shimbas replies. “You should have seen it coming, if you were on top of your game.”
Universe nods, the weight of millennia in the movement. “Everybody under suspicion is monitored.”
“And yet, here I am, with your replacement at my side.”
The universe turns and smiles at Shay with black eyes containing galaxies. “Yes, here we are. It has been too long.”
Their insides knot up and Shay can’t reply. The urge to touch the triangle face is overpowering as the black-eyed gaze holds them close. The universe is said to be cold and uncaring. Silver sparks rise in the dark eyes holding Shay rapt. They know this to be untrue. It’s just a very big universe dilating the care into a the unfeelable. Unless you stand right at the centre.
Shay takes a step closer and raises their hand to the familiar face. “I am sorry,” they whisper, “sorry it came to this.”
“You are not to fault.” Universe raises xir hand as well and they stand, perfect mirror images of each other.
Shimbas clears his throat. “Time to say goodbye, your Majesty.”
“Goodbye.” The word thrums in the double harmony of two voices speaking as one.
Shay turns and their hands are smoke. It trails up their arms, wafts to the ground in heavy swathes. It burns their insides. Never have they used their power twice in a row so shortly. Their breath is heavy and their eyes glaze over in the same pearlescent grey of the smoke dripping from their fingers.
They turn to Shimbas. “Everybody under suspicion is monitored.” Shay replicates the cadence perfectly. When they raise their hands, understanding spreads over his face.
“But you were an abused throne-room attendant!” His eyes are frantic. “We saved you!”
“You planned to kill my universe.” Shay’s tone is low, close to inaudible. “You were so serious, you left me no choice.” They hold their hands up between them, cupped around the smoke flowing from them as from a fountain.
“I knew this would be my end, you would be. But nobody destroys my universe.” Shay looks into the blue eyes before them, now wide with fear. They will see those eyes in the mirror for the rest of their life.
“Goodbye,” they whisper, closing their hands over his face. It yields to their call easily and Shay’s bones shake in weariness as they pull away. At least this time it is a fresh face, not memories entombed in nail clippings, stray hairs and the generous gift of a lover knowing the task at hand.
Icy shivers run over their skin, exhaustion calling in all favours as they compress the essence that is Shimbas between their palms. Shay raises their overflowing right to their face and presses the heavy smoke against it. It fills their eyes, nose, the hood and all the world. They inhale sharply.
A moment later, Shay finds himself on the ground. The new face is sticking out at sharp angles, the body tired beyond standing. He raises a pale hand to his face, thick fingers – human again, hairy. He does not like this form. It feels bulky, unwieldy.
Universe kneels at his side and xir hands slip under the hood and peel it back gently. Last wisps of smoke rise from the blond buzz-cut. Xir eyes rest on the Shay’s new features for a moment, pride and regret overthrown by love. Xe pulls xir lover close.
“I doesn’t matter what face you wear,” xe whispers into his hair. “I know who you are inside.”