XIIN • by Mark Harding

When my husband came back he was different. At night when I lay beside him, I’d only pretend to sleep. And when I did drop off, I’d have the dream. And wake from it with relief. Until I remembered why I’d dreamt it.

I didn’t want him to go to Chorien in the first place, but at the time–unarguably–those who dared to cross the border could make fortunes from the New East. Apparently xIin is all the rage there. You just pop into a little street-side booth and have it done. Yes, I was expecting him to bring something back. But an object, a blueprint, a design: not something internal.

xIin is an emotion: a new emotion, that hasn’t existed before. I used to plead with my husband to describe it but he couldn’t. It’s not like anger or satisfaction or fear or lust or tiredness or boredom or expectation. Neither is it like a mixture of these–it’s not like a mixture of colours; it’s like a new colour.
 
I could tell when it came to him. Even from behind I could recognise the twist in his body shape. From the front, his face would distort in a way that was… meaningless. Not human, not even animal: only other. Then I’d think: What if he got it when we were making love?

It drove me mad that there never seemed to be any sense to what triggered it. Sometimes a shade of blue did it, but other times not. Sometimes it was the creak of a chair in a stuffy room. Sometimes it was a particularly mundane holiday snap. Sometimes it was me. It was me, yet I was not involved. I might as well be a stuffy room or a boring photo.

I would ask him: “What is it for?”

“It’s not for anything in particular,” he’d say. “It’s not evolutionary, it’s artificial.” (I would hate his smugness when he said this.)

I begged him to have it removed, but by then they had closed the borders and there was no chance. I could tell he was relieved.

It wasn’t only that he had this thing that made me feel outdated, bewildered, merely human. There was also the dream.

In the dream, I would watch myself racing through their strange streets, searching for my husband. I’d run and run until I’d look into one of those little booths, and there he would be. And he’d turn to face me. And I would be too frightened to stay and see if he wanted me there.

***

My wife didn’t understand. True, there is a new part of me she can’t understand. For me, choosing it was an adventure, but she took it as a betrayal.

At night she’d lie beside me, quietly breathing. Sleep had always been her refuge. Me: I’d brood in the silence.

She would insist that explaining xIin is the same as explaining anything else. But the whole point of xIin is that it isn’t like anything else. You might as well expect a bat to explain the feel of echolocation. I’d tell her xIin doesn’t run on the physiology she has, while mine has been extended–xTended, to be technical. I admit; talking like that didn’t help.

She’d expect xIin to be explicable, predictable. But why should that be? When you see your wife you feel love–but not every time. That’s how life is.

After the borders closed it was obvious I had to be discreet. It made me ashamed that I needed to hide the fact I was different. On occasions I even tried to disguise it from my wife. Then I’d think: What if I get it when we are making love?

She’d ask me if I would have xIin removed given the chance. But what could I say? It extends the breadth of my life. I was hurt she could ask.

The isolation is hard. At heart, humans are herd animals. At night, I’d dream of the xIin houses of Chorien. Places we could meet together: men, women and children. xIin objects would be brought to us, xIin plays performed. How beautiful–to be able to share.

At times I would fantasise about making my way back. But I was frightened to think of what I would have to leave behind.

***

The noise of the stream should cover our footsteps. A moonless night. We pray the guards are more interested in guarding the border against the East, than watching for us leaving. We have left behind our tent, our car. We have left behind everything. The water of the stream is cold but clean as it flows over our boots. I hold my wife’s hand to steady her. We have left behind nothing. Together, we cross the border to a different life.


Mark Harding lives in Edinburgh and is a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle.

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