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Using My Head

by Jen Hoffman

part 1 of 3

I guess it all started when I saw the newspaper ad. They ran a few different ones, trying to attract as many potential Hosts as possible. “Save an endangered alien species!” or “Find your true companion!” My personal favorite said simply, “Use your head!”

Their previous Hosts were Yawnas, little blue fuzzballs with three legs, about the size of a cat. On their home world of Hrill, the Yawnas were pets. The entire species suffered some sort of plague and were all going to be dead in a generation, so the Symbs needed to find a new Host. Symbs can’t live without a Host. They went to the dominant life form on Hrill, and explained the situation.

(And don’t you wish you could have been there for that? ”Mommy, my Yawna says it has something important to tell you.” “Yawnas don’t talk, darling. You know that.” “Greetings to you, Hrill named Mommy. Take me to your leader.” And then poor Mommy just faints dead away. The word probably isn’t “Mommy,” really, but you get the idea.)

The Hrills helped the Symbs run tests on every other species on their planet, trying to find them a new Host. Something to do with brainwaves; I’m not too sure of the details. Whatever it was, they couldn’t find it. So, the Hrills expanded their search. Finally, about six zillion light years away from Hrill, bam, there was Earth. Earth had humans. Humans had the kind of brains that the Symbs needed.

The Hrills built ships, with controls simple enough for a Yawna to use. Yawnas aren’t very smart, so the Symbs had to guide them through every single step. It was exhausting work for them, after generations of just riding around in Yawna bodies. (I like to imagine that, too: ”Look, just stand on the blue button, will you? No, the BLUE button! Wait, stop! Where are we going?”) The Symbs made it work, though. They didn’t have any other choice.

The first migration of Symbs came to Earth and a few of them found Hosts right away. Those first human Hosts could explain it to the rest of us. Without Hosts, the whole Symb species would die. They’d been searching the universe for almost a thousand Earth years, and their current Hosts, the Yawnas, wouldn’t live much more than a hundred years. They found us just in time.

There’s a two-inch red scar, right behind the left ear, where the Symb entered, but no other way to tell who’s Hosting. Some Hosts claimed the Symbs made their dreams more vivid. Most said they noticed no effects at all.

More volunteers began to step forward. At first, it was mainly weirdos. All the alien-conspiracy nuts were only too glad to help. It proved they’d been right all along. A few new-agey hippie types came forward too. These are living creatures, just like us. Don’t they deserve to live too?

Jonas, my boyfriend at the time, was one of the hippies. We’d been together six months, and I was starting to get a little sick of his constant rhetoric, to tell you the truth. He was so charismatic and passionate about his pet causes, it took me a long time to see that he didn’t really have anything else. He’d fold me into his arms, whisper something about Bolivia, and I knew he was going to change the world.

As soon as I heard about the Symbs, I knew Jonas would want one. He liked endangered species. I didn’t see his main argument coming at all, though.

He told me that he’d realized he was just as bad as someone who owns a car. He’d tried to do the best he could, of course, but his whole life, he’d been blindly consuming air and (all natural, cruelty-free) food, never even realizing what a waste it was, doing all of that merely to sustain just himself.

“Did you know humans only use 10 percent of their brains? The rest of it is just wasted real estate. It’s a crime to not put it to use. And what about all the oxygen I consume in a day? Wouldn’t it be better if someone else could share that same breath? My life, helping another creature to live. I wonder if I could get a whole family of them.”

I never thought I would get one. Jonas would get one for sure, probably, but there wasn’t anything at all special about me. Only a million Yawnas had been on the first ships, which had immediately gone straight back to Hrill to pick up the next group. The rumor was that after they had all been transported, approximately one out of every 20 humans would have a Symb. No one could tell how the Symbs made their Host selections. You went to one of the Symbiont Spaces Headquarters, and either a Symb decided she liked the look of you, or she didn’t.

Back then, the SS Headquarters was just a rented conference center. When you entered, you got a time stamp on your hand and you were directed into a large open room. A team of human volunteers, a few with Symb scars, was patrolling the room, and would ask you to leave after two hours. If a Symb hadn’t picked you by then, you didn’t have whatever it was they were looking for. You were encouraged to check back when the next ship landed, but until then, you were just going to be in the way.

There were about 20 Symbs in their fuzzy little Yawna bodies, apparently roaming around the room at random. They didn’t even seem to be looking at us. I’d seen Yawnas on TV, but they’d just looked like frizzy blue gerbils. In person, the head/body was almost circular, supported on three velvety-looking feet. Their fur was long and silky. It was almost purple at the base, and gradually lightened to sky-blue. I bent down to touch one, and Jonas snorted at me like the tourist I was.

“They’re sentient beings, Stell, just like you. You can’t rub them behind the ears. You’re degrading them.”

I blushed, but stayed where I was. The Yawna I had tried to pet was staring right at me. It blinked its one yellow eye, and then it started vibrating. My whole body felt too warm.

“See? You pissed it off. Will you stand up, please? You’re embarrassing the whole of humanity.”

His voice seemed to be coming from a long way away. My Symb had seen me and recognized me, just as I recognized it. The only way we would be happy now was if I let it happen.

One of the volunteers helped me to a seat. I could barely concentrate on what she was saying. All I wanted was my Symb.

The volunteer seemed to be finishing some sort of speech. “So, you’re a Host now, if you want to be. If you are interested, we’ll take the Yawna down to room 57B. There are a few forms to fill out, and then the transplant. You’ll be back here in about an hour.”

I struggled to remember how language worked. “Was it... Was it because I tried to pet it?”

“Definitely not,” she smirked. Raising her voice a little, for the benefit of everyone nearby, she added, “A few people always try to touch them. They’re cute, right? But it doesn’t seem to make any difference. No one knows how the Symbs pick Hosts. Repeat, No one knows how the Symbs pick Hosts.” Then, to me again: “You’re the first Host today, and you made physical contact. That doesn’t mean a thing, of course, but rumors will fly like crazy now. Last week, a Host screamed when the Symb made contact with him, and we had to clear the room for an hour. You moaned a little, but most of these people probably didn’t notice. Come on, I’ll help you find 57B.”

Jonas didn’t even offer to come with me. He had less than two hours now left in the Symb room, and he wasn’t about to waste it with me. Despite the volunteer’s speech, he was one of about a dozen people racing around the room, trying to touch as many Yawnas as possible.

I followed the volunteer, carrying the Yawna. I didn’t know what to expect, but room 57B was just an office, with no furniture except a low desk and a cot. The volunteer shaved the left side of my head with an electric razor while I filled out my name and contact information on a dozen different colored forms. Then she told me to put the Yawna on the desk, and lie down on the cot.

“Now what?”

“Now, I’m going to shut the door. I’ll wait for you right outside. Stare at the ceiling, and breathe normally. The Symb will handle everything. It takes about 15 minutes. I’ve been told it’s actually a very soothing process.”

I heard the door shut, and then a low hum. I was about to get an alien inside my head, but I had never felt calmer. The hum grew louder. My whole body felt warm again, and then it was over.

I stood up. In the desk drawer were some dried Rung eggs. I should feed the Yawna, but first I should open the office door and let Marie know the transplant was a success.

I wondered if Marie had ever told me her name, and went to let her in.

“Is your name... Marie?”

She grinned. “Yup. Does it worry you, that you know that?”

“Yeah, a little. Can I read minds now?”

She laughed. “Actually, I introduced myself back when I first sat you down in the main room. You were probably a little distracted. The Symb heard me, though.”

“Oh, sorry. Um... what are Rung eggs?”

“They’re a snack the Hrills used to give their pet Yawnas as a treat. They brought a bunch with them on the ship. Don’t give the Yawna too many, but you knew that, didn’t you?”

I did. I fed the Yawna two of the eggs, and stroked its fur. I also knew that without the Symb inside it, it would be dead in an hour. They never used to die on Hrill when Symbs left, but now that they were all so sick, the shock of transplant was killing them.

The Symb would stay inside me until one of us died. If it died, I would be fine. If I died, it could live about two days without a Host. What else did I know?

Nothing. I concentrated, and asked again. Hey. Symb. What else do I know?

“Should I be able to talk to it at all? Find out what it knows?”

“There’s still a lot we don’t know about the Symbs. Some people say their Symb talks, in English, and they seem to be telling the truth, but most Symbs don’t talk at all. A lot of Hosts report premonitions, like you did about the Rung eggs, but as far as we’ve determined, those feelings are usually strongest in the first few hours after the transplant. By tomorrow, you won’t feel any different at all.”

She was right. Jonas didn’t end up getting a Symb, and he asked me about mine constantly. I think the mundanity of it was what really grated on him. I had this amazing sci-fi miracle, and I was just going about my normal life.

I’ll admit it was weird, the first few days after my transplant. You see too many alien movies, and the idea of someone else living in your head seems a little freaky. It’s all you can think about. Is the Symb looking at my memories? Would I have maybe made different choices today, if I didn’t have a Symb influencing my thoughts? They must be, right? How could they not? But then you just sort of stop thinking about it and get on with your life. Some people said that was part of the process. The Symb secreted pheromones or something into your system to help you stay calm.

I wasn’t ever one of those obsessive crazies. I never referred to myself as “we” or thought up a cool alien-sounding name for my Symb. I kept my head shaved, of course. All the Hosts did, that first year. It was the tradition, but I think we all knew deep down that it was more vanity than anything else. Most of us were just ordinary people. Now, for the first time in our lives, we had something about us that truly made us special. You’d better believe we wanted the world to know it.

People who were rejected as Hosts started wearing those red wristbands. “Symbiont Sympathizer,” like that made any difference to anyone. The Symbs didn’t seem to care one way or another. They’d found Hosts, and were just trying to get their lives back together on a new planet. We really weren’t anything more than apartments for them. You didn’t see apartments celebrating a new tenant moving in.

The Symbs probably wouldn’t have ever gone mainstream if Tom Hanks hadn’t gotten one. He showed up on Leno one night with that little red scar, and Symbionts were suddenly cool. Everyone wanted one.

You stopped seeing the red armbands. Instead, it seemed like every other person on the street had a shaved head and a Symb scar. A friend of mine, not a Host, told me a lot of people were drawing the scars on with magic markers. She couldn’t understand why I got so upset.

“Symb scars are the new fad. A year ago it was body piercings, and in six months, it will be something else.”

That wasn’t the point. We were special, singled out, living proof that the universe is far stranger and more miraculous than any human scientists had guessed. They had no right to try and pretend they were one of us.

* * *

I’d had my Symb about a year, and I hadn’t seen Jonas for almost three months. I’d heard from friends that he had finally been recognized by security at the SS in our town, and wasn’t allowed inside anymore. He’d been going every day, convinced that the right Symb had just overlooked him every other time. He would be a Host. He had to be.

Then he showed up at my apartment one night, with a bouquet of flowers and a newly shaved head.

“You were so right, Stell. It changes everything. We are one with the universe now.”

“I never said anything like that. Besides, I heard they kicked you out of the SS.”

“We’ve been going to the one in Cedar Point. Or, I have. That’s where I finally met Yizrixel.”

“Met who?”

“That’s my Symb’s name. Y-Z-R-X-L. Yzrxl. That’s not how she spells it, of course. It can’t be spelled in English. What, did you think her name would be Susan or something?”

There were so many things wrong with what he was saying that I didn’t even know where to start.

“That looks like magic marker.” It didn’t, actually. His scar looked just like mine. Had he gotten it tattooed, maybe? His eyes narrowed for just a second, enough to confirm my suspicions.

“Stell, we don’t want to fight with you. We’re sorry we haven’t called for so long. Yzrxl says Symb sex is outstanding.”

“Get out of my house, Jonas.”

“But we need you! We’ve had a lot of ideas lately. Yzrxl says she can help you. We can help you. We can teach you how to communicate with your Symb. His name is, uh, Grxt.”

I squeezed my eyes shut as tightly as I could. My Symb hadn’t said a word to me since the transplant, but I really wanted it right now. Come on, Grxt, or whoever you are. Help me prove him wrong.

I opened my eyes and smiled. “Actually, her name is Susan. We think you’re full of shit, Jonas, just like always. We think you should get the hell out of here.” I closed my eyes again, pretending to concentrate. “No, wait. Yiz-whoever-it-is can stay. We’ll let her move in here, with us. Give us your hand, Jonas. This will only take a second.”


I refused to go to Jonas’ lectures for a long time, just out of principle. Finally, a non-Host friend convinced me. We’d sit in the back of the room. He’d never even know I was there.

There were maybe a thousand people in the lecture hall, most of them with shaved heads. Jonas was, not surprisingly, an excellent public speaker. Even when we were dating, he’d always been able to convince me to do anything.

He didn’t mention his own scar at all, but he wore a headband with a round hole in the side to draw attention to it. He said that the Hosts needed to band together. We were the Chosen People, and we would lead humanity into the future.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Hoffman

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