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Using My Head

by Jen Hoffman

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Part 1 appears
in this issue.
part 2 of 3

Reverend Jonas, as he insisted we call him, said that you didn’t even need a Symb to embrace their message. All you needed was $200 a year. That got you a subscription to Jonas’ monthly newsletter, which ran articles about ordinary people who were Hosts, and how they felt it had changed them for the better. It didn’t matter who you were, or how you had lived your life. This, said Jonas, really was the dawn of a new age.

Even better, there were more of us every single day. The Symbs had really thrived since coming to Earth. Jonas said that in a few months when the new Symb podlings started hatching, 500,000 new Hosts would be needed. He estimated at least another million every single year after that.

What could I do? I couldn’t prove his scar was faked. It looked just like a real one, and there was no other way to tell. It was very convenient that he’d gotten one of the few talking Symbs, but it happened sometimes. I knew he wasn’t a Reverend. He was eloquent, though. That was maybe enough for this audience. He was saying exactly what they wanted to hear, and no one could see how transparent his whole speech had been.

I whispered to my friend Laurel, “I think the magic marker fumes go straight to their brains.”

“I know. Isn’t it hilarious? I’ve been coming every week for a month.”

“It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Not one of these people can even ask him how he knows so much, because that would be admitting that their scars aren’t real either.”

“Do you think you’re the only real Host here?”

I looked around the room. There was absolutely no way to tell. The audience was all ages, all races. Taken individually, I couldn’t discount any of them. None of them looked like gullible idiots.

“I’ve seen enough. I think we should go.”

“No, wait. The best part’s still coming. He’ll ask for questions from the audience soon. I love hearing the stuff he comes up with. You know he’s always been good at ad-libs.”

As she had predicted, Jonas opened the floor for questions. A bearded man with a shaved head sitting a few seats down from us asked how Jonas knew about the podlings. Even I knew that one. His Symb had told him.

But, asked the man, how will that many new Hosts be found? Aren’t there a limited number of people in the world who can Host? I thought it was an excellent question, but Jonas was ready for it. The species had mutated to adapt to living conditions on their new planet, he said. Every generation of Symbs will have a greater selection of potential Hosts to choose from. Within ten years, every single person who wants a Symb will get one. The room broke into spontaneous applause. Laurel clapped louder than anyone.

“It makes... so much sense! That man is a genius, Stell. I don’t know why you broke up with him.” The bearded man looked like he had another question, but Jonas was already calling on someone else.

A small woman with a shaved head near the front stood up. “I know that a lot of people have Symbs who can talk, but mine won’t say anything.”

Jonas smiled. This was clearly one of his favorite questions.

Anyone could communicate with a Symb. Most of them weren’t going to talk unless you talked first. Jonas’ good friend Dr. Nordstrom was actually offering a class, $100 a session, for breathing exercises that were supposed to help you get into something called “Theta Mind.” The Symbs lived in Theta Mind, and the only way humans could understand them was to go there.

Laurel said, “You know you have to go to a class, at least once.”

“I am not paying Jonas $100 to learn how to breathe.”

“I’ll pay for you, if you promise to tell me all about it. I’d sign up myself, but I’d look ridiculous with a shaved head. No offense.”

So I went to one of the classes. Dr. Nordstrom had all 30 of us sit in a circle. He turned off the lights and played a cassette of ocean waves. It was very relaxing, but probably not worth $100. Of course I still didn’t know how to communicate. It was like trying to talk to my lung, or my knee. I knew the Symb was there, and it was a part of me. Asking it what it really wanted just felt foolish.

Just so I had more of a story to tell Laurel, I stayed after the session to talk with Dr. Nordstrom privately. I admitted that I didn’t think his class had done anything for me. He said sometimes it takes more than one session. I probably had an especially troubled mind, and my poor Symb was having difficulties making itself heard above all the noise. I smiled, wondering how many sessions Laurel would be willing to pay for. Then he told that sometimes, people needed to begin communicating right away. Although he hadn’t found a Symb of his own yet, he had had some success talking to other peoples’ Symbs. Since my need was clearly so great, he would make time in his busy schedule for a reading the next afternoon. This was definitely going to be worth Laurel’s $100.

First, Dr. Nordstrom tried to tell me my Symb was lonely. If I went to more of Reverend Jonas’ meetings, my Symb, who he said was named Tsin, would be able to socialize with its own kind. I pointed out that I see hundreds of other Hosts every single day. Counting me, five out of the eight people in my office had scars.

Then he said it hadn’t been in the papers yet, but just a week ago, a new Symb virus had been discovered. It was a new strain of the plague that had killed all the Yawnas back on Hrill, and if I didn’t get myself checked into a Symbiont hospital this instant I might not live another month.

I thanked him for his time, and promised to go to more meetings. I declined his offer of another breathing session. I let my hair grow back in, and stopped telling people I was a Host. I knew what I was. Jonas and the Magic Marker People deserved each other, but my Symb and I could get along just fine without any of them.

* * *

About six months passed. Laurel told me attendance at Jonas’ meetings was dropping. Maybe a hundred people went every week, instead of a thousand.

“I told you it was just a fad. Have you seen those hats everyone is wearing now?”

I had. They were soft, knitted, shapeless things, sort of like berets, but you wore them with the elastic pulled down over your ears. They looked awful, but they were available in every color you could think of. Even people who weren’t waiting for their hair to grow back in were wearing them. Bandannas were really popular too.

One night, Laurel called me after she got back from Jonas’ meeting. “Stell? Do you know what a Joining is?”

“What do you mean?”

“There was this woman at the meeting tonight. She said her Symb had talked to her for the first time that morning, told her it wanted a Joining. Jonas didn’t have a clue, of course, but I thought you might know.”

“My Symb doesn’t talk. I told you that.”

“She looked like she hadn’t slept in a week. She was running up to everyone in the room with the scar, and begging them to help her. She said her Symb wouldn’t stop asking until she found it a Joining. I felt bad for her, but it was funny, too. That whole room, and not one real scar. The woman looked at all of us like we were insane.”

“The Symbs were pretty selective about Hosts. Maybe this Joining thing can only happen with a specific other Symb.”

“You should have seen Jonas, though. It was so great, watching him squirm. He was supposed to be the Symb expert, and you could tell he had no idea at all what to say to this woman. He knew ‘Yzrxl told me’ wouldn’t be enough this time. Finally, he said he’d put a note in his next newsletter about it. Maybe one of the people who stopped coming to the meetings will come forward.”

“I hope so. That poor woman.”

Two days later, the story was in all the newspapers. Laurel said it was the same woman. She’d just been walking down the street, when suddenly her Symb started talking more urgently. It told her to go into a specific coffee shop about a block away and the other Host would be inside. He was waiting for her outside, actually. His Symb had noticed her Symb at the same time. They were photographed together, both smiling, and both covered with thin red lines, like veins. They both said Joining took about an hour, and involved no physical contact between the Hosts. Both reported a slight buzzing noise and a feeling of heat, but no discomfort.

The man was actually carrying two Symbs now, his original one, and a new one that had formed when the two adult Symbs had Joined. When the baby reached maturity, the man could carry it for about a year while a Host was located. The woman’s veins would fade in a few days; the man would have his throughout the two-month pregnancy. He said the veins sweated, sometimes, kind of a greenish oily ooze, but he was so glad to have his Symb stop bugging him about the Joining that he didn’t really mind.

That really was the end of the fake scar craze. A shaved head could be a fashion statement, but no one was willing to fake green slime coming out of every pore.

I tried to find out all I could about the Joinings, but there wasn’t a lot of information. Four more shiploads of Yawnas had arrived over the past two years, but Hosts were still just a fraction of a percent of the world population.

I tried asking my Symb for details, but it still wouldn’t talk to me. One article I had read at the SS said the Symbs had never talked to the Yawnas, and they simply weren’t used to the idea of living inside a Host who could carry on a conversation. The ones who talked to their human Hosts were usually comparatively young. Most Symbs seemed to start communicating when they needed a Joining, but until then, there was no forcing it. If your Symb wasn’t one of the talkative ones, there wasn’t anything you could do to but wait.

A year later, my Symb spoke to me for the first time. It wasn’t really talking, just a low buzzing noise, accompanied by sort of gauzy photograph-like images. I saw one Yawna. It looked like every other Yawna I had seen, but I could tell it was upset about something. Then, another one stood next to it. The two Yawnas looked at each other, and they both started vibrating. I saw the people in the newspaper picture then, hugging and smiling. Then, an image of myself, standing all alone.

I wasn’t sure how to talk back, so I spoke out loud. “Um, hello?”

A feeling of impatience. I was being an idiot. I saw the two Yawnas again, and then myself, still alone. It was called a Joining, and it had to happen right now.

“Will you at least tell me your name?”

I felt the Symb’s frustration. There was no time for this foolishness. I was stupider than a Yawna. At least they knew how to follow simple instructions. Then, I heard my own voice, shouting at Jonas. “Actually, her name is Susan.”

I had to laugh.

“OK,” I said. “It’s Joining time. What do I have to do?”

The next image was of a young woman, maybe 20 years old. She looked familiar, but it took me a moment to place her. She rode the same bus I did in the morning. She’d gotten her scar about the same time everyone else did, so I had assumed it was faked.

“Her? Really?”

I saw myself standing next to the woman, and we were both covered with thin red lines.

“How do you know? In the newspapers, those people had no idea how to find each other.”

The Symb, who I now thought of as Susan, was still clearly impatient, but she explained through pictures that the woman in the newspaper photos had a young Symb; this had probably been its first Joining. Susan had picked out her potential mate months ago, and the other Symb had agreed. If the stupid humans would just get moving already, they could get started.

“She’s really not my type.”

Susan’s irritation was almost painful then.

“OK, just kidding. Will I be the, uh, parent, or will she?”

Susan seemed to be thinking of the best way to explain it. The pictures were harder to interpret. She seemed to be saying the baby would choose.

It was Saturday, and I couldn’t wait until Monday when I went to work to find this woman. I didn’t know how else to find her, though, so I caught my usual bus downtown. The bus driver looked at me strangely when I didn’t get off at my usual stop, so I pointed to the scar on my head and shrugged. I had a monthly pass, and could technically ride all day if I wanted to. He couldn’t do anything except glare at me suspiciously in the rearview mirror, so that’s what he did.

We passed the woman’s stop twice, Susan getting more frantic each time. Finally, the third time, the woman was waiting. I got off the bus.

“Sorry, it took me a while to figure out what you were doing. My Symb got really loud about an hour ago, and I looked out my window and saw the bus driving by. That was what finally made it click, but I live on the fourth floor. I knew I wouldn’t catch it in time, but you’d be back. Um, my name’s Amy Jotters.”

“Stella Green. Hi.” We shook hands. I was starting to feel really warm, and Amy already had the red veins appearing on her skin. We looked at each other, not really sure what to say next. “So, do you want to get a coffee or something?”

“My apartment is in that corner building. Let’s just go there.”

We sat on opposite ends of Amy’s couch. She offered me a can of soda, but then we really didn’t have much to say. I’ve never been any good at small talk under the best of circumstances, and this was awkward in so many ways at once. I had never said two words to this girl until today, and now tiny little creatures inside our heads were having freaky alien sex. What can you possibly say in a situation like that? Finally, Amy asked if I minded if she turned on the TV. I was glad for any distraction.

An hour later, it was over. Amy said she was the parent, and Susan agreed. I was relieved. We shook hands again. My veins were sweating, so I left a green smudge on her door on my way out. She told me not to worry about it.

I saw Amy on the bus on Monday. She looked healthy, but her veins really stood out. I’d been avoiding mirrors all weekend, but mine were probably just as bad.

I moved to sit next to her. “How’s it going? Does it hurt?”

“Not at all. My apartment is covered with that slimy stuff, though.”

“Yeah, mine too. I took four showers yesterday, but it gets everywhere.”

“It’s not so bad. I was planning on redecorating soon anyway. My Symb talks to me all the time now, and it sings to the baby.”

“Really? What’s that like?”

“It’s hard to describe. It makes all three of us feel better though.”

For just an instant, I was jealous. Then I remembered the slime. I’d be done sweating in a week, but Amy still had another two months.

Amy inclined her head towards me, her eyes wide. “Shh. Listen. Do you hear it?”

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Hoffman

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