‘Ten Degrees of Freedom’, Sean Chua

Illustrations © 2022 Fluffgar

 [ Hand, © 2022 Fluffgar ] The rings are solid, warm to the touch, speckled under the bright lights of the examination hall. My fingers dig right in, pushing against the whirring spin. From an external perspective it looks as if there is no room for them to fit. But from an internal perspective there is no contradiction at all. The laws of w-space are immutable: the rings fit together perfectly. It’s simply that my fingers do not.

Snap, snap.

Fascinating, I think, the way fingers bend in four. I take the rings apart and it hurts a little less. I take a deep breath and put the rings together. My fingers break again. Snap.

From behind the tinted glass, a marshal clicks a pen.

Here’s a primer on higher-dimensional space. The fourth dimension is w, not time. Ten degrees of freedom: four of movement, six of spin.

The w-engine spins three planes along w, revealing unseen faces, axes, depths. Objects in w-space are larger than they seem. Spun by the engines, they grow and recede, showing their true forms: polyp, prism, star.

There is a war in w, in a galaxy far away. They give us new bodies to fight it. Mine is a brilliantly-faceted thing, all polyhedra and cage, musculature and wing, hardpoint and glistening bone. The plates fit snugly around the curvature of my skin.

The first time I’m sealed in, I nearly throw up on the screens.

In a station far beyond the furthest planet, the marshals teach me how to dance. Under their ever-present eyes I perform pirouettes and orbital injections for them, fouettés and finite burns, somersaults off the surfaces of half-formed planetoids.

Each time I bend into w, it hurts a little less. The body withstands damage to its occupant, twisting to accommodate every warp, weft, and weave. From the depths of my new chest, military-grade w-engines flutter like twinned gyroscopes. I learn to rend myself again and again, splaying my body across lightless skies.

Kilometres of gristle. Hypervolumes of bone. Too large and too clumsy to hold in one piece.

From the microphone, a voice barks: “Faster.

This time, I nail the angle right. From an external perspective, my bones crack and sift, becoming thin and weightless as threads. From an internal perspective, nothing’s changed at all.

“Perfect,” barks the marshal. “Once more, from the top.”

Eventually I stop thinking of myself as whole. In w, all form is a matter of rotation: with enough momentum, I imagine that I can become anywhere, be any shape, be many, be all.

There are others at the station, one from each colony. Names escape our plural forms: these are bodies that stretch and shift, bodies that wrap around themselves, bodies that morph like inkblots against the ceramic of the station’s hull. Bodies that hold space for others, or only hold space for themselves. Bodies resplendent in day and radiant by night.

None show the same face twice.

When we are assigned as combat partners, my partner tells me a secret. “The enemy we fight,” they whisper, “is not human.”

I laugh, unfurling. “Since when have we been?”

They send us running drills through the asteroid belts.

It’s hard work, but the body doesn’t need sleep. We learn fast to avoid the hits, to spin away surface area we don’t need. We learn faster to cheat the distance, eliding three dimensions with the help of the fourth. Four-dimensional space becomes an instrument of the body: push into it to cross that gap, then pull back to skirt the next. We push and pull and push again until our thrusters run dry and our control surfaces ache with every twist. We do it until our wings tear, splitting vertically down our spines. Then we go out again, because pain melts in the exuberance of becoming something new.

We do it a hundred, a thousand times more. Each time our bodies heal, rejoin, comply.

Still the sharp rocks tear into our skin. We barely have seconds before the timer beeps again and we’re each spinning off, alone, into the black.

The marshals call for time. Scores are tallied. We can sense them watching behind the silvered glass of the bridge with their tablets, plotting charts of best times. Deciding who’s to be vanguard or cannon fodder, who’s to pass or fail.

It’s all conjecture on our end, of course. Space is far too cold to hold a grudge. At night, we lick each other’s wounds in the shadow of the station’s hull.

Under the hull we share secrets with each other. Not through the radios—the marshals are always watching—but through gesture, touch, and form. A slippage of skin, an unsheathing of sinew, can speak hypervolumes more than words, more so in four dimensions than in three.

Somebody brushes warmly against me. “I never saw my sister when she came back from the front. There wasn’t much of her left, or so they told us, but sometimes I can’t help thinking she didn’t want us to see what she had become.”

I pass that on to my partner, in a pulse of carapace on skin.

They chime back: “That is not so surprising. That will soon be us.”

Someone else is quick to rebut, rattling scales across our backs. “Of course not. I’m my mother’s child, and I’m the pilot in the shell. I am who I am, nothing less or more than that. We’ll be out of these suits in no time at all.”

Dissent flutters through the ranks. This war was to be a possibility forged on the rejection of all other; our new forms are testament to this. My old flesh in the cockpit, malformed and unturned, is nothing more than the form of my mother’s child. The real me is outside, glittering ailerons sharp and free.

“That’s easy for you to say,” I rattle back.

Heads and sensory appendages turn.

“No transformation is completed by halves. We’re up here because we want to, and we’ve crossed an inviolable bound. We have taken these forms by choice, of our own free will, and these are the forms we will inhabit to the end.”

Nobody mentions the marshals or their eyes. The viewing gallery hangs like a wakefulness above the hull.

In some way, all of us have come out of control.

“To put my body in its right place,” my partner says, “my mother sank an iron in my back.”

“To put my body in mine,” I say, “I was put through motions and rotations—terrestrial ones, mind you, far more mundane than these.”

The same stories are passed around. This one gestured too often. Another could not sleep. That one laughed a little too much—a love it could never quite keep to itself.

I hear stories like my partner’s too. Hands kept fettered in laps. Throats careful not to spill over, mouths worn smooth from smiling. Some of us broke our own teeth to keep them inside our gums.

Then here and there came small resistances—the arc of a back, the whisper of a crossed thigh—the turning of a voice beneath a smaller voice, nursed behind soundproofed doors.

On the day of our reckoning, each and every one of us walked into that hall and broke our fingers in the interlocking rings.

I realise that in a way, our bodies have chosen us, not the other way around. We fill them with spins, tics, silence, and song: articulations which felt made for us, became us, were left ready for us under denuded skin and pallid scales. Jaws grow to fit our bites; shoulderblades, our stances. We are as big as we need to be and as small as we want to be. Loving paradoxes made flesh.

In the morning when we wake there is a terrible sound: a rush of aramid feathers, titanium fangs, a hundred thousand nanopolymer claws unsheathing all at once, all flesh and plastic and steel. Unflocking, we peel ourselves from each other and beat cold wings in the light of the sun.

“All of you will fight,” a marshal says, grafting spears onto our hardpoints. “All of you will bleed.”

My partner’s light and swift, more unblemished wing than pitted machine-flesh. I am all textbook motion and straight lines, a shard of twitching muscular grey. The marshals start the timer. Then combat begins.

Our first pass is glancing and brief, muscle memory from the asteroid gauntlets. In uncoordinated harmony we close at high speed. Twirl away at the last moment. Skin scraping against skin.

On the second pass, I go for a direct attack. For a microsecond my spear clips into the negative space of my partner’s chest. Then they stellate themselves furiously, turning their body inside-out along the direction of my spear.

Somehow neither of us is hurt. We disengage, clumsily, like young lovers emerging from a kiss.

On the third pass I unleash a flurry of jabs, but each blow I make only fills the space they leave behind. At this distance, I can feel the radiant heat of their thrusters rising to match my own. The fight blossoms into a nebula: now we are a blur of impossible shapes, a fierce oscillation between grace and deadly force.

I strike, and my partner folds away. My spears disappear into vacuum. Again and again my partner refuses to strike back.

So I choose force over grace, inverting myself, spilling plastic and metal into their direction. From the glittering shard of myself I extract my machined whole, baring my engines, my struts, my bones. I blanket the possibility of every escape with my sheer mass—extending myself not to wound but to reach, to touch, to draw near, to speak as clear as terrestrial day: Hey! You can’t keep running away from me forever!

My partner’s reply, in folds of silk: Then try to catch up.

One of my claws catches on the inside of their ribs. They gasp. The fragile sheeting tears. With my other hand, I push their body away, ever-so-gently, trailing coolant ribbon-red against the stars.

But in that fractured instant they’ve gotten something from me instead. I feel for the pinprick in my chest and realise the extent that I’ve fallen for the bait.

The trail of coolant reaches to my partner, too: the tips of their spears glitter red.

I confront my partner behind an abandoned ore processing plant.

The first words out of their lips are: “Don’t look at me like that. You deserved it.”

“I can’t help it! You’re far too laid-back.” By the station’s clock, day is drawing to a close, but the pale light of the system’s star remains a distant constant. I edge into my partner’s shadow. “To be in this form is to fight! It’s to learn how to bleed.”

“What if it’s not?” From the way their words brim over, I almost believe they mean it. “Have you considered how much it’s taken to get here? How much we’ve put behind us?”

I am faintly aware of their body shivering. They’re stretching their chest out to the sun, exposing the ribs where I’ve caught them, trying to catch whatever sunlight they can onto the adaptive nanomachine tissue.

I draw up to their body. “Show me where the blood is.”

They look at me like you’ve dragged me from hell. “You don’t owe me anything.”

“Fair,” I say. “But for the record, I got you first.”

Their chest shakes under my touch.

“Why do you do it?” I ask. “Try so hard to avoid the pain. You know we are to die out there on the front. Or if the marshals’ training is anything to go by, we’ll get shipped back in pieces before we’re due.”

I reach into that now-familiar gap between their ribs, feel for the humming warmth of their w-engines. I pull, and their wound resurfaces on the inside, shimmering with engine heat. Touched by the sun, the adaptive tissue springs to life, stitching the edges back into a pristine scar.

“Fuck you,” is what I think I hear my partner say.

Instead, I feel their fingers tighten around my chest.

“Your turn,” they say, reaching in.

From then on, this is how we fight. Two colliding masses, their violence consummated without grudge.

But each marks the other gently, so the marshals will have their blood.

 [ Strange combat, © 2022 Fluffgar ] My partner’s still afraid of contact, so I learn to play along. Pierce their body where it won’t hurt, along the bloodless plastic of wing, under overlapping flaps of ablative skin. It’s violent work, but our spears remain clean. After our first bout, it’s as if they’ve come to read my enthusiasm like a mirror of their own reticence. They’re learning, I realise, when to time their retreat to match the speed of my rush; when to pull back; when not to flinch at my spears’ touch.

Come at me already! I want to scream, through the blossom of thrusters and spears.

Don’t, they say, in the gentlest of sighs. It’ll only hurt you to try.

At times, it is as if our skins are always in contact, an ever-changing surface mediating our unrelenting dance.

At the end of every duel, they draw a claw across my cheek, and I across theirs.

With time, we forget what it’s even like for a wound to sting.

The marshals call me up before the hangar, addressing my body through a secure channel.

“You’ve been exceeding expectations,” one says.

I cannot tell which one of them is speaking. My body bows with practised ease.

“You will make an effective vanguard. You see openings where others cannot. You contort your body when others will not. You risk it in ways we would not dare.”

I have no choice but to agree.

They show me a few slides. Entire star systems shredded to lace. A planet sliced along its poles. Sterile colony ships strung through with holes like worm-eaten limbs.

I realise this is intended as encouragement.

“The enemy is merciless and swift, flowing through w like water. You and your partner are to be a thousand times that.”

My body, unbroken, salutes in return.

When I return, the underside of the station is abuzz.

Somebody chitters: “The enemy is a mass the size of a dying star.”

“No!” someone else shakes. “The enemy is a three-dimensional manifold existing in four. That’s how we can’t see them—they’re as thin as string!”

A faraway presence rumbles. “The enemy is chosen from among us. They pick the best from among us, and leave the rest of us to rot.”

“Quiet!” someone rustles. “I hear one of them has just returned.”

I catch floating drifts of gossip, whispered warnings throughout the fleet. Conversations pass across me like breezes, directed away from my centre of mass as turbulence dissipates in the face of void. I worm my way into the heart of the fleet, duck under engine vents and cargo doors, nestle next to the warm body of my partner.

Now someone else beside us is singing softly: “When I sleep, the enemy is the station, and its heralds are the marshals. I dream of slicing it from the inside-out with my claws.”

A silence, then movement like a whisper. It’s my partner.

“When I sleep, I dream you’re tearing me up piece by piece.”

I stir, holding myself back. “In your dreams, are you yourself?”

“I’m in my old body, the one back planetside. We’re fighting in my childhood room. My hands are inside your chest. It’s like we’re patching each other’s wounds, but my hands are made of meat.”

My partner is not afraid to die. Neither are the rest of us. Fighting in w is a life-wish, a wish to become, to transform into something new. But my partner’s hesitance, it seems, stems from a different source. I think they are afraid of being afraid.

Before combat, I warn them: “The marshals are still watching us.”

They sharpen their spears on their haunches. “I have always acted under that possibility.”

“They would rather see us dismantled than gentle. Is that the future that you want?”

My partner grins with all their teeth.

“Who said we were anything gentle?”

The timer hits zero. I rush them like a tide. Duel-as-orbit, two-in-one: each never quite grasping the other. They parry my every move, playing around our mutual centre of mass. We’re locked in now, less a fight than a system of attraction, a fluid mass of field lines and conservation laws, where every give must come with its take.

I shriek with my wings: For god’s sake, try to fight back!

I plunge into their grasp, engulfed in their ribs, meshed against the w-honeycomb of their spine.

Their reply, in unyielding touch: Make me.

I let gravity take me past them, swinging around their back. They’re still bracing for impact when I whip into their flanks—the unprotected base where heat vent meets scapula—slip right past it and under it, right under their skin.

They fumble. Their formation breaks. When they strike, it’s with nothing but raw instinct—a small triumph! But it hardly matters now. I am inside them, weaving through their muscle, their flesh, their circuitry, their housings, their ligaments, their compartments, their core. I realise, perhaps for the first time, the true extent of my partner’s body—light and swift, yet also a city, a universe—and I, now, the body inside it.

I reach through the nape of their chest, past miles of ribboned ribs, and pull.

There is a change. Their body unravels, inverting every cavity, turning inside-out like origami satellites until I am out and they are in and we are in the world again and we are ourselves, we are two bodies, sundered anew.


My joints sputter and crack; no part of me is left whole in their wake. In the wave of static that falls I look into their eyes and realise that they, somehow, are laughing too.

Recovery takes days. Station technicians peel me from the cockpit, shunting me into the airlock of the station. Medical drones flash in and out of my sight. For the first time in months I am acutely aware of my hands, their skinniness, their peeling flesh. I am acutely aware of the wetness of my skin, of how the insides of my lungs heave and shake.

“Careful,” a technician says from out of sight. “It’s still trying to breathe air.”

The liquid they pipe into my airway is oxygenated; it fills my throat with ease. Living becomes a little easier.

When I finally try to open my eyes again, the room is bathed in blinding light. I am reminded of the examination hall, all smooth oak tables and reflective glass. Fluorescents so bright they burned skin. The inner heat of the air pressing down on my eyelids and limbs, forcing me down onto the cot.

I try to fight it. I try to rip the air from the room. I try to turn the room inside-out until it stops bearing down on me, stops sucking at my sweat, stops making me known, stops being room.

It would have been so easy, in w.

A marshal approaches me. My eyes adjust. She looks so small without the protective bulk and tinted visor of her vacuum suit: an older woman, from the looks of it, nearly centuries-old, with skin the colour of mildew. Her dark uniform, tasselled at the hips, is streaked with electric gold. In her hands are a clipboard and a pen.

“That was a good show,” she laughs. “A fitting play from our ace pilot and his partner.”

I want to speak, but the ventilation tube chokes me. The marshal clicks her pen like she’s not expecting a reply.

“Fighting in w demands a certain innate capacity for violence. Merely piloting the body is, of course, to inhabit a certain disregard for the strictures of space, the sanctity of fixed form. We’re quite judicious in our screening, but even so, it’s not so often we run into someone as talented as you.”

Her words sink into my chest.

“When we first encountered the enemy, we weren’t sure what to make of it. In all respects we severely underestimated the threat it posed. How immune it was to our conventional tactics, to our conventional ontologies. How lucky that we have so many of your type!”

I want to shout. I want to tear this room apart.

“Don’t feel too bad about this, boy. You and your kind are predisposed to be monsters. It’s no wonder you all tear yourselves apart.”

She reaches across the railing of the cot with a gloved hand. Before she can touch me, I reach into my throat and tear out the tube. There’s a splitting sound. Spittle coats the marshal’s uniform, and she recoils.

“We may be monstrous,” I hiss, “but we are not without mercy.”

The marshal’s face is impassive. She wipes the stain off with her glove. In her eyes is a little something like longing.

“So be it,” she says. “So be it.”

And then, more coldly: “We’ll see you on the front lines soon.”

My partner and I begin again, as we always did: alone, and then together.

I find them behind the abandoned ore processing plant. Their new body shimmers with a green, indeterminable light. In the space which only the two of us know, I uncoil to fit their silence. I tilt outwards, offering them my new skin, my unshorn flank.

They fill the building with an emerald sigh. The space between us holds. I stay still. It is the only thing I can do. The memory of our fight is still fresh, even if our bodies have regrown.

“Did it hurt?” I finally ask.

“It felt like the dream I told you about,” they say, without elaboration.

I shift a little closer. Little eyes break off from their body, encircling us in an uncertain ring. I take the gesture inside myself, return it with my supine frame, a sheathing of unbent wings.

“And you?” they ask. “Do you hurt?”

They are holding me close through their presence. I am the subject of their immitigable gaze.

“I don’t know,” I say. “If it didn’t hurt, was it even a fight?”

“But you got close for once. You got what you wanted, didn’t you?”

“And you got what you wanted too.”

My new body trembles. Funny, how it didn’t before. They coil around me, pressing their new modular forms into my skin.

“Forget fighting,” they tell me. “Forget trying to be good all the time. You’ve seen how they see us. You’ve seen what we can be. We can leave this place together, become so small they can’t find us, or so big that they won’t dare to come after us. You’re better than me at this; surely you’ve seen this too.”

I imagine the enemy and their inhumanity. I imagine the station, its insides smaller than its outsides. I imagine the marshals within standing side by side, skin-to-glove, glove-to-skin. I imagine touching in the way they do, and find, to no surprise, that I can’t anymore.

“From the right angle,” I breathe, “we can become anything at all.”

My partner, my darling partner smiles. “Only if you’re ready.”

Their body spins around me, and mine around theirs. It’s so easy to match their velocity, I realise. Nights of indeterminable dueling, tearing each other to shreds—and for what? Far easier to remain together than to break apart, than to give in to the angular momentum of our lives. At the softness of their touch I stifle a shout. What had their body been reading, in the gaps between our fights?

Curiosity surpasses silence.

“Where are we going?”

Their voice rumbles sweetly in our mouth.

“We can be anything, go anywhere. I think that we should go to someplace new.”

There is no one among us who is unaware of what takes place here, which has no name as of yet. Not combat, for that’s too callous a term; the wounding of flesh and steel takes far more care than that. Not dance either; for what we do is not quite as tender. Suffice to say that something is happening here, something like a movement. This is a space where we can fall in and out of each other, experiment with new ways of loving. This is a space where nobody has to get hurt, ever again.

On the eve of battle, our bodies assemble against an enemy we cannot help but comprehend. We can taste their weight, feel their breath split the vacuum. With time we will realise that they also exist in the softest of gaps. It is a feeling at once alienating and familiar. What the marshals do not realise is that we, among the heavens, have known this feeling for all of our lives.

Now there are others in the fleet that have heard of our flight. They inhabit bodies like ours, but they have not learned to move and speak as ours do. They crave freedom from form yet find only violence to subsume it. In every corner of the station—in every station in the galaxy—they are awakening.

Let them join us, then, if they are determined to do so.

© 2022 Sean Chua

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