Emily felt anxious from the moment she woke. The dreams hadn’t helped: she’d been warned these would come, part of a necessary process of separation, but did they have to be quite so… you know? It wasn’t so much the themes, they were dreams after all, but more the palette, the depth, like she was dreaming in colour for the first time. Something else lingered as well, a sense of conflict, of intrusion. Which made sense, given the circumstances, but which was no less discomfiting.
As she felt the sense of unease gradually subside, Emily was left with a strange combination of both excitement and sadness. She would miss her parents, of course, but she recognised the need to move on. Her kind had learned to embrace the Gloaming as more of a rebirth than a rejection, an acceptance that they, too, were subordinate to the interplanetary alignments that first brought them to this place. Somehow it served its purpose and theirs, letting the natural order of things take over.
For the final time, she allowed herself to shower in her bathroom, to wrap herself in familiar, if a little threadbare towels, to dry and brush her hair. Her host would continue to do so, of course, living a life that would have otherwise been impossible. It was a clever trick, to allow the host to grow, to think, even to act, without giving them power or control: she’d heard how that had turned out previously, knew the stories told of their arrival, of the abject desperation they had found, of reconstruction, of ultimate acceptance.
Symbiosis had been inevitable, the joining of two, near-broken and desperate races. Emily couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the hosts: her kind definitely seemed to have the upper hand, but what was the alternative? A physical species that had all but destroyed itself; and a ethereal genus of souls, facing certain oblivion as its once-powerful energy sources dwindled to nothing. One had had to control the other, or neither would have survived.
It took careful balance, allowing the host to live a life. Emily could exert whatever control she wanted, but it would be cruel and unnecessary to be too demanding: the relationship was one of owner to pet, rather than any sense of enslavement. The task took concentration and a little training, that was all, enabling the host to arrive at a state of contented subservience. Of course, she could impose whatever she liked, but that could lead to depression and even physical depreciation.
Emily smiled inwardly as she thought how lucky they were, to have chosen a species so different, yet so aligned with her own. In the early days, some had chosen birds, sea creatures… dolphins were a favourite for a while, but eventually Homo Sapiens became the default. Nobody but a handful wanted to be locked into a less sentient creature for the twelve years or so before the next Gloaming, or indeed, risk a forced separation should things not work out.
As she walked downstairs, Emily realised that the host had no idea about the day’s importance. There, in the kitchen, were her father and mother, going about their own morning routines. Her father turned to her, as he did so dropping the host’s semblance of control, head lolling and features relaxing. Emily did the same, putting her body on pause as she communicated directly, the air glinting as filaments of thought crossed the ether between them.
“How are you feeling?”
“Okay, I think.”
“Just remember everything you have been told. Don’t wait around, and don’t get distracted!”
“Of course. I’ll be fine.”
“Yes, of course you will. Well, good luck.”
Emily didn’t know whether to say thank you or not — she had shared a life with her adoptive parents for as long as she could remember, ever since her own emergence had been aligned with her host’s carefully planned birth.
“They don’t know, do they?”
“It’s for the best, they’d only start getting agitated.” Her father released control at that point, his host jolting back into awareness. She thought she might have detected a moment of emotion, but it quickly vanished as he continued his chores. Carefully, Emily withdrew her own control, allowing her host to resume activities: she went immediately to the cupboard and took out a packet of cereal. Ah, food, she thought. That will keep her occupied for a while.
As she ate, Emily thought about what she might want to do that day. Not a great deal: she’d rather empty her mind and prepare for the dusk, when the conjunction of astral gravity and reduction of solar energy conspired to release their souls into the ether. Time would be of the essence at that point, but for now, there was little she could do. Perhaps she would let go of the reins a bit, give her host more freedom and see what she made of it. It would be a nice memory to end on, she decided.
Later that evening, once the re-hosting had taken place, there would be a Gloaming party: hosts must have wondered why they had been decorating the local halls and squares. The weather looked fine: there would be dancing, for certain. Emily couldn’t wait: such festivities offered one environment where controls could be relaxed, and hosts and souls could really enjoy themselves, together.
As things turned out, her host wanted to do very little during the day. She’d gone back to her room, reading for a while before taking herself out for a walk. She was still too young to work: any education she needed would be decided once she took her first apprenticeship, but that wasn’t for another couple of years. In the meantime, Emily’s job was to ensure that her host remained healthy and able-bodied, encouraging her to get exercise and eat the right things, which she largely did.
Just as time was feeling like it might drag — Emily knew she shouldn’t wish for anyone too energetic next time, she had been lucky with her host, but they could have been a little less dull — the day started to come to a close. Her parents had planned a final afternoon tea in the garden, a last nod to the peaceful nature of their hosts and to the time they had spent together. Nobody said much: it was enough to be there, to appreciate the final warmth of this planetary summer.
How lucky they had been to even find this particular planet. As things stood, it looked like it would take another hundred summers before humans might be able to replicate the tools her own race had lost. They had no choice but to be patient, and indeed, no soul wanted to replicate the error that had caused the sorry predicament in the first place. Purgatory it may have been, but a comfortable purgatory at that. No choice but to sit it out, allow time to pass, and indeed, drink tea.
When the allotted time came, Emily and her parents left the house for ever and headed to the town square. She’d started to feel a bit of a chill as she’d sat in the garden, so for once she had chosen a specific coat: that red one, with a fleece lining. She hoped her host didn’t feel imposed upon, but she loved, would miss that coat. Carefully as ever, Emily guided the human with her thoughts: a nudge here, a relaxation of control there. What might she expect next she did not know, but she knew she had been fortunate with this one.
The square was already full of people when they arrived. Some were animated, talking about whatever humans talk about, and others were slumped as their souls communicated. A setting sun cast a bluish light, drawing the last colours from the carefully tended borders, causing the occasional filament to glint as it danced from one host to another. Emily allowed her own to move towards a group of familiar faces, turning and waving a last goodbye to her parents as she did.
She couldn’t be absolutely sure when the Gloaming started to happen. Filaments gradually increased in number, weaving and forming into tendrils. At one moment they passed between hosts and at the next they took a new direction, upwards, like they had been caught in the breeze. One after another, as their souls left them, hosts stumbled before regaining their footing, looking at their hands, taken by a renewed sense of control.
As she watched her kind detach from their physical bodies, Emily felt herself being let go, leaving her host behind forever. They’re not alone to feel freedom, Emily thought, as she rose and floated above the masses. For a moment she wondered why they had to incarcerate themselves, whether it was really necessary? She knew the answer, saw the logic, recognised the lack of choice: neither soul nor host could survive alone. Still, it seemed such a desperate shame.
Such a desperate… what? Emily wasn’t quite sure what she was thinking. Wasn’t quite sure… what was thought, anyway? What was she? What was a… she? What was… what? Gently, she felt her thoughts dissipate. She felt, rather than thought, she realised, she acknowledged that she wasn’t Emily, wasn’t a ‘she’, for her kind lacked such notions, wasn’t a thing at all…
The entity she had become rose higher, danced with her kind, dissolving into a sparkling maelstrom of elation. She, it, was the wind, was fire, was pure energy, part of a loose, flowing knit of multicoloured tendrils, weaving and dancing, flashing and glittering above and around her. Some rose still higher, while others were breaking away, returning to the harsh physicality of the earth far beneath. This mattered, the entity knew, but could not fathom why.
Somehow the entity gained focus, perception. Below lay the town square, the collective of hosts; above, a multicoloured aurora of souls. Further away and further still, another glow, then another, stretching into the distance like isolated storms of colour. Gradually, though within the blinking of a human eye, the entity turned its attention to matters beneath, assessing as her kind embodied themselves once more.
The Gloaming: that necessary symbiosis of ethereal and biochemical form. Some rushed into hosts almost immediately; some danced above and around them, before swooping down; others meandered through, almost scrutinising each individual before finally they took their decision. Each time, the result was the same: once-animated hosts would appear to shut down, shoulders sagging before they once again rose tall, acknowledging their fate.
In the moment of taking control the entity saw a repeated pattern, as human faces moved from sudden, delirious freedom to abject desperation: they flinched, as though about to run, even though they knew it would do them no good. We’re here to help you, you can’t live without us, nor us without you, thought the entity, even as it realised the futility of such an argument.
A moment later, paused above the scene, the entity realised its mistake: it had forgotten to choose a host of her own, was missing its chance. Quickly it scanned the remaining hosts, their numbers diminishing. At first, little showed in the way of alignment but wait, there: a presence. Quickly, reflexively, the entity sent out a signal of intent: not a moment too late, it realised. Another signal came shortly after, only to fall away.
The host’s name was Charles. Not the entity’s first choice, perhaps it could be changed… later, it thought, as it took him, as it embraced his mind, his being. He protested for a short while, then accepted the inevitable as ethereal filaments spread across his nervous system, through lymph nodes and along arteries and capillaries, until they had reached the edges of his physical self, become a part of every organ, every appendage. He was healthy: perhaps more so than Emily, but time would tell.
Standing in the square, Charles looked around himself, taking stock of the collected mass of people. For a moment he remembered the joy, the elation, the feeling of utter, complete freedom… one day, he thought, one day, we will know it again. But for now, he could only be patient. Gently, he nudged his host, moved him forward: unlikely that there would be an issue, but he wanted to start on the right foot. Having confirmed all was well, he sighed and went to join the dance.