I. ELOISE & CHANCE
A week before the tour began, her father came around. She dashed out of work when he called despite the recent stardust shower and even though she’d already taken her lunch. With her luck, she’d be fired for it. The trip would be off, and the conversation she’d been waiting to have would be moot.
“How many times can you get this . . . Reassignment Visa?” He turned the brochure over and over in his hands. If he’d been reading, he wouldn’t have asked, but he was talking about it—finally—and she’d take what she could get.
“It depends on”—he was shaking his head already—“where you want to go. And sometimes where you’re coming from.” She wanted to have answers, definite ones, but that wasn’t the way this worked. “Um, and sometimes how many other visas are under consideration.”
“So you don’t know.” His glasses were on the tip of his nose and his mouth was a little slack. He must honestly be reading now, she only wished she knew what. The brochure was not as straightforward as he might like.
“I went, uh. I mean, they. They offer a workshop.” It wasn’t meant to be a question, but it sounded like one. “So I did, you know, take that. Do that.” But she didn’t disclose that having taken the workshop, she knew which planets were the likeliest to permit her but not which one she’d petition to join. Why bother when her tone of voice already reminded her of the time she’d begged him to go with her graduating class off-planet. Just an orbit cruise, barely in the exosphere. She’d presented a detailed itinerary and downplayed any impression of adventure, but in the end, the answer was always no.
“Try to understand, Ellie,” her mother had cooed, petting her hair against her back while a teenaged Eloise lay face down, crying into her pillow. “We worry.”
Her mother’s stroke was gentle, like her mother. Too gentle. Like her mother. While her touch was faint enough that half the time it tickled, the woman’s stance—on anything, be it graduation cruises or how far her daughter should be allowed to go for university—was even flimsier. There was no use asking her permission or opinion.
“Well, don’t. Quit worrying.”
“You only say that because you can’t know what it’s like.”
The smile Eloise could hear on her mother’s face made her twist the bedspread tighter.
“You can’t know what it’s like! It’s my bad luck, not yours!” And there was nothing else to say. Nothing that would challenge her father’s decision since it was just her and her mother in the bedroom. So Eloise just cried for days, and when no one was looking, she tracked the cruise ship in the sky.
Years may have passed, but little had changed. Eloise still loved her parents dearly, and she still hated the way they treated her. She hated her invisible disability and how it was the one thing about her that she couldn’t change. Not on this planet, anyway. On Kismet, she could trade it in for a soul mate. If she got permission, she could join the collective mind on Unum. And she wasn’t a minor anymore. It’d taken her a little while to realize it, but she didn’t need her father’s permission to get away from Chance now. Not to accept the visa it’d taken a lot of nerve to hope for and not to stay away long enough for her native luck to fade.
“So you’re prepared to exchange your soul,” he said, and the way he said those two words in particular was like it hadn’t become a perfectly normal concept, something people did maybe every day, for any of a dozen reasons.
“That’s just what they call it. I’m still gonna be the same person, Dad. I’ll still be me.”
He tipped his head as though they’d agree to disagree.
“I mean, you know that,” she said because she was sure by now that he didn’t. “I just mean. Of course, it isn’t my soul that changes.”
Her father motioned for the check. She watched him without blinking and knew that time was up. If she needed his approval, she was going to have to cancel the tour.
“But it’s not like I’m never gonna see you again. I can always come back. To visit.”
That was after all the entire point. Her eyes drifted to a corner of the ceiling when she sighed.
“Yes, Dad, without luck.”
They said no more about it and little about anything else until her father walked her back. At the crosswalk before her building, Eloise saw the dirty water pooled just below the curb, and she hung back. Her father stepped right to the edge and waited for their turn to cross. Of course, not a single car disrupted the puddle, so not a single drop of sooty water sullied his clothes. They carried on, he slightly in front of her, until—reaching the door first—he held it open and turned back to find his daughter.
The window washing unit only dropped a few inches before stabilizing, but the dirty water compartment burst open. Eloise didn’t bother looking up. She only froze, one foot still extended behind. She may have sighed before the cold hit her squarely on the crown of her head then lost its falling shape and rushed through the layers of her clothing as though frightened. Her shoulders hadn’t jumped, her eyes didn’t squeeze shut; she was a statue until her father released the door and came with his handkerchief to wipe her face.
“Never a dull moment with you, sweetheart.”
The moment her face was dry, her hair released a few new streams down the length of it. Her father smiled then and started the process again, even pretending not to notice which were tears and which was the christening water.
“So?” He held her chin. “Where does the tour land first?”
II. OUTSIDE CHANCE
Luck ran out as soon as Eloise left the atmosphere. It was obvious. The ship trembled spaceward, but her harness stayed intact like all the others. When a drinking flute shattered in someone’s hand, the blood was an inconsequential amount, and it wasn’t hers. Bad things would still happen, she was sure—after all, people were hurt or worse on more planets than her own—but when they did, it wouldn’t be because of her. It wouldn’t be because of Chance.
“Listen, listen, listen.” Webbed fingers fluttered to quiet the gaggle of friends, and Ellie forced her gaze away from their mer-features and back toward the window. “While each planet dictates a unique threshold beyond which a soul becomes native, on short-term visits, there are often reported ‘instances of soul’ wherein a non-native will experience temporary attributes of the planet’s soul conditions.”
“That’s it, that has to be,” three more of them echoed, one perched against regulation on the arm separating one seat from another, and two leaning over chair-backs from the aisle behind.
Eloise watched what she could see reflected in the window. They were a hen party, if she had to guess. They all wore turquoise patches over the gills on their necks, but the reading girl wore an accessory to distinguish her from her girlfriends: a diadem of shimmering scales arranged across her forehead from the peak of one eyebrow to the other. From one angle, the light reflected silver off of the scales, fuchsia from another. She must be the one getting married.
“That’s why you—” the young woman next to Eloise thrust a sharp-tipped finger across the space at the double seats facing them. Whatever the mermaiden meant to recall was covered by the uproarious laughter and good-natured yelling of the entire group. Too many voices at once, each with a shrill vibrato beneath it. Ellie was sure without verifying that the rest of the cabin was looking in their direction, but no one would come to hush them.
From the cacophony, Eloise made out that the group of them had stayed at one of the casino resorts, of which Chance had thousands the world over.
Come to Chance, the adverts beckoned, and test your luck!
Good luck—and then always a pretty face—on Chance!
And to hear the tourists tell it, that’s how the visit began. At some card table or another, the hen or bride-to-be had been way up. (And Eloise realized it must be called something else on Aqua, which itself was an outsider name for a planet only the native could pronounce and only underwater.) She might’ve gone home a very wealthy woman, at least for a few months, if not for the friend who wasn’t on board. She’d gone home ahead of the group, Ellie figured, otherwise where could she be but on the medic’s deck, and in that case, what sort of friends left her there alone and joked about her in her absence.
“Do you think it was really just too much to drink?”
“It was bad luck!”
“It had to be. The whole table cooled off.”
And then more shrill vibrato, only this time it carried on beyond the spoken language like they were continuing the discussion in private.
Eloise didn’t turn to face them fully when her arm was inadvertently bumped from the rest; she only gave a glance and faint smile, quickly returning to the window and—once it was safe—to watching their reflections.
The scene was irresistible.
She’d never been part of one, of a happily uproarious anything. Not with her peers; never in celebratory reminiscing. Bad luck meant that even when things didn’t go horribly wrong, she never got to celebrate because then something might. On a planet whose tourism depended entirely on hopeful visitors trying to catch a hot streak, Eloise knew better than most that bad luck never let up. So, when the mermaidens collapsed against each other in a fever pitch and the one beside Eloise emptied her drink into her lap, Eloise didn’t ruffle.
“That’s not bad luck,” she said.
Wide-eyed apologetic stares were their only reply, if you ignored the whistle-pitched whine one of them was making. Ellie found the one she thought was making the sound and followed the mergirl’s line of sight back to her own saturated lap. The wetness outlined much of her abdomen as well, and the now translucent material clung to a thick ribbon scar on her belly. At which, within a moment or two, all of them were staring.
It wasn’t her biggest scar. It wasn’t even the ugliest. It certainly wasn’t the only one keeping her from visiting, let alone petitioning for reassignment to underwater Aqua, where natives wear nothing and visitors, little more. Where people say an instance of soul is a fast stroke, even without the exceedingly small feet that hook one behind the other, legs coiled airtight from thighs to ankles. No one’s faster than mermaidens, not even the men, but you still feel free.
The group kept her gaze while Eloise looked between them. What did they know about luck, good or bad. But they were safely outside Chance, so she told them the truth.
“It isn’t only sometimes or just beside a table. A single instance of bad luck wouldn’t be bad luck at all.” But that sounded resentful. Biased opinion, to be sure, but she should know. “Real bad luck would’ve undone your gill guards when you were far from water. It would’ve made sure every washroom for miles was out of order and that someone thought dousing you in oil was just as good.”
It was only after saying it—after their glistening skin paled and silence cut through their amusement—that Eloise felt guilty. Other people weren’t accustomed to being afraid. Not inescapably. Ordinary people feared scenarios and those could be planned for. What she described was something else. It was relentless. There was no getting out of its grasp. But still. Before the Reassignment tour made its first stop, Eloise would have to unlearn the tactless honesty that came with real helplessness. She’d have to learn to hope for the best. She would have to learn to hope at all.
Aboard the ship, the mermaidens didn’t reply, not in her language or theirs. Instead they took their assigned seats, one lightly touching the guard on her neck without letting her eyes meet Ellie’s.
If she were still on Chance, Eloise wouldn’t bother going to luggage. She’d know better than to search the well-organized level for something inevitably misplaced or inexplicably damaged. She wouldn’t bother changing when it only tempted luck. But she wasn’t on Chance. Luck had already run out, and Eloise couldn’t be happier.
III. SO(U)L COMPANION
If, like Eloise, you’d never descended through the swirling orange atmosphere of Companion, you might think it strange. It’d be the first of many strangenesses, a fact not lessened in startling capacity by the knowledge that when compared—as worlds were never meant to be—every planet is.
If you were Eloise and you arrived on a Reassignment Visa instead of a Tourist’s, you’d be first to debark the shuttle, and instead of proceeding to valets or transports or taxis, you’d be welcomed into a wing of the airport that normal visitors and natives never see.
“Welcome, ladies,” the guide would say to the Women’s Disrobing room, even though you would be the only one. You’d have known what to expect and still find it unexpected—that by all appearances you and she could have come to planet together.
She could be from Chance or Kismet. Of the planets in the collective, these two and Companion are the closest kin. The features may be interchangeable, but the soul conditions are their own.
Your thoughts would get stuck there while you undressed, until you’d folded your foreign clothes and belongings into a spacious snakeskin case that tightened around the contents when closed. After that you’d wonder if you shouldn’t let that strange case devour everything you brought, whether you should go back aboard the touring shuttle and get the rest of your luggage too. If getting decontaminated improved your chances at experiencing a moment of Companion soul, maybe everything Eloise packed was a tether to Chance that needed severing.
There’s time to follow this new train of thought while the small group of RVs are driven to the remote natural, where only those guests considering joining Companion’s population are permitted to go. If you’re Eloise and you survey the other RV participants, you’ll find that this tour is made up of only four, three of which are men and one of which you think has come to tour too late. He’s lived his nearly complete life on one planet; what could be the purpose of reassigning now, when there’s little time left for his soul to adapt let alone enjoy someplace new. You’re thinking this and then, concurrently, that of all of you—he’s the interesting one. Where is he from and why did he go. Your own story won’t stack up, whatever his is, and maybe like the worlds, lives shouldn’t be compared. You almost think you’ve stopped yourself, then almost runs out and you feel small inside your airy tent of a dress for not being able to live with bad luck on Chance.
But no one’s exchanging stories; no one even asks your name. Like Eloise, you won’t say that people called you Ellie. You’re off-planet now and no one’s called you anything. Who you are is someone touring the galaxy for another home. For a more appealing soul. On Companion, the soul condition is a partner, but not a romance like on Kismet, which is why the guides have brought you to the natural.
You’ll find yourself on the edge of a mudpot when the long drive is done, and, if you’re Ellie, your toes will curl in the warm deep brown that has a color and a taste. That’s another strangeness, the way in the remote—away from the sprawling cities that even Companion has—the sky and the sound and everything else has them both. What you see and what you sense. Vivid means something different here, and that’s what you’ll be thinking when you wade last into the deep.
Here you will find your companion, they say. Immersed in the remote for a day or two, you’re more likely to experience soul than in the city, wearing your own clothes. A day or two is too generous a window, you’ll see, when after less than an hour in the mud, a long-legged bird with a tweezer-thin beak lands nearby. The two young men and the old one exchange glances with you, but it’s probably one of theirs; only you can know. By dinner served on tree trunks and wide, fat leaves, you’ll be certain this companion is for the old man. And you’ll be glad. Less so the day after that, when a fawn and then a snake appear and you’re of no interest to them no matter how dark and sweet the mud remains.
There’ll be hammocking in the terribly high canopy of Companion’s trees and lying beside waterfalls. Always you’ll have rested quietly, just as they say. And finally, like Eloise, you’ll glance up at cliffs and the gaping magenta mouth of a cave—just to prove that no companion’s there for you.
In the Clearing Room, there will be but three of you. The two young men and you, with the belongings snake-wrapped during your stay of three full days.
“Good for him,” one will say. “He found a home on the first stop.”
“He had no time for indecision.”
Before you know it, you’ll say how beautiful the old man’s companion was.
“And yours?” The young man asking waits his turn while the other passes between the wands that make sure all of Companion stays behind. “Did it find you?”
“No.” And you try to smile because people who don’t know what bad luck is like aren’t used to people who do. “It’s alright.”
At your turn, you stand between the wands and they make a lazy blink. While a guide gently lets her fingers down the neck of your blouse, you tell the young man you’re from Chance so he knows why you didn’t expect one.
That’s when the guide interjects.
“A stowaway.” And a pretty, fat bug is on her two fingers, collected from your shoulder blade. “You had a companion after all.”
The young man smiles. “Reassigning is useless unless you leave bad luck behind.”
He pauses then for you to give your name, but you don’t tell him you are Eloise, because now you’re sure you couldn’t be.
Bethany C. Morrow is a national best-selling author. Her YA novels include A Song Below Water (Tor Teen, 2020), A Chorus Rises (Tor Teen, 2021), and So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix (Feiwel & Friends, 2021), and she is editor and contributor to the young adult anthology Take the Mic (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2019), which won the 2020 ILA Social Justice in Literature Award. Her adult novels include Mem (The Unnamed Press, 2018) and the social horror, Cherish Farrah (Dutton, 2022). Her work has been featured in LA Times, Forbes, Bustle, Buzzfeed, and more. She is included on USA TODAY‘s list of 100 Black novelists and fiction writers you should read.