When I first found out about Skindancer and the Horophenes—
Wait, no. Let’s start at the beginning. With the village, and the armless girl.
It was a picturesque village, in a wide valley containing a lazy, meandering river. It was the sight of the mountains that took my breath away, and made me stop my van at the side of the road. I was on a holiday to get away from overwork, and this was certainly the kind of place the doctor ordered. I got out and held up my camera to get a panorama shot.
A dour-looking man was inspecting a field nearby. “How do you do,” I called out, trying to engage him in conversion. “Nice view.” I indicated the mountains.
His only reply was a noncommittal grunt. At least he didn’t ignore me completely. His skin had that worn, leathery look of one who has spent years working in the sun. I estimated he couldn’t have been older than about thirty.
And then I saw her. She was driving a small, many-wheeled vehicle, towing a trailer stacked with saplings in little bags. Her left foot was on the steering wheel, nimbly maneouvring the vehicle over the bumpy ground. She deftly brought the vehicle to a stop close to the man, and sprang out cheerily to meet him. She wore shorts, and her generous, braless bosom was held in check only by a tight cut-off T-shirt, the short sleeves of which fluttered emptily in the gentle breeze. Her feet were bare. She looked much younger than the man, and the softness of her skin hinted that she spent nowhere near as much time in the sun as he did.
His response to her appearance was less than welcoming. He gestured fiercely back toward the farmhouse, making it clear where he thought she belonged.
Looking quite crestfallen, the girl began walking toward the house. She stopped for a moment, and turned around to see me. She smiled and waved—again, with that left foot, in lieu of hands, balancing casually on her right foot. Then she resumed her walk back to the house.
I got back into my van and continued into the centre of the village. There was nothing resembling an inn or boarding-house, but that didn’t bother me. I asked at the pub if I could park up my van at the side of the village common for a few days. The proprietor shrugged, which I took for assent.
Not exactly garrulous, these villagers. But I didn’t mind too much. I spent the next day or two walking the river a few kilometres both upstream and downstream of the village, taking pictures. I had come to see the sights, not partake of the social life; if nobody wanted to bother me, I was quite happy not to bother them.
❦ ❦ ❦
It was then that more visitors came to the village. They were two women, on the backs of donkeys, leading another pair of donkeys behind them. All had saddlebags, but they seemed mostly empty. They came, not from upstream or downstream, but down a steep, narrow side canyon emerging from the mountains.
They stopped outside the village. A couple of village men had gone out to meet them, but I got the distinct feeling they were not exactly there to welcome them, but to dissuade them from coming any further into the village.
Naturally my curiosity made me come closer for a better look. The women were dressed in short skirts and loose tops. One of them had a mask covering the lower part of her face. They dismounted, and took small parcels from the saddlebags. They approached the villagers, and there commenced an animated discussion which, even if I couldn’t hear the words, I knew involved some serious haggling.
Finally there were nods all round. The small packages were handed over to the villagers, and in return a truly respectable pile of foodstuffs and other supplies were loaded onto the two riderless donkeys.
I was curious about the women. Was there another settlement up in the mountains? Why did they keep their distance from the villagers? Or was it the villagers who kept their distance from the latter? If they couldn’t grow their own food, why did they live up there? What was in the packages?
I came closer to the women as they finished tying down the loads on the donkeys. “Hello,” I said. “I’m just passing through, and I couldn’t help noticing—”
Both women stopped what they were doing. The one with no mask turned, and smiled at me. At least they’re more approachable than the villagers, I thought. She waved a friendly greeting—
“What the hell!” I exclaimed, involuntarily drawing back. “What are you—”
The woman’s face fell. She and her companion resumed securing their loads, while the villagers gently but firmly drew me back.
When I had recovered myself, the women were already disappearing with their load into the defile into the mountain. I felt like such an idiot, hurting their feelings like that, but they had already gone.
But I’d never seen anything like it before. I’ve met amputees, people missing limbs—heck, I thought fondly of the girl with no arms in the field when I first came to the village. But this was different. Was it even biologically possible?
The woman had been quite ready to shake hands with me. But all I could do was stop and stare. Because she didn’t have hands. Well, that’s a bit surprising, but I could take that in stride. It was what she had in place of hands—
Feet. She had feet on her arms, in place of hands. But how could that possibly be?
The villagers regarded me briefly with their usual distant look. Then they turned and went back to their houses.
❦ ❦ ❦
I asked the pub proprietor—possibly the most talkative man in the entire village—what was in the packages the women had brought. He gestured towards a small ceramic pot on a shelf behind him.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Heals wounds. Powerful healing,” he replied. He hesitated for a moment, and took the pot down from the shelf and placed it in front of me. He took off the cap, to reveal contents which looked like nothing so much as ... cream cheese. With a strange, not-quite-repulsive, almost fermented smell.
He gave me a glance which made it clear he had picked up the skeptical tone in my voice. He held up his right hand, and ran the index finger of his other hand right round the forearm.
I bent to get a better look, and could just make out a thin line running raggedly around his arm at the point he indicated.
“Got it caught in a thresher,” he said. “Cut off.”
“Cut off?” I echoed incredulously.
“Ahem.” The delicate sound from the doorway distracted us both. Standing there was the armless girl. “Pour me a beer, will you please, Arnaud? I’m parched.” She walked to the bar and seated herself on one of the high stools close to mine. When the bartender hesitated, she turned the full force of her pale blue gaze on him. “Now, please, dear Arnaud. Before I die of thirst.” Then she raised her left foot to the counter top to receive the jug proffered by the proprietor. She grasped the handle with her toes, and leaned forward as she tipped it gracefully towards her mouth, drinking as though she had been doing it all her life. Which, come to think of it, she had.
She exhaled a sigh of satisfaction and leaned back. Then she turned to me. “He’s speaking the truth, you know. His hand was cut off. It happened four months ago, during the harvest. His hand was not only severed, it was badly crushed in the machine. But the froma healed it. Rejoined the broken parts, healed the crushed bone, tendon and muscle—made it all as good as new. Now you know why we value it so. Or some of us do. One might say its restorative powers are almost ... miraculous.” She took another drink. “My name is Sophie, by the way.” She extended her right foot this time. I hesitated only a moment for taking it in my right hand and shaking it.
“My name is Paul,” I responded.
“Well, Paul, what brings you to our picturesque little corner of the world?”
“Just passing through,” I replied. “But when I saw the sights, I just had to dally awhile.” I paused for a moment, looking at her while she looked back at me. “Tell me,” I ventured, “how does someone like you manage in a place like this?”
She looked down with a resigned look. “It’s not easy. It’s hard enough for an able-bodied person to be self-sufficient in this little village. Luckily, my brother Alain helps me with certain matters ... like toilet and dressing ... that I cannot manage myself.”
She gave me no chance to recover from the frankness of her disclosures before she went on.
“That was Alain in the field with me when you came by the other day, by the way. Honestly, he treats me like a baby sometimes. He doesn’t like me going out by myself, where I might be seen by other people. I can do some things on my own, you know. But he thinks I’ll get hurt or get stuck or embarrass myself or something, I don’t know.” She waved a foot vaguely.
I glanced at the pot that the bartender had returned to the shelf.
Sophie caught my look. “You think if the froma is so magical, why can’t it give me hands?” She shook her head. “It can only cure injury. And I have no injury to speak of; I was born this way.” She shrugged her armless shoulders. “But I have heard stories of the Priestesses.”
“The ... what?”
“The women from the mountain. You saw them today? They make the froma. They are rumoured to make it from a much more powerful source of healing, or transformation. Something that can not just cure injuries, but enhance the body in—in unimaginable ways. Perhaps a plant of some kind, that grows only up in the mountains, in secret places known only to them. They call it “Skindancer”.”
“One of those women was rather peculiar,” I commented. “Obviously this ... “Skindancer” cannot cure that. Or maybe it was the cause of it.”
“Which ones came down this time?”
“This one had ...” I hesitated. “She had feet in place of her hands.”
Sophie smiled and nodded. “Yes, I know that one. Yolanda.”
“You know these women?”
“Oh, I manage a few words of conversation with them here, a few words there, when I get a chance to meet them, briefly. My brother—and most of the rest of the villagers—don’t like to mingle with them. But Arnaud here at least respects their power, for which he is grateful. Aren’t you, Arnaud?”
The proprietor said nothing as he tidied up behind the bar, but he gave a barely-perceptible nod.
“How many of them are there?” I asked. “Where do they live? Are the others as peculiar as ... Yolanda?”
Sophie gave me a stern look. “Such questions are discouraged around these parts.” She leaned closer, and lowered her voice conspiratorially. “I’d love to know, too. Maybe they can do something for me.”
“Give you the hands you lack? Or maybe give you an extra pair of feet you can use as hands?”
She took no offence at my mocking tone. “It would still be more than what I have now.”
❦ ❦ ❦
I was waiting by my van the next morning. The Sun wouldn’t come up for another hour or so. Soft footsteps in the darkness heralded the appearance of Sophie.
“I can’t walk up into the mountains by myself,” she had explained. “But with someone to help me, I could make it. Nobody from the village will take me; will you?”
“But what do you hope to find?” I countered.
“I don’t know. But they seem like kind and knowledgeable people.”
“How far away is it?”
“I think maybe half a day’s journey.”
“What if we have to climb up cliffs or something?”
“You saw they came on donkeys. So it must be a route we can walk. Besides, we have to try, or we’ll never find out.”
“What if something were to happen to us?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll leave a note for Alain.”
So finally I relented. And the pleading in those eyes was not something I could easily turn down...
So here we were, with a small backpack each, on the trail of the Priestesses of the Skindancer. Leaving early enough that, by the time the Sun came up, we would be well and truly out of sight of the village. So they wouldn’t get a chance to realize what we were up to and try to ... dissuade us.
We walked until the bright morning had dawned. A little stream ran down the defile to join the river, and we never strayed far from its banks.
We made a midmorning stop for some rest and refreshment. Sophie chucked off her walking shoes, which came off easily after she had used her mouth to loosen the straps. We shared some biscuits, washed down with water from the stream.
“I need to pee,” said Sophie, coming straight to the point. And she sat down on the ground and casually began to strip off her dress.
“Do you really need to take it right off?” I asked.
“Well, unless you want to hold it up for me while I ... I thought not.” And she resumed undressing, to reveal she was wearing nothing underneath. “I cannot get my panties on by myself,” she explained. “And I could hardly ask Alain to help me dress this morning, could I?” Then she went off into the bushes.
They did things differently in the country, I thought to myself.
When she came back, she slipped her dress back on, and then shoed herself, again using her mouth to do up the straps. Then we resumed our walk.
By noon, it seemed like we might be coming to the end of our journey.
The roaring and the spray from further up the valley left no doubt what we were coming to; as we got closer, we could feel the wetness in the air from the cloud of droplets tossed up by the waterfall. It wasn’t large as waterfalls went; maybe three times the height of a person, and similarly wide.
The path came to an end here. To either side of the falls were nothing but steep cliffs, joining with the sides of the valley. Not that high—certainly climbable, if you had the right equipment. Which we did not. And if you had four functioning limbs, which one of us did not.
“Which way now?” I asked.
The look of disappointment on Sophie’s face made me regret my light-hearted tone. She looked around the clifftops ... so close, and yet so far. “The trail can’t end here,” she wailed. “Where would the Priestesses have gone? There must be a path.” She sat down on the ground, and tears came into her eyes.
“Cheer up, Sophie,” I pleaded with her. I almost tried to take her arm, before I remembered. I patted her shoulders, as she gave a little sob.
I looked around. This was ridiculous. Here was a beautiful sunny day in the most incredible mountain scenery that a city boy like me could wish for, with a pretty girl to enjoy it with, and we were both as miserable as office-workers.
Well, if Sophie could be so matter-of-fact about undressing, so could I. As she watched bemused, I stripped off my clothes. Then I jumped in the stream. “Come on in, the water’s fine!” I called back to her.
It took a minute or two more of me clowning around in the water, but then, for the first time, I heard Sophie laugh. She leaned back and clapped her feet together in delight. Within moments, she had undressed and joined me in the water. She could swim remarkably well for somebody without arms.
We came to the waterfall, and let it pour down on us. “Better than a shower!” I called to her.
Sophie was frowning, and looking at the waterfall. I turned to see what had drawn her attention. But I could make out nothing in the murky blackness behind the water ...
... hold on! Murky blackness?
“There’s a cave behind the waterfall!” I called out.
Sophie smiled and nodded at me. “Let’s go take a look,” she said.
“But our clothes, our packs ...”
“Any clothes we put on will simply get wet in the waterfall, won’t they?” Sophie pointed out practically.
At least our packs were waterproof. We carefully packed away our clothes and shoes and, wearing nothing but our packs, waded back into the stream.
We found ourselves in a dim passage behind the waterfall. The light from outside lit up the torrential wall of water that covered the entrance, but did not penetrate very far into the cavity.
I pulled out a torch. It revealed that the algae growing in the dampness at the entrance quickly gave way to rocky walls and a rocky floor that ascended into blackness. We walked carefully in, Sophie leaning against me to keep from losing her balance.
Just a few metres further in, there was a cavity to one side. It was another tunnel, this one with clean, smooth walls and floor—perhaps too smooth to have been entirely natural. I turned away my torch for a moment, and instead of blackness, there were definite signs of a light a little further on. “Look!” I pointed out.
“Where it wouldn’t be seen by someone outside the waterfall,” replied Sophie. “Convenient.”
We entered the side tunnel. A few metres in, and a right-angle turn gave onto a gently-ascending passage with a bright patch of open sky at the end. We made our way up to the opening, and found ourselves in a land of monsters.
❦ ❦ ❦
If this is Arcadia, it is certainly a most peculiar one. Its denizens have shown us none of the aloofness of the villagers down in the valley; it is clear that the coolness of the relationship is all very much down to the other side.
Above the waterfall, the stream pooled in a lake. Around it were maybe a dozen or more cottages. We encountered some of the residents moments after we emerged from the tunnel. I used the word “monsters” a little earlier; inadvisedly or not, that is honestly how I felt at first. But, having become more used to being surrounded by their unusual body forms in the days since then, I have become somewhat more accepting of such physical differences.
The inhabitants call themselves Horophenes, from the Greek horo-, meaning “dance”, and phene, meaning “appearance”. For they are dancers of the body form. I was surprised—and impressed—to discover that they have accumulated a breathtaking collection of scientific analysis tools, that they have used to study themselves and their unique condition. And Skindancer, the agent which gives them that condition.
Sophie’s information was less than accurate. Skindancer is not a plant, but a virus. It doesn’t grow in some secret corner of the mountain, but in the bodies of the Horophenes themselves. It is remarkably large and complicated as viruses go. There is no cure, but at least it is possible to live with the disease: it forms a semistable complex with the DNA of the host cells, capable of oscillating between different configurations.
Basically, a person infected with Skindancer is capable of assuming different body forms, commonly two.
Take Yolanda, whom I had the embarrassing encounter with back at the village. We met her again soon after arriving. She recognized me before I recognized her, and came forward to greet me again, waving away my profuse apologies about our first encounter. And shocked me again, when she held out an arm, and where I was expecting to see a foot, there was—a hand. A perfectly normal hand.
She was also naked. And when I took a closer look at her, I received another shock when I noticed that, on her legs, she had hands as well, instead of feet.
Yolanda is one of those most actively researching the Skindancer condition. She even has a name for her own particular manifestation: syncheiropodia. She cannot have two hands on her arms and two feet on her legs; instead, all four of her extremities can be feet, or all four can be hands, at the same time. Which is the case depends on whether she is wearing clothes or not: she has feet when she is dressed, and hands when she is not.
And there, in a nutshell, is the mystery of Skindancer: its effect on the body form is mediated by something in the brain and nervous system which interacts with the skin. We are all continually shedding dead cells from our skins; those dead cells from the bodies of the Horophenes contain an otherwise-harmless by-product of the infection that seems to act as a signal to trigger a configuration change in their bodies. The net result is, if they wear something that accumulates these dead cells in contact with their skin—basically, any kind of clothing—their body assumes one configuration; while in the absence of this stimulation, when they go nude, their body reverts to its other configuration.
For most of those afflicted, the transformation each way happens over the space of about half an hour. I would not have believed it, if I had not seen so many transformations take place, in front of my eyes, so many times. A neurotransmitter? Sexually-linked? For there must be some chemical coupling with the DNA binding...
And why are there no male Horophenes?
All these questions were buzzing through my mind after our first meeting with several of the Priestesses, as Sophie insisted on calling them. They showed remarkable patience with us. Yes, it was possible, in principle, that if Sophie were to be infected with the Skindancer virus, that she could grow arms. But a Skindancer infection was very difficult to control in its early stages, before it stabilized into a limited set of body configurations for the host. There were various experimental techniques. If all else failed, the stability could be disrupted, resetting the infection back to its initial stage, whereupon the body of the infected person would, eventually, fall into a new set of stable configurations.
And there was the risk that the body of the infected person could form a configuration that was lacking some vital organ, like a heart or lungs, leading to death...
The residents were quite willing to discuss their particular Skindancer manifestations with us. Given the nature of the condition, people habitually went clothed or unclothed as they preferred, and this was accepted. We met Berenice, one of the less extreme cases. She commonly wore just a sarong, leaving her small breasts bare—all four of them. When she covered any of her breasts, they would all shrink to practically nothing, leaving her even more flat-chested than before.
Body mass has to be conserved, of course. In her case, the extra mass went into her shoulder muscles, increasing her upper-body strength. So her clothed body form was actually quite useful, even if it lacked something cosmetically, compared to her unclothed form.
And then there was Yvette. Naked, you could plainly see the second mouth she had at her crotch, where you would expect to see genitals. It had fully-working lips and tongue, lacking only jaws and teeth. But she only had to cover either mouth, and both of them would convert into regular female vulvas. I eventually realized that she was the second woman who had accompanied Yolanda to the village the other day. So she had a choice, between having two sets of female sex organs, or none at all. In her clothed form, she did not—could not—speak.
With one exception, every case was different. And yet, still worthy of being described as bizarre in some way.
The members of the colony came from all over the world. When, through some as-yet-undetermined mechanism, they picked up the infection (which was very rare), they naturally became social outcasts. Somehow they found their way here, where they could be accepted among those in a similar situation, where they would not be considered abominations.
Even those unlucky enough to die from the infection would at least spend their last days among friends.
And there were more surprises in store. I said before that there was an exception to every case being different: I discovered that, when the infection stabilized, there was one universal side-effect: an infected woman would start lactating, without any pregnancy being involved. Her milk carried traces of the live Skindancer virus, and this was also a way to spread the infection.
Yes, some did make the pilgrimage here to deliberately acquire Skindancer: those with major physical disabilities, like Sophie, who felt this was a chance to make their lives better. It was risky, and all too often ended unhappily.
And this same milk was what the Priestesses used to make the froma. So long as those who handled the milk were already infected, there was no risk of spreading it to new individuals. And there was no live Skindancer in the finished product, so there was no chance of passing the infection onto any outsiders who used froma. But even the byproduct of the dead virus still had the power to restore existing stable body configurations (whence its healing abilities), though (perhaps thankfully) it could not create new ones.
❦ ❦ ❦
I opened the door of my van, and carefully took off my backpack.
The door to the pub opened. The man standing there saw me. It was Alain, Sophie’s brother. He immediately came towards me, belligerence apparent in his every movement. “Where is Sophie?” he demanded. “What have you done with her?”
“Sophie is fine. She’s still up with the priestesses,” I replied, gesturing towards the mountain. “They may be able to help her.”
“You got no right to take her away.” Without warning, he punched me in the stomach, doubling me over. I heard a small chink of broken glass...
He grabbed the collar of my shirt. “You must go and bring her back. Or I will hurt you some more.”
“It’s her choice!” I gasped as I fell backward. Desperately I scrabbled behind me on the floor of the van. A frying pan...
I hit him over the head with it. He went to his knees, and sagged slowly to the ground.
“If you want her, go and get her back yourself!” I put the precious cargo in the van, closed the door behind me, and, still shaking, opened up the backpack to see what the damage was.
Six vials I had taken of raw Skindancer milk, each labelled with the name of the woman who had contributed it. Luckily, four were still intact. But the other two...
I looked at the watery fluid as it spread over my fingers, and tried to remember everything that the Priestesses had said about the odds of infection.
❦ ❦ ❦
I am on my way back to the Horophenes. Thanks to some friends I have who know how to be discreet, I am bringing a whole volume of lab analyses back with me, which I know will be very useful to them—DNA sequences, detailed transcription pathways, the works. It’s amazing what state-of-the-art automated analysis tools can achieve nowadays.
Before I left with the samples, we discussed what configuration could work for Sophie: since there had to be two stable configurations, and she didn’t relish the prospect of giving up her remaining limbs, even temporarily, one configuration would have to correspond to her present armless state, while the other would give her arms. How to balance the extra mass? Perhaps increase the size of her breasts in the armless state. Or if that was not enough, even give her a second pair of breasts—a prospect which she didn’t seem to find revolting in the least. And that was even before getting into other possibilities, like adding extra limbs elsewhere...
There are ways the Priestesses could achieve such a result purely through trial and error, but with the detailed virus genome sequencing and other information I have obtained for them, hopefully the process will be a little less painful and drawn-out for Sophie. And above all, less fraught with risk, when she finally does take that irrevocable step.
I am also feeling initial symptoms of a Skindancer infection.
There is a good chance of survival if you’re a woman. This is because the activation of the breast-secretion mechanism somehow mutes and rechannels the virus activity—this is the essence of the process that stabilizes the infection. Unfortunately, men do not normally have breasts. This means there will be no stable stage for me. My body will keep changing in increasingly random and unpredictable ways, until, inevitably, it falls into a configuration which is fatal.
This is why there are no male Horophenes: no male has ever survived an infection—so far. The only chance for me is if I can somehow take on one crucial physical characteristic normally reserved to females: I need to grow breasts.
So the question is, can the unstable stage of the infection be steered into making that happen? And happen in time? I have some notes on that as well. Maybe, between the skill of the Priestesses, and what I have found out for them, I may stand a chance.
Wish me luck.
❦ ❦ ❦