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About Azila

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    Fresh Faced


    Sophie Okonedo
  • RACE
  • JOB
    Botanist, gardener, landscape designer
  • 'SHIP:
    De facto widowed
    Original human name: Hawa Najjar

    Full T'elX designation-name: Joiner Guardian, Third Principal Keeper of the Spawning Caverns, usually translated as the Third Guardian and sometimes shortened to Third or Number Three

    Official changed name: Azila

    Azila was twenty-seven when she was assimilated. Her aging slowed down, and, when she was de-assimilated fifteen years later, she still appeared to be around thirty. Today, she is 54, but seems to be about twenty years younger, though there are some signs suggesting that her looks are deceptive; she is worn-down and the wrinkles around her eyes are a little too deep. However, this is due to the emotional strain of the past three years than to actual aging.

    She is medium height (about 180 cm) and built more like an adolescent than an adult woman - she is somewhat awkward, angular, skinny and flat-chested, with few curves. The large bones make her seem more underweight than she actually is.

    Her features are unusual, though not particularly attractive, even disproportionate by some standards. Hers is what is sometimes called an "elfin face" - lean, elongated, with tall cheekbones, a wide mouth, full lips and large eyes that have a slight slant and tiny wrinkles at the corners.

    Her eyes are dark brown, but seem black from a distance because of the enlarged pupils. They have a tapetum lucidum (an extra layer of cells that reflects light back onto the retina), which, in certain types of lighting, gives them a bright golden-yellow gleam, described as inhuman, hostile or inscrutable. In the dark, one can sometimes notice a faint yellowish luminescence in the iris itself. Before she was separated from the superorganism, Azila was said to have "lamp-like" eyes that glowed with a light of their own, traces of which can be seen even now. There are nictitating membranes (thin, translucent second lids) that can slide down to lubricate the eyes and shield them from strong winds, sand or extreme cold; they create a sharp, glass-like glint and, along with the internal gleam, contribute to Azila's distant or severe look.

    Azila's pupils are circular at full dilation, but can contract into thread-like thin slits, similar to those of a cat, but, unlike the latter, they are horizontal rather than vertical (suggesting a wide, panoramic field of vision well-suited for scanning a vast open area and detecting potential threats as soon as they appear on the horizon). Normally, the shape of the pupils goes unnoticed, as they are dilated most of the time and blend into the dark brown of the iris, which borders on black, but under bright illumination, with the sunlight falling directly onto her face, one can occasionally discern the jet-black slits against the lighter brown. The sight is enough to make one gasp, and can either contribute to the intensity of the emotion in her eyes or make her even more inhuman.

    Her eyelids blink about twenty times less frequently than ours, which enhances the hard, intense quality of her stare. Instead, it's the nictitating membranes that constantly slide down and back up to moisturize the eyes, creating a fleeting glimmer or an illusion of them going clouded for a fraction of a second.

    Azila's auricles atrophied during the assimilation and her ears were reduced to plain round openings with a somewhat raised rim. These can be sealed on the inside with thick but flexible cartilaginous covers, which was especially useful in a sandstorm or when Azila had to burrow, and was also helpful against the wind and night-time freezing temperatures.

    Azila's fingers and toes are longer and thicker than they used to be, as they are equipped with flexing muscles and covered in exoskeletal scales consisting of a substance more similar to chitin than to keratin, so that she seems to be wearing outlandish armored gloves and greaves. The tips contain sharp black claws somewhat like those of a brown bear or wolverine (a good 5 cm without the curve - over half of her original finger length), but when not in use, they draw backward (upward) like those of a feline. The claws make it harder to handle small objects and, if Azila does happen to need shoes or sandals, turn choosing a suitable model into a serious issue. However, they are a considerable help in climbing and can easily cut through hard materials including wood, leather and soft sheet metal.

    Most of her body, including her whole torso, neck, hairline, lower arms above the elbow, lower legs above the knee, chin, lower cheeks, and the bridge of her nose are lined with the same scales, which come in various shapes and sizes. On the inside of her arms and on the back of her legs, the two diagonal layers of overlapping scales converge into a V-shape, with the sharp point directed downward (toward the wrist or ankle). From a distance, the pattern resembles parallel fine creases or cuts in the skin. Her neck and waist, as well as the area along her spine and between her breasts, have a complex ribbed structure that extends the lower edge of the face and to the side of each cheek. The scales in these areas are tiny and positioned so as to enable full mobility while offering the same protection as the larger scales elsewhere.

    The scales are a medium brown, like the bark of a tree. On some, there are darker markings; the overlaid semi-circular scales on her lower arms and legs have a darker spot at the center, or two close to the edge, where one scale connects to another, as do those on her fingers and toes; elsewhere, there are oval or curved splotches, each extending to several scales. The borders of the markings are indistinct and melt gradually into the background; in the middle, the brown first becomes an intermediate burnt carmine, then turns into a very dark violet. The edges of the scales are the same hue of violet, which verges on black. These shades - lighter and darker brown, burnt carmine, violet - can also be observed on the veins and miniature scales on her hairline, neck and waist, between her breasts, down the middle of her back. This is a natural (and more effective) equivalent of the desert camouflage uniforms she used to wear, with the dappled brown making her indistinguishable from the surrounding sand and rocks.

    On first sight, the mottled brown coloration, which was shared by the entire T'elχ collective, may seem drab and monotonous. But if one were to take a look at her as one of her own - or through a specialized UV-filter - she would turn out to be strikingly different. The violet patches would be broader, more similar to a wet-on-wet watercolor wash in shape, and the integument would be decorated with fractal whorls in a deep iridescent violet, much like fern fronds or frost patterns on a window. The UV-reflective designs on the bodies of other T'elχ varied depending on their caste and function.

    Growing between the scales there are innervated sensilla (sensory hairs) in matching hues - lighter and darker browns, brownish-violet, violet. In areas where the scales are at their most miniature, the hairs are straight, dense, but short (no more than 1-2 mm) and difficult to notice. Elsewhere, they are longer (1-4 cm) and can be quite conspicuous; they extend from under the edge of one scale onto the next and seem to be slicked close to the surface, sometimes forming a thick fringe and creating a "furry" look similar to that of a tarantula.

    Her cuticle is structured much like that of insects and most arachnids, and has two layers: the outer, non-living layer, comprised by the scales, and the deeper layer consisting of living cells.

    Her tactile sensing mechanisms are also similar. Most of the subtler modalities, such as light touch, whether one-time or sustained, changes in texture, stretching in the scales, and fluttering or sliding against their surface come through the hairs. Slower and faster vibration (short-term or constant) is divided between the hairs and the living cuticular layer hidden under the scales. The remaining tactile modalities - pain, temperature, pressure and tension in the deeper tissues - are perceived only through the receptors in the living cuticle. Azila will feel nothing when the hairs are damaged or sheared off, and is in pain only if she sustains an injury to the tissues underneath the hard chitinous layer (impact or penetration). Similarly, she feels no heat or cold upon direct contact between the hairs and the ground; the sensation will be buffered by the scales, and, as a consequence, tends to be quite faint despite the temperature extremes in the environment.

    Once in every five years, Azila moults: the worn-out, damaged scales are discarded over the course of three to four days and the cells underneath secrete the chitin-like protein that hardens into a new set of scales in a matter of hours. This is a period of heightened vulnerability when Azila is unusually susceptible to injury (more so than a regular human) and the softest touch can cause her pain, while stronger touch translates into something like an electric shock. Even the bare skin on the parts of her body that have lost the scales becomes more sensitive, though it doesn't undergo any significant change, as confirmed by the permanent scarring.

    Even when Azila was an ordinary human, her thick, curly brown hair was difficult to comb or style. When she joined the T'elX, it was replaced by flexible appendages, which resembled segmented willow twigs or tendrils and were rumored to have been prehensile before she was severed from the superorganism. They were the same brown as the scales on her body; each segment was a darker brown in the middle and became lighter toward the edges, while the joints were a deep violet-black. The tips were pure black, like her claws. During the process of de-assimilation, the odd tentacle-like things growing from her scalp shriveled, dried up and fell out, and were replaced by something vaguely like normal human hair, which, however, was completely unmanageable. Eventually, Azila settled on shaving her head bald or cropping the "hair" short and wearing a simple headscarf tied back Italian-style.

    Azila’s movements are fast and sudden (insect-like or bird-like are the two words that frequently come to mind), and a stark contrast to the way she used to move when she was with the T'elχ; those who saw her prior to de-assimilation said she never hurried and was so fluid and graceful she seemed to have no bones.

    She has a strong, distinctive body odor consistently described by others either as “green” (leafy or grassy) or as the stench of a squashed bug. Depending on Azila’s health and emotional state, the scent may become sharper and gain a sour tinge, close to that of the citrosa geranium, or more bitter, more like pungent peppermint or wildwood geranium, but the acrid quality is always retained. Washing will tone the odor down for one to two hours, but won’t eliminate it; however, Azila has been taught to use chypre, citrus or musk scents to mask her own, which is one of the two luxuries she treats herself to. The other one is occasionally wearing a headscarf or shirt in her favorite color, which is bright foliage green.

    She thinks of herself as disfigured because her integument is no longer complete, though this doesn't come with quite the same connotations as for most human women. She is less concerned about beauty, or lack thereof, as about being a "broken" (flawed, deficient, damaged) member of her species, whereas the substandard looks are merely an external manifestation of this, a side-effect, as it were.

    She doesn't like the sight of the scars left where the scales used to be, and cannot stand her new "hair", which is why she shaves it off and wears a headscarf. Unlike the segmented T-elX "hair", which was a separate vestibular and sensory organ, it doesn't have a specialized function - and, to make matters worse, the useless growth on her scalp cannot be managed and makes her look disorganized and untidy, so she has a strong urge to have it hidden or eliminated.

    Body language:

    Normally she never gestures to convey feelings, but she does make hand movements that don't seem to be tied to the message in her words (not to ourselves) and uses her hands to supplement her impoverished speech.

    Azila's gaze is intent but unfocused. She appears to be looking through you or past you, rather than at you, as if she were absorbed in some thoughts of her own and didn't quite see you. It's not clear whether the quality stems from the structure of her eyes or some other physiological peculiarities and is enhanced by the bouts of melancholia, or whether it is their direct result. May range from mild (described as "thoughtful" or "wistful") to severe (described as "out there" or a "thousand-mile stare").

    Azila's voice prosody is strange. She tends to speak in a loud monotone, which causes others to think she is shouting even when she is not. However, the poor voice control can cause sudden rises and falls in volume (from an actual yell to a whisper) or intonation, sometimes in rapid succession. The pattern of stresses and pauses is irregular, with them positioned in a way that feels "wrong" and does not coincide with the words that carry the greatest semantic significance or mark the boundaries of a finished syntactic unit. Rapid-fire speech, where she compresses several words or sentences into a single breath without any space between them, is common, especially when she is stressed out; if she feels more sedate and wants to give her words more thought, she will speak in fragments of two or three words at a time.

    The pitch and timbre may vary depending on her emotional and physical state. Azila's control over her voice weakens with strain, exhaustion or illness, which cause the odd prosodic fluctuations to become more prominent.

    Her voice is perfect for reading her favorite kinds of modernist poetry - the unusual modulations create an idiosyncratic feel and it has the right combination of detachment and concealed emotion seeping or breaking out to the surface.

    Most of the time, her face is flat and doesn't seem to convey any discernible emotion, except for the eyes. On occasion, however, her expressions are vivid and eloquent, almost childlike, as her control over her facial expression is just as poor.

    The shape of her eyes and the miniature wrinkles at the corners, coupled with her tendency to look sideways without turning her head, tend to exaggerate mischievous or distrustful moods, and, more often than not, dour ones, or create an illusion of that frame of mind even when it's not there, which may lead to miscommunication.

    On the other hand, the way her face is set enhances sunny moods. She has a unique way of smiling only with her eyes and the very corners of her lips. Though subtle, the smile transforms her face; the little wrinkles around her eyes, which at other times serve to make her more stern, start to look like laugh lines, her entire countenance brightens and begins to glow.

    When she forces herself to smile the "regular" way, showing her teeth, because this is what most non-altered humans do and find acceptable, the result is very unsettling. One can tell the smile is not her own and doesn't belong on her face, no more than it would on the monitor of a computer; that, in itself, can send shivers down one's spine. The unnatural, inauthentic quality gives a whole new plane of meaning to the phrase "frozen/plastered-on smile". When Initran caught her practicing that smile in front of a mirror for the first time, he told her to just stop, for Heaven's sake, unless she wanted to give someone a heart attack. He apologized at once, but his instinctive overreaction gives one a good idea of how uncanny she can look when she takes the attempts to adjust too far and forces herself to convey emotion in certain human-like ways not because she has a genuine internal need to do so, but because someone else was insisting on them being the most appropriate.

    She no longer has any tear ducts or glands and cannot cry; the movements of the facial muscles associated with sobbing are foreign to her. In extreme distress she may dry-sob, but this is more of a convulsive movement that comes with a high fever and full-body shaking. Shock, whether physical or psychological, will produce a semi-catatonic state - her movements slow down, become sluggish and hesitant, and she eventually freezes for a long time with a vacant look on her face and a fixed stare. If the shock is severe, she will also crave a quiet, close, dark space, trying to burrow into the ground or to crawl into some narrow crevice or hole that reminds her of an assimilation or regeneration cocoon.

    Despite the overall alienness of her body language, some of Azila's nonverbal signals can be recognized as signs of constant disorientation, shock or fright and go beyond the usual non-verbal signs of anxiety. She has a wide-eyed, alert look and her pupils are permanently dilated; this has prompted more than question about whether or not she was in pain, because she looks as if she were stoically trying to endure a concealed wound or chronic illness (well, she is, but the pupil size as such has no connection to the post-separation syndrome). There were at least three or four cases where she had started, shuddered and stumbled a few paces backward, or pressed her back into the wall and gasped when addressed, although there had been no reason for doing so. On occasion, seemingly out of nowhere, her voice starts to tremble and her hands shake. It's not uncommon for her to give others thousand-mile stares as if she had just seen an apparition.

    At the opposite extremes of the emotional continuum, she may make two signals that are distinctively T'elX. In distress, she may make a regular kneading motion with her fingers, flexing the claws. This is an instinctive response to psychological strain, similar to some cats' purring and/or kneading when in pain, and a way to recreate the rhythm of the T'elχ "internal chorus", which came and went in waves. When she was wounded by the shepherds during the T'elχ-human confrontation, just before she lost consciousness, she was seen clenching and unclenching her fists in this fashion; this was due to the whiteouts more than to her own injuries - the lashes of searing, blinding pain she felt as beings who were one with herself were being destroyed (the composure she had managed to retain in the face of this was remarkable - until she collapsed, her true state of mind showed only in these self-calming hand movements and a glum, tense expression).

    Her fingers also made these mechanical flexing movements throughout the first few weeks after separation, when she was on the brink of death and had next to no self-awareness, during the final days of the solitary desert hike, and in the hours following Initran's death.

    The gesture, which is accompanied as it is by a slight frown and a fierce gleam in Azila's eyes, is frightening, or at any rate not a comfortable sight. The fact that it is reminiscent of a cat's kneading - a warm, cute image - produces a cognitive dissonance, as every other nonverbal signal indicates that her state of mind is anything but pleased or happy. So, if she starts to show increasing signs of internal unease and tension, which culminate in her starting to scrape the surface of the table, demonstrating her massive black talons, it's a sign that something has gone seriously wrong indeed.

    The other signal is a sign of excitement, elation or delight - a short, low, subdued hiss, like a forceful but brief breath that lasts no more than a second and is expelled through an open mouth. It is usually doubled and is quite different from the loud explosive sound made by someone like Ibrahim Tanko. Most people are unlikely to qualify it as a "hiss" and simply have a brief baffled response - more or less "hey, what on Earth was that?" It can also produce a certain delayed cognitive dissonance owing to its similarity, on second thoughts, to a cat's hiss, which most certainly does not signify a happy state.

    The most startling part, perhaps, is that Azila may turn toward whoever she has been talking to, which she rarely does otherwise, and breathe the two hisses directly into their face.


    Azila has never quite managed to grasp the significance of outward appearance for most women, or its value for society. She finds people to be beautiful as they are and is bewildered by to their obsession with altering their physique to be more attractive to themselves or to actual and potential mates. On the few occasions when she was convinced to dress up, she had severe difficulty maintaining the image even for a couple of hours because she couldn't concentrate on her inner and outer state simultaneously. She is unlikely to learn to uphold the necessary standard of beauty throughout the day, and she found the effort to be draining and a major distraction from her job, therefore not worth the while.

    Because of this, she prefers to limit her clothing to the bare basics. She chooses comfortable, functional items that do not inhibit movement or interfere with her work: linen slacks and blouses, plaid shirts, hoodies, wide-leg jeans, cargo pants, army surplus fatigues. The sleeves and pant legs are usually rolled up. The exoskeleton on her feet makes shoes redundant and she goes barefoot most of the time; if she absolutely has to, she wears hiking or construction boots with the front cut off to accommodate the claws, or wraps her feet in strips of leather, suede or coarse linen.

    She doesn't mind dressing in whatever happens to be at hand, as long as it's simple and practical, which may sometimes make her clothes look mismatched, haphazardly thrown together without any care or consideration for style. Some are one or two sizes too large, as moderately oversized clothes tend to be more convenient. It's been said that her fashion sense doesn't just have a value of zero; it comes with a minus sign. When presented with a choice, prefers muted, dull earth tones - gray, brown, khaki, dusty green.

    One may well consider her dressed for a special occasion if she wears a brand-new set of fatigues, new utility boots fresh out of the store and a green silk headscarf.
    "Like an iron weeble-wobble: won't bend, won't break, bounces back no matter how often or how hard it is kicked."

    "She is as emotional as a block of wood and that inch-thick steel forehead of hers is enough to crash through any gate."

    "You dance around the fir tree with a couple of blades for a minute and think it's done; she stands back and sees that sprig over there is off by 2 mm and disrupts the harmony."

    "A sapper making her way through a minefield of errors."

    "All work and no play make Jill a jittery girl."

    "You should hang a sign over your door: beware of the angry guard drone. Would spare a lot of frayed nerves, you know."

    "Triggers? She's a walking trigger herself, if you ask me."

    Azila is neither a full Tha'i'n nor the young woman of whom nothing remains but an unused name, a terse database entry and a handful of old photos, though she is far closer to the former than to the latter. She is stuck inbetween. It's impossible to determine which traits belonged the human Hawa Najjar and which were introduced due to her immersion into the collective consciousness, and, ultimately, there is no point in doing so.


    For the better or worse, Azila's name is remarkably apt. At the core of her personality there is a potent raw affection for the handful of people with whom she has formed strong bonds. Initially, this was was due to an inbuilt imperative, which she decided to embrace after de-assimilation, rather than choosing the opposite direction of development and overcoming her neurobiological limitations in favor, say, of greater detachment, indulgence or egotism (which she certainly would have been able to do).

    The feeling may manifest in rather rough ways and be mistaken for - or masked by - anger or a peak in generalized anxiety. Has been described as "maternal instinct gone wild".

    This instinct is as fundamental to her psyche as survival or self-preservation instinct is to most non-altered humans, and, in fact, appears to have replaced it. Indeed, she would have sacrificed herself to save a friend or comrade without a second thought; on several occasions she tried to barter her life, or her future, for the sake of the group, with disturbing ease, and had to be prevented from acting the plan out. It wouldn't be entirely correct to say that she doesn't know her value as a person because she used to be part of a superorganism - she does, or, at any rate, she did (now that she is "broken", her sense of self-worth leaves much to be desired). Her rationale is that, when it comes to self-sacrifice, one must be the first to volunteer, because one might as well be the last; besides, if every member of the community had the same level of dedication, the community would not have any problems. Her sense of potential threat to the well-being or security of her mini-hive is honed almost to the point of paranoia, and she had to be reminded not to react to any suspicious shadow or noise as though there could be an enemy lurking just around the corner, or not to drive out every stranger who approaches Initran on the grounds that they might be dangerous. At the same time, she has little fear of death or danger to herself. As a consequence, she is unlikely to lose her head in a crisis and has shown herself to be determined, decisive and courageous in situations where others were prone to panic (which is a startling contrast to her ineptitude at solving minor everyday crises that involve social interaction and usually leave her lost, confused and helpless).

    In her desire to protect, she is practical, reasonable and specific. When she goes out of her way to shield someone from harm, it's always a particular person she knows and can see in front of her. This used to cause some of the most serious arguments between herself and Initran, who prioritized principles over people and had been turning into more of a well-intenioned extremist by the time he met her; unlike him, she never believed it right or acceptable to sacrifice one or several lives to save many more, or, say, to sacrifice a particular living creature for the sake of an abstract concept of "life" as such.

    Predictably, she gets along with pre-adolescent children much better than with adults. She, too, is somewhat childlike in her extreme sincerity, curiosity and intense sense of wonder, and children bring out the protective side of her personality best. Not all of them return the affection, and quite a few are afraid of her because she looks like nightmare fuel, at least at first, but, as a rule, most of them build a rapport with her easily. One of the many reasons behind this is that she never uses "baby-speak", never behaves in a condescending manner, never lies to children just because they are too young to understand, treats them as equals and talks to them in the same frank, serious manner as to everyone else. Autistic children tend to accept her as one of their own at once. It used to be said that the Tha'i'n woman had to know a secret word to placate fractuous autistic toddlers who had been screaming for half an hour straight. The reality, of course, was that their body language was a lot like her own and she had the same sensory issues, so she knew what to do to draw them out of a meltdown. Her closest friend after Initran was Tajjaus, a boy with mild autism she babysat in her spare time and served as his mother-figure and companion.


    Azila may appear content to spend hours on end with no-one but plants and test-tubes for company, yet nothing could be further from the truth. In a very real sense, she is the most outgoing person ever to exist; the presence of other people is vital for her not just to feel comfortable, or satisfactory, but to survive. It's a poor substitute for the collective consciousness and gives her a faint echo of the connections she used to feel, but it's enough to hold her together - just barely. When forced into solitary confinement for more than several days, she falls apart.

    A two-week hike through an unpopulated part of the desert to deliver an important package almost killed her. During the last days, she was delirious and reached the destination only because she had entered the radio coverage zone just in time to be located (she was still walking in the right direction and the package was in good condition, which couldn't be said of herself).

    Whatever we say about the ability to tolerate solitude being a sign of mental health or maturity is applicable to her by a negligible margin, as her nervous system has been permanently rewritten and no matter how well she adjusts to our society, she is and will always remain a hive-creature.


    Categorically opposed to violence in any form, regardless of the circumstances or justification. Any harm or injury suffered by one of the constituent organisms in the Tha'i'n superorganism was shared by the others; if some of them died at the hands of humans, the entire collective being underwent a short but shattering blackout, having lost a segment of itself. This would be the emotional equivalent of physical pain so unbearable it makes one lose consciousness, like having one's arm or leg amputated without anaesthesia. Azila will never forget what that had been like, and the thought of willingly inflicting injury, or, worse still, taking a life is beyond her comprehension.

    Among the people closest to Initran, Azila and Mbuta were the most outspoken and radical opponents of violence.

    If she has to protect those who form her mini-community, though, she would fight and kill, if need be, even if this comes at a high price to herself; the safety and well-being of those she sees as her mini-collective is more important to her than her own principles, moral scruples or comfort, emotional or otherwise. She proved this on the several occasions when she had to take out insurgent soldiers to defend Initran and his group and would become seriously ill upon realizing what she had done.

    Under normal circumstances, she will never start a fight, but won't hesitate to use force if this is necessary to restore order. Was known to tackle and restrain an assaultive, aggressive ihr co-worker on more than one occasion to prevent her from harming herself or anybody else in frenzy. That said, in most situations she doesn't have to use force in the first place - her loud, resonant voice and entire manner are enough to frighten one into obedience, as is her alien appearance.


    Azila will attempt to hide any signs of pain, stress or fatigue in order not to needlessly worry or upset her friends. If it's impossible to seek treatment without alerting them, she will hope that the problem resolves on its own and her adaptive, resilient physiology will help weather it out, while she focuses on working harder in the meantime.

    This trait wasn't apparent at first and began to manifest with the passage of time, as she became more familiar with the notion, and practice, of hiding her internal state and began to withhold anything that pertained to any of the post-separation health issues, from the neurological symptoms to the moderate or severe depression. Her reasoning was that, since staying behind had been her choice, she was to deal with the consequences on her own, and, since she had made the decision for the sake of Initran and his group, they could not know that the separated state was causing her to suffer. The phrase "my personal problem" wasn't in her lexicon, but it would have certainly applied.

    She took care not to let herself linger in one position for too long, not to stare out of the window and not do anything else that could be taken as a sign of a sad or listless mood, and went so far as to monitor her movements, forcing herself to be faster and more energetic, and to check her face from time to time in the mirror to see if her gaze was not too vacant.

    From her perspective, she does this not to be a burden on others and not to alarm them. However, when the problem grows too serious to be concealed, they end up even more alarmed, and this is one of the reasons other people see this tendency very differently from Azila herself: as an indication of mistrust, reluctance to accept their help, and (for those who don't know her too well) self-isolation and arrogance of the "I'll deal with this by myself, I don't require any of your assistance" variety.

    She had a wake-up call when the neural deterioration took a turn for the worse, but she ignored the symptoms until the last and insisted that she was fine even when she started to have migraines every other evening, developed double vision, felt dizzy and unsteady on her feet and her sensory thresholds had grown so low that the sounds of passing traffic or moderate sunlight would cause acute pain. The strenuous work regimen wasn't helping either. Eventually, she collapsed in the laboratory and had to spend several days in hospital, where she was visited even by the ihr lab assistant she had fought with on a regular basis.

    Today, Azila is somewhat more open about her problems, but easily falls back into the same pattern. When pressed, she may become angry and respond with a tirade to the extent of "self fine, stop harrassing", which in itself goes to demonstrate that she isn't fine at all.

    Has to be reminded that back home she wouldn't have had the option of blocking out the others and not sharing her state with them and would never have been permitted to fall ill,as any ailment would have been detected straight away and nipped in the bud, and that however tough her body might be, it wasn't designed to take this much abuse from the one in the driver's seat.

    Duty-oriented and other-oriented:

    These are the two principles that form the foundation of her personality: the first is "others before self", the second is "duty above all" or "duty first, person second". Her entire life revolves around what she sees as her obligations to her significant other (when he was alive), to her inner circle of friends, and to society as a whole. Duty has an absolute value to her; she is willing to remove herself as a person from the equation whenever required, and will readily set aside her private preferences, needs, wishes or desires to do what she must.

    Azila takes promises seriously and never breaks her word, even when this comes with significant disadvantages for herself, and takes great care to observe any agreements, private or work-related, to the letter. At times, she takes this almost to the point of absurdity and becomes preoccupied over things no-one else cares care about, from not being late for a minor appointment due to having no sense of time to not being rude during a casual conversation between friends where everybody banters and no-one is civil. As a result, she is accused of being too serious and encouraged to "relax", " chill out" or "take it easy", words whose meaning she struggles to grasp to this day.

    It's been said that she can't understand the words "I want" or "cannot", not least because she isn't entirely clear on what "I" means - but all you have to do is say the magic word "must" and she will jump to the task.


    It'd be an understatement to say that she is industrious or that she will be hyper-diligent about any task she is given. If left to her own devices, she may wear herself out to the point of serious illness or death. There was a dark joke floating around about how putting her in the neurological ward hadn't been such a bad thing, and that perhaps it should be done more often - it was the only way to get her to rest.

    When not at her official place of employment, she keeps herself occupied in other ways, reading literature on biology or doing manual household chores, which she finds calming and helpful in maintaining her focus (fetching and chopping firewood, cleaning, hand-washing clothes in a tub or stream, tending to the fire in the hearth, using the outdoor oven to bake etc.).

    Being idle is unbearable to her. It's as though her hands had a mind of their own and were begging to be given some task to do. The frustrated and irritated statements she will often hear, such as "Can't you just be still for a moment and enjoy yourself?" or "Stop hyperventilating, will you?" are met with an uncomprehending stare. If forced to stay indoors with nothing to do, she quickly grows bored, then impatient, then agitated and restless. In the end, she begins picking up random objects, fiddling with them and putting them back, and pacing around the room; this is a sign of an impending panic attack or meltdown (prolonged solitude will produce the same reaction).

    The roots of this can be traced back to Azila's de-assimilation. When she began to regain her self-awareness, she found herself in a foreign and horrid frame of mind: she felt useless. The automatic knowledge of what she had to do was gone and she didn't know where to apply herself or what her new responsibilities were. She was adrift in a void without any anchors. When she was offered a position at the institute, she seized at the opportunity not only because of the renewed passion she felt for her profession, but also because it promised a sense of purpose and allowed her to take her mind off the dead-end situation she was in. She became so absorbed in the research she sometimes stayed there 24/7, having no need to lie down to sleep, brought along packed lunches and, in effect, lived on the premises; she left only when there was a chance to spend some time with Initran. Before long, remaining active became her primary mechanism of coping with the chronic stress; she preferred to do something useful and keep the tension at bay than sit around and be shattered under its full weight.

    She often doesn't understand the point of what we consider recreation or leisure, though her reluctance to take a break from work isn't the only reason behind this. The other reason is that the pursuits most of us choose to relax have the opposite effect on her, due to the sensory overload and anxiety caused by celebrations and other social occasions, so she benefits a lot more from an evening spent cooking with a pair of headphones on than from one at a bar or nightclub.

    All that said - she genuinely loves her job and any of the activities she engages in, treating them as a source of enjoyment as well as a duty. In the ideal scenario, if she overcomes the dysfunctional coping strategies she has developed over the years and gains a sense of moderation with respect to work, she will simply be a person in love with her vocation, for whom official occupation and leisure are one and the same.

    Bleak vision of the future:

    Due to her heightened need for stability, she is susceptible to what is known as apocalyptic thinking: when subjected to considerable stress, she is overwhelmed with various worst-case scenarios of the future. The images in these "what if" and "maybe or maybe not" scenes are very vivid and resemble flashes of an alternative reality; they surface involuntarily, in spite of Azila's attempts to suppress them or not to dwell on them, and soon spin out of conrol. There may also be a generalized tension and a vague sense of an imminent catastrophe or a dark cloud looming overhead - tangible, thickening with every second, threatening to swallow her whole.

    This may not be readily visible because she doesn't talk about herself, as a rule, and, in particular, refuses to discuss any negative feelings. Initran was the only person to whom she confided uncertainty or fear of the future. However, because she's been too stressed and overloaded with negative emotions to contain them, one may trace some signs of the mood here and there - in her eyes, in the subtle changes to her expression, or hinted at in some of what she says.

    Like most pessimists, thinks of herself as a realist.


    On the whole, Azila is willing to adjust to the rules of society and to accommodate other people's preferences at the expense of her own (one of her most commonly used stock phrases is "tell your preference - will adapt"). At the same time, she requires a stable, unchanging environment where she can retreat to prevent the discord and confusion from overwhelming her to the point of another meltdown. This manifests in her adherence to strict routines. She repeats the same cycle of actions every day, and, while she can't observe the timing to the second, she does create alarms on her cellphone or leaves other reminders to check the time when she will be ready to switch to another task.

    She may refuse to have her clothes replaced for months and years and wears them down to rags; she eats the exact same food for similar lengths of time, with her diminished need for nutrients and frequent neglect of her bodily needs meaning that her food choices are frequently as bland as they are uniform. There was a year when she consumed nothing but raw eggs and unseasoned large-grain couscous without any ill effects, other than making everyone who was forced to watch her sick at the stomach.
    Apart from the bright green shirt and several green scarves to wear on special occasions instead of her drab, sack-like casual clothes, the closest Azila has to a personal possession is a small box with several objects that remind her of Initran and Mbuta:

    - A photo of Initran in a plastic waterproof holder;

    - A fir cone strung onto a cord and dried while still green and unripe. Initran had found it in the street one day and brought it to Azila, which triggered a moment of connection over the intense wonder and curiosity at the world they both shared and helped her deal with a bout of severe nostalgia;

    - A miniature ceremonial fly-whisk Initran had bought for her upon learning that her favorite color was green - a tassel of bright green beads in different lively, vibrant hues, fitted onto a longish carved handle. Its traditional significance can be connected to her name, which means "guardian", " one who insulates against noxious influences, weeds out contaminants, separates the beneficial/genuine from the harmful/fake".

    - A handmade soft figurine of a nymph Tha'i'n, complete with the fringe of long lashes on the edges of its flattered circular body and six enormous black eyes, which Mbuta made from felt and beads one evening as a minor gift for her.

    - A miniature bedside lamp whose shade is made of etched and misted green glass, another gift from Initran.

    - Resistant to extreme temperatures. The T'elX colonies were located in the open desert where the temperature could reach +50C and drop below zero at night. As a result, during assimilation, Azila’s body was adapted to these conditions. She can withstand temperatures within this range naked, as she used to be when she was part of the T'elX, or with minimal clothes on, without feeling any discomfort. To her, “hot” begins around +60C (higher for surfaces), while “cold” would be well below -15C. Her optimal thriving temperature is around +40-45C.

    After de-assimilation, she was known to remove her shirt and work topless in the sun when the thermometer climbed over +40 C and everyone else seemed to be hiding indoors or wore several layers of linen and a woolen outer cape. She habitually walked walk barefoot over rocks heated to about +75C, a temperature sufficient to fry an egg or bake wheat, and felt the ground as pleasantly warm. Similarly, she could stay outdoors in a light sweater and jacket at -10C and think that the weather was quite mild for winter. In effect, there is no risk of heat stroke or sunburn for her at any natural temperature found on the Earth's surface, and frostbite would be a problem only in an arctic and sub-arctic climate during the cold season.

    - Diminished need for sleep. Azila needs no more than 3-4 hours of sleep a day, which she usually breaks down into brief naps of one to ten minutes. She is able to fall asleep anywhere, in any position, whether sitting down at a desk, curled up in a corner, propped up against a wall, huddled inside a box or narrow tunnel, standing up, or even while walking. Her eyes remain open, except for the second lid, and one can have difficulty telling whether she is awake or not at any given moment (all the more so given her habit of being still for extended periods of time).

    - Remarkable stamina. Azila is well-adapted to average physical exertion spread over a prolonged period of time. She is a great endurance runner and may hike or run at a moderate speed across a difficult rocky and/or sandy terrain and cover to 42 km before she needs rest. However, she is poor at activities that require a sudden concentrated effort (such as power-lifting or sprinting).

    - Good at climbing or scaling vertical and/or smooth surfaces, not least owing to the claws.

    - Partial organic armor. The chitinous scales that cover part of her body are extremely hard and offer solid protection against blades and decent protection against blunt-force trauma. She may grab and/or deflect a knife or sword with her bare hands and only her head, thighs and upper arms (which no longer have any scales) would be vulnerable to stab wounds. A blow delivered with a blunt heavy object may fracture the scales, but will be considerably softened, causing less internal injury. Firearms pose the same danger to Azila as they would to any other human, but a bullet is more likely to slow down when it hits the scales, thus doing less damage, or to bounce if fired at an acute angle.

    If fractured or forcibly removed, the scales will heal back much the same way as human fingernails, but at a quicker pace.

    - Organic weapons. Azila is nowhere as strong as a brown bear, nor does she have the same body mass, but she can be almost as dangerous in hand-to-hand combat due to the claws, which have a sharp end and lowermost shearing edge, and can easily cut through flesh and thick clothes, including wool, leather, felt, down-filled coats or non-reinforced vests without any additional ceramic or plastic plates.

    - Adaptive vision. Due to the fluctuation in pupil size, from a slit to a full circle, Azila's eyes are capable of adapting to a wide variety of lighting conditions - from maximum (midday at a subtropical latitude with no cloud cover, whitewashed houses and streets) to minimum (night, no moon visible, no human-made sources of light). This is what enables her to see six times better than a human at night, and, at the same time, not to go blind during the day.

    - Faster healing. Azila heals about twice as fast as a non-altered human, which means that she has a higher chance of surviving a serious injury, and fewer chances of becoming crippled.

    - Enhanced strength. Azila's physical strength is about two times that of an average able-bodied, fit male.

    - Night vision. Due to having a tapetal layer in her eyes, Azila can see in the most minimal lighting, such as the light of the stars (with or without the moon) even when obscured by cloud cover. Her night-time sight is six times better than that of humans. This was necessary to enable her to function during the darker time of day deep in the desert with nothing but weak natural lighting to go by.

    - Exceptional vestibular system. Rotation won't produce vertigo and/or nausea in her even in conditions that qualify as extreme overload (e.g. the centrifuges used to train pilots and astronauts).

    - Diminished need for nutrients. Being still largely T'elX, Azila's metabolism is extremely efficient, capable of synthesizing any necessary substance from scratch. She doesn't have to eat as much or as frequently as a human, and can subsist for extended lengths of time on non-solid foods - jellies rich in sugar and starch, juices, sweet soft drinks, broth, protein shakes. During a certain period, she was known for consuming nothing but milk, soured milk or buttermilk mixed with protein powder, to a point where "Azila and her jar of milk" became an inside joke at her workplace. Her metabolism does not require animal proteins the same way as ours, and she may stay on a lactovegetarian diet indefinitely without any harm to her health. May actually live on vitamin and/or food supplement pills for weeks. That said, she has managed to get herself seriously undernourished in the past because she would forget or neglect to take even what little food she did need.


    - Neurological instability. A joiner's nervous system was not meant to function outside of the superorganism, and separation would trigger a degenerative neurological disorder that was usually fatal within the the first three or four weeks after the separation. Due to the aggressive treatment applied in order to make her survive long enough for her knowledge of organic technologies and genetic modification to be put to use, she has managed to survive on her own for a record time. However, she remains terminally ill; while the neural decay has been temporarily suspended, it can never be stopped and may resume at any moment.

    Emotional shock is a particular danger. In the past, trauma has caused psychotic episodes, which, much like delirium tremens or the psychoses induced by prolonged amphetamine use, produced widespread and, for the greater part, permanent neurological damage. A limited number of them is possible before the higher neurological functions disintegrate and global CNS collapse occurs - four or five for a regular human and perhaps a few more for Azila. So far, her nervous system has managed to compensate for the damage and to readjust, but as it stands, each new episode is life-threatening and may easily become the last. High doses of potent old-school anti-psychotics such as thorazine (chlorpromazine) or haloperidol may somewhat improve her condition during an episode and reduce the degree of the irreversible damage, but there is no guarantee that the damage will be prevented altogether.

    At present, she may expect to live for another year or two at most. The only way to survive beyond that would be assimilation by, and with, her own or a similar collective species, which so far has not been an option.

    - Vulnerability during moults. During the moults, which occur every five years and may last up to a week, Azila is exceptionally vulnerable. She cannot perform most everyday activities and is unable to wear any clothes until the new scales are hardened, as the contact between the fabric and her exposed skin causes excruciating pain. Throughout the period, she is forced to remain indoors and is susceptible to just about any threat one could imagine.

    - Loss of control and life-threatening complications in heat. The extreme metabolic changes (especially the large quantities of hormones ejected into the bloodstream) and strong emotions during the mating season may serve to further destabilize her neural tissue and endanger her life. In the initial stages, while the condition is manageable, she will try to isolate herself and acquire the hormonal medications and typical anti-psychotics she had used last time to suppress the symptoms, but if she has no access to these measures and the mating fever is allowed to run its course unchecked, she may die.

    In the more advanced stages, if not on medication, she will be unable to exercise any self-control and will be reduced to little more than an animalistic state - aggressive, quick to be provoked and roused to anger, and impossible to reason with.

    Social deficits (here rather in the "Skills" section due to lack of space):

    Social deficits (here rather in the "Skills" section due to lack of space):

    The following can be considered cognitive processing flaws as much as personality traits. All of them are due to the fact that Azila's nervous system was intended to function within a communal telepathic system, which included both an "internal language" (which was why there were moments when the thoughts of the constituents sounded like a loud chorus) and the direct transmission of emotions and imagery. Humans, on the other hand, are separate entities and communicate emotion indirectly, through body language or by introducing extra layers of meaning to their verbal exchanges; Azila lacks an innate capacity to decode either.

    - Brutal honesty:

    Like a witness in a court of law, Azila tells "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth". Within the group consciousness, information was shared by 100%, nothing was concealed or distorted and there was no concept of an "uncomfortable", "offensive" or "hurtful" truth - only statement of fact, which carried over into her present state. This was especially noticeable during the first months following the deassimilation, after she started to speak in a more comprehensible manner; she was as earnest as a seven-year-old and would give as truthful, exhaustive and complete response as she could to any question. As she learned more about other people's responses and became somewhat less oblivious to the way her words could affect them, she grew more reserved, less willing to share whatever was on her mind.

    When she does speak, she is blunt. Over the years, she hasn't learned to be evasive and has no intention to try. She did learn to lie, but cannot distinguish between the social contexts that do or do not necessitate the telling of a "white lie", and the notion itself is too foreign to her - she doesn't understand why one would have to do this. At the institute she was somewhat infamous for entering without a greeting, walking over to someone, reporting some major distressing news without any attempt to mitigate the message or to prepare them through some form of preamble, then leaving without a farewell and slamming the door behind her.

    These days, she tries to be more cautious about what she says, or when, but has trouble holding her tongue and often blurts out the truth without thinking. By the time she realizes that her words were inappropriate or insulting and regrets them, it is too late. If she tries to correct herself, she may end up giving a back-handed compliment (however unintentional), worsening the situation further and causing even more discomfort and embarrassment on either side. Likewise, her apologies, coupled with visible signs of anxiety like sweating, shaking hands, darting eyes and shortness of breath, are awkward and harrowing for all the parties involved. This is one of the reasons Azila chooses to remain silent whenever possible.

    Understandably, Azila is not known for her subtlety. At best, she is thought of as a caring and loyal, but rough - at worst, she is seen as inconsiderate and insensitive, lacking an elementary sense of tact. She, on the other hand, expects others to be as forthcoming as herself, and, when they aren't, is confused and upset.

    The intricacy of our verbal exchanges makes no sense to her. She frequently wonders why - why complicate matters intentionally, why interfere with our own capacity to communicate, why be indirect and long-winded where we can be direct and succinct? Why not channel the effort into something more beneficial and fruitful than generating unnecessary complexity? From her perspective, our conversational tactics are passive-aggressive and manipulative. She is perplexed as to why we won't approach each other and ask and/or tell whatever we want outright, which, to her, is the one reasonable approach to adopt if one cannot establish any telepathic links, cannot communicate thought and emotion directly and has to rely on written or spoken language alone. What we do instead seems to be a twisted, elaborate mind game where we pretend to read each other's minds without being actually able to do so - making unfounded assumptions and taking offense if they prove to be untrue, or withholding the truth on purpose and checking whether others will be able to guess what it is, punishing them with a negative emotional response if they don't or rewarding them with a positive emotional response if they do.

    - Literal-minded:

    If one filtered out the "noise" in the form of misused or unnecessary words and broken structures and condensed Azila's speech into the most concise form imaginable, one would discover that she means exactly what she says, no more and no less. This is exactly how she comes across when she uses sign language: direct, precise and to the point.

    Within the collective consciousness, communication was exact and direct, because it extended beyond human language and its limitations; nothing could be hidden, insinuated or left between the lines. Because of this, Azila tends to take others' words at face value. It is extremely stressful for her to navigate a conversation and decode the strategies we use on a daily basis to circumvent the topic, be vague, introduce intentional double meanings, overstate or understate. The effort leaves her exhausted and is, more often than not, futile.

    It would be inaccurate to say that she doesn't understand figurative language; she does, but the degree of success depends on how visual the given figure of speech is. She far less difficulty with original (poetic) metaphor because of its vivid, fresh quality, which allows her to freely use her visual thinking, and because the connection between the images is easy to trace. In conventional metaphor, on the other hand, the original connection is often faded with overuse, or lost, which makes it a lot more confusing. In that sense, she is somewhat like a second language learner - she does have the capacity to understand figurative turns of phrase, but most of them are unfamiliar and take her longer to process.

    The same goes for humor. She is able to grasp quite a few jokes, but they are usually lost on her in conversation - her mind just won't make the necessary connections between images on time. If given sufficient time for her mind to flick through her mental catalogues, locate the necessary images and find the parallels between them, she will be able to appreciate the joke after a pause or possibly even to respond.

    - Lack of certain vital social constructs

    As a hive-creature, Azila has had trouble understanding certain concepts that stem from individuality and couldn't have existed in a group consciousness, such as possession, privacy, or social rank and status.

    Property, for example, continues to present a problem - a notion that would be perfectly clear to any human toddler sitting in a sandbox and quarreling over a toy. On an intellectual level, she understands that the members of this society are individuals, separate entities not linked together into an shared network, and, as a consequence, each of them prefers to have a separate environment - a certain space of their own, objects they like, need use on a habitual basis, and so on. She is also aware of the way society will codify this, entering a house or set of objects into a record as associated with a certain person and allowing them to lay official claim to these possessions.

    On an emotional level, however, she has no sense of what ownership entails. She just doesn't seem to be able to able to develop the same attachment to objects or dwellings. Instinct tells her that resources must be distributed between the members of the community and accessible to each of them on demand, and any property must be communal - in fact, there should altogether be no property as such. She, for her part, can strip off her last shirt for someone who has a greater need for it, in the most literal sense, or give them her last food supply during a time of famine without a second thought; the idea that one might choose to keep these resources to themselves and refuse to share is preposterous and near-incomprehensible to her (interestingly, though, she doesn't think of humans as selfish, though she may call them that when she is on edge and lashes out in self-defense - she just finds them hard to understand and feels that she fails to grasp something significant about them).

    She does grow attached to her clothes and to her own scent in the fabric, which is one of the reasons she is reluctant to have them replaced, but this is rather arbitrary and weak; she will still offer and/or give them away without any regrets if she has to. Her living quarters do produce a strong attachment insofar as they remind her of home, and give her a certain emotional stability and warmth, but again, it's not the actual house or apartment, as a piece of real estate, that she would be reluctant to part with. If she learned she could return to her real home, she would leave at once and not look back.

    Similarly, she has no sense of privacy. This manifests not only in her tendency to touch other people and move in too close for comfort, but also in her lack of ability to single out other people's possessions, unless they are pointed out to her directly, and to refrain from using them. At first, she could take an instrument or other item of equipment without permission or open someone else's shoulder bag and look through because she was curious to find out what was inside. Just as she frequently watched Initran as he slept, she would rummage through his backpack, cupboards and drawers, or try on his clothes when she wasn't home. He did his best to explain that while he didn't mind and she could continue to do any of this with him if she wished, she shouldn't do the same to anyone else because this is against the accepted rules of conduct.

    These days, as with physical contact, she has moved to the other extreme, on the principle of "better safe than sorry". When she finds herself in an unfamiliar environment, she will ask for permission to use just about anything she comes across, which can drive other people to distraction. For example, if she were in an office, she would ask whether she could use the shared kettle every time she wanted to make some coffee. The best solution would be to give her a very concrete instruction, with the possible exceptions detailed, such as: "You can use the kettle whenever you come here, any time you like, unless someone else has filled it up and is waiting to make their own coffee".

    She has much the same difficulty with social distinctions. Her own community was egalitarian in the extreme. Though divided into functions, everyone had an equal status; each caste, and each separate organism, were valuable for the super-organism as a whole and made a unique contribution to the shared consciousness. As a result, she has a serious problem understanding how persons in some positions enjoy more respect than others (while certain social strata, on the other hand, are outcasts and are treated with scorn and contempt). To her, any honest job is useful and necessary, and should be respected the same way as the others. In addition, being blind to non-verbal signals and other social cues, she is unable to determine a person's rank from their manner, and doesn't know how to treat them. This results in her sense of social distance being haywire - she may be official and distant with friends, but, at the same time, direct and on familiar terms with someone seen as a figure of authority.

    This has added one more notch to her reputation as a "difficult" person: she was regarded as disobedient, rebellious, disrespectful of authority, although in actual fact she has a great respect for the law and for various social rules and regulations, and is more than eager to observe them, if only she knew what they were. She is reverent toward those whom she has already recognized as her superiors and makes every effort to follow their lead and carry out their directions. The only situation where she will disobey is when the order clashes with her fundamental ethical values - in this case, she will defend her position in a very vocal and loud manner (in every sense down to the literal), dispute the issue with those who had given the order, and, if she has to, take it to a higher authority.

    - No sense of time:

    The Tha'i'n collective existed outside of time, in the here-and-now, or, which is effectively the same, in eternity. In her separated state, Azila can't feel the time pass either. She can only tell that a particular period has elapsed through observing the readily visible, apparent signs of change around her (deciduous plants are losing their foliage, so it must be fall; the sun is setting, so it must be evening). As a result, she has to rely on clocks and external schedules to structure her activities and has difficulty being punctual - she will either be late for an appointment, or arrive altogether too early (that, or she will be glancing at the watch every fifteen seconds, anxious that she is not going to make it on time and the other party will be offended, even if in actual reality no-one cares).

    - Seeming lack of empathy:

    In the collective consciousness, every thought and emotion was shared and Azila could directly sense the state of the others without having to monitor their behavior for external cues. In her severed state, her capacity to identify these signals is limited; when she does notice them, it may take a considerable time.

    This goes for any body language meant to convey emotion and for the outward signs of suffering or discomfort. She has been learning to identify more and more of them, but, unlike most of us, she can't do so on instinct, without effort, and has to use logical thinking and look for them consciously, which takes time. Besides, sooner or later, she is bound to miss out on something. Add this to her limited capacity for communicating emotion and the fact that she is a logical rather than emotional type, and one can understand why she is perceived as rather ruthless and cold, even callous. One of her co-workers used to refer to her as a "visual processor on legs".
    Cognitive style:

    Visual-logical. Azila's thinking operates in terms of vivid and precise images rather than abstract concepts or words, and is best suited for organizing empirical facts - cataloguing, creating sets of categories and subcategories, making outlines, drawing mental charts or diagrams.

    Likes to collect and memorize various encyclopedic tidbits on the plant kingdom and biology in general (one could say her own memory is like one large encyclopedia).

    Learning strategies:

    Azila's predominant subtype of reasoning is inductive (making generalizations on the basis of facts). She will find out and memorize as many empirical facts as possible, then trace their general structure, organize them into different sets or subsets, draw connections between them, compare/contrast and draw conclusions.

    She learns social rules and conventions by rote-learning numerous minor regulations. One of the first things she did after Initran took her home was to hand him a pen and sheet of paper and ask him to write down the main rules observed in his society so she could learn to follow them. This became the foundation of her knowledge about the society she was stranded in. Later, she added more and more of those rules to her mental catalogue, and, as time went by, began to merge some of them into more common guidelines suitable for most situations (or, alternatively, split others into specific rules suitable for separate situations only), and to arrange all of them into a more general system. Sometimes she draws tree diagrams of these social regulations, complete with arrows and highlighting, to see how they are connected and follow from each other. To this day, she carries a small notebook with her and will write down any new rule she happens to encounter. Her perfect ability to remember written or printed text makes it easy to recall any of them where required, though she isn't always able to properly apply them and to override her own hard-wired mode of communication (and she's completely clueless in the situations where we break or subvert these rules on purpose).

    Azila does the same when she needs to determine which information must and mustn't be shared, and with whom. She divides facts into distinct spheres, each of which had clear boundaries and certain logical criteria to determine where and with whom it can be used (those that should be left between her and her significant other in conditions X1, except for situations of type Y1; those that can only be discussed with her superiors in conditions X2, except for situations of type Y2; those that can only be discussed with the other members of the team in conditions X3, except for situations of type Y3; etc.). She puts down anything she knows about what this culture considers to be acceptable or appropriate topics for conversation, and what would be dangerous to divulge to others and why, and compiles lists of topics, each being marked as disclosable or non-disclosable - and if disclosable, then to whom and under what circumstances. When she comes across a new topic, she does her best to establish where it should be on her list and whom she can discuss it with. Often, she will draw tree charts and diagrams to arrange the information in a more

    To a person with a different cognitive style and a better social instinct, such methods could look, in a sense, dehumanizing and "mechanical", but to her they are very convenient and efficient.

    On occasion, she still makes mistakes. While the ever-expanding checklist and set of diagrams are a great help and make her feel at least a little more at ease and more secure, there is no reliable way of telling what is or is not appropriate in the given situation with 100% certainty, as there are far too many variables to consider, and sometimes, in spite of all the careful calculation, Azila guesses wrong. And, of course, blunders can and do occur whenever she encounters an entirely new field or category of information whose social connotations are not yet clear.

    The optimal way for her to learn a sequence of actions is through observation; an opportunity to repeat them would offer an additional benefit, but isn't necessary. If the information is presented too quickly for her to process, she simply commits it to memory as a series of images and recreates the actions at her own pace afterward. This is how she tries out new recipes after watching culinary programs, most of which are too fast-paced for her to follow.


    - Eidetic memory

    Able to memorize complex visual images with a high degree of precision, as her mind registers details most other people filter out as "minor" or "insignificant" due to selective attention. When she recalls scenes from the past, she sees them again in her mind for a few seconds, which often takes on the quality of a PTSD-induced flashback - she is forced to relive the event as if the clock has been turned back and she was there again. The feeling may be overwhelming enough to make her lose track of her surroundings for a minute or two.

    May memorize complete pages from a book, including numbers, footnotes and entire passages of text. Can reproduce the information at random and without preparation through quoting the text word for word, or, say, drawing a sophisticated diagram of plant tissue in cross-section with the arrows pointing to the separate parts and the specialized terms for them.

    With memories lost due to the neural damage, the fissure occurs between separate scenes, rather than within a scene; each scene is just as vivid, but there are fewer of them, so that she may not be capable of recalling an event in its entirety, but there is no sense of the memories having become foggier or more faded, as would be more common in similar cases of organic amnesia.

    - Synaesthesia (the most common variety)

    Azila perceives sounds, including music and spoken words, as vivid and dynamic visual images, which may flash, change shape and float in front of her. This either a residue of the perception she had as part of the Tha'i'n, which, from what little she can say, appears to have been based on a global pervasive synaesthesia among all the senses, or a sign that her synaptic pathways were restructured wrong when her nervous system was trying to repair the damage (or both).

    From time to time, she may feel as if her senses were intermingled and "leaking" into each other, and this makes her world even more confusing and overwhelming; however, the synaesthesia has made it much easier for her to memorize words and to understand their meaning, and has helped develop a better understanding of poetic language and metaphor.

    Interestingly, new, unfamiliar words produce nothing but an abstract pattern associated with their sound, whereas for familiar words it will be overlaid with a rapid cascade of exact, definite mages, each of which represents a particular meaning.

    She also appears to have a rudimentary form of sound-to-motion synaesthesia where rhythmic sounds, such as the waves beating into the shore, are translated into a sensation of being swayed or rocked, especially at a high volume.

    - Excellent rote-learning ability and recall of memorized facts

    Includes quoting large sections of text verbatim.


    - Horrible handwriting

    So much she can't read it herself afterward. She is able to write in small, neat, bead-like letters if given plenty of time, but this causes pain in her wrist and fingers (her hand muscles are no longer meant to perform such fine tasks) and only lasts over the first three or four lines. Later, the letters deteriorate into an illegible tangle. The movement of her hand is frequently so forceful and fast that the pen tears the paper.

    - Poor verbal skills:

    Not all of her verbal ability has been affected equally. Her reproduction of text in a visual form (typed or handwritten) is perfect, almost phenomenal, and she has an extensive vocabulary. Her reading comprehension is unaffected.

    Her writing, on the other hand, is poor. She has what amounts to a severe form of dysgraphia and makes a staggering number of orthographic and syntactic, and, to a somewhat lesser degree, grammatical mistakes. They are the main reason why most of her attempts to write by hand fail (the other being her handwriting itself). When she types without switching on the spell-checking function, one can at least tell what the message was supposed to be, even if half of the letters in each individual word are wrong and the words themselves are out of sequence. To counter this, Azila uses an autocomplete/autocorrect program that enables her to type almost without errors, except for the occasional odd lexical choices where the software suggests the wrong option.

    Her listening comprehension is rather poor as well; the words may come across as unclear and blended together, and she has to ask one to repeat the sentence several times before she understands, which, along with her unnecessarily loud voice, has caused some to wonder whether she was hard of hearing. She isn't good at remembering oral text either.

    But it's Azila's spontaneous speech that has suffered the most. At first, her speech was a chaotic tumble of words that made no sense, and was best described as "word salad". Since then, she has made remarkable progress and her speech, though still full of errors and less than cohesive, can largely be understood. However, if she is overwhelmed or subjected to extreme stress (for example, while overcome with a strong emotion, or on the brink of sensory overload), it again deteriorates into an incoherent stream of mostly unmodified and misused words.

    In contrast, Azila is quite capable of reproducing phrases she had previously learned by rote without any problems, and uses them in casual situations as stock requests/responses. If one sees her communicating like this for the first time, one may assume that she isn't that different from most humans (neurotypical ones, at least), until one watches her for a longer period of time and realizes that she uses the same phrases over and over again, every day, and is lost whenever she is required to add anything new that had not been part of her pre-learned script; at that point, one may well think of her as almost robotic.

    The following errors are the most common:

    - using unmodified or insufficiently modified words (nouns in the nominative singular and verbs in the infinitive or imperative);
    - omitting articles, particles, conjunctions and other short auxiliary parts of speech not essential for conveying the main meaning;
    - dropping pronouns or confusing between them, inability to modify verbs for person;
    - tendency to use the equivalent of the present simple tense regardless of the actual period of time being described;
    - occasional neologisms, including those caused by the misuse of morphological mechanisms (e.g. attaching affixes to incompatible stems);
    - using words with the wrong meaning in mind, so they don't collocate (which is especially noticeable in the case of semantically close synonyms with only a subtle difference in meaning);
    - being unable to remember the correct word on time and using the second closest one with regard to either meaning or sound (this also shows in writing - she will start to write one word and unconsciously replaces it with another that sounds similar or has a related meaning);
    - severe difficulty arranging the words into a sequence and constructing a complete sentence, which results in a jumbled word order and sentence fragments that have no beginning and no end;
    - tendency to use passive or impersonal structures or shortened sentences with the subject dropped.

    Azila is conscious of this and usually limits herself to short, simple, even primitive phrases that don't do justice to her intelligence. One- or two-word responses are common: Yes. No. Why? How? Here. Leave. Out. Go. Move. Nonsense. Never. As paradoxical as it might sound, that way she is much easier to understand, and to talk to, than otherwise. She frequently chooses a single long formal word, often of the sort one doesn't hear in everyday conversation, where someone else would have used a colloquial phrase: "Abhorrent" instead of "I swear, I hate this"; "Incorrect" instead of "No, you're wrong" or "This is wrong"; "Objections?" instead of "You don't happen to mind, do you?", etc. Once again, these words are the first to come to mind when she speaks, and it's much easier for her to use one of them than to construct a whole sentence.

    In the best-case scenario, she uses a formal academic register with minimal syntax, where the sentences are clipped and limited, on average, to 1-3 words, and any auxiliary parts of speech are left out. Wherever possible, she retains the passive or impersonal structure, or else omits the subject. Imperative constructions are dominant. This enables her to be more exact and efficient with her speech and to inject maximum meaning into a minimal number of words.

    In social situations, she relies on pre-learned stock phrases to establish minimal contact and get her through the day, as recalling and reproducing them is easier than constructing her own sentences within a short window of time (however simple they might be). Often appears too formal, rigid and artificial as a result, such as when she will use the full formal greeting of "peace be with you" in a friendly setting.

    Uses pointing and other indicative gestures to fill out the gaps in her speech. When she describes an object, she may indicate its size or shape with her hands, as if tracing an invisible contour.

    Her use of pronouns deserves to be mentioned separately, as it directly reflects her thinking and her perception of herself and others. She often confuses between pronouns and uses them as randomly as any other words, but when she isn't too stressed, one can notice a pattern. She refers to herself in the plural as "we" and rarely uses "I", though she appears to be able to grasp the general idea behind the word. Unfamiliar, indifferent, suspicious or hostile persons are addressed in the third person as "he"/"she" or "this one here" (person she is talking to at the moment, as opposed to "that one there" - some other person who isn't present). If she begins to use the third person to refer to herself, she is on the brink of a breakdown. She has little problem with "you", but tends to reserve it for people she knows thoroughly and is attached to. In addition, with them she may substitute "you" with "we" because she sees them as inseparable from herself. There were numerous moments where she would say, we did this or that, and Initran was bewildered and wondered whom she had in mind, before he had the time to realize whether it was something done by himself, by Azila or by both of them together.

    In writing, she substitutes the word [self] in square brackets for "I" or "me", as a sanitized, less threatening version.

    - Poor mathematical skills.

    Borders on dyscalculia. Usually able to perform the simplest arithmetical operations in her mind, but it doesn't go further than that - algebra and anything more complex are beyond her. Has sudden mental blanks where she finds herself incapable of, say, counting the change at a store and has to give the cashier all the available money to select however much is needed, or have someone else help her. Likewise, she finds formal logic incomprehensible. She doesn't really understand philosophy, apart from practical ethics, unless it can be "translated" into images.

    Other people are often surprised at how precise and well-organized her thinking is when it comes to empirical scientific facts, or everyday life for that matter, even though she is so inept at formal logic and mathematics.

    - Disrupted sense of rhythm

    To be more precise, she does have a keen sense of rhythm as such, but is unable to synchronize her own movements or voice with it; as a result, she cannot sing, dance or so much as tap her hand on the table to the music at regular intervals. The only regular movement she is able to make is the flexing of the fingers and claws, which is automatic and doesn't require any conscious control.

    - Low sensory thresholds, problems with sensory processing and integration

    Whatever was said about the peculiarities of sensory perception in Ibrahim Tanko's subspecies also applies to Azila, with one difference: with her, it's twice as bad. Levels of sensory stimulation that are tolerable to an ihr like Ibrahim are enough to produce acute pain and disorientation in her. In addition, she lacks the capacity to process the sensory signals properly and to perceive them simultaneously as a single whole. When extremely stressed or exhausted, she may see the details of an object, but not the object itself; if it's a table, for example, she will discern the rectangular shape, the four long, rectangular legs, the texture of the wood, the particular shade of brown, the splinters around the edges, but not recognize this complex of sensory signals as "a table". At times, when in this state, she may lose track of where she is or what she is supposed to do because her surroundings have dissolved into a sickening and incomprehensible jumble (at this point, she is likely to have a violent meltdown).

    The problem is further compounded by the fact that, due to her T'elX wiring, she finds it difficult to identify any object or creature unless it moves, makes noises, touches her on interacts with her in any other obvious way.
    Hawa Najjar used to be a botanist and belonged to a caste of warrior-scholars. When she was 28, she lost touch with her colleagues during a field trip to a remote arid region and disappeared. Her uniform, bag, notebook and insignia were discovered among the rocks two months later. This much is known about the woman who used to go by that name.

    Hawa was found and assimilated by an entity known as the ath-Thayyis (self-designation T'elχ), which had a gestalt-type collective consciousness where each member contributed to the whole. The T'elχ were, or was, indifferent toward humans and their affairs, as long as they were left alone, although occasional conflicts were known to arise on the outskirts of their territory because they were unable to communicate with humans other than through assimilation. The situation was made worse by the inhabitants of the neighboring villages harvesting their edible substrate materials as a nurtitional supplement. Cases of human assimilation were not unheard of, but rare; most of those who were sighted as part of the T'elχ had been loners or outcasts and were assumed to have sought the collective species on their own and asked for assimilation. No-one could be certain what the T'elχ motives had been in taking Hawa. She may have been about to die of thirst and exposure, in which case they had saved her life, or she might have agreed to the assimilation – or, at least, her actions were interpreted as consent. Either way, unlike the subsequent de-assimilation, which still gives her terrifying flashbacks, the process wasn’t painful.

    Hawa’s state of being with the T'elχ can hardly be described in our terms, least of all by herself, but one thing is certain: she was happy. To this day, she remains devastated at the loss of the primordial unity and harmony she had been part of, and thinks of her current self as “broken”, a shadow or husk of who she used to be.

    About 15 years later, another human-T'elχ conflict occurred where the colony bordered on a more densely populated area. As usual, neither species could comprehend the other and didn't want to so much as try. The T'elχ were (was) neither aggressive nor expansive and made no attempt to assimilate anyone against their will, but humans saw them as a threat due to their sheer incomprehensibility; there was no telling what was going through their mind(s) or what they could do at any given moment. The T'elχ, on the other hand, were (was) wary of humans, whose reasoning they found just as suspect and strange. The conflict escalated into a fight where several of the T'elχ were killed and Hawa, who tried to protect them, was wounded and lost consciousness. The shepherds were reluctant to kill her, as she had obviously been like them once, but didn’t want to leave her where she was because they weren’t sure what she could communicate to the collective consciousness when she came round. She was brought to a xenobiology institute in a neighboring town, given treatment for the wounds and subjected to neurological surgery to sever the connection to the rest of the superorganism. At that point, with every inch of her skin, down to her lips and eyelids, covered in hard scaly integument, a mass of what looked more like thin tentacles or tendrils for hair and formidable claws on her fingers and toes she scarcely resembled the woman she used to be.

    Like any other T'elχ creatures, assimilated humans were not known to survive the separation, and the general expectation was that “it” was going to die, but "it” proved to be more resilient than anticipated. Hawa survived. At first, her body attempted to revert to its original condition, rejecting the scales on part of her arms, legs and face, which were then removed, and shedding the “hair”, which shriveled and dried up. New, somewhat more tame-looking hair began to grow from her scalp instead. Then the process of reverse assimilation stopped. The greatest harm was done to Hawa’s mind; she suffered extensive neurological damage, and, most crucially, her entire sense of “self” collapsed once she was severed from the main collective core. She spent the first several weeks almost without moving, lying down or sitting in a corner and staring off into the distance, or wandering around like a specter. She refused any food and drink and had to be force-fed. Unfamiliar sounds or sights caused violent meltdowns where she became agitated and attempted to attack anything within range. However, as the time passed, it became more apparent that she had retained some self-awareness and there was hope of reintegrating her into human society.

    After a while, a xenolinguist named Initran was assigned to decipher the alien language she spoke. He had recently lost his wife, the only person he could genuinely relate to, and latched onto the task - first in an attempt to distract himself from the grief, then because he began to feel a growing empathy for Hawa, whose world seemed to have crumbled just like his own. Her facial features made him think of his late wife, Sunim, as did her strong curious streak; like Sunim, who was killed by a stray bullet during a street shootout, Hawa was one out of many pointless casualties about whom no-one else appeared to care. At the same time, the greater part of Hawa’s personality was much like his own. Besides, unlike the other researchers, he seemed to have an instinctive sense of how her mind worked. Her responses were familiar and gave him a sense of painful déjà vu, as they reminded him of his own behavior as a young child (he was autistic, but, as the disorder wasn’t recognized in his society, he was never diagnosed and was merely thought of as “weird” and difficult). Eventually, Initran took Hawa home to continue to observe and look after her in a more secluded and comfortable environment.

    Over the following months, the two of them developed a strong connection, as people sometimes do when they are forced into an unbearable situation and have no-one but each other for support. With Hawa at his side, Initran drank less and took fewer senseless risks; with Initran’s guidance, Hawa was re-acquainted with the local culture and customs, developed better communication skills and learned to speak more coherently. Still, it was clear that she would never adjust well enough. Further neurological testing revealed that her nervous system could be restored to a human state by about one-third. Her knowledge of her own native language was at the lower-intermediate level, she spoke in infinitives and imperatives and failed to master the pronoun system even after a series of extended lessons. She continued to identify as T'elχ and wouldn’t answer to her birth name, because she could no longer connect it to herself and saw Hawa Najjar as gone forever.

    Initran couldn't help noticing the heavy toll his world was taking on Hawa. She may not have been killed at once by the initial shock, but the strain, isolation and homesickness were continuing to kill her a little every day, slowly, but surely. One evening, after a hair-raising meltdown, Initran told her that she should return where she belonged and drove her to the edge of the T'elχ colony. They said farewell to each other and Initran went home, relieved for Hawa, but uncertain what to do with his own life now that she was gone. In the morning she returned. She couldn’t explain why she had chosen to stay, but any attempts to convince her to rejoin the T'elχ were met with a resolute “no!”. At that point it dawned on Initran that she saw he needed her, and wouldn’t leave him. This was why she was trying, often without success, to learn to exist in a horrifying and incomprehensible world, in a state she saw as damaged. The insight left him shaken and he resolved not to give in to the grief-induced depression and try to be there for her.

    The decision helped Hawa regain, or retain, a measure of control over her life. The fact that she had stayed behind for Initran's sake, on her own accord, and wasn't being held against her will gave her a motive to adjust and was one of the reasons why she managed not to grow resentful or give in to despair.

    Repeated attempts were made to return Hawa to her social stratum. Her professional knowledge was intact; even as an alien drone, she could be a competent researcher if she wasn't pressured into regular informal interaction and was provided with a stable, quiet environment. She was offered a job as an assistant at a botanical garden and laboratory at a local institute, and then, after a gradual process of re-examination, promoted to a more responsible position. She was glad to accept the offer and proved to be a diligent and capable scientist. However, she failed to connect to her former self and did not embrace the lifestyle of her caste, as her superiors had hoped. She remembered being called Hawa Najjar and acknowledged that the woman was her, once upon a time and in some other, strange life, but wouldn't identify with her. Others had to address her as "of the Thayyis", "the Thayyis one", or as "third"/"number three", to which she was accidentally discovered to respond as well. Most importantly, she refused to be associated with a group trained for war, even if they didn't have to serve any actual combat duty and only tutored those who did. She was to watch and help living things grow, not to kill them.

    In the meantime, Initran came to share every aspect of his life with Hawa, except for one: the fact that he was part of a group, headed by Ibrahim Tanko, that helped locate and rescue those forced to fight in the civil war against their will. Initran wanted to keep Hawa safe and free of additional stress, and felt she was too ill-adjusted to the realities of his society to be able to participate. Hawa, on the other hand, was puzzled about his regular absences and his uncharacteristic evasive behavior whenever she would press the topic. She started to follow him quietly around the house and to eavesdrop on his telephone conversations, having no concept of privacy and no idea that such actions might be questionable. The next time Initran prepared to set out on a daytime mission, Hawa hid under the canvas tent in the back of the truck, driven by curiosity and concern.

    When the group reached the destination, Hawa followed them at a close distance. At first, the mission appeared to go as planned, but after a while things began to go wrong. Initran and the rest of the group were trapped in the corner of a ruined courtyard by a sniper. Hawa, who was in a slightly different position, realized that Initran was in grave danger. She climbed the half-ruined building where the sniper seemed to be, using her sense of smell to track him down, located the little room where he was hiding and engaged him. She intended only to disarm or disable him but broke his neck in the struggle.

    Initran was as grateful as he was furious. The thought that Hawa might have died made him realize just how much he cared for her. That she, for her part, cared just as much about him was obvious. In the evening, after she and Initran returned home, she became delirious, was plagued by vivid, almost hallucinatory images of the man she had killed and vomited all night long. Nevertheless, she was adamant that Initran was to go on these missions, she would go with him; how she felt, she said, was of no consequence - if she had to, she would get used to this too. She was trained as a soldier once and she would go through the same again.

    After this incident, Initran had no choice but to introduce her to the rest of the group as the one who, in all likelihood, had saved his life. Ibrahim, who already knew her as the "thing" that was staying at Initran's house and had one or two minor clashes with Initran and herself, hated her even more for interfering in the group's affairs. He did grudgingly acknowledge her courage and agreed to accept her after a prolonged and heated argument with Initran, but his dislike for her continued to grow for the same reasons that could have triggered empathy in a more sensitive person. He regarded her as a doppelganger or distorted mirror image of himself and treated her as a rival of sorts, because their personalities were incompatible. In addition, she was another loose cannon, along with Initran, who had never been stable to begin with and had been growing more unhinged since Sunim's death. She and Ibrahim had loud, less-than-coherent shouting matches which routinely drove him to frenzy. However, Hawa connected to the nurse Mbuta, who was just as averse to violence, and the warrior Seshaewin, who wasn't, but had had more than one lifetime's share of fighting and understood what it was like to be fed up. Both were of the same subspecies as Ibrahim and knew what it meant to be neither - nor, part human and part other, just like Hawa herself.

    Up to this point, she had been almost nameless. One night, when the question of a potential new name came up again and Mbuta suggested Azila, she responded as if already addressed. The superorganism used to know her, and she knew herself, as the Joiner Guardian, for which Azila was the best available equivalent. Initran was uneasy about her taking a function-based name, which he felt was no better than a number, but, faced with her fierce insistence, he accepted her choice, and he did have to admit that the name met the requirements raised by his traditional culture - it was meaningful and encapsulated the core or essence of her personality. Hawa Najjar became Azila ath-Thayyis.

    At the institute, Azila didn't get along with, well, anybody. Her poor social skills and forbidding demeanor drove her co-workers up the wall in all but the literal sense; that she also was on the verge of climbing up the walls wasn't readily visible. The other assistant at the laboratory, also of Ibrahim's subspecies, frenzied during the first half hour she spent around Azila, despite belonging to the clan considered to be the second calmest, and tried to cope by running outside and then acting as if nothing had happened. She frenzied again on the same night, after which she tried to hand in her notice and demanded that either she or Azila be transferred, else she wasn't to be held accountable for her actions. Afterward Azila approached her in the hallway and asked, in a characteristic blunt and ungrammatical way, why she was the last to learn about these outbursts, and whether the woman could describe her actual triggers so the two of them were able to work around the issue together. The woman was floored and didn't know what to make of Azila as a person. Most of the misunderstandings between Azila and those who hadn't gone through assimilation and back were of a similar nature.

    The general attitude toward Azila was less than kind. Interaction with her could be an ordeal even for the most patient and the frustration was more than understandable, but some of her co-workers' behavior was obnoxious and demeaning. She became the focus of their xenophobia and a scapegoat for their own complexes or difficulties in communication - the one who could be blamed for any problem or assigned tasks the others were reluctant to do, because she would readily shoulder the responsibility (more or less "go back to where you came from - oh wait, with you it's "serve the hive" anyway and you don't mind giving and helping without any further questions, so you might as well do something for us first"). For some, testing the scope of her social blindness turned into a daily game; they liked to see how many insults, teasing, sarcasm or talking over her head and/or behind her back she could take, or how direct the bully had to get before she noticed. Azila, for her part, was largely oblivious and refused to take any long-term offense when she did notice, despite the short outbursts of anger when she did notice, but the exhaustion and despondency continued to grow.

    With Ibrahim Tanko's group, Azila became very close. She came to see them as her new collective entity, though one with flawed links, and became more and more preoccupied with their safety and with the possibility that one or more of them might die as the time passed. This included even Ibrahim Tanko, despite their mutual antagonism; her sense of shared responsibility extended to him and she felt an obligation to protect him along with the others. Ibrahim, for the greater part, didn't reciprocate. The first and last time they connected in a deep and genuine sense was after Mbuta's death, which was a major blow to both. That evening, they sat in front of the fireplace for hours without speaking or looking at each other, glad to have each other's company and silent support.

    When their seaside town was occupied by human and not-so-human insurgents, the group found themselves defending a building that had just been vacated by over a hundred civilians, and stayed behind to engage and detain the enemy as long as possible to give them time to escape.

    Before they became trapped inside, Initran requested, then started to demand that Azila go with the civilians and help them cross the river to safety, but she responded with her flat, categorical "no". She was going to stay for him, for all of them, really, and wasn't going to leave no matter what the risk. By then, Initran had come to know her too well and no choice but to relent.

    The battle lasted throughout the night. During a clash with a group of insurgents on the second floor, Initran received a wound that was bound to be fatal. To a considerable extent, this was due to his lack of caution; in effect, the untreated depression had the upper hand and he committed unintentional, indirect suicide. Azila provided him with basic medical aid but both of them knew he would die in a matter of hours.

    Despite her severe aversion to violence, Azila had to fight again to protect him. At first, she was forced to draw the insurgents' fire and distracted them while Initran found a more defensible position. The smoke bombs allowed her to reduce with just a minor wound to her forearm, which she disregarded at first, and to return just in time to save Initran from an insurgent who was standing over him with a rifle, preparing to shoot him. As Initran grew weaker, she defended him against the insurgents about to break into the room. The protective feeling welled over into a blinding rage, and, when she came to her senses, she was standing over two dead bodies and there were more further away.

    When she came back, she found Initran unconscious. A handwritten note was lying on the floor nearby. He sensed that he would be dead or in a coma by the time Azila was back and they wouldn't have the chance to have that last conversation, and tried to be concise and direct. As he was drifting in and out of consciousness in a semi-delirious state, he had re-evaluated his priorities and revisited his life with a newfound clarity. He realized that those who called Azila his pet project and said that his main motive was to stroke his own ego - or told him that he was the one assimilating her right there and then - weren't entirely wrong. The thought had bothered him and he would stop to question his motivation more than once, which was why he hadn't made any worse mistakes, but, nevertheless, he had tried to mold her into something she could never be; even as he supported her, a part of him had fought against letting her be herself and grow beyond what he wanted and thought best for her. Now he felt remorse.

    In the note, he said he was sorry - she probably knew for what, or would come to understand in a while; that he was grateful for her being there. If she wanted to go home once the grief subsided and she finished mourning him in her present state, and he knew she had wanted to do so all along, then she had to. The bottom line was, he wanted her to be happy and whole, in what had become her natural state of mind, and while he was more than thankful for the self-sacrifice, it'd been more than anyone should be forced to give. Intentionally or not, the fact remained that he had been keeping her at his side, and it'd been killing her; he had been pulling her down alongside him as he drowned.

    Azila had had an epiphany of her own: as Initran was letting her go, so she, too, had to learn to let herself go. She realized it wasn't always wrong to admit that she was weak, worn out, disoriented, that she wasn't in the right place and would never be able to adjust to certain phenomena because they went against her nature. All her post-deassimilation life had consisted of her stepping on her own throat, forcing herself to endure with clenched fists and gritted teeth, pushing herself beyond the limits of her capacities, but she couldn't continue to do so - sooner or later, she was going to cave in under the pressure.

    Initran's note added clarity to that insight. She told him, although she wasn't sure whether he could still hear her, that she would survive the night and respect his wish, and that he would not be forgotten - if she was fully reassimilated, her memories of him would be distributed throughout the collective consciousness and passed on, even if they were no longer "hers", so in a sense he would survive as long as the T'elχ did. Shortly after, he died without regaining consciousness.

    Azila's memories of the next few hours were vague. She was devastated by the loss, all the more so that the night's events had required a tremendous effort on her part and sapped all of her physical and emotional resources. Now that the battle was over, the exhaustion caught up with her, and so did the wounds and the realization that she had taken lives. During the next six or seven hours she ran a high fever, shook from head to toe, broke out in a cold sweat and hallucinated.

    Some way or other, in the morning she found herself tending to the one human survivor and to Seshaewin, whose wounds were severe and life-threatening even for his subspecies. She could barely stand, her weak sense of self had been shattered and she was operating more on autopilot than otherwise - holding on because she still had promises to keep. The three of them were able to find shelter and Azila stayed until she was sure that both the human and the non-human were restored to full health. By then, she too had begun to recover somewhat.

    When the resonance struck, she was about to choose what to do next. She knew she would go home, but wanted to wait a little longer because she didn't want to bring in the acute sense of bereavement. While full integration was more beneficial, in that the healing would be complete and she would return to a familiar and welcome state, she did not want to forget - as in lose her private awareness, rather than the actual memory - of the past three years: being broken, struggling, gaining a loved one and mourning his loss. She wanted to retain her newly acquired human perspective and use it to help resolve some of the T'elχ-human disagreements. She had sufficient knowledge of human interaction to understand both sides of the conflict and act as a mediator, and would be able to use the two respective modes of communication. For that, she had to undergo a process of partial assimilation where she would be submerged and healed, but a segment of her new personality would be left intact; this was possible, but hadn't been practiced for centuries.

    However, the resonance didn't affect Azila quite as much as one might expect. After she had first lost her home and her community, and, in a sense, herself, and then the one person for whom she would stay behind, there wasn't much left to lose. Not a lot has changed; the new dimension wasn't that different; she was surrounded by the same individuals who were just as broken as herself, but, unlike her, knew no other mode of being and took their fragmentation for granted; as before, she found herself persevering against the odds, except that going home was no longer an option even for the distant future. That last part is the hardest. She misses the colony more than ever; in comparison to the past, the present looks increasingly dismal, and the future, more so. If she encountered a similar collective-sapient species with a capacity to assimilate, she would join them. Of course, this would never be the same as those fifteen years, and not "home", though close enough, but she would be able to keep her promise and fulfill Initran's last wish - perhaps even be useful as she was planning. The other difficult aspect is the fact that she is more lost than ever before. She has no group to identify with, no people for whose sake she would want to survive and adapt. Still, as in the past, she continues to do what she does best - persevere.

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    Ibrahim Asimu Tanko
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    Body language - other peculiarities:

    Azila doesn't shake hands. Normally, she doesn't stretch out her hand in the first place, but if another person does try to shake it due to some misunderstanding, she may take serious offense. The act of rubbing fingers and palms is sexually charged and has a profound intimate meaning to her, and, as such, is a form of foreplay or at least special gesture to be reserved for her mate. She and Initran would massage each other's hands on a regular basis and eventually turned it into a unique private ritual of their own, almost an art - a dance performed with their hands only. Since Azila remains faithful to him to this day, she isn't keen on the thought of repeating that gesture with anyone else.

    In the most likely scenario, she will perceive an attempt to shake her hand as making sexual advances on her - perhaps nothing short of outright sexual assault. She will throw off the other person's hand, in a rather violent way, and respond with an angry "Leave be!", "Hands off (us, this body)!" or just "Hands!" - her tone and manner will make it quite clear what she is referring to.

    When addressed, she doesn't turn around or look at the other person or acknowledge their presence in any other way, which makes it difficult to determine if she'd heard one or not. Those who were familiar with her knew they had to continue talking and not pay any attention; the best strategy was to start doing something alongside her and speak as one worked, without raising one's head. Just standing there and waiting for her to respond may provoke a rude-sounding question like "What do you want?", "What are you doing in here?" "Why are you here?" or a statement like "So, talk" because she will see one as a strange, disturbing, undesirable presence. If you continue to linger, expect to be escorted out in the most unceremonious manner imaginable and have the door slammed behind you.

    On the other hand, when overcome with strong emotion or excited about the topic, she may stare directly into one's face. She looks at the middle of the forehead or at the lips and the tip of the nose, not into the eyes, and doesn't really see the other person, being too absorbed in what she wants to say. The same happens if she tries to establish artificial eye contact because she's been told it was more acceptable; she can't tell when to start or stop and holds her gaze too long, which often feels uncomfortable. Hence the accusations of "staring people down".

    Ironically, it's her who feels humans are staring her down. Initially, eye contact was such a traumatic experience she had a meltdown when she saw her own eyes in a mirror, and though she has grown a lot more used to it over the years, other people's eyes are still frightening - she perceives them as bottomless pits or vortices that threaten to pull her in. She makes extensive use of her (excellent) peripheral vision to avoid it whenever she can (which comes across as "squinting" or a "sly/suspicious sidelong glance"), or, when she can't, looks at the other parts of the face instead.

    If she wants to concentrate or is about to say something significant, especially in the emotional sense, she stares down at the ground or over her shoulder, or, in some cases, turns around, takes a few steps away from the other person and talks with her back turned to them. Far from being a sign of contempt, this is an indication that one has her full and undivided attention and she wants to filter out any potentially distracting or confusing signals that might distort the message.

    At times, she may not greet the others if she is the first to enter a room, or return someone else's greeting. She knows that this is one of the accepted rules that must be followed, and reminds herself to do so, but from time to time, she may forget because it's unnatural to her. She has no innate sense of when this has to be done, and her internal instinct tells her it's pointless - someone has come in, apparently for a reason, otherwise they wouldn't be there, she has heard and smelled them approach, so why announce oneself once more rather than start talking straight away? This is one more reason she is thought of as rude and unresponsive.

    Azila has no sense of physical boundaries, and none of the instinct that tells us not to touch other people without their permission. This was a serious problem during the first three or four months after de-assimilation, when she was prone to what amounted to the roughest and most rude form of manhandling - she would shove people out of the way, grab them by the shoulder or forearm and force them to turn around to see the direction she was pointing in. If told to "bring someone in", she hauled them in like a sack of grain; "seeing them out" meant pushing them out of the room as if they were a prisoner or detainee, or presented a security risk. Whenever she wanted to feel the texture of someone's skin or garment, she would reach out and run her hands over their faces or hair, or grab and hold onto their clothes, rubbing the fabric between her fingers.

    When she was told that such raw physicality was unacceptable, she went to the opposite extreme. These days, is reluctant to engage in any physical contact, even when she is close to the person and the circumstances call for it, because she is unable to tell from the context whether or not it'd be welcome and appreciated and, just to be on the safe side, prefers not to do anything that might offend. On occasion, one can see her reaching out to place a hand on someone's shoulder or knee in reassurance, and then go still, uncertain of how to continue; unless she hears an explicit statement of consent, like "go ahead, it's fine, you can touch me", she is likely to pull it back. People who were well-acquainted with her would tell her outright whether they wanted to be touched or not, and in which specific situations, to make sure she knew how to act around them.

    In addition, some of her body language comes across as supremely confrontational, even when she is calm. A good example is her habit of cornering people - after entering a room, she will start to advance on somebody in rapid strides until her chest almost touches theirs, tilting her head to the side at an angle that suggested a threat or aggressive desire to prove a point, and making what seems to be sustained eye contact. The other person ends up pressed against a wall, feeling as if he or she were about to be attacked. To an observer, Azila's movements are identical to those of a cat engaged in a nose-to-nose yowling match with a contender for the same territory just before a fight breaks out and the two roll down the road locked into a screaming ball with tufts of fur flying in all directions. Another example is her walking right up to another person, almost making contact with them, and giving them a head-to-toe look as though she had X-ray vision; a little longer, one thought, and she would order one to remove one's jacket, turn one's pockets inside out and raise one's arms, and pat one down as a security guard would have done during a strip-search. Still another is her slow circling around someone else, scrutinizing them from head to toe, as if assessing how much of a security risk they posed; again, this came across as predatory and ominous, and more than one person reported sensing her stare on their back in a way that brought shivers down their spine. The unsettled, insecure feeling would usually persist until she was gone from the room; her presence was so intimidating it made one shrink into one's shell.

    After she was explained how unpleasant these behaviors were and what a strong negative response they produced, Azila has made every effort to eliminate them. However, when she is too anxious or concerned about her friends, or in some other state where she cannot fully control her actions, all her social self-conditioning vanishes and they surface again, to her own frustration and that of others.

    She has no innate sense of the natural dynamics of a conversation - where a phrase starts and finishes, or where the natural pauses are situated between phrases. When she tries to join in, she usually interrupts; when she tries to show initiative, she hijacks the conversation, bending it in a single direction (such as one of her narrow specialized interests), not letting the others contribute or talking over them when they try. In some cases, she may simply cut the conversation short, and, once she does, it's discontinued and dies. 

    She is gradually getting better at turn-taking. When she does speak out of turn, she backs down and apologizes; if the words won't come, she raises her right hand in a placating gesture that can be read, more or less, as "sorry, didn't mean to break in on your conversation, please continue". Most of the time, she prefers to listen to others, letting them do the talking and choose the topics at their own discretion, and goes along with whatever they may decide to discuss. 

    To her, our body language conveys a disconcerting message best summarized as "welcome to the realm of chaos and miscommunication". Our gestures and speech are erratic and lack co-ordination. Subconsciously, she expects our movements to be synchronized, like those of the T'elX constituents, which looked like a slow, mesmerizing underwater dance - understandably, since they functioned as a single mind and their wills were merged. Instead, our movements hint at a state opposite to the one in which she had spent fifteen years and still holds up as the ideal: we seem to be disunited, isolated, fractured on the inside, in other words, as broken as herself. Rather than talk in unison and finish each other's sentences, as the T'elX would have done had they been able to speak - they had no vocal chords and no need to use audible speech among themselves, but they thought as one and would have talked as one if they could - we throw disjointed fragments at one another, interrupt all the time, and use so much white noise it tends to drown out the meaningful parts of the discussion.

    This disturbs her to the core. As with most other things in the world outside the T'elX colony, she forces herself to ignore this sense of a dire lack of harmony and cohesion in the minds of individual humans and in their social structure, and to mimic their body language to fit in; but the feeling itself never vanishes and is there, at the back of her mind, and demands an ongoing and concerted effort of will to overcome.

    Some of our non-verbal signals bother her on a more basic instinctive level. We bare our teeth in what seems to be a threatening or mocking grin; our faces contort into grimaces; we wave and toss our hands around in the air in a disordered manner that doesn't make much sense. Others may look like a feeble, last-resort attempt to compensate and establish at least a shadow of a connection in the absence of a genuine strong link; for example, when people constantly turn to face each other and make excessive eye contact, they appear to be fishing for affirmation and reassurance in a rather forced, artificial way.

    One human response that appears particularly bizarre to Azila is weeping; as a biologist, she is perfectly aware of the mechanisms behind the tear production, but instinct tells her there is no purpose in shedding water from the eyes, as this much fluid isn't needed to moisturize them - and the connection to strong emotion, which is so self-evident to ourselves, is lost on her.

    Other personality traits worth noting:

    Uncompromising, categorical:

    As summarized by the popular phrase: which part of the word "no" don't you understand? In her case it's quite literal - she often uses a blunt, categorical "no" (or "never" or "nonsense") to terminate a conversation if she believes the debate is going nowhere and is a waste of time, or there is nothing left to discuss.

    Azila has been described as a person who recognizes only two opinions on any given issue - theirs and the wrong one, which is an exaggeration, but does contain a grain of truth. Her opinions are not just firm; they have a final, indisputable quality. She may take a while to formulate her position as she prefers to collect and evaluate any available evidence first, but once she does, she is virtually impossible to persuade otherwise. If one wishes to argue with her and is capable of working around her limited verbal capacity, fine - but one has to be prepared for her digging in her heels very, very deep and refusing to budge, and for having to admit defeat.

    This is amplified by the fact that Azila is often unaware of how forceful she is in conversation. Her manner of making a neutral statement qualifies to others as "pressure"; what is a cool, neutral discussion to herself appears to the rest of the participants to be an unpleasant fight at a raised volume. The resulting impression is that of a person who plows through like a tank rather than attempting to find some middle ground between herself and the opponent. Azila, for her part, expects others to respond with the same degree of force and to stand their ground, and is perplexed when they back down and feel trodden over instead. Most of the time, she certainly isn't conscious of coming across as exceedingly argumentative and assertive, even aggressive.

    In a casual conversation this can easily be remedied by pointing out that she was coming on too strong. She will be quite attentive and do her best to find out how she was supposed to act - whether her voice was too loud, what she could have said to be more polite and so on. It's this that causes a lot of daily confusion for Azila and those around her, as the trait tends to be mistaken for disrespect, a desire to dominate or be deliberately rude, and is left at that. With serious issues, however, Azila prefers her stance to be as clear and unequivocal as possible and doesn't make concessions.

    Dislike for idle or sentimental conversation:

    Azila is a woman of deeds, not words. As such, she finds the discussion of feelings, at best, awkward, redundant or inappropriate, and at worst a profanation of what the words were supposed to stand for. She believes that emotions are to be lived out, not described, and, ultimately, words can never be enough to convey them - not in their genuine depth and significance. Love is to be proved by practical action, from minor everyday assistance to major self-sacrifice; beauty is to be contemplated in reverent silence. When a co-worker kept pestering her about how wonderful the clouds looked in the evening sky without really looking in that direction, she took him by the shoulders, turned him toward the window and said: "Shut mouth and watch". Likewise, the l-word was never passed between herself and Initran so much as once, though their actions made their feelings for each other apparent.

    Part of this is that there had never been any need to voice feelings among the Tha'i'n - they were just there, freely circulated among all the co-constituents and experienced in the most immediate form imaginable. As a consequence, the very act of articulating her emotions feels wrong, and, when she does have to discuss them, if only because she and her group can no longer read each other's minds, she is unbelievably tongue-tied and may use startlingly poetic-sounding turns of phrase, which aren't figurative in the slightest - they are a direct description of the complicated synaesthetic sensations or mental imagery that comes with the given emotion.

    Sentimental romantic conversations anger her and give her the psychological equivalent of the indigestion and heartburn one may get from too much refined sugar. So do most conventional signs of romantic affection. Once again, it's all about talk - with the participants throwing around a word whose true meaning they do not know and won't bother to find out - but there are no visible results. She is also convinced that sentimentality thrives where there is no genuine strong emotion and people conjure shallow, fake feelings out of thin air - most of the time, they will start a storm in a teacup, magnify it to the level of a class 5 hurricane and wallow in the consequences, none of which is sensible.

    She regards small talk as a thorough waste of time. It's a luxury she can't afford, as she barely manages to make herself understood even on crucial matters, much less chit-chat about everything and nothing. She knows the value of words too well - among other things, because she has to struggle for every single one of them, and because each clearer, more coherent sentence is a challenge and a minor victory to be won. She would rather they had maximum weight and significance, if they do have to be used, and not be thrown around in vain. From that point of view, talk for its own sake appears to be an act of gross disrespect, almost a sacrilege.

    Direct, open to discussion:

    Almost too much. This is one more trait that adds to her perception as difficult and annoying. In the past, her incessant questions about ordinary everyday realities everyone else finds self-evident and her curt one-word requests, which sound more like commands ("repeat", "rephrase", "clarify", "explain", "elaborate"), have produced many raised eyebrows, rolled eyes and fingers twirled at the temple.

    Upon some reflection, though, one realizes that this does minimize miscommunication. Azila's reasoning is clear: since no-one in here can read minds, thoughts should be spoken out loud, which will allow the parties to make allowances for their respective species-specific peculiarities and compensate for whatever crucial element of human communication she can't comprehend. If one is prepared to do just that, the result can be surprisingly good.

    Owing to this, despite her reputation as rude, abrupt and unpleasant, Azila can be easy to work with, provided one is just as forthcoming and prepared to ask and answer plenty of questions. She prefers nothing to be left unsaid, and thus unresolved, and is glad to co-operate even when this means considerable stress or frustration tp herself, as long as everyone else does the same.

    Whenever she finds herself in a novel context, she will ask a lot of questions to establish clearer boundaries - for instance, to see which distance she should maintain from the others or which volume of her voice would be the most comfortable, and, in general, to determine which behaviors would be acceptable and desirable or objectionable. If she is assigned a task, she will try to find out as much as possible about the exact details: what, where, when, how, with whom. If something doesn't seem clear enough, she will request an explanation; if that doesn't suffice to eliminate the ambiguities, she will go for a second opinion and then a third; if she disagrees, she will argue her point. When she artives in a new working environment, she always tells her co-workers that, should they have any feedback, such as wishes, complaints or remarks, they should state them outright. If she finds someone's motivation dubious and is concerned that there might be deceit or coercion involved, she will say: sorry, don't understand, state your intent more clearly or/and in more detail or leave.


    The "asexual" tag at the top of the profile is not quite accurate, as Azila is capable of a healthy, mature sexuality, but only when she is in season. Once in every five years, she has a period of intense, uncontrollable hormone-driven sexual activity that lasts several weeks. The first one occurred when she was in a relationship with Initran, but had to be suppressed with heavy doses of medication because the massive hormonal upheaval was too dangerous for her nervous system; otherwise, she would have wanted to pursue a full physical relationship with him. Initran, for his part, saw that she didn't want anything beyond foreplay and did not pressure her to go further.

    Out of season, she is capable of nothing but a subtle sexual feeling toward a significant other, which is tinged more by emotional closeness than anything else. Her relationship with Initran retained a subtle erotic shade throughout the three years they were together, and involved a lot of physical affection. In general, though, she is completely insensitive to sexual triggers, even the most blatant ones, and has no sexual drive whatsoever. She knows no lust. Physical contact remains is comforting, but doesn't cause her to become excited even if her (bare and sensitive) thighs are caressed. Indecent or suggestive imagery doesn't inflame her imagination or cause any sexual sensation; most of the time, she simply shrugs her shoulders at how excessive and odd it is when viewed through a sexuality-free lens.

    Similarly, she doesn't know any self-consciousness, shame or other inhibitions connected to the body. She doesn't care or notice how much, or how little, of others' skin is covered by their clothing and can strip in the presence of a stranger without second thoughts to bathe or change; she feels nothing, either about the stranger or her own nakedness. She doesn't usually do that in the presence of third parties because she is aware that public nudity but she doesn't have the internal barrier that normally prevents one from doing so. In fact, during the first post-deassimilation year, she could have come out into the street stark naked and taken a walk through the town, wondering why everyone was staring at her. Neither did she quite understand the preoccupation of Hawa's native culture on modesty and dress codes, or the controversy over the modern mass media being inundated with images of half-naked or scantily clad females - she doesn't see the point in putting them there, but neither does she feel what makes them so provocative. To her, nudity is thoroughly neutral, a mere matter of undressing when it's warm enough and no extra clothing is needed to ward off the sunlight and heat, and bears no sexual significance. At the same time, she may admire a beautiful male - or, for that matter, female - body for its features or proportions, as she may have admired a flower, without any arousal or desire to possess that person sexually.

    In season, her mind grows clouded, she might not comprehend or so much as recall her own feelings afterward, and may assault anyone she sees as a prospective mate or an obstacle to her search for one. In effect, she acts like two completely different people in and out of the mating periods.

    When the second mating period began after the Resonance, when she had found herself in this dimension, she was able to procure some hormonal and anti-psychotic medication from a nurse she knew and barricaded herself in the basement of an abandoned house. During the third one, which is somewhat overdue and may start at any moment, she will probably do the same. The state poses too much of a risk, and even if it didn't, Azila is a monogamous person at heart and finds the thought of sexual activity with anyone other than Initran repulsive. While their relationship was not consummated, in the sense of their not having had sex, she honors the commitment, which in her mind equates to an unspoken marriage vow; needless to say, she doesn't want to betray Initran behind his back, however unintentionally, all the more so that he is gone forever and wouldn't be there to find out what happened and forgive her.

    All in all, her attitude to sexuality is sober and rational. It's a a natural phenomenon, no more and no less - biological, social and psychological necessity dictates that people form family units, have offspring, use sexual unity to enhance and complement their emotional connections. Why so many are obsessed with sexuality, often with a morbid and unhealthy twist, and are bent on bringing it into every other sphere of social life is beyond her.

    She won't notice the subtler indicators of romantic interest due to her insensitivity to non-verbal signals. If the attempts at flirting are so apparent she does recognize them, at which point they will probably resemble molestation and stray into the realm of the unacceptable, she will reject them in a forceful and unambiguous fashion. In other words, the male will be shown where the exit is, in the most direct sense of these words, and, in the event that he has trouble finding the door, he will be taken there with or without the optional verbal message: Mate gone. No need for new one. Out.

    Prominent quirks:

    - Likes to lie half-buried in the sand (which, to others, may be ice-cold or burning hot). This reminded her of the past, as a hefty portion of the Tha'i'n organisms burrowed and she may have had to do the same and to spend some time in underground caverns.

    - Has odd preferences when it comes to scent, taste and flavor. She likes the smell of tar, creosote bushes or wet leather, but vanilla is more or less like gasoline to her. That said, she can use vanilla in her cooking because she is good at determining what it does or doesn't combine with, and is able to distance herself from her own dislike toward the flavor. Likes foods commonly thought of as disgusting or inedible.

    - Enjoys cooking and is good at it, but only interested if she can make a meal for someone else. Gladly samples the food offered to her and is obviously curious about the flavors and their various combinations, especially if they are unfamiliar, but thinks of cooking for herself as a useless indulgence and a waste of time, effort and quality food.

    - If she can help it, she doesn't venture outside without an mp3 player and a pair of headphones, which are an item of necessity for her, rather than a non-essential leisure product. The music serves as a buffer between herself and the immediate surroundings, and, as such, helps her focus on her thoughts and tones down some of the worst sounds in the street, which would have otherwise produced an acute reverberating pain ripping through her body and may have triggered a meltdown (house and vehicle sirens, horns, motorbike engines, wheels splashing through the torrents of water after a downpour, the shrill beeping signal that sounds when en entrance card is used to open a secure door or when the doors of a bus are about to close).

    Prefers classical music, a-capella folk songs or Gregorian chanting, all of which remind her of the joint "song" woven from the thoughts of the T'elX constituents. Chooses large around-the-ear headsets, which can be used to dampen sounds even when the music isn't on.

    - Her intense curiosity and fascination with her surroundings manifests in the most hands-on way imaginable: she has a compulsion to touch various things with her finngers, to feel them, trace the edges or outlines with her fingers. She will take small objects into her hands, turn them this way and that, stroke them, examine them from closer up, and it's not uncommon for her to sniff or lick them to sense the smell and taste or to feel the texture with her tongue. At first, this included others' faces and clothes, before Initran told her that she shouldn't touch them because most humans would see such behavior as insane and a gross violation of boundaries.

    This seems to offer her enhanced and disordered senses a greater certainty about the environment, helps her feel more focussed and establish firmer boundaries between self vs. non-self.

    Seshaewin once said with his usual good-natured humor that she could be just like a three- or four-year-old, in that she cannot be left unobserved because there is no telling which inedible or toxic thing she might well lick or put into her mouth next.

    Being indifferent to the cold or damp and not susceptible to the usual discomfort at touching the bare soil, she likes to sit or lie down on the ground while out of doors. Tends to look completely out of touch with her surroundings and lost in her own world when she does, which is an illusion; the postures have a spontaneous, random, childlike quality and are something you would expect to see from a 7-10 year old. May climb into the lower boughs of a tree and sit there or lie down and let her limbs dangle.

    Has an unusual reaction to extreme swinging or spinning motion that lies at the limit of her body's capacities. Instead of the more commmon thrill or unpleasant sensation (prolonged and serious loss of equilibrium, vertigo, vomiting, disorientation), she experiences a deep sedative effect. At least in part, this is due to the fact that the neurons in whole areas of Azila's brain are in a state of permanent agitation, along with her reduced sensitivity to vestibular stimuli, which appear to work together to produce a paradoxical response. The overall result is a marked, though temporary, improvement in her emotional and neurological condition.

    Azila is fond of gravity rides featuring some form of rotation and upside-down turns (roller-coasters with different inversions) or those based on rotation around a vertical axis (twist and/or pendulum varieties), and approached the authorities at least once with a request to use a training centrifuge for pilots and persisted until she was granted access. She emerged feeling almost serene for the first time in months, as well as pleased to have found a way of alleviating the chronic anxiety. When no such special opportunities are available, she is content with an ordinary children's swing, which she can use for hours at top amplitude and speed.

    She finds any rocking motion on the whole soothing. Initran's favorite tactic for bringing her out of a meltdown was to hold her as tight as possible, sometimes after a struggle, and to rock with her back and forth, humming the refrain from a song his mother had used during his own outbursts when he was six or seven. The repetitive movement and sound would dull the acute dread, reduce the panic, make her surroundings more stable and comprehensible, and, in general, created a greater sense of security and calm, as did the sensation of his warm arms wrapped around her, which reminded her of being inside a cocoon (she would usually bury her face in the folds of the robe on his chest or under his arm to enhance the feeling).

    Self-medicates during the bouts of melancholia by going to the seaside and listening to the waves crash into the shore. The steady rhythmic sound reminds her of the thoughts of the Tha'i'n constituents, which were like a loud, melodic, overwhelming chorus, ebbing and flowing in waves; it calms her down and brings her at least a little closer to her old self. On a quiet evening after a storm, when the sea hasn't settled yet, the beach may feel almost like home. Ordinarily, she is sensitive to loud sounds, but here, on the contrary, the volume seems to enhance the calming effect, which is the most prominent when the sound becomes a deafening roar and rips through her body.

    Loves classical choral music for the same reason: it reminds her of herself and her co-constituents weaving their thoughts together into a single "internal song". Mozart's "Requiem" became a revelation to her - the emotional force and beauty of the music was comparable to the mental chorus she had lived with, and contributed to, for fifteen years, and the mood mirrored her own now that she was far from home.

    While one cannot say she is claustrophobic - in fact, she finds dark, tight, small enclosed spaces comforting - she is uneasy indoors due to the inorganic environment, which screams "wrong" or "foreign" to each of her senses. After all, she spent fifteen years in the Tha'i'n colony, where the walls literally breathed (and, sometimes, photosynthesized) and the floor underfoot could be a source of food. Likewise, the geometry in human-made buildings seems strange and primitive to her compared to the sophisticated "gardens" of organic structures back home.

    - If she can help it, she doesn't venture outside without an mp3 player and a pair of headphones, which are an item of necessity for her, rather than a non-essential leisure product. The music serves as a buffer between herself and the immediate surroundings, and, as such, helps her focus on her thoughts and tones down some of the worst sounds in the street, which would have otherwise produced an acute reverberating pain ripping through her body and may have triggered a meltdown (house and vehicle sirens, horns, motorbike engines, wheels splashing through the torrents of water after a downpour, the shrill beeping signal that sounds when en entrance card is used to open a secure door or when the doors of a bus are about to close).

    Prefers classical music, a-capella folk songs or Gregorian chanting, all of which remind her of the joint "song" woven from the thoughts of the T'elX constituents. Chooses large around-the-ear headsets, which can be used to dampen sounds even when the music isn't on.

    Psychological issues - trust these to be systematically and, to use Mbuta's words, obnoxiously swept under the rug until she has a complete nervous breakdown:

    - Social anxiety

    Suffers from crippling social anxiety, which rises when she has to deal with more than two people at a time and/or to talk to strangers, and peaks if she has to participate in an event along with a large group. It's not the presence of others that makes her uneasy; if they were able to communicate on her terms, she would have been at ease in the middle of a crowd, but the problem is, they can't or won't. As a result, social occasions offer her little in the sense of establishing any genuine connection, but a lot as far as sensory overload and embarrassment are concerned. She knows that she is expected to follow certain rules and wants to do so; at the same time, she isn't sure what most of them are, or, if she is, she is unable to apply them. This causes a constant concern and preoccupation with whether she is doing the "right thing" and with what she may be supposed to do instead.

    If forced to interact outside the prescribed rules, in a novel situation where the "protocol" is unknown, she may go into a state of internal shutdown where her feelings fade into a white void and she loses track of herself or her surroundings and just stands there like a statue. At first, she would "vanish" or get shorted out like that several times a day. Later, these states became less frequent, but she still has moments when her head is swept empty, cleared of thoughts, and she is left at a complete loss what to do or say (what Kraetschmer used to call "standing frozen in your tracks in the middle of the road with your arms hanging at your sides, like a living question-mark").

    Understandably, she hates public speaking, both because of the anxiety and because she is all too aware of being poor at articulating her thoughts. A situation where she needs to address an audience of three or more is bound to produce a full-blown panic attack, complete with the vegetative symptoms (palpitations, sweating, sudden weakness, shaking, rapid shallow breathing). In spite of all this, is known to have delivered at least two public presentations and maintained such excellent composure throughout that she seemed to be just "edgy" or "slightly nervous" on the outside. She took great care to prepare in advance, learning the text word-for-word and creating outlines with strategies to return her to each point if the train of thought breaks due to extreme tension, and endured the fear by disengaging from the emotional component and treating the rest as if it were a transitory physical ailment.

    When plagued by anxiety-fuelled obsessive mental imagery, her mind resembles a faulty video player that has become stuck on the same section of the tape: it plays the same images over and over again, and, try as she may, she is unable to press "pause" or "stop". Often, her mind will go over the visual "record" of a situation she believes she handled in an awkward or wrong manner, first playing back what she said or did in actual fact, then what she might or should have said or done, and repeating the whole sequence again and again. The same may happen in the initial stages of a depressive episode, while her thought processes remain more or less active, in which case the images are connected to the most meaningful moments she had shared with Initran and Mbuta, their deaths, and the hallucinations she remembers from her delirious periods.


    The T'elX term for Azila's condition had two shades of meaning: extreme nostalgia - an unconditional and irresistible yearning to be back home, with one's fellow constituents - and the neurological syndrome caused by the severing of the connection with the collective entity. No clarification was made as to which of the two was terminal; each, on its own or in combination with the other, was recognized as such.

    From the perspective of our psychiatry, she could be said to have what used to be called classic or vital melancholia (known as "black melancholia" in French or "green melancholia" in Russian). The core feelings that define this state are a deep sense of loss, sorrow and longing that are unconditional and not connected to any external events; they exist simply because so does she. She longs to see the colony and to hear the chorus of her fellow constituents in her mind. The guilt for the deaths of Initran and Mbuta and what she perceives as her failure to do her best by them, or her betrayal of them, grows to inordinate proportions. The feelings of internal fragmentation and deficiency increase to a point where she views herself as thoroughly useless, even for simple mundane tasks like cooking or doing the dishes. In addition, there are prominent physical symptoms, such as shortness of breath and pain or/and pressure in her chest, comparable to having her upper body clamped in a tight steel vise, being strapped to a bed with a wide leather belt, or having a large nail driven into her midsection.

    Taken to the extreme, all this produces physical and mental paralysis. Azila becomes genuinely incapacitated; the flow of images in her mind grinds to a halt, she can't focus and feels hollow, devoid of thought, comprehension or emotion. Her movements become slow and lethargic, and eventually cease altogether.

    The condition never lifts completely, but it tends to worsen over periods for three to five months at a time. The onset of these episodes is sudden and occurs "on its own", without a traceable connection to the events in Azila's life. One day, she may be relatively well, but within the next 24-48 hours she can hardly move. They tend to resolve just as quickly, with rapid, almost overnight improvement.

    She is reluctant to tell anybody about this state, and, even if she did try, and would be unable to articulate it. If pressed by a friend, it's the somatic symptoms she will describe first, adding that everything is not as it should be, or used to be, that things smell, taste, look, seem "wrong". On occasion, she has said that she could not think or concentrate, that she was weak as water or felt empty, and compared the way she felt to being turned to stone or frozen on the inside.

    Decompensation/response to stress and increased feelings of vulnerability or internal fracturing:

    Becomes belligerent, insists on proving her point when no-one has intended to argue about it in the first place, acts on the principle of “attack is the best defense”;

    Grows more volatile, has brief, but intense outbursts of anger where she may actually shout others down;

    Unintentionally shows more emotion than usual, most of which is negative or non-definable and feels invasive, threatening and/or overwhelming to others on a subliminal level;

    Becomes even harder on herself, focuses on mistakes or misguided decisions (or what she believes to be such) and obsessively dwells on them while refusing to share what is on her mind;

    Suffers from an uncontrollable influx of thoughts and mental imagery connected to potential problems, obstacles or possibilities of failure;

    Becomes exceedingly critical, judgmental and closed-minded;

    May become intensely negative and succumb to a dark, desolate vision of the future.
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  1. Once again, thanks a lot. I think I have an idea as to how the sight/synaesthesia combination might be used, although it's pretty vague at this point and I'll have to sleep on it for a few days (or weeks) before I know for certain.
  2. So sorry, the font looked larger on the cellphone and I hadn't double-checked the post from the laptop. I've just changed the size to a more reader-friendly one. And thanks so much! I probably should go over the site notes again. It's been a while.
  3. Ah thanks, I didn't realize I had left that ambiguous. I've changed the race to veil-crosser. I would rather not make her an altered human in the Resonance-specific sense, as this would mean having to introduce additional changes to the character. Neither would I like her to have any magical abilities as such; hers is a unique physiology with a few moderate advantages offset (or, rather, altogether outweighed) by the one massive disadvantage, but I don't really see her as having powers not grounded in her bodily organization. Not quite my genre, I guess.
  4. Thank you so much for the response. I'm not sure the word mutation would be appropriate here. The color vision could be either a characteristic of the collective species who took her, once upon a time, and turned her into one of their own, in which case her photoreceptors would have been altered during the process of assimilation, or an accidental result of the neurological damage she sustained when she was severed from them (which may or may not not have followed the same course as comparable neural degradation in humans because of the vastly different physiology). To be honest, I was thinking more in terms of the disadvantages. I'd say she is already unable to perceive her surroundings normally - "missing" spoken language by 1/2 or more, risking going into shutdown from sensory stimuli of moderate intensity, including traffic noises and bright sunlight, or having difficulty converging sensory detail into the cohesive image of an object is not normal for any species - and the deficient or unusual color vision would take the lack of normality to a whole other level. In the narrative the character originated from (still in progress, in the final stages by now), this is a major plot point. In effect, she was incapacitated by the separation and would have had to return to her kind for reassimilation in any case, regardless of how the events might have unfolded, simply because she would have died otherwise. In that respect, she is the opposite of rogue drone characters like Seven of Nine on ST VOY or Frederick in "The Madness Season" in that she cannot survive outside of her collective (as in, literally), knows she belongs with them and misses them, but decides to stay separate on her own accord (because "others before self" - drone mentality, one might say, but in the better sense of those words). The perceptual disturbances would make it difficult to function on an elementary day-to-day level, which is a major part of her character development - we have had her grow as she adapts to an alien society and struggles with the practical obstacles waiting for her at every corner, often forfeiting her comfort or well-being in the process, and eventually achieves a balance between adjustment and self-sacrifice, on the one hand, and basic self-care on the other. Once again, the visual deficiency would give an additional dimension to this. At the end of the day, I don't really think I will use the different color vision on the site, as it would entail a layer of complexity that is best left out, but it's always helpful to have some third-party feedback all the same. That's an interesting idea, though I'm not clear on what exactly you have in mind when you say "magical". The reasons why we gave her the chromesthesia was that a) it appears to be particularly common among those on the autism spectrum and I happen to have it myself. This is why I'd rather not alter the "color profile" of the two names; the associations are my own, and while in theory I could attribute any color values I choose to the sounds, it's very difficult to ignore the imagery drifting in front of me as I write. It's a constant distraction and I don't think it would be worth that extra effort. (Of course, the human Hawa Najjar might have been a synaesthete as well, what with sound/color synaesthesia having a prevalence of 1-3 in 100 or so among the general population, but at this point it is almost irrelevant what she may or may not have been like) Insect-like receptors could mean many different things depending on the particular species of arthropod you have in mind. If these are honey bees, she would have some receptors for UV wavelengths, but none attuned to the red portion of the spectrum, which would render her incapable of distinguishing most warm hues (red, rust, brown, ochre, orange). This is not really plausible, as differentiating between hues in this range would be necessary for survival and normal functioning in a habitat dominated by brown and rust-red rock, especially considering that the species had the same coloration due to the need for mimicry. Butterfly-like vision is more probable, but once again, there are plenty of different varieties to choose from. If you take the Japanese yellow swallowtail as a model, she should be a pentachromat with red, green, blue, violet and ultraviolet receptors; if you take the common bluebottle, she should have a group of three or four receptors for the green and blue sections of the spectrum, respectively, which would enable her to identify some exceptionally subtle hues of these two primary colors. I've been thinking about giving her an amalgam of the two, but haven't decided on the details yet. This is important for the narrative; the exoskeletons of her species came exclusively in shades of brown, ochre and rust-red to allow them to blend into the environment, with some concealed violet markings, and appeared homogeneous and bland to humans, but if you saw them as one of their own, you would realize that the markings were a lot more sophisticated and beautiful and that there were other iridescent patterns elsewhere. The same would apply to Azila's exoskeleton, which would seem to be a boring umbre brown to the human eye, but, in actual fact, would have UV-reflective whorls. I do have trouble thinking of Azila as faerie-like, regardless of whether or not she has insect-like vision and photoreceptors, but that might be just me.
  5. Hello everyone, I have a technical question regarding Azila’s color vision. I’ve been thinking about giving her an ultraviolet photoreceptor, which would cause her to see a different world compared to most of us, in the most direct sense of these words, and would add more ground for potential miscommunication. Furthermore, it would enable Azila to detect the ultraviolet markings on insects and flowers, which are invisible to us unless viewed through a UV-filter, and which might have been present on the integument of her own species, her own as well as that of the native, non-assimilated Tha’i’n, as an ornament or an additional means of mutual identification. Apart from being able to see UV light, she may lack one of the usual three receptor groups (red, green, blue). There are a few considerations I had in mind: She sees her former name, which, in effect, is not hers anymore, as a brilliant sky-blue with a bluish-green blob and a slight metallic tinge on the entire image. These are bright, pure colors with positive connotations, but they belong in the background – one would associate them with the sky, the sea and certain types of vegetation. She sees her present name as scarlet with some darker red and droplets of metallic gold or saffron orange. These are singular colors, which stand out and attract attention, and in many cultures they have associations with royalty and power. Her favorite color is a brilliant lettuce green. I’m very open to any suggestions as to how one could play around with the color symbolism, considering the fact that the color of her new name does not have to coincide with her favorite color and that she could be unable to perceive either of these two colors in her surroundings. If she has ultraviolet, blue and green photoreceptors, as bees do, she would be unable to see the colors she associates with her current name, along with any shades of brown, rust-red and orange. However, this is counter-intuitive as the colony was situated in an arid region where these shades were predominant, so she would require an ability to discern them to be able to function. If anything, it’s far more plausible that her red photoreceptors would be more diversified than ours, enabling her to identify a greater number of red and brown hues. Of course, she might have been a tetrachromat or polychromat prior to de-assimilation and developed the color vision deficiency as a result of the neurological damage. If she has ultraviolet, red and blue photoreceptors, she would be unable to see her favorite color and would perceive vegetation as a velvety black – an uncanny, bizarre and potentially depressing effect. I would greatly appreciate any feedback because every new perspective allows me to see the character from an angle I wouldn’t have considered by myself. Thanks!


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