The Walking Mirror of the Soul21 min read

My desire was written all over Halcyon’s torso, a shimmering tattoo composed of my thoughts and the Vonkrai’s crusted skin.

{Tell Vitória you know.}

Luckily, we were alone in Teresa Station’s investigation room, so no one could read it. I was uneasy, palms sweating, tapping my feet on the floor. Normally, I met Vonkrai in restaurants, in the sightseeing deck or in the human-Vonkrai gatherings and conferences to restate our decade-long commercial and cultural partnership. In those places, their bodies were scrawled with everyone’s thoughts in a mess of unidentifiable and overlapping scribbles translated from human minds to Vonkrai bodies. Latin, Gujarati, Hangul, Cyrillic, Nsibidi, Arabic, and dozens of others from the Teresa Station human population. Mingled with our bulky and confusing thoughts, the Vonkrai’s own dot-like script were scattered all over their bodies, words and logograms hopping from body to body, untraceable even for those who knew how to read Vonkraish.

But now, my mind glared back at me from their body like a damn accusation. It was hard to even follow the Detective 101 tips, like maintaining eye contact and interpreting body language. On the other hand, those things wouldn’t really work with Vonkrai—or they would be hard enough even for me, Isabela Cardoso, Teresa Station’s only investigator.

I tried to think about something else instead of my fiancée—the case, think about the damn case you’re being paid to solve—so that those words were replaced, but they didn’t shift. I shook my head and shifted my gaze from their body back to my comm-pad, skimming over the case’s file.

“Halcyon, can you repeat for the record what you saw in the market district?” Halcyon was my interviewee’s chosen Earth name. Each of them picked one for the health of our relationship, just as we picked aliases in their language.

“Repeating,” Halcyon said. I should be counting my blessings. Less than four percent of the Vonkrai had learned any of the Earth’s languages, but Halcyon knew Portuguese. “A male human with a knife stabbed the victim, grabbed an object, ran.”

I nodded, peeking at the picture of the dead man on my comm-pad. His mouth was puckered in revulsion, his eyes popped open in a frightened expression. José Braga, a medical supplies vendor from Lorenzo Station who had recently acquired a stall in Teresa. Seemed like a simple case of robbery with homicide. It’d happened in the market district, where the off-station goods flowed in and out. And wherever there was money, there was greed; and where there was greed, there could be bodies. The only witness? Halcyon, who was crossing the district at the time to the quarters deck, where they spent half of each month.

“Did you say you were eating caldo verde at the time?” I said.

“Answering: Yes.”

I licked my lips. The environment module of Teresa was probably operating at lower levels of humidity. Or maybe I was getting nervous with the job (which wasn’t common, but, hey, my fiancée had plans to move to Vladimir station and hadn’t even told me about it, so I had the divine right of being overly sensitive).

“Okay …” I sighed. I peered into Halcyon’s eyes, as if I could glean anything else from there. Nothing but the usual glint. Having evolved in the Goldilocks zone of their system, on a planet roughly the size of Earth with a similar atmosphere, the Vonkrai were like humans if you looked at them from a certain angle but extremely different if you looked from every other angle. They had our humanoid bodies as a distant resemblance, but theirs were rough like a stone and had a flinty periwinkle tonality, like an untouched vein of amethyst. Their eyes ranged from pitch to crystalline waters, their voices from whispers to drumbeats. Halcyon was a quiet one who spoke softly and hardly moved on the chair. If Halcyon were a human, I’d say they were extremely shy.

Notifications popped up in the corner of my pad’s screen. Two… Five… Seven… Work time was work time, but only Vitória sent multiple messages in a row.

I tapped on the most recent message.

[Vitória:] Maravilhosa, can u bring pastel for dinner?

[Vitória:] From Queijo Supremo.

[Vitória:] And some soda 🙂

[Vitória:] And u. <3

[Vitória:] Sorry, many messages. I know u don’t like that much.

[Vitória:] Just 1 more, I promise to stop hitting Enter.

[Vitória:] I have something to tell u.

“Asking: can I go?” Halcyon was staring at me.

I blinked at them. To my surprise, the words on their torso had changed.

{Don’t break my heart, please, please.}

The pleases were curling around their side, blurry like smoke.

All the possibilities of Vitória leaving Teresa churned in my head. I’d proposed to her six months ago. We’d planned to purchase a spacious cabin in habitation… And now she was planning to leave and would tell me this over soda and cheese pastel. Great. Just great.

And I still had a murder to solve.

“All right, Halcyon.” I stood and turned off the pad’s screen. “That will be all for today. I may have to contact you again.”

“Asserting: you can contact me again.” Halcyon stood, half a meter taller than me.

For now, I had to worry about my yet-to-come-or-maybe-never-will-come marriage. And pastel.


Ironic how our thoughts fluttered back and forth from our friends’ bodies, and how, through them, we found out many things about ourselves. Vitória said they were the walking mirrors of our souls. In a station like Teresa, with a half human, half Vonkrai population, it wasn’t rare to find yourself in an elevator with a Vonkrai only to realize what you really wanted. It’d been on the plummy skin of a Vonkrai that I’d discovered I wanted to propose. The words—I need to be one with her—glistened on their body when I was strolling in a biosphere garden with Vitória. She’d chuckled when she saw those words on the body of a passing Vonkrai, flaunting above other, feebler thoughts. I never told her that thought was mine.

Also ironic how I found out, six months later, that Vitória was planning to leave me: I unintentionally eavesdropped on her conversation with her boss. She was in the mining business, in a management position coordinating the operations in Orthal. And I knew that out here, mines depleted and the business moved from place to place as easily as ships transporting goods from Earth. I just didn’t think an engagement could deplete as easily. I’d thought of questioning her that day but decided that the announcement should come from her.

After leaving Halcyon and the investigation room, I shoved the murder back into the corner of my mind and bought us seven pastéis: three cheese, two shrimp, two veggies—our right proportion.

I set the pastéis over the dinner table in our rented quarters, hands shaking, heart pounding fast, and waited for Vitória to arrive. I knew what was coming, right? Our first serious fight after the engagement. She’d want to go to Vladimir. She’d have been offered an excellent position there, in that corner of the galaxy, in that tiny, sulfur-stinking station half a year away from Teresa. I wouldn’t be able to go. There was no need for a detective in a place with a hundred souls and a zero percent crime rate. And there was no way we could cope with that much distance. We’d have to cancel our wedding. We’d have to cancel the plans for our cabin. We’d—

“Hey, maravilhosa,” Vitória said when the doors slid open. Joyful enough for someone who had something to tell.

I nodded and pursed my lips just out of habit. She leaned to kiss me, bringing in her scent of soft vanilla with traces of silver ore. I fluttered all over, and, for a split moment, I was ready to give up the work I loved to live with her in that ungracious station. She just needed to ask. We could talk, right? We could arrange middle grounds for our relationship. It was expensive and tiresome to spend months hopping from station to station, but it was feasible.

Vitória took a bath and put on her pajamas, a loose shirt with pictures of Orthal. She had her locks tied up in a bun. We ate the pastéis, talked about our days—I told her all about Halcyon and how I had already investigated a list of suspects but couldn’t come to a conclusion. She told me how Orthal mines were depleting and how the drillers were just perforating hollow ground. I listened attentively, waiting for the moment when she’d spill out that she was going to leave. We had filled our bellies, but the moment didn’t come.

“Vicky.” I didn’t want to be the one to bring up the subject, but I didn’t want to read the suspects’ files with that part of my day still unsolved. “You said you had something to tell me.”

I scanned her all over like I did when I was interviewing. She flinched, and I forced a smile.

“You don’t need to look at me like I’m a suspect, maravilhosa.” She grinned, but her eyes evaded mine. “What I want to tell you is that I found a gorgeous VR rack set for our new cabin.”

Liar. I almost said it out loud. How I wanted to have a Vonkrai standing upright in the room, their naked body flickering with Vitória’s real intentions.

“Why the grumpy face?” she said.

I rubbed a finger over my brow and shook my head.

“Just a rough day. I’m used to dealing with black markets, not murders…”

She stood and set our plates aside on the sink. Her avoidance just made things worse. I thought we could count on each other, share our desires… Maybe it would have to wait. Maybe she wasn’t ready to tell me yet. I wasn’t okay with that, but I could go on.


When we first met the Vonkrai, twenty years ago, the anthropologists called them telepaths because our thoughts were transmitted to their bodies in ways we didn’t grasp. But it wasn’t fair to call it telepathy. They weren’t consuming our thoughts, reading them, listening to them. They’d only knew what we were thinking if they read their own bodies or those of their fellows. Which they never did, or, if they did, never cared enough to pay attention. What they actually did was expose our thoughts. Leave us naked. So the proper term—in my personal, unscientific definition unbacked by peers—was that the Vonkrai were gymnopaths. From the Greek γυμνός (gymnós) meaning “naked,” and πάθος (pathos) meaning “feeling.”

It was my day off. I stood with Halcyon in silence, gazing at the sightseeing kilometric panel in front of us. I could still see my thoughts distorted on their body through the glass reflection, slowly rippling like waves made up of letters.

{You proposed to a liar.}

Luckily, the sightseeing deck with the sun rising over Orthal was packed with people, and among my thought was at least another dozen, the fiercest ones in people’s minds.

{I hate this dry air.} {Take me to dinner.} {I love him so much.} {My side hurts; I should visit a doctor.} {Orthal is a gray ball of ugliness, but the blues of this sun are the most beautiful thing.}

Of course, I’d thought of that before calling Halcyon for a walk. Everyone did when meeting Vonkrai, so sightseeing decks, restaurants, and markets were the ideal places. After we humans met the Vonkrai, much was discussed to rethink space station laws. In the end, the wisest decision was to not change anything that would jeopardize the relationship and compartmentalize humans and Vonkrai in different categories.

“What is it like for you?” I asked. I’d brought caldo verde for them. Turned out that Vonkrai loved human food, and Halcyon had told me they were a huge fan of my hometown food—Rio de Janeiro—in particular. I’d brought the caldo verde so they knew I wasn’t there to interrogate them, to talk about the murder. Besides, it would be unethical of me to do that kind of questioning without a proper procedure. I was there only as a colleague living on the same station, and it was about time I went out with a friend. I wanted to keep a healthy distance from Vitória, give her the space she needed to think about her decision. “I mean, in your home, how did you feel reading each other’s thoughts all the time?”

Halcyon sipped from the caldo verde bowl.

“Asking, instead of answering: how do you feel not reading each other thoughts?”

“Sane?” I grinned at them. They didn’t notice. “I mean… there are times I wish I could just peek over someone’s thoughts. It’d make things so much easier. But still… knowing that anyone could know what I’m thinking. It’s creepy.”

The blue sun completely rose from behind Orthal. The glass dimmed so our eyes wouldn’t hurt. I thought of inviting Vitória to come. But that would be cheating, forcing her to walk alongside Halcyon so I could try to peek at her thoughts through their body. I still wanted to peek at mine, though. To know what I should do. In a way, being with a Vonkrai was like meeting the vidente at the beach back home, talking about the lines of life stamped on our hands like unreliable maps to our futures. Only the vidente in the Vonkrai’s body was actually your own mind, speaking through words stamped on the bodies of a friend instead of this mess up here in my head.

“What is the definition of thought for you?” I said. “For the Vonkrai?”

“Answering: this is a concept you introduced to us.”

“But… how is this possible? You must have a word for it. Anything… You’re conscious beings, you’re rational, you assemble ultrafast sub-light engines. What is the word for everything that happens inside your head when you’re not voicing these things?”

“Answering: objects.” They clinked their knobby, nailless finger on the caldo verde bowl.

“Objects? Like… a bowl?”

Halcyon nodded.

“But we can’t touch our…”

Halcyon slid a finger over the words leaking from their shoulder to their arm. {This doesn’t make sense}.

“Okay. You got me there.”

“Asking: what is thought to you, to your kind?”

“Your question makes me think you already know the answer. But here it goes: it’s the result… the response of internal procedures within our brains and external stimuli of the world around.”

“Asking: how was this bowl created, if it were made by a manufacturer?” Halcyon leveled the bowl with their eyes. They didn’t wait for an answer. “Explaining: this bowl would be the response of an idea in your head, which would require the employment of external matter and external actions to be real.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but I had no words.

“So thought for you is… the final product of a process. Like anything else.”

Halcyon said nothing. Instead, they passed a finger inside the bowl and licked it.

What many cognitive psychologists and physicists speculated was that thoughts were made up of matter too. Since thoughts are several complex connections fired by our neurons, they’re therefore energy, encoded by ions and molecules that have mass. And this mass, in the form of invisible and still undetected particles, might discharge from our bodies to aggregate on the Vonkrai’s. How did they coalesce to form up words in the thinker’s language—or abstract lines in the case of a baby’s thought? More mystery than finding a murderer. But there was still a huge gap between considering thoughts as matter scientifically and sociologically. I couldn’t even begin to imagine humans treating them as objects in our environment.

Humans never visited the Vonkrai home planet. Vonkrai never visited Earth. It was in our agreement for the time being. All our interactions happened on Orthal and its moons, and in the stations across the system. However, some Vonkrai had already described aspects of their culture. Their intimate relationships were utilitarian from our point of view. Thought wasn’t private, so in a romantic relationship, there wouldn’t be lies and secrecy, games of love and seduction, overthinking and daydreams. Or if there were, they functioned in a completely different way than it did for humans. When in multitudes, though, things probably worked differently, as their thoughts became jumbled in a sea of bodies. In that case, they probably behaved more like humans. If thought was like an object, like Halcyon said, then in their view it was like seeing a car pass by: in a very small town, you probably knew who it belonged to; but in a metropolis, it was just another car.

“Asking: Why don’t you talk to her?” Halcyon was looking at their own reflection on the dimmed glass in front of us. Orthal was but a faint gleam compared to my thought, which now had swerved to Halcyon’s chest. {I think I’m never going to marry her.}

“I— It’s…” I clenched my teeth.

My comm-pad beeped. I flipped it out of my pocket.

[Vitória:] Maravilhosa, you left earlier than usual today. Anyway, I’m bringing maniçoba.

Her tiny face was smiling, her hair falling over her shoulders in curls. The day we took that picture, we’d eaten Ethiopian food in a cozy place and discussed our wedding. We wanted something simple, small, and unreligious, but we wanted gorgeous dresses.

I folded the comm-pad back into my pocket.

“Halcyon…” I touched their arm. “What do you do when you know something you’re not supposed to?” But I knew they didn’t grasp anything regarding the privacy of thoughts, so I rephrased my question. “Would you feel bad poking into someone else’s thoughts?”

“Asking, instead of answering: Is this about the murder?”

I hesitated, then nodded. It was about the murder too. My work was all about acquiring information that I wasn’t supposed to know. The only difference was that I often did that with people I had no feelings for, many times with people that did bad things. I didn’t tell Halcyon that I was talking about Vitória.

“Explaining: What we define as thought is part of us, parts we’re exchanging with the world around all the time. If a Vonkrai wants secrecy, then we must be without others around.”

I nodded, squinting at the rising sun over Orthal. My thought was plastered over Halcyon’s chest, almost a litany of what they had said, lost amidst other people’s thinking.

{We’re exchanging parts of us.}


Vitória brought maniçoba for dinner. But it wasn’t that day she decided to tell me she planned to leave. Nor in the next one or the next. A week went by and each time I caught her eyes in our increasingly quieter nights, her gaze repelled from mine. On the bed, her skin quivered and bristled slightly when I touched her.

And each time I thought of her, my chest sank.

I should tell her I knew about her plans. We were exchanging parts of ourselves, right? So I decided: I was going to come clean with her. And perhaps everything would be fine. It had to be, right? We had clasped our hands together when I clumsily slipped a ring on her finger. That day, we had cried and made love all night long. We had shared our deepest desires and secrets. How could anything with those foundations ever go wrong?

There was a way of being one hundred percent sure of Vitória’s intentions without requiring intrusive knowledge of her thoughts. It was pretty simple and had been whirling in my head ever since I talked with Halcyon in the sightseeing deck. I called Vladimir Station Mining Hub and asked them if Vitória was registered in their files. I was an investigator in the system, and though I only had the authorization to act on Teresa, I had clearance on other stations for matters of investigation.

And, yes, Vitória was there, registered with Vladimir Station Mining Hub, only waiting for her first day of work. I didn’t ask which day it was. Not because I wasn’t curious, but because I was frightened. And angry, yes—a hand shaking on the edge of my bed, the other gluing the comm-pad to my ear. If Halcyon was there right now, he’d be swarmed with twinkling Whys. Knowing Vitória was registered in Vladimir wasn’t the issue. Knowing she had arranged a first day to start working was what hurt.

When Vitória arrived later that day, I’d managed to re-sew the tatters of my composure, but she noticed right away there was something wrong. I stood in the middle of the living room with my hands in my pockets.

She frowned at me, probably noticing I’d been crying. She was carrying packed food. Lentil soup. It smelled of station-simulated wintry days, watching recipe videos together.

“When will you leave?” I asked, abruptly, surprising even myself. And if I wasn’t sure before, even with all information I’d gathered, I was now. She opened her mouth and laid the packed dinner on the table.

“I’m not going to leave.” She was harsh, dry, her lips grim lines.

“I talked with Vladimir Mining Hub. I overheard you the other day, saying you had plans to move to Vladimir. Most of all, your eyes have been eluding me.”

“You—what?” Her mouth hung open. “If you overheard anything, why didn’t you talk with me straight away?”

“I can ask you the same question. Why not tell me right off the bat?”

Silence filled the room. We stood like this for what could’ve been a minute—or a year. The lentil soup aroma quickly wilted into the blandness of staring at a grey planet outside the window.

“I’m not one of your suspects…” Vitória said, voice hoarse in her throat. “I hate when you treat me this way.”

“And I’m not one of your… ores…” I said, anger boiling within me, palms sweating. “…to be used then discarded.” I felt like a kid coming up with that comparison. And deep down, I hoped to be wrong about her decision. I hoped—wanted—to be crazy.

“Yes, my head is a mess right now,” Vitória said, loosening her hair from the bun and pressing the tie tightly in her hands. “I was offered a very prestigious position at Vladimir. All I ever wanted.”

I crossed my arms and nodded, waiting for her to proceed. It was as if I’d unlocked her mind, not unlike I often did with criminals in interrogation rooms. I had a bad taste in my throat. I sat, so I stayed at the same level as her.

“They’d pay me better, and I would be doing what I really want to do.” Vitória’s eyes were downcast, fixed on the floor. “I’d be coordinating all mining operations in that sector of the system and could one day be coordinating all operations in the system itself. That’s great, isn’t it?”

She fidgeted with the packed lunch.

“Of course I accepted it,” she said. “Wouldn’t you? If someone offered you a position as the head investigator of the entire system? Well, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. Don’t need to know what’s deep in your mind unless you want to tell me.”

I bit my lips and looked down, a kid washed in shame. Vitória didn’t remove the laminated paper from the soup. Instead, she picked up a card that was in a plastic envelope right beside it.

“You know what else would be great?” she said. She was crying now. I hadn’t seen her crying for a long, long while. The last tears I’d seen running down her cheeks and gently lying on her lips were the tears of joy when I proposed. “It’d be great to send it all to hell, because there are other things that were all I ever wanted.”

She slipped the card on the table, but I already knew what it was. The key to our cabin.

I stood and stepped back, suffocating a shriek of frustration.

“And you know what isn’t great?” Vitória said, finally looking back at me. “Not trusting each other.”

I sat on the couch, evading her gaze.

The presence of the Vonkrai among humans was enough for our thoughts to conform and veer into a certain direction. Perhaps with them walking among us, we wouldn’t think the same things we would if they weren’t there. But it didn’t matter. They were there and wouldn’t cease to be. They had changed the way we viewed our own minds and ourselves, and we probably did the same with them. In fact, we did that all the time among ourselves, subverting and squeezing and molding our thoughts depending on who was around us. Our thoughts were objects, but of a viscous kind, shifting and swishing all the time.

I couldn’t stay anymore. I had Vitória’s thoughts weighing on my mind, a bulky, voluminous mass that didn’t belong there.

“I’m sorry…” I muttered. Then I stood and left.


The three main suspects in the investigation room stared at me. Ralf Molina, Erivaldo Nascimento, and Carolo Gomez. All three had committed other crimes in Teresa before, all related to the market district. All three had been questioned by me before. I didn’t care which one committed the crime. I just wanted to rent a capsule bed and induce myself in cryonap for about three days. I did that sometimes, in pre-Vitória times, when I wanted to forget everything and wake up later as if from a bad dream.

“Come on in,” I said, opening the door. Halcyon marched in, wearing a beige overcoat. “This is a friend of mine. Their name is Halcyon.”

All three suspects widened their eyes at Halcyon. Ralf frowned, probably deducing what I had in mind.

“Do you like clothes now?” Carolo asked, pinching his lips.

The first thing humans tried to do when we established a friendship with the Vonkrai was to convince them to wear clothes. It wasn’t due to any kind of puritanical guideline, but because we were too horrified to peek at our thoughts, our privacies, our deepest and most disturbing desires plastered on the rocky purple of their skin. When we realized they wouldn’t get dressed to cover our thoughts, we managed to garble their skins by maintaining several human teams with Vonkrai teams, so we couldn’t read the imbricated thoughts of ten or twenty people at the same time. But Halcyon had agreed to wear an overcoat today. It was their way of thanking me for the caldo verde.

“You have committed crimes here in Teresa,” I said to the three men. “You have robbed, blackmailed, smuggled goods to other systems, and brought illegal stuff from Earth. You made a mess here. Carolo and Erivaldo have already served sentences in the Moon Socio-Educational Complex. Yet, you’re always back, always here. Still doing nasty stuff. But killing someone? I thought you had at least a code of conduct within your shady businesses.”

“Detective,” Ralf said, stooping over the table. “If I can—”

“Shut up!” I was acid. After our brief confrontation last night, Vitória had left for Vladimir. I spent the night in a hangar-deck hostel, staring at my comm-pad’s screen, waiting for notifications, eyes dry and awake, the after-scent of Vitória’s perfume—that protective, cuddly vanilla mixed with that vile, rifted scent of mines—still teasing my nostrils, pulling me out whenever I dared to doze off.

“One of you will go from this room straight to the Moon,” I said in between my teeth. “And maybe the others will go as well. I just don’t care.”

Ralf opened his mouth but clamped his lips shut when I threw a furious look at him.

“Halcyon.” I turned to my friend. “Please, take off your overcoat.”

Halcyon gave me a look, as if asking if I was sure. I nodded, but I wasn’t.

They unbuttoned their overcoat.

I closed my eyes.

It was also the outcome of a process. Our engagement. It required the employment of external matter and actions to become real. In many ways, all I’d been through with Vitória was a thought. From our first meeting when I was investigating a case of corruption in Teresa Mining Hub to our first night together, eating pastéis—what else? We were but the slivers of an idea then. Only a year later we would become a full thought, ripe with interconnected neurons firing up: a rented quarter in the habitation deck, plans for a wedding and a cabin of our own, and memories of how the other talked, moved, smelled, and tasted.

A thought I dared to shatter.

I turned around and glanced at the three suspects without looking at Halcyon’s body. They were gaping at it, though.

“You’re free to go,” I said. My work was to collect evidence. Thought wasn’t evidence. “I will conclude this investigation at a later moment.”

I waited for them to leave. Only then I looked at Halcyon.

{I only need my own thoughts.}

The words were tightened along their torso, hardly wavering.

“Asking: Why did you do that?”

“I can’t commit the same crime twice.”


We found out many things about ourselves by staring at Vonkrai skin. They were the walking mirrors of our souls. But we found out even more staring straight into another human’s body. Gazes and gestures and mannerisms and laughter and the way you slipped a ring into someone else’s finger… All thoughts plastered over our own human bodies, all the time, flustering in chaos and confusion, longing to be read and interpreted, matter all the same.

[Isabela:] I’m sorry for what I’ve done.

It was the only message I sent to Vitória, five months after questioning the suspects and three months after concluding, without the need to read someone else’s mind, that Erivaldo Nascimento had murdered José Braga.

I didn’t expect an answer from her. I didn’t even expect she was receiving my messages. Perhaps she had me blocked straight away, making of her transference to Vladimir a clean slate.

Seven days after the message, I was doing paperwork when notifications popped up in a row in my comm-pad.

And there was only one person who sent messages like this. And only one person who made all my body bristle at such a speed.

[Vitória:] My workmate is Vonkrai, can u believe?

[Vitória:] And I don’t even need to see the words glistening on their body.

[Vitória:] I mean, to know what I want and need right now.

[Vitória:] Call me. Let’s talk.

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