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EP363: Flowing Shapes

By Rajan Khanna
Read by Josh Roseman
Discuss on our forums.
Originally appeared in Basement Stories Issue 1 (2010)
All stories by Rajan Khanna
All stories read by Josh Roseman
Rated 17 and up for sexual situations

Flowing Shapes
Rajan Khanna

Part One: Contemplation

The human came to She Shalu on the Day of Flowering Awareness. Damo met him near the Still Garden, the fumes of the exiting shuttle mixing with the sharp spice of the tall, white twizak plant. Damo wore a humanoid shape so as to minimize the stranger’s discomfort.

Damo studied the human with the practiced eyes of a Synan. Dark hair covered his head and parts of his body, and he was sleight of build, despite the solidity of his form. About 1.7 meters tall. His features were mostly smooth, bones prominent, eyes with the barest hint of a slant. A mouth surrounded by full lips.

“How may I help you?” Damo said, trying to sound gracious.

“I came to study Wan She,” the human said.

Damo felt his features flow with his astonishment. Perhaps he had not heard correctly, or his translation module was malfunctioning. “I am sorry,” he said. “Wan She is the Path of Flowing Shapes. It is a Synan practice. Humans, being incapable of shifting, cannot practice it.”

The human smiled, revealing straight, white teeth. “I know. I’m writing a book,” he said. “But isn’t it true that the first stage is concerned solely with contemplation? Surely that is not beyond a human.”

Damo stifled his urge to shift in response to his unease. Uncontrolled shifting was against the teachings of Wan She. “That is true,” he said. “But Wan She is a path. Not a series of distinct teachings. To step on that path is to begin a journey.”

“All I ask is that you let me speak to your Tanshe. Let him decide.”

Damo was all too willing to accommodate the human in this. Let the Tanshe decide. It certainly saved Damo the trouble of having to assimilate this odd request.

“Please follow me,” he said.

He led the human through the Still Garden, inhaling the heady scent of it, delighting in its exoticness. Most of the students overlooked the Still Garden, and in doing so missed out on one of the true beauties of She Shalu.

They moved through the pearlescent designs of the sanctuary’s hallways to the Tanshe’s bubbled door. “Wait here,” Damo said, then entered.

The Tanshe was in an original form, multilimbed, eyeless, lacking both ears and nose. Turning inward. Her bright amber skin was splattered with black inky spots. She looked up as Damo entered, eyes appearing from inside her face. Damo let his features droop in the customary manner. “Tanshe, there is a human to see you.”

The Tanshe’s features flowed and shifted until they were almost exactly a human’s. “Send it in,” she said. “And wait outside.”

Damo’s skin settled. He was not to be involved in this discussion. It was good. The Tanshe would deal with it and send the human away. Damo did as the Tanshe asked.

He waited outside, letting his features relax into the default Synan shape. He’d worn the humanoid one as a courtesy, and because it was polite and expected, but he disliked it. It was distasteful. Too firm. Too set.

He waited for some time, then the door bubble opened. He quickly shifted back into his humanoid form and turned to face the human, now exiting. “She told me to send you in,” the human said.

Damo looked at the human’s firm, immobile face. So alien. So disgusting.

Damo entered. “Yes, Tanshe?”

“I have decided to accept the human’s request to stay with us.”

“Tanshe?” Damo’s features wavered.

“I believe it will be beneficial for us,” the Tanshe said. “He is to be placed with the other novices in the First Stage. He will write about the Path. He will be an observer.”

“Yes, Tanshe,” Damo said. Despite his disagreement, he knew better than to question the Tanshe’s will.

“There is one more thing,” the Tanshe said. “You will review the writings he will make on a regular basis and make sure that they are fair.”

“Me, Tanshe?”

“Yes. I am far too busy to do so myself, and it must be someone trustworthy. You are on the path to Tanshe. And I do not think it coincidence that this human presented himself to you. You will do this, yes?”

“Yes, Tanshe,” Damo said, because there was little else he could say.

“Good, then you may begin. You will tell me the taste of his wake, his progress.”

If he progresses, Damo thought to himself. Once more he let his features droop, then he went out to join the human.

“Paul Tan,” the human said, holding out his arm. It took a moment for Damo to realize it was the man’s name.

“I am Damo,” he said, ignoring the proffered limb. “Please follow me.”

Paul Tan fell into step beside him. “So you’re going to review my work?” he said.

“Yes,” Damo said.

“Good. You can give me some important feedback,” the human said. “This is a rare opportunity.”

Damo remained silent.

#

By now most people are familiar with the so-called shapeshifters of the planet Syna. What most people don’t know is the exact nature of their ability. For example, many assume that all Synans can alter their shape, but while it may be true that all have the potential to do so, it is only those who follow the Path of Fluid Shapes, or Wan She, who can truly alter their forms.

What’s more, Wan She is an extremely difficult and lengthy discipline and true mastery is only attained by the select few. Many who petition are turned away, and of those who are accepted into the school, more than half do not last long. Of those that remain, roughly one fourth reach the rank of Tanshe, or master.

As the first human to witness the teachings of Wan She firsthand, I will do my best to accurately represent the philosophies of this unique belief system.

Before progressing, though, I would like to address some of the fallacies that seem to have gathered about the Synans and those who follow Wan She. Though Wan She practitioners are capable of truly remarkable feats, there are limits, limits imposed by biology and by physics. Mass, for example, must be conserved. It is impossible, for example, for a Synan of roughly human mass to shift into a creature the size of a mouse. Likewise, Wan She practitioners cannot change the chemical composition of their bodies or shift into complex mechanical shapes.

What they can do with the traits inherited from their seabound ancestors is assume new shapes of roughly the same size. Reorganize their external and interior organs to accommodate those new shapes, and even change the colors of their bodies.

But more on that when we get to Wan She…

#

“You don’t like humans, do you?” Paul Tan said.

“I dislike the effect that human contact has had on our people,” Damo said.

“But surely the meeting of two different cultures, especially as peaceful as this has been, can only lead to opening minds and exposing people to new ideas.”

“Not all new ideas are good,” Damo said. He turned to Paul Tan and let the humanoid shape drop from him, appearing in his native Synan form, letting the hard edges and demarcations of the humanoid shape dissolve into his undulating mantle. Paul Tan stared wide eyed. “There was…someone I was close with. An adherent. This individual had a difficult time with the teachings. I suspected it was a form of depression. The adherent mastered the first few stages but had trouble beyond that.”

“What happened?” Paul Tan said.

“Even with the limited experience, this individual, Uniro, could perform basic alterations. Uniro left us, recruited by humans. A freighter took…her, Uniro, to a human world where she ended up in a brothel. She is probably still there, changing her shape to accommodate whatever fetish her patrons wish for.” He could not keep the bitterness from his voice. “That was a new idea.”

“I’m sorry,” Paul Tan said.

Damo walked away.

#

The first stage of Wan She is called She Ata. The Path of Contemplating Water. It is, in essence, as simple as it sounds. The adherent spends time considering every aspect of water Its flow. Its nature. The way it assumes the shape of its container. The way it shifts between different configurations. This is the foundation for Wan She, the awareness upon which all other stages are based.

It should also be mentioned that these stages are not constrained by anything as rigid as a time limit. A stage does not last a defined number of months or years. They are a fluid people; their boundaries are fluid as well. Stages are determined by awareness. Only by reaching a certain level of awareness, as judged by the Tanshe and other advanced practitioners, can the adherent advance to the next stage.

[Note: It is certainly true that advanced stages are beyond the reach of humans – not being able to duplicate the shapeshifting abilities of Synans. But is the completion of Stage One possible? Could I do it? Dare I?]

#

Damo stood in the Tanshe’s chambers. “Tanshe, I am sorry for speaking out like this, but I must object to Paul Tan’s presence here. It seems a mockery. He does not truly seek mastery of Wan She. It is impossible. Instead he spies on us. Even reviewing his manuscript, there is no guarantee that he will not change it later. He might undermine the respectability of our institution.”

“Do you respect our institution?” the Tanshe said.

“Of course.”

“Why?”

“It is an ancient and revered practice. Pure in its ideology and its application.”

“Then why would you think that words could undermine that? We have nothing to hide. Nothing to be ashamed of. And yet, if we can bring even the smallest hint of awareness to this human’s mind, are we not doing a good thing?”

Damo bowed his head. “Perhaps,” he said.

“I believe it is a good thing that we are doing, and it could help the order. Each year we have fewer adherents. It is still early. Do not set your shape so soon. Let us have time to see which way the water flows.”

“Yes, Tanshe,” Damo said. “I am sorry.”

“Never be sorry for expressing yourself,” the Tanshe said. “But as you do not close your body to new shapes, do not close your mind either.”

Damo wore his humanoid shape, in shame, all the way back to his room.

#

Damo sat at the meal table and sucked in the briny pikryl broth, smarting at its heat. As usual, he watched Paul Tan who sat nearby.

Today Paul was talking with Hyro, a Stage Five adherent. Damo had been surprised with the way that the other adherents had accepted the human. They seemed excited by the book he’d promised to write. Damo, of course, cautioned them to keep their focus on their individual paths. It was yet another disruption he blamed Paul Tan for.

“Do you have a mate?” Hyro asked. He was stirring his pikryl broth but not eating it. His eyes never left Paul Tan.

“Not at the moment,” Paul Tan said with a smile. “My last relationship didn’t go too well. I think he was more into me than I was into him.”

A ripple passed through Damo’s form at this admission. He knew humans practiced same-sex relationships – he’d heard stories of their brothels – but somehow hearing this from Paul Tan surprised him. And spoken of so boldly. For a moment he lost the thread of the discussion.

“I’ve reached a kind of new stage in the contemplation where I’m starting to have insights into my self,” Paul Tan said. “There was one profound realization that I don’t know if I can put into words.”

“Please try,” Hyro said.

“I was sitting there,“ Paul Tan said, “silent and still, watching the water flow from one vessel to another, in succession. Slowly taking the shape of each one in turn. And I realized that that’s how I had been, or at least how I longed to be at one point in my past. Ashamed of myself, of being gay, wanting to be what others wanted me to be, wanting to fulfill people’s expectations, molding myself into those different shapes.

“And then in my relationships it was the same. I transformed myself with each one. Becoming the button-down professional with one of my exes, the outdoorsman with another, the caregiver with yet another. I’ve been adept at shifting myself, mentally if not physically, and that scared me.”

Damo listened, engrossed. Such epiphanies had recently eluded him.

“Why does it scare you?” Hyro asked, his broth now forgotten.

“In Wan She, there is always the base form to retreat to,” Paul Tan said. “The default, natural state. One can always take the journey knowing they can return home. I realized, with some horror, that I didn’t know where home was. Who was the real me? What was my base state? Had I lost it in the interminable shifting? Could I find it again?

“I aim to find out,” he continued. “I think that Wan She can help me.”

#

Damo sought out Paul Tan later, no longer with the strident officiousness of a supervisor, but with the timid hesitance of someone about to broach a boundary. He hovered at the bubble of the human’s chambers for a moment, then chastised himself for his ridiculousness.

He knocked on the door. Paul Tan opened it, a curious smile on his face. “Yes?” he said. “Something wrong with the notes?”

“No,” Damo said. “I merely…wished to talk. May I come in?”

“Of course,” Paul Tan said. He beckoned Damo into the simple room. Damo sat on the lone chair, molding his back against it, while Paul Tan sank down onto the bed. “What can I do for you?” the human said.

“I overheard you talking today,” Damo said. “At mealtime. I did not mean to listen, but I was curious. You are a homosexual.”

Paul Tan smiled. “Yes, I am. Does that shock you?”

“Not at all,” Damo said. “It’s just…this is hard to speak of.”

“Take your time.”

Damo’s skin squirmed and he felt a flush of color streak through him. “Outside these halls, such liaisons are not possible. They are not reproductively viable for other Synans, and so they are considered deviant. They are illegal and strictly punished.”

“I understand,” Paul Tan said. “It used to be that way for my people, too. Though not anymore, unless on the far Fringe worlds.”

“But within these halls…,” Damo began. Paul Tan leaned in. “Within these halls we learn that one’s external shape is not important. It is transient, malleable. Once that veil of physical limitation is lifted away we are free to interact as personalities. It is natural in such a state to fall in love, with others of the same sex even.”

“I see,” Paul Tan said.

“I think you do,” Damo said. “Here, at She Shalu, it is accepted. Or at least tolerated. And yet beyond these walls…”

“And you have been in one of these relationships?” Paul Tan asked.

“Yes,” Damo said. He looked down. His hands flushed with amber. “It is difficult to speak of. Even here. At first there is shame, overcoming the beliefs of the outside world.” He looked up. “But it is something so strong. So pure. A connection that surpasses biology or even physics. It is something spiritual.”

Paul Tan placed a hand on his shoulder. “I understand,” he said. “I understand. Who was it?”

“Uniro,” Damo said. He felt a tingle run through him at saying his lover’s name. “He was the one I spoke of before. Who left us. Not a female. We were lovers, but…he couldn’t accept it. The strictures of the outside world were too ingrained in him. He was disgusted by the very relationship that brought me joy. He began to see us all as deviants. So he left.”

Paul Tan nodded. “Do you miss him?”

“Yes,” Damo said. “Desperately. He was so beautiful. Even the darkness within him was beautiful. And sad. It is something that I could never speak of. Not to anyone else. It is tolerated, as I said, but it is never talked about.”

“Maybe it’s time to change that,” Paul Tan said.

“What do you mean?”

“I can write about it. I would love to write about it. This is what I’ve been looking for. The angle I can use to explore the Path, and yet also resonate with it personally.”

“I don’t know…” Damo said.

“Why?”

“I do not think that the Tanshe would approve. Not to say that I know her mind, but I think she fears that people might come to know us as the deviant path. That our own people would turn on us because of it. That just that one element would overwhelm everything else we do here.”

“But this is an essential part of what you do here,” Paul Tan said. “You break down barriers. Of shape. Of gender. Of identity. I think that’s extremely powerful.”

Damo was silent. He wanted to say yes. He had wanted to speak about this for years now and this was his chance to do so. He recalled the Tanshe’s words. Why would you think that words could undermine that? We have nothing to hide. Nothing to be ashamed of. And yet, if we can bring even the smallest hint of awareness to this human’s mind, are we not doing a good thing?

The Tanshe had said that there was a reason that the human had come to him. Could this be it? He was set in place to review the human’s words.

“Yes,” he said.

“You agree?” Paul Tan said.

“I do,” Damo said. He couldn’t stop a wavelet from running through his body’s shape at saying yes.

#

Part Two: Immersion

Stage Two, She Sana, of the Path of Flowing Shapes is Immersion. This starts, literally, with the adherent’s immersion in water. Whereas the first stage involves observing the flow of water from one vessel to another, this stage requires the practitioner to become part of the equation, feeling the water around him, feeling how it gives and flows. This is all in preparation for the practitioner’s own shifting.

Immersive meditations are common at this stage. Adherents of Stage Two say that while contemplation brings understanding, these immersive meditations bring greater awareness, and oftentimes aspects — sometimes disturbing aspects — will come bubbling up from the depths of one’s self. Fears, regrets, inadequacies. The trick, they say, is to emerge having left some of them behind.

#

Since agreeing to help Paul Tan with his book, Damo had felt like a weight had been lifted from his mantle. Even shifting seemed easier, as if he’d broken free of a hard crust that had encased him for so long.

When the Tanshe asked him to visit the nearby Shasheto cell to exchange meditation techniques as part of regular communication between the different sanctuaries, he found himself comfortable with leaving the human alone, without supervision, for the two weeks the journey would take.

“By all accounts he has found his equilibrium,” Damo said. “Let him remain immersed and I will mark his shape when I return.”

So Damo had gone, traveling by hovercar down to the seaport and then out across the ocean to the island where Shasheto sat. The voyage made him think of Uniro and the last time they had seen one another. Damo still remembered the fluttering brightness of his lover’s skin as his distress, his self-loathing took shape within him. Damo’s entreating reach had been shrugged off and he’d thought Uniro would throw himself over the side and into the foaming waves. Instead, Uniro had stood, meek and silent, until they reached the spaceport. Uniro hadn’t even said goodbye. He’d just…slipped away. “I love you,” Damo said. But Uniro never looked back.

Uniro remained in his thoughts during his time at Sheshato, rising up in all Damo’s meditations until Damo could almost taste the tang of his wake. Unable to bear it any longer, Damo sought out Paul Tan on his arrival back at She Shalu. As if in sharing more of his experience might once again prove liberating.

He hurried down the corridor to Paul Tan’s room, eager to see the latest additions to the human’s notes, eager for the catharsis of discussion. The door was ajar, and as he had done so many times, Damo entered without announcement.

And rippled in horror.

Paul Tan lay on the bed, naked, his pale skin glistening with a sheen of perspiration. Hyro enveloped him, undulating, his skin bright red, his head stretched down, his mouth on Paul Tan’s, hungry. Their limbs entwined, Paul Tan’s fingers pressing through tendril-like extensions of Hyro’s. As Damo watched, their bodies melted together, and moans filled the room.

He fled to the safety of the corridor, leaning against the wall for support, revulsion pulsing through him.

He tried to still his mind, to stop the shuddering that rang through his body, but he could not quiet his thoughts. It was wrong. It was vile.

Damo headed for the Tanshe’s chambers. Rushed in as soon as he was given leave.

“What is it, child?” the Tanshe said.

“Paul Tan,” Damo said. He almost couldn’t bring himself to say it. “Paul Tan has…”

“What?”

“I caught him in an inappropriate liaison with one of the adherents.”

“What?”

“Just now. He and Hyro were embracing. Unclothed. Copulating.”

The Tanshe stood up from where she was sitting. Color roiled about her mantle. “Are you certain?”

“I saw it,” Damo said. His body shook again, remembering it. “I thought he was adjusting well. We had agreed on a way for him to work on his book. But perhaps he was here to take advantage of us all along. Cheap thrills.”

“I will talk to him,” the Tanshe said. “This is my responsibility. I thought this could be an instructive endeavor, but it seems that we must cancel this experiment. Return to your duties. I will take care of this.”

Damo was on personal time, so he returned to his room where he made himself some calming Sutran Tea. It didn’t help, though, so he went to the Still Garden. But things were so quiet and calm there that he felt his heart beating fast, the gentle squirming of his distress. So instead he went to the Shifting Garden where he could at least try to lose himself in the movement. It helped, at least a bit. He shifted in reaction to the forms around him. Swaying left and right, letting his arms grow longer and thinner, letting them wave like the delicate fronds around him.

Damo tried a shifting meditation, hoping that it would channel some of his internal movement. He elongated his head, tapering it, carefully shifting around his eyes so that they sat on top of one another, vertically, rather than side by side. It was a tricky thing. Organ movement was a very delicate process, eyes in particular. As part of the nervous system, moving them put a bigger strain on the brain.

His perception changed. Rather than the binocular vision he was used to, everything was duplicated, and he bounced from image to image. He only sustained the shift for a minute or so, before the sensation, the confusion it created in him, forced him back to a more familiar shape.

He wiped away the lubricating tears that facilitated the shifting and returned to a quiet state of contemplation.

Some of the unease never faded.

#

Paul Tan came to see him later that evening. The human burst into the room after pounding on the door and Damo retreated from him, finding sanctuary behind his desk.

“You bastard!” Paul Tan said.

Damo’s mantle stiffened. “I only did what was right,” he said.

“Bullshit!”

“You betrayed us,” Damo said, raising his own voice. “Using your book as a mask for your perversion. How could I not report it?”

“Perversion?” Paul Tan said. His face was red, the veins there bulging. Damo had noticed this before. Humans were not capable of the kinds of changes that Synans were, but their skin did shift between shades of red depending on physiological responses, and could bulge in places. “How can you say that?”

“You are different species,” Damo said.

Paul Tan walked to the desk and gripped the edge with his hands. The skin there whitened. “You were the one who told me that shape was not important. It’s what’s inside that does. Gender doesn’t matter, but species does?”

“It is wrong,” Damo said. “Synans are meant to be with Synans. Humans are meant to be with humans. Our biologies are different.”

Paul Tan leaned down close to Damo. He bared his teeth. Liquid dripped from all his orifices. “The same could be said about being gay, outside these walls.” He turned away from Damo. “The Tanshe is sending me away. I leave in two days. As soon as the ship can come to carry me offworld. Are you happy?”

“I thought you came here to understand us. But you are like so many others. You are titillated by something that is meaningful, beautiful, pure,” Damo said.

Paul Tan shook his head. “You think you’re so free, that you’ve achieved some kind of deep understanding, but you’ve just exchanged one box for a larger one.” Paul Tan’s eyes welled up with tears. “I found something beautiful here. Something meaningful. And you took it away from me!” He rubbed his glistening face. “I love him,” he said in a whisper.

“That’s easy for you,” Damo said. “He can change for you. He can accommodate your sexual needs. He can become what you want. Like so many of our people do. What can you give him?”

“Maybe you should ask him,” Paul Tan said, and walked out. The bubble irised shut behind him. Damo stared at the walls.

#

Part Three: Visualization/Actualization

Only after completing Stages One and Two will the adherent of Wan She progress to actual shifting of their shapes. This involves two separate concepts that become part of a flow, or continuum, that will ultimately form the basis of the shapeshifting technique. These concepts are visualization and actualization. The idea is simple. First, the adherent must visualize the changes that they wish to make. Then, they must change their body to fit that new image.

The idea is simple. The execution is not.

Advanced practitioners of Wan She can picture a shape in their mind, and in one fluid change, become it. The change resembles the flow of water. They visualize a new shape for the water to hold, and let the water assume that shape.

For beginners it is a much more difficult and often painful process. Each minor change of the actualization must be managed separately, each body part moved in turn until the final shape is achieved. A process of trial and error. In a way, they force their bodies into the new shapes. It is only after many years of practice that the change becomes more natural.

#

Damo approached Hyro in the Still Garden. The other Synan sat there in quiet contemplation. Hyro looked up at Damo as he approached, but said nothing.

Damo had planned to say something simple, small talk, a greeting perhaps. But the words came blurting out. “Did you love him?” he said at last.

“I was beginning to, yes,” Hyro said. He did not look at Damo. “I saw such beauty in him,” Hyro said, his voice strangely free of emotion. “In his words. His thoughts. He wanted to change the world. The universe. He wanted to cast those thoughts out like water to flow over everything. You know as well as I do that in the flood the mountain might stand firm, but the rocks will start to move.”

“He wanted to change the world,” Hyro said. “And what do we do? We hide away here in She Shalu and play at changing while the world remains hard outside. We should be out there, sharing what we know, how we think, with others. We should be changing the world.”

Damo remained silent. The Still Garden held no sound to hide him.

#

Damo was called to the Tanshe’s chambers a few days after Hyro’s departure and asked to sit.

The Tanshe regarded him with her large, dark eyes. “You knew what the human was writing of?”

Damo’s hands writhed in his lap. He could not meet her gaze. “Yes,” he said.

“And you thought this was acceptable?”

“I…I thought something needed to be said. Acknowledged. We know this thing, we feel this thing, but it goes unrecognized, like a ghost in our halls.”

The Tanshe’s mantle darkened, reddening at the edges. “I thought better of you,” she said. “You know the world that exists outside our walls. You know the ignorance, the persecution that dwells there, entrenched. What you’ve done threatens all of Wan She.”

“Tanshe-“

“If this flows beyond these walls, if the human’s words reach that far, we will be marked, targeted.”

Damo could no longer control the small tremorous shifts that ran through him. “You once said to me that we have nothing to hide. Nothing to be ashamed of. That if we can bring even the smallest hint of awareness to someone’s mind, we are doing a good thing. Why can we not do that for our own people?”

“It is too dangerous,” the Tanshe said, her mantle paling again. I’ve discussed it with the other Tanshes and we have all agreed that such liaisons must be eliminated and any violations strictly punished. We will also be inviting monitors into each cell, from the public. We must be able to show that we are not deviants.”

“Tanshe-“

“It has already been decided, Damo. And I expect your support in this. You have already jeopardized your place on the path to Tanshe. See that you don’t abandon it entirely. Remember, we are here for Wan She. Nothing else.”

“Yes, Tanshe,” Damo said. After being excused, he walked back to his room, suddenly heavy, his feet felt like hard, dead weights.

What the Tanshe had said made sense. They were there for Wan She. But Wan She had helped them learn the transience of shape and form, a concept which would soon lost. Or at least some expression of it would be, and that made Damo feel profoundly sad. He saw the path the future laid out, the shape that was waiting for it, and he recognized his part in crafting that shape.

Back in his room, he packed his belongings, the little that he had, and quietly exited She Shalu through the Still Garden. He did not know what shape his own future would take, because he could not yet picture it in his mind. But the time had come for him to learn to see new shapes in hope that he could one day become them.


Rajan Khanna writes a fantasy column twice monthly for LitReactor.com and articles for Tor.com.

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