Issue 198 – March 2023

5130 words, short story

Love in the Season of New Dance


According to orbital observations, the aliens wouldn’t rise from their hibernation caves today. The three moons weren’t in position yet. Leena dialed a cup of coffee, checked her instruments, and settled down with her knitting. Observing the Amphim’s once-per-seventy-nine-years mating rituals sounded like the front lines of science, but in truth it was years of prep for a couple of weeks of frenzied observation, after which the surviving aliens would return to hibernation and the math would begin. The analysis of their rituals would continue until the next mating season. She’d be over a hundred then. No longer an active scientist.

Although that stage of her life might end even sooner. She didn’t have high hopes of getting tenure, and moving to a new postdoc, a new location every few years, was getting old. She sighed. Her woolgathering had produced a whole slew of knitting mistakes. Dammit! Now she’d have to unpick her work and fix them.

She was so deep in somber thoughts that she almost missed the buzz from her instruments. A temperature spike. Something was happening. But wait, why was it so tiny and so localized? She compared it to the seventy-nine-year-old data. It matched. Only it wasn’t a hive-wide awakening, but one single Amphim.

That was all right. It was just early. A quick check through the records confirmed that this often happened, individuals waking slightly earlier or later than the rest of the hive.

Leena sent the info to the central post and started to pinpoint where the individual would emerge from the earth. Observation from inside the facility was recommended, because the sheer amount of aliens emerging from the earth might be unsafe. But just one? She really wanted to see it with her own eyes.

She put on her light environmental suit, mandated although the planet’s atmosphere was safe to breathe for humans without lasting harm up to three days. The suit felt constricting and hot until she realized that was her, not the suit. She was sweating with excitement and her stomach roiled.

The observation post’s location was on a rock-studded outcrop, in an area dense with hibernation caves. She stepped outside, always expecting to feel a change in light, sound, and smell, and not getting it because of the suit. The green of the sky and the uneven, rocky ground’s impact was muted, making it seem like she was still observing from the dome. She’d get used to it, and the barrier between herself and the outside world would gradually fade away.

Right about . . . here. Nothing set the emerging area apart from the rest. Orange soil, covered in blue-green herbal growths. Her spectrometer showed a sharp rise in complex organic molecules. Its best guess was pheromones. Too faint to get past her suit’s filters, sadly.

The orange earth stirred. Then heaved. Thick nailed hands like a mole’s burst through and clawed themselves out. Arms, second arms, a mud-covered head and a segmented body followed. Bedraggled, muddy wings trailed behind it. The Amphim lay on the earth, panting, scrubbing at its face with now soft fingertips. It had retracted its digging claws. No wait, it had shed them. This meant this was a male, and a second-timer, here for his final days above ground, ready to mate and then die.

Leena watched, forgetting to breathe in the excitement.

The Amphim lifted his head, opened large dark eyes, and looked at her. It struck her powerfully that he was not just an object in her observations, not a thing, a specimen, a number. He was a person, a sentient being that she was about to meet.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Leena.” For a terrifying second, she couldn’t even remember how the Amphim communicated. Sound? Gestures? Scent?

The Amphim coughed and shook out his wings. They were still wet and folded up, but the first rays of the pink sun lit bits of them with tantalizing glimmers of lilac splendor. Yes, definitely second-timer, fully developed, twice the size of a new nymph.

He turned his head away from her and sniffed the air.

Leena felt slightly insulted but told herself firmly that he wasn’t here to meet her, he was here to have a week or two of glorious living with his own kind. She drew a deep breath. Observing, noticing, that was her purpose.

He said something. The translator lit up but was unable to produce anything. One of the great mysteries of the Amphim was that they had a language. Why would a species who spent 99% of their lives in cocoons underground need language? But they were sentient, interested in strangers and had a rich culture of stories and dances. Some xenologists guessed they were the last surviving species after a great climate disaster, which would also explain why there was so little genetic variation between Amphim all over the world.

“Please say something more,” Leena said. “The translator knows your language, it just needs a bit more input to account for the individual inflections.”

The translator spoke something in the highly tonal language of the Amphim. The Amphim whipped his head around and looked straight at Leena.

“You are one of the aliens that watch us,” he said.

“Yes. Welcome to the outside world.”

“Where is everyone? The air is so still and empty. It doesn’t smell like the season of New Dance.”

Leena’s heart sank. So he already knew that.

He gave a very human-like sigh and sat down, folding his wings neatly. “I’m early again. It didn’t smell this early, before, though. I never talked to you aliens last time I was awake, but I think someone said you could measure everything? Can you tell when the others will wake?”

Leena’s data told her exactly that. It wouldn’t be soon. Not today. That was bad. By the time the fun and games began, he might be too weak to join in. He might even have died. She considered not telling him that, but starting off their meeting with lies seemed disrespectful.

“Not today,” she said.

“Tomorrow?” he asked.

“Probably not.” She licked her lips. “They think you’re at least a week early.” And that was putting it mildly.

A rustle went through his wings. The translator tentatively labeled it as an intense, negative emotion. Duh.

He rose up and started pacing.

Leena wondered idly if all creatures with legs, whether two legs or a hundred, would pace to release tension. Maybe that could be a paper if her job here ended. She wrenched herself back to the present. She knew what she was doing; trying to avoid feeling the alien’s pain by shooting down mental alleys.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Is there anything I can do for you in the meantime? Would you like something to eat or drink?”

He flung out a brilliant wing towards the bluish green treetops below. “Look at the leaves. They’re nowhere near turning. There is nothing for me to eat. The fruit is still bitter, the bugs too lean. And why would I eat? That would only prolong my suffering.”

Leena bit on her tongue to still her instinctive words of comfort. They would have been more lies. There was very little chance that he’d even live to see his people wake.

“You are a free being,” she said. “But I would like it if we shared a meal and if you would tell me something about yourself.”

Another violent wing flick. His arms stayed mostly still. So interesting.

“Why? For what purpose?”

“Because we are both intelligent creatures, we are both alone, and I would enjoy talking to you.”

He didn’t answer.

“My name is Leena. I am thirty-seven years old, and I was born on Earth, a planet far away in the constellation of Purple Gauze.”

He threw her a look of scorn and kept looking away.

Truth. Emotional truth. She had to give him something he could respond to.

“I’m a scientist, a xenologist. That means we study species not from our home world. But I didn’t make tenure, so this is going to be my last season on this world. I’m sad to leave here, but I’m very glad to at least witness your awakening.”

No response.

“I’m female, in the middle of my life, and I have no partner and no children.” God, that still hurt to say, so much. Bloody James, for not wanting her, not wanting her children.

His head went up. “Are you still fertile?”

She felt herself blush. How silly. As if he would even be able to interpret that through her face cover. “I think so.”

Suddenly, he was right in front of her. Personal space! “Are there no alien men to have sex with here?”

“Not here, not right now. Elsewhere on the planet, yes.”

“Then what are you waiting for?”

Leena suppressed a nervous giggle. They had gotten there so fast, it was like a bad date. “We humans don’t develop underground much of our lives, and we sleep at night. We have time to do other stuff besides have sex. I love my work.”

“But nothing happens if you don’t get sex?”

“No, I won’t die of that.”

“But still. Why aren’t you with the men to try and get children? Are they not strong and virile?”

Now she laughed. “I am working. We generally don’t have sex when we work.”

“What is wrong with you then? Why are they not fighting over you?”

Somehow that hit home. Asshole alien. She took a deep breath. Time to steer the conversation away from this topic.

She couldn’t keep calling him he. But the files said they didn’t use verbal names. “We use names, I told you mine, it’s Leena. What can I call you?”

His wings rose and wafted a great stink toward her, penetrating even the suit. “That’s my name.”

Yeah, that wasn’t going to work. “How about the name of your favorite star?”

He looked up, like a human would have, although the sun was high in the sky. “I like the last light to disappear in the evening. The blue hour.”

“Blue it is. Tell me about your first awakening. What was it like?”

Blue gave a sideways look from under his feathery lashes. Then he took a step towards here. “I will. Can I touch you?”

It seemed like a complete diversion from the original topic, but at least he was engaged now. She wanted to get as much footage of him as possible. And she felt sorry for him, even if he was possibly an asshole. She held out her arm.

He stretched out his thick square fingertips. There were secondary claws there, suitable for picking nuts and fruits out of hard shells, useful for fighting other males. But she was female. She figured he wouldn’t.

He touched her suit tentatively, then pressed harder. “Such odd skin. So smooth.” He sniffed his fingertip. “It smells of nothing.”

Yeah. It was a suit. Tell the truth or not? She decided to keep on her chosen course. “It’s a protective shell we wear because we are not from this world. We need different air.”

Blue touched her arm again and then moved his fingers up to her face. Leena flinched back in spite of herself. “Sorry. You startled me.”

He touched her face shell. “I see. The soft you behind it moves, and it does not. What would happen to the soft you if you took it off?”

“Nothing, not right away. But after a couple of days, I would start to have trouble breathing, and my skin would get damaged. After a few weeks, I would die.”

“I feel as if I am talking to nobody. I cannot really see you if I can’t smell you.”

Leena sighed. “I don’t smell like a female of your people. I smell like an alien.”

“My head knows it. But my nose and my fingers would like to know it too.”

It was a difficult decision. She’d be fine today. Flowering season was over, no giant molecules trying to force their way into her nose. But it was scary. A large, threatening alien with sharp claws and a fiery temper.

With stiff fingertips she removed her helmet. Whoever had decided suits should be taken off helmet-first? Your face was the most vulnerable part of you. You lived behind your eyes.

Blue sniffed deeply, his rough cool nose feelers against her cheek. The feelers twitched. “You stink.”

Leena stepped back. “I’m alien. What did you think I’d smell like?”

“I was hoping like a woman. Or a nal. But you don’t. Do you want to smell me?”

Not really. But clearly it was the polite thing to do.

Her eyes open, she moved towards his corrugated dark-gray cheek. The Amphim had semi-chitinous skin, and not much musculature underneath; they communicated in other ways. So he’d feel hard if she touched him. Up close, all she smelled was his scent, tiny puffs of it venting right against her nose. Moister than she expected, in the extremely dry air here. His people were very good at retaining moisture.

Leena closed her eyes. The smell continued to intrigue her. She breathed, trying to get a grip on it. What did it mean? It was elusive, wild, earthy. Truffles. Quince jelly. An aged Bordeaux. Leather. Complexity.

None of the last cycle’s researchers had taken their suits off. Did that make her brave or stupid? She would probably have to spend time in the tank if she kept this up, but that was for later consideration. Her in-suit diagnostics had nothing to say, at least.

Blue stood close all of a sudden. “You like my scent? What does that mean? Can we mate together?”

Talk about a one-track mind. But then, what else did life mean to him?

“No, we can’t. For example, humans don’t have nal. Just two sexes, at least for procreation.”

Mating for Amphim males was brief, brutal, and lethal. The female and the nal he had fought for opened up his body and harvested his gametes. The nal then harvested the female’s eggs in the same horrendous way, mixed them with their own procreational contribution, and laid the fertilized eggs inside the other two’s bodies. Footage existed that suggested that the male and female were still alive at that point, and in a state of ecstasy. One could only hope. And of course there were never survivors to interview. The nal then spun a cocoon around the three of them and died as well, adding their nutrients to the eggs’ store during the long gestation.

Much debate had rung in academia whether the nal might originally have been a separate, symbiotic species or one that used parasitic reproduction, instead of just a third sex.

Of course this was intriguing, but what really fascinated Leena was how this species was even sentient. What did they need intelligence for? How did they even have a culture?

She stretched her muscles out of their stiffness. They should not talk about mating and scent anymore, she decided.

“Tell me, Blue,” she asked. “When you woke up the first time, how did you know the songs and the dances? Who told you about them?”

His huge eyes blinked slowly at her as if she was crazy. “I learned them in the cocoon, of course. During the cocoon times, we sing together and tell the long stories, so first timers will know what to do and what the dances mean. How else?”

Science had so far assumed that the transfer of culture and knowledge went via the second-timers, who taught the ones that were awake for the first time that cycle. Humming and thrumming had been observed in cocoon time, before the Sentience Act had made the practice of spying on aliens illegal, but it hadn’t been possible to assign meaning.

“So you’re not really sleep?”

“What is sleep?”

What had he just said? “Are you there all the time?”

He thought about it. “In summer we go away for long stretches. In winter, we sing all the time to keep warm.”

So while they slowly metamorphosed below the earth, they had estivation cycles. When it was warm enough to sleep, they slept.

“Can you sing a song for me?”

“How? I am alone!”

“Maybe you can teach me a winter song, and we can sing together?”

A wave traveled through his wings. “You humans are so strange. Whoever thinks of singing a winter song, a cocoon song, on the outside? It’s mating season.”

“A summer song then.”

His wings flicked irritably. Or so she thought.

Leena kept trying to engage him, but Blue seemed to have lost interest. She went for lunch and brought him printed facsimiles of the fruits he’d have been eating in a few weeks.

He looked at her offerings dully, huddled in his own wings. “Why would I eat? No one is singing about the tree they found these in. They would taste like nothing.”

Leena felt hopeless. She’d asked for more instructions when lunch was printing, but Central had given her nothing new. Observe, record. They didn’t need a human being for that, did they?

The second day dawned. Leena tumbled out of bed, dressed hastily, and ran outside without a suit, gnawing on her breakfast bar. Her throat tickled, but nothing too serious yet.

Blue sat on the edge of the rocky cliff, wrapped in his wings.

“Are you awake?” she asked, before remembering that the Amphim didn’t sleep.

“Is the night always like this for humans? All alone, all silent?”

It was true that these evening woods on the planet of the Amphim lacked crickets chirping, owls hooting, birds screeching briefly in uneasy dreams . . .

“On my world, many small creatures make small noises at night,” she said and sat down, a little further away from the edge. Maybe the Amphim didn’t fear heights because of their wings. “There are stars, and often the moon.”

Blue rustled. It was like a sigh. “Tell me what those are.”

Leena looked up at the planet’s hazy sky. The pink sun was barely visible. She showed him a picture of an Earth sky, arcing over green hills, bathed in the yellow light of the sun.

“It’s like your world is shielded by beautiful wings,” he said dreamily. “A nal’s wings, warm and soft.”

She showed Blue a night sky full of stars and a sliver of moon. “Those are suns, like yours, only very far away from my planet.”

“Can I see your world from here?”

“No, not even my sun. It’s too far away.”

“Why did even you come here? It must be hard, to travel so far. And then we cannot mate, and you live the rest of your lives while we are in the dream song. I don’t understand it.”

He had a point.

Leena tried to explain. “We are curious. We like to see new places and we like trying to understand strange species.”

He just looked back. Yeah. His species didn’t even have pets or livestock. Other species were either prey or predators or uninteresting. He couldn’t relate. Leena couldn’t help noticing that Blue’s interest in her was limited.

The seventh day was as cool and sunny as the earlier six. Leena joined Blue in their morning ritual of breakfast on the ledge. She’d spent the night in the autodoc, because her cough just wouldn’t go away, and her skin felt flaky. It had helped. She didn’t want to suit up again. It was such a barrier between her and Blue. She’d even stopped knitting.

They munched on their respective foods for a while. When Leena had finished her coffee, Blue held out his hand. Leena delicately held his dry cool palm in hers. What did he want her to do?

“See the white stripes on my nails?”

Yes, now that he’d pointed it out, she could see changes in his hand. She called up a few photos on her tablet and held them next to the living hand. Blue didn’t like looking at photos of himself, but the hand picture, taken on the first day, fascinated him. He kept pointing out other subtle changes. His color had lightened. His nails curved more.

“Time is rushing past. What is the news?”

Leena dutifully checked the progress on the hibernation observation, but nothing had changed. Awakening wasn’t about to happen soon. Blue, naturally, was getting more and more uneasy.

“I’m going to die alone,” he said.

Leena quelled her instinctive protest. “I will stay here with you.”

Day ten.

Blue held out both his hands to Leena. They shook slightly, the bones standing out.

Leena’s hands also shook. She’d been reading up on papers suggesting that the ritual fighting and dancing had other purposes than just cultural exchange. One author proposed that the fighting among males triggered hormones that kept them younger and more vital. Being alone might literally be killing Blue even faster.

Because of the interdiction on alien experimentation, nobody knew for sure. Very few Amphim had consented to giving blood and tissue samples. Blue had consented, but there just wasn’t enough time, and who could draw conclusions from just one individual? Leena had simply collected samples and sent them to Central. Maybe it was the only good thing to come out of this. It made her furious, how disinterested Central was in poor Blue.

“I’m getting old, Leena,” Blue said. “I’m dying. I need to mate.”

“I understand,” Leena said. “But what do you suggest I do? There is no nal or female awake right now.”

She’d been checking for messages from Central every hour, but no other Amphim had risen anywhere.

“Can’t I mate with you? You are female. Are you sure you humans have no nal?”

Leena winced. She knew the male’s role in mating was far more passive than in human sex. The words “male” and “female” seemed pretty arbitrarily chosen by her predecessors. But her gut quaked at the idea of this alien male touching her in an intimate way. Not that he had the anatomy for it. But still. Never.

“We have no nal. And our mating is very different.”

That was the day they looked at human porn together. It was not a success. Leena figured Blue truly grasped how different humans were.

Day eleven.

They watched movies together. Leena didn’t have the energy for long, hopeless conversations. She was spending every night in the autodoc and hardly slept.

“So these stories aren’t real?” Blue asked again. “They never happened?”

“Exactly. These humans are pretending to be someone else.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s a bit like your stories. Things like this do happen to humans. But we imagine variations of them, to entertain ourselves.”

“But it’s not real. How can they act as if it is?”

“Humans can imagine things that are not real. Does it never happen to Amphim that you are hunting, and you think you have found prey, and then there’s nothing there? It was a shadow maybe, or branches moving?”

Blue rolled out his tongue as if tasting the idea. “Yes, that does happen. Is it like that? You see a branch moving but you think for a second it’s a longan?”


“Humans are so strange.”

Day fourteen.

“Please, Leena, please consider it. I understand now it won’t be a real mating. I’m not a young and giddy fool anymore.”

Her heart broke. Here Blue was, not two weeks out of the cocoon, and he thought of himself as old and dying. He looked so different. Scruffy and faded, as if he was molting or losing color. His wings were fraying. He’d given up on hoping for his fellows to wake. Even if they did all wake up tomorrow, he’d be the loser in every contest or fight.

Leena stifled a cough.

But she couldn’t do it. It wasn’t scientific, she shouldn’t tamper in any way with an alien species. She was here to observe. She’d never get tenure if she crossed this line.

Day eighteen.

Leena had printed out two cloaks, one in the sunny yellow swirl patterns of nal wings, one in the scarlet and vermilion slashes of female wings. She’d carefully compiled the patterns so that they didn’t resemble any specific individual. Although nobody was taking an interest in her research station or her reports, someday someone would. She didn’t want a nal or female being embarrassed by a similarity to her facsimiles.

Blue lay on his own wings, the lilacs and purples of a male fading and with frayed edges, contrasting starkly with the bright cloaks Leena had printed. Lying on them damaged the wings, but it wouldn’t matter after today. He was getting too weak and shaky to fly anyway.

“You realize I don’t have the chemicals to give you pleasure and anesthetize you,” she said, for the nth time. “It will hurt.”

“I know,” Blue said. His eyes flickered and his long thin tongue kept rolling over his cheeks. “I don’t care. You do what you can, and I will ‘imagine’ the rest.”

Leena wanted to stroke his cheeks or forehead, but it was a human gesture. It would give him no comfort.

She flung on the nal cloak and held a syringe close to her neck, to imitate the nal stingers at the jaw.


“Don’t talk anymore,” Blue whispered. “I will sing.”

Sounds emanated from him, or rather vibrations that Leena felt in her gut. It was a thin, lonely sound, not much like the thick buzzing and humming Leena had heard on recordings. But Blue had insisted that the recordings of male voices were terribly wrong, worse than him singing by himself. And this was all for him.

She bent down, flashed her cloak like they’d practiced, and jabbed Blue in the throat with her syringe, to imitate the sting of the nal at the start of the mating.

Blue arched and sighed. Leena knew it was just a pinprick, because she had not been able to synthesize the right hormone, so no euphoria or numbing would result. But Blue seemed happy.

Leena flashed her wings a few more times and then took off the nal cloak and put on a female cloak.

She pretended to fall down with her hand clutching her neck, as if she’d just been stung by her nal. Arranging herself full length next to Blue, she turned her face to him, and they touched foreheads. She held out her bare fingers so Blue’s tongue could touch them. They’d tried it with her real tongue, but the raspy feel of Blue’s tongue made her gag. She didn’t want to risk that. She’d taken a ton of cough suppressants to keep herself quiet today, and antihistamines for her skin. Fixing that could wait.

Blue started a humming song, and Leena keyed in a very soft, almost inaudible version of a recorded song that she’d mixed up from several nal and female songs. It completely missed all the overtones, undertones, and air vibrations that Blue had told her were the most important part, but it would have to do. It would help him imagine.

Leena stood up, careful to leave the female cloak next to Blue. He looked so peaceful lying there, humming. If only the next part didn’t have to happen. Her throat was thick as she picked up the knife.

“Are you really sure?” she asked.

“Yes. Don’t stop. Don’t speak.”

Leena nodded, more for herself than for Blue.

She knelt over the female cloak and slashed down with her knife, one two three. Then she took the fish eggs they’d printed and put them on Blue’s belly, below the marks they’d made, mimicking a nal cutting out the female’s egg from the repository.

Leena positioned the knife on his belly. She breathed deeply and closed her eyes. No, that wouldn’t do. She had to look if she wanted to hit her marks. Oh god, this was so hard. She’d never done anything like it, even though she’d practiced on a silicone facsimile over and over.

“Cut firm, cut quickly,” Blue had said.

But it would be harder for her than for a nal with its sharp nails, who’d have softened and loosened Blue’s integument with its special hormones.

Okay. She couldn’t delay any longer. She slashed hard, meeting more resistance than she’d anticipated. Harder for the next slash, and harder still for slashes three and four. There was hardly any fluid coming from his wounds, where with a human there would have been copious arterial bleeding. So different.

Blue’s body had gone rigid. He had to be in so much pain.

Leena’s eyes burned and her hands shook as she scooped the fish eggs into his seed depository. Now the nal would spurt its own procreative fluid over seed and eggs, stirring them so they mixed well. She’d not worn gloves because Blue hated them so. It was the most horrifying thing she’d ever done, feeling alien jelly against her fingers and hearing wet noises.

Blue’s song stuttered and wavered. Leena’s face dripped with tears as she continued her stirring for sixty seconds.

Now for the most important part. She flung out the nal cloak, catching the sun with its bright waves of color and folded it over Blue. She tucked it in tightly, like swaddling a newborn, leaving one flap for his face.

She knelt behind him, so as not to disturb the illusion that a nal was nestling between Blue and the imaginary female, cocooning them with its wings.

“Goodbye Blue,” she said softly. “You were dealt a bad hand, but you deserve the best possible ending.”

Gently she folded the flap over his face. Blue trembled and shook. She couldn’t bear it. How long would it take him to die? His humming had ceased but he still twitched occasionally.

Her legs cramped and her back ached, but she waited until no more tremors shook his body.

Now she would have to deliver a report and await the verdict. For the first time in months, she didn’t really care about tenure and her next job. She’d done the best she could for Blue.

An alert from Central beeped. The great awakening had begun. Now, why now, when it was too late for Blue? She couldn’t even manage to get angry about it.

She stood up, wobbling on numb legs, and watched a riot of colorful wings burst out all over the mountaintop and from the trees below. How she wished Blue could have seen this. Or maybe it would have saddened him even more. She imagined him flying away, still young and beautiful, to join his fellows, a flash of purple amongst the reds and yellows.

Author profile

Bo Balder lives and works close to Amsterdam. Bo is the first Dutch author to have been published in F&SF, Clarkesworld, Analog, and other places. Her sf novel The Wan was published by Pink Narcissus Press. When not writing, she knits, reads and gardens, preferably all three at the same time.

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