4700 words, short story
It was smaller than he’d expected. Oh, the planet was large enough, but this so-famous university city, pride of the galaxy—it was barely bigger than the smallest of the tunnel-cities on the southern continent of the homeworld. Gaudier from space, of course, since most of the city was above-ground and brightly lit. But the city had no depth to it—it was thin, barely a few stories tall in most places.
If a human saw the deep delvings of Chaurin’s people, it might faint away in sheer terror. On awaking, it would cling to the walls, begging not to be dragged any further, shown any more. Then Chaurin would insist—no, you must come; you think us animals, barbarians; you must see what wonders we have wrought! And he might pull that human to the very edge of a twisting stone stair, and with a single, careless motion, toss it tumbling down. They were ephemeral, these humans, light and slight, of no consequence. It would be easy to dispose of one.
He was not here for that, though. Not here to exact revenge or even justice for the brother lost, for Gaurav of the bright eyes, the slow tongue. Gaurav the curious, the troublemaker, always sticking his cold nose where it had no business being. Chaurin had one task only on this planet the locals called Kriti—to bring his brother home. Kriti meant creation, he’d been told. For Gaurav, little brother, it had brought death and dissolution instead.
Amara knelt in the soil at the base of the memorial stone. There had been some debate over where best to mark the lives lost in the bomb attack on the Warren. There would be a certain logic to marking the shattered underground room where seven had died—seven whose actions had saved so many more. But Amara was glad the ruling Council had decided on the entrance gates for the memorial instead. Her bare hands dug into the richly composted soil, dirt embedding itself under her nails, cool in the midday heat. She placed a jasmine carefully, one whose seed had made the long journey from old Earth, to be cosseted in the university nurseries for years, and then finally settle here, under Kriti’s foreign sun.
The jasmine should do well; most Earth plants did, though a few stubbornly refused to thrive. Her mother had photo albums passed down from the ancestors, of small village homes covered in bougainvillea, glorious profusions of red and pink and purple. No gardener had succeeded yet in growing them on Kriti—they withered and died away from Sol. No one knew why. But the jasmine was more adaptable; it would grow and bloom, here in the open air, its sweet white blossoms scenting the air. Happy not to be shut deep underground, where the dust still carried the memory of those who had died. Amara couldn’t believe any flower would truly be happy shut away from the sun, no matter how many fluorescent lights they used.
She suspected Gaurav’s captain had exerted his influence to allow her to be assigned to the team that maintained the small garden here; as a brand-new horticultural student, such a task would not normally be allowed her. He understood the need for expiation. Narita kept telling her that she should not feel guilt, or responsibility for the deaths. And yet.
Grubbing in the soil seemed to help. It was why Amara had gone back to school; her old job had been meaningless. When she put her decision in words, it was almost too simple, too obvious, but it was also the truth—after all those deaths, she wanted to spend the rest of her days helping things grow.
A low, growly voice above her—“I know you.” Amara looked up, and almost fell over in shock. Her heart thumped wildly, again and again, her skin grown clammy and strange. There, looming over her, was Gaurav—no. Impossible.
She must be mistaken; Amara had only known him for a few hours, after all. And there were not so many saurians on Kriti—fewer, since the war started; she was not skilled at telling them apart. This was a stranger, not her dead friend. Not quite a friend. Amara could not go so far as to claim friendship with the brave young policeman who had died a hero, saving so many lives. Comrade-in-arms, then. They had joined forces to protect the Warren, and they had succeeded, though not without cost. This was not Gaurav. This was a stranger, staring at her with an expression she could not read, but it felt hostile. Angry. And he loomed over her—his broad, muscled torso and arms blocked the sun.
Amara stumbled to her feet. Standing, she was almost as tall as he was, which helped, though still half his width. He was taller than Gaurav, broader. Older? She was not good at judging age on saurians. Amara was grateful for the crowds not far away, students walking to and from classes, oblivious to their small drama. The students tended to cut a wide swathe around the memorial and the gate; six months wasn’t long enough to inure them to the events of that day. But there were plenty of people within earshot—human and otherwise. Still, her throat felt tight. The war between humans and others was escalating, out among the stars—had it finally come to Kriti?
“Do I know you, ser?” she asked, politely, willing her voice to be steady.
“I know you,” he said. She was fairly sure of his gender; close enough to go on with, at least. After Gaurav’s death, she had tried to learn what she could of him, of his people. There wasn’t much to know—Gaurav had been a quiet, reclusive young policeman, who had come to Kriti more by accident than anything else. And then he stayed, and made a life here, and lost it. Gaurav’s people were reclusive; they rarely left their homeworld. But here one stood, arms hanging at his sides, hands pressed against thick thighs, his body leaning forward. His voice was low and growling as he said, “You are Amara Kandiah. I have studied the reports.”
Now Amara was scared; she wiped sweating palms on the cotton of her everyday sari. Most of the would-be saviors of the Warren had managed to stay out of the news, with the help of Gaurav’s captain; the Council hadn’t wanted any more publicity around the attempted missile attack than necessary. Amara’s name hadn’t been in the press, and her photo only appeared as one of a milling crowd. It was better that way, safer. “What reports?” she asked.
“The police reports they send to next of kin. I am Chaurin, Gaurav’s brother.” His voice dropped further, almost to a whisper. “I am here to collect his remains.”
Oh. Amara’s throat loosened; she wavered, caught between prudence and compassion. She could direct him to the precinct and be done with it; Gaurav’s captain would, eventually, bring him to the hospital where the remains were stored. But that would take time, possibly days, or longer. Council officials would surely want to speak with Chaurin, find out what, if anything, Gaurav might have said to his brother about the plot. Not that there would be anything—there had been no time!—but the officials still had learned so little of what had been going on. With the violence above accelerating, everyone was braced, waiting for the next attack. The Council would not want to hear that Chaurin knew nothing. She didn’t know what they might do in their quest for answers. Amara trusted the Council, mostly, but she wouldn’t want to put herself into their hands.
The sun shone overhead, bright and reassuring, but she could see Chaurin blinking against the glare; he was not well-adapted to life in the open air. The saurian was still large, but somehow not as threatening. If one of her sisters had been lost, Amara would not want another moment to pass without seeing her again—whatever there was to see. And, conveniently, she had the means to make his journey far more direct; she was one of very few who did.
“I can take you to him,” she said. And her racing heart slowed, to a quiet certainty. This was the right thing to do. She had been sure of that so rarely in the last six months, had doubted every choice, every decision. She had felt frozen in time, as if a piece of her were still stuck underground, amid the dust and blood and shouting. It was a tremendous relief, to have one choice be so clear cut.
Chaurin followed the human woman through the extensive campus grounds, to the white walls of the medical complex. It wasn’t far, but he still seethed with impatience; every step seemed too slow, and he longed to race to his brother’s side. But Chaurin didn’t know which way to go.
The room Amara finally brought him to was dimly lit, more tolerable to his eyes, and warm enough to be comfortable. Chaurin perched awkwardly on a stool at the long table, resisting the urge to dig his claws into the wooden top. It was already scarred—generations of students, perhaps, had dug grooves along the grain, carved strange hieroglyphics, in the way of students everywhere. C+S. A spiral. Goddess, no. Amara placed a small box in front of him, plain metal, hinged.
Chaurin reached out a hand, and then pulled it back. He’d thought he was prepared, but the shock of seeing the box made his mouth go dry, so that he had to swallow before he could speak. “Is this all there is? Was he . . . cremated?” The word was unfamiliar in Chaurin’s mouth, but he had learned it, just in case. He hadn’t known what he would find on arrival, so had studied human death customs on the long journeys between Jump points. He hadn’t been able to afford a luxury cruise; the clan had barely scraped together enough to buy him passage on a freighter. They had been afraid to wait longer than they had to, afraid of what would happen to Gaurav’s remains. Chaurin had spent months in half-hibernation in his metal tube of a cabin, waking every few weeks, only long enough to eat a little and study, before falling back to sleep.
What he’d learned had turned his stomach, taking away his appetite. Many humans buried their loved ones, letting them rot in the dirt. Some humans burned their dead, turning them to ash on the wind. Others exposed the bodies on the mountaintops, for the bird of prey to devour—a strange practice, but one that he thought Gaurav might have liked. Chaurin could have made peace with it if the last had occurred, but this? This small square metal box, half the size of his clenched fist, was all that was left of his brother?
The doctor, white-coated, shook her head. “No, not cremated.” Narita, her name was, and the scents between them told him that she was the other woman’s mate. Amara had explained on the walk over that this doctor, Narita, had taken medical custody of all of the remains. Gaurav was the last to be claimed. Chaurin had wanted to explain that it was not that his brother was unloved; Chaurin had just had so much further to come. She knew that, of course.
Narita continued, “We were not able to retrieve much, after the explosion. I saved as much of him as I could, and froze the remains. I am familiar with your customs; I hoped someone would come for him.” Her gaze was direct, and strangely kind. They were both kind, these women. Yet Chaurin fought to calm his pulse, to settle the ruff that had risen at his neck. The small one, Amara, had become frightened; it was cruel to leave her so. Amara had been frightened at the gate as well, leaving the scent of prey heavy in the air, but still, she’d tried to help. It was not a small thing. Chaurin pushed down his anger; this was not her fault.
“Thank you,” he managed to say. Chaurin gathered the box, his brother, in a single hand. As Chaurin stood, the doctor took a quick breath, and then spoke once more—“Wait, please.” He paused, but she didn’t seem to know what she wanted to say next. Her face was flushed, blood rushing under brown skin. The urge to just go pulsed through him. He began to turn away, but then Narita managed to push out more words, shocking ones: “Will you eat him?”
Before Chaurin could do more than take in the question, it was quickly succeeded by more words: “Gaurav saved our lives, you know. He barely knew us, but he took the brunt of the blast, deliberately, to save us all.” Her voice cracked. “And all these months later, we still can’t—can’t move past it. That moment.” Narita took a deep breath, and then said, her words swift, running over each other: “We would like to share in this connection, this ceremony. May we join you?”
“What?” Amara says, her voice high and startled. The doctor rested a quick hand on her arm, but said nothing. Amara bit her lip, willing to wait for explanation, it seemed. A good mating, to have such trust between them. Chaurin didn’t want to think about that in this moment, but apparently one couldn’t leave one’s profession behind completely. Once a matchmaker, always one, even in the midst of grief and a certain measured rage. He missed his mate, and the children. He wanted to go home.
“There is not enough for you,” Chaurin said, his throat aching. Never mind the bizarre insolence of her asking. It was a real problem—there was not enough for all at home who would partake: Gaurav’s siblings, their mates and children. He’d known that from the first sight of the little metal box, had felt the knowledge squeeze his heart. Bad enough that Gaurav was dead, but that he be lost to so many of his kin . . . it was too much to bear. Chaurin had come so far, at such cost, to come back with so little.
“I know,” the doctor said quickly. “I’ve been thinking about that for months, reading your histories and legends. In the Tale of Elantra, they made soup of Genja, to feed the five hundred. What if we made soup? Would that be acceptable?”
It was only a story, a legend, and yet—“Perhaps.” It was only a story, but Chaurin felt a flicker of hope, a flutter in his chest. A mouthful was traditional, but sometimes, with the elderly, one made do with less, a thimbleful of flesh, just enough for a taste. Would he be able to taste his brother, a fragment floating in broth? Did it matter?
She took a step towards him. “Please, if you have time. Come to our home, have some tea. We can talk about it?”
Chaurin smothered an involuntary startled laugh. His mother would have said exactly the same thing. She thought tea solved everything. In her honor, promising nothing, he said, “Yes. I will come.”
It was only a short walk from the campus to their home. Chaurin passed through a sunny courtyard dense with plants into a small house; the kitchen boasted tall windows overlooking the flowering yard, and a fountain burbled pleasantly, hidden from view around a corner. This was a peaceful place, and Chaurin felt his muscles unwinding, just a little. Oddly, the humans seemed more tense here than they had been on campus; something was clearly wrong between them. Modern kitchen machinery lined the interior walls, but archaic traces remained as well—a small fire in a hearth, and a kettle that hung above the fire, boiling their water. This home was a mix of old and new, and it seemed rather bare as well; Chaurin did not think they’d been living there long. There was a newness to this mating, coexisting with an old familiarity. And pain, running under the surface; an odd mix.
Narita poured the tea as they sat around the kitchen table, explaining quietly to her mate. “There was a genetic flaw in the species, which led to one in a hundred dying young, unless they had a certain enzyme added in utero. It could be added if the pregnant mother ingested the flesh of the father. No one knows which female first figured that out, but she should have gotten a medal.” She added sugar and milk and passed the tea; Chaurin cradled the delicate cup carefully in his clawed hands. His brother’s box sat in the center of the table, a place of honor. Safe.
Narita continued, “No one needed to die for the enzyme even then; a mouthful of flesh was more than enough. And the enzyme has long since been synthesized, and eventually, species-modified in a vast societal effort; that genetic flaw has been erased, and the enzymes are now passed down through normal reproductive channels. It’s perhaps the most successful example of genetic modification we know of.”
Chaurin raised the china cup to his lips, sipping the hot drink, sweet and milky.
Narita said, “It’s tradition now, you understand. And some see it as religion too—they believe that the soul is passed down with the flesh of the newly dead.”
Amara nodded, and then turned to Chaurin. “Do you believe that?”
Chaurin hesitated, the cup at his lips. “I—don’t not believe it.” He sipped again, and then carefully put the cup down. “Some believe that his knowledge will be passed down, and Gaurav has more knowledge of humans than most of my people. Many of my people have half given up already, have begun long tunnelings, planning to sleep through the next few decades, in the hopes that the battles will pass them by. But some do not wish to sleep; if we are to survive this war, we may need to know what Gaurav knew.” His chest twinged, a low, deep ache. “More importantly, if the ritual is not performed, my family will feel . . . bereft. That we have lost him truly.” The woman was repulsed; he could smell it on her. But she masked it as well as she could, to her credit.
Chaurin leaned forward, unable to contain his urgency; Amara shifted back in her chair, the fear-scent rising. “If my children do not taste my brother’s flesh, they will never truly know him. Do you understand? Do you have children?” The human kinship bonds confused him—they seemed fragile, easily broken. And with his question, the tension that had simmered under the surface came boiling into the open air, a rush of pain and frustration. He was no empath, but even for a non-human, the signals were too obvious to ignore.
Narita’s fingers tightened on the delicate china cup. It should have been an innocuous question—they knew the answer, after all. They did not have children—not yet. But they would—they had even set a date for the harvesting of eggs, the combining and for Narita’s implantation. It had all been so easy up until that point. Narita had been shocked how easily they had fallen back into their relationship, after so many years apart. They’d found this little house and bought it; they’d found themselves passionate in bed, once again, better than before. They had both wanted a child, badly; after the attack, they wanted to envision a brighter future. Even their mothers were happy at the prospect. One decision after another, falling neatly into place—and then they’d run up against the hard decision—to modify or not? And if yes, how much?
Should they simply solve for life-threatening disease? Many humans went that route, even among the more traditional groups. Though Amara’s parents hadn’t, and when Narita thought of that, her throat tightened. She could easily lose Amara to cancer, to heart attack; sometimes she was furious at Amara’s parents, for forcing those risks upon their child. Surely Amara would agree to spare their child that much. But should they go further— do what Narita’s parents had done, blessing their daughter with beauty, brains, and superlative health? Narita had never known a cold, never gained an ounce of unwanted weight, never struggled with simple schoolwork. How could she ask her child to endure unnecessary suffering? But if they made those changes, how would their daughter see Amara?
Out in the stars, a battle was being fought, worlds were burning over these very questions. Those who would protect the purity of the human genotype, or rather, their perception of its purity. Amara was no bigot; she had alien friends aplenty. She had even finally brought her humod partner to her mother’s house; over the last six months, Narita had come to know all of Amara’s friends and relatives. They all accepted her, more or less; they would share samosas with her, tell her stories of Amara as a little girl. But what was acceptable among adults became far more charged when the future was on the line. No one thought rationally when children were involved.
Could she explain all of this to an alien? Narita owed him honesty, at least—but she didn’t even know why she had asked such a tremendous favor from Chaurin, to partake in his brother’s funeral rites. She hadn’t known Gaurav, not really. But over the last six months, as she researched his people and their customs, the impulse had grown. Right alongside her desire for a child, the sense that she should carry something more with her, something that marked that day, that night, when they came together to stop a terrible disaster. The night when everything changed.
“We hope to have children,” the smaller woman said. Amara. He kept forgetting their names. She did not look at her mate.
“What is preventing you?” he asked, curious.
Silence answered him. Amara frozen in her chair, while Narita shifted uneasily in hers. Chaurin watched, reading the currents that flowed between them. It wasn’t long before the muddy waters began to clear. “You do not talk to me, which is unsurprising, as I am a stranger—but you do not talk to each other, either.”
After a long moment, Narita said, “We are afraid if we do talk, we will find ourselves in too great disagreement.” Amara nodded, and then lifted her cup to her lips, precluding speech.
Chaurin was intrigued. “You fear you stand on opposite sides of a ravine, too far from each other to reach across. That may be, but how will you know unless you stretch out your hand?” He was happy to fall for a moment into the role of matchmaker again, relieved to have something familiar to do, in such a strange place. Chaurin had read about human matchmakers, who worked only until the first mating, and then considered their job complete. That had bewildered him; mating was never easy; if one took on the responsibility of making a match, surely it followed that one owed the pairing some guidance in the early years, some help going forward? His own mate would surely have slain him by now were it not for their matchmaker’s gentle interventions. “Narita, what is it you desire?”
She bit her lip and then said, “I want a healthy child.”
The shorter woman hesitated. “I want that too. Of course I do.” Her voice sharpened as she continued, “But—how healthy? What do you mean when you say healthy?” And then it broke. “Are you sure you don’t mean beautiful?”
Narita said, with some urgency, “You are beautiful.”
Amara shrugged, old pain evident in the set of her shoulders. “Not as beautiful as I could be; not as beautiful as you are.”
Interesting—Chaurin had little conception of human beauty, but he could see that Narita’s features were more regular, her skin smoother. Was that beautiful?
Narita leaned forward across the table, reaching out to take Amara’s hand in hers. “Beauty isn’t some absolute. It is specific; it is the details of your face. I wouldn’t change a single feature, not a line on your face, not a curve of your body.”
“I don’t think I believe you,” Amara said softly, lines creasing her forehead.
Chaurin was not sure what those lines meant, but he didn’t think they were good. He sighed. “That is a bigger muddle than we will clear quickly—and I am not staying to work with you. But surely you have someone you may contact?”
There was silence again, for an endless moment. Then—“The devadasi?” Amara offered, tentatively.
Narita laughed, sounding startled. “Really? You want her? There are plenty of other counselors we could call.”
Amara shrugged. “After we fought together that night—I trust her. The fact that you slept with her occasionally, in the years when we were apart, feels . . . irrelevant.”
Narita frowned. “She’ll want us all to be naked for the conversations, you know. It’s part of the devadasi practice; she thinks it helps lower barriers.”
“Maybe she’s right,” Amara said, a small smile lurking at the edges of her mouth.
Narita squeezed her mate’s hand and then released it, sitting back. She turned back to Chaurin. “I’m so sorry. You’re helping us, and I’ve been so impossibly rude. Rude is a kind word for it. You must think me obscene. I just—“
She bit her lip again, and Chaurin wondered what that gesture meant. Shame, perhaps. Which was appropriate enough, for her request was, if not obscene, then borderline sacrilegious. But how could you expect proper respect and appropriate behavior from aliens? And wasn’t that what this war was about, after all? If the gulf between species was, in truth, too vast to be bridged, then perhaps the pure human movement was right after all. Better to go back to our separate worlds, like quarrelling children sent to their separate rooms.
But didn’t one ask more, expect more, from adults?
Chaurin wished Gaurav were here. He would know what to do. After the funeral rites, Chaurin might know as well, might hold that knowledge inside himself, a small, glowing kernel.
He sighed. In truth, he already knew what Gaurav would do—that was why he had agreed to come here, to this small, homey kitchen. Gaurav’s choice was clear, in the way his little brother had lived his life—going out to tour the Charted Worlds, instead of staying safe at home. Staying on this planet to live and work, instead of trying every expedient to get back home. It was clear in his death most of all—Chaurin had read the police reports. His brother could have fled when the fighting began, but instead, he had run towards the battle, had gone to help the aliens, the strangers. When the stranger asked for help, Gaurav gave it. Could Chaurin do less?
He asked, “You can cook the soup here?”
Narita nodded, her eyes wide. “We can make it right now, if you want. And then I can take it to the lab, freeze-dry it into cubes, so you can easily take it back home. If you dissolve the cubes into a larger pot of water, it should give as many mouthfuls as you need. We would be very happy to help you with that.”
“Then, if you like, I think I can spare a few mouthfuls to share with you,” Chaurin said, gently. It felt . . . right. He was still angry, on some level, even enraged. But these two were not the proper target of his rage. That rage, he would direct at those who sought to divide them, those who took bloody action in that cause.
Amara swallowed visibly; Chaurin could scent her revulsion. Narita said, “You don’t have to, if you don’t want to.” But Amara shook her head, swallowed again, and said, “No. I want to honor Gaurav, in the way of his people. I’d like to do this.”
They were so strange, these humans. But brave too. Chaurin did not want to go back home and hide in the tunnels. If they stood on the edge of the abyss, he chose to reach out his hand to the stranger. Perhaps they would find a way across.
Mary Anne Mohanraj is the author of Bodies in Motion (HarperCollins) and nine other titles. Bodies in Motion was a finalist for the Asian American Book Awards, a USA Today Notable Book, and has been translated into six languages. Previous titles include Aqua Erotica, Wet, Kathryn in the City, and The Classics Professor. Mohanraj founded the Hugo-nominated magazine, Strange Horizons. She was Guest of Honor at WisCon 2010, received a Breaking Barriers Award from the Chicago Foundation for Women for Asian American arts organizing, and won an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose. Mohanraj has taught at the Clarion SF/F workshop, and is now Clinical Assistant Professor of fiction and literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She serves as Executive Director of both DesiLit (www.desilit.org) and the Speculative Literature Foundation (www.speclit.org); the latter promotes literary quality in speculative fiction. Mohanraj's newest book is a Kickstarter-funded science fiction novella, The Stars Change, November 2013 from Circlet Press. She lives in a creaky old Victorian in Oak Park with her partner, Kevin, two small children, and a sweet dog.