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What does that mean, exactly?

by Sterling Magleby 6 months ago in science fiction

Science Fiction

There's a particular cushion on my family's big L-shaped couch that is far and away my favorite place to be. It's dented just right to curl up on with a book or one of my favorite shows. Those of you with long-loved pieces of furniture know what I'm talking about, the way it fits you, welcomes you, knows and draws out your very deepest sense of comfort and home.

My sister likes the spot too, I think mostly because I do, and also because she's kind of a brat. She'll sometimes run downstairs when she hears me leaving my room and plant herself there so she can give me one of those fake-beatific smiles that seem to be the specialty of all annoying little sisters, at least if some of my friends' siblings are anything to go on.

But she also sometimes knocks on my door and wants me to read her a story, even though she's been perfectly capable of reading her dog-eared favorite books herself for years now.

And unless I'm seriously behind on homework for the night or in the middle of an especially intense match online, I almost always do it. Those times, she always lets me sit in my favorite spot, cuddles up against my side, and loudly complains if I don't do all the voices "properly." It's annoying and often eats up a good chunk of what little free time I have on school nights and I wouldn't trade it for the world, any world, not even Earth which is something I still want to see someday.

Maybe as a graduation present, my parents say sometimes. Probably a combined graduation present for after we've both gotten through grade school, though by the time my sister graduates I'll likely have finished my college undergrad and gone on to whatever else I decide to do with my life. It takes a long time to save up for interstellar tickets, and my parents aren't rich like that. Not poor either, we can afford on-world vacations, but a Stardiver ship is a whole different category of transportation.

Anyway, I was sitting on that favorite cushion when the doorbell rang. It was late afternoon on a Saturday and I was getting near the end of a pretty good mystery novel, so I ignored it. The other three members of the family were home, let them play household ambassador.

"Jonathon, would you get that please," came Mom's distracted voice from the kitchen. I let out a long breath and cast about for my sister. Delegation is one of the secrets to business success, after all, that's what I read in some random article in a papermag at the xenodoc office where they wouldn't let me use my phone because the whole place was kept radio-silent. And if you can't believe random articles that might justify using your sister to get out of doing things, what can you believe?

But no luck, and no sister. Must have been upstairs in her room, probably chipped in to something. No one there but me and Winston, our cat, and while I love him dearly I have to admit he's not a very useful delegate. I grunted, dropped my tablet on the coffee table, and got up to make the eternal trek down the hall to the front door. Opened it, wondering what random annoyance it could be if Mom didn't even seem to be expecting anyone.

I stood staring for a long moment. "Mom," I said, cursing the shakiness I heard in my own voice, which I already cursed at a lot for other difficulties anyways. "You'd better come."

She must have heard it too, in my voice, because she was there standing behind me almost immediately. She's a lot taller than I am, both my parents are, sister will be too once she grows up. I'd already hit my adult height years back, around her age actually, no growing upward for me from nine to my then-seventeen.

Two of the three people standing in the doorway were about my height. About my lots of things, actually. The third was a tallish man in a suit, looking official.

I backed slowly away, pressing back against Mom. I'm a little old to be doing that, I know. But this was a shock. These were adults.

I had never seen an adult of my own species in the flesh before. Let alone a pair of them. I mean, I'm old enough that I'd be considered a biological adult if I were human, and yeah I hit max height years ago, but I haven't even started in on sexual maturity yet, sorry if that's more information than you maybe wanted to know. My microscales are still dull, my head smooth, wings with no barbs at the tips.

It's the same with all my Glonerai friends. It hasn't been long enough since the end of the war for any of use to reach full adulthood. From what I understand, the invasion/colonization forces only brought adults and frozen embryos. Kids and adolescents were considered liabilities for the "initial operational phases." Not that it helped, I guess, they still lost in the end. I mean, obviously, I'm here, and so are my parents and sister.

"Mr. and Mrs. Santiago?" said the tall man in the formal suit. I looked behind me and yep, there was Dad. He'd come up quietly, while I'd been lost in shock and thought. Mom must have messaged him.

"Yes?" Mom said, voice full of tension. I looked back at her too. She was doing her best not to stare at the Glonerai standing in front of the man. One male, one female, him with iridescent scales and a double-row crest on his head and presumably barbs on his wings, though they were folded behind him, her with deep-black scales that seemed to suck up the light and a head as smooth as mine. Mostly likely razorfins along the outer leading edges of her wings.

Fuck. What the fuck.

"May we come in?" the man said.

"Who are you, exactly?" Dad asked quietly.

"Nwabudike Nguyen," the tall man said. "Xenodiplomatic corps." He held out a hand, palm up, showing a slowly rotating badge, bright and translucent in the air above his projector-implant.

Mom was still staring at the Glonerai, the adult Glonerai. I knew she'd been through treatment for her war-PTSD and was relatively okay by then but still, gotta be a shock, first sight of them since the war ended. Sure, I'll be an adult too in a couple years, but there would be time to adjust to that, and anyway I'm her son.

I took her hand and held it, and some part of me hoped mine would still be a comfort, with its three fingers and differently-jointed thumb and microscaling and higher body temperature, but I knew that was a stupid thought, a useless insecurity, and she squeezed it, put her other hand on my shoulder.

I smiled. The two Glonerai recoiled.

"He's not displaying hostility," Agent Nguyen said quickly. "You know what that particular facial expression means."

"Yes," said the Glonerai woman, "but to see it on a Glonerai face..." Her accent was very heavy, lots of difficulty with the Gentic words, and I felt a small stab of kinship. Gentic's one of the easier human languages for us to pronounce, but the English-derived lingua franca still has a lot of difficult phonemes in it.

Mom's hand squeezed mine a little more firmly.

"You've seen it on plenty of Glonerai faces, we sent your embassy a very large archive of adoptee footage," the agent said. His voice was surprisingly sharp, and I thought, he doesn't really want this particular assignment, or maybe he just doesn't like this pair very much. Or a combination of the two.

"It is...different in person," said the Glonerai man, only he said it in Glonerai Standard, a language I took classes in growing up but to be honest still didn't know all that well, only catching the full meaning after the speaker-band around his neck repeated it in Gentic. "Showing his teeth like that."

I was tempted to smile more broadly, but clamped my lips shut instead. I knew the response they were looking for, of course I did, it's pretty much instinctive even though the more human smile has become such a habit that it's close to unconscious as well. Instinctive, but faked in this case. I didn't really feel like smiling at these two, not in any form. But I squinted my eyes anyway, raised and pivoted my ears to point at the Glonerai woman.

"Better?" I asked, hoping there's not too much sarcasm in my voice, or at least that they wouldn't be able to pick up on it if there was. Agent Nguyen gave a little snort, though, so I guessed I'd just have to hope they hadn't noticed.

The woman smiled back, after her fashion. Same squinting of the eyes, swivel of the ears, small, subtle. She didn't say anything. I felt a small hint of warmth, but that's all.

"May we come in?" Agent Nguyen said, and I got the impression it was really only a formality. Sure, Mom and Dad didn't technically have to let anyone in, but there would be all kinds of awkward trouble if they didn't. We were going to talk to these three one way or another.

"Sure," Mom said, with carefully constructed lightness. "I'll pull up some more chairs round the kitchen table. Can I get you anything to drink?"

"We cannot consume Terran food and beverage," the man said, first through his mouth and then through his speaker-collar.

"We have Glonerai-compatible stuff in the kitchen," Dad said dryly, and didn't say you idiot, of course we do. So I tried to say it myself without speaking, giving them an exaggerated if closed-lip smile, but that was probably wasted so I add aloud, "Also, we have water." And you don't need special water, you were perfectly happy trying to steal ours from this and a dozen other worlds, weren't you?

"Water...would be fine," the woman said, and glanced at the man. He just looked back at her, impassive features, no body language I could read, and I'm no slouch at that, got plenty of other Glonerai friends, have watched plenty of their media. Though...usually with subtitles.

We went into the kitchen. I remember sitting down, the unreality of it, two adults, two non-human adults, there in the most ordinary place I could imagine. Six chairs. My parents on one side, me between them. The Glonerai pair on the other, refusing to be separated by their human minder, who just shrugged and sat down on their left. The woman, right across from me. Her eyes were unsettling, not because they were unfamiliar, after all I'd seen similar ones a million times in mirrors and the faces of friends.

I just didn't know what she wants. But it was something, something with depth if maybe not intensity? She seemed determined, like it was something she's supposed to want, really driven to need even if the root of it's not a natural one.

Or maybe I'm putting that all onto her face in retrospect, now. Memory's a funny thing, and not always the jovial kind of humor, you know? Sometimes more like the Joker from turn-of-the-millennium Angloglobal Earth culture. Still remember that slasher smile from images in my Humanities textbook.

Baring his teeth.

"I suppose we should get to the point," the Agent said after a long weighted moment. "This is..." he paused, as though preparing his very human mouth to deal with coming difficulties, "Allnluk shk-Davrlt and Faaghlt thlk-Snntld. They're Jonathon's closest living relatives."

We all just stared. I wasn't sure what I was feeling, but I knew I didn't like it, wanted it to go away. Maybe it would be a good thing at some point in the future, but right then it weighed down much too heavy for anything but ache and uncertainty.

"Ummm..." I broke the silence, panicking slightly at the sounds coming out of my own mouth. "Very nice to meet you, I guess." The cringing punch of that trailing "I guess" hit me right in the gut.

Goddamn it.

"It is...nice to meet you...too," the man said, translator's digitized Gentic trailing the Glonerai words my brain deciphered slower than the device.

"We are here as part of a new prisoner-exchange initiative between..." the woman began, and I shot to my feet.

"I'm not a fucking prisoner!" I yelled, full of sudden heat, astonished at my own words, at how quickly I'd made the connection, how instantly it had kicked me from unease to utter rage.

Stares again, in my direction this time, but a much shorter silence.

"We understand this is difficult," the woman said, unable to hide the remnants of shock in her voice. "Apologies if a choice of words has offended. You were taken in by humans after your parents were killed. We are not unappreciative of this. But true lasting peace is being forged here, beyond just the many years of ceasefire. That means reconciliation. It means you can come home."

"I am home," I said flatly.

"We...are family," the man said, and there was shock in his voice too, but fresher, compounded.

"No," I said, feeling a sudden desperation for my parents to say something, not just let me go on like this, maybe ruin something important, "you're relatives. My family is right here."

That led to a brief pause in which my parents didn't say anything, but my sister did. Must have crept down from the stairs, been listening in.

"YOU CAN'T TAKE HIM," she screamed, running up to the table and giving it a little shove. "HE'S MY BROTHER."

"Alissa," Agent Nguyen said softly, "no one is taking anyone against their will. It's up to Jonathon how we handle this. Both governments have agreed on that. Not just for him, but for all the adoptees."

I scoffed. Didn't think that deserved any actual words.

But Mom did. "He's our son," she said, and the vehemence there, the intensity as she leaned forward over the table, staring the man and woman down, astonished me. "And that's all there is, that's all that matters here."

The man shook his head, slowly, carefully, like the learned gesture it no doubt was. "This adolescent is my late cousin's second son. His name was already given to him before he was frozen for transport. It is..."

I pounded the table. "SHUT THE FUCK UP," I yelled, still astonished at myself, wondering how much trouble I'm going to be in after all this is over. Cussing out strangers...guests, even, guests from another civilization, that could be cause for an epic grounding. Or worse. And yes, Mom and Dad both looked furious.

But not at me.

"The name is important," the woman said, and drew in a deep breath before letting it back out in a slow hiss. "It was given you by your dead parents. They—"

"They invaded this planet and got killed for their trouble," I said. "They gave me their genetic material, sure. But my parents are right here. Listen, I know..." I took in a long steadying breath of my own, "...I know this is a lot for you, and I'm sorry for yelling. Sorry for cussing you out. But you don't seem to even begin to understand how it is. This is my family. This is where I belong. I'm not going anywhere. Maybe visit, someday, when that's possible, when the peace is permanent and solid? But not now. I still have more growing up to do."

They both stared at me, showing just about every sign a Glonerai can for stress and appalled astonishment. I went on anyway.

"I'm not going to say I'm not curious about that part of me, that part of where I come from. We can have some contact if they'll let us, send messages. But that doesn't change the fact that my family is here."

"You are...not even the same species," the man said. "Family is...that is not...I..."

"You say this is your family?" the woman cut in. "What does that mean, exactly?"

I stood up, saying nothing, and walked into the living room. Bent down, looked under the sofa. Winston was there, white and black fur in the shadows, shining eyes looking out. He's not an especially shy cat, normally, but there had been raised voices and these visitors were beyond usual levels of unfamiliar.

I held out my hand. "It's okay, Winston," I said. He gave a soft mew and crawled out, bumped his cheek against my hand, put his paws on my shoulders, bopped my nose with his. I smiled, picked him up, carried him back to the table, sat down again and let him settle in my arms while I stroked his head.

"This is Winston," I told the man and the woman.

They both looked at him, probably consulting some database heuristic through optical implants. "A Terran predator animal," the man said. "Kept to exterminate pests."

"Not really," I said, laughing a little. "Not in houses like ours. We keep him because he's part of the family too."

"Jonathon," Dad said gently. "We don't think of you as being like the family cat. You're our son, not our pet."

I laughed and reached over to pat his hand. "I know, Dad. But I hope they get at least part of my point."

"This is beside...beside the real point," the man said, his translator seeming to struggle to fully express his feelings. He'd spoken too fast for me to really catch much of it myself. "You belong to us, to the Glonerai. You must see this. These humans are temporary guardians. Their mercy toward you is appreciated. Now you can return to your people."

"I belong where I say I belong," I said softly, and the words brought me a small sweet grant of pride. "I belong here. That's final. We can communicate more, later, if they'll let us. Like I said. But right now, you need to go."

On either side of me, my parents looked at each other, leaned in toward me, held gazes, nodded. "Jonathon's right," Mom said. "Mr. Nguyen, we appreciate you bringing this to our attention, but please escort our guests to the door."

Nwabudike Nguyen folded his arms, leaning forward over them. His face hard to read, a whole muddle of emotion. "Are you sure that's your decision, Jonathon? You can take some time if you need. We have a week's accommodation readied for your, ah, relations here."

"I'm sure," I said, hoping I'd put enough finality into the words. "We'll talk about keeping touch and maybe visits later. Right now, I need to spend some time with my family. This is...this has been a lot."

He nodded, just once, and stood up. "Wait," said the man. "We—"

"NO," Nguyen replied. "We're leaving. Now. I told you, you shouldn't have insisted on meeting him at his home without warning like this."

"The terms of the treaty give us a clear right to—"

"I KNOW what the treaty SAYS," Nguyen said through gritted teeth. "It was still an unwise decision, and right NOW what you don't have is a clear right to remain in this house. Understand that if you linger a second longer, the consequences will be SEVERE. Not one more word. Stand, leave with me, we can discuss things further in the vehicle."

Damn. Just about at the end of his patience. I wondered how much and how long they'd been getting on his nerves before they'd even arrived at our house.

His speech worked, though. They stood, with one more glance at me, faces and body language a warring wash of anger, sadness, bewilderment, frustration. I felt...just a little bad.

But this was the right call. They left. The door closed. Winston meowed and gently rubbed his head against my chest, purring. I scratched behind his ears.

"Sorry Mom. Dad. I know I shouldn't have—"

"Jonathon," Mom said firmly, and squeezed my shoulder. I looked over. Tears, running down her cheeks and dropping onto the tablecloth, one by one. "You have never needed to apologize less in your entire life."

science fiction

Sterling Magleby

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