art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson
by Nicky Drayden
Nicky Drayden is a Systems Analyst who dabbles in prose when she's not buried in code. She resides in Austin, Texas where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required. You can see more of her work at nickydrayden.com.
Dr. Gianna Nero played the recording back for the fifth time, noting the odd inflections and guttural clicks in Breva's message. A smile curled up at the edges of her mouth as she caught the double entendre that no one on Earth would notice except her. In less than twenty-four hours, twelve billion people would hear Breva's message--a message of peace, hope, friendship, and excitement over the impending meeting of their two races. He expressed his desire to extend gratitude for humanity's generous offer to share their planet with the sSuryn, who'd lost theirs to a fungal blight that decimated their ecosystem.
Gratitude was the word that snagged Gianna's attention. In addition to the literal translation, it was also a colloquialism for the sSuryn's biological equivalent of a female orgasm. Breva had never explicitly said that, of course, but Gianna had gathered as much from their conversations over the last decade. Establishing a rapport between the sSuryn and humans required unprecedented tact from both sides, but they still managed to express their feelings for each other in buried messages. Yes, behind his dignified demeanor, chiseled features, and sharp tongue, Breva Harathla was nothing but a flirt.
"Dr. Nero, you're blushing," Mark Johansson said, eyeing the translation from over Gianna's shoulder.
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Gianna stiffened and swiped her hand across the soft glow of the translated text, feeling like a schoolgirl hiding her diary beneath her mattress. The avi-screen faded to black, taking Breva's recording with it. For the briefest of moments, his raspy voice echoed against the walls of her lab.
"Can I help you, sir?" Gianna said, a hint of annoyance in her voice. Technically Mark was her supervisor, somewhere above her on the tangled bureaucratic web that had spun off from SETI when the sSuryn made first contact, but her interactions with Breva were a mystery to him. His expertise lay in engineering and the hard sciences, and Mark had a difficult enough time dealing with the social mores of humankind.
"Just checking on your progress. The Powers That Be are getting antsy."
"This isn't something that can be rushed," Gianna said. "There are cultural subtleties that need to be carefully assessed. I need to capture not just his words, but also his intent." She stood her ground, kept her eye contact firm, but it was true that she hadn't been working as quickly as she should have. Perhaps her mind was digging too deeply for hidden meaning beneath Breva's words.
It'd been six months since she'd received Breva's last communication, in which he'd covertly expressed his interest in kissing her. For six months straight she'd imagined his thin, pale blue lips against hers, and his long, sticky tongue flicking inside her mouth. It made it hard to concentrate, but Gianna knew her efforts would lay the groundwork for integrating the sSuryn into society upon their arrival, a mere eight years from now. She'd be fifty then. And Breva would still be his handsome self, tight skin that glowed like moonlight, yellow-gold eyes that had seen the cradle of the galaxy, and long, padded fingers on red-palmed hands--hands that had found themselves in Gianna's dreams since she was just a girl in college, hands adept at doing very inappropriate things....
"Earth to Dr. Nero!" Mark said abruptly.
Gianna startled. "Sorry. I was just working through a difficult translation. In my mind."
"Mmm-hmmm," Mark said without conviction. "So as I was saying, we're bringing in someone for you to train. Someone to help you get through your work a little faster."
"You want me to train someone? Sure. How about I make some flashcards on the one hundred forty-seven honorifics? Or the twenty-two different meanings of the word JuHal-Langh? Or how the degree to which you raise your chin at the end of a sentence can mean the difference between a compliment, a verbal assault, or an invitation to mate? Or better yet, in all this spare time that you think I must have, I'll just write up a whole series of books: sSuryn for Dummies!"
"I'm not saying that it will be easy. Or quick. But Treven has already mastered Breva's introductory messages. He's bright, and I promise he'll be helpful. I know your stance on this, but it just isn't prudent to have only one expert on sSuryn culture."
"That's exactly what being the 'foremost expert' means. I've poured my soul into this project. You don't get bags like this under your eyes by working forty-hour weeks." Gianna pressed her lips together, her mind racing through cusses in a dozen Earth languages, and when she'd run through those, allowed herself to say a few of the more colorful sSuryn ones under her breath. Neither of them said it, but she'd be training her replacement. "Mark, I simply don't have the time to waste on some snot-nosed brat who thinks being able to string a couple of sSuryn phrases together will pass for fluency."
"This isn't up for negotiation. Not this time. And I'm sure you'll find Treven to be more than capable. It took him three months to master Mandarin. Four for Russian. Six weeks for Swahili. Think of him as an apprentice. Give him grunt work, I don't care. Just throw him a bone here and there. Access to your notes, that sort of stuff. I'll tell him not to get in your way."
"He'd better not," Gianna nearly spat, and she had to stop herself from jutting her chin at that angle that meant she'd wring the kid's throat if he did.
Gianna balanced on the edge of the curb while her fellow students darted past her and crossed the street in the last seconds before the traffic lights turned green. She clutched her empty backpack to her chest, rocked heel to toe as she saw a campus shuttle bus barreling towards the crosswalk, bobbing on worn shocks. She waited until she could make out the expression on the bus driver's face--dull eyes, slack jaw--the look that comes from going in circle after meaningless circle. Gianna understood that look.
Her heart thudded in her chest. Her old life was a thousand miles away now, reduced to a string of empty long-distance relationships--infrequent emails from her high school friends in Chicago, aloof text messages from her boyfriend, passive-aggressive letters from her father scribbled on stationary smelling of his Tuscan cigars. None of it mattered. It'd all be over soon.
She leaned forward, lifted a leg.
"Whoa there, space cadet," a voice said from behind her. A hand came down on her shoulder and pulled her away from the oncoming traffic back onto the curb. The bus whooshed by, taking her breath with it as it passed. "You gotta wait for the little white man to tell you to walk."
It was what's-his-face, from Applied Thermodynamics, sat a couple rows ahead of her and spent most of his time playing FreeCell on his laptop instead of taking notes. He was always eating oranges and guzzling Topo Chico. What was his name? Hector? Juan? Jose?
"Oh, hey," Gianna muttered, rubbing her sweaty palms against her jeans.
"You watching the address on the Main Mall?"
"The Presidential Address. Have you been buried under a rock the past two days or something?" Hector-Juan-Jose reached into his backpack and pulled out a cheap plastic alien mask. The rubber band snapped loose as he tried to stretch it around his head. "Shit!" he grumbled, then sucked at his finger. "Anyway, word on the net is that it has to do with aliens. Real aliens. Not like some microscopic fossils they found on Mars or anything. So you going, or what? I want to get a good spot before things get crazy." He pushed his thick bangs out of his face and looked at her intently, a crooked smile on his lips. Hector-Juan-Jose was the first person who'd said more than two sentences to her all week. He was nice, but a little weird, like he was trying too hard. Still, Gianna trembled at the thought of being alone right now.
"Okay," she said softly, but when the crosswalk light turned again and the students resumed their migration, Gianna stood there petrified. Hector-Juan-Jose extended his hand, soft and moist in hers.
"Come on. White man says it's okay." He nodded up at the walk figure on the crossing light.
The crowd thickened considerably by the time they reached the Main Mall, a thousand strangers pressing against her, many wearing aliens masks--a typical mish-mash of Sci-fi pop culture, plus a few that Gianna didn't recognize. She kept her fist clenched around the tail of Hector-Juan-Jose's t-shirt as he wedged deeper into the student body, towards the steps in front of the bell tower. Gianna thought she would suffocate from the mix of perfume and B.O. reeking in the late August heat.
A projection screen was set up at the top of the stairs, bearing an image of the President of the United States washed out by the noontime Texas sun. His words, however, blared from several sets of speakers--words deep and foreboding. "WE ARE NOT ALONE."
She took Hector-Juan-Jose to bed that night. The sex was awkward--more weird than nice, sort of like he was trying too hard. But she didn't regret it. Half the planet was probably fucking right now. Gianna guessed that's just what people did after seeing alien life for the first time, and learning that in thirty short years they'd be living among us. Fear. Excitement. Uncertainty. But for all of the emotion on the surface, Gianna figured it all came down to one primal thing: Gotta make sure there's more of us than them.
Sweaty and stinking of each other, they stretched across the length of his twin-sized bed and watched the rebroadcast on his laptop. The message had taken eighteen months to reach Earth, and promised the sharing of knowledge and technology in exchange for asylum. At least that's what they'd figured out from the wet clicks and whistles of the aliens' language. There were large gaps in the translations, during which Gianna would concentrate on the alien's mouth. Breva was his name. If she squinted really hard, he might pass for human. He had the sharp features of a rocker, almost feminine. She noticed hints of amphibian ancestry here and there--rubbery skin that glowed ever so slightly and a long tongue that didn't seem to want to fit completely inside his mouth. She guessed that he was probably handsome to his own kind.
"Do you know how lucky we are?" Hector-Juan-Jose said, face lit up by the screen. He placed his hand at the small of her back. "We're majoring in aerospace engineering on the cusp of all of this alien technology. We'll be creating things that we never could have imagined!"
"I want to shake Breva's hand," Gianna blurted out, surprising herself. "Or however the Sussurine greet each other. I want to welcome them to Earth. Akuotraaam sur dekpth Fevcha." She'd memorized the first line of Breva's message... the words were so alien in her mouth, like she was trying to gargle with a bad sinus infection, but she thought she did a pretty decent imitation.
Hector-Juan-Jose laughed. "We'll be what? Fifty years old then? That's a long time to wait just to say hello."
Gianna sat up, pulling the sheets over her chest. Fifty. She tried to imagine herself at fifty. Wrinkles. Gray hair. Achy joints. Hot flashes. Gianna realized this was the first time she'd thought about her future in a long, long time. She exhaled sharply.
Maybe she'd look into changing her major to linguistics in the morning.
Gianna assessed herself in the mirror, chin tucked, posture erect, bloodshot eyes narrowed, and lips futilely trying to get out of the way as she uttered a consonant-heavy sSuryn word, twelve syllables long.
"Careful," Treven said, taking her side. Their shoulders touched, and in his reflection Gianna saw the man she still thought of as that snotty-nose brat who'd walked into her lab nearly ten years ago. "The way you said 'appreciate' could take on a sexual connotation if you tilt your head like that. Maybe you should use uklala suasi instead. It's easier to say, and has a more exact meaning."
"Are you telling me how to do my translations?" Gianna said, half chiding, half mocking. She tapped the mirror and it returned to the default backlit display that had practically ingrained itself into her brain. Gianna fanned her eyes until they teared up, offering a bit of relief from the burn.
"I'm worried about you, Gee. You've been at this for fifteen hours straight." He gave her back an open-palmed rub. "I can help if you let me." With his free hand, he swiped away pages of the avi-screen until his custom display appeared.
Gianna grunted, too tired even to yell at him for messing with her controls. A true-to-life holo-projection appeared in front of them, a female that looked suspiciously like a younger, prettier, sSuryn version of Gianna. "Akuotraaam sur dekpth Fevcha," she greeted them with a cross-armed bow, pronunciation impeccable. The technology was alien, but the English to sSuryn language conversions were concocted by Treven. Gianna furrowed her brow.
"I know what you're thinking," Treven said. "But I've made significant modifications to the translation algorithms."
The last time Treven had shown her the holo-projection, it had done well on the exchange of customary pleasantries, but when Gianna had tested its knowledge with simple verb conjugations, it promptly told her that her statement was teeming with ass muffles, and would she please repeat it. The only reason Gianna encouraged Treven's obsession was that this little project kept him out of her hair. A simulation would never be sophisticated enough to understand all of the nuances of sSuryn culture--a civilization where custom, language, and impeccable manners were inseparable.
Treven started up a demonstration of the use of honorifics, and the holo-projection didn't trip on a single one. Gianna put it to the test, trying to break it with covert inflections and declensions. It held up to her satisfaction, not just with words, but its physical responses as well.
"Color me impressed," Gianna said with a smile, and Treven heaved a sigh of relief. "Though you may have just put us both out of a job."
"You can't be replaced, Gee. All the translation algorithms in the world aren't a match for your brain." Treven looked at her with the wide eyes of a pupil who had not yet realized his knowledge had surpassed that of his teacher.
Gianna fanned him away. Treven gave her a sly grin, then left the lab, promising to fetch strong coffee and dark cherry cannolis. Caffeine would be nice. She needed to get this translation done. It would likely be the last she sent before the sSuryn's arrival. It'd be her last chance to say what she needed to say to Breva before they were caught up in the storm of politics, biology, and media. Should she tell him the truth? It scared her that soon their conversations wouldn't span months and years. No longer would she have endless hours to craft the perfect flirty lines.
Gianna fidgeted with the controls on Treven's custom interface until the holo-projection of the female sSuryn was replaced with that of Breva. He stood a mere four feet tall, barrel-chested with powerful legs that accounted for half of his height, but Gianna had long ago learned to look past all that. She looked into his golden eyes and expressed her undying appreciation for his friendship, not bothering to mask any of the sexual undertones.
The skin at Breva's throat bulged, glowing hot white like he'd swallowed a miniature sun. It was a magnificent display of arousal that left Gianna with a tight chest and her heartbeat ringing in her ears. She reached out to touch him, but the holo-projection merely pooled around her fingers, breaking the perfect illusion. She'd seen that reaction from Breva once before, seemed like a lifetime ago. She'd been Treven's age, just barely out of her twenties. They'd called her a prodigy then, but compared to Treven, she was just a bumbling idiot with a barely functional grasp of sSuryn grammar.
The door to her lab hissed open behind her. She turned to scold Treven for being so clingy, but instead her boss stood there looking disconcerted. "Dr. Nero, we've received another message from the sSuryn," he said solemnly.
"What? Well, give it here." It was too soon for another message. Something had to be wrong. She swiped her avi-screen to default and brought up the translation application.
Mark shook his head. "We already know what it says."
"Treven?" she said, a touch of spite catching in her throat. It was her job to translate, not his.
He shook his head again. "It was a short automated message. Audio only. We didn't need to consult. It said 'Systems failure, ship disabled. Send help.'"
Gianna beamed inside as she stood at the head of her class, tapping symbols onto her pad with her stylus. She kept her brow furrowed, trying not to look so pleased with herself. The other students in her small cohort already hated her for being so much better at this than they were. So she held back, pretended that she was as dependent on the translation app as they were, though for the most part, Breva's words were clear in her mind.
The Three stood on either side of Breva's recorded projection, dressed in their drab sweaters and jeans, permanent thought lines etched into their foreheads. Gianna felt like a trespasser in their cramped, cluttered lab, and she tried to avoid brushing against the precariously stacked towers of computer equipment and recording devices.
A worldwide contest had identified the up-and-coming talent in sSuryn linguistics. Thousands had applied, ten were accepted into an advanced training class, and one had excelled above all others, earning herself a brief conversation with Breva as reward.
The tension in the room doubled as Gianna's name rolled off Breva's lips--pronounced with a light gurgle around the "Gee" that made her knees buckle and her ears tingle. Head to toe, she'd never felt more alive. He thanked her for her message, spoken with such flourish. He was impressed with how quickly someone so young had excelled. She held her laughter inside. She was hardly young, turned thirty-one this past April. Gianna had heard that sSuryn were protective of revealing their own age, but it was suspected that the sSuryn ship had been adrift for a century, and Breva claimed to have been aboard when it launched.
Breva flicked his tongue out, curling upwards, and sticking against his eye. The whole motion lasted less than half a second, but it meant he was apprehensive about something.
"However," he said in sSuryn, "I think I would be remiss if I didn't point out an error in your phrasing. What you meant to express was that it was a long-time dream for you to communicate directly with me. The fifth syllable is meant to hold a sustained stress with more moistness behind it. Otherwise it signifies a rather vulgar sex-act, one that would involve coiling your tongue around my--"
Gianna wanted to throw up. She cast her eyes up at Dr. Ramirez, the most respected of The Three. Dr. Ramirez's fingers flexed, like they wished to be wrapped around Gianna's throat. A decade had passed without an incident of this magnitude, but Gianna had decided to throw caution to the wind, to stray from the stock words and delve into those wetter ones that were more difficult for the human mouth to pronounce.
Gianna bent her head down and continued scribbling strange little symbols onto the screen, her stylus falling in sync with those of her classmates. But all she could think about was how she'd ruined her career with the mispronunciation of one damned syllable.
"--until a final forceful release," Breva continued. "So as you can see, it is a very painful yet pleasurable act. Or so I've heard. In any case, it is a common mistake--a play on words often used in literature--"
Snickering came from behind her as her cohort caught up on the translation. Gianna wanted nothing more than to curl up and die. The snickering soon grew to all-out laughter, and The Three cast spiteful looks at one another until Dr. Ramirez finally stepped forward and said, "Students! Show some professionalism, please."
The class slowly calmed itself, but Gianna eyed Breva's projection with a quiet bitterness. Was this merely a game to him? He had the whole world bending backwards and jumping through hoops for access to a steady trickle of alien technology. He'd shown little interest in Earth culture beyond a flimsy attempt to learn a few English phrases. He was arrogant. Pompous. Self-important. Gianna wanted so badly to be mad at him, and yet his was the only face in the room that didn't feed her humiliation. It was then that she noticed a slight bulge in his throat and an odd, silvery glow beneath his pale skin. Gianna got a strange feeling that maybe there was something on Earth that interested him.
She heard someone mutter that Gianna had just set a Guinness World Record for a long-distance phone sex call, and laughter erupted again. Dr. Ramirez shut Breva's projection off mid-sentence.
It was the only sSuryn broadcast that SETI decided not to release an official translation for, but any fool with the right equipment could snag the signal and post their own hack-job subtitles. By the end of the day, the message had gone viral on the net, and Gianna had single-handedly spurred a whole new genre of animated sSuryn porn. Gianna wanted off this planet, wanted to be with Breva on his ship, where she'd tell him that Earth was a crappy excuse for a planet anyway, and maybe they should just look for somewhere else to call home.
Dr. Ramirez called her into her office the next morning. Gianna expected to be told that she'd been officially expelled from the program, and though the tone of Dr. Ramirez's voice conveyed as much, her words spoke otherwise. "We've had a chance to review the end of Breva's message. He wants you to know that despite your flub..."
Gianna could almost taste the bitterness on Dr. Ramirez's lips. She knew the word choice was not her own. Her eyes read "monumental fuck-up."
"...your message captured the essence of the sSuryn language. Breva sees great potential in you, and wants you to speak for him. He has asked that you join The Three."
Gianna tried to speak, but her words got tangled up in her head, and what came out was a bastard mix of English, French, Japanese, sSuryn.
Dr. Ramirez cut her off with a cold glare. "We think it is best if you tell him in your own words that you cannot agree to this. That you do not yet have the skill to perform such a task."
Of The Three that had been chosen to speak for Breva, Gianna feared Dr. Ramirez the most. But looking into those steely eyes, Gianna realized that Dr. Ramirez was scared, too. The Three were three because they all possessed specialized talents--translation, pronunciation, mannerisms. Maybe Dr. Ramirez saw what Breva saw. She knew that The Three would become The Four, and if Gianna continued to progress, they would soon need only The One.
Gianna smiled while allowing saliva to pool in the back of her mouth. "I think that you will find, my most cherished and honorable teacher," Gianna said in infallible sSuryn, her sarcasm surviving nicely through the translation, "that my skills will prove to be more than sufficient."
Mark Johansson led the way into a dark corridor of the sSuryn mothership, pointing his flashlight at the walls that had fractured under the forced coupling with their cruiser. Cracks as thick as Gianna's arm ran across the algae-slickened bulkheads. She pressed her hand against one of the deep fissures, feeling a pang of inadequacy. It was her interpretations of the sSuryn schematics that the engineers had built the ship from. She felt some relief that algae coated the inner surface of the crack as well.
"They have artificial gravity," Mark said, simultaneously annoyed and intrigued. He'd always suspected that the sSuryn had been holding back. His official capacity on this mission was to aid the stranded sSuryn with any engineering needs, but it was an unspoken truth that his primary objective was to gather information on their technology.
Dr. Reynard scanned Mark, tapping at the medical console embedded into the sleeve of her pressure suit. A holo-projection of a cross-section of spongy bone appeared. "Bone density should hold up for a few hours at least. If you start to feel achy, rest for a while."
Mark brushed her off. "Worry about her." He nodded in Gianna's direction. "She blows an aneurism and we're fucked." Mark spoke like a man who'd woken up on the wrong side of the bed by about a billion miles.
"Her heartbeat's irregular," Dr. Reynard said as she scanned Gianna. "Blood pressure is through the roof."
"Damn it," Mark grunted.
"I'm fine," Gianna said, though her insides felt like a freezer burnt mess after six years in a cryo-chamber. "It's just nerves. We're making first contact with an alien race. Can't I be a little excited?"
"Don't get your hopes up, Dr. Nero." His voice crackled over the speaker in her helmet. "This very well may be a salvage mission. Minimal air, subfreezing temps. Doesn't look good."
"Maybe this section was abandoned," Gianna said, hanging on to hope. "Some of these fissures look like they've been here for a while." She removed her hand from the cracked bulkhead and a phosphorescent print remained. It pulsed, once, twice, then faded back into blackness.
Mark grunted then aimed his light deeper into the corridor. Another airlock stood at the end. As they neared, Gianna thought she heard knocking. It took all three of them to pry open the door. The hiss of venting atmosphere greeted them along with gray-green light, and small hands that pulled them quickly through the opening. It all happened so fast. The weak tug of gravity was just enough for her to fall slowly to the ground. sSuryn hands packed black sludge against the opening in the airlock.
Though the force was slight, a fourth of a gee at most, it made her bones ache, or what was left of them. Two sets of sSuryn hands helped her up to her feet.
"Awatle gwo icham so salle sutch em ichtle," said one of them, his puckered hand pressed against her chest. "Aknew ack." He blinked his globular eyes, much larger and yellower than Breva's. His build was slight, and even though he only came up to Gianna's shoulders, Gianna got the feeling that this was not a sSuryn to cross. She pressed the button for her external speaker.
"Pardon?" she rasped politely in sSuryn, her mind still racing.
He cocked his head, then repeated himself. The words slipped past Gianna's ears, sounds familiar, but none of them coalesced into words she knew.
"What is he saying?" asked Mark, who now stood hunched over next to her. His helmet grazed the ceiling.
"I--" Gianna paused to catch her breath within the tight confines of her pressure suit. Even the slightest movement made her lightheaded. The sound of blood rushing through her veins drowned out her thoughts. "I'm not sure. It's like he's speaking some sort of pidgin dialect. But I think he said something about their leader." Gianna wasn't even sure of that, but she didn't want to look like a complete idiot in front of her crewmates.
Three figures approached with long, purposeful gaits. Gianna tried to moisten her mouth with saliva, but her tongue remained dry as parchment. It would make for difficult speaking, but she'd still be able to convey the formal gestures that sSuryn etiquette demanded.
The pallid light wasn't intense enough to reveal the figures' faces until they were almost upon them. Gianna held her hands together, palms facing in, bowed forward slightly, and kept her chin tucked. It was a greeting she and Breva had performed countless times over the past decades, and it felt as comfortable as a handshake.
Only the sSuryn standing before her wasn't Breva.
He threw up a half-hearted gesture that Gianna wasn't sure how to interpret.
"Akuotraaam sur dekpth Fevcha," Gianna said without missing a beat. She tried not to think of what Breva's absence meant. "I am the one called Gianna," she added in sSuryn.
"And a wealth of good tidings to you, newly endeared friends. I am the one called Metlath," the sSuryn returned the greeting--such a mash of words that Gianna wouldn't have been able to make it out if she hadn't been expecting it. "We give many jultha le us and all no thanks for you and all traveling fravadthe. We could not unsend for you and all ichadt mekthe leimp. No thanks for you and all, but there must be leaving umptha."
A small head peeked over the sSuyrn's shoulder, glanced at Gianna, then made a tiny squeak before hiding again.
"What the hell is he saying?" came Mark's voice over her private channel.
"I'm not sure," Gianna admitted. "I couldn't catch it all, but I think he wants us to leave."
"Get him to change his mind," Mark said. "We didn't come all this way for nothing."
Gianna tried to explain their situation, to figure out what had happened, and why they hadn't received further messages since the one asking for help. Metlath's words were barely intelligible, and frustration began to mount on both sides. From what Gianna could gather, they'd lost function to several of their systems, including communications, but when she offered up Mark's technical expertise, the sSuryn's posture became more hostile.
A padded hand grasped Metlath's shoulder, and the small head poked up and whispered something into his ear. He relaxed some, but still looked as if he wanted Gianna and her crewmates off his ship.
"Who is this much honored fond one?" Gianna asked, using the highest honorific for someone of unknown status. The small sSuryn's eyes brightened at the compliment, then she shied away like a timid housecat.
"This honored one is Chailem," the sSuryn said, his voice softened ever so slightly. "She is my fondest keppta."
Gianna did not know the word, but the pride was unmistakable in any language. His child then. Chailem crawled over her father's shoulder, and onto his chest, her padded hands too large in proportion to her body, but they allowed her to cling to him. Her tongue shot up and whipped wetly against his eyeball. The sSuryn didn't blink--a sign of trust and affection. Chailem then leapt through the air, legs and arms spread wide. She landed on Gianna's faceplate, puckered fingertips suctioned against the glass.
"Chailem!" Metlath called.
Gianna peeled Chailem from her helmet and cradled her in her arms. Chailem was plump through the abdomen with long, thin limbs--not much bigger than a human infant, though from the look in her eyes, her mind was as nimble as she was. Gianna noticed a rash that took up most of Chailem's abdomen, discolored and raised, like a bad case of ringworm.
"Dr. Reynard," Gianna said quickly as Metlath approached. "Can you cure this?"
Dr. Reynard did a simple scan, then nodded.
"Our most honored host," Gianna said, holding Chailem outstretched so Metlath wouldn't get any ideas about her intent. "Our doctor has a cure for this fungus. I am sorry if I have said something to dishonor you and your keppta, but we only wish to help."
The sSuryn stopped cold, then stared at Dr. Reynard. "You are a doctor?"
"She knows more about sSuryn biology than any other human." Which maybe wasn't saying a whole lot, but it was certainly true.
The sSuryn cussed, expelled gas, then pressed Chailem back into Gianna's arms. "This tplelm tegghe rampant and is jaagroseth deadly. Teach ontou to cure it and we will be stkimth grateful."
Metlath traced his finger over the wall and the algae lit up beneath his touch. A series of symbols pulsed, then condensed into a single point of light that sped down the corridor and disappeared around a corner. Minutes later, a crowd converged, dozens of rambunctious sSuryn plagued with the fungal growth. Two small sSuryn perched on each of Dr. Reynard's shoulders, watching attentively as she ran a subdermal wand over Chailem's chest. The blistering receded until all that remained was a scaly discoloration.
Chailem leapt into Metlath's arms and their tongues entwined. Gianna began to suspect that keppta meant something different than what she'd originally thought. The sSuryn cheered, cussed, spat, and farted as they saw that Chailem was cured. They were rowdy, almost primitive, bearing no resemblance to the sophisticated culture Breva had described.
"Nero, get your head in this," came Mark's voice. "This is our chance. Tell them that we'll cure all of those in need if they teach us how they create gravity."
Gianna shook her head. She'd known that there'd be surprises with sSuryn customs here and there, but she didn't understand how she could have gotten everything so horribly wrong. She needed to speak with Breva. Breva would explain it all.
Mark nodded her towards Metlath. "Ask him."
Gianna stepped forward. "Our most honored and noble host," Gianna said, the disgust at his lack of manners making her mouth slick at least. "We would like to propose an exchange of knowledge...."
Metlath licked each of his eyes and grunted. Gianna could tell he didn't like where this conversation was going.
"We will aid you in curing this rash. And in exchange..." This was all wrong. She'd given up so many years of her life and had sacrificed her body to the perils of space for one thing only. She had to know. More than anything she had to know. "...and in exchange, I wish for you to tell me what has happened to Breva."
"Hasuktch le gosa Breva metche," Metlath hissed. Breva is deading to us.
"How? When?" Gianna stumbled backwards, as if his words had collided with her chest. sSuryn hands shoved her, and more hissing ensued.
Mark grabbed her by the arm. "You think I'm an idiot? You realize you're risking humanity's future on your little crush. You're a waste of oxygen, Nero. Go back to the ship." Mark tapped the display and the holo-projection application came up.
"You can't use that thing," Gianna pleaded. "Their language, their culture... none of this has been programmed for! You need a real person, not a bunch of half-assed algorithms. Just give me some time with them. I can figure this out. The sSuryn have been my whole life."
"A whole hell of a lot that's done for us so far. The projection couldn't possibly do any worse." Mark pushed Gianna aside, then said to Dr. Reynard. "Heal them. We'll deal with the business end later."
Gianna backed away from the clamor. It didn't make sense. The sSuryn had given them the specs for so much technology, and yet they couldn't even manage to cure a simple fungal disease? Sadness overwhelmed her. Her eyes strained to produce tears, but there were none to be had. She glanced up, just in time to see Chailem sailing through the air towards her. The small sSuryn landed on her shoulder with a soft thump.
"I thank you for curing me," she said in the delicately articulated sSuryn that Gianna was used to. Chailem's tongue flicked against Gianna's faceplate.
"You speak differently than Metlath."
"Metlath is stubborn. He refuses to learn the language of the Old Ones. They are all stubborn. But I am not. I have learned. Breva has taught me."
"Breva?" Gianna said with a wheeze.
"I know where he is."
A scream came from the crowd. A human scream. The mass of ornery sSuryn heaved forward, arms flailing, something like madness in their eyes. It was all too much for Gianna to process at once, and suddenly the enormity of the situation caught up with her.
Chailem stood upon Gianna's shoulder like a captain at the helm of her ship. She pointed. "This way." Gianna rounded the corner, into relative safety. Dr. Reynard ran past with a pack of sSuryn on her heels. She reached the airlock and began scraping away at the black muck with her laser scalpel. Mark tried to hold the crowd at bay. He glanced at Gianna, close enough that she saw the worry etched on his face.
"Come on, Nero. We're getting out of here. The projection spooked them. Things are getting hostile." A wad of black sludge smacked against his faceplate. "Shit!" he said, trying futilely to wipe it off. Half blinded, he became more vulnerable to their attacks. The sSuryn hacked up more sludge from their throats and packed it around his leg until it was immobilized.
Gianna stood frozen.
"Nero!" Mark called again as Dr. Reynard broke the seal and began pulling him through. "Our mission is aborted. Come on, damn it!"
She couldn't go back now. Not when she'd come so far. Even if she survived the return trip, she would go mad from not knowing what had gone wrong. Breva was here. He had the answers.
"Nero! Don't make us leave you."
Gianna slunk backwards, keeping her body pressed against the wall. sSuryn eyes darted her way. First a couple, then dozens more. Chailem licked her own eye in anxiety.
"Leave me." The words were simple English, and yet tasted so odd in her mouth.
"Damn it, Nero. If you think--"
Gianna tapped her avi-screen and the helmet speaker went silent. She ran, the impact of each step surging through her entire body. The pain in her bones became unbearable. She pressed on until she retched, her obstinate stomach unwilling to give up its paltry liquid contents.
But she couldn't rest. Wet footsteps slapped behind her. She glanced back and saw a mob of sSuryn after her. Globs of sludge hit the back of her suit, and as it dried, her run became not much more than a quick limp. They were upon her. Padded fingers pulled at her pressure suit, tring to pry off her avi-screen and unscrew her helmet.
Chailem jumped from her shoulder and stuck to the ceiling. "Please, Gianna. Only a little more! Breva is not far."
Gianna clawed her way forward, cussing her pursuers in every sSuryn swear she knew until she collapsed. She had no energy left to scream, so instead she closed her eyes and waited for death.
But death did not come. She looked up to see the sSuryn mob panting and drooling, not even a meter away. They dared not come closer.
"Chailem!" Metlath croaked, deep and throaty, followed by a string of wet words that Gianna couldn't unravel. Chailem winked a bulbous eye at Gianna, then jumped down into Metlath's arms and pointed innocently at Gianna as if this had all been her idea. Metlath stepped forward as if to curse Gianna, but then his eyes fell upon something behind her, and the sSuryn scuttled away en masse.
There was a presence, and Gianna knew before looking who it was. She pulled herself together and stood, despite the knotted ache that was her entire body. Her eyes teared up as she faced him. She kept her composure, and held her arms up in front of her, orchestrating a deep forward bow. Her attempt at grace was short-lived as her helmet tumbled forward and clunked against the floor. She nearly gagged on wet, stale air that smelled like a pond gone foul.
Breva stepped forward and returned her stately gesture. "Akuotraaam sur dekpth Fevch."
"And a wealth of good tidings to you, highly endeared friend," Gianna stuttered the greeting in sSuryn. Her eyes darted all over him. When he took a step closer, she stepped back and covered her mouth. Whatever microbes were fluttering around this place, she'd already gotten a lungful. But perhaps for him it was not too late. "Stay back," she said. "I don't want to get you sick."
"You needn't worry about that, Gianna."
Gianna kept her hands to her face. They shook badly. The cryo-chamber had not been kind to her. Deep wrinkles had set in at the edges of her mouth and eyes, and her skin refused to hold onto moisture. And yet Breva stood as handsome as he had the day his message had reached Earth. "I can't imagine what you think of me," Gianna said.
"Your messages did you no justice." Breva's throat bulged, and for a brief moment, his inner glow lit up the corridor. "But you shouldn't have come."
"We had to come. You were in danger, and we owed you that at least. You asked for our help!"
"I've cursed that message a thousand times. I should have disabled the automated beacon before I damaged the ship."
"You did this? But I don't understand. Everything here is so different. Not at all what I imagined. Where is the sSuryn's grand culture? What about the stories you told me? Was it all a lie?"
"Not a lie. What I taught you of sSuryn culture is the only thing of consequence. Our culture is our legacy."
"Then how do you explain those... those monsters?"
"We did not begin our journey this way, but eight hundred years will change many things about a people."
"You want me to believe that you've been aboard this ship for hundreds of years? Don't lie to me, Breva. Tell me why you did this to me. I've wasted forty years of my life!" Gianna's anger swelled and she took a swing at Breva. Her hand passed through him, followed by the rest of her. Ripples flowed across his body, waves overlapping until they canceled each other out, and Breva reappeared solid once again. She landed face first, and Breva's expression turned from sorrow to worry. His arms reached out as if he wanted to help her.
"Please, let me explain."
"You're a holo-projection? I fell in love with a holo-projection?"
"I am more than that. I am the keeper of the knowledge of what were once our people. I reached out to the stars, for someone, anyone to share our legacy with. I thought that was all I was doing, guaranteeing that we would not be forgotten. But then I met you. And merely existing as someone's memory was no longer enough. I longed to be with you, but in the end, I could not subject you to... what we have become."
"But you're not even real!"
"I am as real as I always have been."
Gianna bit her lip and braced herself against the intensity of her emotions. Never in her life had she been this angry at anyone. She'd never let anyone else get so close to her heart.
"You used me," she whispered.
"That was not my intent. I apologize if it seems that way. But you understood me like no one else has. You challenged me, and for the first time in centuries, I felt alive. Can you blame me for not wanting to be alone in this universe?"
That she could not. Had Breva not reached out, her future would have been cut short by a brazen step into oncoming traffic. Breva hadn't wasted forty years of her life. He'd given her forty years of purpose. And now here they were, her and her age, him and his agelessness. He flicked his tongue out straight at her eye. She didn't blink.
"You were never alone," Gianna said in English as a tremble rushed through her--the scraping and searing of their ships uncoupling. Instead of being overwhelmed by the uncertainty that lay ahead, Gianna took comfort that those would be the last words of English that ever passed her lips.
This story was first published on Friday, November 8th, 2013
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