The sky blinded me when I emerged from the shuttle onto the tarmac at SeaTac spaceport. It was a midnight sky, glowing orange with the pollution of a city that stretched the full length of the Salish Sea. A midnight sky, an empty bowl of clouds, but the brightness made me shut my eyes just the same: A month in stasis will do that to you.
Just standing took everything out of me. I’m a big guy, been in space a lot, but I was also a surrogate dad of a species not my own. Ngoraich hadn’t slept that whole month we were in transit. She was a pupating larva, soft and pearly. The spacers didn’t know how to put her into stasis, and even if they could, she wouldn’t notice the difference. All she did was absorb nourishment from my blood—and dream. I shared her dreams, and she shared mine. We’d both had a lousy trip.
This was such a stupid idea, coming home.
I lowered myself to a pocked plastic bench in the waiting area. God, it was heavy here. Ngoraich was making my back ache. Just a few weeks here, and then I could go home to light gravity and breathable air. Just one visit to a grave, a few dinners and platitudes, and then back to the people who understood me.
“Oh, you’ve got a baby!” a human woman said. Of course she was human; there were only humans here. I’d been gone way too long. It was strange, though. Nothing but humans, everywhere, yet I felt so alone. “Is the mother getting off the A90 shuttle?”
My hand instinctively covered Ngoraich’s holster, even though no one could see her. She was in one of the full-coverage baby carriers popular these days, slung around my torso in such a way that no one could see the join where Ngoraich’s proboscis entered my ribcage. Her tongue flexed against my lungs. She liked this woman, even though I didn’t. Of course, Ngoraich liked everyone, just as I disliked any human who paid too much attention to me.
“Uh, yes,” I said. My throat modifications twisted the words, but hopefully my breathing mask hid that fact. This woman didn’t bother with a mask; her face was shiny with a recent skin transplant. They were popular in this age of acid rain. Her eyes were glassy with full protective contacts. Me, I wore implanted bug-eye lenses protecting my eyes from the atmosphere; it was mildly poisonous to everyone nowadays, but completely poisonous to traitorous me. (At least I wouldn’t look too out of place.)
Thankfully, the man the woman was waiting for arrived and she went away without questioning me further.
If my mom left the house—assuming it was the same house—when I called, she’d arrive in an hour. A hour to wait and readjust to Earth.
I rubbed Ngoraich’s holster. “When I was a kid,” I told her, “my grandpa would meet us at the airport when we visited. It’s a nice feeling.” She twitched, happy to understand this human emotion. But my own family nostalgia was activating her own. Mama Dina, Papa Dina? Warm folds of keratinous skin, shiny pink sucky nodes. Three-voiced song around a warm, white borehole.
“Your mom and dad are up there.” I pointed to the east, where I was pretty sure Mars was about to rise somewhere beyond the hard orange midnight. Were they working on their individual borehole into Phobos right now? Out there was one huge, hollow Phoeng generation ship attached to Mars’ largest moon, slowly extracting the minerals. I already longed for it. You could sit beneath the observation bubble capping Stickney Crater and watch the sun set behind the frigid elbow pad of Mars’ ice cap. Dina Lae—Ngoraich’s mama—would join me, holding my hand in that human gesture I taught her.
Poor Lae. So beautiful and fertile that she had three babes instead of two. Of course I offered to nourish the extra one.
Not many humans could say they dated an alien couple. I’m certain none could say they knew what it was like to be a surrogate parent to an alien. I was making my own tribe, not quite human, not quite Phoeng. I’d raise Ngoraich in our own little culture, and Ngoraich would pass that on to her children and beyond.
I’d play human music for her, teach her human games. I’d show her how to etch images into her carapace like humans tattooed their skin. I’d show her the painful joys of body suspension. On Phobos, gravity was so light that you couldn’t even achieve a real suspension; the chains and hooks pierced your chest and anchored you while you spun around like a planet of your own.
“Derek!” Mom ran toward me with arms outspread, long black corset jacket swaying behind her. Flamboyant as always, her breathing mask was printed with Mexican-style roses that matched the Day of the Dead skulls printed on her scarf.
Right away, Ngoraich really liked my mom. Dina Lae would get along with Mom, too. I could imagine Dina Lae giving Mom holographic ribbon that she could braid through her hair while they drank chardonnay. Dina Lae loved Earth wine. Unlike most of the Phoeng, she was curious about humans, and she always made me feel smart and useful. Too bad they’d never get to meet each other.
But though Mom could be friends with an alien, and might even accept that I’d married one, she couldn’t accept that I’d married two, and was running around with their surplus child soaking nutrients from my bloodstream. She definitely couldn’t accept that I’d had my body altered to breathe the Phoeng’s methane-heavy atmosphere, and my throat to better speak their language.
Black cats and maple leafs skirted my mind. Ngoraich trying to pull me into happy memories, away from the stress I felt right now. She liked my memories of playing in my childhood neighbor’s yard, but now, it was distracting and painful.
“De-rek!” Every syllable accented by the landing of her high-heeled boots. “Oh, God, I’m so happy!”
“It’s been a long time,” I said. The “ng” sound rasped as the bony additions to my throat rubbed together.
She hugged me. Ngoraich squirmed with glee: Warm warm warm touch! My baby missed being touched. Poor thing, trapped in that casing, which my mom was bumping against.
“Oh, look at you,” she said. “Carrying your things in a baby carrier! Have they got a surplus of them in the dark of space?”
“Actually, Mom, they do. People live and breed out there, just not as much as the companies thought. It’s holding my nutrient pack and medicine dispenser.”
I wasn’t lying. It did hold a nutrient pack, just a small one under Ngoraich’s tail. I wasn’t going to lie. No one would suspect the truth. Not from Good Boy Derek.
She took off her mask and moved to kiss me, but pulled back. “Oh, I shouldn’t, should I? I’m so sorry for you, with your immune system all shot. At least it’s not so bad you have to be in a bubble.”
“I’ll be fine, Mom.” I still wasn’t lying much. Ngoraich twitched at my discomfort. I didn’t want to teach her to lie. My immune system was vulnerable to Earth viruses, I told her. Even on Earth, wearing the anti-pollution masks had damaged people’s immune systems as they lacked exposure to even everyday bugs and toxins.
“I’m so glad you made it for Easter,” Mom said. “It’s too bad you had to miss your father’s funeral.”
“You doing all right?” I asked her.
I couldn’t see her forced smile behind her mask, but I knew it was there.
“Of course I am,” she said. “The whole family’s shown up to take care of me, and I’m glad your father’s finally not in pain.”
She squeezed my hands. Ngoraich purred.
“I know coming back to Earth is hard on your body,” she said. “The pressure down here hurts you, doesn’t it?”
Her gloved hands clutched mine. Bony knuckles dug into my palms.
Mom hung her mask in a glass-faced curio cabinet when we got home, above the ceramic fondue pot and dented silver cups and dusty knickknacks that went ignored. The seal on the door hissed shut. A familiar noise, locking me into an old, old world. I half-expected to hear my dad’s Alzheimer’s-induced ramblings coming from the den: sounds I’d ran to Mars to avoid. But he was gone.
Laughter in the kitchen. Happy sounds from familiar voices. Dishes clinking and plastic bags rustling. The smell of apple pie seeping through my mask.
“Help yourself to whatever’s in the kitchen,” Mother said. “Lyra made pie and spaghetti for dinner, and the leftovers are already in the fridge, but you know you can help yourself.”
“I can’t eat it,” I said, “but thank you.”
“Oh, that’s right, I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t regret my choice, Mom. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
Ngoraich joined me in memories of Christmas with my cousins, sitting around the cold glass table, Aunt Lyra’s apple pie at our elbow, chins in our hands as we studied a one thousand piece puzzle. I’d have to bring a jigsaw puzzle back with me, though I wished Lae and Kyru could be here to do them with my family. I wished they could all meet each other.
“Who all’s here?” I ask.
“Just Lyra and the boys so far. Theresa and the others are arriving in the morning.”
My cousin Barack entered the kitchen. He slammed a bottle of green apple-ade on the table and pierced its top. Green tendrils drifted inside the clear glass.
“Hey, Derek,” he said, holding out the bottle. “Want one? There’s a whole case in the garage.”
It was good stuff, full of memories of past picnics in the park. Slamming it and watching the bottom compartment crack and release a stream of green flavor was the fun part. It was Father’s favorite. The drink itself was syrupy and a little too tart for me, but I always drank it so I could slam it. Barack was about ten years younger than me. I’d shown him how to make the bottles work, back when he was just a kid. Now, according to Mom’s letters, he was studying astrogeology at UW. Following in my footsteps, it appeared.
I shook my head as I sat down. I shoved a flimsy woven placemat to the side and rested my elbows on the old blonde maple surface. It desperately needed resurfacing. Maybe I’d volunteer for the task while I was here.
“Space travel damaged Derek’s digestive system,” said Mom. “He can only eat his specially-processed rations.”
“Space does that to you?” Barack said.
“Not to everyone,” I said. “However, they’re working with the Phoeng to develop deep cellular modifications to cut down on that sort of thing. It would also help us survive in lower pressures and temperatures.”
“Sounds like it’s also a nice way to lose your humanity,” Barack said.
“You thinking of getting a job out there when you’re done at UW?” I changed the subject.
If he was, if he was someone I could mentor and befriend, someone I could introduce to my new family …
He shrugged. “I dunno. I mean, actually seeing the other planets … but there’s so many aliens out there, and there’s just getting to be more and more. I hear they breed like rabbits.”
“They only have two children per couple. Their population’s more stable than ours.”
“Then why did they bother colonizing our system?” Aunt Lyra asked. She stood in the doorway, holding aside the plastic beaded curtain with her hip.
“They’re on their way to the galaxy’s center.” I closed my eyes. “We’re just a stop on the way.” The Fountains of God. Ngoraich twitched and lapped my lungs as they took extra deep breaths. Sacred images painted by Mama Dina of the twin sacred jets. Blue fire pouring from the void while the filth of the universe awaited renewal in a vast accretion disc. My skin itched, remnants of the experiments they were doing on me to stop the destructive effects of x-rays on my frail human flesh. They pitied us so much that we weren’t able to withstand the burning touch of God.
Parts of my soul would be there, passed through Ngoraich and her children’s children, when the Phoeng, millennia from now, arrived at the most holy site at the galaxy’s core. That distant imprint would carry the memories of my mom, Barack, of my family, of Earth itself, long after we’d destroyed ourselves or evolved away. I’d join in the collective ecstasy of the Phoeng as they threw themselves into the heart of God to be set free and disseminated by the Twin Fountains.
“They’re leaving in less than a hundred years,” I said. “When they’ve turned Phobos and Deimos into new colony ships and gathered what knowledge they can from us and our system. They’re not here to conquer us.”
“No one said they were.” Mom patted my shoulder, then jerked back as if she wasn’t sure she should have. Ngoraich purred and lapped away the echoes of Mother’s dismay.
“It’s all right, Mother,” I said. “You can touch me. I just can’t eat or breathe here.”
I turned to Barack. “If you’re bothered by the Phoeng, don’t worry. You’ll probably never see one, even on Mars. There’s loads of opportunities, though, if you do want to work with them directly. My friends—the Phoeng I work with—they took me out to the settlement on Titan to scout out some deposits. They’re really nice and generous. Dina Lae—she’s the Phoeng I work with most—she holds monthly wine parties for the human crew out on Phobos. They project everyone’s avatar into the opposite room so we can all party together while breathing the right kind of air. You’d really like her, Mom.”
Ngoraich tittered into my bloodstream. I really, really wished I could knock back a green apple or even a cold soda. Mom would have sparkling apple cider in the fridge since it was Easter. Likely, it was left from Father’s funeral. Most people treated it like a celebratory drink, and though my father’s death wasn’t a thing to celebrate—expected and merciful end though it was—the family getting together was always an event.
Alien hormones skittered through my veins, I giggled and asked Barack about his studies. Keep looking outside myself. More things for Ngoraich to learn about my family. He was specializing in Venus, but my talk of asteroids was still like candy to him. His eyes went wide when I told him how the Phoeng secreted a substance that let them integrate x-ray-proof minerals while they snuggled in stony cribs. Cold stone and sticky acid. A body forced to change. Ngoraich dreaded her next step of development, ripped from me to be inserted with her sisters into a nook in the wall of Stickney Crater. But she’d crawl from it whole and grown. She’d blink her sapphire-domed eyes at the red ceiling that was Mars, where humans lived their fragile lives in sapphire domes of their own. She wanted to be there living the same kind of life I used to live. She wanted me to stay with my family as long as possible so she could understand them and absorb a life she could never live.
This was the way of the Phoeng. They soaked up wisdom everywhere they went, though usually not so directly. Their long memories spoke of attempts to use other species as I was allowing myself to be used. The Phoeng’s body chemistry was adaptable for this very reason. But without the love I felt, their larvae withered away and took their hosts with them.
My existence encouraged the Phoeng. They spoke of taking in more humans, of actively recruiting among the Martian colonies. I warned that I was an oddity, and that their attempts at seduction might frighten humanity.
This was the way of the Phoeng. This is why they rejoiced in their divine mission which kept them moving ever onward.
“At least going to Mars means you finally got rid of those hideous piercings,” Mother said. “Will the holes close up on their own?”
I frowned and rubbed the row of five holes on my eyebrow. I hadn’t gotten rid of them—just taken them out for the visit because otherwise, everyone would give me a hard time about it. I still had all my tattoos, too, though my long sleeves hid them. I’d only added to them on Mars. They were my early attempts at shaping my own identity. Quietly, I clicked the bones in my throat and ignored the question.
We visited the mausoleum after Easter mass, which Ngoraich adored. She loved the smells and the music and the pressure of being crammed elbow to elbow in the pews. She liked the mausoleum, too. It was cold and stony, similar to the halls of Phobos, but different. There was no marble and bronze on Phobos. She was getting the impression that this was where humans stored their memories.
My father’s tomb was covered in old CDs from his collection. The labels were turned inward, revealing only a surface of rainbow mirrors. I ran my fingers over their scratched surfaces. I used to dance, all alone, to those CDs when I was just a kid, keeping to myself in the basement. I’d never been very good at making friends. Sometimes, Dad would hear and come down to teach me about the music.
So many things I worried about giving Ngoraich. My nail biting, my tendency to interrupt, my self-hatred at abandoning my own species. But this moment right now—the echoes of grief and relief at my father’s hard death at the hands of cancer on the heels of Early Onset Alzheimers—was exactly what I wanted the Phoeng to preserve for me and my species.
Maybe I wasn’t betraying my species at all; maybe I was giving them a way to be remembered.
Most of my family had been at the funeral, but even so, someone passed around a flask of whiskey and started an impromptu memorial.
Mother touched my wrist. She wore the same coat I saw when she picked me up; her mask with grinning skulls hung around her neck. After fumbling in her pocket, she pulled out some wrinkled index cards.
“Derek,” she said. “I wanted to bring you here to read you something. I suppose I should just say it, but there was so much … I didn’t want to forget.” She flipped through the cards.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just wrote down so much. I didn’t know what would be best to speak of. He did so much.”
Aunt Lyra handed her the whiskey, and she took a swig before talking.
“Your father was so proud of you,” she said. “I told him it was horrible, you leaving us and then to return only rarely. But he changed my mind. It took a long time, but after years of him watching the feeds, going into the backyard every night and pointing to the sky, to the spot where, even though he couldn’t see you, he knew you were living a life that none of us would get to lead. That knowledge seemed to cut through his Alzheimer’s … His joy infected me, and even though I still wish you’d call more, I understand why you can’t, and I’m proud of you too. That’s the sort of amazing man my husband was, that he could change even a bitter, overprotective mother like me.”
Ngoraich’s tongue was sharp against my lungs.
This was all about my father, of course, not me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how they couldn’t know, they wouldn’t want to know. I could only think about myself, even though Ngoraich’s secretions ordered me to dwell on everyone here except me. And for the first time, I resented her.
Mother crumpled the little paper and rubbed her eyes.
“Let’s go have some pie,” she said.
When we got home, and the door seals hissed shut, and everyone’s masks but mine were tucked away in safe corners, over a dozen people related to me by blood and love settled in for sparkling cider and reminiscing. I sat in a corner where Ngoraich and I could watch. Didn’t feel much like talking right now, and everyone knew me well enough to know not to try. However I’d changed over my years in space, I’d always been aloof. How else could I survive years separated from everyone I loved? Even on Phobos, looking down at the sparkling lights of the colonies, so far down.
Several children charged around the house in a game of hide and seek, giggling and screeching as they ran. My sister Theresa curled up on the couch, her husband holding her hand. Their two oldest—girls aged ten and seven—set up a game of checkers on the table. How well did they know their grandfather? Was he a tragic, decaying figure in the corners of their memory, or had they actually been able to interact with him? He might have been the one to teach them checkers, like he’d taught me. Ngoraich wondered about checkers. She liked the image of red and black discs hopping across a colorful board. The feel of ridged plastic edges on young fingertips.
I sat beside the fireplace and an army of family photos. A half-dozen old-fashioned prints stood guard over the mantel beside a half-dozen digital frames, slowly rotating between images. One set was from the funeral. My father’s casket was engraved with the words of John Lennon, and, I was told, a single verse of the Bible. The thin, laser-carved words nearest the camera were from “I Am The Walrus.” What was the Bible verse? Father’s tendency towards a quiet faith betrayed nothing, and Mother refused to tell me. Her little revenge for my missing the funeral, I supposed.
Most of the other pictures were of the grandkids and shots of Mom waving before world landmarks. I picked up each one and internally told Ngoraich what it was. A shot of my dad holding a child made me freeze the rotation. He was young and blonde, with the spiky, messy hair that was popular back then. His walrus tattoo looked fresh and sharp on his forearm. I tapped for the caption. The baby was me. I’d probably seen the picture before, but never paid any attention to it, since I wasn’t interested in myself when I was just another generic baby.
But this time, I wasn’t interested in my young self, though I told Ngoraich that this was me back when I was like her. She mostly understood that humans and Phoeng were different things, and lived in different ways. But she didn’t know the specifics, even if she could grasp their importance. She wanted to know where my proboscis was, and why I didn’t have a twin somewhere.
Human babies were parasites of a different sort, I told her.
I started to feel the burn within my blood that meant time for a new nutrient pack. They were in my bag, lazily draped over my childhood dresser upstairs. Skirting the edge of the kitchen, I headed for the back hallway, carefully avoiding Aunt Lyra’s elbows, which jabbed in and out while she stirred a big bowl of vanilla pudding. A bowl of chopped strawberries—grown as always by Mom in the sealed rooftop greenhouse—awaited addition to the pudding.
The pantry door slammed open. Right into my face. I jerked back a step.
“Oh, Derek, are you all right?” someone asked.
My mask and eye implants protected my face; I was just a little shaken. One of my nieces stuck her head around the door, looking wide-eyed and mortified. And then I tried to take a breath and my throat burned. A broken filter hissed.
If I could hold my breath, would Ngoraich be able to filter my blood long enough to grab a fresh filter?
I wouldn’t find out. After only a few steps, I collapsed with my chest on fire.
“Oh my god!” Aunt Lyra knelt beside me. She was shouting for others. So many faces staring. Ngoraich screaming her chemical scream into my blood. Theresa asking if I was all right. The bones in my throat rasped as I answered.
“I can’t hear you,” she said, tearing off my mask.
Cold, poisonous air tickled the sweat edging my face.
“No! My bag, bring my bag.”
Barack darted off.
I gasped like a dying fish, my throat bones digging into soft, desperate flesh. The smell of turkey and apple pie and mother’s patchouli incense smothered me. Ngoraich’s chemicals kept me going for the eternity I spent on my back, my head on my sister’s lap. Barack appeared with my bag, and in moments, I found my new filter.
My heartbeat slowed as the familiar methane-tinted scent filled my sinuses. Instantly, Ngoraich detected that all was well and started pumping calm into my veins. My sister’s fingers still checked my pulse when I started twitching at the emotional soup my baby was forcing upon me. I fought against her and the hasty change she brought.
“What’s wrong with you?” Theresa asked.
My brain was being pulled in two directions at once.
“Don’t ever have children,” I muttered. “They mess with your head.”
Theresa laughed and gently shook my head between her hands. “I’ve already had kids, silly.”
“A bad immune system isn’t going to hurt you like that just did,” Mother said. She stood behind Barack, clutching his shoulder. He stared at me like I was an alien. I had a story in place, in case of this. A serious accident in the borehole. Major reconstructive surgery on my throat (hence, the scars) necessitated a special oxygen concentrator. I hadn’t wanted to worry them (hence, the silence).
But instead I told the truth: “I’m becoming an alien,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“What are you talking about?” Theresa said. “An alien?” She touched my throat scars and felt the lumps that were harder than any adam’s apple should be.
“I can still be here,” I said. “I can still be human. I just wanted to be closer to the others who I love, too.”
I told them about the modifications.
I told them about Ngoraich.
“That thing’s going to kill you, isn’t it?” said Barack, shoving me hard enough that I almost rolled out of Theresa’s lap. “That’s why you finally came home, for one last goodbye before you killed yourself for the sake of the freakiest body mod you could think of?”
“No!” I raised myself up on my elbows. “She won’t kill me. Space life was going to shorten my life anyway.”
“He’s already dead to me,” said Mother. Everyone stared at her.
“You have no idea how happy I was that you came home,” she said. “And on Easter, even!” She pulled off her big cocktail ring and rubbed her eyes. “When you decided to go to Mars long term,” she said. “I knew I’d never see you again. I thought about what I might have done to drive you away. I thought about what I might do to bring you home. I told myself I’d even do one of those awful suspensions you do. Hang myself by my wrists from the kitchen lights to show I loved you. Now, it’s obvious that it was your father you were running from. Well, that’s understandable—” She couldn’t keep the bitterness from her voice. “But that doesn’t change the fact that years ago, I said goodbye in my heart forever.”
“Mom! I’m not gone!” I’d never seen her like this. She looked like a wilted flower, her hand draped limply over her knee, her big onyx ring dangling from her grasp. She looked at me with empty eyes.
“Mom, I promise I’ll call more often. I’ll need to! I need your help with this. You have to know what I’m doing. I’m helping the Phoeng understand us—”
“So they can conquer us!” said Barack.
“And don’t you want the one Phoeng who’s going to know our weaknesses to love us?” I said to him. “Mom, I’ve never raised a kid. She’s going to be more human than Phoeng in some ways, and I’m just one guy.” Ngoraich flicked her tongue querulously at this anxiety I was feeling for her. “Sometimes, she’s going to feel all alone. She’s going to need a family that’s bigger than just me and her parents. Even if it’s just over the skyscreen, you could teach her to play the piano, to paint. You can tell her all those stupid jokes Dad used to tell. You could be grandma to an alien.”
She laughed sharply.
“We should kill it right now,” Barack said. “Before it kills you.”
“Be quiet,” said Mom. “This is a living being we’re talking about.”
“Is it safe for you?” Theresa asked.
The question implied my physical well-being, but I knew they were all wondering if I was crazy.
I shrugged. “It has been so far.” My life would be shortened, though. No changing that, even if they did manage to make me x-ray resistant. My family didn’t need to know that.
“I just want you to be safe,” Mother said. “I want you to be happy.”
I told them about Dina Lae and Kyru, and how they were so curious about me and generous. We’d learned a lot from each other. I didn’t mention our discovery that soft human hands could stimulate in ways no Phoeng could.
I showed them a photo of me and Ngoraich, the join tastefully hidden by my rock-dusted jumpsuit.
“You’ve got a granddaughter like no one else,” I said. “She’s right here and she likes you a lot.” Ngoraich crooned at the attention. She didn’t understand my underlying current of fear that someone might rip her from me and smash open her casing and throw her to the pollution-tainted ground.
“You’re sure this is safe?” Mother said, staring at the image.
“They’ve done this to other species,” I said.
“But not ours?” said Theresa.
“Just me,” I said. “I’m not afraid. I’m happy. Hey, it’s not like it says anything in the Bible about not marrying aliens.”
“I suspect Father Walker would have a few things to say about the temple of our body,” said Mother stiffly. But she slowly smiled as she looked at the photo, and then at Ngoraich’s battered casing, and asked:
“What’s her name?”