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Fiction

Among the Marithei

Sergey hummed under his breath as he walked to the Marith temple. His steps retraced a path he knew so well, he could have walked it at night, in the dark, even under assault. Yet the Marith enclave was the most peaceful place he’d ever been—so calm that Sergey didn’t even need to hum to soothe his newborn daughter, fast asleep in her sling, bound tight against his chest. Three days old, and still Katya mostly slept, which both his wife and the doula had assured him was normal. They laughed at his anxieties, but they didn’t understand how Katya’s small griefs pierced his soul. He was no Marith empath, but he felt what she felt.

“This is your—spawn?”

“Daughter,” Sergey corrected, smiling up at his tall friend, who had stepped out of the temple gate to greet him. “Spawn is technically correct, Bila, but humans prefer child, son, or daughter. Daughter indicates a female child.”

The Marithei bowed down to peer closely at Katya, the pale green fronds that framed his face going temporarily flat. Sergey appreciated the gesture—otherwise, they might have brushed against the baby and tickled her awake. “How can you know the sex so young?”

Sergey said, “Well, you can’t, really. But humans like to take a first approximation. It’s convenient.”

Bila straightened, shrugging, a smooth gesture that involved his whole body, or what could be seen of it under the loose cloak that most Marithei wore in public. “That seems confusing. But to each according to their needs, as the One would say.”

“So you tell me.”

Bila lifted a feathery eyebrow. “Still not a believer, after all these years?”

Sergey did try. He came to services religiously every sixday, took his place in a green-blue sea of nude Marithei, tried to lose himself in the chanted words and song and undulations. They had such unity, as if choreographed. Yet Sergey was left outside their shared communion. Forever a stranger, in his own heart, at least. It would hurt Bila if he said so, though. “The fault is mine, Bila. After all your people have done for me, if I could believe, I would.” The Marithei had come to a war-torn planet, taken a small, terrified human boy, and given him solace.

Bila brushed a frond against his arm, a reassurance. “We did only what the One called us to do. It was nothing.”

“It was everything,” Sergey said gently.

“That too,” Bila agreed, rippling his fronds in what Sergey had come to understand as laughter.

“If Katya won’t disturb the service, I’d like to bring her with me today.”

Bila turned, gesturing Sergey forward into the temple courtyard. “How could the daughter disturb it? The service is what it is, and will encompass your child as well.”

“That’s what I was hoping.”

• • • •

Sergey had had no hope, in his first years as a child on Nadezhda. His parents had brought him to the colony world, fleeing war on Old Earth, only to find war had followed them. The same old battles, the same cry that blood must have blood. It had started over language and religion; it had continued over sharp memory, the meticulous accounting of the injured and the dead. Our Pyotr; did you see what they did to him, to his body, after? Yes, yes, we saw! We saw everything. Remember!

The war had taken his parents from him, and that would have been bad enough for a child of six, to be left bereft, alone. But then the militants had found him, and put a laser rifle in his hands; they’d promised he would feel better when he took his revenge, but he had felt nothing. The smooth action of the rifle felt like nothing, the body, arcing in the air and then falling, had been nothing, too. Well done, Sergey, they’d said.

They’d lined up the youngest, told them of the glory they would win, the rewards in the worlds beyond, where they’d be reunited with lost parents. When they asked who would be brave enough to strap on a bomb vest and sneak into the enemy’s village, Sergey had almost volunteered, eager to please. But then he’d felt the brush of his father’s hand against his hair, an incongruous memory. And the same words, Well done, Sergey, for some small task—lacing his vest, perhaps, or remembering to check the air on his oxygen breather. Sergey’s father would not want this ending for him, so he did not volunteer. When they put the rifle in his hands again, Sergey aimed to miss.

Then came the bombing of the camps and the poison gas. When the air finally cleared, the Marithei came, bringing bandages and fresh water and songs of healing. They were an old species, and though they fought bloody battles amongst individuals on rare occasion, larger wars such as this seemed behind them. They found Sergey in the rubble of the factory complex, a small boy with a broken arm, screaming. Bila was the one who reached down to him, slowly, afraid perhaps that he would scare the child. But Sergey climbed awkwardly into his arms, clung to the strange body, as if it were his hope of heaven. Bila carried him safely away.

Sergey didn’t remember much of the months that followed—only that he flinched away from humans when Bila tried to return him to his people. In truth, there were none of his kin left—any relatives were back on Old Earth, a long and expensive Jumpship ride away. The war finally ended, in an uneasy peace, but there was the aftermath to deal with. When the human government workers finally came, exhausted from their long labors, to the Marith enclave, Sergey screamed again at the sight of them. So they left him to Bila’s care, and he’d spent the remainder of his childhood and adolescence in the haven of Marith peace.

• • • •

It was a small miracle that he’d married. Sergey had met Marta here, in this courtyard, only three years ago. Many humans came to the Marith services now, though he doubted they understood them any better than he did. Still, they came, and Marta among them.

“You’re Sergey, aren’t you? The editor? I’m Marta Popovich. I’ve been following your work.” The human woman was almost a foot shorter than he was, which was disconcerting; he was used to being surrounded by taller Marithei.

“You’re joking.” Sergey blinked down at her, trying to sense whether she really meant it. After so much time among the Marithei, he sometimes had a hard time reading other humans’ emotions. On occasion, when Sergey took something seriously, he found that they meant to be funny, or vice versa.

“No, no. I’m serious.” Her eyes were intent on his, uncomfortably direct. “I know Yakov Dezhnyov; you took his paper and made it almost understandable. You’re a wizard.”

He shrugged. “Yakov is very smart.” He hadn’t ever met the man, but that much was obvious from his work.

Marta laughed. “Oh, of course. But he can’t be bothered to slow down and translate his brilliance for the rest of us. I don’t know how you got him to agree to your edits, but thank you—from the entire scientific community, thank you.”

“It was my pleasure,” Sergey said. It actually had been—after years of studying alone, trying one field after another, Sergey had found his deepest pleasure in helping others say what they meant to say. The words were always there, the precise, beautiful words, and it was his job, his gift, to find the right ones, so minds could speak.

Ironic, perhaps, given how poorly he communicated with other humans. Bila tried, had insisted that Sergey leave the Marith enclave, attempt human things—classes, sports, clubs. But after a few weeks of misery, Sergey always fled back to the alien haven. Humans were just too much. Too loud, too emotional, too intense. They sent him back to the camps again, in his mind, to being a small child, buffeted by noise and shouting.

Even here in the courtyard, where Marithei and humans mixed freely under the twisted cover of giant shenshei trees, as they waited for the services to start—even this, Sergey could hardly bear. Which was why he came, service after service, to try to learn to bear it. Bila had never required attendance of him, but gentle, patient encouragement had its own steady weight. The courtyard crowd was getting easier, with practice. And Marta seemed straightforward, which helped.

She took a step closer, almost unnervingly close, but not quite. “I wonder if you’d be willing to take a look at my work. It’s not as challenging as Yakov’s, but I think you might find something of interest there. I’m studying Marith empathic patterns, specifically the way they merge emotions during services.”

“I would be fascinated.” He really would; nothing else drew him as strongly as the harmonies the Marithei created together, the ones he seemed forever barred from joining. If Marta had soft brown eyes and waves of curling hair, a lush shape hinted at under the respectful Marith robe, that only influenced Sergey’s decision a little. Or so he told himself.

• • • •

Sergey and Bila paused in the shade of a shenshai tree, grateful for its relief from Nadezhda’s bright yellow sun. Around the courtyard, a growing crowd was doing the same, clustering in small conversational groups. Mostly humans with humans, Marithei with Marithei, but occasionally a brave human would attempt to penetrate a Marithei group. They opened, welcoming her in, then closed again, engulfing her like the waves of the sea. Bila said, “Marta isn’t with you today.”

“She is still exhausted; it was a difficult birth.” He tried to encourage Marta to sleep as much as she could; Sergey pulled the covers up around her and hummed old Russian lullabies until she fell into slumber, a stone sinking into a weary sea. “I have had to do much of Katya’s care.”

“Had to do” was technically inaccurate—Sergey had been desperate to do it, to spend as much time as possible with this incredible small creature. It frightened him, how intensely he loved this child, though she was still barely there. He knew every curl of eyelash, the way Katya’s tiny fingers clenched into little fists when she was hungry, raging until food was delivered. Her needs were intense, but also simple—Sergey found it easy to assuage her. The doula and Marta were delighted that he was so good with the child.

“And how is your new house?”

“It’s good, Bila, thank you.” It was an immense relief. When Sergey and Marta had first wanted to move in together, they could only afford an apartment in the heart of Novorustov. They’d constantly been running into neighbors in the hall, even hearing them from within their own apartment. Sometimes Sergey would turn a corner to see a body, a face, unexpectedly near; he’d almost jump out of his skin, pulse racing, sweat breaking out on his brow. Finally, a few months ago, they’d saved up enough for their own little house, on the outskirts of the city; it was a longer commute for Marta, but she’d said it was worth it, to see how much happier her solnyshko had become. Sergey had never felt like a “little sun” before Marta, but with her, he shone brighter.

Now, on the increasingly rare occasions when he woke up screaming, from nightmares of the camps, there were no angry neighbors banging on the walls, demanding silence. Sergey had even made friends with the neighbors in the surrounding houses; it was a novel delight, waving to them across the yard while gardening, or even joining them at their homes for a meal and a game. The Marithei didn’t play board games.

Bila said, “We are considering spawning ourselves.”

“You and your partners?” Katya fussed a little, twisting in the sling, and Sergey shifted position, making her comfortable again. Her hair, fine and golden, caught the light rippling through the leaves. Had he ever seen anything so beautiful? If Bila spawned soon, perhaps Katya could grow up with an adoptive Marithei for a playmate. They would run in and out of the enclave together, knowing the path between their homes as well as he did. “But you’ve only been partnered for a few moons; I thought that usually spawning came later?”

Bila’s fronds rippled again. “No, that’s right. I was speaking metaphorically; I meant the entire enclave.”

Sergey stifled a small sigh of frustration; metaphorical speaking was one of his least favorite things. It could be beautiful, brilliant even, when done well, but more often than not, it was just confusing. But wait—what had Bila said? “The enclave is spawning? What would that mean?”

“We’ve grown a great deal, the last twenty years. The nets are full to bursting; it’s time for some of us to divide off, move elsewhere. We’re planning a second enclave in Pharos City.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Pharos was more of a backwater than Ruso, less cosmopolitan. Even here, there had been a few incidents of violence against Marithei, xenophobic humans who found the strange upsetting. And across the Charted Worlds, incidents of anti-alien violence were increasing. War was coming again, had already arrived on other worlds. Mad fanatics who invoked the supposed purity of the human race, a purity that had to be defended with their lives. “It might not be safe.”

Bila said, “Little one, it is not our purpose to be safe.”

Sergey knew that, of course. Most of the Marithei never left their watery homeworld, spent the majority of their lives under the ocean waves. Bila had only come here because he belonged to a religious sect that considered it their duty to travel, heal, and teach. On Marith, they’d traveled from one watery body to another, and eventually, from planet to planet in their own system. When their species had discovered Jump technology, they’d simply extended their ministry outward.

But Sergey didn’t like it. And then a worse thought occurred to him—“Would you leave? If you spawn a new enclave in Pharos?”

The courtyard was filling up now, the doors about to open for the service, and the noise surrounding them was growing, a cacophony of hundreds of voices. Someone jostled Sergey as they moved past, with only the briefest apology.

His tall friend said softly, the words almost lost in the rising din, “I intend to go to Pharos.”

No, oh no. Katya must have sensed his distress; the child shifted again, started to wake, and Sergey had to quickly jiggle her, humming to soothe her back to sleep. It wasn’t time for her to eat again; Katya needed her sleep. He couldn’t let his emotions upset her. The motion and the humming helped him, too; by the time she was settled, Sergey had control again. He wasn’t a child anymore, and the Marithei had done so much for him already; they didn’t owe him anything more. Still.

He fought to keep his voice calm, composed. “I don’t know how I’ll manage without you.”

Bila’s fronds rose and fell, in a pattern he hadn’t seen before, that he didn’t know how to read. “Sergey. You are settled now among your own people, as it was always meant to be. You do not need me anymore.”

He supposed Bila was right. For all Sergey’s attempts to communicate with the Marithei, to learn their ways, he had never truly been one of them. On a fundamental level, he did not understand them, and they did not understand him.

They’d loved him, though. That had been enough.

“I will miss you.” Those words came out steadily, at least, belying the sharp pain in his chest.

“And I, you,” Bila said gently.

The bell hung at the temple roof began to toll, and the wide wood doors slid open, admitting a stream of people. The Marithei moved smoothly through the doors, in their accustomed harmony; the humans were less orderly.

“Shall we go in?” Bila asked.

Sergey shook his head. “I think I’ll head home, actually.” He could bring Katya to services another time. Right now, what he really wanted was to be home, with his child and his wife. “Marta will be waiting for us.”

Bila bent and touched his forehead to Sergey’s in acknowledgement, then turned away, joining the crowd entering the temple. Sergey began pushing his way, moving against the stream. Maybe that was why he saw it. More likely it was his childhood, the years of war.

There was nothing to see, exactly, in the broad-shouldered human male at the far end of the courtyard, shrouded in the same Marith cloak as everyone else. Nothing obvious about his body, or even his bearing. But there was something—a look in his eyes, perhaps, of terror and determination. Sergey had seen that look too many times. The man was moving forward swiftly, and would be inside the temple within moments. The temple crowded with what must be a thousand worshippers by now, an enclosed wooden building, so vulnerable to attack. Sergey had been trained, as a child, to see such vulnerabilities.

He could flee. There was Katya, warm against his chest; there was Marta, waiting at home. No time to maneuver his daughter out of the sling, to pass her to safety. No one would fault him for turning away, for fleeing. The Marithei weren’t his people, after all. They didn’t even want him anymore.

That thought came in a moment and was as quickly dismissed. That was the fear and loneliness of the child he had been. The man he was knew better. That thought was gone by the time he took his first steps toward the man, and with each successive step, a solid certainty grew. Sergey had misunderstood, that was all, had been confused, as he so often was. There was no us or them; the All encompassed them, as Bila would say. If Sergey was right, and the man wore a bomb, it would take far fewer lives in the courtyard than if he made it into the confines of the temple.

Sergey shouted a warning, knowing it wouldn’t be enough. Humans and Marithei were both too slow to comprehend, to react. Words, much as he loved them, were insufficient now.

In that moment, as Sergey flung his body and his daughter’s toward the man, Katya now awake and crying at his breast, he felt the peace of the Marithei settle in his heart.

Mary Anne Mohanraj

Mary Anne Mohanraj

Mary Anne Mohanraj is author of A Feast of Serendib, Bodies in Motion, The Stars Change, and twelve other titles. Other recent publications include stories for George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series, Perennial: A Garden Romance (Tincture), stories at Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Lightspeed, and an essay in Roxane Gay’s Unruly Bodies. Mohanraj founded Hugo-nominated and World Fantasy Award-winning speculative literature magazine Strange Horizons, and serves as Executive Director of both DesiLit (desilit.org) and the Speculative Literature Foundation (speclit.org). She is Clinical Associate Professor of fiction and literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Find her at maryannemohanraj.com.