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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
Second International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day 
23rd-Apr-2008 11:09 am
Sidneyia inexpectans
Also, happy Shakespeare's birthday!

This is a rarity: my only completed science fiction story.


by Sarah Monette

The nameplate on the door still said LT. MICHELLE THORNE, and Rachel wondered how long it would be before it was changed. She had never visited Michelle here, had not seen or spoken to her since that last terrible argument in the middle of Concord Station; she laid her hand against the touchscreen, and it chimed.

A moment's pause--she could almost feel the hesitation from the other side--and the door slid open.

"Lori?" Rachel said, extending her hand. "Hi. I'm Rachel Thorne."

The other woman, dark, fine-boned, a full head shorter than Rachel, shook hands. "It's a pleasure to meet you. Will you come in?"

"Thank you. I can't stay long." It was a warning and a promise--to both of them. She stepped into Michelle's apartment.

Lori had clearly been packing all day; there were boxes everywhere, piles of clothes, a general air of disarray and hopelessness. Whatever of Michelle's personality this apartment had expressed, it now expressed only that that personality was gone, reduced to a few handfuls of ashes already on their way back to Earth to be scattered on the waters of Puget Sound.

Rachel had never seen Puget Sound; she assumed that was something Michelle had shared with Lori. She was glad there had been something between them that Michelle had thought worth commemorating.

Lori said, awkwardly, "I'm sorry there's nowhere to sit. I've been ..."

"That's okay. Like I said, I can't stay long."

"That's right. You're here for the big conference, aren't you?"

"Yes." The Seventy-Sixth Annual Conference on Xenopsychology was hardly just a "big conference," but Rachel let it slide. She looked at the washed-out grayness of Lori's face, the dark smudges around her eyes, and found herself saying, "Is there anything I can do to help?"

On Selengeth, where Rachel lived and worked as a xenopsychologist for the Terran embassy in Hasthrogar, the question itself would have been invasive and rude. Lori said, "That would be wonderful. I'm at my wit's end. And I keep stopping. And crying. I'm so damn tired of crying, you know?"

"Yes," Rachel said, although she had barely cried for Michelle at all. "What can I do?"

"It's her ... the clothes are easy. Donate them, she said. And the kitchen things, she wanted me to have those. I did most of the cooking anyway, and I like it, and she has good stuff."

"Michelle was never satisfied with second best."

"Yeah. And the furniture goes back to central storage, because it's all station issue anyway, and no one would keep it if they didn't have to. But ... her things." Lori waved a hand at the far corner of the living room, where there were two bookcases and, in front of them, a heap of miscellaneous objects. "She didn't really let me in much, you know? So I don't know what mattered. Really mattered. I don't have much space, you know?" Her raised eyebrows and intonation turned it into a question. No stationer had very much space, either for living or for storage, and Lori, as a low-level technician, would have even less than Michelle had had. Rachel herself, thanks to the idiosyncracies of Seleng architecture, had more space than she knew what to do with.

"I do know," she said, as warmly as she could.

Lori seemed grateful when she went on, as if she had been afraid Michelle's sister would castigate her for not holding on to everything Michelle had owned. "I want to keep something. But I want to keep the right thing ..." She put a hand up to her eyes. "Shit. Here I go again."

"I'll sort her things," Rachel said. "You can ..."

"I can go back in the bathroom and cry some more," Lori said, and managed a crooked smile. "I really am sorry."

"Don't be. It's okay."

"Thanks." Lori went into the bedroom, and Rachel sat down in front of the pile of Michelle's "things."

Most of them were simply souvenirs of one famous place or another: the Grand Canyon on Earth; the Falls of Iïva on Remorine; Pax, the first cooperatively built space station in the galaxy. Michelle had collected mementos like these since she was a small child, and Rachel knew they had been simple aide-memoires for her, not relics of significance. She made them into a discard pile beside her right knee and turned her attention to the remaining objects.

One was a papier-mâché domino mask, an elaborate crimson and gold dragon's snout with wonderfully painted scales and horns and trailing streamers. Rachel could not imagine her sister wearing it, but it was beautiful and had been made with love, and she could hope Michelle had bought it in the same spirit. She set it beside her left knee.

There were a number of fossils of various species, some Terran and some not. Paleontology had always been a minor hobby of Michelle's, and Rachel was sadly pleased to see that she hadn't abandoned it. Rachel didn't know enough about paleontology to know how good these fossils were, but at the least, she thought, they could be a valuable teaching aid for some harassed person with twenty spacer-brats to teach and no budget to do it on. Those went beside her left knee as well.

Then there was a box: not very large, but heavy, carved out of a wood native to Sedriat. It took Rachel a moment to find the catch; when she did, the lid sprang open so violently that she jumped and spilled the box's contents onto the floor.

When Lori came back into the room, Rachel was still sitting cross-legged in her good suit, holding an ancient, lumpy, yellowed softball in her hand. She looked up and said, "Did Michelle ever show you this?"

"Michelle played softball?"

"Oh yes. When she was fourteen and I was twelve, we were on the Jefferson County All-Star team. I played left field--I was the only girl in three counties who could throw from the fence to the infield. Michelle was the star pitcher. But I bet you could have guessed that."

"I didn't know she liked sports," Lori said, sitting down beside her.

"I don't know that she did. But she liked winning. This is the softball she won the All-Star game with. The team offered to sign it--even the second-string pitcher who hated her guts. But she wouldn't let them. And the next year, she wouldn't play. She said she was too old for it, but it was really that if she played another season, sooner or later, she'd lose a game. And that wasn't what she wanted."

They were both silent for a moment; then Rachel put the softball back in the Sedrian box and said, "What about the books?" She glanced at the shelves, then looked again, and said involuntarily, "Oh, no."

"I know," Lori said. "Believe me. But it was like the only relaxing she did, even on vacation. I think they're trash, myself."

"They are," Rachel said. Row after row of them, the cheap, gaudy, tissue-of-lies Seleng-Terran romances, with blurbs like Only she could touch his heart!, the same sort of book that the Terrans she had encountered that morning with Naya Shesteroth had been reading.

It had been an ugly little scene, exactly the sort of thing Rachel had wanted at all costs to avoid. She had juggled bureaucrats and logistics all the way from Selengeth, trying to minimize the traffic they would be likely to encounter. But the "xenogroupies"--as her first xenopsychology professor had derisively labeled them--had an instinct, and they had been waiting.

Rachel had stepped through the airlock and very nearly turned on her heel. Her first dread-filled realization as Shesteroth became visible in the airlock behind her was that the naya--tall, pale, with his luminous gold eyes and long moonlight-colored hair, the gold earrings outlining the almost fox-like sweep and curve of his ears--could not have looked more like the popular, romantic Terran conception of the Selengem if he'd sat down and thought it out for a fortnight beforehand.

The gasps from the little crowd of Terrans, three-fourths of them women, told her that they'd noticed that, too.

But there was nothing to do but brave it out. She'd said quietly as Shesteroth emerged from the Prosperous Truce and spotted the Terrans, "Disregard them, naya, please. They are foolish people, and they are abrogating politeness in a way that makes me ashamed for my species. Please, keep walking."

She had judged it nicely; Shesteroth said, reflexively, "It is not of your nebreth," an all-purpose Seleng phrase, meaning, roughly, it's not your fault, although nebreth had far more connotations, valences, and complexities than that, and continued to follow Rachel's lead toward the main corridor.

But Terrans could never be satisfied. A young woman, desperately skinny and wearing too much make-up in an effort to imitate the Selengem's natural pallor, stepped out of the crowd and said to Shesteroth in an atrociously bad botch of an archaic Seleng ceremonial greeting, "I greet you, lord, on behalf of Amity Station. You are welcome here." And she reached out toward him.

Distractedly, Rachel counted fifteen separate abrogations of politeness in that one speech, not the least of which was the unthinkable rudeness of trying to touch him; among the Selengem, one did not touch another person without express permission. And that rudeness compounded the others by causing Shesteroth to abrogate politeness himself. He instinctively stepped back, his face twisted with abhorrence and shock.

Rachel moved forward, shoving her raw-boned, heavy-jawed, Terran body between the girl and her dream of beauty. She felt her hip brush against Shesteroth's leg, which told her just how much too close the girl had come. She was taller than the girl--she was taller than most Terran women--and she used that advantage shamelessly, invading the girl's space as the girl had tried, albeit in abysmal ignorance, to invade Shesteroth's. The girl stepped back, jolted out of the fairytale playing in her head, and her shallow, pale-blue eyes met Rachel's.

Rachel said, her voice tight and harsh with the effort to remain in control, "Only your ignorance excuses the incredible disrespect you have shown the naya of Hasthrogar. Leave now, and I will not ask for your name, or speak to the station authorities." Infuriated, exasperated, she raised her voice to be certain that the other clustering Terrans heard her: "They aren't angels! They aren't elves! They're just people, like we are! Now get the hell away from him!"

Although she doubted that they understood what she was trying to say, her anger and the threat of authority were sufficient to panic them; like a flock of sheep, they backed away, jostling each other, and fled.

Rachel shut her eyes, concentrated on her breathing long enough to count to ten, and then turned to Shesteroth.

"Naya, I am most abjectly sorry. She was ignorant. She meant no harm."

"No harm has been done," Shesteroth said, although his eyes were still dilated and his fingers flexed for attack. His voice was distant, troubled.

"We can go back to the ship. I will call Dr. Iïsanas and tell him you are indisposed."

"No," Shesteroth said. He straightened his fingers, shook his head as if dislodging something. "I have an obligation. I will fulfill it."

"Yes, naya. Please, I apologize. I had hoped that would not happen."

"Dr. Thorne, it is not of your nebreth, and I am not angered. We should go. I do not wish to be late."

Rachel nodded acquiescence and started again for the main corridor. Just before they reached it, Shesteroth said, softly enough that she could pretend she did not hear him, "But if the young woman meant no harm, why are you so angry?"

And, of course--although she had not said so to Shesteroth--she had been angry because of Michelle.

She tore her gaze away from the bookcases. "Did she ..."

"Read them all? Uh-huh. And reread them. I mean, she knew they were trash, but it was like she didn't care."

"Oh, God," Rachel said, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes. "I thought she'd understood. I knew she'd never forgive me, but I thought at least she'd understand me."

"What do you mean?"

"You know Michelle and I were ... estranged?" And of course Lori knew that, but Terran interactions had their own rituals.


"Did she ever tell you why?"

"She didn't like to talk about it. Lot of stuff Michelle didn't like to talk about. But it was your job, right?"

"Yes. My job that Michelle wanted."

Lori's eyes were wide. "But Michelle wasn't a shrink."

"No. I think it was the only thing in her life she ever set her heart on that she couldn't have." Rachel sighed. "What did she tell you?"

"Like I said, not a lot. She said you were a shrink--a shrink for aliens--and you thought you were better than her because you had fancy degrees and could talk seven languages. She said you didn't want her to be better than you at anything. You didn't want her competing, she said. And so you wouldn't help her out when she needed it."

Rachel could hear the condemnation in Lori's voice, could hear Michelle's bitter words behind it. She picked the softball up again, rolling it thoughtfully from hand to hand.

"So is it true?" Lori said.

"Which part? That I can speak seven languages? Yes. That I think--or ever thought--I was better than Michelle? No. I never thought that." She clamped down on her own bitterness and did not add, I was never allowed to think that. Instead, picking her way carefully through the minefield of the truth, she said, "Michelle wanted to work with the Selengem. She'd wanted it since she was, I don't know, maybe nine or ten. She saw one of those stupid movies, and she fell in love. She was a perfectionist, you know, and they looked perfect to her."

"That I know about. People didn't like her, because you could never do anything well enough to suit her."

"And you?"

"Me?" Lori shrugged. "I could never do anything well enough to suit my mom, either, so I was used to it. But, so, Michelle fell in love with the Selengem. I can see that, I guess." She looked at the rows of romances.

"Yes. But she didn't have the aptitudes. It was the only thing I was ever better at than she was--language and linguistics."

"So you studied them instead of her doing it?"

"I wanted to," Rachel said, a little too sharply. Because it was true--she had wanted to, passionately--but it had also been true that it was an acceptable choice to her parents only because Michelle had wanted it first. She sighed, flipped the softball up into the air and caught it again. "And I did. Michelle went to West Point. I was accepted at UNA-Rivermouth; I did the program, passed my tests, and got the much-coveted position in Hasthrogar."

"You don't sound like it made you happy."

"Oh, it did. It does. I love my work. But it isn't the way people think it is. The way Michelle thought it was." She waved an impatient hand at the romances. "That's not what the Selengem are like. I wouldn't want them to be. But, you see, people envy me for it, and they're envying me for something that doesn't exist. You don't get welcomed into the Seleng 'inner circles' because they don't have inner circles. They're a society of sapient beings descended from extraordinarily territorial, solitary animals." And, as she had said earlier, "They aren't angels."

She fell silent, realizing she had been lecturing. It was too easy to do, too easy to rehearse again, futilely, that terrible argument with Michelle on Concord Station. Empathy isn't omniscience! she remembered shouting, and that closed, cold look on Michelle's face that said she did not understand and did not want to.

"So Michelle didn't get it, huh?" Lori said after a moment.

"No. She ... she wanted me to use my 'influence'--which is nonexistent, I assure you--to get her assigned to the embassy in Hasthrogar. I think she thought she could work her way in from there, but I don't know. I told her I couldn't, and I told her why, and then ... well, we haven't spoken for ten years, you can imagine what we said to each other then."

"I'm sorry."

"It is not of your nebreth," Rachel said automatically, in Seleng, then had to backtrack. "I'm sorry. I mean, it's not your fault."

"No, but I'm sorry anyway. I'll send the books to the reformatter."

Rachel knew she was gaping, but couldn't help herself. Lori looked embarrassed, but said, "They didn't do Michelle any good, and, you know, that's really not the part of her I want to remember."

"It's your decision," Rachel said. She had no particular right to be here; Michelle had not mentioned her in her will. But Lori had written to tell her of Michelle's death, and Rachel had written back that she would be on Amity Station, and somehow here they were, possibly the only two people left in the galaxy who loved Michelle Thorne.

Move on, Rachel said to herself, and, out loud, "I thought you might give the fossils to the station school."

"That's a good idea," Lori said, something almost approaching animation in her voice. "I think even Michelle would like that."

"And I don't know anything about this dragon mask, but it's beautiful."

"Would you like it?"

"Oh, God, no! I couldn't. Lori, I don't have any right--"

"She was your sister."

"No, not the mask. I couldn't take it anyway. The Selengem don't like bright colors, and there's no point in having something like that if you can't show it to people."

"It's from Jade," Lori said. "We went there for New Year. It was the first time ... Goddammit!" She was crying again.

"It's okay. But it means something to you, and I think it must have meant something to her. You should keep it."

"Okay," Lori said. She sniffed hard. "But you should take something. Please. Would you take the softball?"

"The softball?" Rachel felt an unexpected, incredulous smile, and suddenly she was laughing. "Yes, I'd love to take the softball."

"And the box."

"I couldn't. It's valuable."

"And that's why you should have it. I'm not going to say anything sappy about how I know she still loved you--because I don't know. But she told me about you. And I think she was proud. Please. She can't give you anything now. Let me do it for her."

It said more about Lori's love for Michelle than it did about Michelle herself, but Rachel accepted. She put the softball back in the box and closed it. She should leave; she needed to get back to the conference before Shesteroth and the distinguished xenopsychologists with whom he was lunching started to wonder where she was. But she stayed, cross-legged next to Lori like two girls at a macabre slumber party, and after a moment, she blurted, "How did she die?"

"Yeah," Lori said and sighed and ran one hand through her hair. "I told you she had Ng's, right?"

"Yes." Ng's Disease was one of the more brutal brain cancers that had been waiting for Terrans when they ventured into space. No one was exactly sure why--the theories Rachel had heard propounded ranged from solar radiation to fluctuating gravity--but, indifferent to hypotheses, there was Ng's, which was fast, rapacious, and incredibly resistant to every treatment thus far dreamed up.

"Well, she hung on, and did all the tests and all the treatments. And she put her stuff in order and trained her replacement and made her will. All the stuff you do. And she was still reading those stupid romances as fast as I could bring 'em to her. But then they came back and said, no, we haven't stopped it, we don't think we're going to stop it. And Michelle said okay, you know, them's the breaks. Told me to go home and get some rest. And she waited until the shift change at the hospital--second to third, worst time of night--and then she walked out. She walked down to the natatorium and she walked into the pool. Because her access card would let her in. And there was nobody there, and even if she'd wanted to, she was too weak to have pulled herself out again. She didn't say good-bye or leave a note. She just went." Lori was crying again, but this time she didn't seem to have noticed.

"Thank you," Rachel said and did not add, It was the only way she could win. There was no need to burden Lori with just how deep and barren Michelle's concept of "winning" had been.

It was time to leave. She stood up, smoothed down her trousers, tucked the Sedrian box under one arm. "I really do have to go."

Lori stood up, too. "I know. You're a busy lady."

They smiled at each other; Lori's eyes were still wet. Suddenly, awkwardly, without premeditation, Rachel moved forward and hugged her, one-armed, the box jabbing into her ribs. Lori hugged her back; she smelled sharp and peppery, with an underlying tang of sweat.

"If you write to me care of the Embassy in Hasthrogar, it'll always find me."

"Okay. Okay, I'll do that. I mean, Christmas cards, at least."

"Yes. As if we were family."

"Yeah," Lori said, smiling, and let her out.

Rachel returned to the conference center, the Sedrian box still under one arm, shrugging back on the mantle of Dr. Rachel Thorne, cultural liaison to Naya Shesteroth, the naya of Hasthrogar, instead of Rachel Thorne, Michelle Thorne's unsatisfactory little sister. Only the box, and its contents, still reminded her that she was one as much as the other, but the box itself, a valuable piece of Sedrian craftwork, would be ample camouflage. Shesteroth would wonder, but he would not abrogate politeness to ask.

She found him, after minimal searching, listening to a panel on language acquisition in Kervissian and Seleng children, and slid into the seat two down from his, glad to see that the galaxy's top experts in xenopsychology knew enough about Selengem not to crowd him. He glanced sideways and smiled at her, and she could not help her pang of relief, even though she was sure he sensed it.

It was the last panel of the day, and Shesteroth politely refused a number of invitations to dine or have drinks or otherwise be social. Rachel silently congratulated herself on the forethought that had led her to tell him that refusal would not be offensive. Among Selengem, it would have been, but among Selengem the invitations would have been anything but casually made. She and Shesteroth walked back to the Prosperous Truce alone.

They were met at the airlock by Gos Hamelen, the ship's second mate. "Naya," he said, bowing. "Doctor."

"Gos," Shesteroth and Rachel said, bowing in return.

"The ship is harmonious," said Gos Hamelen.

"She sings," Shesteroth agreed. Rachel felt herself relaxing into the stiff dance of Seleng etiquette, as gos and naya gently, delicately, negotiated Shesteroth's readmission to the territory that was the ship. Rachel was not part of this negotiation; she was Terran and was therefore understood not to abide by the Selengem's mostly unspoken rules. Because she was Terran, they did not entirely perceive her as an invader in the first place.

Negotiations complete, Shesteroth stepped from the airlock into the ship proper. As Rachel followed him, he said, "Dr. Thorne, I would like to speak to you. Perhaps on the observation deck?"

"Of course, naya," Rachel said, tensing again. "Gos Hamelen, if you could be so kind as to have this box put in my quarters."

"It shall be done, Dr. Thorne," Hamelen said, bowing again and accepting the box. She knew he would take it himself, because her status demanded it, but his status demanded that she not assume that he would perform menial tasks for her.

"Thank you, gos. I am obliged for your consideration."

Gos Hamelen bowed to both of them and padded away with the box. Dutifully, dreadingly, Rachel followed Shesteroth to the observation deck.

The observation deck, at this particular moment, offered nothing more edifying than a view of Amity Station's featureless white flank. Shesteroth advanced to stand at the midpoint of the deck's long curve, his hands clasped behind him, staring at Amity. Rachel remained near the door, watching him and the station and the turmoil of her own thoughts, knowing that Shesteroth was watching that last as well.

There were no words in Seleng to describe those without the ability to feel others' emotions, except for the words used to describe the dead or the terribly, grievously damaged. Rachel had met, in her ten years on Selengeth, three Selengem who had no empathic ability. Two of them had been children born with such terrible birth-defects that they were little more than vegetables, and she knew she would carry with her for the rest of her life the memory of their mothers' grief. The third, an adult, had been the only survivor of a train wreck in the Narvaren District. He had been in a coma for three months and had awakened half-paralyzed and psychically deaf. Rachel, then the juniormost of the xenopsychologists attached to the embassy in Hasthrogar, had been sent to interview him, to discover what words the Selengem themselves used for the natural state of her own species, and she had been aware throughout the interview of the terrible pain surging and writhing just beneath the deeply enculturated courtesy of the Selengem. Near the end, the man had said, "Terrans live like this all the time."

"Yes," she had said.

"How do you bear it?" The abrogation of politeness was startling, almost frightening--an outpouring of anguish. She had made no effort to answer it, because the answer he needed was no answer she could give. The only thing she could have said--what she had said to the few Selengem who had abrogated politeness sufficiently to express interest--was, It isn't so bad for us, or, perhaps, We don't know any better. Neither answer would have helped that Seleng man, lying in the hospital with the nurses' pity visible to him on their faces but not perceptible to him inside himself. Two weeks later, Rachel had read in the thella--a word which translated best as "shout aloud" and only marginally as "newspaper," although that was the only Terran analogue--that Shen Alserreth had committed suicide, and she had felt, along with a stabbing, undefinable pain, a burden lift from her shoulders which she had not known she was carrying. She had clipped the article and had it laminated--it was barely three inches long--and carried it with her as she carried the memory of Shen Alserreth's haunted eyes.

Silence filled the observation deck of the Prosperous Truce. Out of it, because Terrans could never be satisfied, Rachel said, "Naya Shesteroth?"

"Dr. Thorne," Shesteroth said, without turning around. "Is it polite to call you Rachel?"

"Among friends," Rachel said cautiously, using the Seleng word for friendship of a medium level of intimacy. She knew what friendship meant among the Selengem. She knew how rarely they extended that gift even to members of their own species. An adult Seleng's life was filled with courteous acquaintances, but rarely more than two or perhaps three persons for whom even the most distant form of the word "friend" would be used. The term was not invoked lightly in Seleng.

"Are we friends?" Shesteroth used the English word, moving the conversation into an arena and a register for which Rachel was entirely unprepared. The academic part of her noticed that he balanced the abrogation of politeness inherent in the question by continuing to look at Amity, leaving her some semblance of privacy. The rest of her scrambled madly for an answer that would not offend or wound him, and ended up far nearer the truth than she had entirely intended.

"I do not know, naya. I would like us to be. But it is not my place to decide that."

"How do Terrans decide such things?"

"I don't know, naya." She thought of Lori. "We don't 'decide' in quite the same way you do."

"But you said you would like for us to be friends." Again the English word.

"Yes, naya."


"I beg your pardon for not understanding," Rachel said, flummoxed into a retreat to the first and most basic of her language lessons. Shesteroth had committed an abrogation of politeness even worse than his original question; in token of that, he turned around, his hands spread, palms upward, a gesture of harmlessness that happened to translate across species boundaries.

"I am most abjectly sorry. But I am worried. What are angels? What are elves?"

Wholeheartedly, Rachel cursed the excellence of Shesteroth's memory, in that moment not caring that Shesteroth would pick up on her feelings. She took a deep breath and said, "They are part of Terran folklore, naya. Like fairytales."

"Which you tell to your children, yes?"

"Yes, naya."

"And what do you tell your children of angels and elves? What do you tell them of us?"

She thought of those rows of horrid, cheap book-disks on Michelle's bookcases and bit her tongue against the first answer that sprang to mind. "Angels and elves are ... they are tall and beautiful. They are," it took her a moment to think of the right word in Seleng, "ineffable. They have powers that Terrans think of as magical."

"Like knowing another's feelings, yes?"

"Exactly," Rachel said wearily. "Do you have such beings in your folklore?"

"We are descended from creatures who hunted by night," Shesteroth said. He seemed to feel that was answer enough, and after a moment's thought, Rachel supposed it was.

And Shesteroth was not done. "Do many Terrans feel that way about us?"

"Which way?"

"Please. I have abrogated politeness and you have allowed it. Let there be less of this ..."

"Fencing," Rachel said in English.


"Sword-fighting. Never mind. It's an idiom. And you are right. You have asked a question. There is a great deal of ignorance among Terrans about your species. And there is very little friendship between fact and imagination."

"Even so."

Rachel searched for a way to explain that would not make Terrans seem as stupid as she feared they were. "For more than a century before we made contact with other species, we had been dreaming of them, looking for them in our skies, making up stories about who they were--the same kinds of stories we had been making up about elves and angels."

"And we fit your stories."

"Yes. Yes, you do."

"What did those people want?" Shesteroth said, his voice much smaller, and Rachel knew that this was the question he had been trying to ask all along.

"They think that because your culture is peaceful and enlightened, because you are a species they find physically beautiful, that you will make good ..." She hesitated, then used the only word in Seleng that meant anything approaching "lovers": gresettim. Sexual-partner-and-friend was not a particularly close approximation of "lover," but the concept of romantic love as Terrans understood it was very hard to pin down in Seleng, and it was not something one spoke of to anyone with whom one did not share such a relationship. No matter how grievously Shesteroth had abrogated politeness in his pursuit of knowledge, she could not use those words with him.

"But they don't know us," he said plaintively. "Any of us." The entire concept had to be as alien to him as anything on Selengeth had ever been to her. There was no such thing as a casual affair or a one-night stand in Seleng culture. No relationship of any degree of intimacy was entered into without longstanding acquaintance and a good deal of extremely cautious negotiation.

"They are like children," Rachel said, "telling themselves stories. They don't understand."

A silence. Shesteroth was frowning; he turned to look at Amity again before he asked: "Is that what you want when you say friend? A greseth?"

Rachel stared at his back blankly for three slow thudding heartbeats, then made the only possible response. "Naya Shesteroth, I am most abjectly sorry if I have ever, in any way, given you any reason to feel that I harbored for you feelings of such gross inappropriateness and vulgarity. I can only assure you that I do not."

There was another silence, even longer. Rachel had decided that Shesteroth was done speaking to her and was about to retreat, when Shesteroth said, "Dr. Thorne, do you know why the women of my species bear one child and one child only?"

"Physiologically? Or--"

As if she had not spoken, he continued: "About a century, perhaps a little less, before we achieved space flight, there were two young women, Dar Esever and Dar Meleleneth, who were dearest friends." The word he used, velaurem, was the strongest word for friendship in Seleng, stronger than greseth, only slightly less intense than the word for the relationship between a mother and her child. It was an odd word to use of darrim, middle-class women who had not yet borne children, and Rachel felt the first, faint chill of unease. "They became pregnant at the same time, and they thought they would raise their children together. Our folklore, you see, is full of what I think Terrans call twins, or perhaps doppelgängers--I do not know--people who are more like each other and closer even than velaurem can be. Dar Esever and Dar Meleleneth thought that they would give their children that bond. It was a very radical idea, of course, and many people tried to talk them out of it, including their own mothers. But they did not listen, as the young never listen to the advice of the old. Their babies were born within two days of each other, and Dar Esever and Dar Meleleneth made their household together. Do you know what happened?"

"No, naya."

"The babies died. They starved each other to death."

"Naya, I--"

"No, let me finish. When they were six months old or maybe a little more--it has been a long time since I studied the case--and became aware of each other, they perceived each other instantly as rivals. Whenever one infant would nurse--and you know that our children cannot be weaned before they are two years old--the other would scream, relentlessly, and use its empathy," Shesteroth used the English word, deliberately and with derision, "to keep the first from feeding. We can use our empathy to hurt each other, though it is a thing which rarely occurs."

He paused, giving her the chance to speak, but she could not. "Dar Esever and Dar Meleleneth did everything they could, of course. They took the children to doctors, to tharam, to everyone they could think of. In the end, they split their household, but by then it was too late. One historian I read suggested that it was too late from the moment the babies perceived each other as separate individuals. The babies had become more attuned to their rivals than to their mothers, and they could no longer eat. Perhaps today they could have been saved, but this was two hundred years ago. They died before they reached their first year--within two days of each other, just as they had been born. Dar Esever and Dar Meleleneth held a joint funeral, and then killed themselves." Rachel understood; there was no viler crime for the Selengem than infanticide, nothing they found less forgivable.

Shesteroth turned around. He said, "There is a pall of grief and hurt across your mind. I thought perhaps it was something to do with ... with the other Terrans, but it is not." He was retreating, she noticed, rebuilding the wall he had torn down. Statements were not impolite, even when they implied questions. It was always acceptable to ignore an implied question.

But she discovered, suddenly, that she did not want to. She said, "In a way it is. I had a sister." She had to use the English word. Although their words for social relationships filled a small and densely written lexicon, there were no kinship terms in Seleng except those for "mother" and "child."

"A second, female child of the same mother. Yes. But you said 'had.'"

Again a statement, an avoidable question. "She is dead. She died a week ago."

"One comprehends this sadness." It was a formula, untranslatable into English, having to do with feeling sorrow for the sorrow that one felt in another person--another thing, like their many, carefully gradated words for "friend," that the Selengem did not say unless they meant.

"Thank you, naya. I appreciate your kindness." She felt her eyes prickling. My turn, she thought, and remembered Lori cursing at her own grief.

"You did not tell anyone."

"No, I didn't. I ... it is hard to explain." She hesitated, but although it was not possible for Shesteroth fully to understand, she was coldly, aridly aware that she had no one else to tell. She said, in English, "We were not friends."

Shesteroth's head tilted, and she saw the twitch of his ear. It was hard for a Terran to catch a Seleng off-balance, but she did not feel even spiteful pride in having done so, only bitterness.

"But you were kin," he said, using the single word for blood relation that Seleng had, the word before which everything else in their culture and psychology gave way: seth.

"We were ..." She could think of no other way to make him understand, and so said, "We were like the children of Dar Esever and Dar Meleleneth. Michelle--my sister--was one of those Terrans who thought Selengem were angels. She wanted my job. We were rivals, not seth." Seleng had almost as many words for rivalry as it did for friendship; she picked the strongest she thought Shesteroth would believe.

"Is that ... common for ... for ..."

"Siblings," she provided, and said carefully, "It is not uncommon."

Shesteroth made a small gesture, a ritual sign meant to ward off the attention of ill-disposed powers. In this case, she thought it was probably reflective of simple horror, as one who opens a familiar door and finds himself looking out at the vast emptiness of space. And after a long silence, he said, almost timidly, "And yet you grieve."

"Yes," Rachel said. "For we were also seth."

He did not understand; it was there in his silence, in the careful, graceful gesture with which he ran the back of one finger along the rings in his left ear. But he was willing--as many, Seleng and Terran alike, were not--to understand that there was something which he did not understand and which was nevertheless true.

"I am sorry," Shesteroth said.

"It is not of your nebreth. Any of it."

He smiled. After a moment, he said, "I would like us to be friends," still using the English word, "but perhaps it is not right of me."

She said, thinking of Michelle, of the cold, white, empty anger that had stood like a wall between them, "Surely it is better to try--to step towards each other rather than to step away."

"I hope so." There was another long silence. He said slowly, "Rachel."

She bowed her head, an image flashing across her mind of teaching the naya to play softball, and answered, "Shesteroth."

copyright 2008 Sarah Monette
23rd-Apr-2008 06:25 pm (UTC)
I like this story a lot, particularly the complexities of politeness among the alien race and the possible reasons for that. Empathy and territoriality.
23rd-Apr-2008 06:26 pm (UTC)
Thank you. It's my C. J. Cherryh homage.
23rd-Apr-2008 06:41 pm (UTC)
This means I definitely need to read some C. J. Cherryh soon, because I liked your story a lot. All of it, from the Rachel/Michelle past dynamic and how it translated into the present to a culture that has a very real reason to be unable to understand certain feelings. And just the other day I was thinking that maybe some of the most empathetic people deliberately close themselves off and isolate themselves, because it's just too tiring otherwise.
23rd-Apr-2008 08:10 pm (UTC)
Have you read Joan Vinge's Psion and Cat's Paw? Really good stories about empaths and the trouble they have dealing with the everyday world.
24th-Apr-2008 04:07 pm (UTC)
I haven't, but she looks like an interesting author. I'll check out the books you mention. Thanks for the rec!
26th-May-2014 05:26 am (UTC)
I love those books -- read the first when I was quite young, and drew Cat all over my notebooks for ages :)

truepenny, you are an amazing author -- I discovered you when my daughter introduced me to "Boojum," and have been on a recent reading binge of the "Doctrine of Labyrinths" books (very much hoping that the first two can be released as e-books at some point, because I'd love to recommend the series highly to my friends, but it's hard to obtain the second book, as you know), as well as your short story collections.

Thank you for sharing this, and the others that you linked from your site -- I appreciated the way you conveyed the delicate courtesy and dance of manners necessary to communicate with a truly *alien* species, in viewpoint as well as in physical form. And you write grief heartrendingly well.

-- Andi <3
23rd-Apr-2008 08:37 pm (UTC)
Foreigner is the book in particular to start with.
24th-Apr-2008 01:59 am (UTC)
Thank you; I've been looking for an entrance point for Cherryh's work.

I like this story a lot.
23rd-Apr-2008 07:19 pm (UTC)
oooooh, YES. it was marvelous, and now you say it i completely connect to cherryh. while reading, i was just loving it.

either way, thank you for sharing!
23rd-Apr-2008 08:08 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed most Cherryh I've read. Thanks for sharing it. I hope there are more Selengem stories at some point.
23rd-Apr-2008 08:27 pm (UTC) - Homage
And a damned good one, too.
23rd-Apr-2008 08:39 pm (UTC)
I thought of Cherryh when I read that statement about holding out open hands being a universal gesture of harmlessness. Didn't Cherryh say the opposite somewhere, of the chanur? Something about a balled fist being less threatening to a species with claws or something...
23rd-Apr-2008 06:35 pm (UTC)
This could turn into my favorite holiday of the year.
23rd-Apr-2008 09:36 pm (UTC)
I really, really liked this. Thank you for sharing it.
(Deleted comment)
23rd-Apr-2008 10:28 pm (UTC)
he women of my species bear one child and one child only

I enjoyed the story except for this line. I hope you don't mind the commentary - it snapped my disbelief suspenders. The last time I saw a number, constant population required an average of just over 2 children per mother (the just over to account for a number of accidental deaths, etc.). The choice of words leads me to assume that the Seleng have two sexes - which means their population has been rapidly shrinking for the last two hundred years.
23rd-Apr-2008 10:33 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I know. The science doesn't work. This would be why I don't write science fiction.
24th-Apr-2008 11:46 pm (UTC)
And here I was getting really curious about their biology! :-) (I was wondering if he meant that families never had a second child while they were raising a first one, so while the concept of “sibling” might exist genetically, any such would have grown up and left home before the next one was even conceived.)

Nice work on making the aliens alien.

24th-Apr-2008 11:51 pm (UTC)
I actually have a new hypothesis, which is that Seleng women only have one child because, after that child is weaned, they become Seleng men--who may then be the fathers of one or two or several more children.
25th-Apr-2008 12:02 am (UTC)
That gets to population replacement, though it would still result in a slowly declining population when an individual fails to reproduce. (There are terrestrial critters that can do stunts like this— some breeds of chicken have been known to have hens turn into roosters under the right conditions.) Though if a male meets some sort of biological success criterion (siring some number of children, or getting lots of food to eat, or somesuch) and becomes female again, that would make second children possible but rare. A species like that couldn’t have a population explosion like humans, but could grow when they meet the right conditions (e.g. abundance of prey). That could drive some very interesting politics between a slow-growing species and a fast-growing one like ours.

If you are ever at a science fiction convention where Pat MacEwen is giving one of her presentations on Alien Sex, I think you’d enjoy it. She explores the bizarreties of terrestrial biology and speculates on what aliens would be like if they had such traits, and makes it informative and funny.

23rd-Apr-2008 11:10 pm (UTC)
Oh, my.

*politely scratches for more in the same vein*

I very much enjoyed this. Thank you for sharing.

23rd-Apr-2008 11:18 pm (UTC)
Wonderful. It reminded me of Octavia Butler's Genesis trilogy. I hope I'm remembering it correctly. I love the language and social differences between the humans and the aliens. :) Major. :)
24th-Apr-2008 12:26 am (UTC)
Thank you for sharing. This was lovely.
25th-Apr-2008 02:15 pm (UTC)
Oh, I liked this a lot. Thanks for sharing it with us!
27th-Apr-2008 03:32 am (UTC)
I have nothing of value to say, so I'll limit myself to: I love this. If you ever write a sci-fi novel, I will be first in line at the bookstore.
6th-May-2008 04:28 am (UTC)
Thanks for sharing this. It's fascinating. *lines up behind commenter above to buy any SF novel you write*
11th-Apr-2009 07:38 pm (UTC)
Found this from your link in the latest Q&A. Thank you very much for mentioning it, as this pre-dates my discovery of your LJ. The Seleng are fascinating and, as most of the other comments mentioned, I'd be extremely interested if you ever decided to pursue this universe further.
15th-Apr-2009 12:21 am (UTC)
This story rocked my socks. I especially liked Shesteroth's story--it tells us a lot about his species and their culture, gives us a slightly different way to think about the relationship between Rachel and her sister, *and* illustrates the danger of treating stories as if they were true. I like, uh, things that do a lot of things.

I also like this story as an introduction to your work--I think I'll link to it when I write my post telling all my LJ-friends to read your books toot-sweet (assuming you don't mind--I can't imagine why you'd have put the story here if you didn't want people to read it, but if you don't, I won't). Anyway, the story links up nicely to your other work: while the novels are partially about deconstructing* their respective fantasy subgenres, they aren't *overtly* about that, while this story is, partially, overtly about that.

(*I'm using "deconstructed" here to mean "taken apart and put back together in a different way," and attempting to shrug off the rest of the high-lit-crit baggage attached to the term.)
15th-Apr-2009 12:25 am (UTC)
Perfectly correct. If I didn't want people to read it, I wouldn't have put it online.

And thank you!
15th-Apr-2009 01:35 am (UTC)
I was almost certain you wouldn't mind, but people are weird, so I try to be cautious.

And now I see there's a whole *list* of online stories here on the left side of the page--how exciting!
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