And Other Definitions of Family
By Abra Staffin-Wiebe
Illustration by Edvard Derkert
May’s doorbell pulsed, sending a subsonic wave shivering through her. She rubbed her hands over her arms to banish the goose bumps, and made a mental note to speak to Nueva Nova station maintenance about resetting the doorbell to human standards. The doorbell pulsed again, and May hurried to deactivate it.
She didn’t have a client appointment scheduled, but they all knew she welcomed drop-ins. She checked the peep-cam. Optimal lighting, background soundscape, clothing level, hairstyle, and pheromone spray all depended on the client’s species. Her eyebrows lifted involuntarily when she saw the bat-like Bitocktee male at her door.
Alien males were generally as keen as human males on sticking their dick or other species-appropriate appendage in new and interesting places. Representatives of most other species with a culture-and-commerce post on Nueva Nova had found their way to her door, but this was her first Bitocktee. A burst of interest shot through her. Then she got a better look at him, and wariness tempered her first reaction.
She’d studied alien body language at Berkeley. This male’s leathery wings curved tightly to shield his abdominal pouch, his claws peeked out of their sheaths, and his cheek quills quivered in the defensive erect position. Human xenologists had large gaps in their knowledge of Bitocktee, but that was aggressive, not amorous, posturing.
May tightened her robe, in case he might find a glimpse of human mammaries disturbing, pulled her hip-length black hair up into in a bun, pasted a nonthreatening closed-mouth smile on her face, and opened the door. She held an alarm buzzer just in case. Nobody called her stupid, not unless they paid extra for the privilege. In advance.
“You are the female human who rents out her reproductive system?” his translator chirped.
“Yes,” she said cautiously, “under certain circumstances, to explore inter-species mating rituals.”
“Degenerate pervert alien-fuckers,” his translator said cheerfully.
May didn’t turn a hair. “I am May Espinoza. What is your name and clan?”
Notoriously xenophobic and private, Bitocktees only offered their clan name to those they were about to do business with. If he told her, it would mean he was serious.
“I am Red2, and my clan name is Dives-from-Above.”
“Greetings, Dives-from-Above Red2. Come inside, and let us discuss what you want from me. Then I will tell you what it will cost.”
He stood awkwardly in her living room, shifting from foot to foot.
“If you would be more comfortable—” she began.
He unfurled his wings and allowed her to see his belly pouch. Something bulged inside.
“I need you to carry my young.”
Her eyes widened. “But I’m a different species,” she sputtered. This was the most bizarre proposal she’d ever received.
“Bitocktees and humans are not as different as they appear. Though Bitocktees are a higher species, humans have similar biochemistry. I went to your human doctor, the one who also studies other species. Dr. Brown assured me it was possible.”
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I do!”
“No female Bitocktee will agree to carry my pouchling. My mate is dead. Only humans are close enough to Bitocktees to attempt this, and you are the only female human who rents out her reproductive system to aliens.”
That would depend on the incentive he offered, May thought cynically. Director Elsing would find a volunteer quickly enough if it allowed the human mission access to the Bitocktees. In the next instant, May felt bad for thinking of the woman in those terms. She had been understandably disappointed when May switched to a more lucrative line of work at the end of the contracted probationary period. May’s ticket to the Nueva Nova cultural exchange hub had taken a hefty chunk out of the diplomatic corp’s budget. Despite that, the director had been halfway decent since May quit, even if she did keep trying to pressure May into rejoining the corp.
May learned more in a single appointment than a traditional xeno-anthropologist might in her entire career. Meanwhile, the generous payments of her alien clients ensured she would never be poor again in her life. And speaking of safety—
“I don’t know how Bitocktee females carry young,” she said delicately, “but human young do not have quills and claws. Our biochemistries may be compatible, but this can’t be safe!”
“There will be no problem. The pouchling is in Jell-O.”
“Jell-O?” She raised her eyebrows.
Red2 scowled suspiciously down at his translator. Then he glared at May. “You must not tell anyone this. It is private.”
“Certainly,” she lied.
“For the first part of our reproductive cycle, the male carries the fertilized egg in his pouch. When the egg starts to soften and stretch, the female receives it. Inside her, the egg continues to soften into a gelatinous birth sac. And even if the sac ruptured during the birth process, the claws and quills are soft until exposure to air hardens them.”
“How long would I have to carry your young?”
“Sixty station days.”
If everything checked out as safe, this could be one hell of a break. She hadn’t made it this far by hesitating to grasp opportunities when they presented themselves. And if it didn’t work, it wasn’t as if it were her child at risk. She let out her breath in a long sigh.
“This is what it will cost.” She wrote down the amount on a sheet of paper so that there would be no mistranslation. Red2’s eyes widened.
“That is the price. And you must agree to answer all my questions about the Bitocktees and to act as my guide in your society during that time.”
“Impossible. You must remain separate from other Bitocktees while you are carrying my young.”
“Fine. For sixty days afterward, then! And this agreement only stands if Dr. Brown says it won’t risk my health,” she amended. “Do you agree, on your clan name?”
After a long hesitation, he said, “I agree by Clan Dives-from-Above to your payment and that I will answer all your questions and serve as your guide for sixty days once you have carried my pouchling until he is safely born.” Then, so quietly that she wondered if the translator had picked up a subvocalized mutter, he added, “If you both survive.”
It was with a distinctly uneasy feeling that she took the tube with Red2 to visit the human sector’s head doctor. Red2 kept his wings wrapped tightly about himself the whole ride.
Once inside the station clinic, Dr. Brown’s reassurances only made May more concerned.
“What’s the catch, Doc?” She slapped the smooth surface of the examining table she sat on. “You’re putting an alien inside me.”
Red2’s cheek quills flared. “You are the alien! And I am trusting my pouchling to you because I have no other choice! The Bitocktees have safe, Bitocktee-made surrogate wombs—” Dr. Brown looked up sharply at that, “—but the birthing refuges are in our homeworld’s desert. My mate and I had planned to return. She would have taken the egg and gone to the desert. If I had tried alone, the defenders would have killed me before I could explain. Now it is too late even to try.”
“I would be very interested in learning more about these devices—” Dr. Brown began.
“You would not understand the technology.” Red2’s quills remained ruffled.
May thought of The Essential Field Guide to Bitocktees by Dr. May Espinoza, Ph.D., X.D., and of the balance growing higher in her bank account. She softened her voice, though she didn’t know if Red2’s translator would pick up the difference, and said, “I did not mean to offend. I just wanted to know how such different biochemistries could be compatible.”
Dr. Brown tapped his tablet and the back brightened to show her the screen he was looking at. “These represent the base hormone and nutrient levels throughout your body.” He circled a multicolored female figure with his stylus. “Now, when we add dietary supplements and hormone injections,” a swirl of blue joined the diagram, centering around the figure’s abdomen, “the base levels are nearly identical to a Bitocktee female. Close monitoring, antibody suppressants, and—”
“Wait, what’s that at the bottom? Radiation treatments?”
“In the last phase of child-bearing, Bitocktee females leave the cave colonies and go out into the desert until the pouchling is whelped. The pouchling’s proper development relies upon exposure to the radiation. It’s a fascinating evolutionary development. The males can’t enter the desert without being blinded, but when the female is carrying a child, it triggers a thickening of her nictitating membrane. Because the males can’t follow—”
“Enough.” Red2’s cheek quills stuck straight out and quivered as if they were about to launch. May made a mental note to get Dr. Brown alone and find out what other previously unknown tidbits Red2 had shared with him.
“The ‘radiation’ is extra-bright light at the appropriate frequency. It won’t make you glow in the dark.” Dr. Brown chuckled at his little joke. “If you’re worried, we can run you through a course of anti-rad treatments afterward, but it truly is harmless. It’s the same as the light in the Percherr section, and humans go through there all the time with no more protection than dark goggles.”
He pointed to a two meter by two meter white box in one corner of the lab. “That’s actually what we’ll use for the treatments. It’s a comfort box for any long-term Percherr patients. Fortunately, it’s uninhabited right now.”
“So there’s nothing dangerous to me in bearing this… pouchling?”
“There’s no family history of pregnancy difficulties?”
Unbidden, she remembered the ambulance rattling over bumpy streets, the lemon scent of sanitizer, and the desperate grip of her mother’s hand as hospital after hospital redirected the charity patients while her mother bled onto the towel the EMTs placed under her to absorb the mess. “Nothing proper medical care wouldn’t prevent. So this procedure isn’t risky for me in any way?”
“Not with appropriate precautions. I suppose you could be blinded if you went in the box without goggles. We don’t want that. Eye transplants aren’t included under standard health. You could get lens caps implanted, but bio eyes matching your own would cost—” He named a figure that would wipe out all her savings and put her in debt besides.
“Goggles it is!” She looked at Red2. “I’ll do it, but I’ll hold you to our bargain.”
He bobbed his head, an awkward attempt at a human gesture that warmed her toward him slightly.
“All right, Doc.”
She woke from anesthetic with her stomach queasy and her mind not quite fuzzy enough to ignore the ache that ran down her abdomen.
The waves painted on the blue-green ceiling above her were supposed to be soothing, she guessed, but it made her grab for the wastebasket. After a dozen gut-wrenching spasms that brought up everything she’d eaten lately, she sank back onto the pillows and tried not to look at the heaving ceiling.
They’d moved her into the recovery room while she was out. She pressed the glowing call button with the interspecies symbol for “help” on it.
In a few minutes, the door opened, casting a rectangle of light on the floor. A burly nurse with old sailor tattoos on his arms stepped inside. He consulted his clipboard and began, “Miss Espinoza—”
A hissing ball of fury erupted from the shadows beside the door. Claws cut through the air, fangs flashed, and cheek quills rattled.
“Hell!” The nurse dropped his clipboard and jumped back, grabbing for the zapgun at his belt.
“Stop! No! It’s okay! It’s okay!” May shouted.
The nurse stayed a safe distance away, his hand on his taser. Red2 filled the doorway, hissing, but did not attack.
“Red2,” May said, “it’s all right. That’s the nurse. I called him. Red2, it’s okay.”
It took a while for the translated words to get through to him, or for him to calm down. Finally, Red2 spoke, cheek spines quivering. “He is an out-clan male. He must not be allowed close to the pouchling.”
May closed her eyes and thought of the wide corridors of Nueva Nova Station, which thronged with “out-clan males.” Now he told her.
“How about Dr. Brown? You let him handle the egg.”
“He is a friend-of-clan. Temporary.”
Dr. Brown appeared behind the nurse and touched his shoulder, pulling him back. “Yes, we had the ceremony before he brought you here.”
“And you didn’t tell me about this little detail?”
“I thought Red2 had. I would have warned him,” Dr. Brown tilted his head toward the nurse, “but this isn’t his regular shift.”
Dr. Brown faced Red2, his arms held tight to his sides, his hands curled into fists. May approved. He must have read up on aggression cues to learn how to avoid the response a “wings wide in threat with talons extended”-type appearance might provoke.
“I need to examine the patient.”
Red2 shuffled aside reluctantly.
“How do you feel?” Dr. Brown asked as he checked May’s pupils and took her pulse. “Any nausea? Sharp abdominal pain? You can expect some soreness.”
“Nausea, yes, although I’m feeling better.”
“That’s normal. Your body’s adjusting to suddenly being pregnant. Lie back.” He pushed aside her hospital gown and examined her, gently palpating her abdomen.
A five inch swath of bright pink skin marked where he had made his incision. It stretched over a lump the size of a doubled fist that had not been there before.
May’s clientele generally wouldn’t care if she scarred or put on weight beyond the human female ideal, but she was glad these changes were temporary and that the largest she would get was the equivalent of being five months into a human pregnancy. She heard her mother’s voice, “All a woman has to rely on is her body. Her man can take away everything else, everything she earns, but he can’t take that.”
Dr. Brown ran a scan wand over May’s belly. “The pouchling’s vital signs are steady. He’s settling in nicely.”
May rested her hand on top of the firm little mound. Something pulsed against her palm, and it was suddenly very real. Nausea surged. She leaned over the edge of the bed and vomited.
“A little something to settle your stomach.” Dr. Brown injected the meds into her drip.
Red2 crowded close. “Is the human female defective? Did something go wrong during surgery?”
Irritated, the ‘human female’ snapped, “It is normal in our species for females carrying young to do this!”
Red2’s wings settled and he backed off a bit. “Usually when females regurgitate to feed their young, it is not so thoroughly digested. Or acidic.”
For the health of the rest of the station residents, Dr. Brown arranged for them to use an enclosed windowless medical transport to return to May’s quarters once he completed his exam. Given Red2’s protectiveness, she was pleasantly surprised he did not insist on moving her to his quarters.
Her satisfaction wore off quickly once she learned Red2 intended to stay with her and make sure that she didn’t get too close to any “out-clan males.”
She hadn’t planned on pursuing her profession anyway, not while she carried Red2’s pouchling, but she didn’t much like feeling as if she were under house arrest. Red2 refused to answer any of her questions about his activities. He reminded her that he wasn’t contractually obligated to answer her questions until his sixty days as her guide began. Reluctantly, she limited herself strictly to observation, noting that the subject was in unusual circumstances and might be acting atypically. She was left with a lot of time on her hands, since there wasn’t much to observe.
Red2 nested in the coat closet. He slept most of the time, almost going into hibernation, though he snapped to attention whenever she came near or when anyone rang the doorbell. His jack-in-the-box exits did not help to settle her nerves. When he was awake, he manipulated holographic shapes that squirmed with alien symbols; entertainment or work, she couldn’t tell. She envied him his distractions.
The first week, she cleaned up her field research notes. Her stomach felt uneasy. She tried to treat it as she would have any stomach illness, though rest and fluids didn’t help. Dull cramping and sharp twinges of pain from her rapidly expanding uterus joined the ache from Dr. Brown’s incision. She only left her apartment twice, for the necessary light treatments.
Restless and irritable, she paced back and forth in her kitchen. Hunger gnawed at her, but all the food in her automat revolted her. Red2 watched her for a while, and then he left and came back with a sandwich that smelled like heaven. She seized it and took two huge bites out of it before asking him what it was.
“Desert lizard,” he said.
She finished the sandwich.
The second week, she caught up on all the back episodes of her favorite mystery vid from Earth. The hard lump in her abdomen grew in size. She blamed the nausea and vertigo on the vitamins and hormone supplements she had to inject twice a day. Tuesday night, the alien pouchling moved in her for the first time. She woke disoriented and felt a roiling in her stomach and a flutter against the inside of her skin. She wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and sat there alone in the dark for a very long time.
The third week, civility wore thin. Red2 reverted to the Bitocktee standard of rudeness to other life-forms. The alien inside May moved frequently, with flutterings and hard thumps that sometimes caused sharp pain. She tried not to imagine the wings and talons inside her, and failed.
The closer she was to her light treatments, the more agitated the pouchling grew. If she waited too long, she’d be assailed by cramps that sent her fleeing to the doctor, who would scold her and warn her not to wait so long again. She came to look forward to the light treatments, protective eye goggles, blazing heat and all, because afterward there would be respite.
The doctor was palpating her abdomen when the pouchling twisted and thrashed, making May wince. His eyes narrowed.
“Has the little one been more restless lately?” He patted May’s belly, and she resisted the urge to slap his hand away. She nodded.
“That’s a sign he’s distressed. Your stress levels triggered it. If you notice him being that active again, try to calm yourself and come here immediately. Light treatments can counter the stress and help him remain viable. As long as you keep to your regular schedule of appointments and nothing traumatic occurs, everything should be fine. Just keep an eye on it.”
Ten minutes in the bright heat of the box baked the stress right out of her. The Bitocktee pouchling’s turmoil settled back down to a gentle, rhythmic flutter.
She couldn’t go out, and the arrival of a deliveryman with flowers from a client sent Red2 into a hissing fury, so May turned on the vid for company as she prepared to cook. Her second foster mother had made sure she knew the basics. Red2 hovered in the doorway, his protective hormones still in an uproar after the deliveryman. She ignored him and dug out a skillet, the staples that she could buy from the wall automat, and some of her precious imported-from-Earth seasonings. She’d sautéed the protein cubes, added vegetables and sauce, and was carrying the pan back to the stove when the vid streamed a flitter insurance commercial that opened with a fiery explosion. The boom of the explosion echoed through her quarters.
From the doorway behind May, a ferocious rattling swelled and filled the kitchenette, as loud as if a dozen rattlesnakes were in the room with her. Startled, she gasped and dropped the skillet. Protein cubes and frozen vegetables skittered across the linoleum, leaving brown smears of teriyaki sauce. The waste of the expensive, Earth-imported sauce brought tears prickling at the edges of May’s eyes.
She spun and came face-to-face with Red2. “Back off!” she hissed. She pointed to the living room. “Get out! Get out of my kitchen, you— you horrible alien!”
“You are the alien!” Red2 responded.
“You don’t know what I am!”
“I know all about you. I ran a security check before I made my offer. No human clan accepts you. I wanted to carry this pouchling with my mate, but carrion birds scraped the marrow from her bones. I will not let this last part of her die! I would never trust a creature like you with my pouchling if I had a choice! As soon as this is over, I will make sure you stay far, far away from my child.”
May trembled in rage. “Get out!”
Red2 flared his wings and then wrapped them tightly around himself and stalked out to sulk in a dark corner of the living room.
May collapsed to the kitchen floor, sobbing with anger. Her tears dried quickly. The flutter in her abdomen gentled to a soothing swish. Then she sat there in the brightly lit kitchenette, on the floor, surrounded by the ruin of her dinner. The newscaster on the vid discussed how alien immigration boosted the employment rate. Her hand cradled her stomach.
She stayed there for much longer than her anger lasted. She was soothed by the cool floor, the drone of the vid, and the gentle pulse against her palm. The ring of her doorbell brought her clumsily to her feet, grateful that station maintenance had reset it to human normal and spared her an unwanted ultrasonic massage.
She checked the peep-cam, but all she could see was an indeterminate shape shrouded in a delivery uniform. She pushed the intercom button. “Who is it?”
“Ali’s Pizza,” a flat voice answered.
She glanced over at the corner where Red2 lurked. They’d ordered delivery from Ali’s a few times, and Red2 knew she loved halal pizza. She decided she would accept his peace offering. She pressed the unlock.
The door slid open. She wondered when Ali’s had hired a Bitocktee delivery person.
Then she saw that he didn’t carry a pizza. She hurled herself sideways and hammered her fist against the emergency door close button. The door began to slide shut, but not fast enough. The Bitocktee slapped one hand across the door’s safety sensor, freezing it in its tracks. His other hand came up holding a zapgun.
The Bitocktee leveled the gun at her belly. His cheek quills puffed out, their tips glistening with battle venom. May’s heart raced as adrenaline pumped through her system. The pouchling inside her thrashed convulsively.
The Bitocktee’s finger was closing on the trigger when a furious rattle erupted and Red2 burst out of the shadows.
He raked his outstretched talons across the other Bitocktee’s face. The attacker stumbled back, his arm flew up, and the gun discharged a bolt of energy that sizzled the ceiling.
The attacker’s quills hissed through the air in a poisoned spray. Red2 leaped in front of May, his wings outstretched. May slapped the emergency close button again. Red2’s wings shivered as quills pierced their membrane, but he kept them open, protecting May, until the door slid closed.
Red2 swayed on his feet. As May watched in horror, he toppled over, spasming as the quills’ neurotoxin worked its way into his system.
May drew in a ragged breath. The pouchling continued its frenzied dance inside her. A wave of pain clenched her abdomen. She gasped. Hand pressed to her stomach, she slid down to sit on the floor. Another vicious cramp rolled through her, leaving her frozen, afraid to move or even breath in case it provoked more pain.
Belatedly, the intercom announced, “An energy weapon discharge has been detected in this sector. Section doors have been sealed. Security and medical personnel are en route. Remain calm. Please stay in your quarters.”
When the first responders carried May’s stretcher into the clinic and Dr. Brown saw her doubled over in pain, he lost his easy-going bedside manner in a hurry.
“Get her into the Percherr light box, now!” he ordered.
One of the junior doctors was foolish enough to say, “There’s a Percherr patient in there, Doctor.”
“I. Don’t. Care!” Dr. Brown bellowed. “Get him out and her in.”
They guided the stretcher forward. Dr. Brown yanked open a drawer, ripped out a syringe, and slammed a blue-labeled cartridge into it. Trotting beside the stretcher, he injected the compound into May’s arm.
“May, can you hear me?” he asked.
She nodded and then grimaced as her womb clenched like a fist.
“May, I’m injecting you with a heavy sedative. You’ll feel very sleepy, like you’re in a trance. Don’t fight it. We have to reduce your stress levels immediately or you’ll miscarry.”
They lifted May off the stretcher, strapped the goggles to her face, and placed her into the light box. Calm seeped into her as the heat struck her skin.
She floated in a pool of light. The cramps eased and then stopped. She breathed deeply. The pouchling’s frenzy calmed to a soothing swish.
Time lost meaning, but eventually Dr. Brown helped her out of the Percherr comfort box.
“I’m sorry,” he told her. “Red2 received a massive dose of neurotoxin. He’ll remain in intensive care for weeks.
“I don’t understand why another Bitocktee tried to kill us.” May rested a hand on her distended abdomen.
Dr. Brown frowned. “You are carrying a male pouchling.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“He didn’t tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
“The reason Bitocktee females go out into the desert is so that out-clan males can’t force the termination of rival male offspring.”
“He didn’t tell me anything!” May roused to mild indignation.
“I’m sure you’ll be safe with his clan—”
“Have they identified the attacker yet?”
“No. He wiped off his tribal marks before leaving the Bitocktee section, and their embassy is refusing to cooperate in identifying him.”
“No rats among the Bitocktees. All bats, no rats. Can you smuggle me out of here, Dr. Brown?”
“His clan will send an escort for your safety.”
“They wouldn’t help station security identify my attacker. I don’t trust them. Will you help me?”
“Don’t you want to see Red2 first? He may not have told you everything, but he did save your life.”
“I suppose,” she said reluctantly.
Dr. Brown led her to Red2’s room. Despite the sedative’s influence, she gasped when she saw Red2.
Intravenous tubes snaked across his body. Broad straps anchored him to the bed. His wings, crumpled to either side of him, fluttered feebly as he spasmed. Sweat beaded his skin with golden drops. May felt young and helpless again. She pressed her palm against her stomach to feel the flutter of life inside.
“He’s hallucinating,” Dr. Brown said. “The restraints are to keep him from injuring himself. We’re changing out his blood and giving him as much fluid as he can handle, but mostly it’s just buying his body time to process the poison. Exposure to their own venom gives Bitocktees partial immunity. If you’d been hit by that many quills, you’d be dead.”
May looked away from Red2’s struggles. Her eye was caught by the shine of quartz. Stones were piled everywhere. Rough quartz clumps as large as her fist, smooth jade balls, squares of granite, chunks of feldspar, uncut garnets, and dozens of other types of stone she couldn’t identify.
Dr. Brown shook his head. “Aliens do the damnedest things. Ever since we brought him here, Bitocktees have been showing up with those rocks. Red2 doesn’t need a sterile environment, so it does no harm, but still— They say they honor him. When I asked why, I was told that sacrificing himself for another is the greatest thing any Bitocktee can accomplish.”
May nodded. “They even set aside inter-clan rivalries to honor such self-sacrifice. One of the only times an outsider can be adopted into a clan is if they risk their own life to save a clan member. That doesn’t apply in this case, of course, since I have no clan.”
“All these rocks, though!”
“They give stones where we’d give flowers or money.” May nodded to a huge jade ball in the corner. “That’s what made them finally open trade with humans. They weren’t interested in our technology or art, but as soon as they saw jadeite, they changed their tune. They’d never encountered anything like it.”
“That’s right, you studied aliens some, didn’t you?”
“I graduated summa cum laude from Berkeley with a degree in xeno-cultures.”
“And with that you ended up… Well, thanks for the information.”
“You’re welcome,” she said stiffly. It was hardly the first time she’d encountered that response. Prostitution might be legal in most human countries — and on Nueva Nova station — but it wasn’t a high-status job. The astronomic ticket price and the sponsorship requirement meant that so far May was the only professional on the station. Combined with her refusal to entertain human clients, that left a lot of people unsure how to treat her.
Dr. Brown cleared his throat. “You can stay here a few more days.”
“No, thank you.”
“I’ll call station security for you, and—”
“No.” She knew how badly bureaucracy could fail those it was supposed to protect. She would rather take care of herself. And she had a plan.
She wouldn’t go back to her apartment — too risky. Her link was in her pocket, she could get the necessary hormone and vitamin supplements from Dr. Brown, and she needed nothing else to lay low for a few weeks.
She left the clinic through the delivery entrance. Once she was sure that nobody followed her, she headed to the tourist district.
She rented a hotel room with no windows. It was a cheap room, though it still cost more than she made in a week. Space tourists, May thought, with a local’s disdain.
This time she didn’t have her papers to work on, her vids to watch, her books to read, or much of anything to distract her. She stayed in the musty little hotel room, ate what the automat offered (despite her cravings for lizard sandwiches), and watched the steady stream of Earth vid reruns the station provided.
She used her link to keep up with colleagues and her s-nets, but she responded only when absolutely necessary. She told no-one where she was.
Director Elsing called her link the second week.
“I heard that attempts have been made on your life.” Director Elsing sounded tired. “I know we’ve clashed in the past, but I wanted you to know that you’re welcome to stay in the diplomatic section with us.”
“In exchange for signing on.”
“No. No strings. There’s extra security. Only beings with a pass can enter the diplomat section.”
May felt a drop of guilt. “I’ll be fine. I’m lying low.”
She clicked her link off without waiting for a response. It beeped twice more, but she ignored it and erased the messages Director Elsing left without listening to them.
To kill the silence, she flipped on the vid. The latest re-runs of True Alien Abductions failed to distract her. She’d been entertained by the wild inaccuracy of the first season, but while their imagination failed them partway through the third season, their grasp of alien biology remained as lousy as ever.
She watched it for hours on end anyway. When Nueva Nova’s entertainment channel switched to Nature — Deep Sea, she kept the vid on, the narration and aquatic sounds keeping the hotel room from feeling so lonely. She left it on through sitcoms and dramas, documentaries and mockumentaries, and even a news comedy show, though it was months out-of-date.
She kept the vid on even when she slept, so that when a bad dream startled her awake, the sound of other human voices could reassure her.
Ravenous hunger could strike at any time, but it departed as quickly. Her hands and feet swelled. Despite the station’s constant weather, or lack thereof, she was usually either too hot or too cold. She found her body’s sudden disregard of her usual habits and preferences disturbing.
The only time she left the hotel was for her light treatments. She kept her head down and stuck to large crowds that she could blend in with, even if it meant taking a more roundabout route.
Inside the clinic, May resisted the urge to babble from the sheer joy of having somebody to talk to. Other medical appointments and emergencies always called Dr. Brown away too soon, though May assured him she was fine and it was fine and everything was absolutely fine. She never asked about Red2, but Dr. Brown updated her anyway.
Aside from those visits, she stayed in the hotel room with the vid on and checked her link for updates compulsively.
It had been weeks since she’d had a real conversation with anybody. When she got a message from a Mantablue regular who just wanted to talk, she couldn’t resist. They did that sometimes: went to a coffee shop where she’d get a black coffee, and he’d get a mug of green seaweed broth, and they’d talk. She found it infinitely soothing to watch the shifting shades of blue that inflected his communications. Only another Mantablue could truly absorb all the subtleties, but May loved making the attempt. She’d also gotten material for two papers and a resultant offer to consult on a public vid show out of their discussions. She’d turned the latter offer down. The money just wasn’t there.
As she approached Lucky Coffee Shop No. 6, she slowed. The bulky blue form of a Mantablue should be easy to spot. She didn’t see one, though there were plenty of other species patronizing the coffee shop, including a pair of Bitocktee males.
She hoped they hadn’t noticed her startled jerk. She increased her pace.
The heads of the Bitocktees rotated to follow her. Her breathing sped up, and she fought to keep her pace at a walk. Most humans look alike to nonhumans, she told herself. They were probably paying close attention to every human who remotely resembled her description.
The Bitocktees stood, their eyes on her. They moved in a straight line that would intersect her path. Busted.
She bolted. Her shifting weight put her off balance. She skidded around a corner. She slipped, nearly fell, and recovered. She tried to blend in with the crowd, slowing to a walk.
At a burst of outcries behind her, she glanced over her shoulder. The Bitocktees shoved their way after her, talons extended. May frantically scanned the crowd, but she couldn’t see any security personnel. The nearest security office was on the alien side of the station. She could try begging a shopkeeper for help, but by the time she persuaded them to lock the doors and drop their security shutters, the Bitocktees would be in the room with them.
This time, nobody stood between her and death.
Pushing past a middle-aged woman carrying a shopping bag, May lurched into an awkward run. She slapped security call buttons as she ran past, leaving a path for their dispatcher to extrapolate. Her pulse raced as she dodged around corners, ducked down access hatches, and zig-zagged through corridors. Her breathing roared in her ears. She fought to get enough air. Sweat beaded along her hairline, trickled down her spine, and pooled between her breasts. She supported her belly as she ran, but the weight slowed her and made her awkward. She couldn’t keep this up. By the time security arrived, it would be too late.
She climbed down a maintenance hatch and crouched in the service corridor below. Waves of fear and adrenaline surged through her. The alien pouchling thrashed in response, its wings fluttering. She pressed a hand to her belly and felt its panicked thrum against her palm.
The pouchling’s distress sent worry spiking through her. The maintenance hatch rumbled, sliding open; it was time to run.
She lumbered down the service corridor and took the first corner that headed in the general direction of the security office. And the next. And the next. A spasm of pain rippled through her abdomen. She slipped in a puddle of something greasy leaking from a pipe overhead. Her knees cracked hard against the floor, but she pushed herself up and staggered back to a run. Her pulse galloped. The pouchling twisted and kicked inside her. Behind her, wings rustled against the walls.
Signs flashed by: Recycling and Waste Management, Airlock C, Water Reclamation, Corridor D-6, Engineering, Air Processing, Section E (Warning: Methane, wear mask). May tried to visualize the station map, but she’d never paid much attention to the guts of Nueva Nova. She had only a vague notion of what was nearby. Crew-only areas on one side, and alien sectors on the other. She tried to keep heading toward the security office, but the corridors twisted and turned.
The rustling noise behind her swelled as if a whole colony of bats spiraled after her. She ducked down another corridor, but the sound only grew louder. She gasped as the pain wracking her strengthened. She’d have to surface and trust her luck.
She bolted for the next ladder, clambering up the rungs. A cramp wrung her and she curled involuntarily around the pain, nearly falling. Once she could move again, she hauled herself up the ladder and randomly chose a direction. She ran as best she could down the curving hallway, cradling her belly — and stopped, facing a door plastered with hazardous environment warnings. It might as well be a dead end. She whirled, but it was too late.
The hulking Bitocktees blocked the corridor, their wings partially unfurled, their talons curved to hook her if she tried to break past them. The next cramp ripped through her, leaving the world out-of-focus compared to the white hot pain overwhelming her.
When she could think again, she glanced behind her. Yellow warning signs plastered the door, written in English, Arabic, Chinese, and dozens of alien languages: Danger — Radiation Hazard, Percherr Only, Unauthorized Entry May Result in Blinding.
“We will not harm you,” one of the Bitocktees said through his translator. “We did not mean to hurt you before. The zapgun was set to a low stun level that would not have permanently damaged you, though it would have caused the fetus to be expelled. We have a doctor who can remove the Dives-from-Above male pouchling without any harm to you. We will pay you the amount that was agreed upon — twice that!”
She flashed back to the fight, to the zapgun discharging into the ceiling. Had it been set on low? Maybe.
The pouchling battered against her. She felt its fear and desperation as if they were her own.
Self-sacrifice was a fool’s move. Long ago, she’d sworn she’d never make it. But what other choice did she have? It wasn’t as if she could trust these Bitocktees’ promise not to hurt her.
In a burst of courage, or foolhardiness, she closed her eyes and threw open the door to the Percherr sector. Brilliant light blazed through her eyelids and sent tears streaming down her cheeks. Then there was only the dark. And the pain.
She opened her eyes and nearly passed out from the agony lancing into her brain, but she still saw nothing but blackness. Hands outstretched in front of her, she stumbled forward. Behind her, she heard a keening so high-pitched it was nearly inaudible. She had blinded the Bitocktees, too. She might have felt satisfaction, but all she wanted was for the pain to end. She didn’t feel the cramps anymore, but they might have simply been overwhelmed by the pain from her eyes.
She found a wall, and she felt her way along it. Her breath rasped through her lungs. The Bitocktee pouchling inside her thrummed contentedly, soothed by the light. She found a door, pushed it open, and staggered through.
Fluttering noises surrounded her; feathery touches on her arms and face guided her. She was safe.
May woke to the blessed absence of pain. She luxuriated in it. Her body lay quiescent and it was wonderful. Then the lack of movement panicked her. She reached for her belly and pressed her hands against the mound. No movement answered her. She tried to open her eyes and found they were bandaged shut. Her breath sped up, and she reached out, trying to figure out where she was.
“Whoa, easy!” Dr. Brown’s voice soothed her. “If you’re not careful, you’ll knock out the drip, and believe me, you do not want that.”
“Is he okay? The pouchling?”
“He’s fine. He’s exhausted and sedated because you are, that’s all. He’ll be just fine.”
She tentatively reached towards her bandaged eyes. “How bad is it?”
“Your optic nerves are burnt out. You need eye transplants. I’m assuming you’d prefer bio eyes. I need your authorization before I can continue.”
“It will cost every penny I’ve saved up,” she whispered.
“That — may not be a problem. There are precious and semi-precious stones piled to the ceiling in here. You know how the Bitocktees honor a sacrifice. You made a very large one.”
“It wasn’t. I didn’t really have a choice.”
“I’ve seen the security surveillance footage. I saw you make the choice,” he said.
She rested her hand on her stomach and felt a drowsy stirring against her palm. When Dr. Brown left, she did not feel alone in the dark.
After a while, she fumbled her link out and made a call.
“Director Elsing,” the woman answered.
“Director, May Espinoza here. I’ve rethought your offer.”
She heard an intake of breath from the other end of the line, but for once, Director Elsing didn’t have a response ready.
“I’m not interested in working for you, but I’m willing to share some of what I’ve learned through my independent research. For a price.”
“That’s more than I’d hoped for. Your knowledge could be very useful to us.”
“About that… you know how the Seatails told you to shake their second-right ‘tentacle’ in formal greeting?”
Weeks later, May lay on Dr. Brown’s operating table. She’d asked to be awake for the surgical birth, though she still couldn’t see anything; Dr. Brown had recommended against the optic surgery while she carried the Bitocktee pouchling. The epidural blocked most sensation from her belly down, though she still felt faint, dissociated pressure shifts as Dr. Brown removed the Bitocktee pouchling. She heard the clank of instruments being returned to the medical tray, and the nervous rustle of Red2’s wings as he lurked in the corner. She imagined the batlike alien scrubbed up, wearing a hospital smock and a surgical mask, and a smile twitched at the corners of her mouth.
“Here he comes!” Dr. Brown announced.
There was a squelching, sucking noise, the warning whine of a laser knife, and the sound of still-soft claws scuffling against stainless steel.
“My son!” said Red2. “Let me hold him.”
Red2’s wings rustled nearby. Tiny claws scrabbled frantically away. Dr. Brown gasped. May tensed.
Something thudded against her chest and started to slide off. Reflexively, she caught it with both hands and pulled it closer. The Bitocktee pouchling flopped against her. His fur was still wet from birthing fluids. His claws scratched her a little as he tried to settle. She waited, but Red2 didn’t take the pouchling away immediately.
“May Espinoza,” Red2 said, “you have earned a place in our clan. You are no longer an alien. Now you are Dives-from-Above May Espinoza.”
The pouchling nuzzled up under her chin and settled there, his wings fanning her face, his heart beating against her pulse. Tears started under her bandages. They came so easily these days.
“Will you stand as Catcher of Night Insects for the pouchling’s Naming Day?” Red2 asked.
Dr. Brown interceded. “Godmother, from what Red2 explained to me. Basically. Nothing beyond your physical capabilities. You’ll be responsible for taking care of the child if anything renders Red2 unable.”
“And you have to feed him insects,” Red2 added firmly.
“I would be honored,” May said without hesitation.
For special story bonus material, go to the author’s website at www.aswiebe.com.
And Other Definitions of Family © 2015 Abra Staffin-Wiebe
Family Man © Edvard Derkert