The Space Between
By Lew Andrada
Illustration by Rasa Dilyte
Senith used his pincers to dig deep into the brown land. The damp, rich odor gave him a fleeting sense of home and his love, Noora. When he was a Soldier, his days overflowed with battle drills, meetings on strategy, and teaching young cadets about the art of war. However, all that stress would vanish, as soon as Noora welcomed him home with a playful tug on his antennae. She always smelled of mushrooms, spices, and the musk of plowing the fields all morning. Senith leaned back and scratched at his antennae. He smelled like cow dung.
Senith grasped the nearest Kamate seedling and placed it into the small hole he had dug. He handled the young plant with a delicate air, as if he were placing his own hatchling to slumber in a soft bed of powdery earth. Senith wondered how his family had been doing without him. Noora would keep the hatchlings under control, but he worried about their advancement. He hoped at least one of them would be chosen by the High Council to serve as a member of the Soldier caste and follow in his footsteps. That caste brought honor and wealth, unlike the Builders and Farmers.
Senith stared at the Kamate. The reversal of his situation made him miss home even more. He gently scooped dirt around the seedling, whose waxy green leaves glinted in the sunshine. At least he would be able to get a taste of home, spicy and sweet, once the fruit ripened.
“Captain?” Rozan tilted his head, and his mandibles twitched. “Is something wrong?”
Senith brushed manure off of the seedling’s leaves before looking up. “Everything’s fine. I was just thinking about Noora.”
“Ah.” Rozan turned his gaze downward and pawed at the dirt. “Her cooking?”
“No, this time it’s the way she smelled. Do you think that’s strange?”
Rozan traced concentric circles around the Kamate seedlings with his pincers. Senith could tell that the young B’latta was thinking of a careful response. “Sir, it’s perfectly normal to miss things like that.”
“There’s no need to be so formal, Rozan. Our time as Soldiers has come and gone. We’re equals now, so be honest with me. I won’t get angry if you think I’m crazy.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but you’re my commanding officer. In victory or defeat, I must treat you as such.” Rozan paused for a brief moment. “But I don’t think you’re crazy.” He sat back and stared at the geometric pattern he’d created in the dirt between them. The intricacy of the doodle told Senith that Rozan had a lot of things on his mind. “You know what I miss? Fertie. She’s my pet Nemoda. I used to love watching the way she would hop when I sang for her.”
“I didn’t know worms could hear.”
“They can’t. Fertie loved my singing anyway.”
Senith wrapped his legs around his body and released a laugh. He felt like a bottle of fizzy Kamate juice being uncorked for the first time. “That’s impressive. I’d like to listen to your gift of song sometime.”
Rozan’s antennae wiggled in a happy manner. “It would be my pleasure, Captain.” Rozan stood up and stretched, his exoskeleton crackling as his joints loosened up. “Perhaps when it’s time for the harvest, I’ll have enough energy to sing a ballad about Soldiers and their adventures in—”
Angry shouting derailed the tranquil afternoon, as Nobu Kobayashi came chugging onto the field. The old man wore faded overalls and a yellow shirt that must have been a pristine white lifetimes ago. The clothes hung loose on his wiry frame. A bamboo sugegasa sat on his head, giving him the appearance of a pointy-headed scarecrow complete with a scowling expression. During the Galactic War, a human like this would have lasted seconds against Senith’s sharp claws. Instead of pointing this fact out to Kobayashi, Senith kept his mouth shut. The old man shook a clenched fist at both of the B’latta.
“Idiot bugs!” Spit spewed from the corners of Kobayashi’s mouth. “What’s with all of the loud buzzing? You want to scare my cows away?”
Senith knew the livestock was kept on the other side of the farm, too far away to be disturbed by any noise the B’latta made. The old man simply enjoyed finding excuses to yell at the two of them. Standing up on his thick hind legs, Senith towered several feet over his employer, but the farmer held his ground.
“I am very sorry, Mr. Kobayashi.” He tried to properly enunciate every word, but “Kobayashi” always came out sounding like “Koo-bazz-hat-zhi,” which made the old man flinch and grit his teeth. English had proven to be a difficult language for Senith to learn, but he managed to pick up a good deal during the few years he spent in a concentration camp after the failed invasion. He had to do most of the talking since Rozan could barely understand the language, let alone speak it. “We were just having a small conversation.”
“All I hear is ‘buzz,’ ‘buzz,’ ‘buzz.’ I can barely understand you damn bugs.”
Senith’s antennae drooped in opposite directions. He tried to slow down and enunciate his English words better. “Again, Mr. Kobayashi, we are very sorry.”
“Look, I’m paying you to work, not to chatter like some stupid school girls!” Kobayashi stomped on the ground. “Get those damned seedlings planted. If we miss the harvest, I’m throwing both of you back on the streets. You’ll be eating garbage just like God intended. You understand me?”
Senith tapped a couple of his forelimbs together, a B’latta sign of apology. Even if the old man didn’t pick up on the gesture, it didn’t stop Senith from trying to be polite. “No, I do not understand.” He wished he knew the meaning of Kobayashi’s words. Admitting his incomprehension made him feel foolish.
The old man snorted and slapped his chest. A cloud of dust rose off of his crusty shirt. He pointed at the mound of seedlings still sitting in their plastic containers. “Plant those Kamates, quickly, or you get no money. Zero dollars. Understand now?”
Again, Senith apologized with his forelimbs. “We understand. We must work fast or receive no payment.” Senith turned to Rozan to relay what Kobayashi had said, but the young B’latta had already resumed his work at a much quicker pace. He didn’t have to know English to understand what the farmer demanded. Senith sounded off a low hum of approval, and Rozan wiggled his antennae in gratitude.
Matching his former cadet’s pace, Senith returned to the work before him. Dirt flew in every direction as he dug shallow holes with his pincers. The Kamate seedlings, once handled with reverence, were now dumped into their final resting places. Senith focused on his task, refusing to let Noora creep back into his thoughts. From the corner of his left eye, he watched Kobayashi bend over and pick up a hoe. Instead of going back into the house as expected, the old man began digging into the earth a few feet away from the B’latta. Senith paused for a moment to fully observe Kobayashi. His face was flushed, and he muttered to himself as he worked. Senith wondered why the old man pushed himself to work the fields. Wasn’t that what he and Rozan were for? He was afraid to ask, and Senith wasn’t going to refuse Kobayashi’s help. In fact, he welcomed it.
The three of them worked for hours. The morning sun sailed across the sky and approached the peak of its journey. Senith began to feel the sting of hunger deep in his thorax, but he continued to push on. Kobayashi had not slowed down since he joined them. That gained him a little respect in Senith’s eyes. Not many humans were willing to hire B’latta for jobs, let alone work alongside them. Hatred and distrust still ran deep in the hearts of both humans and B’latta. The war may have ended decades ago, but the scars had only begun to heal. Senith knew he was fortunate to find work, and despite Kobayashi’s abrasive behavior, the old man was fair for the most part. Wages could be better, but Senith would rather make a little than nothing at all.
Izumi came out of the house carrying a tray of tea and sandwiches. She wore a dark blue yukata with circular patterns throughout. To Senith, she looked like the evening sky illuminated with stars and distant worlds. Kobayashi stopped digging and wiped his hands on his pants. He helped himself to a sandwich.
“You made too many,” he said.
“No I didn’t.” Izumi leaned over to Senith offering food and drink from the tray. He hesitated under the glare of Kobayashi. “Please, take some,” she said.
Her encouraging smile outweighed Kobayashi’s annoyance. Senith took a sandwich with one pincer and gently grasped a teacup with the other.
“Thank you for your kindness, Mrs. Kobayashi,” Senith said. She gave him a small bow, and he returned the gesture. Izumi was a petite lady; her head was capped with silver and grey. She was such a gentle creature that it made Senith self-aware of how clumsy his pincers were in holding a tiny teacup. He did his best to make sure he didn’t drop it or accidentally crush it.
Rozan accepted Izumi’s offer as well and bowed in gratitude. Senith could tell the young B’latta also struggled to preserve the teacup’s frail nature. “Why does she always insist on serving us fluids in such small containers?” asked Rozan.
“Be quiet,” said Senith. “It’s not our place to question their customs.”
Izumi set her tray on a stack of empty pots. “What did he say?”
“Ah. Rozan said, ‘the food tastes good.’ He is very happy.”
Izumi laughed. “It’s just a simple chicken sandwich, but thank you for the compliment.”
“I don’t see why you have to bother making food for them,” said Kobayashi. “We had scraps leftover from dinner last night.” He stuffed the rest of the sandwich into his mouth and glared at the two B’latta as he chewed.
“Nobu!” Izumi placed her hands on her hips. Her face darkened around the eyes. “We feed those scraps to the pigs.” “So what?”
“I refuse to feed our workers with waste.”
“They’re bugs! They should be thankful to get anything to eat.”
“There’s no need to be so rude,” she said. “They do good work.”
Kobayashi took his hat off and fanned himself with it. He didn’t respond to Izumi’s remark, but he was obviously upset with her. Senith considered himself fortunate that Izumi was there to soften the blows. She approached him with a smile as she pulled a folded piece of paper out of her pocket.
“Senith, this is for you,” she said.
He took the paper with one of his middle legs and unfurled it with the others. There were markings all over it. He recognized some of the human symbols, but he couldn’t read the whole thing. “I do not understand. What does this mean?”
“Those are your earnings,” said Izumi. “I’ve been keeping a tally for you and Rozan. You’ve made just enough to send a message home.”
“Home.” Senith stared at the paper. He longed to receive word from Noora and the hatchlings. He wanted to make sure they were okay, that they had enough to get by. But would they be relieved to receive his message? Senith wasn’t so sure. He didn’t want to shame his family, but he yearned for them. Senith thanked Izumi and placed the folded paper under one of his wings. He wanted to consult Rozan before composing his message, but he decided to save that for later when they would be alone.
“I would like to send Mate Noora a ‘paper.’ No, that is not the right word.” Senith glanced at Kobayashi, who offered a silent scowl in response. He was no help. Senith felt his antennae droop in opposite directions once again.
“Do you mean ‘letter’?” asked Izumi.
Senith’s antennae perked up. “Yes, thank you! I would like to send Mate Noora a letter.”
Izumi smiled and reached into her pocket again. “Then you could probably use this.” She handed Senith another folded piece of paper. “It’s blank. Fill it with your thoughts, and if you need more, just let me know.”
“You are too kind, Mrs. Kobayashi.” Senith placed the paper under his wing, next to his earnings sheet.
Kobayashi picked at his crooked teeth then spit on the ground. “What a waste of money.”
“Nobu.” Izumi reached out and squeezed his arm. “He has a family.”
“So do we, and where are those ingrate children of ours? They’re all travelling the galaxy because their mother encouraged them to go out and see different worlds.” Kobayashi yanked his arm away from Izumi. Senith could see the fury start to spread across the old man’s face like a wave of scarlet. “Now, instead of saving money on labor, we have to rely on these bugs to keep our farm productive. And where does our money go?” He pointed at Senith. “Two hundred dollars gone, just so he can send a space capsule to a hostile planet.”
A corner of Izumi’s mouth twitched, but she said nothing. She picked up her empty tray with one hand and turned around quickly. The tray smacked Kobayashi in the knee. He howled and grasped at the pain as he hopped on the good knee. Senith found the scene to be amusing, but he dared not laugh in front of an angered Kobayashi.
Izumi stormed back to the house in silence. A trail of wispy dust followed in her wake. Kobayashi rubbed his knee and turned to the B’latta. “You two! Get back to work. I want this field finished by tonight. Do you hear me?” Without even waiting for a response, he ran after his wife, muttering words that Senith could not comprehend.
“What was that about?” asked Rozan. He placed his now empty teacup on the ground.
“Something about their hatchlings abandoning them,” said Senith. He placed his teacup on top of Rozan’s. Once they finished planting, he would make sure to return the teacups to Izumi in hopes of making her happy again.
“And they did nothing about that?” Rozan got back to digging with his pincers. “If I had dishonored my parents, they would have eaten me.”
Senith hummed with amusement. “They are a more lax species.” He returned to his work as well. “What they lack in discipline, however, is balanced by their determination. They are a tenacious people.”
Senith planted five more Kamate seedlings before he noticed the silence beside him. Rozan had stopped digging. He was staring up at the vast, empty sky. “Captain, have you ever wondered what our lives would be like if we had won the war? If we had returned to Kaleegan as heroes?”
Senith scratched at his abdomen with one of his hind legs. “Not really,” he said. “I guess my life would have been the same as before. I wouldn’t want anything to be different.”
Rozan’s antennae wiggled left to right in a B’latta sign of consideration. “With my respect, sir, but wouldn’t that be difficult?”
“Things can change so quickly.” Rozan made a sweeping gesture with both his pincers to indicate the land around them. “Years ago, I would have killed the humans who owned this land. Now, I rely on them to survive.”
Senith looked down at his own pincers. Little craters dotted the surface of his exoskeleton, each one the result of a piercing bullet. Scars from his battles with humans still lingered despite multiple sheddings since the end of the Galactic War. He thought about Noora again. How he longed to feel her smooth, glossy shell once more.
“Get back to work,” said Senith. “We have to finish by nightfall.” As they continued to toil in the dry heat, Rozan’s words echoed in the back of Senith’s mind. He no longer dwelled on the question of what had changed, but rather, how much.
The two B’latta managed to finish planting the seedlings just as the sun began to dip past the horizon. They settled down in the barn, their assigned sleeping quarters being empty stalls where horses once slept. Izumi had originally pleaded with Kobayashi to let them stay in the empty rooms of their house, but the old man was livid at the idea. Senith didn’t mind staying inside the barn. He enjoyed feeling the cool drafts blow through the barn’s slats. His home in Kaleegan was carved into the ground, where the air always felt stagnant and wet. The air on this planet felt crisp and clean.
He could hear Rozan scraping at the bottom of his can for the last bits of food. Izumi had served them dinner in the barn, a dinner that consisted of canned fish and barbecue beans. Her eyes were red at the edges. Senith wondered why, but he didn’t dare ask her. She apologized that she couldn’t offer better food, but the two B’latta were grateful for the meal and told her so. Senith also returned the teacups, to Izumi’s delight.
He scraped at the bottom of his can of beans and savored the last bite. It was sweet and smoky. Senith had never eaten anything that tasted like this before. He wondered if something this different, this delicious, would go over well on Kaleegan. He stood up, flexed out his right wing, and grabbed the piece of paper with one of his middle legs. Even if Senith couldn’t read all of the strange symbols, he trusted Izumi’s words. This paper was his chance to hear from Noora.
Senith looked over to Rozan, who was resting on his back in the next stall over. “I want to compose a message for Noora,” he said.
Rozan stretched all of his limbs, then sat up. “What will you say?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Rozan opened and closed his pincers in a slow, thoughtful manner. “Perhaps, sir, a simple greeting would be enough.” He turned to Senith. His antennae twitched with uncertainty. “After all, you don’t know how she will respond to contact.”
Senith let out a long breath from his spiracles. The warm air whooshed out of his abdomen and thorax, stirring up the hay and dust in his stall. “I guess you’re right. I will try and make it brief.”
Senith left his stall and moved to the front of the barn. The three horses Kobayashi still owned looked up from their stalls and snorted as he passed by. They used to be afraid of him. Now, they seemed indifferent. Senith didn’t mind. He preferred indifference over fear or hatred. He grabbed a pen from the clipboard hanging by the entrance, being very careful not to disturb the papers. Kobayashi kept notes about the farm there. He would know immediately if something was disturbed or missing.
Senith sat outside. The quarter moon emitted enough light for his eyes to properly function. He unfolded the papers Izumi gave him and found the blank sheet. The pen proved to be a challenge with his large pincers. It wasn’t quite as comfortable as the giant quills he once used on Kaleegan. After a moment of thought, he managed to scribble a message for Noora.
He folded the letter and placed his home address on the top flap. Even though Earth and Kaleegan had gone to war, they re-established diplomatic ties rather quickly after reaching a peace agreement. The Intergalactic Post was up and running, according to Izumi, so Senith knew his letter would get to its destination. He was only uncertain of whether or not he’d receive any kind of response from Noora. He tucked the letter back under his wing. In the morning, he planned to give it to Izumi to mail whenever she had the time.
When Senith returned to the barn, Rozan was leaning into one of the stalls occupied by a horse. He scratched the animal behind its ears, and the delighted horse responded with a couple of gentle nibbles. “I’ve made a new friend, Captain,” he said.
“So I see.” Senith approached the young B’latta, but as he did so, the horse let out a low sound of protest and moved to the back of the stall. “Apparently, I’m not on the same terms as you.”
“Give him time. He wouldn’t come up to me at all in the beginning.” Rozan tried to coax the horse back towards the stall’s entrance, but the animal remained stubborn. He gave up and turned to Senith. “Did you have luck finding your words?”
“I did. I hope it will be worth all of my savings.”
“I’m sure it will be, sir. At the very least, Noora will know you’re safe.”
Senith suddenly felt tired; the day’s work had finally caught up to him. He moved back to his stall. “I think I will sleep now,” he said. “There are still two more fields to plow and sow. Mr. Kobayashi will be in a foul mood tomorrow.”
“When is he ever in a good mood?” asked Rozan. “You go ahead and sleep, Captain. I plan to stay up a while longer.” Now that Senith had moved away, the horse approached Rozan once more.
Senith felt his antennae wiggle in amusement. “You’re a natural Farmer.”
Rozan stroked the horse’s mane. “Perhaps the High Council assigned me to the wrong caste after all.” He turned to Senith. “Captain, after you send your letter, what do you intend to do with your future earnings?”
Senith felt his body stiffen. He hadn’t thought that far ahead. All this time he had toiled on the farm just to send a single letter. There would be no need to send any more. “I don’t know.”
Rozan patted the horse on its neck. “I think I’ll save my earnings and buy a farm of my own someday.”
There was no idea of ownership on Kaleegan. All the fields belonged to the Queen, and the High Council oversaw all the work. Senith watched the young B’latta. He could barely remember the day when the young Soldier joined his battalion. Senith did remember, however, that Rozan had been eager to please and quick to learn. Now, the Soldier that Senith once knew began to disappear. Rozan was adapting to Earth customs faster than Senith could hope for himself. “I think it’s a sound plan,” he said.
“Sleep well, Captain.”
Senith lay down on his pile of hay. “Same to you, Rozan.”
The next morning, Izumi came into the barn with a special treat. “Waffles,” she said.
Senith stared at his plate containing two light brown squares, each one indented with even more squares. He had never seen such intricate food. “Thank you. This looks very difficult to make.”
Izumi laughed. “Not if you have a waffle iron.” She poured a brown, viscous liquid over Senith’s and Rozan’s waffles. “You need syrup to fully enjoy them.”
Senith could see Rozan hesitating, so he decided to take the first bite. It was sweet, crunchy, and chewy. They were wonderful sensations that overwhelmed his sense of taste. He struggled with the small fork, but he managed to get another bite of happiness. “This is incredible, Mrs. Kobayashi. I have never eaten such delicious food before.”
“I’m glad you like it,” she said.
Rozan took a bite and licked the syrup and crumbs off of his fork. “This is amazing. Sometimes, I’m almost happy to have lost the war.”
“What did he say?” asked Izumi.
“He enjoys the waffles very much,” said Senith. He struggled with the word ‘waffles,’ but Izumi didn’t seem to notice. “Rozan is grateful.”
“Well, it’s my pleasure.” Izumi took a seat on a nearby bale of hay and watched them eat. A smile formed on her lips and remained there throughout the meal. It took all of Senith’s inner strength to prevent himself from devouring everything, including the plate. When the B’latta finished, Izumi collected their dirty plates and silverware.
“Mrs. Kobayashi,” said Senith. “I would like to ask you a favor.”
“Of course. What can I do for you, Senith?”
He produced the letter from underneath his wing and gave it to her. “Could you please send my letter to Mate Noora? You will have my gratitude forever.”
Izumi laughed. “Forever is a long time, but that’s very sweet of you.” She looked over the folded piece of paper. “The nearest IGP station is in Saint Louis. It’s about a two hour drive from here. Don’t worry, though. I have family around that area. Your letter will give me a nice excuse to visit my sister.”
Before Senith could offer his profuse thanks, Kobayashi entered the barn. He sniffed the air. “Did you give them waffles?” His brow furrowed at Senith and Rozan.
“Of course,” said Izumi. She glared at her husband. Senith noticed a change in her tone of voice. With him and Rozan, it had been soft like the scarlet petals of a Kamate blossom. With the old man, however, her voice was hard and jagged stone.
Senith sensed that the couple would begin fighting again. He tried to calm the situation. “We are very grateful for the waffles.”
Izumi turned to both B’latta. “And you’re very welcome.”
“I can’t believe you understood all that buzzing.” Kobayashi folded his arms. He smirked at Senith, but the B’latta sensed no friendliness behind the gesture.
“That’s because I know how to listen,” said Izumi.
“Oh really? Then why don’t you remember what I said about wasting our food?” Kobayashi’s voice grew louder. Senith could see the deep wrinkles form at the corners of the old man’s frown.
Izumi placed her hands on her hips. “I am not going to let these boys starve or eat our scraps.”
“Boys? Boys?” Kobayashi’s eyes bulged at that word. Senith feared that they would pop out of his head. “Listen to yourself. They’re bugs! Stop treating them like children. It’s not going to bring any of them back.”
Senith had seen Izumi angry before, but he had never witnessed her ears turn bright red and her eyes narrow into dark slits. “Don’t you dare bring that up again. I’m treating these two like a decent boss would treat her farmhands.”
“If you hadn’t filled those kids’ heads with ideas—”
Izumi shoved the plates she was carrying into Kobayashi’s hands. A strand of silver hair fell over Izumi’s left eye. It didn’t hide her fury. She pointed a small, but fierce finger right into the old man’s face. “You’re the reason why our kids left in the first place. Did you honestly believe that the children wanted to inherit a farm that’s stuck in the twenty-first century? This piece of paper,” she held up Senith’s letter, “is about to travel thousands of light years away, and you’re still digging holes with a hoe and spade.”
“The old ways still work,” said Kobayashi, in what was almost a whisper. It was the first time Senith felt genuinely sorry for him.
“Look around you,” she said. “Times are changing, Nobu. You’re being left behind.We’re being left behind.”
Izumi dismissed him with her free hand. “I’m visiting my sister for a few days. You better treat those two well.” She glanced over at Senith and Rozan. “If I get back and learn that you did otherwise, I swear to God, I’m going to leave you here to rot on your own.” In one swift motion, she turned around and stomped back towards the house.
Kobayashi was left stunned and holding two syrup covered plates. Senith approached cautiously and tapped his forelimbs together. “My apologies, Mr. Kobayashi, but would you like us to begin working on the second field?”
Senith’s voice snapped the old man’s attention back to the B’latta. He cleared his throat. “Yes. You two take care of that.” Senith and Rozan must have been too slow in their response because the old man began yelling again. “Go on, get out of here!”
The two B’latta scurried out of the barn using all their limbs. Once they were a safe distance away, they stopped to catch their breath. “That was a terrible argument. What happened?” asked Rozan. His antennae drooped forward, and he looked dejected. “Are we losing our jobs?”
“That depends on Mr. Kobayashi,” said Senith. “Let’s not worry about that for now. Take the wheelbarrow and begin gathering the seedlings from the greenhouse. I’ll start plowing.”
Rozan bowed his head slightly and obeyed without any further questions. Senith dug into the earth with his pincers but paused when he heard a loud noise. When he looked up, he saw Izumi leaving the farm in a green JetCar. It was an old model, covered in scratches and bumps. Kobayashi stood on the porch of the house, watching. The JetCar sputtered and wobbled in midair before the stabilizing rockets kicked in, causing ripples of dust to puff out in all directions. Izumi made no gestures to her husband. The JetCar zoomed along a dirt road until it curved behind a hill and disappeared. Kobayashi bowed his head and rubbed his face with his hands before retreating into the house. Senith didn’t see him again for the rest of the day.
The B’latta finished planting the second field of Kamates by the time dusk kissed the sky with purples and reds. Senith and Rozan put all the tools back into the shed by the barn. They rested outside on bales of hay.
“I’m hungry,” said Rozan. “We’ve had nothing to eat since this morning.”
“Let me talk to Mr. Kobayashi. Maybe he can give us some food.”
Rozan let out a high-pitched hum. “With my respect, Captain, but I think we’d have better luck hunting for rats or stealing food from the pigs.”
“He may be angry, but he’s not always unreasonable,” said Senith. “Besides, Mrs. Kobayashi asked him to treat us fairly.”
“Wait here.” Senith stood up and stretched his pincers to the sky. “Hopefully, he’ll be in an agreeable mood since we finished all our work without disturbing him.”
The lights in the house were on, creating a soft glow all around. As Senith approached, he spotted Kobayashi sitting in a rocking chair on the porch. He looked drained of energy. The way his body conformed to the chair’s shape made it look like he’d melted right into the wood. Senith froze, afraid the old man might start yelling at him for coming too close to the house. To his surprise, Kobayashi looked up then motioned to him. Senith didn’t know how to interpret the signal. He moved closer in a slow, cautious manner.
“Hurry up,” said Kobayashi. “For a creature with so many legs, you bugs seem to enjoy taking your time.”
Senith tapped his pincers together and bowed his head. “I am sorry, Mr. Kobayashi. I did not understand what your hand movement meant. It is hard—”
“Yeah, yeah.” He pointed at a chair next to him. “Sit down.”
Senith obeyed, but he found the chair to be too small. It was a bit uncomfortable. He twitched a few times, but the old man didn’t seem to notice. Kobayashi pulled something silver out of his pocket. He unscrewed the top, then drank out of the container. Senith was fascinated by this new drinking vessel. It didn’t resemble Izumi’s teacups.
“Do you drink?” Kobayashi presented the silver vessel to him.
“Not necessary,” said Senith. “We pull our required moisture from the air.”
“Even in this hot weather?”
Senith nodded. It was a gesture that he saw humans use many times to show their agreement. Kobayashi grunted in response then leaned back in his rocking chair. “Is that so,” he said. Senith was secretly thrilled that his imitation of a human gesture was interpreted correctly. “Tell me something, bug. If you get all your water from the air, why do you bother to drink the tea that my wife makes for you?”
“We wish to give her joy.”
“I see.” Kobayashi took another sip. “On your planet, did you ever have problems with women?” He looked at Senith. “Or females for you, I guess.”
“Never,” said Senith. “On Kaleegan, the females kill then eat rebellious males.”
Kobayashi spit out some of his drink and guffawed. It caught Senith completely by surprise. He didn’t know what to make of the old man’s hysterics.
“Well,” said Kobayashi, after regaining some of his composure, “thank God I don’t live there. I would’ve been finished a long time ago.” He chuckled a few more times.
“Finished?” asked Senith.
“Dead,” said the old man. He made another gesture: he pointed his thumb outwards and passed his hand across his throat in a slashing motion. Kobayashi sighed and took another sip of his drink. “What about this wife of yours? Did you ever have problems with her?”
Senith tried another human gesture. He shook his head. When Kobayashi stared expectantly at him, Senith tried to elaborate. “I was ‘fortune’? I do not know if that is correct.”
“I think ‘fortunate’ is the word you’re looking for,” said Kobayashi.
Senith was momentarily taken aback by the old man’s sudden helpfulness. “Yes, thank you. I was fortunate. My mate, Noora, always asked me for my opinions. She did not make all the decisions alone. Even so, her decision was always final.” Senith tried readjusting his weight on the chair. He felt like he was being squeezed by the tiny piece of furniture. “For most B’latta, the females give orders, and the males must follow. If the males fail to follow, then they are finished.” He imitated Kobayashi’s gesture by dragging his pincer across his mandibles.
“Huh.” Kobayashi looked out into the darkening sky. Flashes of purple remained on the horizon, but the stars began to sparkle. A slight smile formed on the old man’s cracked lips. “I suppose marriage is always hard, no matter where you’re from.”
They sat together in an awkward silence as the purple hues finally faded from the sky. The moon was a little fuller than yesterday, and it glowed right above the barn. It reminded Senith of the reason he came to the house in the first place. He stood up and tapped his pincers together. “I am sorry, Mr. Kobayashi, for it is late, but Rozan and I have not eaten since the waffles this morning. May I request some food, please?”
Kobayashi bolted upright in the rocking chair. “Hell, I forgot. Listen, don’t tell Izumi, okay?”
Senith’s antennae twitched in confusion. “Okay?”
“Hold on, I’ll be right back.” Kobayashi placed the drinking vessel into the pocket of his dirty pants then disappeared into the house. A few moments later, he emerged carrying four cans. “This is the best I can do right now. I hope four servings of Spam will be enough?”
“You are very generous, Mr. Kobayashi.” Senith took great care in grasping each of the cans with a different limb. “I will return to the barn now.”
“Right.” The old man slumped back down onto his rocking chair. As Senith was leaving, he called out to him. “By the way, bug, thanks for lending an ear.”
Senith stopped and turned around. Once again, his antennae twitched in confusion. “But I have no ears to give.”
The old man laughed then pulled out his silver vessel once more. “Never mind. It’s just a matter of speech. Damn bugs.”
Senith thought Kobayashi was angry again, but he resumed rocking in his chair and staring out at the sky. No more insults were flung his way, so Senith hurried back to the barn.
When he presented the cans of Spam to Rozan, the young B’latta was overjoyed. He almost couldn’t believe Senith’s description of Kobayashi’s strange behavior and sudden generosity. As they enjoyed their dinner (both B’latta thought that the strange substance was delicious), Senith found himself hoping that this run of good fortune would continue. Maybe Noora would take a chance on him. Maybe she would allow him to return home, back to Kaleegan, and back to her warm, mushroom-and-spice scented embrace.
The next day, the two B’latta finished planting the third and final field of Kamates with Kobayashi’s help. The old man still did his fair share of yelling at Senith and Rozan, but he was no longer angry at the sight of them. There were times when he even engaged Senith in light conversation without complaining about the “buzzing” noises Senith made when speaking. Kobayashi also allowed them to take breaks throughout the day and brought them more Spam for lunch and dinner. His generosity didn’t go unnoticed by the young B’latta. Rozan had asked Senith how he managed to change Kobayashi’s behavior, but Senith couldn’t think of a good answer. “All I did was answer his questions about Noora and Kaleegan,” he said.
The next morning, Kobayashi tasked the B’latta with harvesting the fields of carrots and parsnips. Just like the previous day, the old man joined them in the labor. At one point, Senith heard him whistling a cheerful tune. It was something he was used to hearing from Izumi but never from Kobayashi.
The rest of the week passed by quickly and without incident, which Senith found to be both surprising and relieving. The three of them harvested all the root vegetables, then began tilling the land for a planting of squash seeds. On Friday night, Kobayashi joined the B’latta for a dinner of pork and beans in the barn, along with fresh slices of carrots and pan-fried parsnips. “It’s been a long time since I did any cooking,” the old man said.
On Saturday morning, Senith awoke to the roar of a JetCar’s engine. He stretched out his limbs and stood up. He unfurled his wings and flapped them a few times. It felt good after keeping them folded up for so long. Rozan was already awake, and he stood by the barn entrance.
“Captain! Mrs. Kobayashi has returned.”
As Senith exited his stall, Izumi walked into the barn. She greeted Rozan, who managed to say “hello” in almost perfect English. She then turned to Senith and smiled. “And how are you doing?”
“I am well,” said Senith. “Thank you for sending my letter.” Senith spotted the old man lingering outside by the door. “Also, Mr. Kobayashi has been generous in sharing the Spam with us.”
Izumi looked surprised. “Really?”
“I even gave them some carrots and parsnips yesterday, fresh from the harvest.” Kobayashi walked into the barn. He had a meek smile on his face. “Hello, dear.”
Izumi placed her hands on her hips, as if she was going to get angry, but then she paused and sniffed the air. “Nobu, are you wearing cologne?”
“Well, I had just finished showering, and I knew you were coming home.” Kobayashi ran a hand through his gray hair, smoothing it out to one side. The old man looked almost embarrassed, much to Senith’s amusement. “How’s the family?”
Izumi’s eyes brightened and she smiled. It wasn’t one of the small smiles that she often gave to Senith or Rozan. This one was big, complete with milky white teeth. “They’re all doing well. John and Hitomi send their love.” She walked over to Kobayashi and stood on the tips of her feet. They hugged, and she kissed him on his cheek. “Things have really changed around here, huh?”
“Little by little,” said Kobayashi.
“Oh, I better give this to you now, Senith.” Izumi reached into her purse and pulled out a piece of paper. Senith recognized the handwriting immediately. “A letter came through the IGP station right before I left Saint Louis. I’m told that it’s for you.”
Senith took the letter gently and expressed his gratitude. He moved out of the barn and into the bright sunlight. He felt his pincers tremble as he unfolded the paper. Without even looking for a place to sit, he began to read.
Senith read the letter twice, three times. He was happy to know his family was safe, and that they had not forgotten about him. Senith was saddened, however, by what Noora had to say. This wasn’t just a response to his letter. This was a farewell. His antennae drooped forward and his limbs felt weak. Senith sat on an overturned wheelbarrow and stared at the piece of paper, hoping that the letters would change and say something different.
“Senith?” It was Izumi. She approached him slowly, a look of concern on her face. Rozan and Kobayashi followed close behind her. “What did she say?”
“Noora is well, and so are my hatchlings.” Senith folded up the letter. “She loves me still, but she cannot send any more letters. By failing my duty as a Soldier, I have brought shame to them all. I have no home anymore.”
“That’s not true. You can stay here as long as you like.” Izumi gave Kobayashi a look of uncertainty.
The old man grunted. “That’s fine, as long as you continue to work. This farm won’t tend to itself.”
“Perhaps,” said Senith.
“Let’s give him some time alone,” said Izumi. She took her husband by the arm, and placed her head on his shoulder. They walked back into the house.
“Captain?” Rozan sat down on the ground nearby. His pincers began to absently draw geometric patterns on the ground. “May I speak freely?”
Senith squeezed the letter between his pincers and listened to the paper crinkle. “Go ahead, Rozan.”
“Our time as Soldiers for Kaleegan may be over, but we can still be Farmers here on Earth. No one, Queen or High Council, can send us to the slave mines for betraying our caste. Perhaps this change is a good thing.”
Senith looked at the young B’latta. No, not young any more. Rozan had matured so much since the early times of his Soldier apprenticeship. “Maybe you’re right. Yes, let’s stay here and continue to learn our new craft. Then, when you purchase your own farm someday, maybe you can hire an old, creaky B’latta to help you plant Kamates.”
Rozan looked up from his circles in the dirt. “You would follow me, Captain?”
“Yes, under one condition. If we are going to be Farmers, then you must treat me as an equal and not as a superior. Can you do that?”
Rozan stood up from the ground and gave a B’latta Soldier salute. “It will take some getting used to, but I think can do that Cap—” he lowered his pincer and flexed his mandibles in embarrassment. He took a breath and relaxed his body. “I mean, I would be honored to have you as an equal, Senith.”
Senith stood up and clasped pincers with his former cadet. “Then let’s go tend to the Kamates. They need to be watered before the sun gets too warm.”
“Allow me to start the irrigation pump for the first field,” said Rozan. With a happy wiggle of his antennae, Rozan scurried off to the crops far behind the barn.
Senith looked down at the letter in his hand. With quick and precise motions, he sliced the paper into hundreds of little pieces. A breeze swirled around his body, the air clean and cool and nothing like Kaleegan. Senith raised his pincers to the sky, the space between him and home, and released his old life into the winds of change.