"They're going to love you," said Carlos for the nth time, while he and Cecil were sitting in their living room waiting for Carlos's family's cross-temporal interspatial teleportation field to initialize. "You're wonderful, you're smart, you're sweet...you look fantastic today."
Cecil, who was wearing a beautiful fitted lab coat he had bought just for the occasion, allowed himself to preen a bit. "I guess I do look pretty scientific, huh?"
"Yes! And you genuinely like science, which is the most important part. Being into science is the first quality a Science Being looks for in a family member's romantic partner."
"I certainly have that covered."
"So don't be self-conscious if, say, the cross-temporal interspatial teleportation field makes you queasy. In fact, if you ask them about the science behind why the field induces nausea in human physiology, you'll still be making a great first impression."
Cecil frowned. This was the first time Carlos had mentioned anything about nausea, in anyone's physiology. "...I will keep that in mind."
"And try to watch where you walk, because it's easy to bang into things. We're going to be beamed onto the ship Mamá designed with human accommodation in mind, after she and Papi calculated what my adult height was scientifically likely to be...but it isn't perfect. There are some pretty low doorways, narrow corridors, things like that."
"I'm sure no spacecraft is perfect," said Cecil reassuringly.
"Also...you don't have to do this, they understand you're from a different culture, but if you're comfortable...it would totally endear you to them even more if you tried announcing."
Even if Carlos was understandably nervous, what with being about to introduce his boyfriend to his family for the very first time, this was a bit overboard, wasn't it? "I understand announcing, Carlos. My field of professional expertise happens to be announcing."
"Hasty explanation," said Carlos. "Announcing in this case refers to a specific speech pattern of my people. It's nonstandard for English in this era, even for a professional like you."
"Oh? All right, that's different. How does it work?"
"Further explanation: This is a demonstration."
"Ah!" exclaimed Cecil. "In that case...Cheerful agreement: I can try that, sure."
"Guarded approval! Strictly speaking, the announcement comes before the entire statement, but you're getting there."
Cecil beamed. Carlos squeezed his hand.
"Yes, my dear Carlos?"
"Just, um...this probably won't even come up, but...maybe it's better if you don't say anything about —"
Before he could finish the sentence, the cross-temporal interspatial teleportation field swallowed them both out of time and space.
The members of the far-future alien species who had raised Carlos stood no higher than as Cecil's waist, were covered in fur that was not blue, and were adorable.
Almost a dozen were crowded around the transporter pad when Carlos and Cecil beamed in. After a few seconds of clutching his stomach and leaning queasily against the wall, Carlos recovered, hopped down from the transporter, and sank to his knees to get half-buried in fluffy hugs and rapid greetings.
"Inquiry!" announced one of the Science Beings at last. "Aren't you going to introduce us to your romantic partner, hmm, tesoro mío?"
"Of course, Mamá," said Carlos warmly, as Cecil knelt down to be on everyone else's eye level. "Everyone, this is Cecil Palmer, the one I've been writing all those papers on. Cecil, this is my mother...."
"Concern," put in another Science Being. "Will he comprehend the complexity of our signifiers with his untrained and primitive brain?"
Cecil bristled. Just because he represented an evolutionary state from these beings' relative past did not make him primitive. Besides, he was from the most scientifically interesting temporal era in human history! Carlos said so himself.
"Assurance, I have always found him very capable," said Carlos. "As I was saying, this is my mother...Professor Scientist."
He started indicating the furry aliens one by one, cuing them to shake Cecil's hand.
"This is her brother, Adjunct Professor Genius, and their mother, my abuela, Professor Emeritus Genius. Here's my father, Research Associate Scientist...my other uncle, Adjunct Professor Scientist...I have some humorous stories about growing up with two uncles of the same name, let me tell you! And of course this here is my baby sister, Postdoctoral Fellow Scientist-Theorist; her husband, Associate Professor Scientist-Theorist; and their kids, my nieces, Doctoral Associate and Research Professor."
"Uh-huh," said Cecil, shaking hands automatically, a little dazed. "Uh-huh. Okay. Carlos?"
"Your actual last name is Scientist?"
Adjunct Professor Scientist, one of Carlos's uncles, raised his cheek-brows. "Skepticism. He appears to be having difficulty comprehending our signifiers. I would expect a higher level of scientific deduction from anyone trying to date our brilliant Carlos."
"Objection!" cried Cecil (and hey, that might be a normal English speech pattern, but it totally counted as announcing). "It was an expression of surprise, not confusion."
"Further details," said Carlos. "My last name is Scientist, and I have a proper Science Being first name, too. 'Carlos' is my middle name — or at least, part of it — given by my parents in case I wanted to start going by a human name at some point — which, well, I did."
"We didn't want our boy to feel like he was any less than part of the family," explained Research Associate Scientist, Carlos's father. He didn't announce, Cecil noticed. Apparently, even within Science Being society, it was optional. "But we also didn't want him to lose touch with his own heritage. Many sociology studies have determined this to have a poor effect on overall emotional health."
Cecil leaned eagerly toward his boyfriend. "Feverish curiosity: What is your whole, entire multicultural name?"
Carlos ducked his head. "Research Director Carlos The Scientist."
Cecil couldn't help it: he swooned. "I comprehend that that signifier is adorable."
"Approval," said Carlos's brother-in-law, Associate Professor Scientist-Theorist. "He seems like a deserving boyfriend to me, amigos. And hey, as long as his human biology is hormonally stimulating to your human biology, maybe it doesn't matter so much if he has a limited grasp of astrophysics theorems, am I right?"
As the family settled into conversation and got started on dinner, Carlos visibly relaxed. And why shouldn't he? This was going great. The Science Beings loved Cecil. He was totally nailing this thing.
"Polite query: So, Cecil, what kind of science do you work in?" asked Carlos's sister, Postdoctoral Fellow, over a plate of something nearly as furry as she was. The aliens were all on silvery futuristic chairs, while Carlos and Cecil had a couple of nice cushions on the floor, putting them at the right level to share the table.
"I mostly do amateur science," admitted Cecil. "Or science-watching, in the form of Carlos-watching. I do a lot of that."
"His job is pretty scientific in its own way, though," said Carlos. "Radio waves...the electromagnetic spectrum...acoustics, specifically as related to the properties of sound and human biology."
"Gosh," said Cecil. "When you put it like that, I guess I'm basically a scientist too, huh?"
Carlos opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, held it open for a moment, then shook his head. "Within the parameters of this discussion, yes. You are basically a scientist."
Cecil didn't understand where the hesitation was coming from. "It's not like I don't know how it all works. I'm not one of those employees who just sits in the booth and talks into the microphone and lets everyone else worry about putting it together! If necessary, I could personally operate any piece of equipment at the station."
Under the table, Carlos grabbed his elbow and squeezed. "Clarification: because he's so familiar with the science involved."
"I certainly am!" said Cecil proudly. "Why, this one time when management tried to cut off my show early to prevent certain subversive news items being broadcast — oh, our current management is evil, have I mentioned that? — so I climbed up onto the roof and got the tower running on auxiliary power, then I wired together my cell phone and the sound board, and did the rest of the broadcast with —"
"Panicky interruption!" stammered Carlos, his fingernails now digging into Cecil's arm hard enough they were going to leave marks later. "There's all kinds of cool scientific stuff in Night Vale, not just Cecil's work. For instance, I should tell you about this one house, which doesn't exist —"
"Refusal to change the subject!" exclaimed Carlos's mother. "Research Director, mi cielito, is this young man trying to tell us that he is an expert with...technology?"
Cecil was awesome with technology. Well, radio-related technology. Most of Carlos's equipment was a bit beyond him. But something in Carlos's mother's tone made him hesitate, and look to Carlos for some clue about what was going on here.
"It's not what it sounds like," said Carlos weakly.
"Biting skepticism," said one of his uncles. "Then what, pray tell, is it?"
"I would also like to know," put in his grandmother.
Cecil shrank down in his seat. "Carlos? What does it sound like?"
Carlos's beautiful complexion had gone ashen. He was chewing on his lower lip with those perfect teeth. He took a shaky breath.
Then he scooted closer to Cecil, the better to put a supportive arm around his boyfriend's shoulder. "You know what? It's exactly what it sounds like. Mamá, Papi, everyone — Cecil is into technology. Is that going to be a problem?"
"Outrage!" shouted Carlos's father, while his mother promptly burst into tears. "Yes, it will be a problem! You may be a human, but you are still our son, and that makes you a Science Human! We will not stand for you dating this...this...Technology Human!"
Carlos held Cecil closer. "Is that how you all feel?"
Looking around the table, Cecil couldn't spot a single sympathetic alien face. Even the nieces looked scandalized. Cute little furry creatures got a lot less cute when they were apparently all horrified at your existence.
"Well, fine." Pulling Cecil along, Carlos got to his feet. "Come on, Cecil. You don't have to put up with this. If they can't treat you right, we're leaving."
Cecil stood nervously on the transporter pad while Carlos, stunningly righteous Carlos with his clenched jaw and deft hands, finished calibrating the settings.
It didn't seem like a good time to bother him, but Cecil at least wanted to know where they were going. "Hesitant query? I thought the cross-temporal field could only be activated under very specific conditions?"
"That's right." Carlos flipped the last switch, setting a timer, and stepped up next to Cecil. "We can't go home right away, but that doesn't mean we have to stay here. Scientifically speaking, there are an infinite number of other places we could go! And this ship happens to be in stationary orbit above a planet, so that's where we're headed."
"Thirty-first-century G'loot Praktaw."
"Never heard of it."
"You'll like it. Lots of desert. Charming small towns."
That did sound like Cecil's kind of place. Any other time, he would have looked forward to getting there. But now..."I thought I would like it right here," he said softly.
Carlos sighed. "I should have warned you. For as long as anyone can remember —"
The transporter hummed into action around them.
Next thing Cecil knew, he and Carlos had materialized on a shady small-town street, its unpainted clapboard buildings made grimy with desert dust. A single sun, tiny and cold, was setting on the horizon off to his left; when he looked overhead, he counted two misshapen moons in the sky. The road under their feet was made of well-packed reddish dirt.
"— the Science Beings of the SK System have been locked in a bloody ethnic and ideological conflict with the Technology Beings of the system next door," finished Carlos.
"Oh," said Cecil.
The town was quiet this time of night, but the lights in several buildings were on. Carlos pointed Cecil to a large, friendly saloon on the corner. "Don't know about you, but I could use a drink."
Cecil didn't have any G'loot Praktaw currency on him, and neither did Carlos, but it turned out not to matter. Apparently one of them had left a penny in a bank account after his death back in their own time, with instructions that it, plus all the compound interest, be paid as an advance against their tab at this very saloon.
Carlos spent a while staring morosely at his futuristic space drink in its old-timey mug. Cecil kept quiet too, not wanting to upset him, but tried to soak in the local atmosphere as long as they were there.
"The saloon doors...are open."
The AI that ran the saloon doors seemed charming, Cecil thought. He should try to set up some cross-temporal gateway to introduce her to Fey. Assuming they could reach one of the rare times when Fey existed as a self-aware consciousness.
He was about to mention this to Carlos, when he realized Carlos had stopped staring at his drink and started staring at the woman for whom the saloon doors had opened. "Red?"
No response. Carlos got to his feet and tried again, louder:
"Red! Is that you?"
The new arrival, dusty from the brim of her hat all the way down to her spurs, tipped back said hat and gawked at Carlos. "Why, bless my soul, if it ain't Carlos the Scientist!" she exclaimed, crossing the saloon with a bright grin. "You didn't tell me you was gonna be in town!"
Carlos had also not told Cecil that this town/planet/century contained capable, well-armed, friendly redheads who could make Carlos smile even when he was so upset that Cecil couldn't cheer him up. This seemed like an oversight.
"It was on short notice!" Carlos clasped Red's hand in greeting; then, like some kind of unspeakable shape-changing alien horror, the handshake morphed into a hug. "Besides, you can be a little hard to reach when you're riding the plains. I had no idea if you'd even be around."
"Well, lucky for us, here I am. What brings you 'round these parts, then?"
"Dinner with family. At least, that was the plan. It didn't go so well."
Cecil was starting to feel a little ignored, here. Not that he took it personally: Carlos was frequently awkward about social interaction. He gave his boyfriend a gentle nudge about the importance of gracious hosting, in the form of stomping on Carlos's foot. "Carlos~, why don't you introduce me to your friend?"
"Of course! Also, ow. Red, have a seat." Carlos ushered this Red person into the booth across from them. "This is my boyfriend, Cecil. He's...from Earth."
They both grinned. Apparently this was some kind of inside joke. Well, Cecil resented it. Whatever it was.
"And Cecil, this is The Red Plains Rider. I mean, she has a name to go with it, but she goes by her tribal designation."
That sounded pretty suspicious to Cecil. "When you say 'tribal designation'...."
"No, it's legitimate! This isn't an Apache Tracker situation — obviously she's human, but she was raised by Martians — that's actually how we met, at a support group for, um, people like us. Humans by birth, raised by some other species, never really able to feel at home in either culture."
All the resentment Cecil had been building up was washed away, replaced by concern. "You...don't feel at home with humans?"
Carlos looked away, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. "Well, I...."
"Don't take it personal, Cecil," said The Red Plains Rider. "If you spend your whole formative years in some radically different culture, tryin' harder'n anyone to fit in with the customs and traditions...especially ones that ain't designed for your particular biology...there's a bunch of stuff you don't learn about the culture you was born from. Then you try to go back to your own species, and all'a sudden your accent's weird an' nobody cares about onus an' there's people showin' their feet right and left."
Carlos nodded. "Different examples, same general scientific principle."
"So people could be as nice as anything about the stuff you miss," finished Red. "It don't change the fact that you could spend your entire life tryin' to catch up."
"Oh," said Cecil. "I guess I never thought about it that way."
He rested a tentative hand on his boyfriend's wrist.
"Carlos? Is it...a custom and/or tradition in Science Being culture...that you should postpone a romantic date when there's important science to be done?"
Carlos blushed. "My sister's wedding got put off for three Standard Space Days because her fiancé was busy cultivating some bacterial cultures," he said sheepishly. "Our parents didn't approve at all. Kept asking her why she was settling for someone who was willing to rush his science like that."
"Whereas in Marjun society, that would also be totally normal, but only if'n your designation was something like Carlos the Bacteria Cultivator," put in Red. "Speakin' of designations: is one of you fellas gonna be designated the Buying Red A Drink-inator any time soon, or am I gonna have to do it myself?"
They ended up swapping stories over a round of drinks, then a game of darts, then a game of pool.
Red won at darts, though Cecil came a close second: he hadn't survived a Night Vale childhood without learning how to aim. For a while Carlos seemed to be pulling ahead at the pool table, until Red messed with his concentration by explaining how the Science Beings and the Technology Beings — including Carlos's very own uncle and cousin, Adjunct Professor Genius and Professor Genius — had almost destroyed Mars a couple of months back.
"Came real close. Prob'ly woulda pulled it off, if it weren't for the Marshal," drawled Red, as Carlos tried to aim. "Your folks even turned a good friend of mine inside-out, with some kinda inside-outin' ray."
Carlos swallowed, putting down the pool cue to wipe his sweaty hands on his lab coat. "This friend — was it a Martian friend?"
"What's the difference?" exclaimed Cecil. "A person turned inside-out is still a person — an inside-out one — no matter what species they are!"
Carlos ignored him in favor of glaring at Red, who finally shrugged. "Yeah, it were a Marjun. My buddy Croach, if you wanna know."
"Cecil, it's okay! Martians are really good at recovering from physical injuries. Hypothesis: he was back to normal in less than ten minutes."
"Hypothesis confirmed," sighed Red. "Praise Nah Nohtek."
"That's what I thought."
With the question of Carlos's possible speciesist callousness settled, something else about the woman's story struck Cecil as odd. "Maybe this is just me and my non-scientific mind talking," he said, "but shouldn't an inside-outin' ray qualify as some kind of...technology?"
Carlos didn't answer. Red did: "My non-scientific mind is in full agreement with your'n."
"And what about the device that generated the cross-temporal interspatial teleportation field? What about their spacecraft itself? In fact, isn't the whole idea of technology just a way of saying applied science —"
"Cecil!" exclaimed Carlos. "Dear, sweet, wonderful Cecil — please — stop trying to resolve an entrenched ethnic hatred spanning back thousands of years by using logic."
Cecil frowned. "I see your point."
"Good. Now do me a favor and be quiet for a second, while I use science to figure out the perfect angle to sink this shot."
"Pretty sure that what you're talkin' about is math," said Red dryly.
"Is your designation the Red Plains Math Teacher? No? Then you keep quiet too."
He circled the table, sighting down the pool cue and lining up the balls, probably doing some kind of advanced mathematical calculation in his head that Cecil would never have been qualified to comment on. At last he slid back the cue and took the shot.
Balls knocked across the table, crashing into each other, bouncing off the felted walls...and sinking one by one into the pockets.
"Hah!" yelled Carlos. "Force equals mass times velocity squared! Science!"
Red ultimately won the game anyway, but by that point Carlos's whole mood had lifted, and Cecil's with it. He could cope with the disapproval of Carlos's family; what really mattered was that it not hurt Carlos too badly.
"The saloon doors...are open."
"Inquiry!" announced a shrill Science Being voice. "Is Research Director Carlos The Scientist in this establishment?"
The pool tables weren't immediately visible from the front of the saloon, so the new arrivals couldn't see Carlos tensing, or the worried looks Cecil and Red gave him. The barkeep, on the other hand, didn't miss a thing. "Who's askin'?" he demanded. "And what for? I don't want no trouble in my place."
"Reassurance: We, also, do not seek trouble, compadre," said...it sounded to Cecil like Carlos's father. "We merely wish to initiate procedures of familial reconciliation with our son."
"Threat: Also, if you do not comply, we will demonstrate the scientific properties of this inversifier," added one of Carlos's uncles. "On you!"
"Not everything has to be resolved with the inversifier, hermanito," scolded Carlos's mother.
Putting down the pool cue, Carlos headed out to greet his family, with Cecil keeping close to his side and Red covering them from not far behind. "Here I am. No inversification necessary." As before, he put himself on their eye level, sinking down to one knee in front of the group. "What do you want to say?"
The Science Beings chattered nervously amongst themselves, then Carlos's father, Research Associate Scientist, stepped to the fore. "Request for clarification: You are determined to continue your involvement with this Technology Human, Carlos?"
"Yes. Yes, I am." Carlos wrapped a hand around Cecil's and laced their fingers together. "I love him. He makes me happy."
Cecil's heart soared.
"And, since you're here...there's one more thing I have to tell you."
The aliens shot cautious looks at each other. "What is it, amigo?" asked one of the uncles.
Carlos took a deep breath. "You need to know...that I, also, have been using technology."
It set off a fresh wave of shock through the family. Nobody quite yelled at Carlos, but from the looks of things, most of them were only barely holding it back. Fresh tears sprang to his mother's eyes. "Oh, mi tesoro, we always knew you might go through a rebellious phase once you left the nest, but...!"
"It isn't a phase, Mamá!" exclaimed Carlos, voice gaining strength. "I study timepieces, and I use a radio to listen to Cecil's show, and — and I have my very own Danger Meter! This is a part of my life now, and I need you to be able to accept me and my boyfriend for who we are!"
Over the general chatter of dismay, Cecil decided it was time to speak up. "Carlos loves science a lot. Science is extremely important to him, and he is very good at it. Also? He is a wonderful, brave, caring person, with amazing hair, and you should be proud of him!"
Carlos's abuela, Professor Emeritus Genius, waved the others into silence. In a creaky voice, she said, "Declaration: We are."
Cecil's heart leaped.
"This is a lot for us to take in. I don't expect a Technology Human like you to understand."
For Carlos's sake, Cecil kept his objections to himself.
"But at the end of the day, he is, scientifically speaking, still our beloved Carlos. And as for you...it sounds like you are an expert in the most important science of all: the science of being good to my grandson."
"Why, if that ain't the sappiest dang thing I ever heard," said Red fondly.
Cecil's heart soared even more. He threw his arms around Carlos, who had broken into a shy smile, then backed off to let Carlos get a tentative new round of hugs from a family doing their best to understand him. Accepting each other was, after all, the first thing a family did.
When it came time to fire up the cross-temporal interspatial teleportation field leading back to Cecil's present-day Night Vale, there were three people on the transporter pad.
"You're going to have a great visit," Carlos told Red. "And while you're there, I want comprehensive data on how the riding of Earth plains compares to the riding of G'loot Praktaw plains. I might write a paper about it."
"We don't have nearly as many robots, but we do have aliens!" put in Cecil. "Refugees from the Blood Space War, which our corrupt government is fueling by selling weapons to both sides."
Carlos's sister, Postdoctoral Fellow Scientist-Theorist, stopped making her scientific adjustments. "Protest! I was not aware you were living contemporaneously with the Blood Space War, mi hermanito! Studies have shown this to be the most empirically dangerous era in galactic history!"
"Don't you Science Aliens worry," said Red. "Reckon past-timey Earth is pretty safe from them distant interstellar wars...so long as nobody comes along an' tries to use said planet as a weapon in said interstellar wars. An' I know I didn't announce or anythin', but that? Was a pointed critique. Just so's you know."
The older Science Beings had the grace to look embarrassed. At least, Cecil thought that was embarrassment. With all the fur, it could be hard to tell.
"Romantic declaration: besides, I don't mind if it's dangerous." Carlos took Cecil's hand one more time as the transporter warmed up. "Not only is it the most scientifically fascinating time and place in Earth history...it's Cecil's time and place. And that means...it's home."