Her glass is almost empty again. Deep red slides against the bottom, sloshes from side to side as she tilts the stem back and forth. She presses manicured fingers to her temple, an absent thumb to her lips as she leans her elbow against the immaculate dining room table.
“Well, at least there will be a gripping first-contact story to remember. Slavery and genocide is probably by far more engaging for our new friends than a silly compromise anyway.”
He winces as he stuffs his pipe. “Don’t say that.” His own glass is untouched.
There are four of them, and they sit in the dark. Dim lighting glows in thin lines like airplane aisles, surreal along the floor of a house that looks little like a home. A woman of science should never be unprepared. Thankfully, this includes for the sudden blockage of every power grid on planet Earth by outside forces.
“Why not?” she responds airily, wine barely fizzing against the edge of her senses. “You seem to be suggesting that we have no other choice.”
“There has to be something else,” he says, frowning down at his hands. “I just can’t believe-”
“Believe it,” the youngest man says. Not quite out of his teens, he sits with his feet propped obtrusively on the expensive wood finish and talks with experience he should not have. His gravelly voice is unusually serious as he holds three fingers above his face, watching through dark shades. “The way I see it, we’ve got three choices. One is to fight them, which is fucking stupid, end of story.” He puts one finger down. “One is to surrender and let them decide what they want to do with us, which probably involves so much batshit War of the Worlds bull that it doesn’t bear thinking about.” He puts down another, leaving just the middle finger standing. He takes his feet off the table, letting all four chair legs fall back on the floor, and brandishes the digit for the rest of the table to see. “The last one is to try this clusterfuck of a plan, butter them up, and convince them we’re no threat so we can at least buy ourselves some time.” He turns to the man with the pipe. “You’re the E.T. expert here. You know they’re after glory. So make it clear we’re not putting up a fight and there’s a chance they might not utterly annihilate us.”
The man holds his pipe an inch from his mouth. “But…a child? We can’t think of a better way than this?”
“Would it comfort you,” the woman asks, “if it were a child you didn’t know? Someone in my department-”
“No,” he says, flat and cutting. “I would never…such a burden is-”
A small, empty smile plays around her lips. “I thought not. One of us, then.”
The silence extends from each of their chests, coils like smoke, bathing the room in purpose.
“I don’t have anyone,” the youngest man says somewhat defensively.
The oldest man, who hasn’t spoken for a few minutes, breaks his silence. His words are quiet and weighted. “Isn’t your mother nearly due?”
The young man, as a rule, never reacts to anything. No one misses the way his fists clench on the tabletop. “I’m under protection. How the hell do you even know who my mother is?”
“I am sorry,” he responds gravely, “but it is very naïve of you to assume that anyone at this table doesn’t know something. Particularly if it’s a secret.” He cuts off the young man’s impending argument with a wave of his hand. “It doesn’t matter. It would be foolish to ask you. I do believe that there are stipulations to this arrangement?” He turns to the man with the pipe for confirmation.
He nods. The motion is lifeless. “The Alternians will only consider the offer if the child meets their satisfaction. They would have to be raised…carefully, to say the least.” He examines the faces of his companions. “I couldn’t promise – my son is…”
“Which is why, gentlemen and madam,” the old man says, “that I volunteer myself for the operation. I have been yearning for some time now to adopt a child.”
Three pairs of eyes watch him carefully. Two pairs of hands unclench. One pair of eyes closes gently as the woman shakes her head.
“No. I’ll do it,” she says, as though she is volunteering to chaperone a church picnic.
The man with the pipe flinches and speaks her name like swearing. “Why?”
She smiles and takes in his bold profile, his strong arms and eyes so blueblueblue and thinks that maybe-
Maybe in another time. Another world.
“Because, meaning no offense to all current parties, I am best equipped to deal with the sort of challenges such careful childrearing will require. It will involve no little amount of mental manipulation. No one can say that I’m not adept in the area.”
No one argues.
“I can raise my daughter to be whatever the Alternians ask of us. They’ve given us time, haven’t they? Our lifespans are compatible if not identical. She would be marrying a young man of prominence in their society who can protect her. This will work.”
The gentlemen do not respond for a full minute. They continue to watch her, contemplating, and she watches them right back. The man with the pipe in particular scans her with intense curiosity, probably digging for regret, a sadness hidden in her flippancy. She does not let him find it.
The old man heaves a long sigh.
“You’ll need to pay her a great deal of attention, you know.”
“Somehow,” she says, hollowly victorious, “I’ll survive.”
Rose first sees an alien when she is six years old.
She has spent the day in her room, as usual. Books litter the floor. Her violin sits on top of the rumpled mess of covers on her bed. Various puzzles and electronic learning games spill haphazardly out of the closet. Her mother cleaned the room this morning, stressing the importance of it staying that way because some very important people were coming to visit. Rose had taken exception to this because her mother has never cared how messy her room was before as long as she was playing only with the toys bought for her. So Rose took everything out again, skimming through a book here or there then throwing them to the center of the floor, knocking over piles, opening dresser drawers.
When the tall, grey man steps into the room, her mother one pace behind, Rose is playing Sudoku.
“So this is the one?” he asks, dubious. Rose examines him briefly before returning to her game.
“Rose, darling,” her mother says. “Would you stand up and say hello? Oh, I’m so sorry, Ambassador,” she says, simpering. “This room was supposed to be clean. Rose, why didn’t you keep your room clean?”
Rose stands up, reluctantly leaving the puzzle book on the floor. “I like it messy,” she says. “So I changed it.”
The man raises an eyebrow, but does not seem displeased, exactly. Her mother’s mouth twitches into what could be a smirk.
“You have gills,” Rose tells him matter-of-factly. “Are you aquatic?” She pronounces the word carefully.
“Very astute,” is the dry reply. “Well, points for the vocabulary.”
“Vertebrate gills. Do you have both primary and secondary lamellae?”
This time the strange man looks rather thrown off. So Rose does what she has been always taught to do for strangers, and smiles.
One of the first things the Ambassador tells her mother is that in troll society, blunt teeth are considered unattractive.
The surgery is purely cosmetic, and only affects Rose’s canines and incisors. They do it early enough that she can adjust to a mouthful of new teeth without causing problems later on. It takes her a month to stop stabbing her tongue, long enough to grow accustomed to the taste of bleeding.
“To the best of our research, each troll wears their blood status prominently, no matter their station in life. We’re now starting to see the same pattern in their official correspondence: in addition to taking on a unique ‘quirk’ that often relates to their speech patterns, the text color they choose seems to match their blood.”
The man finishes the meeting to a smattering of applause, more formality than anything. No one is in the mood for clapping. They continue to learn small things, useless things, about their near-enemy, and nothing is enough.
Once he has finished nodding everyone politely out the door, he sighs and pulls out his pipe.
“Wonderful presentation,” she says, leaning on the doorframe. “Very informative.”
He thinks she’s being sarcastic. She’s prone to doing that.
What he doesn’t know is that she goes home and immediately switches out Rose’s blue bedspread for a cozy lavender pink.
Rose meets Kanaya for the first time on her ninth birthday.
Her party is small, as usual, with perfect attendance. Three friends, four adults. John and Dave play video games. Rose reads while Jade tries to braid her hair. Her mother chats amiably with the other role models, each of whom have played a part in Rose’s childhood.
“Bro,” who has never told Rose his real name, looks tenser than usual, reminding her twice that they have a sparring practice first thing tomorrow. Bro does something for the government that she doesn’t understand, but Dave is convinced that it has to do with spying on Russians, and John is also pretty insistent that the guy has superpowers. Rose wouldn’t be surprised.
There is a strange sound outside, like a train whistle, but infused with robotics and that sound a wine glass can make when you run a finger around the rim.
Her mother smiles gracefully and goes to answer the door.
“Hello, Ambassador,” Rose hears, and immediately rolls her eyes. The stuck-up gill man (Alternian, she has learned; she has learned a great deal) likes to show up and bother her when she’s having fun. He asks her questions about her life, her planet, what she dreams about at night. Honestly it gets old fast. Also he has a neck beard.
“And where is the young – oh!” Her mother’s voice, just for one moment, sounds alarmed, but she smoothes it over again into the ridiculously sugary tone she saves just for him. “Well, why don’t you both just come in and have some cake. Rose?” She marches back into the sitting room, chest raised and impervious. “Rose, we have a new friend for you.”
This is new in itself; her mother has never been keen on her making friends outside of the three she already has.
The Ambassador follows in lockstep, violet robe sweeping proudly behind him. He surveys the children with disdain. Rose feels Jade’s hands go slack against her hair. Sometimes she forgets that seeing aliens every now and then isn’t normal.
“Come out, darling,” her mother says, and Rose is confused until something small and yellow-orange pokes out from behind the Ambassador’s back. The rest of the girl follows.
Her skin is as gray as the Ambassador’s, though Rose thinks her eyes are brighter. She wears a rather drab black dress emblazoned with what looks like a bright green stylized “M.” Her hair is short but perfectly tamed, and her appearance would be otherwise dull had she not taken one of the red chrysanthemums from the house’s front garden and placed it prominently above her left ear.
“She’s a-” Bro says, and then immediately shuts up.
Rose stands. The girl tries to grab hold of the Ambassador’s cloak until she decides she’s no safer that way. He pushes her forward.
They are both quiet for a moment, watching each other curiously, neither brave enough to say a word.
“Hi!” Suddenly Jade is next to her, past her, bounding up to shake the girl’s hand. “I’m Jade! You’re-”
“Sit down, clementine,” her grandpa says, at the same time the Ambassador, scandalized, demands to know what she is thinking and the troll girl retreats again, taking refuge behind the cloak. Jade is too confused to apologize and Dave turns up the game volume.
Generally speaking, the first meeting wouldn’t be considered a “success.”
“Welp, that settles it,” Bro says, muscled back leaning against the kitchen counter. The kids have drifted off, though the sound of the TV is still loud from the next room over. “Rose has to become a lesbian.”
“Make light of the situation all you want,” her mother says over her shoulder as she mixes herself another drink. “Not that it changes anything, I suppose. It would be a long shot expecting her to develop physical attraction to an alien in the first place; I don’t even know why we’d consider this an issue.” She turns around and finds, not for the first time, that the others are looking at her strangely. “Oh, honestly. Someone had to say it.”
Rose finds new books in her possession over the next couple of days. Heather Has Two Mommies is a particularly confusing choice, especially given her reading level. The books preach tolerance, acceptance, and love and friendship conquering all odds. This is out of character for her mother, to say the least, especially when she insists that Rose try and crack open Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast. She continues to find it next to her bed, no matter where she puts it. Whenever she tells her mother that the story doesn’t interest her, her mother becomes ridiculously sugary and apologetic, but continues to put the book on her nightstand.
Finally Rose reads it, just to end the terrible sweet talking. She even gives it cheek-pinchingly adorable reviews, just to show her how stupid it is. Going along with her mother’s requests to an exaggerated degree is actually liberating.
Rose learns a new tactic of war.
She meets Kanaya again, briefly, when she is eleven years old.
The night is cloudy, but John’s father receives an emergency call from the observatory anyway. She’s outside of the building on a bench under a streetlight, watching John do bad magic tricks. It’s funny, and she breaks into giggles, which only encourages John to get sillier. By the time the black car pulls up, he’s practically on his head.
Suddenly two trolls she doesn’t recognize are striding up the pavement, a young girl in tow. They are obviously incognito, though anyone who has ever seen one (a very small circle, in fact) would be able to tell instantly. One of them wears a ten-gallon hat, under the sad impression that it makes him blend in while hiding his horns. Their trench coats would better belong in a 30s crime novel. The girl is dressed almost normally, apart from the colonial bonnet tied under her chin.
As soon as John is paying attention his eyes go wide. “Hey, is that-?”
The girl startles and looks at them, blinks –
“Hey!” John says.
The adults stop and stare at them, Rose in particular. She watches comprehension dawn on their faces, and suddenly the girl is shoved forward, practically into her lap. “Meet to her,” one says. “In building house.” The two hurry into the observatory, obviously ill at ease outside.
The girl jumps away with a small squeak, glancing at the two of them fearfully from under the white lace.
“I think we’re supposed to follow them,” John says, somewhat awed, and Rose stands up.
“No!” the girl says, panicked. “No go.”
“Do you speak English?” Rose asks, taking in almond-shaped eyes and small, pointed teeth.
“English,” she breathes, apparently excited to recognize the word. Then, “N-no English.”
John says wow under his breath, and Rose can’t help but agree. On closer inspection, the girl’s clothes are not completely normal; gone is the dull dress from Rose’s party. Her skirt is cut from great sweeping stripes of color, clumsily stitched together and tied in a lopsided bow at the side.
“Did you make this?” she asks, impressed. When the girl only looks blank, she reaches towards the red waistband. The alien flinches back, but Rose ignores the reaction; she touches the fabric at her hip and says, “Yours? You?”
The girl hesitantly says a word Rose doesn’t understand. When she repeats it, she presses two fingers to her own chest.
It dawns on her that she is saying her name. “Kan…” she repeats.
“Kanaya.” The first consonant is pronounced fiercely, followed by a trailing softness that by the last syllable more falls asleep than drops dead.
“Kanaya,” John echoes, steamrolling the pronunciation into something more English. “John,” he says, and points a thumb at his own chest, smiling brightly.
Kanaya watches him, then turns back to Rose. She looks at her teeth for awhile; Rose is used to this from the few new people she meets but with Kanaya, of course, there is no shock or wariness. Something curious has taken root in her irises, past the confusion and fear. Her skirt rustles as she turns, twisting back and forth at the waist, catching Rose’s eyes and keeping them.
She gives her own name with chrysanthemums in mind.
John’s father watches the trolls leave his observatory. Only once they are gone does he allow himself a sigh of relief, the spark of a smile around his pipe.
“I knew we’d find something,” he says.
Rose’s mother pushes open a door and steps fully into the room. “You handled that exquisitely.”
His smile is only gaining strength, and when he directs it at her she is hit by how extraordinarily his son takes after him. “I had a hunch. So much emphasis on conquest in a culture; there had to be a weakness. Some field of technology they don’t have under their belt. We just didn’t know how to adapt it.”
She strides forward, hand on her hip, and he meets her under the telescope, pulling her into an unexpected hug that lifts her off her toes. “But you, you brilliant woman! To learn an alien biology and develop antibodies to protect it?”
He lets her go, laughing, and rests his palms on her shoulders. “You’re patently ridiculous!”
She smiles, disoriented by the hug but pleased by the flattery, and smoothes down her bangs. “Well, we’ll see where it takes us. But you’re right. They’re interested in what we have to offer now. What I’m interested in is the girl they brought with them. Your reports say that normally Alternian adults and children don’t interact. I wonder how she’s faring under such intense scrutiny.”
He presses down for a moment and then lets go, finger bumping awkwardly against her chin. “I don’t know,” he says. “Rose…” Worry creeps back into his face and she is reminded of just how she impressed she is by this man’s compassion for a child that is not his own. “Is there any chance that we don’t need this plan anymore?”
“Their culture is your field,” she says. “You tell me.”
He considers. A paradox of a man, soft and hard and soft again, and then there is pain creeping through the momentary relief.
“We should get the kids home,” he says, and that’s the end of it.
There is a moment, under the telescope, where she thinks he might kiss her. But in the end he only slips his hand in hers before they walk away.
For her twelfth birthday, Rose receives eight books, nice clothes (lavender), a piece of weaponry that is illegal no matter which angle you look from, a computer upgrade, and a rudimentary Alternian translation guide, hot off the CIA presses. (No points for guessing which is from Bro.) Dave tries to get her a video game, something about magical pet cats, but her mother confiscates it almost instantly. Rose isn’t usually allowed things that will waste time she could otherwise put to use improving or teaching herself.
She also asks for, and receives, a small sewing machine.