Jenny returns to her home planet in the midst of civil unrest. A stay-at-home order has been issued in the wake of anti-alien protests, and only she can escort her neighbor Katika, a Razuli girl, home safely.
Antira Port was chaos. It always was, but usually more of a controlled sort of thing—this was frenetic, voices raised in argument, people running, dragging unwieldy bags behind them.
Jenny stepped off the Jumpship after the final passenger and waved goodbye to her fellow flight attendants, all transferring to other ships. This was Jenny’s last leg, thankfully; the job had been easier when she was young, thirty years ago. Back then, she’d touch down at home only long enough to catch wanderlust again, her restless feet sending her flying. These days, though, she longed for her little condo: neat rows of vegetables in raised boxes and cascades of bright varusthi in her hanging baskets. Hopefully Padraic had kept up with the watering; he was a good boy, but adolescence made him forgetful.
She paused on the tarmac, orienting herself. Jenny’s implant was feeding her local news—there’d been an incident at a nearby school, an active shooter, which had spiraled out into a series of attacks, protests, riots that now weren’t about the shooter at all, who was apparently some lovesick teen. Now there were adults involved, street fighting and store looting, old tensions flaring up into new battles. Citygov was telling everyone to stay home, especially those not native to this world.
Stay in your homes until further notice—glaring red printed across her retinas, echoing in her head, until Jenny shut it off, shut it all down. I didn’t vote for you, she thought. It was too much, the clamor inside and out; she couldn’t do anything about the external noise, but at least she didn’t have to tolerate it in her own head.
She couldn’t do what the voice told her, anyway. Jenny had to actually get home before she could stay home. But that should be easy enough—she had a flyer waiting at the parking bay, and it was barely twenty blocks from the port to her condo complex. She was fully human, native Antiran, born and bred to this world for seven generations. Her ancestors had emigrated directly from Old Earth in the first wave of Jumpships. She wouldn’t have any trouble.
Jenny took a firmer grip on her rolling bag and was turning towards the parking bay when she heard the voice. She couldn’t quite place it at first, but it was naggingly familiar. A high, whiny pitch, a voice she’d heard before. Through her open window while she was doing dishes—she could smell the vertani scent of the soap, feel the slip and slide of it on her hands. She half turned, trying to place that voice.
The girl, carefully choosing her words, avoiding the s. “My mother will be here. She got the time wrong.”
Jenny knew that voice, that girl, though it had been a full year since she’d seen her last. Katika had been arguing with her parents, trying to talk them out of sending her to school on Kriti. “It’s ssso far—none of my friendsss are going!” The sibilants were long and stretched; none of the Razuli could manage to talk normally, no matter how hard they tried. Something about the shape of their tongues.
The mother’s response: “Your friendsss are all nativesss; they’ll do fine here. But you’re never going to get taken ssseriousssly on this planet, not until you’re making enough money that they have to take you ssseriousssly. Go to Kriti for sssecondary ssschool at leassst. You’ll sssee.”
Jenny wasn’t fond of Katika’s mother—the woman had bought that lovely house and then felt the need to enlarge it to twice the size, building right up to the edge of the property line, eating all the grass, so there wasn’t any space to breathe. That would have been bad enough, but then she’d rebuffed every effort Jenny made at hospitality, neighborliness. Oh, she’d taken the basthi bread that first week, but had she returned the dish with something else in it? No. Not that Jenny would have actually eaten Razuli food—she’d tried once, but it gave her terrible indigestion. It was the gesture that was important. After the first few months, Jenny had just stopped trying; she mostly felt relieved that she didn’t have to pretend to like the woman any longer.
It wasn’t that Katika and her family were Razuli. She met plenty of aliens in her work; the Jumpships were full of them, and it was a point of professional pride for Jenny that she treated all of them the same as humans. Many of her alien passengers had been perfectly lovely people. Katika’s mother—what was her name again?—just wasn’t very likable.
Now the girl—she must be fourteen now? or the Razuli equivalent, an early adolescent—was arguing again, this time with a security officer three times her size. He loomed over her and said, “Miss, we can’t release you without an adult who can take custody. You’ll have to go to security.”
Jenny felt a flicker of concern. It was fine. Nothing was going to happen to the girl in security.
But then the guard reached out and grabbed Katika’s arm when she tried to walk away; the girl let out a yelp of startlement—or was that pain? Before Jenny knew what she was doing, she had turned fully towards them, taken a few quick steps, and inserted herself between the two, so that the guard released Katika’s arm, surprised.
“Katika! I’m so sorry I was so slow.” She carefully got plenty of ‘s’s into that sentence, to reassure the guard that she was no closeted Razuli. Jenny gave him her best harmless-middle-aged-woman smile. Most days she hated being middle aged; it made her feel invisible. Even in her form-fitting uniform, men mostly didn’t look at her anymore. But if Jenny could use middle age to her advantage here, she would. “The girl’s mother called and asked me to bring her home, since we’re leaving the port at the same time. She’s my brother’s wife.”
“This Razuli is your niece?”
Visually, there was nothing about Katika to mark her as nonhuman—her wig was firmly in place, and her poison glands were hidden beneath her cowlneck sweater. But the guard had seen her documents, of course, and if that hadn’t been enough, he’d heard her speak. He knew what she was. There was something in the way he said the species name—Razuli—that sent a shiver down Jenny’s spine, making her twice as resolved that she would not leave this girl behind. There were other species that had made their way to Antira, dozens of them, but it was the Razuli that bigots tended to hate worst. Something atavistic, perhaps.
“Yes—my niece by marriage. Second marriage for both her mother and my brother Mark.” Jenny was freely inventing now, knitting herself a little web of lies to tangle the guard in. She had no brother, but she’d always liked the name Mark. If she’d married, she might have looked for a nice Mark herself. But she hadn’t had much luck keeping a man. They all seemed to think she talked too much, or said the wrong things. She’d had her sons, though, two lovely boys, just like she’d always wanted; Jenny hadn’t needed to keep a man for that.
There were so many thoughts running through her head, it was hard to keep them all straight.
Mekti! That was the mother’s name.
Jenny continued smoothly, “Mekti was lucky to find Mark. You should have seen this girl’s father—now there was a bastard. What he put those two through—” Katika winced, and Jenny felt a sting of compunction. She didn’t actually know anything about Katika’s father, or if she even had a father. Jenny had never investigated Razuli mating practices. But something about that had hurt, and for the thousandth time, Jenny resolved to bridle her tongue. Better to say nothing than to say something that stings.
Still, her gossipy babbling seemed to have done the job—the guard’s eyes were already glazing over with boredom. “Fine, fine. You ladies should get going—there’s going to be a curfew at sundown.”
It was past dinnertime now—just an hour or so until the sun went down. “Not a problem, sir,” Jenny chirped. “We’re just a few miles away—we’ll be home in half an hour.”
“Good, good. Go on now,” he said, turning away. Jenny held her breath until he was safely down the hall, harassing another passenger.
There—that was done. More excitement than she’d expected this evening, or wanted. Jenny just wanted to get home, see how Padraic was doing. He’d been so lost since his brother had left them; her younger boy needed his mother now. This whole interaction had slowed her, and Jenny hoped he wasn’t worrying. Irritation flared in her, but she tamped it down. It wasn’t the girl’s fault, and it wouldn’t be fair to take it out on her.
Katika had been silent through all of this, biting her lower lip. When Jenny turned back to her, the girl asked softly, “Did my mother really sssend you?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” Jenny said. “But why don’t you call her, ask if it’s all right for you to come home with me? Unless you’d rather wait for her here . . . ?”
Katika stilled for the call, her eyes going glassy. A few moments, and then the girl blinked, coming back to the world. “She sssaysss it’s fine; she’ll wait for me at home. She wasss having trouble getting past the checkpointsss. Thank you ssso much for thisss.” The sibilants were back as the girl relaxed; like most children, she trusted familiar adults. Her mother should have taught her better.
Jenny smiled. “It’s no problem. We’ll just grab my flyer and head home.”
She started leading the way to the parking garage, babbling all the while. It was always safe talking to kids about school; that should calm the girl. “So, how were your studies—on Kriti, wasn’t it? You must tell me everything. My Padraic was so jealous when you left. I’ve been there three times, but never had long enough on the planet to really look around. What’s your favorite building at the university? The Tower of Art is spectacular, I’ve always thought, though so impractical for a terraforming colony.”
The girl hesitated, then started awkwardly talking. Katika had no talent for spinning a tale, but that was all right. It filled the silence, at least. It was nice to have someone else carrying their part of the conversation.
Inside the parking garage, the walls were plastered with anti-alien posters, which was particularly spiteful, considering how many aliens came through the port. Aliens, go home! Antira for Antirans! Two arms, two legs, one head, plenty of hair! That last was a shot at the Razuli. A few sympathetic liberal humans did shave their heads in solidarity, but mostly, bald was not a popular styling choice for humans on Antira these days.
The last few years, the Humans First movement had gotten a lot louder, more blatant—they were running people for office now, taking out expensive ads on the entertainment networks. Jenny’s favorite holos were interrupted by dark voices warning what could happen if an alien came to your town, went to school with your children. Jenny didn’t need the reminders; she knew plenty about that.
Parents, talk to your children! What would you do if your son came home with this? The alien in the next poster they passed was a gelatinous Crenaran, more goo than flesh, draped all over a handsome young human. The Firsters weren’t trying to be subtle.
The sheer nastiness of the ads made Jenny’s stomach churn, and as she passed the posters, she found herself walking between them and Katika, trying to somehow shield the girl. Impossible, of course. Sometimes, pain was inevitable.
They got all the way to the flyer and climbed in before encountering the next hurdle—the automated flying system was down.
“You’ve got to be frelkin’ kidding me!” she said. Jenny tried not to swear—her mother had thought it was important that nice girls didn’t swear—but this time, it was surely warranted. The system had gone down before, when riots erupted. The mayor’s office had recommended that everyone stay out of the air, and then they’d shut down the system, to make it harder for people to ignore their words.
Anyone who owned a flyer knew how to drive on the ground, of course, but skills you didn’t practice rusted away; it took Jenny ten minutes just to figure out how to back the flyer out of its spot.
They inched their way out, managing not to hit the flyers parked flanking them, and headed slowly towards the exit. There didn’t seem to be any other movement in the parking structure, though there had been hundreds of people disembarking from the Jumpship. Maybe they’d decided just to stay at the hotel at the port, rather than try to head home? Maybe she should have done that, too?
Jenny kept up a determined stream of cheerful babble so the girl wouldn’t catch her concern. “At least the roads should be pretty clear. That’s something, right? Once we get out of the lot, it’ll be smooth flying. Driving.”
“Yesss, Mrsss. Michaelsss.”
“Please, Katika, I’ve told you before—call me Jenny. Or Aunt Jenny, if you must. Mrs. Michaels makes me feel old.”
Also married, which she never had been. Her sons’ father had been adamantly opposed to marriage, and at eighteen and again at twenty, she hadn’t worried about it much. By the time she turned twenty-one, Steve was gone, and Jenny was relieved to be rid of him—he’d been more trouble to take care of than her babies. Tom and Padraic had been the sweetest little things, good sleepers and eaters, no trouble at all; she’d known herself blessed. She hadn’t missed Steve or his too-quick fists. Makeup could only do so much to cover bruises, and she’d missed more than one shift as a result ; she wouldn’t count the boys as his at all.
“You can call me Aunt Jenny, can’t you?” she asked.
“Yesss, Aunt Jenny,” the girl said obediently.
They were pulling up to the automated exit now, being scanned, Jenny’s parking fee deducted from her account. If Stellar Ships weren’t so cheap, they’d cover her parking, but her boss said they expected employees to take public transit to the port. Jenny hated public transit; she never felt safe on it, especially when her flight was getting in late. She could afford a flyer, and the parking fees, too, so she was going to use them, even if that did mean getting hit with an environmental fine for every hundred miles driven. It’d be good if the union got them that raise they’d been promising. That was what she was paying the union fees for. Property taxes had climbed outrageously this last year, and there were days when Jenny wasn’t sure how she would hold on to her condo. Not that she needed that much space, with one son gone and the other leaving her soon. But it was her condo, and she’d be damned if she left before she was ready.
“Seatbelt on? Good.” Habit, to check the children. They could be so forgetful. Padraic was careful, her good boy, but Tom had always been the sort to push the limits, taking unnecessary risks. That was how he got himself into trouble.
Tom had been the sunniest child, grown into a tall, strong lad. Padraic had struggled more, had trouble at school with the other kids, but he’d adored his big brother. Tommy and his Shadow, the kids had called them, which had made Jenny bristle when she heard it. But neither of her boys seemed to mind, and Tom was endlessly patient with his little brother. She’d been lucky, to be blessed with such a child.
Tom sailed through school, started college. He’d lived at home to help her save money, though if he’d wanted to go to the big university on Kriti, assuming he’d gotten in, she’d have found a way to send him. Somehow. “Nah, Ma—I’ll do great here. Don’t worry about it. Save the money for Padraic.” Jenny could see the relief in Padraic’s eyes, knowing that big brother would be home for dinner every night. Well, most nights, anyway. College was exciting, full of new activities, new people.
New people meant new people to date, and tall, handsome Tom had no lack of offers. For a while he’d been pretty serious about a nice boy who even went to their church, Nathaniel—they were out late together every night. Jenny had started dreaming of weddings, the two of them in matching tuxes, with Padraic as the best man, of course. Even now, she still dreamed about it sometimes—the colors would’ve been Tom’s favorite cobalt blue, paired with bright orange for Antira’s orange sun. They would’ve held it at twilight, in the Forest of Scree, with a thousand candles casting light.
Thinking about the wedding always calmed Jenny—on long flights with fractious passengers, during long nights when her bed was empty. Calm was what she needed now.
Jenny pulled out of the lot, turned onto the main road, then let out an involuntary gasp. Beside her, the girl squeaked—that was the only way to describe it, a little squeak—eek!—that sounded just like the sound a mouse made when you caught it in a snap trap. The road ahead of them, the road that should have been empty, was awash in people.
The sun was sliding towards sunset in the distance, but there was no dearth of light—someone had clearly organized this protest, this riot, whatever it was—because almost every hand had a torch in it. Actual torches, blazing with fire, above a sea of human faces, contorted with rage. Katika pulled in on herself, shrinking in the vinyl seat, and Jenny closed her eyes, muttering a brief prayer to whatever gods might be listening.
Jenny took a quick, deep breath and forced her shaking hands to tighten on the controls. She began driving forward at a steady creep through the throng, which thankfully made way for the flyer to pass. It was sealed tightly enough that they could barely hear the noise from the crowd outside, the ominous growl that rolled across the streets.
Jenny kept chattering loudly, cheerily, to the girl. “I bet you found a special someone back on Kriti. Someone you might want to bring back to meet your mother? A girl as pretty as you won’t be alone for long. If I had your skin, and that figure—well, I’m sure the boys are howling for you. Unless you like girls? That’s fine too. Or enbies? Genties? Orgen?”
The girl didn’t respond; she was probably terribly embarrassed. Jenny’s hands were tight and trembling on the controls, but she kept her voice light, even chuckling. “I admit, I have trouble keeping up with all the modern variations; you must think I’m hopelessly old-fashioned. But I always say, be who you want to be, love who you want to love, just be honest about it. That’s the way I was raised, and the way I raised my boys. I can’t stand it when people lie; I never could . . .”
Of course, she just had, telling the security officer that Katika was her niece, but that hardly counted.
Whatever answer Katika might have given was aborted by a man darting right out in front of their creeping flyer, thumping heavy hands down on the hood.
Jenny slammed on the brakes, rocking them forward against the seatbelts—not that they’d been going all that fast, but inertia was unforgiving and would collect its due. You didn’t work on Jumpships without learning that lesson. Actions had consequences. Tom had never learned that lesson, and so she’d lost him.
She wasn’t going to lose another child, not today.
He was shouting through the closed window, spittle hitting the glass, smearing. Jenny almost opened the door, habits of politeness betraying her—but then other lessons kicked in, hard-earned. Keep your guard up. Anything can be a shield in time of need.
The window stayed closed, and the door too, but Jenny spoke loudly, politely, “Please, ser, we need to go. My son’s at home alone; my daughter and I need to get back as quick as we can.” Jenny put her very real worry for Padraic in her voice, summoning all her middle-aged mother presence for the appeal. “Can you help us, please?”
Katika had drawn in her breath at the promotion to daughter, but stayed silent, no doubt following the logic. This man hadn’t seen her papers, would have no reason to assume Katika wasn’t a human girl.
He banged the window again, and Jenny fought back the flinch. A sharp pain in her neck, from the sudden stop and jerk, from the dresser, all those years ago.
“Show me your papers!”
Jenny fumbled in her purse, pulled out her citizen card. On other planets, they’d be ID’d by the net, but not Antira, where few of the locals trusted government enough to let politicians put security chips in their heads. She slapped the card against the window, and the holo enhancement activated, displaying all her relevant data. Human was the only one that mattered. As long as he believed her lie . . .
The man growled, frustration in his face, and then spun away. The crowd seemed to go with him, the street emptying out in front of them as if they’d heard some bullhorn call, racing towards some other poor soul. Had anyone ever mapped out the movements of a mob? Could they be predicted, if you could name the variables?
Jenny sank back in her seat, trembling, the inevitable aftershock hitting her as she waited for the streets to clear. She’d been here before, that terrible night when she’d lost Tom. Jenny had learned how to be brave in a crisis, but afterwards, the universe demanded its due. The body could only do so much, and the mind wasn’t much better.
Still, there were only a few people left in the street now. Best to get moving again; just a few more blocks to safety. Jenny took a deep breath, turned to check on the girl . . . only to see Katika’s door opening, an arm reaching in, grabbing at her, pulling her out.
“No!” Jenny cried. Hadn’t the girl locked her door?
Jenny frantically unlocked and opened her own door, tumbling out into the street, a jumble of sensible shoes and too-tight uniform, purse clutched in her hand. Not much of a weapon, but it was jam-packed with travel supplies, and if she swung it into someone’s head, it would surely hurt.
Jenny raced around the front of the flyer, ready to swing—but there was no need. Katika stood there, arms wrapped around her own slender body. The man lay on the ground, face swollen and purple. Razuli bite was unmistakable.
He’d gone snake-hunting. That’s what they called it. Nathaniel hadn’t liked it; they’d broken up over it, in fact. But Tom had new friends, new lovers, had gotten in with the Humans First crowd. He told his mother that she shouldn’t worry; it wasn’t anything serious, snake-hunting. Just a way to have a little fun on the weekend, take a few tokes of something that made you see stars, that slowed down the rest of the universe and made you fast, faster than a snake. Apex predator, that’s what Tom called himself. They’d hunt down a snake, and play with it. Just a little tease, a little chase. Don’t worry, Mama. We wouldn’t actually hurt them.
That had turned out to be a lie. Jenny hated it when people lied. They hunted Razuli, Tom and his friends, and beat the ones they caught. It hadn’t gone quite so far as killing, but it was bad enough that when they stumbled into a bigger nest than they’d planned for, the Razuli had fought back with deadly force. Atavistic instinct.
Jenny jerked back from the body, slipping on the tarmac, her limbs wanting to go out from under her. She grabbed for the flyer, trying to steady herself, but the hot metal burned her hand, and she swore again, pulling sharply away. It was all too much: her stinging hand, the man on the ground, the monster hissing in the shadows. Jenny could feel her pulse racing, her heart thumping an angry drumbeat. The pain in her neck was piercing, like a needle. Like a knife. The air seemed thicker, shaded with red.
There was his gun, less than a foot away, just lying on the ground, waiting for someone to grab it.
Tom had had a gun. When they brought Jenny to see him in the morgue, purple-faced, they’d given her a box with his personal effects, but told her they were keeping the gun.
She hadn’t known he had one. Jenny hadn’t known her child at all. Not a child anymore, though. Somehow, he’d grown up on her.
Grown into a monster.
The gun lying in the road. The pain, shooting through her neck. Instinct rising: grab for the gun, protect herself, fight the monster, save her people!
Katika was sobbing, a low, gurgling cry, like nothing Jenny had ever heard before. There was a crying child standing in the road, and Jenny was a mother.
In the end, she didn’t even remember walking across to the girl. But Jenny was deliberate when she reached out, willing her hands not to shake. There were things a decent person did, in this kind of situation. You pulled a crying child into your arms. You patted her back, avoiding the skeletal spines beneath the thin layer of fabric, and said, “Shh. . . . shhh. . . . it’ll be all right.” The universe was dark and full of grief, with so much empty space between the tiny points of light. You did what little you could.
Jenny urged Katika back into the flyer, climbed back in herself, locked the doors. Looked around again—no one left. Had anyone seen what Katika had done, and then run away? Maybe, or maybe they’d already emptied the street.
If they had seen, well, her secondhand flyer was nothing flashy. She would’ve liked to be able to afford a cute, distinctive flyer, with blue-and-white racing stripes, but for now, this was better. Jenny backed the flyer up carefully and drove around the body. She had to deliver Katika to her mother, suggest that they might want to think about leaving Antira entirely, at least for a while. Then she’d go home to Padraic.
She was going to hold him so tight.
In a better world, Jenny would have called the incident in, might even have taken Katika to the police and explained that it was self-defense. Tomorrow, she’d be sad for her planet, her people, herself, that she couldn’t trust the police to do the right thing.
Today, she had someone to escort safely home. That was what Jenny did—when she flew the Jumpships, between the stars. All those people, traveling and tired, relying on Jenny to help them home to their families.
She couldn’t solve the larger problems.
But right now, this much, she could do.
“Hush” copyright © 2022 by Mary Anne Mohanraj
Art copyright © 2022 Mary Haasdyk