Culture / October 4, 2011
By Jared Vaillancourt
“Your name is Alex,” the Elder was saying. “It’s one of the rarer neutral names.”
Alex, better known by the Elder as Ip’xujl (Determination), and to its friends as Zh’a’a’re’i (The Curious Person Of Flesh And Hair), took a nervous breath and clicked its tongue. The Elder clicked back, thus acknowledging Alex and offering support. Both stood up as the opaque, featureless sphere that was the shuttle trembled, their final touchdown to the planet Alex had been told so much about growing up finally complete.
All throughout Alex’s life it had been raised by the Q’ji’ki’lai (People Of The Darkened Sun And Murky Land), a species to which Alex bore little resemblance. The Elder had raised it nonetheless, dressing Alex in the uniform garments of ceramic-iron fabric that protected one from swamp fauna and dissipated summer heat. The clothing was practical, with joints where they were needed and a high collar that obscured the nose and mouth, and also the breathing mask Alex had to wear on K’ru’lu’t’n’ak (The Planet From Which All Things Tend Generally To Originate).
Alex watched the Elder place a breathing mask on under its collar. The cool wind of an unfamiliar gas toyed with the long braid of black hair down Alex’s back, tasting quite familiar when Alex’s mask was removed from its face.
“I’ve never breathed before,” Alex told the Elder. “It feels good.”
“This is a day I have dreaded and dreamed of,” the Elder replied. It ran its long, spindly finger back across its scaly scalp, retracting the secondary eye stalks at its temples in a display of nerves. “You’ve been practising your languages?”
“Yes,” Alex replied, repeating the word in seven different dialects.
“And how will you greet the Gy’chi’k’ju’sa’d?” (Dwellers Of The Mostly Blue And Sometimes Green Rock).
Alex extended a hand, wincing at the offensive gesture. The Elder shook Alex’s outstretched appendage, a smile sending its eye stalks wide. Alex had known how to do such things, the last ten years spent in intense classes where younger and more adventurous Q’ji’ki’lai learned a great deal about their new-found celestial neighbours. Alex was told its participation was mandatory, especially having been named Zh’a’a’re’i.
Fitting in to school and work had not been as big a challenge as Alex’s gut had warned it would be. Other Q’ji’ki’lai regarded it as a being of intense curiosity, and were always asking questions about it; what is that stuff growing out of your head? Is it hard to have to consciously control more than three fingers? How do you walk with such short legs? Can you see clearly out of only two immense eyes? Alex had been wary of such questions at first, but the others were merely curious, and once their curiosity was satisfied they accepted small Zh’a’a’re’i as a funny-looking Q’ji’ki’lai and talked about their schooling and did you get the answer to yesterday’s question three?
“I am not certain I wish to leave just yet,” Alex muttered to the Elder. Its strong hand came to rest atop Alex’s head.
“You knew as well as I this day would come,” the Elder explained.
It was true: When Alex was first figuring how to tie back its ever-lengthening hair to form a functional (if supremely strange) braid, the Elder had explained that Alex had been born and left orphaned on the world of the Gy’chi’k’ju’sa’d. Alex was technically what was called a Human (Gh’uu’me’a’an, damn their languages were so guttural and harsh), and as such would only be surrendered by its people in fair exchange for a true Q’ji’ki’lai. The Elder, once the wise and truthfully rather frightened of space travel operator of an orphanage itself, agreed to an exchange program of sorts; one of the infants under its care would be raised on the Human’s distant world, while Alex would grow up and take the title of Q’ji’ki’lai. It had thus become a parent, and ensured that Alex never had any illusions of what awaited it in the future.
The only problem was, the future had become the present.
“You are Ip’xujl, Alex.” The Elder said reassuringly. “No challenge is to great for you. These Gy’chi’k’ju’sa’d have agreed to greet you favourably, and I know you will make me proud.”
“You mean that, Elder?”
A blink of the eye stalks. “No one who hunts the biggest K’tch’a’th (Ugly Yet Tasty Swamp Monster) and bakes such delicious pies from its meats could ever leave me ashamed.” At this, Alex smiled up at its Elder, and walked towards the wall. The shuttle’s materials responded to its approach and morphed, opening like an orifice to form a ramp down to the painfully bright world beyond.
A chorus of sound flared up and died down almost as quickly.
“Hey, you must be Alex!” The creature that rushed forward and grabbed Alex’s hand did not seem Q’ji’ki’lai at all. It wore… such bright colours! Fabrics of pinks and reds and blacks that assaulted Alex’s still watery eyes. “I’m Yuri. I’m the Bugger you swapped places with!” Alex looked up and winced away from Yuri’s uncovered lower face, mindful of the tendril-like genitalia that drooped freely around its lamprey-like mouth. Yuri smiled, inhaling from the tubes that ran up into its nostrils from the pack on its back.
“I greet you with kindness,” Alex offered. Yuri laughed.
“Hey, sorry, I don’t speak that crazy talk,” Yuri said with a hard slap to Alex’s back. Alex looked back at the Elder, who was doing everything it could to avoid gazing in Yuri’s direction. Alex got angry and shoved Yuri back.
“I made the effort to learn seven of your languages!” Alex shouted. Throughout the crowd, people started to chatter away into cameras and microphones, commenting on Alex’s accent and arguing about – gender? What was that? “Ih. You couldn’t be bothered to learn proper Q’ji’ki’lai?”
“Life’s too short!” Yuri made a gesture with its hand, as if Alex’s comment was a fly it swatted away. “My people are way too uptight, I mean, look at them! Look at you!” it pointed excitedly at Alex’s clothes. “You going into battle, Alex my main mammal? Get some colour on you!”
“Cover your mouth,” Alex bit back. “Do you know what those are?”
“My moustache?” Yuri replied. “Ain’t nothing but a thing, Alex-san.” Alex stood there furious, barely registering Yuri’s arm as it went around Alex’s shoulders. “You’ve got to fly around this world, babe. Get to all the parties! See the cameras? See the crowd?” Yuri waved, enticing another uproar of… ugh, they had to be cheers. “You took one step and became a celebrity, Alex. Don’t you want that?” Yuri asked.
Alex looked back at the crowd, across so many uncovered faces intently focused on it.
“I want,” Alex began, “to go home.” It wretched itself from Yuri’s arm and stepped back towards the shuttle. “You are not Q’ji’ki’lai. Yuri – Ja’ja’ku’i’i’g’i’lai’sa’d!” Alex and its Elder ascended back into the shuttle and were already a thousand feet up when the translator computers in the crowd finished announcing “The One Who Looks And Smells Like A Kindred But Has The Heart Of A Not Very Intelligent And Honestly Quite Vain Person Who Others Should Probably Regard With Contempt And/Or Pity”. The computers then apologized in case “Contempt” was confused with “Suitcase”.
“That was not fun,” Zh’a’a’re’i told its Elder. The Elder grunted and removed its mask.
“At least we confirmed something about the Gy’chi’k’ju’sa’d,” it replied.
It was another lifetime before Ip’xujl learned what that something was.