Excerpt: Star Language by Charon Dunn

Star Language

CHAPTER ONE

Probably if I told you I was writing all this down in case any Earth humans survive into the future and want to know what happened you’d think I was being overly dramatic. Truth is, I don’t know exactly why I’m writing all this down. The Vlaximi will probably track down all the copies and delete them, once they get caught up on their destruction schedule, although they might keep a heavily-edited version around for historical purposes. You never know. I still can’t write in their script, so I’m using an app that phonetically translates English into Vlaximi characters, which might save it from being deleted. At least until someone tries to read it.

My name is Melina Aphrodite Chevarria Miller. Sometimes I go by Molly. The person who gave birth to me, Willow Karen Chevarria Miller Strack, hated it, but we’re talking about a woman who legally changed her name several times. She started out as Carmen Chevarria, but started going by Willow when she was thirteen. I’ve seen lots of pictures of Willow, looking like a hippie in embroidered jeans and horizontally striped hoodies, hair flying loose, brown toes peeking out of her sandals. Then when she became a Miller and leveled up into her adult form, with high-maintenance hair and a surgically perky nose, she changed it again, to Karen Willow Miller. That’s what I call her, Karen, instead of something friendlier, like “mama.” We are not friends.

From what I’ve put together, I was conceived during Willow Chevarria’s post-high-school-graduation European vacation, paid for by her parents. Sometimes she told people her parents came from Barcelona, but they were really from Texas. She thought my birthfather was from Barcelona too, since that was where they met, but he turned out to be Greek, and poor, and already married, to a fourth cousin. They broke up, and, according to her, she spent the whole flight back puking and blaming it on the turbulence, without realizing morning sickness was also involved.

I’ve never met my birthfather, even though Karen named me after his grandmother, probably because she thought there would be an inheritance. I was planning to find him after I turned eighteen. My stepfather, Ted Miller, adopted me when I was three, and turned my mother from a Willow to a Karen. Or maybe I was the one responsible for that.

In my early memories, she was nice. We spent a lot of time watching language videos together. Karen’s father was monolingual in English, but her mother spoke both Spanish and English, so Karen learned both languages at home. In high school she started studying French. Later on, she picked up basic Japanese and German, along with a scattering of Korean, Russian, Portuguese and Tagalog. She won the European vacation where I was conceived in a multilingual essay contest. When I turned out to be an early reader who shared her polyglot style she inundated me with kids’ books in different languages, and videos full of bright-eyed kids performing songs so catchy you wanted to learn their language just to sing along.

As for myself, I wasn’t that enthusiastic. I was a shy kid who didn’t really like talking, or interacting with people. I was memorizing all the language instruction but not really absorbing it, or much else, until I was around kindergarten age, lining up my toy dinosaurs while a movie was playing, in Spanish. It suddenly struck me that languages were like separate toy boxes. In the Spanish toy box, a tyrannosaurus was called a tiranosaurio, but it changed back into a tyrannosaurus when you put it in the English toy box.

Karen became less nice as my introverted, nerdy personality surfaced, and her dreams of having a vivacious sociable multilingual daughter evaporated. I remember when I started school there were lots of meetings with school counselors. Sometimes both Ted and Karen would get called in for a meeting, where they’d get lectured by school people wielding charts and graphs. Then we’d go home, and they’d both yell at each other about whose fault it was. Karen got more anxious, yelling at me whenever I’d do anything she thought was abnormal. Like reading all the time, which was all I really wanted to do.

My languages were a complication when I got into school. They actually thought I was an English-as-a-second-language kid at first, because I mostly talked in Spanglish, but that had a lot to do with my monolingual neighbors, Alicia Guerrero and Donna McCurdy. I still wasn’t a very sociable kid, but they had familiar faces, and weren’t mean to me like some of the kids at school. We had a desperate urge to share double-dutch jump rope and Barbie melodramas, so with my help we came up with our own private creole. That was my first translator job.

Karen didn’t find out I was being tracked with the immigrant kids until I was invited to a birthday party. I thought it was fabulous, since there was a bounce house on the front lawn, just for guests. In the back there was a pinata that gave up its goods before I even had a chance to whack it, thanks to an exuberant boy who hit it just right. I filled my pockets with brightly-wrapped pieces of candy, then I gorged myself on tres leches birthday cake and mango ice cream, and washed it down with strawberry horchata.

Karen didn’t have fun. She stood at the edges with her arms folded, scowling. Refusing to talk to the other parents. She took an instant dislike to a man who was covered with tattoos, including a dark teardrop inked right next to his eye, and when she caught me looking curiously at a skull on the back of his forearm, she declared the party was over as far as I was concerned, dragging me home.

Later that night, there was an epic session of yelling and screaming. I was in tears, having absolutely no clue what I did wrong. According to Karen, I had transgressed on an epic scale: I had mixed languages together. This would result in many horrible things, like living on the poor side of town, and having too many babies with tattooed men who had served prison sentences. I needed to understand that my main language was English. Just like the President of the United States of America, and Taylor Swift. That I was going to grow up to be a successful girl with a nice car, and beautiful clothes, and a lovely house that would never have a bounce house ruining the front lawn. My husband would be handsome and rich, in order to afford the expense of traveling around to other countries. Where I could speak the language if I wanted, as long as I remembered that people came in two varieties: nice, and not-nice. Nice people, according to Karen, were clean and intelligent, and spoke only one language at a time. Not-nice people were sloppy, and never read books, and barely knew how to speak their own native tongue, so they mixed it with other languages and disrespectful street slang, which was the main reason they weren’t nice.

That was the day I learned how to reinforce the walls of my mental toy boxes. When you speak multiple languages, sometimes your brain just switches languages all by itself, and I became obsessed with controlling that. I still used my dinosaur epiphany from my childhood, because dinosaur names sound similar in all languages. If I could learn to say things like “the tyrannosaurus eats meat” and “the brachiosaurus is the tallest” in a new language, I could get the verbs and adjectives down without having to worry too much about memorizing nouns.

That grew into a mental landscape where the French dinosaurs lived in their own separate toy box full of macarons and brie, and the Spanish dinosaurs had a box rich in jalapeno salsa and solemn guitar riffs. I learned how to shut myself into a particular box with its own set of words, and foods, and rules about where the verbs go. How to give myself a good long pause before saying anything, just so I could make sure I was answering from the right box, instead of coming up with a response in a random language.

I learned to do the same thing with my emotions. I could only speak to Karen when I was in an emotionally neutral box. Karen was disturbed, and sometimes enraged, whenever I expressed an emotion she wasn’t feeling. If I didn’t share her belief that some fashion was hideous, or some song was particularly touching, she would get upset. She would accuse me of lying, deliberately and maliciously, because I was trying to somehow harm her. I had only attended that birthday party because I wanted to make her upset. The only reason I was in the English-learners track was because I wanted to humiliate and embarrass her.

Karen’s rage could last for hours, sometimes days. During that time, she would accuse me of horrible things. Call me names. Threaten me with future punishments. Destroy my belongings. She never hit me, or left physical marks. It was all verbal, with occasional dramatic gestures against inanimate objects. I would watch her from my poker-face box, where reactions were careful and deliberate. Where all pushable buttons were guarded by heavy shields.

Once I got old enough to figure out the internet, I learned how to find places to chat in different languages, and make international friends – mainly fannish groups for other geeks like me who preferred books to socializing. My language skills blossomed at that point, and I added dinosaur-filled toy boxes in Portuguese, Italian, and Japanese. I am terrible at different alphabets and sometimes I wonder if it’s my own unique spin on dyslexia, so I can only comprehend Japanese if it’s romanized. I understand extremely basic Korean, Mandarin, and Thai, as well as Russian and Arabic, but only if it’s typed out in western letters. Mainly on the level of joking around, trading slang and media recommendations, and I need to hit the “autotranslate” button frequently.

This was absolutely not what Karen wanted me to do with my time. She wanted me lounging around the living room with a pack of attractive kids dressed in designer clothes, talking about where we would be spending the next summer. Instead I spent most of my time running with a digital pack of multinational fangirls, gamers, and trolls. That’s where I picked up the next few levels of language skills. Certainly I didn’t learn it in school. The only thing I ever learned in school was how to avoid school.

When I was ten, Ted left. For another woman, who already had three kids. They spent a couple of years fighting it out in court. Karen got full custody and the house. Ted got a second job as a security guard, and one night he got shot while doing that. Karen made sure to tell me it happened because he needed the extra cash to pay child support. I felt bad, and then I felt sort of conflicted because I didn’t feel worse. He was a couple of notches above adequate as far as dads go. I don’t remember any conversations or imparted wisdom but he spent a lot of time with me. Usually he took me to parks where I could ride around on my bike or roller skate, and there were plenty of museum visits to look at the dinosaur skeletons. He accepted whatever I wanted to do and never demanded that I transform into someone else. Something Karen did, constantly.

The child support and the life insurance ran out when I was twelve. Karen had been living it up. There had been a cruise (she left me all alone for that, with an envelope of money for groceries) and a spiffy new car, and a whole lot of alcohol and pot and yes, meth too, to self medicate after her divorce. Not to mention the load of anxiety she was carrying that had to do with the realization she was about to have to get a job and support us both, and our lifestyle cost a lot more than her skills could bring in.

At first she had trouble keeping the lights on, and buying groceries. The repo man came for her car, and then one day not too long after that, men came into our house and started moving our furniture onto the lawn. We got some of it into a storage locker, after Karen spent the last of her cash paying more men to move it there, and stiffing them for half of it. Then we stayed on a blur of couches, sometimes spare rooms or in our crappy new car with its mismatched door, until we finally got a place of our own. It was in a bad neighborhood. There were bugs, and fumes from the auto body shop down the block. Sometimes the neighbors fought, and the cops would fill the night with helicopter and siren noise.

Karen and I have anxiety in common, and we would argue bitterly over the smallest things. Mostly over the underlying tension between my stubborn refusal to be someone else and her ironbound determination to change me. After we moved to our new neighborhood, suddenly there were lots of other things to argue about. If we weren’t slamming doors and avoiding each other we were hoarse from screaming multilingual abuse at each other.

It got worse before it got better. I spent my fourteenth birthday in detention. I had embraced a troublemaker lifestyle in middle school, because detention was preferable to coming home. I had finally figured out how to make friends but they were all troublemakers too, especially Johnny, my first boyfriend. Birthday detention was for having sex with him under the bleachers.

I had been ready to declare myself the exclusive property of Johnny for all eternity, for all of four months. Then, while I was stuck in detention, he cheated on me, and I retaliated by cheating on him. We broke up, but I quickly got myself into a polyamorous triad with a boy and another girl from my troublemaker crew. Which didn’t last long, because Karen moved to a new state.

Because Karen got a new job at a resort hotel, thanks to her language skills. It paid enough for an apartment that was even smaller, but it was in a safe neighborhood, in a complex with a swimming pool. She was working there when she met Ethan Strack. And fell in love, if you could call it that.

I didn’t really like Ethan at all. He was obsessed with sports, mainly wrestling and hockey, but he’d watch anything with a scoreboard, and maybe he’d place a bet on the outcome. When he wasn’t doing that he was working hard managing his company Strack Collection Service, which employed over three hundred professional debt collectors that would lean on people who were having trouble paying their bills. People like Karen had been before hooking up with him.

I liked Ethan’s money, though. It was really nice. My own car for driving to the high school five blocks away. Clothes no one could laugh at. Spa treatments that made my hair and skin sleek. The kind of high-quality food that well-off people take for granted, because they’ve never lived in a food desert trying to wring nutrition out of high fructose corn syrup and reconstituted meat product.

So I kept my rebellion tasteful and quiet. Such as changing my name to Molly, so that my new friends at my new school wouldn’t scratch their heads wondering how to pronounce Melina Aphrodite. And keeping my sex life undercover. I wasn’t that freaky but I slept around. Mostly boys but not always. I had discovered a way to get affection that didn’t come bundled with verbal abuse, and I was hooked on it.

That was the school where I finally fit, in a social sense. Sort of. Not completely. Just with the Stu-Sues, which was short for the Study Hall Survivors, a loosely organized friend group that I found through a couple of members who also belonged to the French Club. They mostly socialized in a chat group, but they let me eat lunch with them, and sometimes we hung out together. At a movie or concert, at the mall, watching TV at someone’s house. I was usually quiet, watching them interact and picking up pointers. They were all nice kids – college bound, attentive parents, no disciplinary issues. The sort of person I was trying very hard to resemble.

I studied hard. Like Karen, I won prizes in essay contests. Unlike Karen, I deposited mine in the bank. While practicing safe sex. I also earned regular chunks of cash doing translation work on things like song lyrics and self-published fantasy novels. I stashed it away, because I didn’t want to live with Karen one day longer than necessary. Once I was in college, which I intended to pay for myself, we’d never cross paths again.

Now that we had money again, she had cut way down on the raging, as well as the street drugs she’d discovered back when we were poor, although I knew for a fact she still secretly indulged on occasion. She was still horrible though. For just one example, she stole my clothes all the time. Then she’d buy more and claim they were for me, but she’d end up wearing them. She liked to wear them when she picked me up from school, like she was infiltrating a crowd of teenagers, disguised as one of them. If she saw me talking to somebody she was likely to come over and insert herself into the conversation, and if it was a boy, she’d probably flirt. Then, later, she’d boast about how she totally fooled a bunch of teenagers into thinking she was their age, even though they’d only spoken to her out of politeness.

When we were at home, I learned to act like a smooth gray rock, sitting imperviously in the middle of her emotionally turbulent rapids. Try not to move my shoulder that way. Keep my face more neutral. Sit up straight. Interact more. Make eye contact. Try to fake an interest in popular things. Use smaller words.

With a constant background ambient soundtrack full of hits like “I’d be dancing in Ibiza right now if it wasn’t for you” and “you’re the reason we have cockroaches.”

I was only slightly mortified when she got pregnant, when I was sixteen. Visible evidence my mom was having sex with Ethan Strack was definitely disturbing, even though I knew it was happening. She spent a lot more time lounging on the couch, and that was when Ethan gave me my own credit cards, so I could do the shopping. And, for the first time, buy my own clothes. He liked it when we dressed in fancy brands. To his credit, he never creeped on me. He only had eyes for Karen, and her gigantic implants, which he also paid for.

Which is her official excuse of why Little Earl wasn’t breastfed, although the fact she was still sneaking around getting high on meth probably also factored into the decision. That’s what they named him. My little half-brother, sixteen years younger. They named him Earl for Ethan’s father, who had even more money than Ethan.

***

CHAPTER FOUR

After we got dressed for our invasion of Earth, we packed back into the vans. I kept my hands over my eyes while they were setting up the teleport gadget. I kept telling myself we were just in a soundstage in some Southern California suburb. The Universal Studios roller coasters were right outside, and Disneyland was a couple hours down the freeway. All my friends from my hallucinatory disassociation box would be there with me. I was still retreating into my fantasy world occasionally, but learning Vlaximix was grounding me. By convincing me I was truly dealing with an alien culture, and a language with no relationship at all to any languages I knew about.

Vlaximix had structure – verbs and nouns and adjectives, and rules about tenses and word order. It even had dinosaurs, and Barscu was amused by my excitement upon learning that they hadn’t all gone extinct on his planet. Seeing them was at the top of my “things to do on Vlax” list, if I ever found myself there. He told me that the Vlaximi believed the basic elements of organic life came to their planet from space.

He described a galaxy rich with life-bearing worlds, enough of them populated with bipedal mammals to suggest a shared origin even further away. These worlds were separated by extreme distances that could only be traversed by Vlaximi, who could teleport, which made all the difference. There were so many rules about how teleportation worked that it made my head spin. Several of the crewmembers had enough focused specialized knowledge to make it work, after going through many years of training.

We teleported down to Earth, emerging onto a highway flanked by hard-baked soil and brittle-looking plants. I couldn’t tell if it was near our departure location so I stared through the window, looking for clues. After a few minutes I found one – a highway sign indicating we were just over a hundred miles from Fresno. I knew that was in California, but the inland part of it, far from the coast.

Now that I was a little more familiar with them, I knew that there were three kinds of Vlaximi in our group. Barscu was one of the grunts, at the bottom. He had a few areas of focused technical expertise but for the most part he was a working-class guy who liked beer and sitcoms, and so were his buddies.

There were also techies and officers, traveling in the other two vehicles. Morvain was in charge of the officers. A firstborn from a noble family. Not an especially rich or powerful family, but rich enough to purchase his starship, gambling on his ability to repay them with plunder.

The Vlaximi spent a lot of time plundering the galaxy. They assumed it was only a matter of time before someone else figured out how to reverse-engineer their teleport machines, at which point they would lose their competitive edge, but until that happened, they were determined to dominate everything they could reach. If I’d been paired up with one of the techies, or one of the officers, I might have realized that earlier.

I also might not have learned their language. Except for Barscu, all of them had focused on learning English and Spanish from the women. Some of them had made admirable progress and could communicate in sort of a heavily-accented basic Spanglish that was slightly more intelligible than the every-language gibberish they’d been spouting at first. It still hadn’t dawned on them that English and Spanish were separate languages. I wasn’t about to inform them.

I was the only girl who had even tried to learn Vlaximix. I wouldn’t say I was anywhere fluent after maybe a month or two of immersion, but I could follow most of it, as long as they weren’t geeking out or using weird idioms like “rowing a capsized boat through gravy,” or quoting sitcoms I hadn’t seen.

I was dressed up for the invasion. My dress was bright sunshine yellow, and it looked good on me. There was a little black belt with a scarlet buckle to emphasize my waist, a poofy skirt that made my legs look good, a deep plunge in front to display my boobs. My shoes were little yellow flats. Vlaximi hated high heels and had supplied us with ballet flats or tiny oval sneakers, in bright colors that complimented our outfits.

We had makeup too. They’d synthesized all the different colors for us, and watched in interest as we painted our faces. Every last one of us was looking healthier than when we were brought aboard the spaceship. Our diet had been weird but it had left us lean and clear-skinned, with thick healthy hair.

They had fixed everyone’s teeth – not just filled in the cavities, they’d all been straightened and whitened too. The dentist was a robot that gave commands like “open your mouth” in Vlaximix and I’d sit with the other girls, translating as they received long overdue dental care. I’d had all four wisdom teeth pulverized to fine dust and vacuumed out of sockets that were filled with a pleasant-tasting goo that dried into a solid plug, which was gradually absorbed into the healing tissue.

That month I’d spent on an alien starship had been blissful compared to the time I’d spent on Earth. No brothel, no Karen, no need for money, no stress. A handsome boyfriend who adored me. Instead of being a weird geeky affectation my language obsession had become useful, and practical.

Several of the girls might have agreed with me. The ones who had drawn mean Vlaximi as partners might not, but I couldn’t help but notice the rest of the crew leaned on the abusive ones. Girls stopped showing up at communal meals looking wounded and anxious, with bruises and tear-streaked faces. A couple of them were reassigned to different partners. The Vlaximi are very sexual people but they don’t have that dead-serious thirstiness like a lot of Earth guys. They take the same approach to planets. They’re more motivated by greed than by lust. They want to shake the tree until it gives up every last fruit, but they don’t necessarily want to dominate it. I certainly can’t speak for all of them, but I know Barscu was fine with an occasional “no” if I wasn’t in the mood.

We weren’t far from Fresno when our little caravan turned off the freeway and headed down some smaller roads, until we were bumping down a seldom-used two-lane road, surrounded by grapefruit trees on both sides.

Until we came to an open field, with maybe forty or fifty vehicles parked in it. The people who’d been driving them were gathered under some party canopies from the local big box store, drinking soda pop from coolers and chilling in the shade. Once they saw us arrive they scrambled to grab their signs and greet us, trying to wave and film with their phones at the same time.

Morvain had made us rehearse this. The Vlaximi got out of the vehicles and gathered together, instantly arranging themselves for the group shot that would make it into the Earth history books, assuming any Earth people capable of reading books will be interested.

We girls were herded off to the side, where we had our separate photo op. We were lovely and well-dressed, but we were only Earth girls after all. The Vlaximi were the main attraction.

The spectators were somewhere between the best and worst neighborhoods where I’ve lived. Racially diverse, mostly middle-aged and chubby, dressed in t-shirts and parent jeans. There were a few in tie-dyes and long hair, and an equal number in camouflage, stars and stripes. Everyone seemed far more interested in meeting aliens than arguing about politics. They snapped photos while the Vlaximi posed.

After a lot of photos were captured, one of the officers stepped forward while the rest stepped back. The officer was called Veebry, and I had exchanged basic greetings with him at mealtimes. His girl was Ofelia, a bubbly girl with bright red hair and cheerleader-type energy.

“What’s shaking?” Veebry waved at the crowd while they took more photos. “How y’all doing?”

Their voices rose in a chorus, replying they were doing just fine, before they hushed again to let him speak. There were no microphones, so they had to cooperate if they wanted to hear – and they were doing just that, tie-dyes and stripey stars standing shoulder-to-shoulder, polite and quiet.

Veebry’s address made me want to cringe. I’m not even going to repeat it because even typing it out is embarrassing. I’ll give you the gist of it – Ofelia loves old school hip hop. I think her dad actually performed it, although he wasn’t very big. Seems like she played a lot of it for Veebry, since his speech was laced with dated slang from decades ago. I could also hear the influence of lots of superhero movies, which was something else Ofelia liked.

The content of his speech was very basic. Something like, “we traveled a long way to meet you and we look forward to getting to know you better, thanks for your welcome.” Something that could be encompassed in less than a minute. Instead he went on for several, complete with thanks to “our bitches,” which he seemed to think was a polite form of address, with special mention to his shorty, Ofelia. He went on to mention her skill at giving oral. Sometimes he spoke in a Blaccent that sounded more than a little racist, and sometimes he used gutter Spanish, like “cabron” with an exaggerated trill.

The spectators stared at him, their faces frozen as they tried to make sense of what they were hearing. Veebry’s look was perfect. Tall, powerful man in sunglasses and an outfit somewhere between a formal suit and something from a futuristic music video. Shaved head, skin a little greyish but nothing too far from the ordinary range. Unusual features, definitely distinctive, but nothing you could file away as resembling some particular entertainer, or belonging to a specific ethnic group.

A man who should’ve been speaking like a newscaster. Authoritative, sticking to one language, without all the dated slang and tough guy cliches. Vlaximi were terrible at being tough. They were friendly, sentimental, open about their emotions. The kind of people who can spend a few years in space together without constantly getting into pissing matches. They were more likely to vaporize their opponents than fight, if it came to that. When a Vlaximi starts boasting about his dick or his fists it sounds like parody. Like a dad joke. Like a space alien who doesn’t understand Earth culture at all, making fun of it.

The spectators were polite. They clapped, and then they got to their real agenda of asking questions, all at the same time. I gradually realized that they’d been rounded up on the internet. A squad of Vlaximi techies must have built a web presence and collected a bunch of early-adopting suckers eager to get in on the hottest new conspiracy theory.

I had an elderly math teacher once, who told me that in his day, schoolkids were forced to memorize times tables, because they didn’t have calculators yet. Then when they first got calculators, students were forbidden from using them in class, because the teachers wanted them to learn how to calculate with their own brain instead of relying on machines as a crutch. My generation all has calculators on our phones and cash registers that calculate the tip for you, so we’re crutching around all the time. Especially if you’re me and happen to be terrible at math. At least I can translate numbers into a bunch of languages to spread out my chances of finding someone good enough at math to help me with my math homework, so that’s something.

After hearing Veebry, though, I understood my math teacher’s point. A computer would have translated Veebry’s speech into its basic concepts, but in order to figure out whether you were translating a teenager word, a dad-joke word, an authoritative word, a word spoken in a racist accent, a word that didn’t really communicate precisely what the speaker intended – you’d need to filter everything through a human brain. Maybe even several.

The spectators just wanted to know things like whether they were bringing us advanced technology, and whether we could ride on their spaceships, and whether their arrival meant the conspiracy theories were true. The Vlaximi stumbled through a brief question and answer period, but after a few minutes Morvain put an end to it. He dispensed some nice formal platitudes that made him look positively statesmanlike compared to Veebry.

Then the crowd took us to a rapidly-built compound at one edge of the field. It had some mobile homes set up in a row and a few quick-built buildings, such as one that was full of generators, and one fitted like an industrial-sized kitchen. Everything smelled brand new.

None of the spectators quite knew what to make of the alien visitors’ bitches, to use Veebry’s word. We were photographed surreptitiously and nobody spoke to us. After a little while the Vlaximi came over to collect us and lead us to our new trailer homes, while most of them gathered with most of the spectators in a big public area with picnic tables and barbecue grills.

Even though the trailers had been hastily made a few feet taller than factory specs, Barscu quickly learned to duck when going through doors. His weight made our flimsy new home rattle whenever he walked around, so he minimized that by camping out in a heavy-duty chair in front of the television. He stayed there watching movies most of the day, whenever he wasn’t outside socializing with the spectators.

They put together a barbecue supper, with a potluck of side dishes which most of the Vlaximi disdained, although some tried a few experimental bites after using a handheld gadget to scan each dish. They brought plenty of their own food which they had grown in the ship, including some (beheaded and pre-sliced) okori, and that’s what most of them ate. The techies had brought everything they needed to produce Vlaximi style food in one of the quick-built buildings, and after lunch Barscu got drafted to help with the heavy labor.

While he was busy, a couple of Vlaximi, accompanied by Stella, came knocking on my trailer door, summoning me to a gathering of the bitches. This was held in the living room of Stella’s trailer, which was definitely cramped and hot with all of us packed inside, plus three Vlaximi, all officers. Including Morvain.

Stella was doing her very best to act like an officer’s wife. She served all of us cold drinks, and passed around a platter of cookies. The branded, corporate kind. After a long stretch of Vlaximi food they tasted super sweet to me, but they also tasted like some of the better moments of my childhood, so I ate three.

Once we all had refreshments, Stella stepped onto the seat of her chair and said, “If I could have everyone’s attention.”

Once we were watching, she blushed shyly, taking a few seconds to work up her public speaking nerve. Morvain nodded at her encouragingly. She continued, in English with each sentence followed by a Spanish translation. “Morvain has noticed discrepancies in the translation. Some of the spectators have reported they were confused by Veebry’s speech. When they posted a version online, Morvain and his men read it, and they don’t think it was entirely accurate.”

“It say he describe you as dogs,” Morvain said, in slow, heavily accented English. “Perros,” he repeated in Spanish, followed by an impersonation of a lap dog going “yip yip yip.”

When an Earth person says “dog” it’s understood they’re talking about anything from an Irish Wolfhound to a Chihuahua. The Vlaximi have a similar animal (although it does have six legs), but they don’t have a separate name for female dogs. To them, a dog is small and yappy, and if it’s bigger, with a booming bark, it’s a completely different animal. I’d probably come up with something like “bigdog” if I were translating it, or maybe “hound.” In their culture, little dogs are lovable scamps and tricksters, always thinking of ways to steal treats. Constantly yapping, whining, and making other doggy-type sounds. If you call someone a dog, according to what I’d seen in sitcoms anyway, it means you think they’re a blabbermouth trying to distract you from your sandwich. The connection with irritable women, or women in general, or subordinates of either gender, isn’t even there. There is, however, an implication that a doglike person is bullshitting you so they can get your sandwich, or whatever else they want, and I’m sure that was the reason Morvain was concerned. He wanted to find out if we were bullshitting his men about Earth languages.

I didn’t really want to discuss this understanding I had developed with Morvain. For one thing, I was intimidated by him. Whenever he was around I was extra meek and polite. He hadn’t really noticed me yet, and I wasn’t advertising my language geek skills. Not at all, although I had the suspicion eventually they’d be revealed, and my suspicion came true that very day.

While the other two men watched, each girl was taken into the bedroom with Morvain and Stella. Not for anything sexual, apparently. The girls came back looking slightly relieved and reporting they’d answered a bunch of questions which weren’t particularly tough.

When it was my turn, I sat on the edge of the bed while Morvain, in an armchair, asked me which Vlaximi I’d been assigned to, and if I was happy, or if I wanted to run. He told me that some of the other women had told him they were unhappy, and would be leaving.

“We bought them a bus ticket home,” Stella explained. “From Fresno. Most of us are happy here. You only have to keep one guy happy, and these are better than most. Besides that, most of us don’t have anyplace to go. The ones who are leaving did.”

“That’s how it is for me,” I said, carefully. “No place to go.”

“Do you have family?” Morvain asked.

I shook my head. “Not really.”

“Education? Apprenticeship?”

“No. I was supposed to go to college but it didn’t work out.” I sighed, wishing I was back on the spaceship. Far away from all my Earth problems.

Morvain leaned toward me and clasped my hands in his huge ones. He looked directly into my eyes. I sat there like a startled baby rabbit, frozen in his headlights. Morvain has massive amounts of charisma, or presence, or whatever you wanted to call it. I’ve always been terrified of people like that. People who can go on stage and act like it’s the most relaxing place in the world. People who can talk into a microphone without cringing at the sound of their own voice blasting through the speakers.

People who can stand up and be visible without being afraid their psycho mother will see them receiving attention and take it as a personal affront.

I’m sure Morvain felt my fingers tremble and my palms turn clammy with sweat. He held my hands steady as he looked into my face, making me feel like he’d traveled across a galaxy out of concern for my future. I felt like I was being warmed by the rays of a personal-sized sun.

“What kind future you want?” My linguistics brain automatically noticed that he’d dropped “of” and “do” because those words don’t exist in Vlaximix. It was distracting me from my heart, which was quivering in my chest over the very notion of a powerful person like this asking for my opinion. Maybe it was a trap, like when Karen would ask me if I wanted pizza or burgers, except if I picked the wrong one she’d get mad at me.

I couldn’t stop the tears from flooding down my cheeks. “Happiness. No reasons to cry.”

“You crying.” He removed one of his hands from mine and touched my cheek, collecting a tear.

“Afraid,” I said. And then, probably because I was overwhelmed, I repeated the word, except in Vlaximix, where it had a spin more like “intimidated.” It had been used in one of Barscu’s slapstick comedies, by laborers hiding from a strict boss. There was a connotation of “many, many social classes higher than me.”

“Intimidated?” He replied, in fluid Vlaximix. “I’m the lowest of the low, my dear. I’ve traveled across the stars to collect spare change on a world where women are sold like street food. If my family possessed more esteem I would be sitting in a grandiose office having robots massage my shoulders and brew my coffee, but alas.”

He said all this in soothing tones, like he didn’t expect me, or anyone, to understand it, but I did. “You command this crew. Those people outside are busy making you famous on Earth, right now.”

“And that’s the heart of the problem. I don’t want to be famous for the wrong things.” He withdrew his hands from mine and sat back as it dawned on him I had spoken in Vlaximix. When it sank in, he blinked. “You understood me.”

“I have a basic understanding,” I replied. “I already know several languages. When Barscu had trouble learning mine I thought it would be easier if I learned his first.”

“Barscu isn’t here for his intellect,” Morvain said, dismissingly. Then he noticed the storm clouds on my face and backpedaled a little bit for me. “His talents are formidable but they lie elsewhere.”

“I love him.”

He smiled and raised an eyebrow. “But are you in love with him?”

“My heart is confused,” I replied. “Confused” is the closest English translation; their word is something like “rendered into a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle and then put back together with half the pieces in the wrong positions.” It seemed appropriate for my situation.

“If I ask you to serve as my interpreter until I get a better grasp of your language, you would outrank him. This might have a chilling effect on your romance.” Morvain tilted his head to the side, waiting for my answer. I noticed he had not directly asked me.

I folded my fingers together on my own lap, leaning back, making some distance. “If I serve as your interpreter the whole world will know about me. My enemies might find me.”

“You were on camera today.”

“In a group. With makeup. No names. Hard to recognize.” Now I was the one dropping words and talking in a heavy accent.

“If you are standing by my side, nothing on this planet is capable of harming you.” He gave me the most sincerely arrogant yet kindly gaze while he spoke those words. “You are very young to have serious enemies, but if they come for you, I will destroy them.”

Vlaximi took their enemies very seriously. I didn’t really think the guys operating the brothel would come after me, and I doubted Clayton would remember me. That left only Karen. I have to admit, the idea of big guys with disintegration rays protecting me from anything Karen might do was highly comforting.

“If I am to be your interpreter,” I said, “I will need different clothes, and hair. If I’m going to be speaking for someone in authority I need to look more formal.”

That was my indirect way of saying I had accepted the assignment. He nodded and exchanged glances with Stella. She led me out of the bedroom. A few other girls were still waiting in the living room, and one of them was Concetta, who had hairdressing skills.

Stella sent the other girls home while Concetta wrote out a list of supplies and gave it to one of the Vlaximi. Morvain headed out to a meeting, leaving the three of us to watch music videos and eat chips until the cosmetics arrived.

Once they did, Concetta got my hair back to its default dark chestnut, with a few cherry-cola-colored highlights that would look good on camera. She scissored it into a sleek photogenic style and conditioned it with something that smelled light and floral.

I barely noticed it anymore but we all had the stink of the spaceship clinging to us, that vaguely sulphury burnt-matches smell. We girls smelled a little more like the Vlaximi after eating the same food and living in close proximity. They found our odor strong too, and that was one of the main reasons for those daily baths. I remembered being nauseated at first whenever Barscu’s armpits got too close to my face, because his scent concentrated there. Later on, once I developed feelings for him, I didn’t mind his smell nearly as much. I had seen the spectators’ reaction today, though. We all smelled funky, like we’d been orbiting the planet in a poorly-ventilated locker room for a month, or in the case of some of us, longer. Long enough for my nose to pronounce it as normal, and the harsh plastic outgassing of the mobile home carpeting as offensively weird.

I had seen the spectators’ reaction to it. Flared nostrils, hands discreetly covering faces. Concetta and Stella had too. They had ordered room sprays, diffusers, incense burners, lotions. The spectators were doing the actual shopping and fetching, since the Vlaximi hadn’t exactly been unveiled to the general public yet, aside from a few social media posts and blogs run by alien fans. They were happy to do it if you gave them a list.

In addition to all the smelly things, I had asked them to bring me some Earth-made clothes, modest and businesslike ones. A burgundy blazer, and some dark jeans. Blouses that were more about covering my boobs than displaying them.

By midafternoon my transformation was complete. I looked like a news anchor who covered mergers and acquisitions, or maybe someone who was about to explain the difference between the impressionists and the surrealists.

Morvain had been doing his own transformation with his boys. They all saved a lot of prep time by not having hair. Some thought had definitely gone into his dark jumpsuit with shimmering highlights. He had a layer of makeup too, highlighting his incredible cheekbones. Morvain was probably a handsome guy on his own world. He carried himself like he thought he was handsome anyway. If you liked chiseled, symmetrical features and well-defined muscles, he was there for you. I was still intimidated and confused, in both translations, but I was there for him too, when we held our press conference just after sundown, so we could get the rising moon into the shot, with Mercury and Venus in the background.

I didn’t even come up to Morvain’s shoulder, so it took them a while to compose the shot, until they came up with Morvain seated in a chair while I stood by his right side, which was the only way to get our heads approximately level, with his a little bit higher. By the time we were all lined up we had to move fast, before the heavenly bodies moved out of the frame.

I’ve probably seen it a hundred times since it happened. There I am, looking formal and brunette, in contrast to my initial appearance as a sunshiny blonde in a yellow dress. There he is, looking exactly like a hulking space alien who could destroy the planet if he felt like it, except in a mellow good humor, with a casual smile on his face. First he introduces himself, in English, as Morvain, from the planet Vlax. Charming smile as he points up and to the side, “somewhere out there.”

Then he introduces his interpreter, Melina. He asked me in advance, and I gave him the name on my driver’s license. I knew people would be Googling me after this got out, and I didn’t see any point in making things convoluted. No more nicknames.

Then he began speaking, and all my emotions fell away as I became, temporarily, his vessel. Hi there. I’m from space. I traveled a long way to reach this beautiful planet. I’m looking forward to cultural exchange and forming new friendships.

He didn’t come out and say he was fixing to extract everything extractable and kill anyone who didn’t like it. He didn’t even imply that part. I’m not sure if he had it at the back of his mind the whole time.

No, that first press conference was beautiful. Two photogenic people standing beneath the stars. My voice calm and clear, without any of the anxiety that I’d normally get from public speaking because I wasn’t speaking at all. He was speaking. I was just interpreting.

***

Charon Dunn never met a school she liked long enough to graduate from. All her marketable experience involves deep controversy. Originally from a remote colonized island which is slowly being destroyed by the privileged idiots who gentrified it, she currently enjoys being agoraphobic in San Francisco and it is very rare to encounter her more than two miles from home. She has a day job doing geeky things she can’t really talk about, for lawyers. A relationship-averse asexual who has been living in the same apartment for thirty years, Charon enjoys spending too much money going to see offputting bands. She has zero literary awards or other forms of acclaim because the neurotypicals tend to chase her out of their territory unless she has psilocybin and is willing to share, but she has self-published several novels so far. Because she was born to write, and nothing short of death will stop her.

Visit her on Facebook and her website.

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