Title: Vignette: Unexpected Circumstances
Perelan…wasn’t quite what Cody had been expecting. It sounded like a naïve thing to say about an entirely new planet: of course it wasn’t what he’d been expecting, how could it be? Cody hardly knew what to expect, for all that Grennson and Darrell talked about it constantly. He’d been ready for anything, from sights that were awe-inspiring to things that made him bite his tongue, and had gotten, well…an odd mixture of both.
Awe-inspiring was easier to explain. The organically fluorescing lights that lit the city, the grand buildings and incredible art above the ground and the deep, endless caverns expanding below, filled with curious faces and rough hands eager to pet and tug. Cody and Ten and Darrell weren’t remotely unique anymore, as humans; since Jason Kim’s marriage to Ferran, there had been an exchange program set up with different institutes of learning across the galaxy, taking in Perel students and sending off human ones. They had lived with most of the ruling matriarchal Houses of Perelan, a few insular holdouts notwithstanding, and the Perel were now accustomed to having humans in their midst. They had an entire plan for the best things to do with their visitors, and the House of Grenn was looking forward to having not one, but three new humans to play with and show off and educate.
Unfortunately it hadn’t quite worked out that way, as Cody reacted badly to the planet’s atmosphere. They’d known it would be problematic going in; Perelan’s atmospheric pH was too acidic for people to bear easily, and they were all wearing contact lenses and had been given booster shots for their Regen. In Cody’s case that meant special skin cream, an injection that was meant to increase saliva production in his mucous membranes, and limits on how much time he could be out and about without using a rebreather.
The precautions hadn’t been quite enough. One breath in the open air set Cody to coughing, just like Ten and Darrell, but he hadn’t adjusted back to normal. The air, thick and wet like breathing a cloud, seemed to hunker down inside his lungs, impossible to expel enough of it to make a difference. He’d coughed until his lungs bled, and by then Ferran had carried him back inside the ship and turned on the environmental cyclers, turning the air was neutral again. Cody had recovered his breath, but the incident scared everyone.
The Perel were apologetic, Darrell was sympathetic, Ten was livid that proper tests hadn’t been done to ensure Cody fell within a certain safety zone—“It isn’t as though you don’t have the baseline data, what are you, idiots?”—and Cody was just anxious for things to be blow over. He hated being the cause of problems, and this was a big one. They were supposed to be here for two standard months, but how could he stay like this?
In the end, it came down to compromise. One day out of three Cody could go out, properly protected from the elements and wearing a rebreather and goggles, for additional safety. It was…well, it was all right. He got to see the enormous trees in the forest that surrounded the capitol city of Berenze, and the innumerable nests of beetles that tended them. He got to explore caverns filled with multicolored crystals longer than his body, and sail across an underground lake that seemed black and glassy on the surface, but turned the most glorious shade of blue wherever the liquid got disturbed. He got to watch Ten take samples of almost everything, and see Grennson preen under the weight of his pride as he took them to his favorite places, and enjoy Darrell finally putting his language skills to good use and surprising the hell out of the locals.
The two days in between such outings, Cody spent in Matriarch Grenn’s enormous den, where the air was filtered and the food was tested and there was nothing that could hurt him. He refused to let the others stay in because of him, even though occasionally Ten did anyway. “It’s just because I’m feeling horny,” Ten would say loftily as ze pushed Cody toward their shared bedroom. It was that, or ze spent hours in hir lab and almost forget that Cody existed, but both had their upshots. The rest of the time, though, he was alone with the Perel.
They were almost all as warm as Grennson, and a lot of them knew how to speak the Federation’s common language, with varying degrees of success. They also tried to treat him like some fragile thing, though, which—well, Cody was feeling awkward enough about his inability to handle Perelan like everyone else, so he didn’t let them get away with babying him much. He certainly didn’t tell his dads anything was wrong, although he was sure they knew. Captain Kim was a responsible guardian, after all.
It was a little strange, how Cody ended up gravitating to Jason. They didn’t have much in common under normal circumstances, although just being humans was a big commonality here on Perelan. But Jason had approached him after the first week of their visit, on a day when Ten and Grennson and Darrell were out with Ferran’s twin brothers, and asked him to come to a hapkido class.
“I teach the cubs whenever I’m here,” he’d explained as they walked down a long, metallic-purple and red and blue hallway that almost seemed to pulse with light. It felt like walking through a portal to another world, and was one of Ferran’s art pieces. Cody wondered what it had been inspired by. “Not as a fighting style, really. The Perel have their own ways of fighting that are highly effective, but I had to have something to offer on a personal level when I arrived, and this was about the friendliest skill I was capable of at the time.”
“Grennson said you were in a duel after you got here.” That duel was legendary on Perel, and beyond; a cultural anthropologist from Ceyla University had actually written a book about it, the collision of cultures that had led to Jason Kim having to defend his student and his honor through one-on-one combat with another House’s duelist. He’d won, but almost died for his efforts.
“I was, but that was less a result of my classes and more about inter-House politics,” Jason said. The room they walked through was tall and well-lit, and the floor was made of a spongy, forgiving material. “I stopped offering the classes to the adults, but the cubs are a different story. It helps them work on their self-discipline, and it lets them get rid of some of their excess energy, too.”
The first time Cody just watched, as a group of twenty Perel children in a wide range of ages came to the doorway wearing simple black uniforms, bowed, and entered. Jason took them through a warm-up, had them work with each other on some simple wrist locks and throws, and then finished the class by pulling out a reduced-gravity field generator and gently throwing each of his students into it, making them grunt and giggle as they floated across the floor until finally bouncing off the far wall. The class finished with a bow, and then it was a free for all of questions and announcements and curiosity, and Cody was drawn into the maelstrom like a moon toward a planet. Most of their questions were for Jason, but there were a few for him too.
“Are you hungry? I brought mushrooms!”
“Will you throw me too?”
“Are you married?”
“Why would you think I’m married?” Cody asked the cub, whose brown-tipped quills flared nervously at being responded to.
“Because…because I saw you sitting with the one with the green hair and it was biting your neck, and I thought that meant you must be married because it wasn’t eating you and because humans are not…don’t practice…” The cub’s little face screwed up in concentration. “Panimalism? Contamatism?”
“Cannibalism?” Where had he and Ten been making ou—oh. The lab’s windows were transparent, a necessary condition of Ten being allowed a lab at all. It had been a long day and Ten had been sleepy but resistant to the idea of going to bed, and Cody had gone in to persuade hir and…yeah. “Um…no, we’re not married.”
“But you’re allowed to do that?”
“Yeah, we are.”
The cub sighed. “I want to get to bite people too.”
Jason had thought it was funny, naturally. “You’re something of a unique specimen, being together with Ten here,” he said after one practice, when Ferran was in a meeting with the matriarch and Cody’s quad mates were out exploring. He’d shut the door to the gym, sat down cross-legged on the floor and motioned for Cody to join him. “Ferran and I aren’t as demonstrative as you two outside of our living quarters, and none of the other humans who’ve lived here have brought along or formed new romantic attachments during their stays.”
“I kind of wish we weren’t.” With a little prodding from Jason, Cody went on. “I’m already the weird, fragile one because I can’t go outside, and the cubs still don’t know how to refer to Ten’s gender, and…I don’t know. I’d rather be unremarkable sometimes, I guess.”
“I know the feeling,” Jason said. Cody raised his eyebrows skeptically. “Oh, I do. Marrying Ferran and settling on Perelan was never a part of my plan for my life. I lived through enough drama serving in the navy, and I never wanted to go through that again. I retired, took over captaining an easy charter line and spent the rest of my time in my house, pleasantly alone except for a few attempts at finding a partner who shared my sensibilities. I didn’t find one, and that was all right with me.”
“And then you met Ferran.” Cody had heard this story before, obviously; Grennson had told it to them, but he liked it. It reminded him of his own parents, and it was different to hear about it from Jason.
“And then I met Ferran,” Jason agreed. “And I fell in love so quickly, it amazed me. I didn’t think it was possible. All I wanted was to be with him, but we both knew it wasn’t meant to be. At the end of the voyage he left, like he had to, and I let him go and retreated to my home and tried to live my life alone again, but…I was never more relieved in my entire life than when I got word that he wanted me back. Enough to defy his matriarch, which was incredible. How could I repay that by refusing to take a stand with him? So we married, and I came here, and then the trouble really started.”
“The duel…and being kidnapped by terrorists and crashing in the forest and being impaled by a carnivorous plant on my way back.”
Cody was surprised, and a little stunned. “I didn’t hear about all of that.”
“The Perel don’t publicize their internal disputes the way the Federation does. They’re one planet of people, and it behooves them to be seen as united in the face of scrutiny. Even now, the Council of Matriarchs is very careful about where humans are allowed to go, and what sorts of questions Perel are allowed to answer.” Jason’s eyes went a little remote for a moment, like he was remembering something uncomfortable. “This place may seem beatific, but it’s far from perfect. I’m part of that façade now though, a public face for a very private planet. Ferran and I haven’t had more than a few days to ourselves since we accepted our posts as ambassadors.”
“That sounds awful.”
Jason shrugged. “We’re together, so it isn’t that bad. It’s just not something I would ever have chosen by myself, without the weight of all the circumstances surrounding us. That doesn’t mean I can’t find ways to be happy, it just means I have to be careful with the choices I do make. Being unremarkable is something I want, but not as much as I want to be with Ferran.
“I’m telling you this,” he added gently, “not to bore you, but because I think your life might be heading in a similar direction. Not because you’re a natural, but because of other circumstances beyond your control. Thanks to your family and their positions in interstellar politics, people will see you as a pawn. You might want to shrink from the spotlight, but until you either assert yourself or remove yourself from the board entirely, you’ll be considered fair game.
“Garrett is an expert at this, by the way. He’s asserted himself so much that he can’t be touched by the opposition, not directly. They might try through you, but they won’t go after him. I’m sure he’s doing his best to keep you safe, but the more you think about things, the more you plan, the better off you’ll be.”
“What do you think about?” Cody asked after a moment, feeling very subdued. “What do you plan for?”
Jason smiled a bit. “Many things. Another possible kidnapping attempt, attempts on Grennson’s life, or Ferran’s, or the Matriarch’s. I can’t account for everything, but it makes me feel better to try.”
“Would you help me do that?” Cody asked. “I can’t do it the way Garrett does, I’m not like him. He and his dad are…they’re kind of larger than life, persona-wise. I’m not, and I wouldn’t want to be. But I want to do my best, and I’ve got a lot of time now.”
“Then,” Jason said, “I’d be honored to help you fill it.”