Summary:Maya Parker’s world is turned inside out. A cross-species romance.
Maya Parker spent most of her time trying to change the world- save the whales and the trees and the children. Stop guns and pollution and discrimination. Fix it all through reasoned argument and peaceful protest and legal defense funds. She liked to think she made a difference, made things just a little bit better for just a few people for just a short while. At least she liked to think she wasn’t part of the problem, right?
And over time, as she worked and protested and educated those around her, she rose through the metaphorical ranks of activists, gained stature among those who fought the good fight, built a reputation as someone to be reckoned with, someone who could work the system against itself, someone who made those who would oppose her follow their consciences despite themselves.
So, that’s her, strong and confident and married to her work. Maybe she was a wee bit lonely in the dead of night because it’s hard for the rainforest to hug you back, hard for the endangered grey wolf to say thanks, hard for the lives never taken because gun violence was down to be counted and placed on her résumé, but her life was certainly worthwhile. She was happy, well happy-ish, and that is enough for her.
What happened was that she caught the attention of someone quite unexpected, someone very powerful, someone in a position to make demands on the U.S. government. That is how she came to be in an undisclosed, underground, military installation waiting for someone to show up and tell her what the hell, “Your country needs you,” could possibly mean in the context of her life. Truth is, she had always expected handcuffs and some sort of “list of subversives” to figure into things if she ever found herself this deep within a place of this nature.
The door to the office she’d been asked to wait in opened and another nondescript soldier came in, followed, finally, by someone who might actually tell her something, Major Colman, who had been the one to escort her here from the demonstration in the first place.
“Ms. Parker, I’m sorry to keep you waiting, we’ve been waiting for another interested party before getting started here,” the major excused. “Can I get anything for you? Did Harper here make sure you got some dinner?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Can I get some information? I’ve consented to everything you’ve asked of me on the strength of my very shaky faith in the government and your personal say so, so start saying,” Maya demanded crankily.
“Ah, okay.” He pulled out the chair on the opposite side of the table, turned it with a flourish and sat straddling it. “You are aware, of course, of the recent unrest in New Mexico and Virginia?” He nodded, looking like what he was about to disclose was a glittering secret.
“I don’t live under a rock, Major.”
“Good,” he answered, stifling a chuckle, “And, are you familiar with the reports that the participants in the uprising are not quite human? Extra Terrestrials, perhaps?”
“I heard Mole People.”
“Really?” He chuckled under his breath at that before continuing sternly, “Understand that what I’m about to tell you is not true, and I will adamantly deny it if anyone were to suggest to the press I said anything of the kind.”
“You don’t say.”
“Exactly. We’ve been contacted by a race of sentient beings who doesn’t come from the surface of planet Earth.”
“Okay, very funny. This is some kind of prank, right? I pissed all of you off with my statements about the whole don’t ask, don’t tell policy and you’re getting off yanking my chain.” She stood and walked to the door, which opened as she got there to reveal that her current situation was not so much the prank she suspected.
He (and she was guessing on that account) was about 6 feet tall, massive, four-limbed and furry. She stepped back out of instinct and he took the opportunity to come through the door. He carried a large cylindrical object, which he set in the middle of the room. He activated the object by pushing various buttons on it and the room was suddenly ten degrees warmer. The fur on the alien had begun moving in unexpected ways. It spilt into oblong shapes about 3 inches across and a foot and a half long, and crawled down his body and across the floor to the cylindrical object, which was obviously the heat source.
As the white “fur” receded on barely visible feet (look at that- fur that wasn’t murder), the true nature of the alien was revealed. He was a biped, wore dark green boots, which seemed to be of a polymer perhaps close to plastic in nature. He wore dark burgundy clothing close to coveralls in design and material, loose fitting but not baggy. The coveralls had loops of material at regular intervals. Maya guessed they were for the furry creatures to hold on to. The coveralls extended in a kind of mitten at the end of his arms. No, they were more like gloves, gloves with three fingers even in length and distribution to form the points of an equilateral triangle. The coveralls also extended up his neck and over his head and face. Shining, copper eyes, very similar to human’s save the color, looked out from the hood.
Even as she absorbed his appearance, it changed. The loops, gloves and head covering all disappeared, shriveling into the rest of the garment with quiet whispers of movement. The skin of his hands and face was pale amber to dark olive in variation. It was mottled, as if he had many overlapping freckles of different shades. He did indeed, have three fingers, which ended in short, rounded claws, not very different from fingernails. His face, while strange, had a reassuringly human quality. His eyes were side by side and above his mouth, which was a shade of dark khaki. Although he was very human, he lacked a nose, ears and hair of any kind. If Maya had to venture a guess, she would say he was closest to amphibians in make-up.
“Well, I’ll just leave the two of you alone to get acquainted,” the major said in a rush and left before she could protest.
The most surprising thing about the situation she found herself in was not where she was: five miles underground in a secret military installation, but rather who she was with: the crown prince of an entirely different branch of the evolutionary tree- Hominids? For sure. Intelligent? Most certainly. Human? Not on your life.
Maya took a deep breath and tried again, “I’m not a princess. My people don’t even have princesses. I’m just a woman, an ordinary citizen.”
“You are the offspring of Marian Parker, offspring of Chief Justice Harlan Rutledge?” he asked for the third time in his odd clipped accent.
“Yes, but that doesn’t make me a princess,” she reasoned, “he’s not a king.”
“But he is the strongest leader on the surface and you are close kin to him.”
“I’m sorry to contradict you, but the leader of my country, which is only one of many countries, is the president, not the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.”
“Ah, but your president loses power in four or eight years to be replaced by another.” He leaned closer to her across the table as he spoke. “Your kinsman may hold his power until his death. Ergo, he is the most powerful man in the most powerful country on the surface. You are his only unmarried female descendant. That makes you the one we need.”
“Need for what, exactly?” she asked, dreading the answer because how could it be anything but troubling.
He leaned back in his chair and stated calmly, “The Marriage Treaty, of course.”
Wow. Troubling it is. “Marriage? To who?”
“To whom? Why, to me, of course, the sovereign ruler of all interior tribes. You must be my queen. Only then my people will accept the treaty,” he explained. Then he added, “It is far too important to marry you to a cousin.”
“Oh, of course,” she sniped.
“You must forgive my humble ability with your language. Have I mistaken the true meanings of your words? Did you not agree to verify the treaty with me?”
“Okay, uh- let’s start a little simpler- what should I call you? Your Highness?”
“Perhaps my name, beloved.”
“Okay, listen, 1) I’m not your beloved, 2) nobody, including you, has told me your name, 3) I was not briefed on any of this before you showed up- not the treaty terms, not the marriage deal, not even the existence of your and your people, so, you’d better rewind and start at the very beginning.”
“I see. My name is Oreyan Selen, Sovereign of the Interior Tribes. You may address me as Selen.”
“Then I suppose you should call me Maya.”
“So, Selen, what is the treaty settling?”
“A bit of Interior history first, I think- the most recent glacial period of the last ice age forced a large group of our common ancestors to choose to dwell deep underground. My entire race has lived below the surface for the last 200,000 years. We, obviously, developed in a vastly different environment and our technology is far advanced of yours in use of energy and medicine, but far behind yours in transportation and solar protection. We have been watching your civilization quietly for thousands of years and now a certain portion of my people is angry with yours for poisoning the aquifers and the deep mining of fossil fuels, which has damaged our world. Militant groups have been raiding from surface openings in Shenandoah and Carlsbad as well as in portions of Europe and Africa- they are all connected if you go deep enough. So far, they have only sabotaged technology, for which I am most thankful. Violence is not our way. To stave off the agitators who talk of violence and even genocide against the surface dwellers (they consider you an inferior subspecies), I am ready to sign a treaty trading our energy and medical technology for a promise that your people will no longer breach the interior of the Earth below the 1/8th mile mark. My hope is that the raids will also stop if the treaty goes through.”
“And my government is going for this?” she asked, incredulous.
Selen got a perplexed look on his face. “Going for this?”
“They agreed to these terms?”
“Ah- Yes, as did nearly all other nations we’ve contacted. Certain smaller nations are still at the bargaining table with my envoys, but I’m confident all concerns will be satisfied before the wedding.”
“The wedding? Right, about that-”
“Forgive me. I forget that you have only just been informed. The wedding will take place on the winter solstice. It coincides with a sacred period for my people as well as yours; therefore the union will be well blessed.”
“Wait. Just wait a minute. I’m not marrying you.”
“But the treaty has been agreed to. Your own kinsman has signed a pledge of your hand.”
“And by kinsman you mean . . .”
“Chief Justice Harlan Rutledge. Surely you are bound by-”
“Not really. I’m a private citizen and a legal adult- I can’t be forced to marry if I don’t want to, even if my president and my grandfather say I will.”
And it was pretty amazing that he was completely in earnest about all this. If his people had been watching all this time, how was it that he had gotten this so wrong?
“Oh my. They led me to believe that you would be pleased to serve your people as Princess and Ambassador to the Interior peoples.”
“Of course. You would not just be my wife. You would be the surface dweller’s representative.”
“Yeah but, wife? No offense, but is that even possible? We’re so different.”
“Ah. Now I see the nature of the misunderstanding- the marriage will be ceremonial. We are not expected to produce heirs. My younger brother has already supplied nine youngsters to bid for the crown and, if necessary, one of them will take a spouse from the surface to continue good relations between our peoples.”
“Oh, ceremonial- that makes me much more comfortable. Not that you’re not a great catch- I’m sure you are, but, well- you know.”
“I’m repulsive to you. I understand.”
“No! Hey, you’re not repulsive. You’re just not, not like any man I’ve ever imagined. I’m probably not the prettiest thing to your eyes either, right.”
“On the contrary, your well defined features and singular skin tone are breathtaking. To say nothing of how I wish to touch your hair and know its texture.”
“I will restrain myself, as you have no curiosity about my physical attributes. I will not endanger this treaty over my personal desires- of that you can be sure.”
“So it is settled. We will marry and there will be peace.”
“Wait, wait. Please- give me thirty seconds to get this all straight.”
“I marry you, ceremonially of course, and I go live underground to represent all the people of the surface as ambassador?”
“Then the treaty is accepted by your people and there is not more sabotage, no chance of war.”
“I’ll be able to come back up sometimes to visit my family, right?”
“Of course. I’m also given to understand that your government will wish reports of news from the interior tribes.”
“They would, wouldn’t they.”
“They would be foolish not to.”
“And you’d want to know things about my people, too.”
“We would be foolish not to, as well.”
“Yes, I agree. I’ll marry you. I’ll be the ambassador.”
Things in Maya’s life changed quickly after that- she was able to return to her life for a short time to resign her numerous positions and find replacements, to do what she had to do to break ties with her fairly public life as well as her friends (none of whom she could let know about her impending marriage for national security reasons- she didn’t completely agree with that policy, but understood that the best time to inform the general public about the existence of another highly intelligent species sharing the planet with them was not prior to them making peace with said intelligent species, but after).
She’d also had a hell of an argument with Grandpa Rutledge over the fact that he’d committed her to a cross-species marriage without so much as a polite email on the subject, but finally agreed that given the importance of the treaty and of not offending the lizard king (which was what she couldn’t help calling him in her head ever since she’d heard a couple of soldiers call him that on that first day, even though it was not exactly kind or accurate- the Interior peoples were not in the least bit reptilian)- given all that, there really hadn’t been any other choice, but for Maya to be promised to Selen. She just kind of wished that they’d allowed her at least the illusion of a choice in the matter- to make it feel less like she had suddenly been set back a few hundred years in the whole feminism department.
Having taken the time to basically remove herself from the life she’d built, she spent a highly tense family Thanksgiving at her Grandparents’ house with just her parents, grandparents on her mother’s side (Dad’s folks didn’t have high enough security clearance) and her intended husband. Grandma and Mom were onboard with the whole thing, but Maya’s dad was still freaked out even though he’d learned a good three weeks earlier that while the Earth was still round, it wasn’t exactly as solid as he’d always thought it was.
After dinner (a vegetarian feast chosen more so as not to offend the lizard king- the Interior peoples were all herbivores- than to accommodate Maya, who’d been requesting such a Thanksgiving menu for a good fifteen years herself) after dinner, Maya stole out to the dim chill night of the back terrace to take a moment to regroup. There hadn’t been any angry words spoken aloud, but it was pretty clear that her dad didn’t like the idea of Maya taking this on and his every gesture and turn of phrase and tone of voice confirmed that.
“The open sky- even when the sun is down- continues to astound me,” Selen spoke from the doorway behind Maya as she stood breathing in the late November crispness. “I sometimes feel as though I might fly off into the void without a firm roof of two or three hundred feet of rock above me.”
Maya smiled at him. “And I’ve been wondering if the idea of having thousands and thousands of pounds of dirt above my head all the time would make me claustrophobic.” When Selen peered at her unsurely she added, “Fear of small spaces.”
“Ah. I suppose contrasting fears are the logical result of contrasting environments,” he agreed. “Will you miss the sky, do you think?” He stepped out from the doorway to stand next to her.
Maya looked up at the sparse stars- they weren’t far enough away from the city to see many. “The idea of it more than the actual sky, I think.” She found the Big Dipper. “Do you know the stars at all?” she asked without turning her head from the night sky.
“Very little, I admit.” He stepped closer, almost touching shoulders with her and pointed. “That is Polaris, is it not? Ursa Major- the North Star?”
“Yes.” She smiled at how complete his answer was. He always answered as if he might get extra credit for the extra information.
“And there is Orion- the hunter- those are the three stars of his belt, yes?” He was wearing human clothing in order to freak her family out just a tiny bit less- khaki pants and a sport coat over a black turtle neck. He’d seemed warm enough in the house, but she could feel the shiver in him out here.
“Uh-huh.” She bumped her shoulder into his before lifting her arm up to slide it across his shoulder and down so that her hand landed in the crook of his lower elbow (he has two since his arm divided into thirds instead of half as humans do).
“Betelgeuse,” he whispered leaning his head over and resting it against hers. She could feel the warmth moving from her body to his in the places where they were touching. He was getting cold rapidly.
“I- I think so.” She leaned closer and rubbed her free hand over his arm, wanting to keep him comfortable enough for them to stay away from her family for just a little longer.
“I’m not familiar with any others,” he said and a full body shudder passed through him.
“Neither am I.” She made a decision, turning towards him and slipping her arms around his body under his sport coat, leaning her head on his shoulder.
His arms slowly wound around her back and he let out a sigh. “So warm, Maya,” he murmured into her hair.
She leaned back a little and looked him in the face. “Well, we’re supposed to take care of each other, aren’t we?”
“Your Grandmama’s shoofly pie is waiting,” said the voice of Maya’s dad from the backdoor. “You two shouldn’t stay out in the cold like that. There’s coffee on, too.”
“Be right in, Dad,” Maya called back. Then she smiled at Selen and pulled away. “Back into the fray,” she hissed. He gave an answering cluck of a laugh and they walked back into the house together.
That night as she lay in one of her grandparents’ many guest beds, just down the hall from her future husband-king, she thought about the exchange outside. Selen had consistently been kind and respectful to her. He had also always kept his distance, always insisted that their union was to be ceremonial, but often enough, she caught him watching her with a certain look in his eyes. He had said that he found her attractive- that for him the species difference was exotic and intriguing. It wasn’t that she thought he would force her, it was more that he seemed to be getting more attached to her every moment and she hated the idea of having to really refuse him, and not just for geo-political reasons. Given that, she was now mentally kicking herself for taking the stargazing too far, just because she didn’t want to be inside with the circus for a little longer. Selen didn’t deserve to be lead on. She resolved to be all business with him from now on. It was only fair.
Her resolve lasted two days….