Science Fiction

Ruby, in the Storm

By A.M. Dellamonica
8,491 words · 31-minute reading time
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The Katfite was smoky, strobe-lit, and loud, features that hadn't changed in the decade since Helena's dancing days even though music had moved on. Tripping rhythms hit her like ball-peen hammers as she stepped inside, coming face to face with a poster that told her the current band's name: Hairy Rhythm Romeo. She grinned as she scanned the shadows below the stage--they weren't half bad.

On the dance floor, two lines of kids were performing a Regency dance. They were moving twice as fast as anything out of Jane Austen. If what Helena had heard was correct, they would continue to speed up. Short leather straps dangled from their left hands; anyone unlucky enough to miss a step would be lashed by her nearest neighbors. Helena squinted, trying to see if anyone was bleeding.

Probably not--it was early yet.

She elbowed through to the bar and tried in vain to get someone's attention, made invisible by her conservative teaching clothes. At last she was jostled in the direction of an empty stool. Bracing herself, she stuck a muddy boot out in front of a passing waiter's expensive-looking tights.

He stopped, bawling over the accelerating tempo of the band: "Cop? Social worker?"

A crack of straps against flesh made her wince. "Professor. I'm looking for an alien--a Lrollmron?"

"Yeti? Big guy, kinda green?"

Green? Helena nodded anyway.

"In the john. You gonna order?"

"No thanks."

Shrugging, the waiter sidestepped her extended leg. Helena hooked a lemon slice from behind the bar, chewed the fruit for fortification, and plunged into the fray.

The door to the men's room was covered with a life-sized portrait of a dancer in ragged overalls and camouflage face-paint. Lash marks swirled down the dancer's arms, visible through the sheer fabric of a ruffled, long sleeved shirt. The figure was androgynous, but wore a rakishly tilted top hat. On the women's room door, the exact same dancer wore a bonnet.

Giving the door a shove, Helena barged in. She could always play confused old lady if she stumbled in on a row of urinating men. Instead she found a half-dozen college boys and her alien post-doctoral fellow, squatting around an overturned carton of fried rice. Five cockroaches were gorging themselves on the spoils, while a sixth thrashed between shrimp bits and snowpeas. Chemically induced to overeat, probably, while the guys bet on which would survive longest.

"Groll," Helena yelled.

The offworlder straightened, wary of the ceiling. Eight feet tall, his skin was a bunched collection of loose ruffles and folds, dense sheets of softness shot through with fine veins like an ornate, lace-covered gown. The look was strangely cuddly. Helena had seen countless people touch him, only to recoil when they encountered flesh instead of taffeta.

Handing a fistful of coins to one of the boys, Groll accompanied Helena out of the bathroom. He did look rather green, at least when the red lights were on. When the strobes switched to black light, he glowed.

"Doctor Milos," he burbled, as they closed the back door on Hairy Rhythm Romeo and the sweat-humid atmosphere of the club.

"Gathering data on our quaint local customs?"

"They asked me to hold the money for their wager."

"Guess you got an honest face, huh?"

"Yes," Groll said, missing the irony for once. "Did you know most of them think Regency dancing was developed around 1990, for a TV program?"

"Pray they don't turn up in your intro history course." Helena said, taking a happy breath. It had snowed in Calgary the night before, four inches of fluffy accumulation now melting under the warm suspiration of a chinook. The streets were ankle-deep in wet slush, but the air was glorious. Clean, just above freezing, cold enough to awaken every cell in your body without freezing your lungs.

Groll chuffed, blowing steam through the ruffled flesh hanging over his lips. "Were you looking for me?"

"Yes. I've got a line on an apartment for you."

The pale fingers flitted, a gesture that meant absolutely nothing to Helena. Was it gratitude? Anticipation? Guarded optimism?

"Outside the alien Enclave?" Groll asked.

"Five minutes from campus. If you must live out among us primitives..."

"Stop that," The Lrollmron gurgled. "When can I see the place?"

Helena consulted her phone. "Half an hour."

"Why the rush?"

She didn't answer, instead tramping off through the mush. Groll followed, skipping around the puddles, the crepe folds of his skin kissing together in the wind.

Dressed in the black robes and white collar required of attorneys going before the Court of Queen's Bench, Jerry's fatigue was masked by his grooming. He was immaculate--freshly shaved, his braids falling in identical plaits down the sides of his head. Normally he rode in the back seat with the baby, but he'd been up with Ruby all night, and couldn't risk his court gear in any case. Instead Helena was in the back with their daughter, trying to pry a toque from her tiny hand without triggering a screaming fit.

Jerry was driving, gaze fixed on the road, his face so closed that he might have been an alien himself.

Their passenger, unfortunately, was oblivious to his mood. Gina Sawchuk had craned around in her seat, straining so she could see Helena. "Finding Groll a place to live was above and beyond the call. Who you sucking up to?"

"I heard about the apartment, I let him know. What do you think that gets me?"

"He's a post doctoral fellow, not an orphan. If he can't function here, he shouldn't have come."

"Come on. Didn't you buy someone a plane ticket once? A grad student?"

"It's not the same. Her boyfriend died, Helle."

"He broke his leg in a climbing accident."

"She told me he died."

"Don't call me a soft touch. You do that kind of thing all the time."

They braked suddenly, fetching up against their seat belts as a city bus roared past, sluicing the side of the car in muddy snow. Ruby lost her grip on the hat and was too startled to notice.

"Sorry," Jerry said.

Gina's head swiveled, fixing him in her spotlight-bright gaze. "Are you still lobbying to get your Indian band access to Lrollmron learning technology?"

"Not just my band, all humans," Jerry said evenly.

"Does that mean yes?"

"Groll is studying human customs. He's not a negotiator."

"It can't hurt to have alien friends."

"I have lots of alien friends."

"Lrollmron friends? I hear you want to speed-teach your kid six languages."

Jerry bounced a glare off the rear-view and Helena blushed defensively. Why shouldn't she have told her?

"Groll is strategically worthless as far as negotiations go, Gina. He spends his time sucking up teen culture and meditating."

Gina grinned. "You let him stay with you, too?"

"Just the weekend he arrived." Helena unfolded the toque, wiped the excess drool onto the car seat, and dangled a stuffed coyote in front of the baby. Ruby snatched it up and while she was distracted, Helena got the hat onto her little head.

"The point is Groll's not who we target when we're sucking up, as you say, to offworld bureaucracies," Jerry said.

"I did have an ulterior motive," Helena announced. The declaration had the desired effect--it shut down the argument before Jerry frayed. "I didn't want Groll running around answering random apartment ads. He could've encountered anyone. Now he's settled--and as a bonus his roomie-to-be moonlights for campus security."

"That is verging paranoid." Gina said. "You don't honestly think this guy's in danger just because he's living outside the Enclave?"

"Nah, I'm matchmaking. I think burly criminology majors go for absent-minded historians from outer space."

"You guys haven't heard something, have you? If there's Purist trouble brewing..."

"We're here," Jerry said abruptly, wrenching the car into a parking space in front of the new History building, a brick edifice that had once belonged to Biology, now under renovation and half-covered in scaffolding. Gina scrambled to get out of the car as Ruby set up a wail, bringing the inquisition to a timely end.

Later that afternoon the temperature dropped; the slush formed by the chinook began to freeze. Out in the Quad, walking was already treacherous. Students, most of them human, skated tentatively over the sidewalks. A lone Nandieve male was picking his way distastefully through the soup, holding his embroidered outer robe above the puddles. Nandi didn't raise their kids on Earth, so this fellow was probably here on business.

Helena waved to a mated trio of Jivi--gray muscular quadrupeds wearing U of C baseball caps--who were mixing it up in a snowball fight with a bunch of other students. The rest of the aliens, about thirty in all, were the Purvaran refugees who made up the bulk of Earth's offworlder population. Six young men--rose skinned, dark-haired--were arguing in front of the library building, gesturing emphatically with their agile inner arms and hands. The muscular outer arms, equipped with fingerless mitts, flapped up and down, slapping legs and hips in an ongoing fight against the cold.

Pulling her coat tight, Helena was savoring the quiet when a faint squeaking drew her gaze down to the side of the path.

Crouching down, she peered underneath. A clutch of pink and white nodules was huddled under a park bench. It--they, actually, wasn't it a colony creature?--was Purvaran, one of the few offworld animals allowed outside of government quarantine. They were popular pets, and human students called them stormclouds.

"Come here," she said, and the thing's individual balls all rolled to her outstretched hand. It was unexpectedly velvety, considering that it looked like globs of putty, and a sense of well-being immediately spread through Helena's palm.

This one wasn't in the mood to cuddle. It rolled over her wrist, pouring nodj by nodj into the sleeve of her blouse, before taking up residence in her underarm.

"Dammit!" Comforting tingles radiated out to her shoulder, neck and left nipple. She was afraid to lower her arm--could they be squashed?

"Doctor Milos?"

She looked up, wayyy up, and met Groll's eyes.

"What are you doing?"

"Nothing." She straightened, blushing. "I'm going to be late for class."

"Why? Is something wrong with your hand?"

"I've got a stormcloud stuck in my armpit."

"Ah. Well. It's probably more afraid of you than..."

"Do I look afraid of it, Groll?"

"No? Then what's the problem?"

"How do I get it out?"

"I've heard they like chewing gum."

"Do you have any?"

"Well... no."

She pivoted, arm out, and resumed her walk towards Mac Hall. Groll followed.

"I will help if I can, Doctor."

"Good," she said. "Get some gum, find a cage for the beastie, and ask around to see if anyone's lost a pet."

"What about your class?"

"I get there when I get there," she said. The alien at her side burbled assent; the one under her shirt stepped up the vibrations. Was it freaking out because she was moving? God, did they bite?

"Groll?"

"Yes?"

"What does it mean when your skin bunches up and goes blue like that?"

"Pardon?"

"Does it mean you're trying not to laugh?"

"Llrollmron cannot laugh," he assured her.

"You don't find this funny?" The stormcloud shifted, yanking skin, and she yelped, barely catching herself as her foot slid on a patch of ice.

Groll's blue blush deepened. "Oh, if I was human, I'd be rolling on the ground right now."

By four o'clock the stormcloud had been restored to its owner, a curly-haired student who worked for the student paper, The Gauntlet, and who had honestly expected the creature to wait inside her camera case while she covered a faculty meeting.

Jerry had fired off a message: "We got the appeal filed--brace yourself."

He was working for Chella and Gyle Sosa, a Purvaran couple who had been trying to buy some land just outside the city for an apiary. Their offers to purchase had been refused by all potential sellers, including a destitute and aging farmer verging on bankruptcy, who refused to surrender his family land to--as he had charmingly put it in an interview--four-armed monsters from beyond. Finally matters had overtaken him and the bank had foreclosed.

Chella and Gyle showed up at the court auction for the land and the sale should have been--finally--in the bag. But the judge had refused to accept their offer, awarding the land instead to a nephew of the farmer's who had scraped together a pathetic mortgage at exorbitant interest.

Inherently trouble-shy, the Purvarans had made one last quick search for alternate farm sites. Now, reluctantly, they were appealing the judge's ruling.

Plugging the phone into her desk port, Helena activated her workstation: display on the wall in front of the desk, virtual keyboard tracking her hand movements as she prepped notes for her next few lectures. The window of her office hadn't yet been overtaken by the crew working to enscaffold the building, and she kept an eye on the students outside as they slip-slid through the snow. Their voices were soundless through the doubled pane of glass.

She was relieved when the day came to an end without incident. Maybe Jerry was wrong; maybe the land case wouldn't be too inflammatory.

On the way out of the building, she passed the student lounge. Groll was draped over one of the couches, a book of medieval illuminations lying open at his side. Four girls were clustered around him, engaged in an animated discussion about baptisms and funerals. Behind Groll's head, one of their phones was projecting the news on the lounge wall. The sound was off and captions scrolled across the display, analyzing the Sosa's newly launched court case.

The girls, caught up in conversation, were oblivious.

Smiling, Helena trotted out to greet the early winter night.

Daycare reported Ruby had a spectacularly bad day, and she seemed determined to carry on the trend, shrieking her way through dinner and a bath. It was a surprise when they dried her off and she went straight to sleep. Jerry eased her off his chest and into the bassinet, sighing with relief so fervent anyone watching would think he'd just defused a bomb.

"Need to catch up on work?" he whispered.

"I've done plenty today." Helena shook her head. "You?"

He glanced at his phone, discarded and glowing a deep red, indicating high-priority messages. "I'm afraid to see what's hitting my inbox."

She avoided asking if he'd gotten any death threats yet. "We could watch a movie."

"Yeah," he agreed, tracing his finger along the inside of her elbow.

"Or just crash. You were up all night--you must be exhausted."

"Wasted."

And with that they were on the couch, lips pressed together, hands clawing at buttons and zippers. Jerry wrestled her bra up as Helena pulled his braids loose, plunging her hands into his hair. He smelled of his office: sweetgrass and strong coffee.

They went at each other like dogs in a fight, like sailors just come into port. Soon she was kneeling over him, their excitement rising so fast that Jerry threw his head back as she slid onto him, nearly cracking his skull against the wall. She was distantly aware that it had never been quite like this before. Emotionally yes, but it felt... God, was it the angle?

Good--too good to analyze. Her thinking mind gave way and her hips ratcheted up and down, almost mechanically, harder and faster. Jerry's hands heated her back, his face pressed hard against her chest.

Soon enough he bucked and shuddered into release--silently, still mindful of the baby. Helena gave in to her own meltdown just as quietly, quaking against him and gasping.

"Ghuuuh," he said at last.

Panting, Helena kissed his cheek. His arms fell loosely around her back. She lay with her head on his shoulder, luxuriating in the comfort. Well-being spread outward through her from the point where her hips and belly rested against her husband's skin, like ripples or electrical vibrations...

"Pzzzt," said the couch. "Pzzzt shjzzt!"

Helena sprang sideways as Jerry arched away from the couch. His grip on her broke before she was balanced, and she rolled onto the floor, popping her wrist and elbow painfully as the arm absorbed her momentum.

Climbing to her feet, Helena reached between the couch cushions and came up with a handful of pink and white nodj. They clustered around her fingers.

"What the fuck?" Jerry demanded.

"It's a pet," Helena said weakly. The stormcloud emitted a low series of pops. In the dim light, they could see a few sparks.

"Why's it here?"

"It must've followed me home. I found it in the snow this afternoon. Groll tracked down its owner..."

Jerry wasn't listening.

She took a firmer hold on the animal, holding a weakly struggling handful of its nodj in her closed fist so it couldn't make for one of her crevices. Jerry scrubbed his hands together like he was washing them, muttering in Cree while he stared as if Helena had grown another head.

She fought back a giggle and his gaze focused into an accusation.

She took it head on. "Oh no, hear that? Sirens! The animal abuse cops are coming for us."

"You are not funny."

"The neighbors must've called 'em. Hey officer, the weird-ass alien lovers upstairs are buggering a stormcloud!"

"Be serious! It's creepy, Helle."

"In full view of their kid, too--call Social Services!"

"What if we'd squashed it? Do you know for a fact that its bodily fluids aren't infectious?"

"Better give Ruby a kiss goodbye, hon. We're animal perverts. They're never gonna give her back."

A muscle in his cheek jumped and she knew she had won. She pretended not to see as Jerry bit down on the laugh, picking up the bassinet and stalking down the hall like a wet cat.

That left Helena alone with the creature. "Who invited you, pest?"

The stormcloud's components rolled back and forth, massaging her hand. Nodj with eyes rose from the core of the pile, regarding her.

"Yeah, I know. Pzzzt." She took it into the kitchen, found a bucket, and punched a couple of holes into the lid. Dropping it inside, she soaked a sponge for drinking water and tossed in a couple twist ties for it to play with. Then she made for her phone.

"Hello?"

"Hi, is this... Raley?"

"Uh huh?"

"Raley, this is Doctor Milos. I returned a stormcloud to you today..."

"Yes?" The voice dropped, as if the girl was afraid of being overheard.

"I'm afraid it's turned up again. Can we find a time to meet and..."

"You're wrong," Raley said. "I've still got my... um, I still have it here."

"Really? Maybe you should take another look. It's pink, its eyes are sort of purpley blue. It's fast." She shook the bucket gently as it piled up, trying to get out. "Something of an escape artist?"

"I'm looking at mine," Raley said. The edge in her voice was unmistakable now; she was near tears.

"Raley," she said. "If you're having trouble with your roommates over the stormcloud..."

"Look, it's on the Shun List." With that, the girl cut the connection.

Helena stared from the phone screen to the newly orphaned alien. It was vibrating softly, setting its plastic prison abuzz. The bucket slid, millimeter by millimeter, towards the edge of the counter. Setting it on the floor, she went in search of her family.

Ruby was still asleep, her tiny chest rising and falling. It was a sight so purely mesmerizing that Helena stopped where she was, staring, her heart feeling stretched in a way that was both faintly painful and undeniably good. "Everything's different," she murmured; she had been saying it since she first laid eyes on the baby.

She was still there, fingers laid against Ruby's warm, dry face, when Jerry got out of the shower. He had kept his hair bundled up out of the water and now, as he unwound it from the towel, it fell like spun coal to his shoulderblades. His dark eyes searched her face.

"The trouble's starting," Helena told him.

Jerry extended his hand, drawing her to the safety under their feather quilt, to warmth and darkness and breathing against each other until she fell into blissfully dreamless sleep.

Gina dressed for squash like a soldier going to war, stripping her jewelry in favor of light armor: a helmet, wrist braces, and knee pads, head-to-toe shock-resistant court suit and shoes that were probably field-tested by the Pentagon. Not one strand of her red hair was loose from its ponytail. Her eyes were magnified by prescription safety goggles. Only her jaw was unprotected.

"Of course people are freaked," she said. She and Helena had squeezed in an hour on the court and were hammering a ball back and forth for all it was worth. "They figure if we sell them our remaining land, where are we gonna live?"

Remaining land. A dig at Jerry and a land claims process that had been revitalized when the aliens came? Probably. It had strained the women's friendship mightily when Helena married a man so prominently involved in forcing Canada and Crown to honor old treaties, just so the aliens would take them seriously when they made new ones.

She wasn't about to get sidetracked, though. "It's ten acres, Gina."

"That's merely a fact. Emotionally, perceptually, it's the whole shopping mall. It's one thing for the government to set up municipally owned alien enclaves in the crummy areas of the city. It's another to feel like you're going to wake up someday and find seven Purvaran families at your neighborhood barbecue. We're not ready."

"I understand, Gina." Helena dove to return the ball, nearly wiping out. "But they're people too--"

"They aren't. You can't pretend this is just more multiculturalism. They came to us, hat in hand..."

"...mitt, tentacle, flipper."

"Pretend you're taking me seriously? We took in a million refugees even though our ecosystem's stressed to the max..."

"Which they're helping with."

"Helping, right. By lecturing us about one-world government and refusing to share any advanced tech?"

"The Biodiversity project has lowered wildlife species extinction to twenty-five percent of what it was five years ago. Global Nutrition Outreach is on the verge of ending starvation. Small arms scanning has reduced the murder rate to... what--?"

"I read the papers too, Professor, I've heard the song and dance."

"They're helping with all Earth's major problems..."

"They aren't helping. They're solving. Humans will never be able to say: we achieved world peace. We stopped hunger. We invented the stardrive."

"We've still got the wheel. Not to mention that fire thing, which I'm told is..."

"Helle!"

"...hot stuff."

Gina let the ball go past, pausing to wipe sweat from her forehead and chin. "Listen, Helle. I know Jerry thinks every paper I've ever written has had 'Rah rah Columbus, what a stud' as its central thesis, but you know me."

"Leave Jerry out of it, Gina."

"Whatever the human race was going to become, it's gone now. You can't expect people to face that and move on cheerfully."

"I can expect it," Helena said. "I do expect it. They gave us a choice, we said yes, and it's too late to go back. Hassling people because they have alien pets or eat the occasional ptir is stupid."

"Not even spacemen are gonna deprive us of our stupidity, Helle." With that, Gina rocketed the ball off the wall for all she was worth. "Who knows? One day it might be all we have left."

They were showered and headed back to the History department when the man ambushed them, jumping into their path so abruptly that Gina, still psyched from the game, stepped in front of Helena and raised her racquet protectively.

"Milos, right?" He was about forty, short and rumpled, with a heavily patched green coat and scars on his hands that looked like old tattoos, long since lasered away. His moustache was salt and pepper and hung thick over his upper lip. His eyes darted back and forth nervously as he flinched out of Gina's swing range.

"That's me," Helena said. She pressed lightly on the racquet and Gina backed off. "What can I do for you?"

"I've been trying to figure out who's the person to talk to, and I'm getting the runaround, a little," he said. "The last guy I talked to gives me your name, so..."

"It's okay, really, Mr..."

"Just Leroy."

"Okay. Leroy. If I can help, I will."

He shifted uneasily, seemed to realize he was blocking their progress, and inched out of their way. "See, it's my kid. Her name's Syndia--"

"Redhead," Gina interrupted. "She's on the water polo team, right?"

The man nodded, and Helena recalled the girl in question--tall and argumentative, with lash scars on her arms. C effort and A brains--she was averaging a B grade in Helena's class.

"That's her. She's been taking this course, comparative religion or something..."

Groll's course. Helena frowned. Syndia had been in the clatch with Groll yesterday.

"It sounds like the guy's helluva teacher, Synny really likes him. But she's been coming home with a bunch of other religion stuff." He was speaking faster now.

"You just lost me. Other religion?" Helena said.

"I guess alien religion. She's interested in it, you know? Like maybe she's thinking of converting, or..." He licked his lips delicately. "Her mother... I mean, me and her mother both, we're wondering if you knew. Because, I guess, we think our kids shouldn't be learning religion at school." Now he took a big breath, finally blurting. "We were hoping you could put a stop to it."

"A stop." Her voice echoed the words as if from far away. She never found out what she might have said next, because Gina stepped in.

"Dr. Milos will be happy to talk to Dr. Groll," she said. "Isn't that right, Helle?"

"Uh..."

"Really?" An expression of relief broke over the man's features. "Thanks. I'll tell my wife."

With that, he beat a fast retreat. Helena swiveled to confront her friend, but Gina shrugged.

"Come on," she said. "If it's anyone's problem, it's yours. Besides, the guy was stressing out. You weren't really going to make him tell that story again, were you?"

"I suppose not."

"And I'll pitch in if you like. Call the mother, or something."

"It's not even your department."

"Yeah, but you know parents love me."

"Everybody does," Helena said, giving her armored friend a one-handed squeeze.

She got back to her office and paged Jerry, grateful once again to have instant access to an expert on the political white waters of their altered world.

A parent complaint--what next? Maybe the first thing to do was find out what Groll would have told the students. She hit the Internet, querying about Lrollmron religion. Instead of receiving a link to a monolithic church of Yeti, though, she got hits for thirty different sects.

It was ridiculous, wasn't it? Groll wasn't an evangelist. The parents must have misunderstood.

Outside her window, a pair of human students were slapping bright yellow posters onto bus shelters, bulletin boards, and lamp posts. A Purvaran woman read one, her posture furtive and tense. Overhead, slate gray clouds devoured a clear and sunny sky.

"Doctor Milos?" It was Groll, looming in her doorway. "One of the students said you ended up with another stormcloud?"

"The same one," she sighed. "It followed me home somehow."

"They're more mobile than you'd suppose."

"Tell me! It was in bed with Ruby this morning. Groll, could you come in for a sec? Shut the door."

There was no visible reaction as he did as she requested, draping himself on the tiny couch she kept for visitors.

"I believe I can find the stormcloud a home."

"No. Ruby's adopted him; he's a member of the family now. Anyway, we've bonded."

His eyes strayed to her armpit.

"Not like that. I wanted..." She stared at him glumly. "Groll, are you religious?"

"Very," he said. "Didn't you know?"

She shook her head.

"My church believes in what you call reincarnation, although not in the humanized sense. We believe souls cluster together into meta-entities which are drawn to living individuals in holy symbiosis."

"Cluster reincarnation?"

"That comes close to describing it," he said.

"So in that framework, what happens after you die? Your spirit gloms onto the others in the symbiotic clump?"

"Yes. And that clump--not a bad word, though I suppose it's a little irreverent--attaches to another morally compatible individual."

"Morally compatible."

"Exactly. As one of my students puts it, that's the carrot in my particular faith. Live an admirable life, and you attract luminous and powerful soul amalgams."

"Carrot," Helena repeated, wondering if the student he was quoting was Syndia. "What's the stick? If you're bad you'll suck up evil souls?"

"It has been known to happen." He began preening the folds of his skin, running his fingers meticulously around the blue-veined edges of his ruffles. "If this was a serious conversation, we'd look at you and ask whose light you might be shining around."

"Groll." Leaning forward, she met his shoe-button eyes. "This is a serious conversation."

He continued to preen. "Syndia's mother has made some sort of fuss, hasn't she?"

Helena nodded.

"I don't preach in class, Doctor."

"But you preach?"

"Helena, it's why I came here."

"Well..." It wasn't the answer she had expected, and now she was flailing. "Be discreet, okay? Jerry's doing a land case on behalf of a Purvaran couple. High profile--sure to stir up the Purists."

"As you wish," he said, breezing back out into the hall.

After another minute, Helena bundled up and went outside, following the direction the kids with the posters had taken. She caught their trail within five minutes.

There were two posters. One was the infamous Purist Shun List, a recitation of alien influences to be purged from day-to-day human living. The second showcased a photograph of a Purvaran student named Berek Sosa--the nephew, Helena knew, of the couple in Jerry's land case. "Guess who's in your Poly Sci class?" read the caption above the photo. Beneath that was Berek's name, Enclave call number, and class schedule.

Taking a shot of it, she forwarded the image to Jerry's office. Then she tore it down.

By morning The Gauntlet was full of offworlder-themed news. Most topical was a story on the sports department suddenly asking the Jivi to specify whether they were going to try out for the men's or women's track teams. This despite an earlier ruling that the gender boundaries were irrelevant.

What's more, the drama department's one Purvaran professor had her car windows broken. The Nandieve were delaying talks regarding an endowment they wanted to make to the business faculty, and there was chatter about moving the Enclave bus loop further from the center of campus.

Typical Purist preliminaries, Helena knew: attack everyone, create friction on both sides.

Hitting her office after her first class, she was grateful to find her window still unblocked by the ever-expanding scaffold around the building as she sat to deal with the latest rush of e-mail. For the first time since Jerry had embarked on his long career of activist lawyering, Helena was getting threats herself. They came in two categories--half about her backstabbing husband, half about her missionary student. She sent them on to Jerry's crank file.

That left her with a trio of messages the phone had cached: one from Syndia Maxwell; two from Syndia's mother. The girl was demanding that the university, apparently in the person of Helena herself, stand up to rampant oppression directed against offworlders. The mother wanted Helena to remove Groll from his teaching position.

"Yeah, right." She spent an anxious moment soul-searching--should she be talking to the department head about this?--and then forwarded that one to Gina for advice without making a real decision.

By noon it was snowing, gritty ice crystals which clinked musically against windows and bit painfully whenever they found exposed flesh. People hunched into their collars as they walked from building to building, eyes slitted and heads bowed against the wind. It was harder to identify the alien students in the storm; from her office window, four floors up, the kids were all just shadows, and you couldn't tell how many arms they had.

"No snowball fights today," she murmured.

Her class had been marred by tension, the kids projecting waves of dark emotion: unease, hostility, irritation. Some of them were wearing pendants made of human bone shards, a Purist emblem. Her two Purvaran students sat together in the back corner, listening intently but--as usual--never bothering to take notes.

She cracked a book, trying to lose herself in research. She was barely into it before Ruby's daycare called, saying the baby was running a fever and had to be picked up. Struggling through howling winds to the childcare center, she collected Ruby and caught a cab the four blocks to the campus medical clinic. There she waited anxiously, feeling up the baby's forehead and glancing, sidelong, at two blood-crusted kids who were in line ahead of her. They had been throwing darts at each other. It was a common enough student pastime these days--everything the kids were into lately seemed tinged with masochism. Usually they came short of needing a doctor, but the point of a dart had broken off in the joint of this boy's elbow.

"Pzzzt," the diaper bag said while they were waiting. Ruby squealed in delight, clawing for the stormcloud as it emerged from the bottle caddy. The room was struck by a sudden psychic chill. A tall man nursing a bad cough glared at them both, unblinking, until the nurse called him in for treatment.

Finally it was Ruby's turn. Helena got the usual unsatisfying riff from the intern: just another baby cold, nothing too serious. Ruby turned on the charm, refusing to seem ill despite the fever, flirting with the nurse and doctor both, cooing and playing with the stormcloud.

Unable to face dragging the kid through the blizzard to the history building, she caught another cab across campus. By then the weather was so bad that everyone who could had gone home. The student lounge on her had a forlorn, abandoned look.

Young human voices murmured from the direction of Groll's office.

Helena bit her lip. It was out of class, as Groll had said. What was it to her if a few kids subscribed to a wacky Llrollmron belief system?

Nothing, she told herself. She knocked anyway.

Groll opened up immediately. Three young women--none of them Syndia Maxwell--were crammed into the tiny space around his desk.

"Doctor Milos," Groll burbled. "Is that Ruby?"

"Don't touch her--I mean, she's got the plague. What's up here? Study group?"

The kids shuffled. Groll, if he noticed, ignored them. "I was about to teach a basic soulcasting technique."

"Soulcasting."

"Is that a bad choice of words? It is supposed to evoke fishing imagery." He motioned, as if he was casting for trout off a dock somewhere. As his arms snapped out, the white ruffles of his flesh bounced.

"The vocab is fine."

"Then what is the matter?"

"Groll..." She lowered her voice. "We talked about you being... circumspect."

"Ah," he said. "And discussing this openly in the hall certainly does not qualify. Do you wish to join us?"

"No," she said, uncomfortable.

"Then perhaps..." Gently, he closed her out.

Lips pursed, she backtracked to the lounge, extracting Ruby from her winter gear. Her daughter, nose sticky and chapped, wheezed and waved the stormcloud at her, oblivious to alien prayer meetings and the prospect of pissed-off parents.

"It's not funny," she grunted.

Running steps made her glance up. Syndia Maxwell was trotting in the direction of Groll's office.

"Groll blew you off?" Jerry's voice was, as always, backgrounded by the hubbub of his office--shouting activists, unidentifiable banging noises, humming computers, bleeping electronics, and broadcasts of current news.

"Completely," she said. "I have to talk to the department head and I don't know what to say. The Maxwell woman's demanding I remove Groll and when I tell her I can't it's just going to escalate."

"There's nothing else you can say."

"I could tell them all to piss off."

"Keep in mind it isn't really about you, hon. Check with the other departments. If this student's mother is a Purist agitator, Groll won't be the only one on her list."

"That's not very reassuring."

"Sorry."

She sighed, staring outside. The blizzard had definitely deepened, a siege of snowflakes blotting out everything but the orange glow of parking lot lights. "At least can you come get Ruby? I've got office hours until four and with finals coming..."

"I can't. There's a reporter here--"

"The interview, I forgot. Okay."

"Love you," he said, and disconnected.

Ruby began to wail. Helena paced the narrow confines of her office, bouncing the baby gently, crooning at her in Greek, in English, in the Cree words Jerry had taught her. Nothing for it now but to cancel office hours and get home.

A shadow solidified in the flurry outside, not quite human and running fast. It tripped near the edge of the parking lot. As it skidded, face first, its six limbs starfished outward. Purvaran.

The figure scrambled up, sprinting towards Helena's building, out of light and line of sight.

The baby's back arched, her face contorting.

"Gas?" Helena asked, patting Ruby's back, fighting the panic that came when the baby was sick. By the time she had done another lap of the office and returned to the window, more forms were crossing the lot. Twenty, maybe thirty people, huddled together and moving with purpose.

She pressed her head to the chilly glass, watching, but lost them behind the scaffolding on the front of the building.

"Hush hush," she said, though Ruby's wails had quieted to damp sobs. "It's okay."

But it wasn't. Noises echoed in the hall--girls' voices, and footsteps--bringing with them a wave of stress.

"Helena?" Groll appeared in her doorway.

"Come in," she said, heart heavy. Behind him were a Purvaran woman and three excited human girls.

"This is Tesdi. There's a crowd of people looking for her." His ruffles bunched but didn't turn blue. "We're assuming their intentions aren't benign."

"Did they see you come into the building?"

"Yes. Sorry," the Purvaran said. She was slender and rose-skinned, with muscular outer arms that terminated in fingerless mitts. The agile hands of her inner set of arms were at work on those mitts, delicately picking gravel out of blue-oozing scrapes.

"We'll have to lead them off in the wrong direction," said Syndia Maxwell. "Give Tesdi and Groll a chance to slip outdoors."

"No. They may have the exits covered," Helena said. "We'll go up to the sixth floor and lock ourselves in the Animal Room."

"The what?" Syndia demanded.

"Any of you girls call the police?"

"We tried," Syndia said. "I think they're jamming our phones."

Pulling out her keys, Helena snatched up Ruby's diaper bag. "Let's go."

They tiptoed out of the office to the stairwell, cracking the door. The sound of voices and snowboots glumping up the stairs toward them echoed from many floors down.

"Keep it quiet and we'll be okay," Helena said. They nodded, heading up.

The small group managed to move softly, getting to the fifth floor without provoking any reaction from the mob lower in the stairwell. Then halfway up to six, Ruby arched again, her whole body straining, and let out a piercing shriek that didn't quite drown out the wet noise of a diaper filling messily.

Five panic-stricken sets of eyes fixed on Helena as the stairwell went silent and the smell of sick baby filled the air.

"Go!" Helena said, and they became the noisemakers, clattering their way up and through the sixth floor door. Helena found the master key and locked the fire door.

"They'll have to backtrack to five," she said, leading them to Animal Room.

Back when this had really been a Biology building, live experimental animals had been kept behind a solid steel door and a key-coded lock. Now the History department was storing its book collection in the former laboratory. Helena punched in this year's code--1492--and opened the vault for the others. She was the last one in. The heavy door chunked shut just as someone started pounding on the stairwell door.

"Okay, we're safe. There's a land line there--someone call the cops." Laying the baby down on the nearest table, she began unbundling, finding an epic, watery mess. She looked longingly at the Animal Room sinks. Their water had been shut off long ago.

"I hear footsteps," Syndia said. "They're here."

"It's a nice thick door," Helena said. "Specifically designed to keep out troublemaking animal rights activists."

"Yeah," said Syndia Maxwell. "But these are homicidal troublemakers."

"Says you." Helena ripped open the diaper bag, finding a satchel of pre-moistened towelettes, and began wiping Ruby's bottom. She'd used ten of the things before she found any baby skin at all, and by then she was filthy herself. Ten more and her daughter was just barely clean.

"The police are here," reported the girl on the phone. "They say the protesters won't let them in."

"Protesters," Syndia sniffed. "Purist psychopaths."

"Let's not get melodramatic," Helena said.

"They want to know how long we think we can hold out." The student's voice quavered.

"We're okay," Helena said. She was down to her last three baby wipes. She navigated the joints of Ruby's legs and then, satisfied, got her own hands clean again.

Groll, bless him, had snatched up a garbage bin and was tossing the soiled towelettes away. "You should have stayed in your office, Helena. Tesdi and I could have come up here on our own."

She thought fleetingly of the threats in her message queue. "This area's staff only."

"You have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility."

"Just don't tell me I'm the reincarnation of someone stodgy and boring."

"Actually--"

"Or of anyone," she amended.

The enraged voices in the hall faded to a murmur. There was an ominous clunk.

"Isn't that the security door?" Groll asked.

Helena's heart revved. "It's staff only."

"They hacked it," Syndia whispered.

Helena ran to the wooden door, the only remaining barrier into the room. Locking it with the master key, she braced a bookshelf against it. "Tell the cops we're good for ten minutes at the most."

"They're trying to get a fire ladder to the window," replied the girl.

"Window?" Helena pushed past her, leaning on the wide brick sill. Six floors below, the red flashers of police cars were diffused by the snowfall.

A loud slam made them all jump. "Shun the invaders!" came a muffled voice.

"Screw you!" Syndia screamed.

That earned them a harder thump.

"Good," Helena said. "Provoke them."

"This is so stupid." To Helena's surprise, Syndia burst into tears.

"We're near that scaffold, aren't we?" Groll said suddenly.

"I looked," Helena said. "It's twelve feet away at least."

"I can reach that far," he burbled.

Another bang on the door. Helena found a heavy three-hole punch and hefted it to him, drawing the girls out of the way as the alien smashed the glass. Quickly he set a chair next to the window, climbed atop it, and kicked off his strangely-shaped shoes. Fluffy toes fully six inches long and tipped with ivory claws unfurled from the boots.

"Take my hand, Tesdi," he said to the Purvaran, who braced him with one scraped mitt as he extended a leg to the sill of the next window over. Leaning out, he reached for the steel pipes. His hand closed on a bar and he let go of the Purvaran, dangling for a heart-stopping moment before he got a foot onto the platform of the scaffold.

Then, using the claws, he shredded a long slit into the plastic weatherproofing membrane covering the scaffold.

"The door's coming loose," the other girl reported to them and the police at the same time.

Groll clenched his toes around the scaffold now. He reached back, fixed his grip and drew Tesdi across to safety with a single, graceful movement. The rose-skinned woman eased through the ripped plastic sheeting and Groll reached for Ruby.

"The girls first." Syndia looked like she might object, but Helena put on her sternest professor face, wilting her. Groll swung them across, one by one, huffing mightily, and the Purvaran woman caught them. The last girl slipped during the transition, clutching at the Llrollmron's wrist so tightly that a few ruffles of his flesh popped free of whatever tendons moored them. The flap of skin hung like a flaccid balloon from his arm, bruising as Helena watched.

The door was breaking. Helena could see its frame splintering. Groll's outstretched hand filled the window.

"The baby, Helena--quickly!"

And--just for a moment--she couldn't do it.

Oh, Groll was her friend all right, and she trusted him. But he was also...

What? A Yeti bastard? A missionary zealot?

Different, she thought. He's different.

"Helena, hand Ruby to me."

"She's sick," she said blankly, but this time her arms stretched out. Groll plucked Ruby from her grip one-handed, his long fingers looking scabrous and menacing, not cuddly at all as he held the child of her flesh like a rag doll.

"She'll be all right," He passed the baby down to Tesdi, who caught her with the strong mitts of her outer arms and then slid her into the cradle of her inner ones. Helena's heart leapt again, and the feeling pumping through her in fountains now had the taste of rage.

Her turn. Helena climbed on the chair and took the alien's chilled hand without hesitating, extending a foot toward the window-ledge that would serve as a bridge back to Ruby. At the last minute she remembered to look for the stormcloud. It was puddled up in the far corner of one of the sinks, too far away to help as the door to the Animal Room shattered.

The anonymous mob bottlenecked in the doorway, and Helena was jolted as she saw a face she hadn't expected.

She stepped out onto the window and to the scaffold below Groll, her hand catching Tesdi's scraped mitt before her feet touched down on wooden planks.

"Safe and sound," Groll said. All the folds of his skin sagged at once.

"I can hold the baby for the climb down," Tesdi offered, voice careful. "You might need your hands free to manage the ladder."

Helena glanced back toward the broken window, listened to the sound of human voices, thwarted and angry, and to a friendly popping sound that turned into a sizzle and then cut short.

She touched her daughter's warm red forehead, noting the pinched, wind-whipped expression on her tiny face. "Yes, take her. Thank you."

After that, they only had to descend, hand over hand down the scaffold ladders. Helena collected Ruby from the Purvaran at the bottom and the media caught the moment, the alien woman passing the storm-stunned child back to her mother. It was their top story the next day, morphed in alternation with a shot of the Purist ringleaders, heads covered by police coats, marching to the paddywagons.

It was a week before Gina knocked on Helena's office door.

"You know I'm not a Purist," she said, when Helena turned but did not greet her. "I thought I could calm everyone once they stopped chasing the Purvaran girl."

"You gave them the code to the Animal Room."

"I shouldn't have. I don't know what came over me. When the cops surrounded the building, everyone became unhinged. I'm sorry, Helle."

Helena drizzled ground grubs into the dish on her desk, feeding the few remaining bits of the stormcloud. It had rolled itself down into the sink pipes to get away from the mob, and just about half of its nodj had survived. The exo-veterinarian still wouldn't say if it would live.

"You know I originally called the Maxwell woman to see if I could smooth things out... for you."

"Gina--"

"I was trying to gain her trust, not get swept up in a riot." Gina leaned on the doorframe, eyes wide. "Everything happened so fast. Suddenly she was asking if I knew the door codes. I tried to lie, the mood turned ugly..."

"And things were so convivial up to then," Helena said. "Don't you mean that suddenly they were pissed at you?"

"Sure," Gina said, voice tight. "Of course. I felt outsmarted, and used... and scared. I was afraid to say no."

The office window was half-obscured by scaffolding, but through the remaining view Helena could see the Jivi were having a snowball fight out beside the parking lot. They were alone.

"Helle?"

"You can't tell me you were bullied, Gina. It won't fly--you shouldn't have been with them in the first place."

"I know. I made a mistake..."

"Your mistake endangered my kid."

"Parents," Gina huffed. "It's always the kid."

"What else?"

"What was the kid doing in the Animal Room? If you'd ditched Groll..."

"Come on," Helena said. "Would your unhinged buddies have let me walk out of here? Me--a prime collaborator?"

Gina fumbled with her squash goggles. "I was hoping you'd understand."

One of the nodules was gray, dying. Helena groped for it among the rolling components of the cloud and then pulled it away from the others. Vet's orders, she told herself as it sparked and then died wetly. "I do understand, Gina," she said as she wiped her hand. "But you're wrong."

"They don't scare you at all? The weirdness? The way they know more than we do and expect us to convert to their faiths and have all this cash to spend on buying our land and seafood?"

"They do, sometimes." Helena looked her square in the eye. "They do. But I'm staying on this path, Gina. It's the right way."

"For who--you? Helle, we've been friends since we were kids. We could still see each other. Jerry'd never know--"

"It's not about Jerry," Helena said, and she closed the office door. Back rigid, she sat, looking at the shot of Ruby in her arms. Ruby who would one day speak ten languages, Ruby morphing into the arrested Purists and then becoming herself again. The memory of fear and mother-bear anger that had burned through Helena at the sight of her daughter in alien hands was vivid. But she couldn't let that make her decisions, could she?

A minute passed. Then another. The stormcloud sizzled weakly and Helena drizzled some more ground grub onto it.

At length, she heard what she was waiting for--the slow steps of her oldest friend, receding down the Bio Building's too-dim corridors.

This story originally appeared in SciFiction.


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Author: A.M. Dellamonica

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