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From the author: When Bronwyn realizes that Faren is suffering from neeranji, an alien form of homesickness, she must ask herself what she is willing to sacrifice to help her only sister.
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One of my most vivid memories from our time on Radu IV is hearing my nanny calling, or rather trilling, “Faeeeerrrin! Faeeeerrrin!” He did this every evening after the first sunset and before the second. His inflection, alien but familiar, made a song of the name, so beautiful that even now the memory brings back feelings of safety and longing and loss.
Safety because those were the days when I knew my world, and felt safe in it. Longing because Anyuen wasn’t calling me; he was calling Faren, my baby sister.
And loss because Faren is lost to me forever.
The private line rang while I was fixing an early dinner, and for once I was trying something more elaborate than a simple curry. Adam was in the living room, looking over patient notes from his afternoon clinic.
“Answer,” I said.
My mother’s face appeared on the tiny kitchen wall screen. She looked harried as usual, but elegant and severe. “Bronwyn, love, it’s your sister.”
“What’s wrong with Faren?” I asked, alarmed.
“Oh, she’s fine,” Mum said. “But her school called again because she’s not turning in any work. They’re running out of patience and we’re running out of schools to send her to, Bronwyn. And Aberdeen is very prestigious ... Can you come talk to her tonight?”
“Tonight? Adam and I are meeting with a real estate agent in Sydney tomorrow morning. We’re going to catch the nine o’clock shuttle tonight and stay over. Didn’t I tell you? We’re going to buy a flat since we’ll be there at least a couple of years.”
“That’s nice, love,” she said automatically. “Well, if you can’t come tonight ... I just thought you might be able to talk some sense into her before it’s too late. Your father and I had to pull a lot of strings to get her into Aberdeen, and their curriculum is so advanced. Animal behavior and environmental management courses starting in Year 7, for heaven’s sake. I thought at least that would make her happy for a while.”
“Well, you know Faren,” I said, knowing I was losing the battle. Dammit, I really didn’t want to change our plans. But the situation had to be bad for my mother to rouse herself, even if only to call me.
“Your father and I would do it, but we’re just not getting through to her, and of course we’re getting ready for that conference in Tokyo ...”
“It’s okay, Mum, I’ll come over tonight. We can take an early morning shuttle and still get to Sydney in time for our appointment.”
“Thanks, love. I have to run now.” She signed off.
“Bye,” I said to the blank screen.
Adam came into the kitchen. “Who was that?”
“My mother. She thinks Faren’s school might kick her out, and wants me to go talk to her.”
“Shit,” said Adam. “What does your mother think you can do about it?”
I sighed. “I don’t know, probably nothing. It’s so hard to get Faren to talk about anything. We all thought this school would be good for her, with the customized study programs and everything. Faren was always better with animals than with people, or human people, anyway.” I was silent for a moment, remembering Faren’s rapport with the Raduans. Then I remembered that I hadn’t told Adam about the change in plans.
“Honey,” I said, knowing I sounded guilty as hell. “I’m really sorry, but do you think we could cancel the hotel for tonight and take a morning shuttle to Sydney? Mum made it sound pretty dire, so I think I should talk to Faren tonight. If she gets kicked out of that school, I don’t know what will happen.”
“I was really looking forward to tonight,” Adam said, annoyed, but then he saw my expression. He smiled with one side of his mouth to show that he wasn’t really angry. “Okay. I know it’s important.”
I threw my arms around him, relieved. He had the patience of a saint. “Thanks, sweetheart. I’ll make it up to you.”
He reached up and tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear. “You really don’t talk about Faren that much, do you know that? Or about Radu. And we hardly see her even though your parents are right across the city.”
“I know,” I said. “I just ... it’s like she got lost somewhere along the way, like someone assigned a random stranger to me and said here’s your baby sister. When we came back to Earth I was so excited, because there weren’t that many kids on Radu, human kids, I mean. Most of the researchers only stayed for six months or a year, but we were there for twelve years, so coming to Earth was really hard for Faren. I’ve neglected her way more than I should have.”
“Do you regret it?” Adam asked.
“Neglecting Faren? Of course.”
“No, dopey,” he said. “Do you regret living on Radu for so long?”
“No,” I said, a little uncertainly. Then, more definitely, “No. I was mad at my parents for a while, for making me miss out on a normal childhood. But I don’t regret it now. The Raduans are beautiful, sensitive people. They’ve found a balance in their way of life, the kind of balance I doubt humans will ever achieve. They’re at peace with themselves, individually and as a species. If I didn’t know the Raduans the way I do, I’m not sure I would even believe that’s possible.”
“Sounds like Faren could use a dose of Raduan tranquility,” he said, and turned to start setting the table.
“Couldn’t we all?” I said ruefully.
By the time Faren was five, she constantly wandered off into the brush surrounding the human settlement, and Anyuen was forever calling and chasing her. He pretended to scold when he found her, staring down in fascination at a panee shell or up at a tree frond, but in his hearts he laughed with the same joy that Faren brought to everyone around her. I could tell because his long ears would flatten against his head and he would bob up and down on his squat hind legs. Then he would scoop her up in his stubby forearms, rubbing her against the soft striped fur on his chest to tickle her.
Even Mum and Dad were charmed by Faren back then, that is, when they looked up from their work every once in a while. They were exasperated by what they called her excessive liveliness, but they smiled even as they complained. At the time I didn’t know Faren was unusual. I thought all baby sisters were like that.
When Faren opened the door to her bedroom in Mum and Dad’s house on the outskirts of Melbourne, I was shocked. She’d never had any interest in her appearance, but now she looked pale and ill.
“Hi, Ronnie,” she said listlessly.
“Hi, sweetie,” I said. “How are you? You look kind of tired.”
“Alright, I guess,” she said.
“Mum wanted me to come over and talk to you about school.”
Faren didn’t answer, but stood aside to let me in. The room was a mess. I cleared some dirty clothes from the bed, sat down, and patted the space next to me.
“Adam and I are going to buy a flat in Sydney,” I said, not knowing how to begin. “I’ll be starting an assistant professor position in the Psych Department at Macquarie, and Adam’s going to work at the new state research hospital. My appointment’s only for two years to start, but it could be renewed.”
Faren finally sat down but didn’t look directly at me. I chattered on. “I’m not sure what my research focus will be yet. The department head is trying to steer me towards relationship dynamics in confined situations, like long spaceflights or extreme field conditions, but that’s been done to death. I’m looking for something a little more meaningful.”
“Do you want to help us look for a flat?” I asked finally.
Faren shook her head as she stared down at the carpet. Two tears slipped silently down her face.
“Sweetie, what’s wrong?” I scooted closer to her and stroked the back of her head. Her hair was a wild tangle of light brown, tumbling down to her shoulders.
“I don’t feel right,” she said softly.
“Are you sick?”
“I don’t know,” she said miserably. “Nothing feels right. I don’t know what to do.”
“Don’t you like school?”
“I thought I would. They’ve been letting me take advanced classes in wildlife and conservation biology. But what we’re learning feels wrong somehow. It’s not the right way to help animals; it’s not like ashani.”
Ashani. After searching through what little remained of my Enjuen vocabulary, I came up with “companion/healing.” I’d been quite fluent in Enjuen, of course. It was the primary language of most of the villages on Radu’s northeastern continent, and I was only eight when we arrived. But true fluency was one more thing I’d lost when we left twelve years later.
Faren, on the other hand, had been born on Radu IV. Not only had she mastered Enjuen and two of its dialect variations, she’d also gotten started on Estuen, which was only spoken on the island chains in the northwestern hemisphere. Our parents had never even gone to the islands, but a visiting Raduan scholar had taught Faren to speak it, and she had soaked it up like a sponge. For a while I thought Faren might eventually specialize in the study of Raduan languages, but she didn’t seem to have the mental discipline for it, especially when nobody else was interested in the Raduans anymore. Almost all of the researchers had come home to spend the next several years analyzing their hoards of data and traveling in prestigious circles, celebrated as the first humans to return from long-term field studies of alien cultures. From what I’d heard, only a handful of humans had remained on Radu IV.
“Can you still speak Enjuen?” I asked Faren.
“Yes. No. Not really,” said Faren. “Some things I still think in Enjuen, like hanim la and hanima lae.” I couldn’t help but smile; “what is it” and “why is it,” the questions Faren had asked constantly as a child until I was ready to strangle her. “I still dream in Enjuen sometimes. But even in my dreams I can’t remember all the words.” She looked miserable. I rubbed her back lightly, noticing how her shoulder blades protruded through her thin shirt.
“Look, sweetie, I think you should see a doctor just in case. You might have a chemical imbalance, or even just a vitamin deficiency making you feel this way. Adam can set it up. You should have a complete physical and maybe talk to someone too, if you’re this depressed. I’ll go with you.” I knew my parents couldn’t be counted on for that.
Faren finally relaxed a little, leaning in to me, and I rested my head against hers. I had missed her, and I mentally vowed to stop neglecting her. She hadn’t asked to be born on Radu and then torn away with almost no notice, left to find her own way of fitting in on Earth.
Three months later, Faren had seen four different doctors. Once physical ailments had been ruled out, a psychologist had diagnosed clinical depression and had sent her to a psychiatrist, who saw her twice a week and put her on antidepressants.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that that wasn’t the whole story, in part because the medication didn’t seem to be helping. Oh, Faren agreed halfheartedly to everything the doctors and I suggested. I had even bullied her into staying at our place for a while so she wouldn’t be alone so much. But because she had been so headstrong as a child, her docility scared me. Fortunately, I’d been able to convince the school administrators that we were taking steps to improve Faren’s performance, so they’d given us a grace period.
One Tuesday morning I went over to my parents’ house while Faren was in school, to pick up more clothes for her. On the way, I wondered how Adam would react if I suggested bringing Faren to Sydney with us when we moved. He’d been supportive so far, but it would be asking a lot of him to take her in permanently. We both wanted children someday, but that was years away.
And it would mean Faren changing schools again. It was a no-win situation: leave her in Melbourne at the mercy of my parents’ inattention, or disrupt her life so I could keep an eye on her, which would be even more difficult as I’d be starting the next phase of my career.
It was while I was rummaging around in Faren’s dresser looking for some clean t-shirts that I found a battered manila envelope. From inside, I pulled out a stiff sheet of paper with a crayon drawing that I assumed Faren had made soon after we’d gotten back to Earth. At first glance, it looked like something any young child would draw: a sky made out of a scribbled ribbon across the top of the page, some trees, and a wobbly-looking house with a group of figures beside it.
But as always, there were differences that set Faren apart from other children her age. The sky was not the clear blue of Earth but rather a greenish-blue, while the house was colored with the cool mud tones that dominated every Raduan village I had ever seen, rather than the bright shingles and painted shutters that would have signaled an Australian suburb. And the people—there was Faren as a little girl, standing to the right of what most people might see as a pair of odd kangaroos, but who I recognized as Anyuen in his customary apron, and a small Raduan I presumed to be one of his many nieces or nephews. All three had broad smiles, which was amusing because Raduans don’t smile with their mouths the way humans do. Oh, we could tell when they were happy—it was all in the ears. But in this drawing, Faren had amalgamated both human and Raduan qualities into all three people.
Then I noticed the slanted, childish printing underneath each figure, generously sized at first but becoming more cramped as Faren had run out of room. Anyuen first, of course, his name depicted in both English letters and the more elaborate Enjuen characters. Then Faren, then me.
I caught my breath. The human girl in the picture was me, not Faren. She had drawn herself as the small Raduan in the middle.
It was only a drawing, and a child’s drawing at that. It didn’t have to mean anything. But there it was, the answer that was so simple yet had eluded Faren’s entire family as well as a parade of doctors and educators over the years.
Faren didn’t fit in here because in her own mind she wasn’t human and never would be. She was Raduan. And suddenly I knew that she was not depressed in the traditional sense. She was homesick, or neeranji—which for Raduans could be a very serious condition indeed.
Ten days later, I sat Faren down to talk to her. “Faren, if it were possible, would you like me to take you back to Radu IV?”
She stared at me. “To stay?”
“But how ... I mean, doesn’t the passage cost a fortune? Is it even possible? I thought humans stopped sending regular ships there years ago. There’s not enough profit in it.”
“It’s kind of roundabout, but there are ways, like cargo ships—slow cargo ships, I mean, not the regular transports they had back when we were there. Nine or ten months at least.” And the same length of time for me to come back to Earth, but I didn’t mention that.
“And Mum and Dad ...?” she asked.
I paused, trying to find the right words. “They’re not too keen on the idea, Faren. I talked to them, and they don’t think you should go. It’s not like it was before—almost all of the researchers on the entire planet are gone now, because hardly anyone’s studying the Raduans these days. You’d be completely isolated.”
“Ronnie!” she said. “On Radu? When has anyone ever been isolated on Radu?” She actually giggled.
I laughed too. “OK, maybe not isolated.” There had been times when I thought the lack of privacy on Radu would drive me crazy. “But there won’t be any humans, Faren. No human food, no human doctors if you get sick. You would only have the Raduans.”
She didn’t look overly concerned about that, but then her eyes clouded. “But you’re saying Mum and Dad won’t let me go?”
“Yes, technically that’s what I’m saying.” I took a deep breath. “I’ll take you anyway, Faren, if you really want me to. If you’re sure it’s what you want.”
“Oh my God, yes, Ronnie!”
She listened with rapt attention as I outlined my plan, glossing over some of the possible entanglements. I tried to focus on her enthusiasm, and ignore my apprehension about what Adam would say. It had been one thing when I’d postponed our flat hunting a few times; it was another to ditch my new job and spend all our savings and almost two years of my life on a crazy scheme based on a hunch. But the research I’d done since discovering Faren’s drawing had shown that my window of opportunity was small, and closing fast.
The worst part was, even if Adam agreed that Faren truly needed to go, that didn’t mean he’d necessarily be willing to wait two years for me to come back and begin the rest of our lives together. I felt sick just thinking about it, but it was a chance I would have to take.
“Back to Radu ...” Faren said, with a faraway expression. It was as if she was already there. But then, I reminded myself, maybe she had never really left.
"Adam, I have to take her back,” I said.
Adam looked up from his pad, startled. “Back?” he said. “Oh. Oh. You mean, send Faren back to Radu?” He was always quick to understand me. “Do they still run transports there? It must take ages. You think she’d be okay by herself for that long? Or do you think your parents—”
“Not send her,” I said. “Take her. I have to do it myself.” He looked at me like I was crazy. “I’ve already asked my parents and they said no. They think Faren’s problems are all in her head, and you know they’re not willing to disrupt their work for anything.”
“But you are,” he said. A statement, not a question.
“I have to, Adam,” I said, trying to downplay the pleading note in my voice. “She’s my sister, and this is the only thing that’s going to help her.”
He set down his pad and rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s not overreact. We have plenty of time to figure this out. If your parents said no, then Faren can’t leave until she’s eighteen—almost three years from now. Maybe they’ll change their minds between now and then, and even if they don’t, we could probably contribute some money towards her passage. Or maybe something else will come up and Faren will be fine right here.”
I sat down on the chair across from him. “Adam, I don’t think you—” I stopped and took a deep breath. “Here’s the thing; I’ve checked into the transport situation and it’s not good. The ERTC has been phasing out their Radu operations for the last few years because they’re completely shutting down the research station. Most of the researchers have already left. There are only two more runs scheduled to Radu, one next month, and another in six months.” I hoped against hope that he wouldn’t hear the lie in my voice. “Trade ships—they’re not technically even set up for passenger transport, but—”
“They’ll start them up again,” Adam said.
“There’s no guarantee of that,” I said. “And even if they do, it could be decades from now. Way too late for Faren.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I want to take her on the second transport.”
“Your parents said you could?” he asked.
I didn’t answer.
“Jesus, Bronwyn, you can’t be serious! Your parents specifically said no, didn’t they?” Adam demanded.
“Then that’s kidnapping,” he said flatly. “If you take her without your parents’ permission, at her age that’s kidnapping. Your career will be over, Bronwyn. You could go to jail!”
“But I have to.” I got up and paced along the far side of the coffee table. “Faren was born on Radu IV. I was eight years old when we got there, so I’d already spent a few years in school here on Earth. Plus a couple of the other researchers on Radu had kids that were pretty close to my age and I got to know them. But Faren was so much younger than us, and my parents kept a Raduan nanny for her. She hardly ever interacted with human children.”
“But what makes you think taking her back there would make everything okay? Who would she live with? How would she support herself? If the ERTC really is abandoning the place, all the humans will leave—she’ll never be able to get married or have children.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ve thought of all this, Adam, I really have. I can’t explain it, but I know it’s what she needs. I think she’s homesick, and not just emotionally. Literally homesick. You can read about it in the literature—many Raduans suffer physically if kept away from their homes for too long.”
By this time Adam was pacing as well, which was difficult for two people to do in a living room as small as ours.
“But Bron,” he started. “Wait, weren’t there other kids born on Radu? Are they having the same kinds of problems that Faren has?”
“No,” I said reluctantly. “I got a couple of names from my parents. There were at least three other kids born there. I called around and found out that two of them had almost no problems acclimatizing to Earth. The third one struggled a bit but his father thinks he’s doing fine now.”
“You see?” Adam said. “You’re an academic, not a practicing psychologist, Bron. You’re just guessing that all of her problems stem from leaving Radu.”
“But she’s not like those other kids, Adam. She never was,” I said, sitting back down. “I haven’t really thought about Radu that much for a long time—it’s like it happened to another person. But the time I’ve been spending with Faren lately has brought a lot of things back to me. She always belonged to that place in a way that I didn’t.” I didn’t add how much I’d envied Faren that before we came home. Instead, I tried a different tack. “Let me tell you about this one time when she was five, during the longseason migration.”
Adam looked blank.
“There’s a herd species on Radu IV,” I explained. “Something like a cross between buffaloes and horses, called danran. They’ve never been domesticated, and the Raduans don’t even hunt them—they’re vegetarians.” I recalled with a shudder the first time, back on Earth, that we’d had to explain the word “meat” to Faren. One of the conditions for allowing humans to set up research stations was that everyone had to agree to a strict vegetarian diet while on Radu. As far as I knew, Faren still hadn’t eaten meat to this day.
“Anyway, twice a year the danran migrated through the grasslands not far from our settlement. We were all taught to stay away from the fields during the migration period, because the herds could appear quickly and they pretty much trampled everything in their path.
“So Anyuen asked me to watch Faren for a few minutes, but she wandered off when I looked away for just a second—she was always doing that. She’d been babbling about the grasses and the fields all morning, and I thought it was just her usual baby talk. But when I couldn’t find her, I realized she must’ve gone to the fields, so I just ran. I got there and saw her standing in the middle of the tympani grass.” I could still picture it; it was amber brown tipped with shades of gold and copper, and almost as tall as Faren. “I heard a rumble, and before I could even call to her, a herd came up and—” I shook my head. “I was so scared, Adam, and I think I screamed, but she just stood there laughing her little baby laugh like the danran were putting on a show just for her. They went around her, every last one of them. It was like they sensed her somehow, like she was a natural part of their world.”
“You can’t know that, Bronwyn,” Adam said gently. “It sounds to me like she just got incredibly lucky.”
“I know that’s what it sounds like,” I said. “But still.”
He was quiet for a moment, then said, “We’ll have to think about it. Maybe I can talk to your parents.”
“Okay,” I said, once again hoping he would take me at my word. “Let’s think about it for a few weeks, at least. It would have to be the second transport anyway, the one six months from now. There’s no way to make arrangements in time for the first one.”
I stood up and went to get ready for work. I felt incredibly depressed. I’d known better, but somehow I’d still hoped Adam would jump right on board with my way of thinking. If he had, I would have told him that there really was no second transport; I had to get Faren and myself on the one and only remaining cargo ship, in just under a month. Now, knowing how Adam felt, I couldn’t take any chances. He might tell someone—out of love, of course; he would think he was keeping me from making an irrevocable mistake. But that meant I had to get Faren far away, without telling him or anyone else, so that it would be too late for anyone to stop us once they found out.
The trip to Radu IV aboard the Daniela Christine took nine months and four days, in the most cramped, miserable space I’d ever had the misfortune to occupy. Considering how many laws I’d broken, though, it probably wouldn’t be the worst. I was officially a kidnapper and a thief, having earned the latter designation by cleaning out Adam’s and my joint savings account. I’d also taken some grant travel money that had been sitting in escrow for me until I started my new job.
The worst thing was that it might all be for nothing. What if Faren and I were arrested the moment the ship landed? Surely there wouldn’t be much in the way of customs in the Raduan ports anymore; the ERTC was officially ending the human presence there. But could I count on that? The biggest risk would be on the “dinghies” that took the freight to and from the actual ship because the cargo and occasional passengers were checked closely against the manifests. We hadn’t hit any snags leaving the Solar System, but now I had nine long months to brood about what might happen on the far end of the journey.
The long leg of the trip involved less risk but very little comfort. The cabin that Faren and I shared was clearly a former supply closet; it even had a dinged-up “Biohazard” sign still painted on the sliding door. The room couldn’t have measured more than three by four meters. Two metal bunks were bolted to the wall, and there were no chairs. There wasn’t even a drawer in which to store our few belongings. I sighed when I saw it.
“Top or bottom, Faren?” I said.
“Huh? Oh, bottom, I guess,” she said.
With my backpack, I climbed up the foot of the bunks to the top and sat with my legs dangling over the edge. As long as I ducked my head a little, there was just enough room for me to sit upright. I pulled my pack up after me, unzipped it, and took out a small frame with a still shot of Adam and me standing in front of Uluru. It wasn’t the most flattering picture—my hair was windblown and my nose had turned red from the sun—but we looked happy. I stuck the magnetic frame to the wall, near where my head would be when I was sleeping.
And I slept a lot, as a way to avoid thinking about what lay ahead. But even I couldn’t doze forever, so I spent my waking hours writing up preliminary notes for future research projects—projects I would never be able to pursue if academia was no longer an option. Sometimes I was able to get Net access, although it was technically only a snapshot of the system as it existed during the ship’s last comm update. It was weeks and sometimes months behind the live Net, but better than nothing.
For the most part, I read up on human children born on other planets. Apart from physical issues, which existed if the planet’s gravity differed too much from Earth’s, for instance, I wanted to look at the mental and emotional lives of human children born off-planet, as much as I was able to from public records. Later I would need private information to make any real progress—school performance, psych evaluations, and so on—but that would have to come when I was back in a human-populated system. Whether or not that would be Earth, I wasn’t sure.
For me, the burning question was just when “it” happened, the elusive point at which the child truly became psychologically native to another world. Did it happen on multiple worlds, or was there something special about Radu IV? Had it ever happened to another child, or was Faren’s uniquely sensitive nature responsible for her “condition,” for lack of a better word? There would be very little hard data to start, since humans born outside the Solar System were still quite rare.
Conversely, even though Faren had been born on Radu IV, would she have been able to adjust to Earth if we’d left Radu when she was still a baby? Or did the fact that she was actually conceived and born there have some effect at the cellular level, or on her brain’s synaptic pathways as they developed? Just recently, the doctors in Melbourne had taken cell samples from Faren when they evaluated her, and I might be able to track down her earlier data, so maybe I would have something concrete to work with.
In the meantime, Faren brushed up on the various Enjuen dialects, along with Estuen and even Entarian, a Raduan language she had never spoken or studied before. That one was complete Greek to me, but Faren seemed to pick it up quickly. “It just makes sense, Ronnie,” she insisted. “It’s not that different from Enjuen when you really look at it. There are patterns here ... and here and here, don’t you see?”
I just smiled, happy to see her interested in something again. This person was starting to resemble the Faren I remembered, my lively little sister who could charm everyone around her without even trying.
Two days before we were to rendezvous with the dinghy that would land on Radu, Captain Maarten, a middle-aged woman with a serious expression and kind brown eyes, went over the plan with me. We would be hiding in one of hundreds of storage crates until the port inspectors cleared everything through customs. The room we’d been sleeping in for the past several months would be sanitized to rid it of human traces like hair and skin cells, and repopulated with spare parts and junk. A supply closet once again.
“And you’re sure this will work?” I asked.
“Done it eight times before, although not to Radu,” the captain shrugged.
“You’ve smuggled that many people? Were they ... criminals?”
“Maybe some of them,” she said. “Technically you will be too, when you get into that storage crate.” She caught my expression, as I remembered yet again that I already was a criminal, from the moment I’d taken Faren and the money. “People have all kinds of reasons for doing what they do, Miss. Don’t assume those reasons are all bad.”
“You’re right,” I said, embarrassed.
“No worries,” she said. “We’ll see you into the settlement safe and sound. But remember, you have to be at the port three days later at local noon so we can get you back on board.”
“We’ll ... I’ll be there,” I promised. Then I went to find Faren to relay the plan, glossing over the part about me coming back without her.
The hours we spent in that storage crate had to be the longest of my life. The sides were thin enough to allow muffled sounds to get through, but not enough to tell what the sounds meant. Faren and I sat facing each other, each with our back against one wall, our knees pulled up and our feet just touching the opposite side. It was almost pitch black, because the few holes were taken up by the portable O2 exchangers the captain had installed.
A loud rumbling noise came closer, and the crate suddenly lurched. Faren and I both gasped, but then my hand found hers in the dark and I whispered “forklift” just loud enough for her to hear over the noise. We were set down somewhere to cool our heels a bit longer, and then moved again.
Finally, I heard someone using a power drill to unscrew the bolts at each corner of the lid. Whether it would be the captain, one of her crew, or someone from the Port Authority, I didn’t know. How far would my parents have pursued us, if at all? They’d barely paid Faren any attention on Earth, so I found it hard to believe they would care enough to try and get her back. But they might care about my disobedience, or about a scandal damaging their professional reputations.
“Cover your eyes,” I warned Faren just before the lid was cracked and light came pouring in. Squinting, I saw silhouettes of two men but couldn’t yet see who they were.
“Welcome to Radu, Miss,” one of them said. I recognized his voice; he was the captain’s first mate. My shoulders sagged with relief.
Seeing Anyuen after so many years was like becoming a child again, but also a beloved equal. He embraced me, then turned to Faren, who watched him with shining eyes.
“Faeeeerrrin?” he trilled in disbelief, an upward note that was just as musical as I’d remembered.
“Anyuen!” she cried, throwing her arms around his neck. “I’m back. Ranjian!” The Enjuen word for home.
“Ranjian,” he trilled softly in return, looking down at her.
A flurry of sound and movement came from behind him, and two little Raduans peeped around the edges of the open doorway. They had to be Anyuen’s children—Raduans mated quite late in life, so they would be about the right age. They were clearly curious, but held back. They must have seen images of the humans who had visited and studied their village years before they were born, but they didn’t seem entirely ready to encounter the real thing.
Faren dropped to her knees to bring herself to their level and began babbling at them, too fast for me to follow. Nudging each other, the little ones approached her, the male beginning to chatter back.
I looked at Anyuen over their heads. “You’ll take care of her?” I asked softly.
“Yes. And this one thinks she will take care of them,” he said, nodding down at the little ones. His eyes met mine. “You are not staying, Brrronwyn,” he said, a statement rather than a question.
“No,” I said. “I had to bring her, but I can’t stay. I have to—” I stopped, unable to say that I had to go home, when I wasn’t actually sure where I’d be going.
Anyuen inclined his head in acknowledgment, and held up both hands. I pressed my palms against them as he continued to study my face. “You grieve, Brrronwyn,” he said quietly. “But you rejoice to see her here.”
“Yes,” I said. He always understood.
“Come,” he said, in a normal tone. “It is soon time for janreilan”—the meal between first and second sunsets—“and I want you to meet the rest of my family.”
Later, while Faren explored and renewed acquaintances, I spoke with Anyuen alone. I apologized for not writing to tell him we were coming, but I’d been afraid my letter might be intercepted. I’d known Anyuen wouldn’t turn us away because we were family. But I was also asking him to find a way to hide Faren until the dinghy had left again. If the authorities were looking for us, the village wouldn’t be safe.
Anyuen raised his ears with astonishment upon learning that I’d broken several laws to bring Faren here.
“But did she not want to come, Brrronwyn?”
“Yes, she did, desperately, but she’s only sixteen years old and she’s not yet allowed to make those kinds of decisions for herself,” I explained.
“You decided for her?”
“Yes,” I said. “I mean, I asked what she wanted, so I made the decision with her, not for her, but that’s not legal either. My parents are the only ones who can legally make decisions about Faren’s welfare. Generally only the direct parents may act as guardians, as”—I searched for the word—“sanji.”
“That is very odd,” he said thoughtfully. I smiled, remembering how he always said that whenever a human action perplexed him, which was often.
“Anyuen, the ship leaves again in two days,” I started.
“So soon?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “Anyuen, I would like you to become Faren’s sanji. I believe she must stay here. This is her home. She won’t be well or happy anywhere else.”
“She will stay here always?”
“Yes, if you’ll agree. This is the last human ship that will visit Radu for many years. Faren may never have any way to leave again.”
Anyuen put a rondin leaf in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “This one does not think she will want to leave.”
“This one agrees,” I said.
I reminded Faren the night before I left for the port that there wouldn’t be any more transports away from Radu for the foreseeable future. She registered the information with little interest.
“Faren, you’re absolutely sure?” I asked one last time.
“Yes,” she said. “I love it here, Ronnie.” She was quiet for a moment. “I’ll miss you, though.”
“You’ve known all along I wouldn’t be staying, haven’t you?”
“Of course,” she said. “This isn’t your ranjian.”
I felt sad but I couldn’t contradict her. I would never quite belong to any place as much as Faren belonged here.
“Are you going back to marry Adam?” she asked.
It seemed highly unlikely Adam would even meet me for a cup of coffee after what I’d done, but why trouble Faren with that? “I hope so,” I said lightly.
“Good,” she said. “I like him.”
The journey back to Earth went by a different route with fewer stops, but took longer and seemed to last forever. I didn’t need to consult one of my psychology texts to know that I was mourning Faren. We would write—at least I would—but communication at such a distance was sporadic at best, especially with humans cutting off physical transport to Radu. And Earth would become less and less real to Faren as time went by. The concept of ranjian is very strong, and even though Raduans can be inquisitive as individuals, as a species they have surprisingly little curiosity about life elsewhere.
To pass the time, I began studying Enjuen again. I would never attain Faren’s facility with Raduan languages, but I was determined to recover what fluency I’d had. It would be a way to feel closer to her.
Months later, when we were only a week away from the Solar System, Captain Maarten came to me, just as she’d done on the voyage out. “The broker left this last part of the deal open-ended,” she said without preliminaries. “Are you going back to Earth, or are you looking for passage elsewhere?”
That was the question.
“I ... can I wait until we get the mail to decide?” I asked.
She didn’t look surprised. “Sure,” she said. “We’ll hit Mail Call in a couple of days. Chances are they've probably guessed where you went so you may get messages. Then it’s another few days to the transfer point, where we’ll have twelve hours before continuing to Earth orbit. I’ll need to know your plans at least twenty-four hours before we hit Transfer so I can make any necessary arrangements.”
“And if I decide to go back to Earth,” I faltered, “and they press charges, will you—?”
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “They suspect me of helping a few people get out of the system, but nobody has proof so my record is clean. If you decide to go back to Earth, I’ll just say that I found you at our last stop and took pity on you. You can tell them you hitched out on a series of small freighters, you don’t know the names of the ships or the captains, and then you realized your mistake so you begged me to bring you back. They won’t trouble me over helping a stranded citizen get back to Earth.”
I found it difficult to speak. “Captain, I can’t thank you enough.”
She smiled and shrugged. “No worries. But think hard before you decide to go back. I’m not worried for myself, but they may not take kindly to the way you flaunted their authority. Faren was underage, wasn’t she? Yes, I know her papers put her at eighteen,” she said, holding up her hand, “but I know fake documents when I see them. And I think some lawyers would salivate at the thought of prosecuting the first interstellar kidnapping case.”
“Do you think they’ll go after Faren?” I asked, alarmed.
“It’s unlikely. There aren’t any more ships scheduled to make that run, so she would likely be of age by the time they got to her anyway. And if she wants to stay there, having her testify would hurt their case against you. Besides, I suspect the Raduans won’t let her be found if she doesn’t want to be.”
“Thank goodness,” I said, relaxing slightly.
“I have to get back to the bridge,” the Captain said, getting up. “But Bronwyn, I mean it. Think long and hard. Do you have something to go back to that’s worth the risk?”
And that was the other question.
A few days later, I went to the assembly room a full hour before Mail Call, the relay point where the ship would receive its first e-comm packet since leaving human-controlled space. It was silly to gather like that, because mail would be routed to everyone’s personal devices as soon as the ship received the packet, but it was a ship tradition, and the small room was crowded with crew members. It occurred to me that I probably should have stayed in my cabin, considering the kind of news I was likely to receive.
In the end, I only had a few messages. The first was a months-old letter from the university, terminating my employment and informing me that their attorneys were discussing whether to press charges in relation to the grant money. Seeing the word “embezzlement” made me blanch, but I couldn’t deny that it was what I’d done.
The second message was from my mother, chastising me for the professional embarrassment I’d caused her and my father. Very little mention of Faren herself, I noticed.
And the third was a not unexpected notice of a warrant for my arrest.
There was nothing from Adam.
I had thought my decision whether to return to Earth would hang on that particular Schrödinger’s Box: mail from Adam or no mail from Adam. I guess I’d figured that if he sent even a slight hint that he was willing to talk, that would be reason enough for me to go home and face the music. And if he hadn’t written, or had written just to tell me to go to hell, well, then I’d ask Captain Maarten to take me somewhere I could start over. I’d probably never be an academic again, but at least I’d have my freedom; space travel is too cumbersome to extradite someone for anything short of first-degree murder or high treason.
So when I opened my mailbox and saw nothing from Adam, I fully expected to walk straight to the Captain’s office and ask her to take me somewhere, anywhere, other than Earth.
But I was wrong. It seemed I couldn’t handle permanent exile from my home planet any more than Faren could from hers.
Forty-eight hours later, I braced myself to walk through the shuttle’s airlock at the port in Sydney, where I knew that something like chaos awaited me. Once I’d made my decision, I’d notified the authorities that I was returning and would surrender myself. I’d also told my parents, and had gotten a gruff response that let me know, between the lines, that they were not entirely unhappy to have at least one of their daughters back.
I’d also sent word to Adam that I was turning myself in, but I hadn’t gotten a response.
I stepped through the airlock into the customs area, where screen displays and recorded announcements directed arriving passengers to the right stations. Two customs officers approached me.
“Miss Wilson?” one of them asked. I nodded. “This way,” he said, indicating a set of imposing doors off to the left.
Above my head, movement caught my eye, and I looked up at the observation lounge. Far too many people waited behind the glass windows, considering the small handful of arriving passengers. Tiny hover cams began jockeying for position, and although I couldn’t hear the waiting crowd through the glass, some of them pointed at me and began speaking into their wrist phones. Oh God, reporters.
I scanned the crowd, certain that my parents wouldn’t be there. They hated any kind of negative attention.
And then I stopped, stunned. Standing slightly off to one side was Adam, looking down at me with an unreadable expression. I couldn’t help it; I felt myself smiling up at him hopefully.
Adam half-smiled in return, with one side of his mouth. He tapped his watch and pointed to the floor at his feet. I understood. He would be waiting for me up there when I got through, even if I was in handcuffs.
I felt my smile grow bigger, and followed the officers through the door.
- End -
This story originally appeared in Perihelion.