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Foreign Exchange

Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Marisa always arranged for a foreign exchange student to stay with us over the holidays. She felt sorry for them, so far from home and family; she was one of a number of people in Downport who contacted the Foreign Students Union at the university and volunteered to host someone who couldn’t afford the time or money to head home over the winter break. I’d liked about half the people she’d found. Last year’s student had been repulsive, young, female, and weepy, a drag on us all. I’d ask Marisa to specify someone different this year.

I’d put in a full day tending my special projects at the greenhouses over on Lombard, and I was ready for a shower when I climbed out of my commutepod half an hour before dinnertime. (Pity the next person who had to ride the pod, if it didn’t get cleaned on its way to next pickup. Some of my fertilizers were fragrant.) Marisa met me at the lock, hair wild the way it got when she’d tugged on it in frustration, her dark eyes half-lidded, and said, “Neil, the new student’s here.”

“Bugs. Give me half an hour.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

So much for a leisurely lounge about in hot water, one thing in my day I anticipated with pleasure, but oh well. When I climbed out ten minutes later, Marisa was waiting in our sleep room, fidgeting, using the remote to shift the scene on the wallwork every two seconds. Nerve-wracking.

“What is it?” I pulled on a body suit, wondered if it would be enough. When we dined with just the family, I could get away with shorts, but now that we had company—”How could it be any worse than Weeping Wilda last year?”

“It’s one of the new aliens,” she said.

“Bugs.” Where had she left it? In the company room, where it could access the household functions and our accounts? In the kitchen, where it could mess with our food? In the guest room, where it was theoretically welcome? And where had she left Amy, our ten-year-old daughter? Alone with a stranger? “Why?”

“I thought he’d be different,” she said. “He is.”

“Different in a bad way,” I said, not a question, really, considering how she was dealing with it. She started crying.

Between sobs, she said, “Amy’s at Darien’s house for the night.”

“Good.” One less thing to worry about. “Guess I better meet the guest.”

Marisa took a deep breath, went to the sink and washed her face, then returned, tucked her hand in mine, and led me to the company room.

For a new type of alien, he looked not so very different from us. Bilateral symmetry, a head at top, if appearances didn’t deceive me, and four limbs, though all their terminal buds rested on the floor. Was he quadrupedal, then? What did he use to manipulate things? Every sentient race we knew of had some way to touch and shape its environment.

“Jiwa Kinsa, this is my husband, Neil,” Marisa said.

“You spoke,” said the alien. His voice was a pleasant baritone, his inflections a perfect mimicry of announcer’s Standard. “You are female. You must not speak until I choose to acknowledge your presence. I am hungry. You may bring me French fries now.”

Marisa fled.

“I don’t know what hospitality is like on your planet—” I began.

“Allow me to enlighten you. The guest is treated as a god. The hosts defer. Do not speak until I acknowledge you.”

“That’s not going to work for me,” I said.

“You wish to offend those from my world.”

“No. Well, maybe.”

“You wish to cause interplanetary friction and bring the wrath of our war council down on your planet. We have biointerruptors that cause instantaneous cell death of all living systems. You wish us to deploy these here?”

“Nope, that’s not what I wish.”

“Then you will choose silence until I give you leave to speak.”

I fled my own self, went back to the sleep room, shut the door and palmlocked it, pulled down my interface, and hotlined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I got a live human on the other end and said, “One of the new aliens is a guest in my home—”

“I’m sorry,” said the woman. She wore her red-and-white-striped hair in an upswept flame shape, popular last year.

“He’s threatening to annihilate our planet if I speak to him without permission, and he ordered my wife to serve him food. Is there anything to his threats, or can I kick him out of the house?”

She paled. “We don’t know much about their capabilities. When they first got here, they demonstrated their ferocity by vaporizing an uninhabited Aleutian island in the Bering Sea, so we know they have the power. What is he doing at your house?”

“My wife and I host foreign exchange students every year around the holidays.”

“Oh, Ixis. You got the baby. He’s worse than all the others.”

“What are we supposed to do? Let him order us around?”

She smiled a ghastly parody of a smile.

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“For the good of your planet, and perhaps for your own survival.… I’m sorry,” she said again, and hung up on me.

Marisa slipped into the sleep room. “Neil?” she whispered. “I downloaded some fries. A lot of them. And left him to gorge. Did you figure out what to do?”

I looked at her. She read my face.

“How long is winter break?” I asked.

“Two weeks,” she whispered.


Aside from constantly ordering us around, demanding food and our silence, and taking offense at new things when we stopped doing all the old offensive things, Jiwa Kinsa shed scaly flakes of skin anywhere he sat. The Jiwa had a strange scent that didn’t bother us at first, but the longer we spent in the apartment with him, the worse he smelled. He didn’t need more than three hours of sleep in any twenty-four hour period. Any time he was awake, of course, he wanted us to be at his service. This didn’t go over well with either of our bosses at work. I called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and asked them to make our excuses, and, bless the red-and-white-striped-haired woman, they did. Because we were doing Earth’s government a service, we were granted two weeks’ unpaid leave to tend to our guest, and the assurance that our jobs would still be there when our guest was gone.

In the few moments Marisa and I shared the bed with each other, she whispered that she didn’t believe such assurances. Her job as a telephone face for a downtown company was always at risk; she had a perfect attendance record—that was the only reason she never lost it. Hundreds of people were waiting for her job if she failed in any way.

My job had more security. Few were as interested as I was in my medical experiments in the Lombard greenhouses, but while I was taking care of our guest, my experiments were running without data collection. The data would be suspect if I let the situation continue.

Amy came home the second day the Jiwa was at our apartment. He ordered her to strip for him so he could study human anatomy on a less-than-fully-formed human, and I risked death and a verbal flaying by whisking her back out of the apartment before she even thought about obeying.

I left Marisa alone with the Jiwa while I lined up alternate housing for Amy for the rest of break and bought an industrial-strength mini-vacuum cleaner and some nose filters for me and Marisa.

Then I stopped by the greenhouses to check on my work. I had no one trained to take my place while I was gone. I was working on developing plant-produced inhalant forms of medication. I hated losing my time and effort to anything other than my work. I ran what checks I could on the plants, and collected samples of the latest product, which looked promising.

I had been too long away. I went home, and found the Jiwa staring at a soap opera on the 3V, Marisa kneeling before him, her face to the floor, as he used her to rest of all four his arms’ terminal buds.

It was unbearable. But he would not even let me speak of my willingness to take her place. He sent me to the foodgiver to get him alcohol and snack food.

He never left the apartment. He established his presence in the company room, where all our entertainment channels were centered, right near the foodgiver so that we had to go past him every time we wanted to eat, and then wait for permission before addressing the foodgiver on our own behalf, permission which he often withheld. During one of his brief sleep periods, I arranged with the ministry to install a second foodgiver in our sleep room—otherwise we would have starved.

The presence of our guest would have been even more unbearable if we hadn’t had a mission of our own: to record everything we learned about him. What he liked to eat, what he liked to watch, the exact things he said to us as closely as we could recall, what irritated him, what pleased him, even what he smelled like. If one of us were in the company room with the Jiwa, the other might be in the sleep room typing up observations on the interface and sending them direct to the ministry. As we stored information to transmit, we comforted ourselves that our humiliation served a higher purpose.

Marisa and I worked out a schedule where I could go to the greenhouses once a day under the pretense of shopping and check my plants’ progress. I also managed to spend half an hour a day with my daughter. Unfortunately, this schedule involved my wife being used as a footstool. I spent some footstool time of my own so Marisa could slip out and visit Amy every day too. As a consequence, I became familiar with two of the afternoon 3D dramas. Once the Jiwa became accustomed to the fact that 3D drama women went around with their eyes in plain sight, and everybody spoke without waiting for permission from whoever was senior in the room, he was totally sucked into the stories, with their daily cliffhangers, and so was I. I reported that night that humans did have a point of convergence with the new aliens. Neither the Jiwa nor I liked to have our soaps interrupted for any reason.

Marisa was most miserable on the actual winter holiday, thinking of how we had celebrated it in all the years before now, first with each other, and then centered around Amy. Each of our previous guests had told us about their own winter holidays, and that had added to our joy.

This year I didn’t even realize the holiday had come, but Marisa knew. She cried while she got the morning’s installment of fries from the foodgiver.

At least our daughter was staying with a friend who celebrated properly. She would be sharing drizzleberry pancakes with her best friend’s family, and they would have the presentfall in the corner, presents hovering in an antigravity well that had been there for three days, so everyone could look and speculate. This morning after breakfast the presents would be jumping into the arms of those they were meant for. Marisa and I had taken presents over to the house earlier in the week during our brief breaks. We had not been able to spend as long on wrapping as we usually did, having to sneak the sessions in while the Jiwa was on bathroom breaks.

On Winter Day, we had our morning coffee while the Jiwa was eating, and we shared holiday whispers. We ducked into the hallway for a moment and kissed each other where the Jiwa could not see and complain.

“Neil-jolla!” he cried.

I went back into the company room. “What is it, Jiwa Kinsa?”

“Where is the remote?”

The holiday went downhill after that, when the Jiwa discovered that most of the regular 3D programming had been preempted in favor of various kinds of holiday celebrations. His howls of outrage brought us a flurry of calls from neighboring apartments. We had to invest in pay-per-experience romance 3Ds to pacify him.

Finally I took out the experimental plant-produced inhalants I’d harvested that week, something I was developing for police departments to use to subdue rioters. I hadn’t tested it on anyone yet, and of course, the Jiwa was an alien, though our air was breathable for him. I was so tired of taking everything he gave us that I decided a little peace at home might be worth an intergalactic incident.

Marisa and I wore nose filters all the time because of the Jiwa’s odor. I replaced our filters with stronger ones and let the new inhalants loose in the company room while the Jiwa was laughing at Worlds Wide Wrestling. In two minutes, he was emitting the sound he made when asleep, a fretting, ripping noise like the back of one’s pants splitting and being sewn back together repeatedly.

At last Marisa and I could spend our holiday appreciating each other. We locked ourselves into our sleep room and downloaded special foods from our foodgiver, decorating each other’s naked bodies with the warm liquid foods and eating from each other’s hands. We had a blessed half hour to enjoy each other before the inhalants wore off and the Jiwa bellowed our names.


We got our lives back a week later, when the Jiwa moved back to his dorm on campus. It took us a further week to scrub his scent out of the walls and vacuum up all the scales he had shed. Some we found in our sleep room, and in Amy’s room, and Marisa and I had some moments of disquiet, wondering when he had gone to those two places we had thought safe from him, and what he had done there. Mostly, though, we were so relieved we didn’t care.

Marisa’s job was gone when she reported back, despite the ministry’s assurances. Another firm hired her to be a face, though; after she took leave, some of her regular customers had deserted her old firm, and registered feedback into the general databank.

My medical experiments continued. I added data from my experience with the Jiwa and got some government grants.

As Winter Day approached the following year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs contacted us. “We’d like to send you on a special mission,” said the woman with the red-and-white-striped hair, only she had changed it into a green-and-blue beehive checkerboard. “Our negotiations with the new aliens have advanced to the point that we have obtained permission from them to send someone to host at one of their houses on the new alien reservation over the holiday. Your reports were so good and complete last year that your names were on top of the list as candidates to go.”

“What,” I said, “we can go stay in one of their houses and order them to serve us as we served the Jiwa last year?”

“Our research leads us to conclude that the ruder you are in such a situation, the more power you establish, so yes. You could do your government a service if you could go and fart in their faces.” She permitted herself a small smile.

Marisa and I consulted each other with glances and small touches of hands. I nodded to her, and she turned to the interface. “Um,” she said, “Thank you, but no way in hell.”


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