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They usually avoided him.

If he sat on the bench, humans awaiting the bus would saunter off or stand stiffly nearby. Someone might rest a single buttock on the far end, at most.

This human sat squarely in the middle, however. The farther end, away from the Stooka, remained empty and available.

“Hello,” the Stooka said.

“Hello,” she returned, looking up and squinting against the sun.

Stivra’s surprise drained away. She was small, after all. The little ones, the young ones: they saw Stookas entering and leaving buildings, going about Stooka-on-Earth business, and heard the usual phrases being uttered: “Hands across the sky!” “Let’s talk trade and help us both!” They accepted Stookas as part of Things As Usual. Children possess such flexibility universally. They adapt to change most quickly.

The Stooka resumed avoiding distressing thoughts.

He was avoiding thinking about the millewettra of his long-time companion, Ghedwe, who remained behind on the Stooka home world, Tevverina.

Pictures appeared in Stivra’ mind of lovely Ghedwe as she used to be. On the outside she must still remain the same. On the inside she would have changed. No one knew how much. Not even her. In the Stooka nervous system, concentrated in several ganglial sites and extended by means of hollows through the entire skeleton, nerve cells realize a potential for migration at birthing time. In addition to genetic contributions from the male and female — in this case, from Stivra and the mother, Ghedwe — the mother contributes to the newborn certain nerve cells. Brain cells. Thinking matter. Sometimes a part of her personality goes into the newborn. Usually, a part of her memory.

There, he thought to himself. I’ve failed completely in not thinking about it.

The girl turned something in her mouth.

“I’ve got a loose tooth,” she said, noticing his gaze.

“A loose tooth?” Stivra said, astonished.

“It’s going to fall out.” She grinned proudly.

“That happens often?” He had never heard of humans losing skeletal parts. Unthinkable among Stooka. The bone ridges for chewing, like other parts of the skeleton, include nerve channels, and so hold a part of the extended grey matter of the Stooka.

“Often? Oh, I guess,” she said, kicking her legs. Her feet reached within a few inches of the pavement.

“Doesn’t it hurt?” Stivra said. He imagined a bone falling from his head. He shuddered.

“Nah,” she said. “My mom says it’s a part of growing up.”

“It sounds — ” Stivra searched his mind for the right word. “Grotesque,” he said.

“You mean gross? Nah,” she said. She grinned mischievously, then widened her smile. “What do you lose, when you grow up?” She wiggled her loose tooth at him.

The sight of it shocked Stivra. Still, he understood the tone of the question. The human sought a point of commonality. She made a gesture of friendship. Hands across the sky, as the Stooka leadership instructed him to say, in promoting good relations. Hands across the sky, in friendship.

“Well,” he said. “We grow steadily, not in spurts, as I guess you do.” He kept thinking. “We grow taller, our legs and arms get longer.”

“Yeah,” she said, with a note of boredom.

“We’re not so thin as before. Not so wispy.”

She nodded, and looked away.

He suppressed a mild panic at her reaction. She was losing interest. Having made this much conversation with a human, he hated to stop. “But we do lose something,” he said, feeling a twinge.

“Yeah? What?” The girl looked up with new animation. His mottled, greenish skin and bristly face obviously disturbed her no more than any of the fantastic apparitions parading their lives on television each morning.

“We lose something very hard to lose,” he said, not wanting to say the words.

“What? What?”

He hesitated. “Some of our brains.”

She stared. “Yeah? Wow,” she said.

Stivra recognized her look. Her eyes widened in a peculiar way. He once saw the look in the face of a young man in a suit who said, “I’m very interested, very very interested,” after Stivra told him about a sponge his company had developed which readily expanded four times in absorbing hydrocarbon liquids but repelled water. “Very interested,” the man said again, scribbling on a note pad, his zeal unflagging till he saw the manufacturing problems.

“In growing,” he said to the girl, “we match ourselves with another Stooka. When we reach maturing time, we bear children, usually one each. We may do it at the same time, or in a staggered fashion, so that first we have one child, and then the next.”

“You both have children?” she said. She said it as if she had heard about dual Stooka motherhood before, although she might not have believed it.

“We’re not so strictly male or female, when we’re young. More of one than the other. I’m male, in your terms. But yes. We both do.”

“Wow,” she said. “But what do you mean, you lose your brains?”

Stivra’ arms sagged a little where they rested on his legs. He had intended to avoid thinking about this.

“Part of our brains go into our newborns,” he said, trying not to sound pained. “Some of our brains — crawl — maybe a better word is slip — into the embryo. When the baby is born, it has some of the mother’s brains in it. It doesn’t happen that way, with you humans. You’ll have a baby, but you’ll keep all of your brains. Don’t you think you’re lucky?”

Yeah.” She sat absorbed in thought, staring blankly at the road.

Then something must have crossed her mind. She straightened and looked with singular directness at the Stooka. Her look had a nearly accusatory aspect.

“Have you grown up yet?” she said.

“No,” he said quietly. “But, soon.”

Her manner softened immediately. “Will it hurt?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Ah, come on. Didn’t your mom tell you?”

He laughed internally at the thought. All Stooka were mothers, yet none had a “mom.” Because of the odd psychological conflicts that arose when a child inherited a part of the parent’s mental equipment, Stooka never raised their own young; communal nurseries did. “No,” he said, not wanting to explain fully. “I was given — conflicting reports.” The words dissatisfied him. They felt like board-room and professional words, not words for a small human. He dealt so little with small ones.

“Oh,” she said, as if gleaning a taste of meaning.

Thinking of millewettra, he found himself suddenly mechkan — much like crying, in English. He hoped the girl would stay calm. Mechkan passed contagiously among Stookas. The liquid emerging from ducts below his eyes and above his sensory bristles looked like diluted blood, thin and red. It pooled and dripped toward the mouth. Sometimes a circle of Stooka might sit around in mechkan, offering each other consolation pats.

“Wow,” she said. “I didn’t mean to — I mean, I didn’t know it was so — serious.”

“It’s nothing,” he said.

He pulled his red, human-style bandanna from his pocket and dabbed at his tears.

“Wow,” the girl said again.

The bus rolled up. The arrival of distraction cheered Stivra. He greeted it with a wave. By now he accepted his inability to break the Stooka habit of waving to large vehicles. Humans apparently never did so.

He entered the bus, listened with satisfaction as the coins clunked through the coin-counter, and took the first window seat. He hoped the girl would sit next to him.

He made a human grin as she neared.

She, too, apparently wanted a window, though, and sat two seats away.

Stivra turned his face to the glass.

Two smells combined in an exotic and vaguely sickening mixture: the smoke of cigarettes, and beer’s pungent aroma. A whiff of ammonia-based cleaner provided a faint undercurrent. Pop music, drum-heavy and colored by electronic distortion, embraced him with its violent textures and incomprehensible vocal lines.

A few heads turned, followed by a few more, as Stivra found a seat. Other Stookas visited Golding’s Silver Dollar. Stivra had heard about it from one of the nurses, Ittasta, when he went in for a preliminary scan. A Stooka here might feel vaguely out of place, but not entirely. The heads that turned to look soon looked away.

Stivra requested a tap beer, and sipped it when it arrived. Beer resembled a nutritious drink of the Stookas, in a diluted fashion. It felt good drinking something redolent of home.

Someone noisily pulled out the stool next to him and sat down.

“Hi, buddy,” the man said, glancing at him with a smile before slapping a ten on the counter. He shouted his order to the bartender, and grinned when she brought it.

“God, I thought to myself, why not?” he said to Stivra without preamble. He carried considerable weight on his bones. His dress indicated an office job, though not a highly placed one. “I’ve always wanted to meet one of you guys, and here you were sitting, and I figured to myself, Why the hell not? Hi. My name’s Tom.” He held out his hand.

“Stivra.” He shook. Tom’s hand felt cool.

“Stivra, huh? What a name. Well, good to meet you. You here like everyone else, drinking to forget?”

“Drinking to forget?”

Tom put up his arms in the mock-surrender position. “Hey, don’t look so alarmed. Just a joke. People drink to forget, sometimes, hey? It’s just kind of strange with you here, aliens and all, knowing all kinds of things we don’t know about, and here you are, Steve, at a bar. You guys don’t ever feel so bad you’ve got to forget anything, do you? I always figure you’ve got your heads on pretty tight, you know. Brainy guys.”

“We have some things we might feel badly about, I guess,” Stivra said.

“Yeah? Like wives, huh?” He took a long draught of beer. “I’ve been getting over my divorce, myself. Not that it’s that bad, getting over it. I feel pretty good, in fact. I let her go, and I’m a new man. But you, what do you have to gripe about?”

The man amused him. “I am troubled about something that – well, it’s this way. We Stookas go through a period when we forget things. I’m worried about it. It’s coming up for me. That time of my life.”

“No kidding,” Tom said. He finished his beer and motioned for another. “That’s pretty interesting. But you must be used to it, if it’s a natural thing. Forgetting and all. I mean, we do it all the time. Hell, that’s why I’m here.” His grin increased. “I’m here to forget my wife. I hope I forget her good!”

“You can do it intentionally?”

“Sure as hell can try. You ready for another?”

“No, thanks.”

“Well, we sure as hell can try, Steve. But what’s this that you want to forget?”

It isn’t something I want to forget,” Stivra said, then added, “Tom.” He felt good, remembering the friendly rejoinder of the name. “It’s that I don’t want to. I’m going to forget something, and I don’t know what it’ll be.”

“Well, tell someone everything you know, and them have them barf it back at you when you’re done.”

Stivra smiled in the human fashion. “On Tevverina, that’s what we do. We get together a circle of friends. We spend time together as youths, and get to know each other — our personalities, our interests and passions and ambitions, maybe even our obsessions and peculiar talents. We’re all of an age, so when the time comes — when we forget — we have a group to go back to, and that group remembers what you were. It’s almost like becoming bigger than yourself, you see? Some parts of you spread out into the group. Those parts of you aren’t just yours, any more. It’s the whole reason — ”

Stivra stopped. Tom was nodding, apparently listening. His eyes traced the movement of a blonde across the floor, from the bar to a table.

Tom picked up his glass and nearly emptied it.

“Talking about forgetting, you know what’s really terrible,” he said. “Last Saturday. Here I was. This very bar. Drunk as a fish. Wetter than a washcloth and if you’d wrung me out it would have been two pitchers of beer you squeezed out. Hell, three pitchers, no lie. And here was this woman. Beautiful, let me tell you. A real woman, a looker like you wouldn’t believe, only a sensible looker, you know? Not too much flash, just a natural good-looking woman. And she and I got talking. Hell if I know what we talked about. We talked two hours, Steve. At least two. Maybe more. I had this jiggly feeling inside, you know? Like she could really be someone, you know, who’d be good for me. Real good. Well.” Tom looked over at Stivra, and tapped his empty glass on the bar. “You know what? Sunday morning. I wake up. I can’t for the life of me remember her name. I can’t remember her name at all. Could have been the love of my life. And I couldn’t remember her effing name. Effing crying shame. Can’t call her or nothing cause I don’t know her name.” The bartender had come over at the tapping of his empty. Tom looked at Stivra again. “You want another now?”

Stivra finished his, now that it was warm. He liked it better warm. “Okay,” he said.

“Now what was it you wanted to forget again?” said Tom.

Stivra sat in the chamber. He emptied his mind to keep himself still as possible.

After a moment, the door opened.

“All right,” said Ittasta’s voice. “We’re done.”

“That’s all?”

“Enough for now,” she said. “You’re getting close. I say you should be back here in two days and go into the pre-birthing sleep.” She appeared around the frame of the door and motioned him out before returning to her desk. Short for a Stooka, and elderly among the ranks of those now working on Earth, Ittasta exerted a quiet authority over the embassy health services center, more often with pleasantries and old-fashioned shows of affection than with administrative rigor. Stivra never hesitated to visit, as a consequence.

“Two days?” he said. “I hardly feel ready.”

“Your body’s ready.”

“And the baby — ”

She made a circle with one hand. The Stooka gesture of general agreement looked odd to him, so much time had he spent among humans contemplating their ways. “Your baby especially is ready. So. Two days?”

“Very well,” he said. “Do you know — ”

He was going to say: Do you know I have no circle? I have no one to tell me if I forget things? How will I know the birthright I give to my child?

“Yes?” Ittasta said. “Do I know what?”

“Sorry,” said Stivra. “Wandering mind. I’ll be here. In two days.”

When he came down the stairs from his apartment, the surly man on the second floor, Mr. Huggins, eyed him with mistrust as he picked up his morning paper. Stivra knew the man could barely bring himself to say hello, let alone allow a friendly expression cross his features. That Mr. Huggins showed the same face to his fellow humans gave Stivra no consolation, today.

Outside, on the sidewalk, people cleared a swathe around him. They made extra effort to avoid him. He knew he must be imagining it. They made the effort mutually, after all. The humans avoided his path as he avoided theirs. They walked as they always walked on the city streets, albeit with a minuscule amount of consideration for the difference between species. Every day before this one, they and he had walked the same way, with the same considerations and the same slight apprehension. They felt uncertain about him, and avoided impinging on his space. He felt tentative about them, and deferred to their walking paths whenever possible.

Today, however, he sensed their avoidance acutely. His raw skin registered the slightest bruise of averted eye or veering step.

He reached the bus-stop and sat alone on the bench while a small crowd of humans gathered behind him, standing. Even a small, bent, old woman who clutched her shiny black purse would not take a seat. How could he make an effort at bridging the gap if they wouldn’t?

He almost cried. Mechkan. He might well sit here, in tears –

Instead, he gave up.

He gave up going on two more days. He gave up on the charade. He gave up the illusion that the creature he saw in the mirror, the Stooka with odd skin and row of bristles and wide, thin lips, could ever become a face to which a human might turn in friendship long enough to preserve a bit of him in memory.

He got off the bench as the bus arrived.

The being he would become stood in his place, in his imagination: a Stooka, riddled with holes.

He walked back to his apartment and started feeding himself the drugs that, in two days, would leave him insensate.

At least he knew one thing he would lose:

He would emerge with no memory of even the birth.

His head — his body — they felt —

They felt fine.

Gone? Nothing that he knew was gone. The child, yes. Gone to far-away Tevverina. But his memory —

He remembered all his technical knowledge. A scan of the knowledge he needed in his work — his sheer boredom in going over it — showed that well enough.

He sat on the bench and put on his dark glasses against the bright sun.

Someone sat lightly beside him.

Stivra looked and saw a girl dressed in light material, with her arms and legs exposed to the sun. She met his gaze and grinned.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi,” she said. “Remember me?”


She still grinned. “You silly. We sat here. I told you about my loose tooth. You told me about your brain.”

“Oh yes,” he said. Did he remember? Some items fell into place: the loose tooth, yes. After a moment he could remember the loose tooth with perfect clarity — without remembering the girl, however.

“You never told me your name,” she said with great seriousness in her face. “I’m Alice.”

“Alice. Pleased to meet you again.” He smiled at her. “I’m Steve. So. Did you lose your tooth?”

“See?” She grinned widely enough to show a gap in the white row.

He stared, unable to do otherwise.

“So did it hurt?” he said. “Did you feel anything?” He remembered how one of his business contacts had spoken, and used the words: “I’m very interested.” He didn’t think he could communicate the sentiment with his face, especially from behind dark glasses.

Her face glowed. “Didn’t hurt a bit! I kept wiggling it, and then — I pulled it out!”

“You, yourself?” He wondered if he should be shocked or only surprised.

“And now, you know what?” She grinned to show the gap and the tongue-tip he stuck into it. “I can feel the new one coming in.”

Of course, he thought. Humans grow new teeth. It should have been obvious, yet it had never occurred to him. Stookas grow new nerve cells after millewettra. Still, it seemed a different thing.

“It’s a little tiny hard lump,” she said. “But it’s pretty neat. The skin around it’s all soft and squishy.” Then she showed how she could part her lips on one side and blow without unclenching her teeth.

He adopted some of her vocabulary to show appreciation: “Pretty neat,” he said.

She leaned slightly nearer him. “Are you grown up now, too?” she whispered.

He noticed that word: too.

He thought about what the question meant, leaned in her direction, and nodded gravely.

She squirmed with delight. “Did it hurt?”

He shook his head. He recalled the tiny, solemn-faced, grey-skinned child being held to him for viewing by Ittasta, only a few days ago now. A foggy, drug-bleared image, it meant little to him. It felt like it belonged to someone else. The grey child hung there in his mind. His child, biologically. But mentally? What had been the birthright?

“And — your brain,” she said, hissing her words out. “How does your brain feel?”

“Well,” he said, remembering his fear of losing memories. “I think it’s like your tooth. I poke around the place where something was — but don’t feel a thing.”

She nodded solemnly, as if his words confirmed some deeply held opinion.

“And your tooth,” Stivra said to her. “What’s become of it?” He imagined humans would treasure their bones, especially ones that fell from their heads. Teeth would be too precious to throw away.

“I traded it,” she said.

“Traded it?” The Stooka wondered when this little human would cease astonishing him.

“For this.” She fished something out of a pocket and held out her hand. In it, she held a coin. “It’s real silver. My mom said I’m never to spend it. It’s just for me.”

He admired it. “Ah,” he said. Then he remembered a point of vocabulary, dredged from reluctant memory but perfect for the moment: “Wow,” he amended.

She nodded, acknowledging his show of appreciation.

When the bus arrived, Stivra waved, and got on with the girl behind him. He listened to the coin-counter with satisfaction, and paused long enough to listen to the girl’s coins as they chunked down in their turn — the silver one not among them, he noticed.

A sudden flash of understanding struck him. He knew what his child bore in her mind, and what she was taking across the light years to Tevverina.

Only through his losses did he know her.

His child would remember Alice on a bench. His child might be the first with a predisposition to like humans. She would grow with memory of a human child sitting nearby and smiling. A memory of a young, accepting human.

“Hands across the sky,” he said to himself. He headed for the first open seat in the bus, and then paused as a vague recollection nudged him.

He let Alice have the window seat.

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