by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, September 2018
Jeko coiled her long nose around one of the glittering hypercrystals. They weren’t really hypercrystals. Just shiny bits of polished, angular glass. Spiky, colorful shapes. But Jeko liked to pretend. She liked to pretend that they were hypercrystals and could grant wishes. She picked up a green star-shaped one and rolled it carefully across her desk with a gentle toss from her prehensile nose.
The robot teacher of Jeko’s class said that hypercrystals were just a myth; a quantum physics fairy tale. It wasn’t truly possible to slide from one alternate universe to the next simply by applying intellectual willpower to a fragment of broken multi-dimensionality. And even if it were, hypercrystals probably wouldn’t look like a noseful of probability dice borrowed from one of the board games at the back of the classroom.
Jeko tossed a purple hypercrystal with twice as many spikes next. It rattled over the desk and bumped the green one. Jeko whispered under her nose, “I wish for friends.”
Most of the kids in her class were robots or Heffen, a species of canine alien. Jeko looked more like an elephant. She felt like an outsider with her weird nose-face. The teacher had tried to force her to interact with the other kids, but after a few incidents where the elephant girl burst into tears, the teacher and her parents had decided to back off, giving Jeko a chance to move at her own pace. So far, her own pace involved hiding in the classroom during recess and playing board games alone. But her imagination ran wild. In her mind, she wasn’t playing alone — she was voyaging through space, meeting alien races even weirder than herself, and making all kinds of friends.
Jeko wished her parents hadn’t decided to settle on Crossroads Space Station. She’d liked it better when they moved from one solar system to the next, never settling. Back then she’d had an excuse for having no friends. Now it felt like her own fault. She swept her nose across the desk in frustration, sweeping all the probability dice back into their cardboard box.
“Are you sure you can’t keep playing in the play yard?” woofed a canine voice.
Jeko looked over and saw a pair of her classmates returning to class early: a red-furred Heffen girl named Anno and a green tube-shaped alien with dozens of short arms named Am-lei. Besides Jeko, Am-lei was the strangest alien in the class. She seemed to be some sort of worm. At first, Jeko had hoped their shared weirdness might lead to a kinship between them, but it turned out that Am-lei and Anno had been best friends since long before Jeko moved to Crossroads. Jeko didn’t think there was any room in their friendship for her.
“I know jumping through grav bubbles is more fun than stupid board games,” Am-lei said, tiny green antennae on her forehead rotating. “But I feel so stiff lately… I just want to sit down.”
Jeko felt a burst of excitement as she watched Am-lei bend her long tube-body into a desk only a few empty rows away. Anno skipped to the back of the classroom, fluffy tail swishing behind her, and knelt down to look at the shelf of board games.
Maybe this was just the opportunity Jeko needed. She knew all those board games, front to back, inside and out. She could practically recite their rulebooks by heart. “Shuttle Quest is missing pieces, but you can make it work,” she said, trying not to muffle her voice with her nose. She did that when she was nervous. “The best game, though, is Starhopper Supreme, but–”
Anno turned to look at Jeko, one of her triangular red ears skewing.
Jeko stumbled but managed to get the rest of her sentence out: “–you, uh, need three players to really play it right.” Of course, Jeko had played it many times with only herself and two imaginary players. But it would be much more fun with real companions.
Anno pulled the beat-up cardboard box for Starhopper Supreme out from under a pile of other games and shook it lightly. All the pieces inside made a shuffling sound as it shook. She sniffed the dusty box. “These things are so ancient,” she woofed. “All my games at home have a holo-projector instead of physical pieces.”
“It’s still fun, even if it isn’t high tech,” Jeko mumbled, covering her mouth with her nose.
The way Anno’s ear twitched suggested that the canine girl had heard Jeko anyway.
“Just pick something,” Am-lei groaned from her desk. Her long body wiggled like she was very uncomfortable.
“Are you okay?” Jeko asked, coiling her nose around her neck nervously. She hoped the worm girl wasn’t going to be sick.
“I’m fine,” Am-lei said. “I’m going to start my metamorphosis soon, and it means my skin is so itchy!” She rubbed four rows of short arms over the fleshy green skin of her long torso. “My chrysalis body is getting ready on the inside. It makes moving hard. I wish it would get over already!”
“I don’t,” Anno woofed. She brought Starhopper Supreme over and dropped it on Am-lei’s desk with a satisfying plop. “When you go into your chrysalis, I’ll be all alone.”
“It’ll only last a month or so,” Am-lei said, still wriggling in discomfort. “At least, that’s what my mom says happened to her. We don’t know any other lepidopterans… so, I don’t know if it’s always like that.”
“I don’t know anyone else of my species here either,” Jeko said. Crossroads Station was mostly populated by Heffen and humans. “Except my parents. Of course.”
Anno snorted. “There’s nothing of course about that. My mom’s not Heffen. She’s a Woaoo.”
Jeko stared blankly at the canine girl.
“Woaoo are marsupials with big fluffy ears,” Anno explained. “Look, my family’s part of this whole Xeno-Nativity program. So, I’m the only Heffen in it. That’s why all the other Heffens in our class think I’m weird.”
Jeko decided to be really brave. “Can… Can I play that game with you two?” She pointed at Starhopper Supreme with her long nose, trying not to let it shake.
“Duh,” Anno woofed. “You said it takes three, and it sounds like you know the rules. So, I assumed you’d explain it to us.”
“That way we don’t have to read the rules,” Am-lei added.
Terrified and buzzing with excitement inside her chest, Jeko got up, moved two rows over, and shoved a desk up to Am-lei’s to give them more space for spreading the board game out. She opened the box with her nose and began setting up the pieces.
“Your nose is so neat,” Am-lei said. Her multi-faceted dome eyes glowed with appreciation. “After my metamorphosis, I’m going to have a long, curled proboscis instead of my current mouth parts.” She wiggled her stubby mandibular mouth parts. “I don’t think I’ll be able to use it like that though. At least, I don’t see my mom use hers that way. But still, it’ll be kind of like your nose!”
“I still hate that you’re going to be gone for a WHOLE MONTH,” Anno woofed at Am-lei. Then she turned to Jeko and gave the elephant girl an appraising look. “Maybe I’ll hang out with you? Now show us how this game works.” She picked up one of the pieces and placed it on the wrong side of the board.
Jeko smiled under her nose.
Maybe the glass probability dice weren’t real hypercrystals that could let you slide between parallel multi-verses, but it still felt like maybe the universe had granted her wish.