by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, September 2018
Clori, a koala-like woman, twisted wires about the pink and white agate in her paws, bending the delicate silver strands carefully with her claws. When she was done, the heart-shaped stone’s wavy lines were cradled in a net of silver that she hung from the mosaic of agates — each one collected by one of her adopted children.
Clori wouldn’t have expected T’reska to pick a pink agate. The little green-scaled reptilian child was perhaps the least like Clori of all of her children.
Usually, T’reska asked for everything to match her green scales. Yet, when told to pick an agate to represent her in the mosaic, the little lizard girl had picked the pinkest, warmest looking stone of them all.
A warm stone to represent a cold-blooded child.
Clori felt the air move, rustling the long gray fluffs of fur on her large, round ears, and she heard whispered giggles. She looked over to see three little faces peaking at her from around the corner to the bedroom hallway. Three little faces that should have been in bed — Lut’s long beaked face, Anno’s scruffy red-furred muzzle, and Iko’s wide, wide eyes, almost the entirety of her sweet little primatoid face.
“Is it done?” Lut cawed, feathers puffing out.
“Hush!” Anno woofed, trying to shove the other two back into the shadows, as if Clori hadn’t already seen them.
“We just want to see it!” Iko squeaked, swinging herself under Anno’s blocking arms. She scrambled right up onto Clori’s lap, knocking about all the carefully arranged agates that hadn’t been wrapped yet.
“You’d better not wake the others,” Clori admonished.
“Oh, none of us were sleeping,” Anno woofed helpfully.
Clori sighed. She’d been mad to have this many children. Sometimes, her household felt less like a family and more like a zoology experiment. Of course, at one level it was — one child of each of the twelve most common species on Crossroads Station, all raised together, all siblings, all family.
It was an experiment in peace.
Most of the time, it felt like total chaos, and Clori worried that none of them would still speak to each other by the time they were all grown. They’d all hate her for putting them through this, and after raising twelve children, she’d find herself old and alone, none of them by her side.
“This one’s mine!” Iko squeaked, delight in her huge eyes, as she pointed to one of the agates already hanging in the mosaic. A gray and blue agate, like an ocean storm, like Iko’s wide, wide eyes.
“I know,” Clori said. “I remember which agate each of you picked.” Some of the kids had taken a long time picking their agates in the lava moon gift shop. It felt like they’d spent longer in the gift shop than watching the actual lunar volcanoes. Would the kids remember the trip fondly? Or would the youngest ones forget it entirely and the older ones remember only the part where Clori had snapped at them about settling into their seats and getting strapped in on the starhopper home? She didn’t know.
The bad parts certainly clouded Clori’s own memories of the trip, in spite of the bright eclipse moments. There were always moments when their little faces and naive hearts shone through, melting the ice shields that froze over Clori’s heart, making her strong and tough enough to survive the daily — hourly — slings and snubs.
“You put my agate next to T’reska’s?!” Anno woofed. “Ew! She’s not even warm-blooded! I don’t know why she’s in our family.”
Yes. Slings and snubs like that one.
“She’s your sister,” Clori said, in the calmest, most even tone she could manage. It was hard to even talk to Anno after she said something so ugly. “Go back to bed.” She squeezed Iko, who was still on her lap, and then set her down on the floor. The tiny primatoid scurried off, long prehensile tail waving behind her. “All of you,” Clori insisted.
Anno grumbled and then whispered with Lut all the way down the hall. The little canine and avian had been thick as thieves lately. On the one paw, Clori was glad to see the two siblings close; on the other paw, they caused so much more trouble together.
They’d used up a month’s replicator rations, pretending to run a restaurant for the other kids. Then they’d melted down all of the littler kids’ building blocks in the replicator to get enough raw material to print out statues of themselves. Clori didn’t even want to know what they’d had in mind for those two statues. It couldn’t have been good.
Clori straightened out the remaining agates, and spooled out a length of wire to begin wrapping the next one. Before she could pick though, she saw a little face staring at her from around the corner again. Green and scaly.
Clori held out a fuzzy gray paw and said, “Come on over,” to the little reptilian girl.
Green scales, rough and smooth at once, curled up in Clori’s lap, pressing down clouds of gray fur and fitting like T’reska had always belonged there.
With a forked tongue, T’reska hissed against Clori’s shoulder, “Do you like the heart agate? I picked it to be like you.”
“It’s beautiful,” Clori said, stroking T’reska’s scales and rocking the child. “But you were supposed to pick an agate to represent you — not me.”
“But that’s what I’m like on the inside,” T’reska hissed. “Just like you.”
Clori closed her eyes, and let the brightness of the moment shine through her. Cold-blooded but warm-hearted. That was her T’reska.