by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Stories of Camp RainFurrest, September 2011
Any human in the room would have seen an oversized koala bear, a bushy red-wolf, a long-tailed, green lizard, and a large blue fish wearing a diving helmet, floating bizarrely above his barstool. But there were no humans in the room. It was the All Alien Cafe on the interstellar meeting point known as Crossroads Station.
“Do you ever miss your home worlds?” the red-wolf asked the others. He was a Heffen, and his species were refugees from a planet whose yellow dwarf star had expanded into a red giant. “I miss the wide open savannahs,” he said, ears pointed forward and his long, canid nose pointed down.
The other three exchanged worried looks. They could tell when their friend was feeling melancholy. Over the years, the four of them had learned to read each other quite well, despite their very different physiologies. The koala, in particular, was tuned into the every nuance of the Heffen’s mood, and the expression in her sparkling eyes became especially concerned.
“Are you kidding?” the fish said, followed by a burp of heavy gases from the shimmery blue gills along his sleek body. His swim-bladder lightened thusly, the Lintar bobbed inches upward in the air. “My home world is the only place I can’t fly.” He swirled his long, silky fins gracefully.
Lintars evolved on a planet with a much thinner atmosphere than filled the metal bulk of Crossroads Station. As a tradeoff, they had to wear breathing helmets with air filters and other complex breathing apparatuses on Crossroads Station — and in other nitrogen rich atmospheres — but they could fly.
The Srellik flicked her forked tongue in a dismissive hiss. Her scaly, green hide sparkled in the bar’s low light. “Dirtballs are for pre-tech savages,” she said.
The Heffen continued staring bleakly into the drink clutched tightly between his paws. His friends’ levity wasn’t helping.
“Isn’t this why we don’t talk about home worlds?” the Woaoo said, with a quaver in her voice. Her face was flat with a large, oval nose, and her gray fur was short, except where it lengthened into two silver clouds around her ears. “It’s depressing,” she said. “You’ll only upset yourself.”
Every time the Heffen started talking like this, the Woaoo found her mind plagued by a sequence of paintings she’d had the misfortune to imagine. They flitted through her mind, depicting the Heffen — his handsome face grown gaunt and his ruddy fur thinning — as he descended deeper and deeper into depression, drugs, and eventually suicide. She would never paint such images for fear that they would prove prophetic. Yet, the vision haunted her. She couldn’t stand the idea of her life without him.
She placed a comforting paw on the Heffen’s broad shoulder, hoping to reassure herself as much as him, but he pulled abruptly away.
“Denial,” he said. “That’s what it is. Aren’t you sick of it?”
The Srellik and Lintar exchanged a glance that communicated their amused disdain for over-emotional warmbloods, but neither said anything.
“My home world is a burnt up ball of charred coal now!” the Heffen barked. “I used to lie out in the long savannah grass with the cool breeze in my fur…” His eyes went soft, and his wolfish face grew rapturous at the memory. The expression only lasted a moment, and then he hardened into the Heffen they all knew. “And then some godforsaken government scientist with his crazy engineering schemes got his calculations wrong… and I live here. In a metal box, orbiting a foreign star.”
They’d all heard this story before. The Heffen sun would have died slowly over thousands of years… but an attempt to kick-start the fading yellow dwarf left the Heffen people refugees from the blasting heat of a red giant in a mere decade. It pulled at the Woaoo’s heart strings every time. Her poor Heffen. Too lost in the pain of the past to notice her affection… “Does it help to talk?” she asked, trying to keep her voice from shaking.
“Maybe,” he said. He turned his soulful, troubled eyes up from the drink he was nursing and gave the Woao a look that stopped her heart. “Why don’t you ever go home?” he asked her. “I know you miss it.”
The Woaoo laughed, a tinkling, chittery sound filled with worry, sore nerves, and giddiness. “I can’t afford the fare.” She laughed, but her expression was serious. Her dark eyes were locked onto the Heffen’s, greedy for every moment of his soulful gaze. “Besides, it’s not as if I have anyone to visit there. Not like my friends here.”
The Heffen snorted, and the moment ended. He dipped his muzzle back toward his drink. Her story was as familiar to them all as his.
The Woaoo had been outcast from her society for composing heretical artwork. Everyone she had thought she loved had turned on her. It was a past that her friends on Crossroads Station had trouble reconciling with the cheerful, adorable Woaoo they knew. She did not seem like a dangerous heretic. Nonetheless, they were impressed by her story and often asked to see some of her heretical artwork. She would only show them the ergonomically pleasing exo-skeletal cases that she designed for a robotic pet company these days.
“You miss the place though, don’t you?” the Heffen asked.
The Woaoo nodded. She missed the planet she’d been born on more than words could say, but it was not an all consuming passion. It was nothing compared to the loss the Heffen had suffered. Nor the loss she feared she would suffer if she ever lost him.
“Tell you what,” the Heffen said, looking down at his companion. “Let’s save up. We can all go in together and buy a spaceship…” he looked at the Srellik and Lintar, “…get out of this tin can whenever we want.”
“I have a spaceship,” the Srellik said.
All three of the others looked at her. Brown Heffen eyes, darker Woaoo eyes, and wide, limpid Lintar eyes obscured by the shielding of his breathing helmet stared at the Srellik. They all knew she was a cargo-hauler, but they’d never heard of her using her spaceship for recreation. Ever. Naturally, they’d assumed it wasn’t actually hers. Only leased.
“Wonderful!” the Lintar said, clapping his fins. The delicate appendages made only the lightest feathery sound. Then, he turned a little pirouette, floating in the air above his barstool. His draping fins twirled out like the skirt of a ball gown. “Let’s all go on a trip!”
The Woaoo clasped her heavily clawed paws together, and the Heffen’s ears perked up. Hope was in both their eyes.
“Look what you’ve done,” the Srellk hissed. Her lidless eyes glittered angrily as she stared at the Lintar. “You’ve gotten the warmbloods’ hopes up.”
“Me?” said the Lintar, his thick lipped mouth forming an O. “You’re the one who mentioned having a ship. I don’t think you would have if you didn’t secretly want to use it.”
“I use it!” the Srellik hissed. “I carry freight from here to the mining asteroids and back again, three times daily.”
“Sounds thrilling,” the Lintar said, rolling his eyes inside his breathing helm. “Perhaps you need a vacation?” The Lintar held the Srellik’s lidless gaze while decadently sucking his drink noisily up through a straw fitted to a slot in his breathing helmet.
The Woaoo coughed lightly to get her companions’ attention. “When I was a joey,” she said, “my family would go camping in the forests outside Tway-wa-a City.” Her smooth gray fur ruffled and twitched as she spoke, a tic that generally connoted great emotion in her. She couldn’t give the Heffen his world back, but maybe it would help him to share her world. And maybe it would help him to understand her.
“I would sit by our campfire at night,” she said, “surrounded by whistling trees and twiney vines, and look up at the stars. All I could think was how much I wanted to be up there, among the stars. Now all I can think…” she said, sitting on a space station, orbiting a cold foreign star, “…is how how much I wish I could go back there again.” The words weren’t true. The wish dearest to the Woao’s heart sat right in front of her with flowing red fur and brooding eyes. But, she knew her audience, and her words were gauged to affect the Srellik.
The Srellik glared at her. Even with lidless reptilian eyes, the coldblooded Srellik found herself stared down. Finally, her spiny, emerald neck frill snapped shut and she hissed, “Fine. I’ll take you camping.”
“I told you she really wanted to go,” the Lintar boasted.
The four friends negotiated the schedule and supplies over a final round of drinks for the evening. The Woaoo offered to pack meals for everyone, but they ended up deciding it would be best if they each packed their own rations and other necessities individually. They would meet at the Srellik’s docked ship two days hence. They were all excited, but the Woaoo could hardly even wait.
* * *
Four aliens in the cramped crew quarters of a cargo-hauler spaceship, even when the spaceship has cutting edge elasti-drive engines that will keep the trip short, can feel a bit crowded.
The Woaoo was too polite to complain about the temperature that the Srellik kept her ship, but the Heffen wasn’t. Any creature with a full coat of fur would be far too hot under the Srellik’s blazing heat lamps, and he made sure everyone on board knew that before the end of the first hour. Besides, it made him think of the blasting heat of the last few months, under a growing red sun, before he’d had to join in the evacuation of his home world.
The Lintar liked the heat. He kept bobbling about, zipping from one end of the ship to the other, babbling away giddily from the boost the heat gave his cold-blooded body. If the Woaoo and the Heffen hadn’t been so irritable, they might have found his behavior amusing. As it was, the Srellik and the heat-weary Woaoo had to intercede several times over the course of the daylong flight to keep the Heffen and the Lintar from coming to blows.
They were all relieved when the Woaoo home world came into view — a glowing ball of white-speckled green and blue hanging in the star-studded blackness. The Srellik piloted her ship down, under the Woaoo’s direction, to the very spot in the forests outside Tway-wa-a City where the Woaoo’s family used to camp. It was a stretch of forest owned by a distant uncle, and no one was likely to be there, except during the Woaoo Festival of Conformation during the autumn equinox.
It was night when they landed. The Woaoo stepped out of the ship and onto the earthy ground of her home world for the first time in many years. She flexed her claws, feeling the grit of the dirt under them. She sniffed the air and smelled a musky scent that she’d only ever smelled in this forest. It smelled like childhood.
“The trees aren’t whistling,” the Heffen said, joining her on the ground. His angular ears were twisting about in every direction. “You said they whistled.”
“It’s almost morning,” the Woaoo whispered. “You can tell when the sun’s about to rise…” Her voice was reverent and so low that the Heffen could barely hear her. “Because the trees only whistle at night.
The Srellik broke the mood, hissing from behind them, “It’s probably a photosynthesis by-product being released through gas valves in the leaves. No big deal really. Lots of plants whistle. Now, where do we build this campfire?”
The Lintar had followed the rest of them out by now, but he hung in the air, eerily still, after his antics onboard the warm ship. “I have to agree,” he voiced with his thick-lipped mouth. “It’s quite cold out here. It makes me feel like hibernating. ”
“Cold!” the Woaoo exclaimed. “It’s the middle of summer! I can tell by the flowers…” She gazed at the riots of orange and purple nightblooms as if the mere sight of them was a portal back to childhood.
The Heffen squinted. “You can see colors in this dark?” he asked. His night vision must not have been as good as hers.
The Lintar, however, blanched. His normally luminous cerulean skin turned quite white. “I’ll freeze!” he said.
The Woaoo got to work on the campfire.
Both of her coldblooded friends were much more cheerful once they felt the warmth of its blaze. Until the sun rose, the Woaoo taught traditional campfire songs from her childhood to the Lintar which they sang in eerie, beautiful duet. The Srellik experimented with burning local flora. Some of the purple flowers blazed quite spectacularly, throwing off bursts of sparks. The orange flowers only fizzled, and they smelled terrible.
All the while, the Heffen sat silently. As morose and reticent as he’d been back on Crossroads Station. The Woaoo watched him while she sang, wondering what he thought.
The fire burned down to embers. The sky lightened, and the day warmed up around them. “Well, show us around your forest,” the Lintar said finally. “We’ve come light-years to see it.”
So, the Woaoo led her friends away from the remains of their campfire and out of the clearing that the Srellik’s ship had landed in, bushwhacking her way through the underbrush. “I haven’t been here since I was a joey,” the Woaoo said, pushing a branch aside, “But, there should be a lake this way… And caves I used to play in.” Her memory didn’t fail her, and the Woaoo had no trouble leading the way. She hoped that the sense of childhood fun and adventure imbued in the very trees around them would soften the Heffen. Bring a little comfort to his heart. Of course, to him the trees were only trees. And alien ones at that. The memories the Woaoo saw imbued in them were actually etched in her memories, not their leaves and bark.
At the lake, the Lintar decided to brave the coldness of the water to enjoy the change in atmosphere. While he wandered around the bottom of the lake wearing diving weights, the Srellik and the Woaoo went spelunking. The very walls and shape of the caves brought the Woaoo back in time to a younger self playing hide-and-seek. Only now, instead of other Woaoo joeys, her playmate was a reptilian alien whose species had evolved on a planet on the other side of the galaxy.
The Heffen sat beside the lake and waited.
When the yellow sun was centered over the sky, the four friends reconvened for lunch. They each picnicked on their own provisions. Being widely disparate species, they mainly did not enjoy or even have the ability to digest the same foods. However, the Woaoo was able to pick and share a few berries with the Heffen. His diet was generally more carnivorous than hers, but he politely, albeit unenthusiastically, accepted her offering of local flavor.
The Srellik sampled her own version of local flavor by zapping an insect hive with her stun gun. The glittering white arthropods she captured were wriggly and then crunchy. She declared them entirely to her liking.
“How long can we stay?” the Woaoo asked.
The Lintar stretched out his body, making his face very long. “How long would you like to stay?” he asked.
The Srellik’s emerald neck frill flared. “I have a cargo run on the first of the week,” she hissed. “We have to be back for that.”
“Two more days, then. That will be fine,” the Woaoo said. If that wasn’t enough time for this childhood wonderland to soften the Heffen’s hard heart, then no time would be.
The Heffen searched the Woaoo’s face for hints of disappointment, but he didn’t see any. He didn’t know that she was more interested in his feelings than the forest. She made so little sense to him.
After the lunch things were cleared away, the Srellik and the Lintar decided to engage in a tree climbing competition. The Lintar, obviously, had the edge, since he had only to empty his air bladder to float up to the treetops. The Srellik, however, being a stubborn individual, enjoyed the challenge of an impossible task, and the Lintar, being a sanguine individual, enjoyed winning, even if it bore little to no reflection on his own skill.
So, the Srellik flexed her green scaled muscles and scrambled about the upper echelons of the trees, while the Lintar bobbled about her like a silky blue cloud. The two warmbloods watched.
“Is it like your world?” the Woaoo asked the Heffen.
“No,” he said. One of his ears flicked. “Nothing ever will be.” Then he gazed at the Woaoo with his piercing brown eyes. “Will you stay here when we leave? I’m sure you could take on a new identity, leave your artist self behind, and blend back into Woaoo society.”
The Woaoo blinked. “I suppose… I could.” It was true that since her exile, she’d almost entirely stopped painting. So, there wouldn’t be much of her artist’s self left to give up.
“Why wouldn’t you?” the Heffen pressed, almost angry that the Woaoo would willingly spurn her home world by returning to Crossroads Station when he ached for his own home world so much. “You said you couldn’t afford the price of a ticket back… Now, you’re back. You said you missed it here. Now, you’re here.”
“True,” she said, discomfited by the Heffen’s anger. He was finally directing an emotion at her… and it was the wrong one. She combed long, blunt claws through the silvery tufts of her ears, trying to regain her composure. “But then… I wouldn’t be able to afford a ticket home,” she said. “To the station, I mean. I have a life there. A career that satisfies me. And friends.”
“At least you get to choose,” the Heffen said bitterly. “An impossible choice, perhaps, but a choice no less.”
The Woaoo reached a small gray paw out gingerly and laid it on the back of the Heffen’s large ruddy paw. His fur felt silky against her paw pads. “It’s not impossible,” she said. “It’s not even hard.”
The Heffen’s breath caught in his throat at the horror of what the Woaoo was saying. How could she dare to turn her back on her home? He turned his wolfish face away. Then he pulled his paw away too.
“I may have missed these forests,” the Woaoo said gently. “But my home isn’t a planet anymore.”
“Right,” the Heffen barked angrily. “It’s a hollow cylinder of metal floating in space. That is not a home!” He stomped off into the forest, crashing noisily through the underbrush, before he could hear the Woaoo’s answer.
“You’re right,” she whispered. “Crossroads Station isn’t a home.” It was too hard to say in front of him — what if he didn’t say it in return? — , but she said it to the emptiness he’d left around her: “My home is you.”
The Heffen hiked through the forests alone until long after the trees began their nightly whistling. The Woaoo, knowing that he needed space, stayed away. She joined the Lintar and Srellik, and they continued climbing trees all afternoon. Then, at dusk, the three of them built a fire and sang songs again. The Srellik had even brought a gummy confection to roast over the flames that puffed up as it heated. All three of them could eat it, since it was composed of only the simplest sugars.
The fire had almost burned out when the Heffen finally joined his friends, having worn his anger out with hiking. They were already sleeping. It was the silence just before dawn, and there were only embers of the merry evening left. He stared at the crimson sparks and thought about how alien the Woaoo’s world was to him.
The trees, the bushes, the washed out yellow color of the sky. He’d spent hours that day trying to imagine finding a new home on this world or another like it. For wouldn’t it be better to live on a planet — even an alien one like this — than inside the anti-septic metal box called Crossroads Space Station? But he simply could not reconcile himself to the profoundly alien quality of everything around him. The space station he lived on might not be his home… But this wasn’t either.
Yet… He looked at the Woaoo sleeping by the embers of the fire. She had had grown up here, evolved here, belonged here… He’d never have met her or anyone like her on his long gone home world, but she was not alien. She was his good friend.
The familiar sheen of her downy gray fur tipped with silver heaved lightly with her breathing. He remembered the touch of her paw from early that afternoon, and, he was suddenly struck by the image of her staying behind when the others left. It’s what he would do, if it were his home world.
Despite her protestations, he had trouble believing that she could really leave her home world to return to the cold bulk of a space station. The more he thought about it, the more his chest began to ache with the unbearable thought of his life there without her. If he’d thought Crossroads Station was cold before, it would be infinitely colder if she didn’t return.
Almost before he realized what he was doing, the Heffen had curled his larger body around hers. Red fur against gray. He felt her warmth, cuddly and small beside him. The Woaoo sighed in her sleep but didn’t awake.
The Srellik and the Lintar found their friends that way in the morning. In whispered hisses of conversation, they agreed to leave the warmbloods to themselves, setting off for an exclusively coldblooded hike.
When the Woaoo finally awoke, she was afraid to move. It might break the spell, and end her dream of strong Heffen arms around her. Yet, her consciousness was catching, and the Heffen soon began to rouse. He started to pull away, but the Woaoo cuddled against his chest, turning her face into the thick red fur.
In the warm delirium of receding unconsciousness, the Heffen responded to her signal, squeezing her in close to him. “Today’s your last day,” he said, touching his muzzle to her neck. He was almost sure she’d contradict him, and explain that she’d decided to stay in this distressingly alien land. When the words didn’t come, he said, “What do you want to do today?”
She still wouldn’t look at him. Still afraid to break the spell and send her Heffen back to being the solitary, distant creature he’d always been before. Noble. Unreachable. Lost in his past. “What did you do on your last day?” the Woaoo asked him. “The day you had to leave your world.”
The Heffen sighed, remembering the pain. “I waited in line for hours on the pavement of an airfield full of space cruisers. I had one suitcase, and it was packed so full my arms hurt carrying it.” He remembered the pain in his tired arms abstractly, but he couldn’t feel it now. All he could feel was the softness of the Woaoo’s fur pressed against him.
“Let’s not do that,” the Woaoo said.
“No,” he agreed.
Finally, she pushed away from his shaggy chest and looked up at his strongly articulated, canine face.
“I’m sorry I won’t get to visit your planet,” she said. He frowned, and she quickly hurried on. “But, I moved away from my planet because I couldn’t find what I was looking for here… I didn’t know why I couldn’t. Until I met you.”
The Heffen grumbled a little, deep in his throat, but then he nuzzled his muzzle against the Woao’s rounded face, touching his pointed nose to her broad one. He didn’t say anything, but the Woaoo could read his heart. They knew each other that well. Across species; across independent yet convergent genetic evolution; across solar systems; and across the galaxy. They’d found each other, and that was home.
The Woaoo spent the final day of their vacation leading the Heffen around the forests she’d explored in her youth. She showed him everything she could remember, from the place where she’d once caught a photosynthetic amphibian with her bare paws to the tree where she used to sit and daydream about outer space. It was like she was trying to reanimate and archive as much of her childhood as possible in his memory so that she wouldn’t have to remember it alone. She felt like a joey again.
For his part, the Heffen found his jealousy waning over the Woaoo’s ability to revisit the home of her youth. It clearly energized her to share her memories with him… But they were only memories. The thing that was alive and vibrant here was her. Not the past she was ineffectually trying to share with him. He could never be a part of that any more than he could return to his own past, but he could be a part of her future.
It was strange to take his eyes off the past he’d lost and look forward. But that’s what he did. He saw a life with this cheerful, chittery little Woaoo brightening his every day. As she had done for years, even though he hadn’t noticed it.
At twilight, when the trees began whistling, the four friends gathered at the edge of the clearing where the Srellik had parked her spaceship. They built their final campfire, and the Lintar and Woaoo babbled incessantly to each other about all the great things they’d each done all day. The Heffen listened quietly, waiting for everyone to settle down to sleep so he could hold his Woaoo close to him again.
The Srellik listened quietly too. Occasionally, her emerald neck frill flicked out in a collar around her neck the way it sometimes did when she was tallying up the value of a cargo haul, deciding if it was worth the down payment.
“I guess, we’ll leave when the trees go quiet in the dark before morning,” the Lintar said. His swim-bladder was filled to the point that his delicate blue fins were dragging on the ground, and his O-shaped mouth looked sad.
“Yes,” the Srellik agreed, flicking her forked tongue. “We’ll be back on Crossroads Station in less than twenty-four hours.”
“Then we’d better get some sleep,” the Heffen said, gruffly impatient.
Each of them settled into their own portable sleeping nests, beside the dying fire. After a few minutes, the Heffen surreptitiously moved over and cuddled himself up against the Woaoo like he had the night before. Again, she sighed as she felt his warm fur press against her back.
* * *
A few minutes later, before any of them had fallen asleep, but while they were all lost in their own quiet thought-worlds in the dark, the Srellik hissed, “In three months, I’ll have time to do a trip like this again.”
The Lintar chuckled, burping gas from his swim-bladder. He bobbed a foot higher above the ground, his fins trailing gracefully and his gauzy sleep-nest thoroughly disrupted. “I knew it,” he said. “Dirtballs are for pre-tech savages,” he mimicked back in the Srellik’s voice mockingly. “Admit it! You enjoyed yourself. Shall we make the trip a whole week next time?”
“Maybe next time,” the Woaoo said into the darkness, speaking to the Lintar, “you could show us your world. Imagine it — all of us, except you, wearing breathing helmets for a change. You must have a fascinating world…” The Heffen squeezed her, showing his approval for the optimistic sense of adventure that the Woaoo brought into his life.
They listened in the dark for the Srellik’s answer. When she didn’t give one, however, they didn’t worry. They all knew anyway. Mentally, she was making plans to arrange for a whole week off. And three sets of breathing gear.