by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Fantasia Divinity Magazine, July 2017
Jeko stared out the window at the asteroids and curled her elephantine trunk. She didn’t want to be in class with a bunch of dumb Heffen kids and newly sentient robots. The Heffen kids acted like stereotypical canine aliens and kept to their packs, and the robots weren’t really kids like her… They showed up one week super-naive and talking all stilted, like computers, and a few weeks later they were smarter than… well… computers, and they graduated out.
For a while, there’d been a S’rellick girl in class, and Jeko had thought it could be cool to make friends with a reptilian alien. (Cool, get it?) But then she went on a hibernation trek to another star system, and Jeko was alone again. The lonely elephant.
A crack and fizzle came from the front of the room, and Jeko looked up to see the Heffen teacher holding a tangled, sparking mess of green wires in his paws. “These are psytrical vines,” he said. “They have psychokinetic powers.”
“Does that mean they can make chairs float?” one of the Heffen kids barked. “Oh no! I feel it working on me!” The Heffen boy jumped up on his chair and then threw himself down on the floor, barking with laughter.
“Get back in your seat, Daul,” the teacher said with the resignation of having said the same words a million times. “Psytrical vines have the power to carry thoughts — only a short distance, because they’re not very powerful, but it’s a fascinating experience, and I thought you should all get the chance to try it. So, pair up, and I’ll hand out the vines.”
The Heffen kids paired up fast, and Jeko ended up with a shiny silver robot partner.
“Oh dear,” the teacher said when he came to them. Psytrical vines only work on organic brains — I have a different project for my robot students.” So, he rearranged the pairs until Jeko found herself saddled with Daul, the class clown.
Within seconds of being paired with her, Daul held the pystrical vine up to his wolfish muzzle and barked, “Look at me! I have a long nose like you!”
Jeko wrapped her trunk around herself, wishing she could hide it. Or maybe slap Daul upside the head with it.
“Each partner take an end of your vine,” the teacher explained. “Once you each have an end firmly in paw, you should be able to share your thoughts!”
Jeko was a daydreamer, but she was also a rule-follower. So, as much as she didn’t want to read Daul’s mind, she reluctantly took the other end of his faux trunk with her real one, fully expecting to be hit with an onslaught of disgust and prejudice against her wrinkly gray skin and weirdly prehensile nose.
The green vine crackled electrically in the curl of Jeko’s trunk. She didn’t see herself at all in Daul’s mind. Instead, she found herself swimming in a dizzying array of thoughts — all of them focused on figuring out which Heffen child was most popular today and how to maintain her status — Daul’s status — amongst them. How mad could he make the teacher before getting in trouble? If he didn’t heckle the teacher would his friends still like him?
Daul dropped his end of the vine. His eyes were wide. “I didn’t know you were so lonely,” he said. There was a depth of understanding in his eyes, a true compassion, that Jeko would never have believed before she’d picked up that vine. It made her feel embarrassed to know he’d seen inside her as deeply as she’d seen inside him.
“I hope…” Daul faltered. “I hope you a find a friend.”
Jeko’s wide ears blushed, and she wondered if he was offering to be her friend. Maybe… Maybe she could be friends with the Heffen kids after all.
Then Daul’s eyes clouded with confusion and complication, and Jeko realized that he was calculating whether his own friends would think less of him if he were to hang out with the funny elephant alien. “I mean… a different friend,” he blurted and hurried back to the other side of the class.
The rest of the day, Daul darted looks Jeko’s way, but she didn’t look back at him. She stared out the window at the asteroids, dreaming of when she’d be old enough to pilot a ship and wishing she could learn as fast as the robots.