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Aspirit pressed a hand against the glass. “Look there,” she called to the command control. “Thresh--diagnostics.”
The tall boy tossed his hair from his eyes and began typing at the keyboard of light floating in front of him. “Mars, my lady,” he called back. “No inhabitants, but a high concentration of iron.” He grinned. “We could stop for a meal.”
“Not that one, Thresh,” she growled. “The other one--this one.” The beautiful one. Her eyes glazed over as she stared at the floating ball, surrounded by the lonely expanse of blackness.
“Ah--okay.” More typing, each touch of his fingers punctuated by a quick hum of energy. The he hesitated. “I--am not quite sure how to pronounce this one, Aspirit.”
She walked over and glanced at the light-screen hovering above his keyboard.
CATEGORY FIVE - LIFE SUSTAINABLE
LIFE FORMS DETECTED - 7,125,063 WITH SIMILAR DNA, ? UNIDENTIFIED DNA
LIFE FORM INTELLIGENCE - UNKNOWN
INTERGALACTIC RELATIONS - NO DATA
INTERGALACTIC EXPLORATION - NO DATA
PLANETARY MAKEUP - MOLTEN CORE, 73.42% WATER, 26.58% MISC. LAND
PLANET IDENTIFICATION - MW3-7.4478 - EARTH
Below said assorted information, a picture of the planet spun slowly, flickering in the holographic technology.
“Ee-arth?” Aspirit said to herself. She continued to read the description of the strange but oddly alluring planet.
INHABITANTS OF THIS PLANET ARE CHRISTENED ‘HOMO-SAPIENS’, OR ‘HUMANS’. THEY HAVE A TENDENCY TO RESORT TO VIOLENCE, AMONG EACH OTHER AND TO STIMULI THEY FEAR OR ARE UNFAMILIAR WITH. NO RELATIONS WITH ALIEN SPECIES.
“Wow,” Aspirit whispered, looking at the pictures of the world below them. Tall mountains and vast seas, several beings that she had never seen before--things called ‘dogs’, ‘fish’, ‘cats’, and ‘parrots’ were the first things that drew her attention. ‘Insects’ reminded her of the inhabitants of Raxacoricofallapatorius, a neighboring planet in her system. The several limbs, strangely- shaped bodies, and various numbers of eyes were subtly familiar.
“Shall we make contact, As?” Thresh asked, his breath warm on the back of her neck. It drew her sharply back to the present, to their mission.
Drawing herself up, she let herself look a little longer at the picture of the ‘dog’ and smiled. “Yes, Thresh. We shall make contact. Will you inform our passengers? I shall send the message to this place--” Unsure once again about the Ee-Arth dialect, she pointed to a place that their scanners had zoomed in on.
WASHINGTON, D.C., UNITED STATES OF AMERICA flashed on the screen.
That was three years ago.
Octavian put his violio into his bag and zipped it shut. He was part of the test squadron--the first group of Pwanites to begin the Merge. They were to be heading to Earth--not Ee-Arth as Starshuttle Commander Aspirit initially reported--and living with humans around their same year.
Octavian hoped they liked music.
He had spent the past two years learning English, the language of the family he was going to stay with. They lived in a little place called--what was it?--South Carolina. Is there a North Carolina, he wondered. Or maybe an East and West one?
“Merge group headed for the East Coast of the United States of the America, prepare to beam down,” Thresh called over the intercom, pulling him from his thoughts about the varied Carolinas. “You guys will love it down there,” he added after a pause. “It’s so wonderful. Nothing like home.”
There was a nervous murmur spreading through the squadron--about 300 Pwanites total. Nothing like home? Octavion thought anxiously. His violio began to feel heavy in his bag. His palms started to sweat. What if they don’t like music? Oh gods. What if they won’t let me take my violio?
The starshuttle slowed to a stop and the squadron testees crowded at the big windows. Octavian stood up on a chair and peered over their heads.
Earth was a ball of swirls of blue squished together with lumps of green, misshapen and lush. White fluffy clouds floated about in the atmosphere.
“Hey, they’ve got clouds like us!” A small twelve-year boy shouted, his long-fingered hands pressed against the window. A pianoforteist, Octavian thought dimly, and felt a rush of relief. At least I’m not the only musician who volunteered.
Most of the other Pwanites who had come played sports (another thing Earth had) or painted and drew and sculpted, but few musicians had volunteered. Octavian was the only one of his friends who had signed up to be part of the Merge. They had all wished him luck and sent him trinkets to remind him of home.
Haunt had sent him with a simple necklace--a black cord with a gemstone pendant that said Live Long and Prosper--a saying from their neighbors, the Vulcans. Octavian hadn’t taken it off yet.
Taur had given him a new bow for his violio, strung tight with fiber that glew when it was played, and restrung his violio with the same fiber. Every tune he played was a different color. Octavian had nearly cried when playing one of Taur’s favorite pieces--it glowed a brilliant, sparkling orange--her favorite color.
Clovis had fashioned him a ring at his smithing shop--a silver band with several colored gemstones surrounding it, each with a different blessing.
“Ruby to find love where you land,” Octavian could hear his soft voice whispering. “Sapphire to be brave. Emerald to find luck. Peridot for dreams. Azurite for kindness. And the diamond--so that you may remain pure of heart.”
Octavian twisted the ring around his finger, gently touching each of the stones with his fingertips.
Lost in his thought, Octavian didn’t notice Thresh moving among the cluster of Pwanites, dividing them up into smaller groups to beam down until he was right in front of him.
Thresh had dark skin and matching hair, and perfectly white teeth that glinted when he smiled. His eyes were a bright gold, shining with a fierce light that Octavian had seen in many travelers.
“Ready, Octavian?” he said, resting a heavy hand on the musician’s shoulder. With a deep, shuddering breath, he nodded.
“Nothing to fear,” Thresh insisted with a grin. “You’ll love it. Trust me.”
Octavian was put into a group with the little boy he had seen before, his sister, and three other Pwanites that he didn’t know. Biting his lip, he glanced around at the other members of his group.
Beside the boy and his sister, there was a boy with long yellow hair, orange eyes, and a tall figure. He was anxiously rubbing his upper arms, and smiled silently at Octavian when their eyes met.
Another boy had glasses on over his firey red eyes, with earthy brown hair. He was younger than the first, and was muttering things under his breath. Octavian recognized the Earth’s Periodic Table of the Elements. He had had to memorize it as well before the merge.
The last girl was looking at her nails and not looking at any of the others. She had hair the same color of the star closest to Earth--what was it--Solarus--a rich orange. Her gaze was fixed firmly on pink nails, the same color as her eyes.
“Group D! Prepare to beam!”
“We’re E,” the first boy told Octavian. “I asked Thresh.”
“Good to know,” Octavian muttered, the first words that had passed his lips since he got on the ship.
It wasn’t much longer before their group was called. Octavian brought up the rear, and the little boy, who was obviously the bravest of them all, was leading the way.
“Now or never,” the dark-skinned boy murmured as the little boy and his sister jumped into the blue transport beam and disappeared. The little nervous boy went next, followed by the girl with pink nails. “See you on the ground.” Hesitating only for a second, he plunged in.
Octavian’s hands were shaking, so he grabbed his pendant and held on. Shifting the bag with his violio in it onto both shoulders, he closed his eyes, held his breath, and let himself fall forward.
He rematerialized in a crowded room--humans and Pwanites mixed. Group E huddled together, suddenly all scared.
A Pwanite official appeared, flanked on one side by a human. Both wore the ceremonial Pwanite white reception robes. The official had bright gold hair and blue eyes, and the human had long black hair and matching eyes.
They went in order, and Octavian gave his last. Their families were assigned until the musician was the only one left.
“Your host family is--the Rykers,” the human said, reading off of her clipboard. “The mother’s name is Marion, the father is Grant. There are two kids about your age--er, your year,” she amended quickly. “Thomas and Magnus.”
“Alright,” he said, gripping the straps of his backpack tighter. He had never longed so much for home. “Where are they?”
“If you’ll follow me, I’ll introduce you,” the Pwanite official stated--his name tag read Yang. Octavian nodded and followed as he turned away, and followed closely.
Everywhere they passed, humans and Pwanites were talking and laughing. He saw a little Pwanite girl with blue hair and gold eyes being hugged by a small human girl. And then something occurred to him.
“Yang?” he asked.
“The humans are so...monochromatic,” he said quietly. “Their hair--and even their eyes.”
Yang smiled. “You aren’t the first to notice that, Octavian,” he stated. “Yes, they are. Their hair only comes in four natural shades--brown, black, red, and yellow (here, they call it blonde). Same with their eyes--blue, green, gray, brown, and sometimes such a dark brown it is almost black. We must seem strange to them, hmm?”
Octavian suddenly found himself wishing that he had brought a hat to cover his mess of rich blue locks. It was a very dark blue with bits of black and green at the tips, and he touched it self-consciously.
“They seem strange to me,” he said. “How do they tell each other apart when they all have the same eyes and hair?”
Yang laughed. “Then you’ll like your family.”
Octavian gave a start. “What?”
Yang stopped, and the musician almost ran into him. “Good even, Rykers. This is Octavian--he’ll be your guest for the Merge.”
Taking a deep breath, Octavian stepped quickly around Yang.
The mother and father were standing up from two chairs against the wall. The father had dark hair and kind eyes behind glasses. He wore a black jacket of a strange material--leather, he recalled quickly, remembering the pictures he had been given to study--and blue...denim...pants over black boots. The mother had long yellow--blonde--hair and blue eyes that were shining with kindness, and a bright smile behind red lips. Her cheeks were flushed pink and she had a long multi-colored dress on.
The son stood up, and his reflection in the mirror to his left stood up as well. No--what?
There was no mirror. It was another boy. And they were identical.
They both had bright green eyes and messy brown hair--in fact, the only things different about them were their outfits. One wore a sports jersey--just like back home--and white pants over white socks and shoes. The other had on a pair of dark denim pants and black shoes, a chain around one hip, a gray buttoned shirt, and a watch on one wrist.
“Hello, Octavian,” the mother said, holding out her hand. Octavian tore his gaze away from the two boys and hastily accepted her hand, shaking it like he had been shown in classes. “I’m Marion Ryker.”
“I’m Grant,” the father continued, extending a hand. Octavian shook that too.
“G-Good to meet you,” he stammered.
“I’ll leave you to get acquainted,” Yang said, and Octavian turned to him quickly. “If you require assistance, Octavian, we are all wearing the ceremony clothes.” Then he bowed lowly. Octavian mocked him, ridiculously grateful for the one normal custom. It made so much more sense than moving your hands together.
“Thank you, Yang,” he said, straightening. The man smiled and turned, walking off.
None of his nervousness gone, he turned back to the family. More specifically, the two-boys-who-look-like-one.
“He’s Thomas,” the one said, pointing to the one in the jersey.
“And he’s Magnus,” the other said, pointing to his reflection. Then they laughed and both stuck out a hand.
“Good to meet you,” they said in unison. Staring, Octavian didn’t even register that he was supposed to shake their hands.
Instead, he blurted, “You two are the same.”
They looked at each other and burst out laughing. Octavian’s face burned and he longed to crawl into a hole. “I-I didn’t mean,” he began defensively.
“It’s okay,” the one called Magnus said with a grin. “They told us you don’t have twins on Pwanel. We just wanted to mess with you.”
“Twins?” was all Octavian could find.
“We’re the same in every way,” Thomas said, putting an arm on Magnus’s shoulder. “Except for I’m the sporty one--he’s the music nerd.”
Music! “You play music?” Octavian gasped, his eyes widening and a smile overtaking his lips.
“Do you?” Magnus asked, smiling as well.
“Are you hungry, Octavian?” Marion interrupted. “They told us you’d been on the shuttle for two weeks--fourteen days,” she added as Octavian shot her a strange look. “I forget you don’t count days in weeks.”
“A week is seven days,” Thomas clarified.
“Yes,” Octavian replied, and then stammered to clarify. “Hungry! Yes, I’m hungry. We only had morning-meal today--er, breakfast.”
“We can go out to dinner,” Grant replied with a smile, putting a hand on Octavian’s shoulder. “What do you like?”
Octavian opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came up. What if they didn’t have food here like they did at home, on Pwanel? What would he eat? That thought had never crossed his mind.
“I’m not--picky,” he ended up saying, his face burning against as he gripped his bag harder. Maybe they’ll have food like at home.
“We’ll go see what we can find, hmm?” the father said with a kind smile. “Come on boys--let’s go show Octavian around Earth.”
Octavian’s Journal: Earth Entry 1
Trees: Wood topped with plants, grows on its own?
Cats: Soft things with claws that WILL bite if you try to pet them when they don’t want it. Not good at listening to commands.
Dog: Soft thing with claws and teeth but seriously enjoys licking. Responds to “Apollo, down!”
Curry: NO NO NO NO
Queso: Good with chips and lots of water handy
Chicken: Two kinds. One: The alive kind with wings and beaks and tails, ‘crow’ in the morning. Two: Delicious meat FULL OF IRON stuck on bones.
Steak: MORE IRON THAN CHICKEN. Good done ‘rare’.
“What are you writing?”
Octavian slammed his journal shut and jerked his head up.
He was laying on his bed in the ‘guest room’, Marion had called it. They had brought him home after dinner--they had gone to three different restaurants trying to find something that Octavian could eat without almost throwing up. The curry was far, far too spicy for anything sane to eat. ‘Mexican’ was almost as spicy as curry. They went to a place called a ‘steakhouse’, and after some inquiry, Octavian had ordered ‘dark chicken meat’ and ‘rare steak’. Both were packed with iron, especially the ‘skin’. He also had developed a liking to ‘smoothies’. More iron. Mm.
Once they had returned from the ‘restaurant's’, Thomas and Magnus had introduced Octavian to their pets. Thankfully, that was one thing Octavian did know. They had pets on Pwanel--but nothing like these.
They had a ‘cat’ they called Zephyr. It was black with white paws, and said white paws concealed very sharp little claws that the cat used to attack things--the curtains, the chairs...Octavian.
The ‘dog’ was named “Apollo, down!” Either that, or just Apollo. He liked to jump on things. He was yellow--blonde?--and very big and covered in a lot of ‘fur’.
One of the ‘twin’ boys was standing in the doorway. Octavian struggled to tell them apart, and finally guessed it was Magnus, just judging by the outfit. He was wearing a black shirt with a v-neck and long black soft pants with white music notes on them.
Magnus leaned against the frame. “Sorry to bother you,” he said with a shy grin. “I just figured I’d come see how you were settling in. I probably should have knocked.”
“It’s okay,” Octavian said, swinging his legs off of the bed and sitting up. “I was just--making notes. I told my friends I’d tell them all about Earth life. They didn’t sign up for the Merge.”
“May I come in?” Magnus asked. When Octavian nodded, he came in and dropped into the circle chair sitting beside the window. “You asked--if I liked music before. Do you play?”
“The violio, pianoforte, a little drumming, and--I mean, Taur says I can sing,” he admitted quietly.
“You don’t have them here?” Suddenly nervous, Octavian glanced at his black bag sitting on the end of the bed. “I--I brought mine. It’s my favorite.”
“Can I see it?” Magnus asked. “I love music.”
“Sure,” he said after a slight pause, reaching for his bag and unzipping it. He pulled out the stringed instrument, and Magnus’s eyes widened. It was a soft silver color, shining in the dim light. It had two necks, side by side, each with six strings, one wide opening, buttons on the body for altering the sound, and several slits cut into the sides to allow the sound to resonate.
“God,” Magnus murmured, standing up and coming to sit beside Octavian. “It’s gorgeous! And it’s called--a violio? We have things that kind of look like this called a violin--it’s got one neck and is usually wooden, but it doesn’t have any of the buttons or holes in the body.”
Octavian smiled and fingered the recently restrung bow. “This one is a custom design. My father had it made for me when I was little.”
“Can--Can I hear it?” Magnus breathed. “It looks like it would make a gorgeous sound.”
Octavian nestled it under his jaw and stood up, catching sight of himself in the mirror. His tri-colored hair was dull in the lamplight, and his gold eyes gleamed. Hesitating, he lowered the violio as his gaze fell to Magnus, with his brown hair and emerald eyes.
Magnus’s brow furrowed in curiosity and he followed Octavian’s gaze--and his expression softened. “We look a lot alike, you know,” he said with a smile.
“No we don’t,” Octavian said, confused. His skin was incredibly light compared to Magnus’s--where the Earth inhabitants had Solarus to darken their skin, Pwanel’s faint starshine from Grigorio--their ‘sun’ star--wasn’t bright enough to darken his. Magnus stood, and even their heights were different. Magnus stood a little taller.
Octavian was drawn to subtle things. Their eyes--green and gold. Their hair--tri-colored and muted brown. Their hands were different. Octavian’s were slender from years of learning the violio, where Magnus’s were more widely shaped to hold drumsticks and ‘brass’ instruments--he played one called the ‘euphonium’.
“Just--look,” Magnus said, quietly. “We both have the same eyes, the same faces and shoulders and arms and legs. You know--we always thought of aliens as being--grotesque, almost,” he continued with a laugh. “Green things with several arms and multiple buggy eyes, two fingers on hands, traveling in saucers.”
“Oh--you mean Jestipans,” Octavian named with a smile. “They live on Kantar--another planet in our galaxy.”
Magnus stared at him. “That’s not my point,” he said after a long silence. “Just--look at us.” He put his arm around Octavian; the Pwanite tensed, but stared at the mirror. He could see it the longer he looked--the arms, the legs, the heads.
“I guess you’ve got a point,” he admitted quietly. “You know, I was so scared of the Merge.”
Magnus looked at him. “Why?”
Octavian set the violio down and paced to the window. The blue night sky soared overhead, dotted with stars and constellations that were unfamiliar to Octavian. The moon--Luunara--hung in the sky, a gentle light.
“No one on Pwanel had ever left the planet but the travelers,” he said, smiling as the sky filled his eyes. “And once we heard of Earth--it was so strange. We have a ‘sun’ star like you, but we also have several smaller ones. That’s why we’re so...differently-colored. They all have different colors, and the whole planet is just…” He let out a gentle breath and closed his eyes.
He was home, in the field of the multi-colored Skyflowers, with their rounded petals topped with fuzz, tasting the warm wind that blew from the Fire Mountains, and Taur, Clovis, and Haunt were at his sides. It was the last day before he was to leave.
“And when we heard of Earth,” Octavian repeated, opening his eyes as the vision fled, “and how you only had one ‘sun’--well, you can imagine what we thought.
“And we didn’t know what you humans were like,” he continued with a weak laugh. “We have others on neighboring planets that are incredibly prone to violence, and other neighboring beings that are so benevolent they’ve nearly given their world away.”
“Why did you come?” Magnus asked.
“I guess I wanted to see life off of Pwanel,” he guessed after a pause. “I don’t know why I signed up.”
“Do you...regret it?”
Octavian stared up at the sky for quite a long time, seeking out familiar stars and finding none.
“No,” he finally said. “I think…” He turned to Magnus at last. “I think the fresh air does a body good.”
Magnus grinned. “I’m glad, Octavian.”
“Now.” Octavian picked the violio back up. “Would you like to see what Pwanel music looks like?”
“Looks like?” Magnus echoed, brow furrowing.
With a mysterious smile, Octavian placed the violio under his chin and steadied the bow so the strings touched. Colored sparks began to form from just the faint contact.
“This is a song we call, Hware Tre Ut Enumet. In your language, it roughly translates to Hymn to the Moon.”
And there was not a room in that house that was not illuminated by the swirling, shining layers of blue that exploded from the violio. Magnus had never witnessed anything so beautiful.
And so, two years later, Squadron One--Test Merge was considered by the High Elders of Pwanel to be a complete success.