Babysitting the Taran-Saurus
A Vyrian Incursion Story
by Lance Schonberg
We made seven passes through the dinosaur galleries, the first three one right after the other without a break in between. After that, I managed to drag him to a few other areas, but only if animals were involved. He didn’t care at all about earlier human history, mostly due to the lack of robots and aliens involved, and animals were far more interesting than people. The Hall of Reptiles went over well, except it reminded him of the dinosaurs and he started talking about that again before we’d made a loop halfway through.
During our last circuit through the dinosaur galleries, we turned a corner and almost skidded to a halt at the sight of a pair of Vyria examining one of the Allosaur skeletons. I’d never seen one of them in person before, at least not up close. That hadn’t bothered me before, and I couldn’t understand why it brought my guard up now.
The rest of the humans in the gallery, and most of them consciously judging by the stares and nervous glances, gave the blue-green skinned aliens a wide berth. Not Taran, of course. He walked right up beside them with all the confidence of having been through the room six times already, pointed at the skeleton and smiled. “Allosaurs had lots of teeth and are stinky.”
By the suddenly stiff spines, the aliens were a little shocked that anyone, especially a child, was willing to approach them. Once they got past that shock, both facial expressions smoothed into a sort of bland, pleasant structure, an approximation or imitation of being pleased.
I wondered why they should be surprised. Most kids have no real concept of alien or different until they’re taught that way, so as far as Taran might be concerned, the seven-foot-plus tall bluish people were just that: people. And if my research suggested shades of blue, green, and occasionally purple, with hair tending lighter, his suggested that almost everyone was taller than he was anyway, so what difference did skin tone make?
And maybe the surprise and its disappearance matched up. The main schools of thought ran that Vyrian thought processes and emotions paralleled ours for the most part, not that they’d shared anything in that field, though mental wiring would be very different and subconscious cues could never match, however human they might look. Proof, I supposed, that no matter how similar the starting conditions, and I had no idea what Vyria, or whatever they called it, might be like, evolution wouldn’t produce the exact same answer twice. Similar, maybe, but not the same. The Vyrians claimed to have encountered a dozen other sentient species in their travels and none of the rest were even vaguely humanoid.
Beyond their initial reaction, the two were quite good natured about the intrusion into their personal space. One bent down to speak to Taran and I had to fight to stay as relaxed. With nothing to justify the alarm bells in my head but unknowns, the worst reaction I could publicly justify was to step in close and hold Taran’s hand.
One crouched down far enough to attempt to look Taran in the eye. “Ran’cha hol keh-” He hesitated, and the shift of mental gears accompanying the language change made an almost audible grinding sound as his mouth twisted several times. “They do certainly have a large number of teeth, small one, but I do not detect any particularly unpleasant odour coming from the fossilized skeleton of the allosaur, or much of an odour at all, for that matter.”
His companion smiled, to me a chilling gesture filled with barely concealed teeth. “He means extinct, Mook’lan.”
Ah puzzled frown came just ahead of a slight greening of Mook’lan’s face. “Yes. I understand. Now.” Rising, his eyes moved well past mine before looking down at me. “You must excuse me, please. I find your language very difficult.”
I shook my head, trying a smile of my own, and wondering why I found it so hard. “No apology necessary. English is a language that borrows and steals from every other language it bumps into. It’s difficult enough for most humans not born to it, and you speak it very well..”
The second one nodded. I tried to pick out differences between them besides the slightly lighter skin tone, coming up with a fatter nose and not much more. “It is quite a challenge. I do not know how the original linguistics team managed to decipher it, though I’m certain they had an easier time than those on other contact missions.” He carefully extended a large hand. “I am called Rastin Shrooden and my companion is Holkit Shrooden.” Not what he’d called him a moment ago, and I filed Mook’lan away as a title or nickname.
I shook hands with both of them, giving the fake name I’d selected for today. The twinge of guilt I felt at the lie puzzled me. Lies were part of the job in general and very much part of my current job. I’d have to kick myself for being stupid later, whether it was some bit of racial guilt at not being entirely honest to visitors from the stars or getting soft around Taran. Either way, I couldn’t quite squash the feeling and that bothered me.
While I did manage to keep stupidities like, “So, how are you enjoying Earth?” or “Why did you wait so long to come here?” from falling out of my mouth, the small talk I settled on instead depressed me, asking after their health and enjoyment of the museum. A little more comfortable after the exchange, I admitted curiosity about family arrangements without knowing where the question came from. It did seem to impress them, but for no obvious reason I could see.
“You have likely understood that our ships are multi-generational.” Holkit bobbed his head, eyes widening along with his smile. “So our families travel with us. Mine is here in the Enclave.” He paused, tilting his head to one side. “But I think perhaps you meant the structure of our families. Is that so?”
Rastin sighed, an oddly human sound. “Clearly.”
Ignoring his companion—brother?—Holkit continued at my nod as if the other hadn’t spoken. “This can be quite variable, I suppose, though culturally most typical is a collection of bonded pairs tied together by blood or vows to form a… hmm, I believe you would possibly say a small clan. Each of the pairs has children or not as they choose or nature allows, although those children are considered a collective responsibility, not solely of the province of the biological parents. My clan is small with myself, two of my siblings, our mates, and our four children.”
Rastin interrupted. “While mine is considerably larger, with fourteen bonded adult pairs, including eight parents, plus eleven children. They remain on the ship in orbit, however.”
Something else I didn’t understand, but didn’t ask about since they hadn’t answered anyone else in the last ten years. The Vyrians had parked four colossal ships in orbit, each with thousands of people on board, and left them hanging there for nearly a decade while only a few hundred landed at a time for trade and information delegations. Granted that there weren’t many places interested in a flood of aliens, but the world was certainly big enough that they could all come down and explore if they wanted to. Unless we didn’t want them to have that level of free reign, poking around, taking genetic samples, and buying stories. Plus, some nations wouldn’t welcome the aliens at all and might be active in their displeasure if the Vyrians chose to visit a near neighbour. I supposed it might be safer to remain in high orbit. People had enough to deal with.
Holkit’s lecture went on minute or so before winding down and we slid back into small talk, remarkably like the human to human variety, for a brief time before Rastin began to get restless. Discomfort or, more likely, a schedule to keep, but I couldn’t read his expression well enough to pick one. While Holkit seemed reluctant, Rastin, on the verge of pulling away, asked the final question of the conversation, and the one that ultimately ended our visit to the museum, with his brow creased.
“Your pardon if this is personal, but your son does not much resemble your physical appearance. Is this common among humans?”
“My nephew, actually.” Strange how hard the lie was to get out. Not a twitch showed through my smile, I hoped, but inside all of my defense systems came back to full alert. Taran’s hand felt a little cooler to the touch as I tried, unsuccessfully, to clamp down on the impulse to carry the answer further than it needed to go. “But it’s still a good question, I guess. Basic genetics. Since any child takes half of his or her genes from each parents, they should have traits in common with both. They probably have traits in common with near relatives, too—aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins—by sharing a quarter or an eighth of their genes with them. Whether those are visible traits or not is a different question and depends on the gene mix. Do Vyrian genetics work differently?”
Rastin’s face darkened. No, not just darkened. Flushed. He was embarrassed, and for more than just a linguistic mistake. Something else to file away for reference. “I am sorry. You are right, of course. It’s only, well, I thought for a moment he resembled someone else I have met.” A weak finish, even if it might be true. Nice to know the aliens sometimes suffered from foot-in-mouth disease, but that weak finish made my mind churn harder. Something wasn’t right.
I smiled, putting as much warmth into the expression as I could and hoping they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. “Taran does favour his mother.” And he might, not that I had any idea.
Rastin smiled back, his face still a bit darker than when the conversation began. “Of course.” He bowed far enough to break eye contact. “Open spaces.”
Holkit smoothed out a frown and I wondered if he might be puzzled, missing something in the conversation. but bowed anyway. “It was pleasant to make your acquaintance. Open spaces.”
I returned the bow, hoping I managed to look a bit awkward. “It was nice to meet both of you.”
They bowed to Taran as well, who giggled and tried to bow back.
As I watched them walk away, something beeped quietly on Rastin’s belt. He poked at it a couple of times before waving a hand above the black surface and bringing it to his face. I heard him speak a few words in his own language, and guessed device to be the Vyrian equivalent of a cell phone. He glanced back at us once as they walked away, though Holkit didn’t appear to notice.
I looked down at Taran, impressed with how quiet and considerate he’d been during the conversation and I told him so. “Maybe you’ve even earned a treat for being so nice and polite to the spacemen.”
Stop somewhere special for dinner might be good for both of us. “You got it, bud.”
“Yay!” He jumped up, but then stopped, his little face creasing as he mulled something over. “Dinosaurs done?”
I had to smile. “Well, I guess we can finish looking at them before we go.”
“Yay!” He pulled me to the next skeleton, tumbling through something about a dimetrodon’s spines, but I had a hard time catching all of the words. My mind was still working hard, my subconscious desperate to tell me something. It would come eventually, I hoped, but until it did, I’d be looking over my shoulder more than usual. No, not more than usual, just more than I had been since Taran and I left the apartment that morning. Something wasn’t right, and I felt just a little compromised.