by Em Liu


He’s at the train station when he sees her again—the girl from the archangel grotto.

She had found him lurking in the grotto a month ago, in the free hour between his Tuesday afternoon philosophy seminar and his weekly consultation with Father Kellegher.

The grotto is a secluded thing, nestled into the side of the sea wall, where the mangrove roots and living concrete have grown together and carved out a nook. Amidst the trees that protect the sea wall from the relentless beat of the swollen ocean, he finds a respite from the empty Human eyes, the cacophony of their voices, and the coldness of their company. In the grotto, it’s just him and the statue of the spear-wielding archangel, with whom he imagines a kind of kinship.

On his very first visit to the parish, Father Kellegher had given him a St. Michael medallion stamped with an inscription:

At that time there shall arise
Michael, the great prince,
Guardian of your people.

He keeps it in his pocket and feels for it whenever his courage fails him. A reminder that one needn’t be Human to be a Saint.

He hadn’t heard the girl coming down the path until she was almost upon him. She had obviously not having expected to find the grotto occupied, much less by an alien sitting still enough that an iguana had slinked up next to him, its tail curled into his lap. Her gasp had sent the creature skittering for the tree cover, and for a long moment, they’d stared at one another. Finally, the learned habits of the last two years had kicked in, and he raised a hand, but not before she’d fled.

He’s seen her a few times since then, around the parish grounds, but they’ve never spoken. He never speaks to anyone unless spoken to.

But now she’s here, running for the local train. The doors bar themselves against her protests and the train pulls out of station, leaving her at the edge of the platform.

He had been standing there himself until the shriek of incoming highspeed had sent him skittering back into the shadows, like a terrified iguana, watching as the passengers offloaded, the air bubbling up with their noise as they made their way to the station terminal.

Now the station is silent, save for the creak of the wind through the faux-teak roof and the sound of the rain as it continues to beat down on the tracks. It’s also empty, except for him and the girl.

She glances over her shoulder, and he sinks deeper into the shadows. But she isn’t looking at him. He follows her gaze to the timetable hanging over the platform:


The wind pulls at her dark hair, straggly from the wind and mist, and he wonders why she hasn’t put it back, the way he has seen other Humans do.

The girl creeps closer to the edge, ignoring the official yellow line painted on the Chattahoochee platform. Her shoulders tighten when the automated warning reminds her to Please Stand Back, but she ignores it and kicks at the Chattahoochee, spraying pebbles down onto the tracks below. In the rain of pebble on rock, one lands with more music than it ought to.

She squats, peering into the track bed after whatever it is that she has kicked.

He feels into his empty pockets.

The girl glances up again at the timetable.


She jumps and lands with a crunch in the rocks that set the rail.

In another moment, she’s hauled herself back up to the platform, the muscles in her arms flexing. He knows when she’s seen him because her eyes go wide.

He’s not the first Sojourner to live here, or even the first to attend University. But there are very few aliens who venture ashore, and Humans do stare. A year of studying their expressions has taught him that it’s often merely curiosity that lies behind the fixed eye, but the emotelessness of it will always discomfit him.

Another highspeed arrives one platform over. The incoming breeze pulls at the oversized coat shrugged about his shoulders. The sound of her footsteps is swallowed up by the rain and Human cacophony. Up close, he can see the light refracted in each droplet that clings to her curls.

“Excuse me, Friend.” She holds out a closed hand. “Is this yours?”

He leans down, moving as slowly as possible. He is so much taller than most Humans, and this one is tiny.

She opens her hand and reveals the archangel medallion.

“I saw you.” She swallows. “In the St. Michael grotto. My name is Beth. I’m the groundswoman at Our Lady of the Universe. The—gardener. Father Kellegher mentioned you. He said that you needed a sponsor for the Rite of Initiation.”

She does not look frightened. But then, he might not know it if she did.

“You have no obligation.” His voice rolls through the wet air, metallic and tangy.

The girl’s jaw tightens and she takes a step back, though she does not drop her hand. “What is your name?”

“I have no name that I could teach you to speak.”

“But I must call you something, if I’m going to be your sponsor.”

His sponsor. Is she acting out of kindness—or religious obligation? He can’t tell, and the loneliness of that overwhelms him.

“Thank you.” He closes his eyes as he turns away, and the local train arrives.


He turns back. She’s still holding the medallion.

He holds a palm up in the Human gesture of refusal. “My gratitude.”


“She said yes,” the alien says.

Peter Kellegher forces himself to remain serene as the words course through him. The Sojourner voice has a peculiar quality that unsettles the chest, as though the heart has skipped a beat and the lungs have squeezed shut a moment. After so many weeks of meeting with his new convert, Peter still hasn’t accustomed himself to the sound of it.

Beside him on the garden bench, Peter’s convert unfurls himself like a morning glory, the purplish-blue of his proto-feathers shining in the sun. He has no name, and a gentle prodding to select a confirmation name has thus far been fruitless. So Peter thinks of him as the Sojourner, or the convert.

They always meet outside when the weather is good, in deference to the Sojourner’s cold-blooded nature.

Peter wipes his own brow, feeling, as always, a lingering vanity that his hairline should already be receding at his age. “Who has said yes to what, Friend?”

“Your gardener. The one you enlisted as my sponsor.”

“So you have made a decision, then?”

The Sojourner nods. “My mother has agreed. Reluctantly.”

“I’m glad.” Peter fights down a swelling of pride. The first alien convert.

Of course, the Sojourner isn’t really his convert. Just a young man with a strong draw to philosophy who had found his way to a fading, minority religion and asked for guidance.

The Sojourner shifts in the sunlight, unfolding his arms (or what Peter supposes are arms, no matter how much they look like the beginnings of wings). He spreads his shoulders, evolving before Peter’s eyes from morning glory to heron. “Beth. What is she like?”

Peter thinks first of the grown woman—distant, skeptical of life and the world. He chooses, instead, to speak of the girl he knew. “She’s like a light.”

Seven years ago, when they had first known each other at university, Beth had burned bright. They were like twin suns, circumnavigating one another, wholly independent of any other system and yet possessed of the sort of gravity that drew friends. Peter has often wondered if Beth wouldn’t have found herself also called to ministry, had she not suddenly dropped out—burned out.

After University, she had taken the quietest jobs she could find and leaned on him with dark, dead mass. Last year, she had stopped attending services altogether, lingering around the parish grounds, a lost soul he couldn’t reach.

A sponsor is supposed to be someone in good standing with the Church, a practicing Catholic. But let no one say that Peter is not ambitious.

“She will make a good sponsor for you, Friend.”


Peter frowns. “I’m sorry?”

“Beth called me Michael.”

Peter thinks that it might be wonder he hears in that unfathomable voice.


She had known that her partner was different, when they decided to spend the rest of their lives together. It hadn’t bothered her then—his restlessness, his desire to explore, his always-looking-up-to-the-sky. It had charmed her, to be a source of stability to one who was always wandering, the star to his far-flung satellite.

His strange affliction had been an advantage aboard the Sojourner ship. There had been a higher proportion of afflicted individuals among those who volunteered to leave their world. The mad ones had thrived in the adventure, and their spirit had kept the quiet desperation of the others from boiling over.

Finally they found it: a mid-sized planet in the habitable zone of a mid-sized star system, protected from meteoritic threats by the outer gas giants, and—most important of all—blue.

When they first arrived, the Human linguists had made valiant efforts to learn the Sojourner language, subjecting themselves over and over to the sickening sound of the infrasound voices. But in the end, it had sufficed that the Sojourners were perfectly capable of learning English and Chinese and French, the languages of their governments, and Latin, a language of lingering importance in their laboratories and their cathedrals.

She chose the name Aphrodite for the Venus de Milo.

The Louvre was an intimidating building, both ancient and space-age. In the early years, they were dragged all over the great temples and art museums by the Human ambassadors. Operas and symphonies were too grating on Sojourner ears, the stage and the novel too reliant on Human words. But imagery—that was something her people understood.

She especially enjoys sculpture. She could never see anything but flatness in their paintings, but one could move around a sculpture, could take in the amount of space it takes up.

In a hallway lined with Aphrodites, the Venus de Milo is her favorite. There’s a perfection in her brokenness, an unselfconsciousness in those sloping shoulders, and she sees herself in the Greek goddess of love, repurposed for a new people. Perhaps this goddess, too, had only ever wanted a warm hearth with partner and son, to stay with her, orbit with her.

But the warmth of that nest had been a slow boil for those with the madness gene, and for her partner, it had turned unbearable. The monotony turned him from a thriving planet to a dead rock that could not reflect light, no matter how brightly a hearth she burned, until finally that strange sickness had taken him from her altogether.

She hadn’t worried at first when she lost track of her little one, believing him to be somewhere in their company. It was only once back in the entrance hall that she realized her son was missing. Panic rose to think of her child lost in this endless Human labyrinth.

My son—my son is gone, the little one who was with us.

The Humans had stood around looking concerned but confused, scientists and politicians glancing nervously at one another in their uselessness.

The Humans had weapons. Weapons they had made a point of displaying before they realized her people had come as refugees and not as warriors. What if her son had somehow slipped the confines of the building altogether, and was now lost, wandering the streets of Paris, a multi-million-metropolis of unpredictably violent humans?

But they wouldn’t harm a child. They wouldn’t harm a child. They wouldn’t—

She startled to be touched, but the Human man who had startled her held out an open palm. Even in her panic, she understood he meant peace.

The man nodded, and she had understood that here was a Human whose mind was etched in a different way. This one was a parent, too.

They made their way back to the Hall of Italian Painting, the last place she remembered feeling the gentle tug of her son’s mind, the childlike desire to linger. They found him in one of the large inner chambers, leant up against a barricade and gazing with all the power of his young mind at Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, waves of contentment rolling off his feathers like water droplets. He had turned when they entered, his joy at seeing his mother turning to fright when he registered her anxiety.

It was then that she knew her son was exactly like her partner.


“What is your real name?” she asks him again.

The retreat center is styled in the old Japanese tradition, and they sit with their limbs tucked beneath the kotatsu, quilts piled up into their laps. His Aquinas philosophy is spread open on the low table between them, talons holding the pages secure in the sea breeze that floats through the open door.

“Michael is my real name.”

She raises an eyebrow at that. Then she shrugs with one shoulder and reaches to steal a blackberry from the bowl set between them. “But it’s not what you’ve been called your whole life.”

He had not partaken of the Human supper of boxed sandwiches with the rest of the Initiation candidates and has instead set himself up with a meal of lychees and blackberries. Beth seems to like these better than her sandwich too, although he notices that she peels the lychees before she eats them, her fingernails a vivid pink.

“I have told you,” he says. “I have no name I could teach you in any Human tongue. It does not require a tongue, you see.”

She rolls the fruit between her fingertips. “Please tell me anyway?”

Slowly, he reaches out a hand and touches the elbow nearest him. She drops the blackberry, and gently he closes his talons over the delicate Human skin, and he thinks in the language he has not spoken since he left the Rook.

Only his grip on her elbow prevents her total collapse. She slumps over the table, grimacing with nausea.

“Take a deep breath.” He speaks as gently as his harsh voice will allow.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispers.

He releases his grip on her elbow. “I had not yet spoken.”

“But I heard you.” She pushes herself up from the table, and her eyes scan his face.

“I was only sharing a connection—speaking in an abstract sense. Thinking.”

She frowns. “Is it true that Humans can’t learn the Sojourner language?”

“I do not know.”

“Can you teach me?”

He hesitates. The feathers at his neck slide over and under one another, and he touches the tips of his talons to the spot. “My people have integumentary sensor organs. Extremely sensitive auditory receptors—not unlike an American alligator. For us, proximity is sufficient, but you must feel the vibrations.” He examines her face, which is still pallid. “You felt dizzy, did you not?”

“Yes. And sick.” Her eyes are on his talons resting on the Aquinas. There is a sadness there he can see but cannot comprehend.

When she finally speaks again, it is only to wish him goodnight, and she disappears into her own room. He pushes back the feelings of regret as he burrows into his own futon.


When he wakes in the middle of the night, he has the lingering sense that some noise or movement has roused him from sleep. Light bleeds through the faux-paper panels in the sliding door.

Beth is at the kotatsu, the Aquinas open on the table before her and her head cradled in her arms. When he enters the room, she stirs. She nods at the book. “I borrowed it to see if your philosophers had any answers. But they only put me back to sleep.”

“Some nights the philosophers have wisdom that can illuminate the darkness.” He rolls his shoulder blades in the gesture that passes for a Human shrug. “Some nights nothing can penetrate it.”

She stands and pulls her jacket from the hook by the sliding door. “My dad used to tell me that the stars put things into perspective.”

They lie on their backs on the beach, looking up at the sky. The sand is cold in the darkness, but the electric blanket wrapped around his shoulders keeps him warm.

“D’you suppose there are any more of us?” Beth asks. “Or is it just Humans and Sojourners and that’s it?”

“There are others. There were never any others we could speak to, however.”

“Really? Other intelligent beings?”

“Of a sort. They were intelligent, we think, but they were… unoccupied with their own intelligence. Or at least, unconcerned with ours. Humans are the only beings we ever found who were looking for us, too.”

“Thank God you found us,” she says, lying back in the sand.

“Yes,” he agrees. “Thank God.”

“It’s lucky you can learn Human languages then, since we’ve so little hope of learning yours.” Her voice has a new tone to it, brighter and clearer. It doesn’t match her words.

He wraps the heated blanket more carefully about his neck. “Writing systems would have sufficed.”

They fall into silence, absorbing comfort from the sky, until he convinces himself he can feel the motion of the Earth, presenting him the familiar constellations in their endless parade, the steadiness of which is broken only by the occasional shooting star or passing satellite.

“Have you ever used a Human name before?” she asks.

“No.” His Human paperwork reads extraterrestrial alien, student. “But I like the one you have given me.”

“Good. It suits you.”

He lets the laughter roll off him in ripples, thinking of the archangel with his sword and shield. His people, cloistered in their little offshore tower, are nothing like warriors.

She props herself up on her elbow and leans over to look at him. The sand clings to her wide cheekbones, and her eyes reflect the starlight.

He mimics her position and reaches again for the warm inside of her elbow. The connection opens through that small point of contact, and when she doesn’t pull away, he sends the words speeding up her arm for her heart. Her eyes fly wide and come unfocused as her head tips back, scattering the reflected starlight.

And then she rolls over and is sick into the sand. After a minute, her coughs subside.

“Are you well?”

She nods, lies back onto the beach, her hands folded over her stomach. “Your name?”

“The name that you have given me,” he says. “Who is like God?


She may be the first Human stubborn enough to learn any of the Sojourner language, and for her this is a point of pride. For the first few weeks, the nausea is so bad that she is unable to hold herself upright for long, and so they practice in the archangel garden, where she can lean against the statue of St. Michael, nestled into the curve of his wing.

After a month, the nausea abates, and she can hold herself in a seated position—and her lunch in her stomach—while Michael speaks. Her body has made peace with the sensations, even if they remain too entropic for her mind to make sense of.

Within two months, she can identify his name—the one she has given him, translated into his own language—when he places his hand on her elbow and speaks. The first time she hears it, she looks up and laughs in astonishment. He makes an audible buzzing noise of his own, from the chest, which she supposes is laughter too.

He confesses his love of sailing, and so one day they rent a catamaran and sail out.

Beth sits out on the bow, her knees tucked up under her arms and her windbreaker luffing in the breeze. The netting stretched between the double hulls is an open weave, loose enough for a Human to push a few fingers between the scratchy ropes and hang on for dear life.

Michael stays in the semi-enclosed cockpit, with a space heater. The day is cool, and the dark clouds on the horizon promise rain.

Beth keeps her head turned toward the faint silver shoot on the horizon.

Faster and sooner and quicker, the Rook rises before them, until what was only a gleam five kilometers offshore is now a skyscraper that dwarfs the little boat. The Rook deserves every inch of its name: tall and imposing and a blinding blue-white, frosted in solar panels.

The onboard computer initiates the autopilot anchor assist, and the cat stills, steady despite the rising chop. All is quiet except the thunderclap of the blue-black water rushing between the double hulls.

Michael climbs out of the cockpit and onto the right hull of the bow. She picks her way across the net to him. “Can’t we get any closer?”

He points to a red floater four or five meters leeward. “This is as far as we can go, without setting off any alarms.”

She leans over the railing, aching toward the gleaming structure. “But surely your family wouldn’t mind, if it’s you?”

“My mother would alert the Coast Guard long before she knew it was us.”

“Your mother?”

He nods. “My mother is the headswoman of the Rook. She cut off contact with the Human world when I was a child.” He hesitates, then says, “I’m the first to live onshore in a generation. My mother has said that if I choose to stay, she will consider reopening communication with the Human world.”

“And your father?”

“Dead. When I was a child.”

“I’m sorry.” She touches his arm gently, and the proto-feathers shift and slide.

He pulls away from her touch and hands her a pair of binoculars. “There are gears inside the main tower.” He indicates the ring of mangrove trees that encircle the base of the tower. “When it was first built, sea levels were steady, but there was concern they might begin to rise again. The Rook can raise and lower the main level.”

She follows his guidance with the binoculars. “There are no other boats.”

“There’s a transport vessel docked in an inlet, round the other side.”

“Just one?”

“For emergencies. I am the only one who sails.” The rain that has threatened all morning finally begins, and the patters begin to beat the water around them. “My mother tells me I am like my father. He would have liked sailing, too.”

She lowers the binoculars and looks at him. “Is it that unusual?”

“My mother resisted my decision to go to University. She feared it was a sign of restlessness. She worried…”

Michael does not leave his sentences unfinished often. Beth has attributed this to the fact that he thinks before he speaks, but now she wonders if it isn’t because this is the first time he has regretted speaking.

“That you would end up like your father,” she finishes for him.


“Were your parents married long?”

“I suppose Humans wouldn’t refer to our partnerships as marriage. There is no ceremony. I was young when my father died, but I remember the feeling of him—of our family.”

“Mine felt like that too. Like a family. But my father was unhappy.” She looks past Michael’s tall shoulder at the Rook. “I miss him. It makes me wonder what might have happened, if he had stayed.”

“Even love cannot stop someone, if he is meant to leave.”

“No,” she agrees. The rain falls harder, drumming pockmarks into the waves. Beth gives the Rook one last glance, then retakes her seat on the net. “Let’s go home.”


Human laughter had surprised him.

Not because he had thought them without humor, per se, but because the lonely nature of their language had not seemed to permit the existence of mutual mirth.

He was disabused of this notion his first day at University. A girl in his philosophy seminar had laughed, loud and high-pitched and changeable, like a mockingbird. The sound made the skin under his feathers tighten irritably, and it was several minutes—after the chortling had passed from student to student like a virus—before he understood what he had heard. Human laughter, he concluded, was unpleasant.

A week later, his professor had laughed at a student’s joke about Kant’s theory of the sublime, and the sound had been deep and rumbly, like the low roll of thunder on the horizon. He had only realized that this new sound was laughter too when the mockingbird-girl had shrieked again and set off the rest of the class.

Beth’s laughter was something in between. It still put him in mind of a bird, but unlike the others’ squawking animal sounds, it inspired laughter inside him.

Tonight, when they sneak down to the archangel grotto after the rehearsal for next week’s Vigil service, she brings along a lunch box, from which she pulls a silver flask and takes a swig.

“What does it feel like?” he asks.

She swallows and looks pensively at the bottle. “Warmth.”

His body cannot process alcohol, and so she’s brought a Thermos of herbal tea for him and a tub of blackberries topped with sugared cream, which she sets out between them.

He thinks she smiles, although it’s hard to tell in the darkness. She’s nestled in the protective cavity of St. Michael’s wing. A lantern at her feet throws feathered patterns into the darkness.

He holds out his hand, and her fingers slip with easy practice into his. “You do feel different.”

She snatches her hand away. “I thought you couldn’t read my mind?”

“I cannot hear your mind the way you can hear mine. But I can feel you.”

She adjusts the lantern, throwing more of the light onto his face. “What feels so different?”

He hesitates, as if he’s found himself waist-deep in dark water into which he’d never intended to wade.

She wraps her arms around her legs and rests her chin on her knees, waiting.

“Your heart rate, your breath, the electrical impulses in your nervous system—it is easy to tell when you are experiencing a strong emotion, such as when you are anxious, or sad. But tonight, you feel calm. I think, maybe, that you are happy.”

“I am,” she says. “I am happy.”

“I can understand, then, why Humans enjoy alcohol.”

She laughs, and he feels a thrill of success.

“I like being here,” she says. “In the archangel grotto, with you. I like sailing with you. I’m happy because we’re friends.”

Tomorrow, he will go to his mother and tell her that he has made his decision. He will stay onshore, and the communication channels between their worlds will be opened once more. “I am too,” he says. “I am very happy.”

The light from the lantern dances in her eyes. They watch one another for several long seconds, until her cheeks redden and she drops her gaze, ducking her head so that the thick curls fall around her face.

He reaches across the lantern light and slides a hand beneath the dark curtain of hair. She doesn’t pull away, and he lets his palm rest against her temple. Slowly, without breaking the connection, she lifts her eyes, and he sees the galaxies reflected there.

“Beth. Will you marry me?”


Of all Peter’s regular confessants, Michael and Beth are the only two he never meets in the confessional. Michael, of course, prefers the garden; Beth he finds wherever she happens to put her feet up, usually somewhere avoiding the main sanctuary.

This evening she’s in the narthex, leant up against the cathedral-height windows with her knees gathered to her chest, gazing out at the electrical storm gathering over the ocean. Every flash throws the statue of Our Lady of the Universe in the courtyard into sharp relief, clear enough to count the twelve stars on the bronze figure’s head. The flashes of lightning are the only light in the empty church.

She glances up at him and smiles softly. “Will you hear my confession?”

It’s been a long time since she’s asked that question. He pools himself onto the floor beside her and raises his hand for the blessing.

When she finally speaks, her voice is soft. “I think I’ve broken someone’s heart.”

He pauses, to be sure there isn’t more, then says, “That’s not, in and of itself, a sin.”

“But how can it not be, when—” Her voice catches, and she claps a hand over her mouth.

Peter hasn’t seen Beth cry in years. He sighs and looks up at the black beams that cut the cathedral windows into the quadrangles of a cross. “What happened?”

“He asked me to marry him.” The words are flooded in tears.


She lifts her head, and her face is tear-streaked and fearsome. “And what?”

“What did you say to him?”

“What could I say?” Her voice is all astonishment. “He isn’t…”

“What? Capable of love? Worthy of it?”


The word hangs in the narthex the way that lightning lingers in a cloudy sky, and in its clarity he sees the truth in her face.

“Beth,” he says, “Michael returned home. To the Rook.”

She’s wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her jacket. “But he’ll come back. For the Vigil. The baptism.”

Peter shakes his head. “There isn’t going to be a baptism. Michael left me a note. He made a promise to his mother, that if life onshore didn’t work out, that he would return to the Rook. For good.”

Lightning flashes again, highlighting the tear tracks that stain her thunderstruck face.

“But—he has to come back.” The color rises into her cheeks. “He was going to tell his mother to re-open the Rook. You have to tell him to come back! Call him back!” Her voice rings through the empty church.

Peter holds out his hands. “Beth. There is no way to contact the Rook.”

His heart is breaking for her, but when the light flashes again her eyes are fixed on the sea.

“There is one way.”


It’s been so long, she has to hunt for the word.


A Human girl, here in the Rook, hiding among the water boilers on the powerhouse level. She darts between the support struts and stops behind one of the larger boilers, as though any passerby could not hear the audacious hammering of her mammalian heart.

This, Aphrodite knows, has something to do with her son.

Her beautiful son who had sailed in from the coast only yesterday, reeking of misery.

The girl’s breath comes in audible little puffs. Two of the engineers are nearby, occupied by maintenance of the storm drain, and Aphrodite signals them. When the girl moves from her hiding spot, they take hold of the intruder, one to an arm.

The girl screams.

The engineers let go in shock, like they’ve been burned. Aphrodite cannot blame them; her own receptors are still crawling with the reverberations.

The girl backs into a wall, arms outstretched and wide-eyed. Her hair is longer, wilder, than Aphrodite has ever seen on a Human. Rain and seawater cling to her hair, and the curls are heavy and lank with the water, like the rest of her clothing.

The girl’s scream echoes through the halls again, and this time, Aphrodite realizes that the scream contains a Human word: “No!”

The girl squirms, as though the wall could somehow give way, absorb her body. She flinches as Aphrodite stretches out a hand but does not resist the touch of claws to her temple, and Aphrodite catches the limp Human figure in her arms.


The girl wakes with a gasp and immediately begins to thrash, sobbing like a fish out of water. The two engineers are still at her side, one to an arm, their fingers wrapped gently but firmly around the girl’s upper arms, restraining her movements and steeled, now, for the terrible sound of the Human voice.

“Why?” The Human word feels stale in Aphrodite’s mouth, hard and crusty.

The girl’s irises—a brown so dark they’re barely distinguishable from the black of the pupils—are wide. She inhales shakily. “I need to speak with your son.”

Her son. Aphrodite feels a frisson of fear. Was it not enough that they chased him back here? What do they want with him now? “Leave.”

“Please.” The girl is panting, squirming against her captors. “I just want to speak with him—and then I will go. I won’t come back. I promise.”

Someone summons her son from the upper chamber where he has secluded himself. He arrives in a daze that suggests he must have been sleeping. Gently, his sweet soul reaches out—what is it?

Aphrodite watches as he slowly takes in the surroundings: his eyes sweep the ceiling, the lights, the bench and restraints.

And then he sees the girl. His response is instantaneous and fearsome, incomprehensible but for the waves of anger that beat with the rage of some internal storm.

She has expected some reaction, expected that he will recognize this girl, but the intensity of the emotion surprises her. And then she understands that it is all directed at herself.

What did you do? His demand is formidable enough that the engineers back away again, their hands at their sides.

No harm. She speaks in a mollifying tone, surprised to find herself on the defensive. I only spoke to her.

His doubt comes across in thick waves.

Loudly, she admits.

From the bench, the Human girl sees him and struggles to lift herself. She desists when he presses a hand into her shoulder.

“Beth,” he says in the Human tongue, “what have you done?”

“Michael. Father Kellegher said you had gone.” The girl succeeds in pushing herself up onto her elbows. “Please… please come home.”

His pain, as he turns his eyes away from the girl, is as excruciatingly exposed as his anger. Any ability her son had to hide his emotions—already so worn down from his time among the Humans—has disintegrated entirely with the appearance of this girl.

Then the girl grabs hold of his fingers and, incredibly, speaks.

Her words are nothing but gibberish. And yet they must make sense to him, because the anxious vibrations around him grow still. The girl’s hand falls from his arm as he reaches out, brushes the dark hair back from her temples, and speaks into the Human skin the same gentle nonsense words.

Names, Aphrodite realizes. They have named one another.

Her confusion gives way to gentleness, and her son turns toward her, and she loves him.

“Mother,” he says aloud, for the sake of the girl. “I love you.”

She thinks of her partner, long gone, and her son, still here.

“Go home,” she tells him.

Em Liu grew up in Palm Beach, Florida, and has lived in the American Southwest, the Midwest, New England, and Japan. She now resides with her husband and new son in the greater Washington, DC, metro area, where she researches financial systems by day and devises magic systems by night. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Daily Science Fiction, Fireside, and others, and you can find her at www.emliuwriting.com or on Twitter as @EmLiuWriting.

“Michael” by Em Liu. Copyright © 2020 by Em Liu.

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  1. Fantastical and strikingly original! A riveting piece that draws you in with its vivid descriptions and pure emotions. Loved it!


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