by S.C. Meyers
A sci-fi short story previously published in "The Liar" from Capilano University
Rubash was technically naked, but decades ago, legal precedents had established carapace as clothing for the purposes of public indecency laws on Alessa. That morning, before Rubash had left, eighth elder brother Dleshe had shown him a holosense of the family arriving on the transport from Malka. At that time, Dleshe had been a gangly young Kronar. "To show you how much things have changed," his brother had said.
Native Alessans, horrified by the waves of naked bug-looking refugees descending on their planet, had organized an emergency clothing drive and wouldn't let Dleshe and his brothers off the ship until they had donned the ill-fitting Alessan hand-me-downs. The whole thing had been done under the banner of charity, Dleshe explained, even though the clothing interfered with the heat-shedding properties of Kronar carapace, and the local media had trumpeted the deeds of the generous Alessan people.
Things were better now. The family etchings carved into his carapace caught the sunlight as he strode proudly up the steps of the Sena Archipelago School of Astronavigation. The first Kronar to attend the prestigious school.
At the top of the steps was the quad, a large rectangular plaza built into the fork of the giant mangrove tree that formed the foundations of the outer city. In the center of the quad, a group of native Alessans--short, gold-skinned, and angry-looking--held protest signs.
Roaches Go Home, one read, another Bugs Have Hives, Alessans Have Families.
Rubash had encountered these types before, and he gave them a wide berth on his way to the registration office for his student ID biometrics and schedule, but they followed him on his way, jeering insults.
"Did you fuck your sister last night?" one of the younger protesters with wiry hair formed into spikes called after him.
"Did you?" Rubash called back. That stereotype bothered him the most. It stemmed from a deep confusion regarding the nature of Kronar families. Alessans generally formed long term monogamous pairings and raised children with someone who had not grown up in the same household, an anachronism from when families were genetically related and children incubated inside female bodies.
A few months ago Rubash had tried to explain it to his younger sister Isha when her classmates made fun of her at school. He had found her crying on the balcony behind Shulad's rowanberry plants. "Rafian made fun of me today because I don't have a mom and dad," she said between sniffles.
He picked her up and put her on his knee as he sat on one of the patio chairs. "But you have nine brothers and sisters to take care of you. I bet Rafian only has two parents."
"Yeah, but Rafian has brothers and sisters too."
"Alessan brothers and sisters are different; when they grow up they'll move away and won't live together anymore. You'll always live with us. And someday we'll have the doctor make us a new baby brother or sister and you can help us take care of them. Would you like that?"
"Okay," she said, leaning against his chest, tracing the intricate etchings unique to their family with her fingers. "When do I get some of these?"
"When you stop growing so fast," he said and kissed her on her upper cheek plate.
"Why don't the goldskins have them?"
"Don't call them that. Alessans don't have them because they are soft and squishy. On the planet we came from, soft and squishy things can't live. That's why we have carapace. It protects us, just like our families." He balled his hand up and rapped it against the ridges of her skull. "See? Safe and sound."
Rubash smiled, thinking about his sister, and pushed past the protesters who had moved to block his way. The door to the main office slid open as he approached but the crowd stayed outside. Inside the office, there was a row of cubicles with biometric equipment for the registration system. Rubash noted with dismay that all the other students were wearing clothes with the school logo.
If you would like to register for classes, please take a number and sit in the waiting area, the main office sensenet spoke in Rubash's mind through his holosense. Rubash acknowledged the message and an applet appeared in his vision showing he was currently twenty sixth in line for registration. He found an empty seat in the roped off seating area and waited patiently as the counter in his vision ticked down. When it reached zero he was directed to one of the cubicles where an ancient Alessan woman with short clipped hair and a fat round face sat in front of the jumble of devices. She handed a visor to Rubash. "Retinal scan," she said.
Rubash put on the visor and a bright red light made him squint.
"You can take it off now, honey," she said.
After probing him with several other devices including a three dimensional holographic scanner, the woman picked up a frightening machine with a trigger. "Blood sample," she said, but then paused, looking at Rubash's carapace. "Honey, I'm not sure this is going to work. Have you ever had a blood sample taken?"
"Well let's see how it goes." She slipped the cuff around his arm, tightened it and pulled the trigger. Rubash didn't feel anything. She pulled the trigger again then shook her head. "Not working, see?" she said, sharing the device's interface with his holosense. An applet appeared in his vision, flashing a warning, Needle obstructed. "No blood sample, no registration, honey. Those are the rules."
Rubash frowned. The woman seemed less than concerned, perhaps even triumphant, unless he was imagining things. He was pretty sure she didn't mean it when she called him honey in any case. She strummed the desk impatiently with her fingers.
"Can I come back another day? I could bring a blood sample from my doctor."
"No, all students must register on their assigned day."
"But surely, in this case, you can make an exception."
"No exceptions, honey."
Now Rubash was angry. He stood up from the chair, towering over the walls of the cubicle. His third elder brother Shulad was an attorney and Rubash tried to put on the face he saw his brother use during arguments. "You can't possibly expect me to be responsible for your failure to take my blood sample. I received my registration day, and I arrived as requested. The message I received said nothing about bringing my own blood sample, or teaching school employees how to use their own equipment."
The whole room was staring at him now, and the woman's face had a taut expression. She didn't call him honey anymore. "I'm going to need to ask someone about this." She stood up and walked into a back room. Through the frosted glass sliding door Rubash could see the blurred form of the woman waving the device and gesticulating at someone out of sight. Another taller blurry figure appeared behind the door and they came back into the room.
The other figure was a middle-aged man and tall for an Alessan, his wire-like hair bent into rows similar to Rubash's own skull ridges. On the man's hands, Rubash saw tattoos that looked like Kronar family etchings poking out from beneath the man's long sleeves. He approached Rubash, who was still standing. "It's alright, we'll get you sorted out," he said.
Rubash sat. The man took hold of his arm and placed it on the desk. He pulled Rubash's arm forward until his elbow locked and a small gap opened in his carapace. He slipped the cuff over the gap and pulled the trigger. The applet, which was still in his holosense, turned green and then disappeared. "See, no problem," the man said. "One of my Kronar brothers had a medical condition. We had one of these in the house for daily samples."
The man winked at him and got up to give the old woman her seat.
"One of your... Kronar brothers?" Rubash said.
"Yes, I was raised in a Kronar family," the man said. "I wish families like mine were more common. My brothers and sisters decided it would be better for their children to be Alessan, rather than Kronar, so they had us engineered from Alessan gene banks. We can't just expect an entire planet full of people to adapt to us."
Rubash was speechless. He had never even considered the possibility. The man continued, "If you think about it, it's just like how we became Kronar in the first place, to adapt the the harsh environment of our planet. Now the Kronar need to adapt to this environment."
"Do you live with your family?" Rubash asked.
"No, I got married--like a proper Alessan." He smiled. "Well, I need to get back to work."
The old woman sat down again. "Well honey, let's talk about your uniform," she said with a wicked smile.
On the way home, Rubash clutched the bag of school clothes the administrators had forced him to buy. A new rule passed by the board of governors stated that all students must wear clothes bearing the school's logo. They claimed it was for fundraising, but Rubash was certain it was a personal attack on him.
Feeling bitter at the thought of being forced to wear Alessan clothing, humiliated like Dleshe all those years ago, Rubash decided to walk home through the twisted paths of the mangrove forest instead of hailing one of the city's automated jitney cars. He sent a message to his third elder brother Shulad. You there, Shulad? he thought silently into the network through his holosense.
Yeah, how'd it go? he heard his brother's voice in his mind.
I don't know. A lot of people don't want me there, even the faculty. They made a new rule. Everyone has to wear clothes with the school's logo on them. They don't even sell ones big enough for me.
You knew it would be hard being first. If you let it bother you, you let the bigots win.
"I guess," Rubash said aloud, before explaining about the Alessan man who was really Kronar.
I've heard of families doing that. It makes sense and I don't blame them. I guess we all just liked being Kronar too much to deprive you of it. Things are better now than they were when I was your age, so I don't think we made a mistake, Shulad said.
As they talked, Rubash neared his home. Almost all the dwellings were Kronar now and he saw families sitting on their balconies or eating in the plaza together, and he wondered if all their lives would have been easier if they had simply chosen to have Alessan children and blend in.
Then he passed an etch shop.
Inside the shop, a young Kronar was getting his first family etching. He thought of Isha in five or six years sitting in that chair, getting a physical reminder of her family's history in symbols and patterns. He smiled.
Suddenly he stopped walking. He sent a message to Shulad, Does Kronar carapace count as clothing legally? In all cases?
There was no response for a moment. Then Yes, the law is clear.
Good, Rubash said, I have an idea.
On the first day of graduate school, Rubash walked into class naked as the day he was born. The Alessan students--all dressed in their uniforms--stared at him as he took a seat in the front row. Some of the students smiled at him, some looked away when he caught their eyes. But it didn't matter to him; there was nothing they could do.
On his chest, in large block letters, was etched a new chapter in his family's history, the school's name and logo.