by Malka Older
There was a rupture a few cycles before Exelle went to Earth for the first time. It was just a small one, far from populated areas and, most importantly (as Exelle explained to her mother and friends), predicted.
“The only casualties were because people actually went to watch,” she told them. “Everyone who wanted to avoid it did, but some idiots wanted to see the lava flows up close, and even in that group only a few were caught in it.”
“You won’t do that, will you?” her mother asked.
“Of course not!” Exelle said. She wasn’t going to Earth to chase after thrills or prove anything.
“So why are you going?” her soul-friend Saiwai asked, when Exelle repeated the conversation with her. “I mean, no matter what you say, it’s dangerous.”
“It’s where we come from.” Exelle answered as emphatically as she could. Her own conviction was fading in proportion to the drastic news coverage of the rupture.
“Yeah, and there’s a reason we left,” Saiwai said. “The whole planet is going to fall apart.”
“Not for hundreds of cycles!” The problem was, of course, that nobody knew exactly when; it could be in hundreds of cycles, it could be next cycle. But most experts said hundreds, and Exelle thought the fact that they had accurately (or almost accurately) predicted the place and time of the latest rupture was a good sign.
And so she went. She was signed up and her ticket was paid and everyone knew she was going, so however many urgent last-breath fears she had, however strong that sense of certainty that she was committing time-delayed suicide, she had to go. Or so she told herself, and so she went.
One of the commitments that kept her going was the acceptance to Xinsibirsk Dashu, the best university (left) on Earth. She landed there on a warm late winter morning, woozy from the long space journey and the worry, barely able to note the strange smells that her ancestors’ noses had evolved in tandem with, the strange angle of the sunlight. The strange everything, really. She crawled into the capsule assigned to her in the extraterrestrials’ dorm and slept until she woke up.
The classes and the routine helped her manage the sense of strangeness for a while. There were relatively few extraterrestrials at that point, with the (overblown, everyone assured her) concerns about the ruptures and eventual orbital instability, but there had been a time when many came to experience a few cycles on Earth, and the facilities still existed to make them feel at home. She could live almost like she was still on Sebrang, if she wanted to. But Exelle discovered a thirst for difference. She turned off her translator sometimes, in class; at first for a vertiginous few moments of incomprehension, and then (after she discovered the subtitles function) for longer periods, until she started to pick out familiar words through the antiquated rhythms.
She started trying out Earthling words on her Earthling classmates. It was hard to tell which were friends, and which were just people willing to talk to her about her research. Exelle was warned before she left about how “friendly” Earthlings could be, how their culture was very direct and hospitable and expressive, and she shouldn’t misinterpret it. The Sebrang Encyclopedia of Interplanetary Anthropology was the most explicit about it, in language that Exelle found positively xenophobic: “Many visitors” (no citation!) “have reported that after being received with overwhelming smiles and invitations, they were disappointed to be betrayed in large or small ways by their Earthling hosts, to the point of wondering whether they were welcome there at all.”
Exelle’s favorite anthropology professor back on Sebrang had made it clear that they could pretty much assume they weren’t welcome, wherever they went. “Who really likes being studied?” she would ask the class rhetorically. “Okay, there is some novelty, maybe even some glamour, in having someone so interested in you. But with time you will start to wonder why. What is it about you that is so freakish or foreign that it deserves methodological examination?”
Exelle was not, then, completely naïve when she arrived on Earth. But even with these layers of warning, she found it difficult to figure out how to act around Earthlings. They were very friendly, very warm. People she had barely nodded to in class would call out from the other end of the atmoshield, waving their pale earthling arms at her. In study circles there was an unexpected amount of touching – elbows joshing elbows, taps on knees or shoulders.
It was also hard to calibrate because at the same time, Exelle’s feelings about herself had changed. At home, she was just on the gangly edge of normal size, almost too tall, sometimes awkward. Here, she was tiny, petite, delicate. She was also darker than most Earthlings. They smiled at her more than people smiled at her at home, and she had to keep reminding herself that they smiled at everyone more than people did at home. All this combined to make her feel far more attractive than usual. When people stared at her as she walked around campus, she wasn’t sure whether it was because she was an extraterrestrial or whether, maybe, it was because they wanted to touch her.
She did try to keep on professional ground with her research assistant, Starfish. Exelle spent the first cycle or two wondering which of his personal characteristics had led to that nickname, but then she learned that it had been, at various times in Earth history, trendy for parents to name their newborns after species that had recently gone extinct. Thus (among the Earthlings in her classes or that Starfish introduced her to) Lepidopter; Pacifica; Anteater. Some of these names were then passed down from generation to generation, resulting in Tigers and Honeybees that were centuries away from having cohabited the planet with their namesakes.
The campus canteens, especially the Mars Bar (amazing how these offensive jokes persisted), had ingredients shipped in from other planets, meaning that Exelle could consume at least fairly decent approximations of what she was used to. But long before Starfish hesitantly suggested it Exelle knew from her background reading that food was very important in Earthling culture, and that she needed to take potential interviewees out to eat.
At first she found their limited cuisine mildly distasteful, especially the cheap food available near the university: greasy, heavy dogmeat deep-fried in egg yolk, or barley pancakes dripped with chemical sugar. But people would always ask her how she liked it, and Exelle was not talented at polite lies, as these were not particularly valued on Sebrang. Eventually Starfish and Ybor, another occasional translator, found a couple of restaurants she could actually look forward to. There was a vegetarian place not far from her dorm that had simple but tasty dishes, and a bar called Pijo a few blocks further away, nearer to the town proper, that did creative and artificial flavoring-free renditions of various traditional dishes. It was there, too, that Exelle learned about beer.
Alcohol had the status of an illegal drug on Sebrang, although moderate use was tolerated in certain subsets of the human community, and Exelle had never had more than a surreptitious sip or two. She didn’t understand the point of it, and certainly not why it might be worth time in penitentiary, especially since it was well known that alcohol could also make people violent and unhappy. The bar made her very nervous the first time she went in; not only did everyone have alcoholic drinks in front of them, but most of them were armed, something which never, she told Starfish in undertones, happened on Sebrang.
“It’s fine, don’t worry so much,” he told her, but the fear of being killed in an indiscriminate bar brawl layered over the fear, always with her since she had arrived, of dying in an unexpected rupture or the apocalypse. The interview went badly, as Exelle kept losing focus to dart her eyes around the room looking for early warning signs, and she went home early, slept poorly, and missed her first two classes the next morning.
After that Starfish was hesitant to take her to Pijo again, but when another interview subject (a woman from whose family at least one person had emigrated in each of the past twenty generations) suggested it as a meeting point, Exelle insisted that they go. She didn’t drink, and still felt on guard the whole time, but she was able to see that the Earthlings there were relaxed and enjoying themselves and that no one was worried about the weapons. After that they did a number of interviews there, and eventually, goaded by the amused comments from interviewees, Exelle even learned to manage half a glass of beer. Starfish assured her it had relatively little alcohol, only 30%.
It was also at Pijo that she first used a spoon; on Sebrang, due to the physiology of the native inhabitants, food was usually consumed more directly. She had read about spoons before, of course, but it was not until she saw two of them slotted together that she suddenly understood the derivation of the Earthling idiom for “lying curled together.” It was a usage that she had learned recently.
During the second half of her time on Earth, Exelle had no classes, and was expected to spend all her time on her research. Before her time in the classroom completely ended though, she started dating an Earthling she had been exchanging glances with all semester. At first she was cautious with him, aware that even with the help of the automatic translators and body language annotators there could misunderstandings, aware that Earthlings (“living closer to death” as the Encyclopedia of Anthropology noted with unhelpful, unsubstantiated interpretation) had a culture more accepting of easy sexual relations. But Linsed was respectful and careful, and Exelle enjoyed her time with him. Once he told her that she was not his first extraterrestrial relationship, which immediately made her wonder if he had an extraterrestrial fetish, or if he was looking for an emigration ticket. In any case, she told herself, she didn’t think it was a relationship destined for the long-term.
Occasionally she would wonder, completely out of context, what exactly were the large and small ways in which previous visitors had been betrayed by Earthlings. If the encyclopedia was going to be so folkloric, it ought to include the stories and examples, she thought.
She was careful not to talk about or display her relationship in front of Starfish, since she suspected him, with his courteousness and thoughtfulness, of harboring a crush on her. They would be working ever more closely together during the research phase of her study, and she didn’t want to confuse things, or upset him. Then, as her Earthling language comprehension got better, she overheard him one day talking with an interview subject about his family. She had never thought of him as married.
When a new rupture was forecast, it was the talk of the campus. Everyone was making plans to go. “It’s like a carnival,” Exelle’s boyfriend Linsed told her. “Come on, it’ll be great!” The rupture was predicted to occur in the middle of the ocean, not far from where the ancient city of Jakarta lay under the surface, and Linsed was eager to get some diving in while they were there.
“Diving? At the site of a predicted rupture? You must be crazy,” Exelle told him, and stormed off.
But everyone was talking about it, everyone was going. When Exelle heard that Starfish was not only going, but would be taking his two small children with him, she relented and told Linsed they could go. Because she was still a little nervous, she told him they were going to stay in one of the expensive pop-up hotels rather than camping in the university atmosphere shield that was being set up. He seemed almost disappointed by this, even when she told him she’d pay the full bill, and when they got there she could understand why: the carnival was definitely in the landing-strip sized, bubble-shaped atmoshields that were being moored all around the predicted location, and not in their hotel, where most of the clients were middle-aged to elderly. But the rupture hadn’t happened yet, and Exelle was just as happy to sleep in the quiet, heavily reinforced hotel and spend the jumpy days out in the university atmoshield.
As the days went by everyone got a bit more nervous. During the burning afternoons, as they listened to bands or courted various kinds of highs on the fake grass of the atmoshield, the students whined that if the rupture didn’t happen soon they’d have to go back to class and miss it. Exelle suspected they were anxious for it to occur soon because the last rupture predictions were off by thirteen miles and two days, and the farther this one got from its forecast date the more they worried about distance from predicted location. The atmoshields were built to take the waves, but were not so well constructed as to be immune to lava explosions. (If she thought about it, Exelle had to admit that the hotel probably wouldn’t survive a direct hit either, but it would do better with a close miss).
From the due date on Linsed insisted on sleeping at the atmoshield with his classmates.
“I don’t want to miss it if it happens at night,” he said. “Especially if it happens at night.” Everyone was hoping for a nighttime event; the first lava flows were apparently the most spectacular, and of course they were more visible in the darkness. But Exelle still preferred the hotel. Every tremor in the atmoshield or hotel float, whether caused by seismic activity or by an ocean swell, sent adrenaline clutching through her gut.
It happened during the day, although at least late enough that the swollen sun was no longer directly overhead. There was a rumble, a huge rumble, so much bigger than the previous tremors that Exelle thought it must be qualitatively different, she thought: they were wrong, it isn’t a rupture, it is THE rupture, the planet is about to fly into pieces and be sucked into the sun. I’m going to die here. Everyone around her stood up, there was an excited crescendo of murmurs, and Exelle tried to read in their eyes whether it was all anticipation or whether some of them, too, feared for their lives. But then, off to their east against a sky that was already darkening, after an extra, portentious shudder, the sky was split by red fire. It spun up into the air, twisting and spiring, a pyrotechnic wall. Exelle watched it, her breath still coming short and quick with fear. When the barge shook again she grabbed Linsed’s arm, startled, and he grabbed back and pulled her to him and kissed her, and she felt the dissociation of wondering how anyone could think a rupture signaling the end of a planet was romantic while at the same time picturing their silhouette against that scintillating background. This is something living people shouldn’t see, she thought, the planet is dying, without support systems everyone would be dead by now, people aren’t supposed to survive this. But for the moment, at least, they had.
The eruptions went on for days, and it was only then that the party really started to make sense to Exelle. The biggest musicians only came in once the rupture began, the most famous artists, the greatest circus acts. There was one band that only played songs about the end of the world; there were fire-eaters who lit their torches with lava brought in fresh from the rupture; there were fortune-tellers (none of the predictions she heard, Exelle noted, included a long life) and acrobats. On the other hand, everything became more crowded and expensive, now that it was relatively safe, and she felt absurdly glad that she experienced the pre-rupture days, even if she didn’t fully enjoy them. She also felt okay with going back to Xinsibirsk and getting back to work, and she was happy she could finally stop lying to her mother about where she was. She waited a couple of weeks to break up with Linsed, not wanting him to think it was because of the rupture, because that seemed silly. There were only a few cycles before she went home anyway.
The night before she left, Starfish and Ybor took her to a Japanese restaurant. Japan had, of course, been submerged for centuries. The owner of the restaurant, a man of Japanese descent, had been born in Inner San Francisco, leaving as an infant only a few months before it, too, was destroyed. He came to their table before the meal, while they were nibbling on yuzu-walnut bread rolls, to tell them about how he had revived old family recipes through a combination of genetic engineering and chemical manipulation to replace ingredients that no longer existed, on Earth or anywhere else. Exelle wished she could take a roll back to Sebrang for Saiwai to taste. She wished she could take the whole meal. Or bring Saiwai here, just to taste it once, just to understand what her ancestors had eaten.
“It’s too bad you’re leaving now,” Ybor said. A new prediction had come out of a rupture that was scheduled to happen in the middle of what had once been North America, and everyone was excited because there hadn’t been a rupture on land in almost a century. “Are you sure you can’t stay a little longer?”
“I really can’t,” Exelle lied. A land rupture! That would probably be what finally destroyed the planet. Then she asked them what she had asked all of her informants. “Why don’t you leave?”
They just looked at her, not understanding the sudden change of subject.
“I mean, why don’t you emigrate? You could, you know.” She wished she could take them back with her. She wished fervently, more than anything (in honor of the farewell, she had drunk more than usual) that she could save them.
Ybor shrugged. “My home is here.”
“You could make your home somewhere else,” Exelle said, starting to feel desperate. “You have no future here. This planet is dying.”
Starfish was smiling, twisting his cup in his long fingers. “Not yet. Probably not while I’m alive, maybe not even in my children’s lifetimes. And if we go somewhere else, we won’t have the freedoms we have here.”
Incomprehensible. “What do you mean? What freedoms?”
“To live the way we want to.”
“You can live the way you want on Sebrang, on another planet!”
Ybor tilted his head at her. “Come on. Aren’t you a little like…” he searched for the phrase. “Second-class citizens?”
Exelle was stunned. She had never in her life thought of herself that way. “No, it’s not like that at all, it’s, it’s just…”
Starfish leaned forward. “You are on someone else’s planet, right? You have to live in what’s left, what they don’t want.”
“Not exactly, I mean, there are the Accords, and we live…we live just fine…” Was this how they had seen her the whole time?
“Don’t most people work as servants for the Brangers?” Ybor asked.
“Just – some. And they’re not exactly servants, they –” Exelle struggled for words. Did they pity her? Did they actually feel sorry for emigrants? “There’s nothing wrong with – the way we live, in fact it’s – it’s great, it’s –” She stopped again, catching herself before she said ‘better.’ It would be rude, and she didn’t think they would believe her anyway.
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Starfish said. “But that’s not how I want to live.”
Briefly, Exelle no longer wanted to take them back with her. As they stumbled back towards the university, Ybor leaned in to her, a little too close and smelling of rediscovered plum wine, to whisper that he had saved his genetic material in the interplanetary gene bank, just in case. Exelle could only shake her head. On Sebrang it had been centuries since cloning was considered anything but futile, and extremely gauche.
By the next morning when she said good-bye in front of the spaceport, she was already thinking herself silly. The land rupture would probably be fine, meaning not the end of the world, and it would be amazing to see. And certainly there was something different here on Earth, she wouldn’t call it freedom exactly, but there was something, maybe something about belonging. Or maybe, as the encyclopedia said, living closer to death. She still thought Starfish and Ybor were crazy, but she hugged them both and cried a little once she had already turned away. And she started thinking about coming back. Maybe. Someday. She was starting to have an idea for another research project, one about how Earthlings perceived extraterrestrials. She was pretty sure she could get funding to come back for that. If, of course, Earth survived the land rupture. If Earth survived. For the moment Exelle was just happy that she had.
It wasn’t until many dozens of cycles and many terrified, fascinating visits later that Exelle realized that the real danger of her first visit wasn’t immediate death by rupture. No, the risk that first time had been the sly creep of Earth-love into her blood, this twinned urge to leave and pining to return, this addiction that kept her coming back again and again and that might yet prove fatal.
“The Rupture” (© Malka Older) was published in Issue 3 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.