The new word seemed somehow old-fashioned. Halfsies. Like how Tariq’s sun-shrunken, onetime surfer grandfather would say “rad” when he deemed some event or circumstance especially good. Halfsies, as a term, sounded funny and harmless. But it wasn’t meant to be funny, Tariq had learned. And it sure as hell wasn’t harmless, not according to Tariq’s friend from the liberated camp, Kayleigh, who explained to him, “It’s a prejudice word.”
The human soldiers who had come to the camp after the Blues fled had been helpful, but not what could be called friendly. Everyone in camp was hungry because the food had run out. Tariq remembered the gnawing from his gut, the hollow brightness ringing in his skull. The soldiers had brought supplies and provided medical attention. They were combat troops, battle-strapped and war weary. Tariq wandered amongst the looming, battered, dirty figures. They were the first adult humans he’d seen in a very long time.
How different they were from the Blues. Their manner was blunt, assertive. They assumed roles of authority and expected—demanded—all the children to acknowledge their supremacy in this chaotic situation. Whenever Tariq or any of the kids failed to obey an order immediately, it was barked a second time. The armed women and men watched their every movement.
The soldiers certainly weren’t cruel, but they treated the newly freed prisoners the way one might a pack of stray dogs, administering field treatment in preparation for a trip to a shelter. It took Tariq a little while to understand how this made him feel. He was affronted, which was an adult kind of anger. He and the other kids should be wholeheartedly welcomed by these troops, he felt.
But no soldier had called him a halfsy during the liberation. The word came later. It was something civilians said, and also some people in the media, and a few politicians, now that the world was adjusting to its postwar phase.
“They think we’re half one thing and half the other,” Kayleigh said over the phone.
The young prisoners at that camp had originally been collected by the invading Blues from all over the world. Now they’d been processed by the Earth military and returned to their homes; but he and Kayleigh were staying in touch.
“Half human and half Blue?” Tariq asked unnecessarily.
“What else?” Kayleigh said, rolling her eyes. For a twelve-year-old, she could be sarcastic like a grownup.
Tariq, also twelve, didn’t feel he came off quite as sophisticated. But he had kept his head in the camp when others got scared, which had made him proud. He studied the image projected by his phone into the middle of his bedroom. Kayleigh was blond, where his hair was dark. Not that it mattered much since they both only had stubble on their heads.
Her Caucasian skin still had more of a turquoise sheen to it than his own naturally duskier flesh. But the blue color was fading from both of them.
“What’re you looking at?” she asked.
He had stared too long. If they had been on a playground somewhere, by now somebody would have said teasingly, Oooh, Tariq likes Kayleigh! But all that seemed idiotically childish after life in the camp. The experience had changed him, obviously. But he was also aware of awakenings in himself, new urges that came from the body.
“Just looking at you.” He said it in a straightforward way, as if those schoolyard embarrassments meant nothing now. Even so, he felt a flushing heat.
“It’s okay. I like looking at you too.” She spoke just as frankly, then tilted her head. “My mom’s calling me. I got to go. Let’s talk again soon!” With that she winked out.
Tariq gazed around his room. It looked surreal, even though absolutely nothing had changed. After the Blues had taken him, his parents had preserved everything, every detail. He had been gone for fifteen months.
He had missed home every day, had missed his dad and mom. But after a long while at the camp he had stopped imagining what it would be like when he got back here. Then, after an even longer time, he’d quit wondering if he would ever get home.
Now that he really was back, he wanted all that pure simple happiness he had promised himself. But being home was more complicated than he had expected. That sparked anger in him, a directionless sort of fury. Really, though, he could only be mad at himself for not responding the way he thought he should.
When the aliens had first appeared but before the war started, Tariq had been fascinated by them. He had put up posters of their ships and images of the aliens from the broadcasts they had sent to Earth. Now, in the grotesque familiarity of his bedroom, he had Blues and Blue spacecraft looking back at him from his walls.
He knew he should take all that stuff down. But he couldn’t. He knew he should hate the Blues…but he didn’t.
“We’re here for you, sweetheart. Whenever and whatever you need.”
“It’s just so good to have you back, kiddo.”
Tariq preferred kiddo to sweetheart, so that gave his dad the edge. But Dad also looked like he might start crying again, so Mom got points for keeping her cool. It was a little game he had played when he was younger, tallying up his parents’ daily “score” and awarding one or the other a gold star from his 3D printer.
Now he was using that same system to see which parent was reacting better to his return. Silly, really. They were both patently overjoyed that he was home. But some part of him remained wary, recalling the soldiers’ benevolent leeriness toward the camp children.
He said, “I missed you too.” And that did get his dad crying. Both parents held him. It had been like this since the army flew him here, after a quarantine period when officers had debriefed him about his time in the camp. He had answered many, many questions. In some ways the experience had been more unnerving than being a prisoner of the Blues. Or the Bhlooˆverrr°ts«ii» as they formally called themselves, a name no human could pronounce.
Tariq’s home looked the same, clean and comfortable with plenty of space. But he hadn’t been outside in the two days since his return. He almost felt trapped in here.
Dad wiped his eyes and made an embarrassed laugh. “They’re happy tears, Tariq.”
“I know, Dad.”
Mom took Tariq’s hand, squeezing. Something unsettling flickered across her face. Tears flashed in her eyes too. “Yes,” she said. “Happy tears only.”
Tariq looked at his own hand as she released it. The blue tinge was visible. The chemicals the Blues had given him and the other prisoners, the ones that had changed his skin color and made all his hair fall out, were leaving his system now that he was no longer receiving doses. The last effects would soon dissipate, the military doctors had promised.
Was his mom uncomfortable at his appearance? Did she think of him as…a halfsy?
Before the thought could even settle, he was rebelling fiercely against it. No. He wouldn’t believe that.
At dinner that evening, his parents brought up school. Tariq had been dreading this.
Dad said, “While you were at that terrible camp, the schools were closed. The war put a lot of things on hold.” He shook his head. “It was a mess.”
“A mess?” Mom tried to laugh, but it sounded off-key, jarring. “That’s your word for spaceships landing, alien soldiers ravaging the land, cities being bombed—”
“Gert…” Dad said.
Mom stopped, took a breath, and said, “Sorry, Majed.”
Tariq’s dad smiled, then went on with what he’d been starting to say. “They’re reopening the schools. Of course, trying to get every kid back into the right grade is going to be a m— Is going to be difficult. It’ll be especially tough for you, kiddo, having missed so much time.”
“But I’ve been learning!” Tariq blurted, the words bypassing any instinct of caution. Instantly he knew how big a mistake he’d made. His parents looked across the table at him, wide-eyed. He was home, yes; his mom and dad were joyful about it, yes. But he wasn’t the eleven-year-old they’d known. More than mere time—more than those fifteen months—had elapsed. The clock of Tariq’s soul had continued ticking onward. It was a new hour.
“What,” Mom asked softly, “do you mean, honey?”
They knew about the prison camp, about life inside, because the army had shown them the reports. But they didn’t really know. It was strange for Tariq, at twelve, to have had an experience that was so unusual. His parents couldn’t give him advice. They couldn’t share their wisdom on the subject. Simply: they couldn’t understand what he had been through.
What he was still going through. Some part of him, he realized, remained back at the camp, attuned to the old daily schedule, expecting the art and history lessons. That part of him missed the routine, as well as absorbing the fascinating details of the culture of the Blues. Guilt tried to seize him, but he resisted it, even though he knew he was supposed to reject everything about the aliens.
“Answer your mother, Tariq.” Dad was staring at him. “What do you mean you’ve been learning?”
Tariq had barely touched his dinner. He was used to the camp food as well, to Blue food. He pushed aside his plate. Finally he said, “The Blues taught us. It was like school. We had lessons. We learned math and art, history and reading.”
Now his parents gaped at him. Mom even looked angry. She said, “How can you say `like school’? Tariq, you were in a prison!”
“I know that, Mom.” He tried to stay calm. His nerve endings crackled. Anger mixed with fear. In his old fantasies of returning home, he had always imagined his parents being totally understanding about what he’d been through. But that wasn’t how they were behaving. The anger edged out the fear in him, and expressed itself as impatience. It was strange to be impatient with his parents. “But the Blues did teach us,” he said firmly.
His dad shook his head, looking confused. “Art? History? You mean their art, their history…”
“And reading?” Now his mom sounded really mad. “They made you learn their crazy language? Those monsters!”
“They weren’t all monsters, Mom. They—”
“They were the enemies of Earth, Tariq,” Dad said. “They killed many people during the war. They abducted children like you. If we hadn’t defeated them, they would’ve conquered our world.”
It was true, and Tariq knew it. The war with the aliens had been terrible and costly. The Blues had indeed wanted to colonize Earth. Now that they’d lost the war, they had reversed their whole strategy and were asking for diplomatic contact with humans.
His stomach felt tight. He looked at the unappetizing food. It was all his formerly favorite stuff. Now he just wanted the Blue meats and vegetables he had been eating for the past fifteen months. He wanted that forbidden familiarity.
Quietly he asked, “Can I be excused?”
Mom was about to say something sharp, but Dad reached over and touched her arm, and said, “Yes, Tariq.” As Tariq got up and left the dining room, he heard Dad add to Mom, “He just needs time to readjust, Gert. He’ll be fine.”
Tariq went up to his bedroom and stared at his posters. Maybe he really would readjust. But the Blues, and their technology and their culture, felt right to him on a level he had never experienced before the war.
A deep uncertainty gripped him. It had been a whirlwind since the camp was liberated. How could he know what he really felt? One thing he was sure about, though: he didn’t like how his parents had just badmouthed everything about the Blues.
The next afternoon Dad, dressed to go out, knocked on his door. “Want to come shopping?”
Tariq longed to go outside, but he still hesitated. “You think it’ll be okay?” He held up his blue-tinted hands. The war was over, but it was still blisteringly fresh in everybody’s mind. He had seen the news, the cultural and political commentary streams. The pervasive disposition was to be gracious in victory over the aliens. But a cottage industry of resentment and distrust had sprung up across the national landscape.
His dad looked serious. “I can’t promise nobody will say anything, or point, or whatever. But I will keep you safe, son.” He patted his open-carry in its holster.
Tariq tried a smile. “Let’s go.”
They drove to the mall. Mom was at her job, and Dad had done his work today online. The mall was different than Tariq remembered. Half the stores were closed, and people seemed to be walking around in a kind of daze. There was no water in the indoor fountain.
“Things are still bouncing back from the war,” Dad said, seeing Tariq’s wandering gaze. “It’ll be a while before everything’s normal again.”
Tariq caught himself before he laughed one of Mom’s weird bitter laughs. Normal? He didn’t think anything would ever be normal again; or even if every institution and public service and piece of the culture was perfectly restored, it would all still feel peculiar to him. It was good to be out of the house, but he felt like a stranger here.
And people were looking at him. They would break out of their private stupors and stare as he passed. Most weren’t trying to be rude, he thought. They were just curious. Everyone knew human children had been abducted and altered by the aliens. But few people had ever actually seen one.
Tariq withstood the scrutiny. Some part of him was afraid. But another, perhaps stronger, part seethed with defiance. He followed Dad from store to store, waiting for someone to call him “halfsy” and unsure how he would respond to it. But nobody did.
Out in the parking lot a woman wearing a shabby Earth military jacket looked up as she was getting into her vehicle. She had a prosthetic leg. She fixed Tariq with eyes that danced with an disturbing energy. “You make up your mind yet, boy?”
Tariq stopped. He stared back. His spine tightened, and his fists started to ache where he held them at his sides. She was probably like the extreme politicians and commentators who reproached the Blues day and night on the streams. He couldn’t talk back to those aggravating remote personalities, but he could challenge this woman’s views, right here, right now. He started to take what he hoped was a menacing stride toward her.
But Dad stepped between him and the ex-soldier before he could really make a move. Dad’s hand didn’t go to his open-carry, but he made sure the woman saw it. “Don’t harass my son.”
The woman hobbled a step toward them, leaving her car door hanging open. She ignored Tariq’s father. “You can’t be both, kid! Pick one.” Tariq understood what she meant.
Dad hustled him along to their vehicle and threw the purchases in the back. Tariq didn’t break eye contact with the woman until Dad fairly shoved him into the car. He drove out of the mall’s lot, saying, “Don’t let her upset you. She might have mental health issues.”
He said it like Tariq might be afraid of her. But in that moment of confrontation he hadn’t felt any fear. Instead, he had wanted to stand up for himself. And for the Blues.
“I want to see you.”
Kayleigh’s image shrugged in Tariq’s bedroom. “You’re seeing me right now.”
“No. I mean see you. In person.” They had been assigned to the same barracks in the camp. During their internment he had seen her every day. Together they had helped the other children, the ones too frightened to function. At first, neither thought of it as cooperating with the Blues. The aliens had, after all, abducted them; they were at war with the Earth. But gradually he and Kayleigh had seen the sense of going along with the camp routines, absorbing the lessons, making the most of what they had.
Kayleigh was a girl of stony will. But she had seemed almost cheerful lately, as they kept up their friendship via phone. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
He gazed at her image with the new longing he felt. He knew now that he should have said something to her when they were still together. Should have expressed his feelings. Should have done something.
“I just,” he said slowly, “miss you.” Then the frustration caught up to him, and he threw his hands up. They were still bluish and would remain so for another month.
She looked at him with sympathy. “Tariq, I live in another state.”
He knew he was lucky she wasn’t on the other side of the world. But he still wanted to see her. It arose from more than these new—sexual? yes, they must be sexual—feelings he had toward her. He wanted to tell her everything he was feeling, the confusion and vexation and fear, and ask her what he should do.
“We have to figure out a way to meet,” he said.
“Isn’t this enough?”
He stepped forward and swung his arm through her image—very poor phone etiquette, but it made the point. “I want to touch you,” he said boldly.
She blinked, taking that in. Once, expressing anything like this so brazenly would have terrified him. But being brave in prison had proved he could be as brave as he liked in his bedroom. Eventually she said, “I…want that too.”
Tariq understood that if his parents—or any adult in authority over him—were to hear this little exchange, they would freak out. But his connection to Kayleigh ran deeper than sex, deeper than any potential sex between them, deeper than whatever sex would ultimately turn out to be.
She said, “If you can figure out a way, Tariq, then I’m in.”
With that she abruptly had to go. But it left him humming with hope, staring at the empty space she’d just occupied.
During the war, a lone Blue craft had swooped out of the sky over her city and snatched her right off the street, just as one had him. They’d both been taken to that camp, in territory the Blues had captured. The aliens didn’t exactly mistreat the hundreds of children they had collected, but they were prisoners, all of them ripped away from their families and homes.
There had been the daily routines—mealtimes, bedtimes, times when they were free to play and times for lessons. Not all the guards at the camp were friendly, and if you tried to escape past the fences, you got punished. But the teachers weren’t cruel. They seemed—to Tariq, anyway—helpful and earnest, very much wanting to impart knowledge to the human children.
The lessons at first had daunted Tariq. But they soon came to fascinate him. Blue math was complex, almost incomprehensible until he had grasped the fundamentals. Then he saw how the aliens arranged numbers and used geometry. It was an elegant system.
Their written language was also intimidating, but again he had seen how it was structured. None of the children could speak it, of course, but many had learned to draw the Blue letters. Tariq had helped some of the kids who were struggling, at first because it made him feel smarter and braver in comparison, but later because it just felt like the right thing to do.
And the art of the Blues! It was wild stuff—part sculpture, part light, part music. Tariq was enthralled by it.
But life at the camp had meant more than just schooling. They were fed Blue food. They were given the chemicals which changed their skin colors and made them lose their hair. Some of the children got very upset at this. They threw tantrums or tried repeatedly to escape. But Tariq remembered the pictures of the Blues on his bedroom walls and how mesmerized he’d been by their appearance. Secretly, before the war and the camp, he had sometimes imagined himself looking like one of them. Those silly daydreams somehow cushioned the shock of his own transformation.
Blues had blue flesh, and their strangely shaped heads were hairless. Though they didn’t appear much like humans, it was obvious they were trying to make the prisoners look more like themselves.
Indoctrination. That was the big word the Earth army people had thrown at Tariq and the others when the war ended and the camps were liberated.
“They were trying to indoctrinate you.” Tariq remembered the officer who had told him this at the quarantine site. He had been a big man, not very patient. “Do you understand?”
“Uh…yes, sir,” Tariq said.
The officer went on like he hadn’t answered. “It means they wanted to get inside your heads, change you, make you think like them and against your own people. We have to know if they succeeded. There’s also something called the Stockholm Syndrome. We need to determine if you’ve succumbed to it.”
Tariq had answered the questions how they wanted him to. The Blues hadn’t changed him, he’d said.
But of course they had. He’d been in the camp over a year, learning the aliens’ ways, exposed to their culture. He had hated the war and the awful loss of human life, but the Blues weren’t just a warlike species. Like any powerful nation on Earth, they had politicians and military leaders who pushed for war, even when the common people didn’t want it, even when war went against the principles of peace expressed through their art.
At the dinner table that evening Mom asked, “Sweetheart, what’s that song you’re humming?”
Tariq hadn’t been aware until now that he was doing it. It was a Blue melody, very distinct, evidently so encoded in him that he’d hummed it aloud at the dinner table. Once more he was having trouble eating his food. “Um, nothing.”
Both parents were looking at him in that way that said they knew he was hiding something. Suddenly, Mom’s eyes shone with tears. They didn’t look like happy tears this time. In a choked voice she said, “Is that a song you learned at the camp?”
He froze a moment, then unexpected anger surged in him. “So what if it is?”
Dad looked shocked for a second, then said, “Don’t you talk to your mother that way!”
“It’s okay, Majed.” Mom wiped her eyes. “You don’t like the casserole, Tariq? You don’t have to eat it. You can go to your room if you like.”
He rose, surprised, even astonished. He had stood up for himself. Proudly, he went up to his room. He wondered how Kayleigh was handling situations like this. He would find out when they got to see each other—somehow.
Tariq’s skin would still be slightly blue when classes restarted at school, but after a week or two he would look normal. He knew he was expected to be pleased about this fact, but every morning when he saw that the turquoise sheen had faded further, he felt let down. His dark hair was growing back too. Now he just looked like he’d gotten a crewcut.
He was living as two people, it seemed: the perfectly normal eleven-year-old his parents had expected to return to them from the camp, and the sexually acute, irascible, independent twelve-year-old who had grown from his harrowing experiences. More often, it was the latter who made himself known, despite his efforts to suppress his own behavior and attitude.
The morning of orientation came, and Dad drove him to the reopened school. Mom came too, for the special occasion. She looked tired, unfocused. As they were all saying goodbye, Tariq tugged on Dad’s sleeve and whispered, “What’s wrong with Mom?”
Just as quietly, his dad said, “She’s been online a lot, doing research.”
Tariq entered his old school. He breathed in remembered smells, followed corridors according to the map in his head.
The day started with everyone assembling in the big auditorium. Tariq saw kids he knew and many he didn’t. The school district’s boundaries had been expanded. Not every learning institution was reopening. A few old acquaintances said hello to him, going out of their way, it seemed, not to comment on his skin. When the principal came out, he welcomed all the students, then gave a lecture about how everything had been disrupted for a while but now things would get back to normal. He managed to do all this without once actually mentioning the war.
It was the same at each class Tariq went to. The teachers explained what the year’s courses would be like, but never said anything about the alien invasion. Some families at the school had lost someone in the fighting, but the faculty was acting like nothing had happened. Certainly no instructor remarked on the fact that children had been taken away to indoctrination camps.
That glaring omission ate at Tariq. He was, again, affronted, just like at the camp when the soldiers had treated the liberated children so warily. What had happened to him and the others deserved to be talked about. Not mentioning it only made his special condition worse, like he had a hideous disease everyone was too embarrassed to remark on.
Eventually, one kid he knew did say something about his skin color, but only to ask him if it hurt. Tariq, startled, actually laughed. That felt good, easing some of tension he’d carried all day.
When school let out, though, one girl caught up to him on the outside steps, glared, and said in a tight indignant voice, “My mom got killed by your kind.”
The school had a zero tolerance policy for bullying, but Tariq wasn’t interested in intervention by a teacher. He stepped right up to the sneering stringy girl, his heart beating fast, his fists again tightening at his sides, like in the mall parking lot with that ex-military woman.
“Most Blues weren’t soldiers. Don’t you know that?” He wanted to explain how the Blue diplomats were now offering the Earth technological advancements in exchange for trade relations. That was something of a hard sell to the war-stricken world, but the goods they were suggesting were, by most political estimates, too good to pass up.
But this girl with the dead mother wouldn’t want to hear any of that, he could see. He saw too her intolerance, the lifelong grudge she would surely harbor against the Blues and anyone associated with them.
For a second she seemed ready to swing, but two of her friends stepped in and quickly led her away.
She had called him your kind. Was that just some random insult, or did she mean something specific by it? Regardless, the words stayed with him.
Only his mom came to pick him up. Tariq tried to look composed as he got in the vehicle.
“How did it go?” she asked as they drove off.
He said harmless things about his first official school day in more than a year. He could see the dark circles under her eyes.
Very deliberately, like it was something she had worked out word for word, she asked, “Do you think anything you learned at the camp will help you in school?”
The question startled him. She had been so upset when he first mentioned what he’d learned. “Maybe…” he said cautiously. Actually, he was sure the new knowledge would help. He felt like he was way ahead in mathematics, though it would take some reverse engineering to apply Blue principles to regular math.
She only nodded, but he stayed wary. They drove in silence awhile until she stopped a few blocks from their house, on an empty street. The car hummed as she sat with her hands on the steering wheel. Tariq saw how tightly she was gripping it.
“Tariq,” she finally said, “how comfortable are you? With the Blues. With what you learned about them and from them.”
His stomach fluttered violently, and for a second or two he thought he might actually throw up. “What do you mean?” But he understood, just like he’d understood the veteran with the prosthetic leg when she’d told him he had to choose between being human or Blue.
“I mean,” his mother said, knuckles white as she clung to the wheel, “who do you like more? Humans or Blues?”
He couldn’t believe she was asking so bluntly. It was such a loaded question. His answer, he sensed, would be momentous. It could decide his immediate future, maybe his entire fate.
“Um…” he started, cautiously. “What if I said Blues?” Then, hastily: “Just what if!”
She appeared to have her response already prepared. He wondered if this was a result of the online research Dad had mentioned. She said, “There are therapies. We could look into those. There are facilities. They’re new. You could go stay at one for a little while. Though that seems kind of awful, since we just got you back and have missed—”
Her words touched nerves gone excruciatingly raw. Suddenly he found himself lunging for the door handle, leaping out of the car and running.
It was stupid, of course. He had nowhere to go. He couldn’t run all the way to Kayleigh. He couldn’t even go anywhere on foot where he wouldn’t eventually be found. After a few blocks he grew aware of the car following him. He saw his mom keeping pace, letting him run himself out. He put on extra speed, but it was useless. Soon he was staggering, sweat in his eyes. He sat down limply on a curb.
Mom pulled up and got out. Neighbors were looking on. “I’m so sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to upset you.” She sat next to him and tried to hug him.
But it was all trying to come spewing up out of him now, all the anger and fear and confusion he’d been feeling since the liberation. He wanted to yell, I want to see Kayleigh! But he bit the words, ground them down. He hadn’t told his parents about Kayleigh, and even if they knew of her—say, via his phone log—they couldn’t understand what she meant to him. They would just want to know if she too liked humans or Blues better.
So instead of talking about Kayleigh, he choked out, “I don’t like the Blues better. I don’t!” It was all he could manage.
Now it wasn’t sweat stinging his eyes but hot tears. He could feel the neighbors looking at him, probably disturbed by the blue-skinned boy. With another surge of unpredictable emotion, he threw himself into his mother’s embrace. He knew he was going to have to betray her. Betray both his parents. And he wept over that.
Mom held him for a long while. A week later he enacted his betrayal.
The train shot through the countryside, and Tariq saw all the rebuilding underway. He sat on the edge of his seat, counting down the minutes until arrival. He had never traveled alone before. Even when he’d been transported to the camp, he had been in the company of his Blue abductors.
The trip was exhilarating and daunting. He had been clever, using a school server to arrange for a train ticket from his own meager credit account. After that, everything was timing. He’d dressed for the journey, waiting for the window of opportunity he knew would come when Mom was still at work and Dad went out on a routine daily errand.
Tariq had used public transportation to reach the train depot. He’d studied the layout online and knew right where to go, as well as how to present his ticket and which train to board. Like at the mall that time, people still looked a bit dazed. He had just marched on through and taken his seat, ignoring the stares his blue skin garnered and waiting for the bullet train to take off.
The arrangements with Kayleigh had been just as circumspect. Hopefully his parents wouldn’t figure any of it out too soon. He had left a note behind, promising he would come back. With luck his disappearance would be taken for a fit of preadolescent pique.
He would go back…wouldn’t he?
As the scenery flashed past, he questioned that fundamental assumption of his plan for the first time. He felt an autonomy he’d never before experienced. The train hummed and shivered with cool mechanical efficiency. He sat alone. No one was directing his movements, setting his timetable.
A grim, very adult-feeling smile touched his mouth.
Finally they pulled into the big station, where repairs were going on. It had been near enough to a battle to take damage during the war. Tariq fairly flew out of the train car, looking up and down the platform eagerly.
He saw people waiting to board, waiting to meet other passengers. He saw a man in a military jacket, a policewoman, a blonde girl—
A girl? Blonde?
Tariq looked back. And stared. It was Kayleigh. But she had blonde hair down to her jaw. And her skin…it had no trace of blue whatsoever.
He started toward her on numb feet. She walked toward him, her strides confident. She smiled at him. She had come alone, as promised.
“There’s my friend!” she crowed, and pulled him into a fierce hug.
He had never imagined he would be eager to end a hug with Kayleigh, but he stepped back hurriedly when it broke. “What happened to you?” he blurted. There was no way her hair could have grown out in so short a time.
Kayleigh shrugged broadly. She had agreed to meet him here, pledging secrecy. His emotions had throbbed in anticipation of seeing her again, in the flesh. Now confusion tore through him.
Again Tariq asked, “What did you do to yourself?”
She flicked the ends of her hair. “Don’t you like it?”
“Kayleigh, please. Answer me.”
She got serious. In the camp she had always known when to quit kidding around. “I got a fast-grow treatment. My folks sprang for it.”
He had been so used to her hairless skull. He had even liked how it looked after a while. “What about your skin?”
It was a Caucasian hue, even up close. “Injections. Counteragent for what they gave us. It was expensive, but again, my parents were willing to pay. They could see how looking like a Blue was affecting me.”
It stunned him. It was too much to absorb. The busy platform in this strange distant city seemed to echo hollowly all around him, isolating him, separating him even from Kayleigh, whom he’d traveled so far to see. Hoping for her understanding. Expecting it.
She was the girl he had known. She was attractive. On some bodily level he couldn’t yet fully process, he wanted her…but when she moved toward him again, as if to take him in another embrace, he stiffened. She hesitated, then regarded him solemnly.
“Kayleigh…” He struggled to remember what he had rehearsed. “Kayleigh, do you ever feel like—like we lost something when we left the camp?”
“No,” she said at once, then less certainly, “I mean…”
“Yeah?” he prompted.
“I do miss you, and the other kids from our barracks, the way we all stuck together.”
He shook his head. “I don’t mean the camaraderie. I mean, the Blues themselves. What they taught us, their art and culture. Do you miss any of that?”
His heart beat hard while she silently considered his words. The train’s departure was announced, and a last flurry of movement swept around them.
At last she said, “Tariq, whatever we learned there won’t do us any good in the lives we have now. We’ve got to let it go and get back to normal.”
He’d felt stunned before, by her unexpected appearance. Now he was staggered, benumbed. Thoughts knifed sideways through his head. He wondered if her parents had influenced her, if they’d sent her to therapy. Maybe. But he could tell she meant it. Even if she did believe they’d gained something at the camp from the Blues, she rejected it now. Because she felt she had to. Felt they both had to.
He had come hundreds of miles to see her. He smiled softly. She would rejoin the human race. She’d already done so. She would grow up, maybe marry somebody, and have—he hoped—a very good long life.
This time he initiated the hug, and held onto her for a long moment. Then he said goodbye and walked away down the bustling train platform.
He had been taking inventory. He had some actual physical money on him. There was a return ticket in his pocket, which could be cashed in. Pangs of dull hunger prodded him along toward food. He’d come to an open-air section of the station. Beyond was a view of the city, which was much bigger than his own home town. This was Kayleigh’s city, though already her name failed to impart any special allure to it. He didn’t hate her. He never would. But she didn’t have any of the answers he needed.
Tariq halted sharply at the words called to him. He felt his hackles go up. He had almost been in a couple of fights since coming out of quarantine, at the mall and at school. Now might be the time to see one of these confrontations through to the end.
He turned, with bunched fists.
Atop a low wall a row of young people sat in various stages of postured insolence. Teenagers. City kids. They wore some peculiar fashion Tariq didn’t recognize but which was nonetheless oddly familiar. One boy was staring at him. He was the one who’d just called Tariq halfsy.
“You got a problem?” Tariq said, because it was what tough characters in old movies said. Before the war, before the Blues had ever even made themselves known to Earth and become his early obsession, he had liked streaming old films, with their campy dialogue and outdated special effects.
The boy, unexpectedly, broke out laughing. But it wasn’t mocking laughter. A few of his friends noticed the exchange.
“No problem.” The boy, maybe as old as fourteen, hopped down from the short wall. “Your hue is flash, mano. Where you get it done?”
Tariq realized the boy’s head was shaven. He was also wearing a strange pair of boots—more like booties, with a curious cut to them…again, familiar. Then Tariq understood. He saw how the others were costumed. They wore approximations of Blue attire. About half of them had hairless skulls, and at least two had gone so far as to shave their eyebrows off as well. Six or seven sported skin in shades of blue. Most appeared to have applied stage makeup, but a couple looked to have actually dyed their skin.
The color wasn’t a proper Blue turquoise, though, Tariq noted. These weren’t kids from any of the dozens of camps that had held abducted children during the war. These were street kids, off the grid, adopting the Blue look just for fun or out of a sense of rebellion. Or maybe because whatever they’d learned about the Blues appealed to them on some level.
Whatever they knew about the Blues, though, Tariq knew more.
He smiled at the toughs as the boy and several more approached. None were threatening him. All were gazing, fascinated, at the color of his skin.
Maybe he could stay with them, stay here in this exotic city. Live like they did. But as they got closer, he saw how underfed they looked, how unhygienic. Was it worth being homeless just to be among his “own kind”?
The fantasy collapsed even before it could stand fully upright. These kids hadn’t been abducted by aliens, given chemicals to alter their appearances, been exposed to the depths of the culture of the Blues. They surely didn’t genuinely appreciate all the subtleties and profundities of that civilization. They were pretenders, wannabes. They saw the Blues only as a tool for shocking other humans.
They certainly wouldn’t understand how he himself was torn between two worlds.
He lingered with the group for half an hour, answering their questions, even enjoying their attention. They didn’t seem to know much of anything about the camps. But when the next train heading back home was announced, he broke away and boarded.
He accepted his punishment without complaint. He had run away. His parents duly disciplined him. They tried to understand what had motivated him, and he attempted to explain it. But it was difficult to put voice to the complex fear, anger, and confusion. Those emotions stayed with him, and they only intensified.
The chemicals in his system dissipated, and he looked like he had before the aliens had come.
He tried getting back into his hobby of streaming old movies, but it bored him. Instead he found online pirate sites that featured Blue content—art, language, all the things he had studied at the camp. In school he got in trouble when he tried applying the alien knowledge. He finally did get into a fight with another student, who had actually used the word halfsy on him, even though he no longer had blue skin.
He felt miserable. His parents worried.
One evening they called him to the dinner table. When he got there, he found no plates set out.
“Sit down, honey,” Mom said. Dad was beside her. They both looked very serious.
Uneasy, Tariq sat.
“Tariq, sweetheart, this is hard to say…” Dad took Mom’s hand and held it, and she went on, “We want you to be happy. That’s important to us. More important than anything. We know you’re sad, and that just tears us up. We want to ask you something. Please answer us honestly.”
“I don’t want therapy,” he said bluntly, interrupting. “I’ve already been in a prison camp, remember?” Once, it would have been unthinkable to him to speak to his parents this way. But he was only feeling more petulant and rebellious by the day.
Incredibly, they didn’t respond to his insolent tone. Dad said, “That wasn’t what we had in mind.”
Mom squeezed Dad’s hand tightly as she drew a breath. Here it was, whatever it was, thought Tariq, bracing himself.
“Tariq, would you be happier if…if you could live like a Blue?”
“Yes,” he heard himself say immediately, decisively. It was the way his body might have reacted to an electrical jolt. His simple honest answer seemed to echo in the room.
It froze his parents for a moment, then Mom laughed, and it wasn’t one of those strained laughs. She sounded relieved. Dad presented a smile, one that looked carefully constructed but nonetheless sincere.
“The government and the military,” Mom said, “they’re reaching out to families. Families with children who were in the camps. They contacted us. There is going to be formal, non-hostile communication between the Blues and Earth. Not just talks. The aliens are going to be allowed to establish bases on our world. Ambassadorial compounds. They’ll be like…like villages. Separate communities. That’s how it was explained to us. And the government is asking for volunteers to act as go-betweens. To live in these compounds. Humans, you understand? Humans who feel comfortable being around Blues. It’s a serious responsibility. You wouldn’t be doing any official negotiating, of course. You—and others like you—would just be there to try to integrate our two cultures. Or at least make a beginning at peacefully understanding each other.”
It hung there, as powerful as his emphatic Yes of a moment ago.
After a minute Dad said, “Well, kiddo, what do you think?”
Tariq had already given his answer. Now he could only grin, as an unfamiliar but very welcome joy thrummed through him.
Relations had officially opened between Earth and the Blues. Some humans would never be able to put the war behind them, but most people now saw the advantage of trading with the aliens. The Blues were allowed to set up their compounds on Earth, staffed with ambassadors and scientists. Tariq went to live in one of these places. There were lessons again, in Blue culture; but the teachers just as often asked Tariq and the other students questions about Earth and its history. It was always dialogue, never lectures. Never indoctrination.
Though not all the young human emissaries did so, he willingly took doses of the chemicals which changed his pigmentation and left him hairless. He felt right this way. He excelled at his studies, showing a striking talent for mathematical theory. He had made several good friends here.
His parents visited often. The embassy compound wasn’t far away. It wasn’t like the camp. Tariq knew he could leave any time he wanted. He also knew he was contributing to the betterment of his own world, his own people. The technology that had already passed from the Blues to the humans was changing the Earth in a positive way. The aliens’ science would make space travel more efficient. Climate change could be virtually halted using their methods.
No one used the word halfsy anymore, not even on the extreme political streams. It was a word reserved for usage by really awful people who were full of prejudice. Instead, the accepted dignified term for Tariq’s particular state of being was “trans-species.”
It wasn’t a funny or harmless word. It wasn’t a grave or cruel one. To Tariq, happy as he’d never been before, the word sounded true.
This was beautiful. Truly, wrenchingly so. You went beyond describing trauma and gave us a sense of someone whose worldview has been fundamentally altered by their experience. You also avoided the trap I’ve seen with this type of story of making either the world they experienced or the world they returned to entirely good. This was nuanced and multilayered. Thank you so much for sharing.