Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Indrapramit Das. Indrapramit is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Apex Magazine, Redstone Science Fiction and Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana (Zubaan Books, India), among others. He also writes reviews for publications including Slant Magazine and Strange Horizons, and comics for ACK Media. He has an MFA degree from the University of British Columbia, which he uses as a small tablemat while pretending to be an adult. To find out more, visit http://flavors.me/indra_das or follow him on Twitter (@IndrapramitDas).
The story was first published in the November 2011 issue of Redstone Science Fiction.
Looking the Lopai in the Eyes
by Indrapramit Das
Earth almost looks like home, from here. Brilliant blue, cloud-clothed. More visible land-masses, but otherwise strikingly similar. But Alwaea knows it will be very different. She touches the cold window, tracing with her finger the sun-brightened curve of the planet her genes were forged in. The planet that decided, so long ago, what she would look like, right down to the pattern of spirals on her fingertip, delicately imprinted on the glass.
Alwaea knows that Earth did not decide who she would become, and that is all she has. Her hand is trembling.
She is the Ambassador, she tells herself. She was chosen for this.
She will soon meet the governments of all the countries that sent their diaspora across the galaxy to populate her home. She cannot imagine the myriad cultures, the clashing languages, the opposing ideologies, the boiling throng of violent discord she understands Earth to be. She can barely imagine a planet inhabited by billions of humans, when her world has yet to host even a million.
When she first saw Earth through the windows, it almost felt like she hadn’t slept for years, nurtured by robots while her vessel folded space around itself. It felt like she hadn’t left at all. But the closer she comes to the planet, the more different it seems. The glass squeaks as Alwaea runs her fingers across it. This time she traces them along the shorelines she can now see below the clouds. In her mind, they evoke the Earth-map of hundreds of countries she had studied when she was younger, so different from the undivided canvas of her world’s supercontinent. The map had confused her, especially when her mother told her it was obsolete because of temporal distance and shifting politics.
Alwaea’s home is one world, and one country. She represents a single government, though her people have a different word for it.
She closes her eyes and thinks of the vast open spaces of her world. Of staring into the crafty yellow eyes of the Lopai on her nineteenth birthday, winter-breath lit up by the sister stars. She had locked her arms around its horns and rammed her booted feet onto its simian hands, hard enough to shock but not to break. She had wrestled the devil of the steppes to the ground, snow turning to slush underneath them, and she had let go and spoken one of the twenty words the Lopai speaks, one that her mother had taught her. She had watched it run from her on all fours, graceful muscles rippling and horns lowered sideways in submission, its long tail a whiplash against the white ground. She had laughed at the wet red of her hands, when she touched her bloody face.
Alwaea opens her eyes, and she is still shaking. She has never been this afraid in her life.
She opens the envelope in her hand, takes out the letter inside. It is from her mother, who was also Ambassador. It has been years since she handed it to Alwaea on the surface of their world. The vacuum seal of the locker it was in has kept it from weathering. The handmade paper is still crisp, if a little warped. She can even smell the overwhelmingly familiar fruit-sweet traces of pyrap musk her mother wore as perfume, hiding under the smoky scent of brewed ink. Alwaea has waited for all of her voyage to read the letter, as she was told to. She reads it aloud, so the whispered words reverberate in the cramped landing capsule.
“Don’t let them look down on us, Alwaea, like they did to me. You’re far stronger than I. Show them how we’ve grown, and show us how you’ve grown. Come back with our independence in your hands.”
Alwaea’s chest tightens to see her mother’s slanted handwriting again, after this endless voyage of cold sleep. She should feel fury at the letter, the way it leaves no room for failure, no room for concern, even. But she thinks of the time her mother sat in a capsule much like this one, approaching Earth, both her parents long dead from pre-vaccine contagions. Her mother, who came to Earth and failed at diplomacy, failed to show its nations that her home no longer needed to be called a colony but a world of its own.
No, Alwaea thinks. Light-years away from home, she cannot remain angry at the woman who taught her to tame the devil of the steppes, to look the Lopai in the eyes, the woman who had kissed her bloody forehead and come away with lips red to show her pride. Alwaea knows that her mother might no longer be alive by the time she returns to her world. But she will bring their independence with her all the same.
Alwaea puts the letter in her lap. Earth comes closer, little by little, the sun glaring off the mirrors of its oceans. Her people’s motherworld, still beautiful despite its age. Yes. Alwaea will show Earth how they’ve grown in the solitude of another constellation. She realizes she is no longer shaking.
Alwaea touches her face. Her palms come away wet, and she laughs.