Adjo Mubarak had never intended
to get sucked into an alien family,
but it happened anyway.
When his paternity leave finally cleared
and the xenolinguist Zusa was
assigned to him as a translator,
Adjo went with his father-in-law Fallinglight
and his son Bes to visit the homeworld.
Anan was a beautiful moon
above whose horizon
the ringed planet Krono
hung huge and luminous,
far larger than the white spot of Luna
in the sky of ancestral Terra.
"Look up, little one," Adjo whispered,
"and see the wonders of the place you came from."
Bes murbled and peeked out from Adjo's shirt.
Then he turned away from the glimmering sky,
nuzzling back into his father's armpit.
"You're bored. How you can be bored
with such a resplendent view?" Adjo said,
but he was smiling anyway.
Fallinglight gurgled a laugh.
"Perhaps Bes did not inherit the star-hunger
from my son, or perhaps it has not grown in yet,"
Zusa translated for him as he
steered Adjo toward the family home.
"Never mind the sky. Come inside."
The dwelling was a swirl of clay
pale and translucent as porcelain,
though much stronger and streaked
with flecks of something iridescent.
Inside it, dozens of aliens had gathered
to celebrate the survival of a single colonist
and the human who had rescued him.
The thing about the Touched was this:
they touched each other.
They did it all the time,
mindfully or thoughtfully,
for any reason or no reason,
and they did not hesitate
to include humans in their contact.
While they asked first with strangers,
family members were rarely out of reach.
It took some getting used to,
because Adjo's culture was hardly reserved
about people touching each other
but the aliens felt so different from humans
that at first he startled every time someone's tentacle
slipped around his wrist or his waist.
The Touched were understanding, though,
and they learned not to crowd him too much.
Their empathy helped, because they could feel
Adjo's nervousness and Bes' strident reluctance
to let go of him even for a moment.
In turn, Adjo learned to recognize
the little quirk of feeling
that came before an embrace,
a bit of emotional body language
like a human opening their arms for a hug.
It wasn't so startling after that.
The parents, Adjo discovered,
were all over each other,
chattering and gossiping
like women at a baby shower.
He felt a little out of place
but tried to fit in as best he could.
Their infants, like human babies,
went through phases when they would
go to anyone or cling to their own parents.
The matriarch of the family moved around,
seeking out the ones willing to be held and
making sure to cuddle each for a few minutes
in aged tentacles the texture of corduroy.
It was rare and troubling, however,
for an infant to refuse all other contact,
sucked in tight to one parent never to let go.
So the other parents worried,
which made Adjo worry, and the concern
built itself into an emotional cyclone
that threatened to suck everyone in
until the elders managed to calm it down.
"It is unfortunate but not unheard of,"
the matriarch declared through Zusa.
"Bes has survived a great loss.
He will seek comfort in others
besides his rescuer when he is ready."
There was a meal amidst the mingling
with all the foods carefully marked
to show which ones were safe for humans.
Most of it smelled delicious.
The tableware was more of a hassle
than the food itself, being designed
for people with boneless digits.
Adjo finally gave up and ate with his fingers
the way the young children were doing.
At least nobody complained.
Afterwards the parents gathered
into a tight circle, pressing side by side.
A new mother pulled Adjo into the ring beside her.
"Young to old, kin to kin,
we bind ourselves to each other
with touch," she explained.
"I am Scintilla. Welcome to our family."
The tiny infant around her middle
reached out to Adjo with one sucker,
and he held himself still
against the sting and itch as it attached.
Another came from the opposite side.
He could see others doing the same
around the circle, babies linking adults together,
holding on to a parent with two suckers
and freeing the other two for neighbors.
Bes hunkered tight against Adjo
and refused to let go
even with only two suckers.
"Fine, let him stay like that," Adjo said.
Zusa got into a lengthy conversation
with Scintilla, and eventually
she turned back to Adjo saying,
"You will soon grow tired,
with three infants feeding from you
and nobody else helping you feed Bes."
"Then I'll just have to step out early,"
Adjo said. "It's not like we can make him let go,
and besides, it's an innocent effect.
The babies don't know how hard it is
on the adults who carry them.
I want to stay as long as I can."
Something about the family tradition
made him feel safe and welcome.
He couldn't explain it.
He just felt it, there in the slow tide
of feelings that lapped over him.
He didn't want to give it up
simply because it was a little risky.
They stayed like that for an hour,
until Adjo started seeing spots
and felt more dizzy than sociable.
Then he carefully detached himself
from the kinship circle --
and was heartened to discover
that even though Bes had not
released any of his feeding tentacles,
he had at least twined several handling tentacles
around various bits of Scintilla and her daughter.
Zusa helped Adjo wobble his way to bed
and opened a can of freshet for him.
He liked freshet well enough,
if he could get it in watermelon or pomegranate.
What he had instead was grapefruit,
because that's what flavor Bes preferred.
At least it restored enough energy
to make the spots stop blotting his vision.
"It's all worth the trouble,"
Adjo assured Zusa
as he cuddled his son,
savoring the echoes of contentment
and the first glimmers of curiosity
toward their new relatives.
Bes was a beacon of innocence
in a world fraught with challenges.
He made everything worthwhile.
* * *
Chronos and Ananke are mythological figures.
Porcelain is a translucent clay. Mica powder gives luster to craft materials. Houses really can be made from ceramic.
People need to be touched, because skin hunger can cause problems.
Adjo comes from a colony descended from Egyptian culture. You can read about Egyptian fruits online.
Scintilla means a trace or a sparkle.
Freshet resembles a sport drink. Adjo and Bes have divergent tastes, and Bes wins, because otherwise Adjo gets queasy.