No sooner had the first Sixamese settlers landed in Oasis Springs than the need for an Earth-Sixam Treaty became apparent.
What the Earth authorities had been able to piece together from eyewitness accounts was that a spirited chase had caused five Sixamese smugglers to drift off course, landing on an uncharted planet gently but in need of supplies, and while they were content with what they described as “collecting biodata”—although any conscious being, Earthling or Sixamese, could surmise that there was almost certainly some pilfering going on—a human happened upon them by chance: one Miss Patricia Morrow, then four, who had wandered away from her parents in search of frogs; the smugglers had been in a spirited argument about mineral analysis when they heard a twig snapping and turned to find young Patty leering at them in a threatening manner, is how they told it, and probing her mind for knowledge gave them little clarity except for a cursory understanding of Oasis Springs dialectical Simlish, a surprisingly thorough wish list of Matchbox cars, the concept of a Matchbox car itself, and the location of a sleeve of cookies Mrs. Morrow thought her daughter didn’t know about and certainly didn’t expect to be one of the first bits of information exchanged between Sims and the Sixamese, so they ushered the girl into their ship in case—get this—in case any “more dangerous” intergalactic smugglers showed up; on the human side, Patty’s abduction had become the hot-button issue, and by the time her livid parents had gotten deep enough into the desert, Miss Morrow had taken control of the on-ship impromptu bioanalysis lab—having declared the embalming, dissecting, and suspended animation of frogs “mean”—and was none the worse for wear, her demand for frog rights having been respected; and when contacted, the local authorities expected a blurry, overexposed photo, eye-rolling on their part, and some paperwork, not a spacecraft squashing a civic spruce sapling with no regards to what the Capitol spent on landscaping, so that when the National Leader refused to explain why she chuckled after asking the original five to “take me to your leader” even after being probed, but not in that way, because “it’s an Earth pop culture thing, it would take a while to explain and then it wouldn’t be funny anymore,” the subsequent tense silence led both parties to conclude that an interplanteary treaty must be drafted at once.
The original Earth-Sixam Treaty set legal limits on invasive brain probing and the number of collectibles the inhabitants are allowed to export per day. During the initial drafting, Earth’s National Leader and Sixam’s Prime Minister both recognized the document’s long-term inadequacy and agreed to revisit the terms every 14.75 Earth months or equivalently 1 Sixam year. It’s now the most revised piece of Sim legislature in history.
Most revisions are minor, but a few have become common knowledge. The 14th revision is one. Before Sims had the technology to reach Sixam, the talks were held on Earth soil; then, sometime between the 13th and 14th revisions, construction on the Oasis Springs Space Station finished, public interest in space hit a local max and improvements in documentation meant any simpleton with a wrench could build a rocket in their backyard. Earthlings lost their excuse, and to prevent the Sixamese from seeing them as a bunch of whiny babies who won’t get off their asses if something’s too far away, they proposed for the talks themselves to be held on Sixam but for the business itself to be conducted in Simlish. And it was approved. There’s also the 53rd revision, which centered around negotiations to continue providing free healthcare to Sixamese visitors, since the Sixamese currently made such frequent use of Earth hospitals that Earth universities had to add a required xenobiology course to their medical programs. A minor provision compared to the planet thing. But what made the 53rd meeting notable wasn’t so much the content but the timing: it was held two days late, and is also happening right now.
As hosts, Sixamese officials were responsible for gathering the lawyers, assistants, stenographers, and any one else qualified to handle the really annoying bureaucratic details without retching; all of those, and they had to represent both ends of the color spectrum. Of course the Prime Minister ran the proceedings. The current Prime Minister insisted on using his Simlish name every time, Alonso Cuocco, given the tendency of Earthlings to mutilate his native language.
On Earth’s side, all diplomatic responsibilities fell to the most senior Space Ranger, who was also given the title of Universal Ambassador. And then they had a bunch of seats to fill if they were going to look balanced next to Cuocco and all his goons, so most of the Universal Ambassador’s crew also attended these things, and they brought a lawyer, not required to be a trained astronaut, who usually insisted on Space Lawyer as an appellation. The lawyer’s unofficial job was to provide a distraction if Earth’s Ambassador was making a buffoon of himself, which happened more often than not. During the distraction—and this was also unofficial—was also the best moment to make sure everyone knows to call you Space Lawyer.
The 53rd negotiation was coming to an end. Because everything was conducted electronically, Prime Minister Cuocco didn’t have physical papers to shuffle to give a sense of finality, so instead he placed a hand on the desk. “Another successful year.”
Nods all around. It was four hours in and everyone needed to pee. Cuocco’s assistant retrieved the signed revisions to be approved by the Earthlings.
Cuocco spoke again. “I’m glad we were able to come to an agreement despite Universal Ambassador Jeong’s scheduling issues.”
“Yes, and again, my deepest apologies for that. It was a family emergency.” Earth’s U.A. had been putting his Hollywood flourish on the documents right as Cuocco made his dig. He was used to hecklers, of course, and expertly hid whatever annoyance he still felt. And through experience with these meetings, he’d learned to be somewhat emotionless and dry, and to focus on his posture if he got off-track. At that last comment, he’d overcorrected and started bending backwards so that his medals caught the light, making him look even more official.
Cuocco shook his head, and may have smiled, and if so, it wasn’t clear whether the smile was vindictive. “Next time you might not be so lucky, Ambassador Jeong.”
“Yes, of course, Prime Minister. I’ll try to be more careful in the future.”
Earth’s crew let the Sixamese officials leave the meeting first as a sign of respect, then, as soon as the last glowing uniform was out of sight, went ape over who’d get to the restroom first, tripping over each other and almost causing what would almost certainly be the most boring space-related lawsuit. But not Mike. So the general effect was an unruly parade of Earthlings careening down/colliding with different parts of the government-issue hallway, with the Captain strolling behind, whistling in a way he knew to be ironic.
Mike’s path took him to the entrance, where Cuocco’s assistant was also waiting.
“Hello again, Ambassador Jeong.” The periwinkle alien seemed unsure of how to respond in an official setting, or away from Earth.
“Just Mike is fine, you know that. Nice to see you again, Vincente. I take it you’ve been up here?”
“Why is it that I am up here, and not that you are down there? However, unsuitability of directional idioms aside, your assumption is correct.”
Despite having just listened to four hours of this, Mike almost cringed. “Man, I know you guys are going off of Sixamese grammar. I know your Simlish is perfect, due to the probing”—he did the little brain-skewer hand gesture—“and it’s a choice. But a unique one. It’s too bad my knowledge of Sixamese begins and ends at telling a stranger at a bar they’re cute.”
“You have never been adept at foreign language, Michael.”
“Just call me Mike, man. Oh! I also may have picked up a few swears. Though I don’t think Cuocco would appreciate either of those choices.”
That got a laugh out of Vincente. “I admire that restraint. You would be surprised by the tactlessness many senior Space Rangers tend to display.”
“Nah, I’d believe you. Of course. That’s what happens when you select diplomats based on space-travel ability rather than interpersonal skills.” He paused, during which time he appeared to think to himself. “It’s not as hard as it looks. Earthlings, Sixamese, we all want the same things.”
“Indeed, the range of skills one must master to be a high-performing senior Space Ranger is far greater than what is required by your government.”
“Yeah, and I’ve put a lot of work into developing them. Again, not easy. Talent’s not enough, you’ve got to be disciplined.”
“It is not a responsibility most sims could hold. You must be a hero back on Earth.”
“I think most people see me that way, but you can’t please ’em all, I guess. Not everyone keeps up with interplanetary politics.” He cocked his head and smirked. “But they really should be, since I saved everyone’s behind for the sixth time in a row.”
“‘Saved their behinds’ strikes me as too strong, given how stable the diplomatic relationship between our planets is.”
“Well, improved their quality of life, if you find that fair. I had a son in the medical field, and—let me tell you—about a third of his patients were Sixamese. He practically had to become an expert in xenobiology just to get through a normal day of work. And this will work out better for the diaspora, too, now that it’s a required course. My idea, actually.”
“Still can’t believe I got the Foxbury administration to listen to a U. Britechester man.”
“That does represent a major improvement. I cannot tell you, nor can Prime Minster Cuocco, how many previous Universal Ambassadors viewed this treaty as preventative of war alone, rather than an obligation to help our dual citizens. We’ve speculated that it may have indicated a belief that sims are inherently superior, or a projection of some colonialist attitude.”
“That’s what you get when you hire an ambassador who isn’t a people person.” He swatted at some imaginary space bug before reminding himself it wouldn’t be a space bug because he’s not actually in space right now any more than he is on Earth. But don’t tell the lawyers or they’d never agree to get on the rocket. “If you are, there’s nothing to it. I have a bunch of Sixamese friends already. It’s listening to what you need, that’s all it is.”
“It is not as straightforward for some as you may think,” Vincente said. “Even though your life on Earth sounds busy, you should fly here more often. How you say—don’t be a stranger, okay?”
“Of course.” Mike’s crew was done following the conventional wisdom to go before they left, and all five other sims had passed him on the way to the ship. He continued talking while walking backwards after them. “But if not, Vincente, see you next year. 14.75 months our time. Well. 14.68.”
Given that Mike could see the grey clouds over Newcrest while re-entering the atmosphere, he wasn’t surprised to find that the storm from that morning hadn’t stopped. He’d gotten his umbrella ready to open as he was leaving the carpool home from the Oasis Springs Space Station.
With the living room still illuminated, he imagined he was feeling the way a boat captain would when a lighthouse’s rays came into sight. Another squatter of an idea stole his attention. Home is the space captain’s lighthouse. Okay sentiment; phrasing needed work. He stepped over a puddle on the porch and the doors swung open, showing that there was indeed a missile in the hatch, and it had spots.
“Perry!” Unconcerned, he fell into a squat and let the dog put its filthy, muddy paws all over his formal Ambassador uniform. Even if it was from Perry, after the last couple of days, he needed that hug. He didn’t realize how much he needed that hug.
As he rose to standing, he sensed that something was off. It wasn’t the puddles on the hardwood. It was an emptiness he couldn’t place, and no environmental mystery was harder to solve than something’s absence. There was also the possibility—no, every piece of furniture, every collectible in this house had a story that began or ended with her smiling face, and he was already expecting the lack of a yelled greeting or the smell of rice and beans. This had a more ominous flavor. Cooperative or not, he had one lead left to resolve, or at least place, the dread.
Hector’s room wasn’t just empty, it struck Mike as hollow. More so than the living room. He didn’t have to put a second foot into the door to identify the sound as dead. Again, he found himself struggling to identify the source.
Because it had been removed.
The spot on Hector’s desk where his spare homework book lived was empty. The whole desk was cleared, in fact, except for a pristine incense holder the family had regifted between themselves five holidays in a row. The shelves were cleared of Selvadoradan artifacts. The children’s drawings, he recognized as Charlie’s and Kendra’s handiwork, but none of his youngest son’s very, incredibly orange works remained.
The part of Mike’s brain not involved in astrophysics volunteered its theory about a discerning robber rifling through the house for relics and cheddar-cheese paintings; nuts as it seemed, the alternative was a discerning robber who had a really creepy obsession with his son. Scratch that. Creepy obsession or wholesome concern.
Hector had no reason to steal his own things, leaving either the Feng twins, who admittedly held the teen B&E record, or—could it be? And then he realized it, the source of the emptiness he’d felt in the living room. He stepped backwards into the hallway. When he entered, he’d been unwilling to look in her direction. Now he fixated on the mantle as soon as it came into view, hoping that what he thought he saw wasn’t the case, tripping over a chair leg in the process. But walking closer only caused the empty space to get larger until there was nothing left in his field of vision.
In following his intuition, he’d realized the urgency: his wife was missing, and his son had never returned from school. He tried texting Hector. Calling, like a luddite. As expected, he got no response.
So this is how the rest of his day was going to go: scrolling through his address book, hoping one of his hundreds of contacts would prove useful—and if that didn’t work, posters after it stopped raining, announcements on Jo’s blog, summoning rituals, soul exchanges, holding a large arrow on a street corner. Satellite monitoring. Strangerville government contacts.
Whatever would get his family home safe again, he was willing to do it.
The general premise of Kendra’s novel had been gestating since high school, kicking around next to her hippocampus with unwarranted urgency, given how much work needed to be done before it was no longer a story about a hot but emotionally damaged person who not only discovered they had magical powers, but that the magical powers they had or circumstances of their birth were actually super special even when compared to others with similar abilities, and that coming along to guide them was another person, hot but less emotionally damaged, who was more competent, i.e. any level of competent, about the surrounding supernatural world, and who would gradually expose them to this world the hard way while also falling in love with them at convenient times, also there was a scene where the other hot person carried the protagonist, or something, or vice versa. It spoke to her then, but now, she was left scrolling through to figure out how much of the drivel she’d spent years on was salvageable.
What struck her was the discrepancy between the length of her worldbuilding notes and the paltry amount of world that actually made it into the story, and the way she overestimated the degree to which the average reader understood the world. The average reader being, say, herself four years later. But part of that discrepancy was due to the structure of the novel being a handful of paragraphs she’d had since the beginning—all of which she hated—and filler in between that she couldn’t force herself to write, filler that was enclosed in double brackets so she had a visual indicator of what still needed to be done. And like a solid portion of what she’d written was bracketed. On the flip side, deleting the temporary parts pained her less.
She checked the clock to find she’d been working uninterrupted for nearly an hour, and so she was probably overdue to check on Hector. Yuggoth, also, was watching her with pleading eyes, but that was to be expected. Closing the document gave her a hit of the finality she was looking for. She headed downstairs.
The way Yuggoth weaved through her legs suggested that not only was the dog needing to use the stairs at the exact same time not a coincidence, she was deliberately trying to get Kendra to trip on her. When she reached the bottom of the staircase—Yuggoth hadn’t gotten her way, so that she reached the floor foot-first rather than head-first—she immediately saw her brother.
“So, uh, what are you doing?”
He was sitting on the couch, munching on an empanada. “Watching a movie.”
“Right.” Several sensory factors were present that would allow Kendra to conclude this for herself—notably, an LED screen projecting a less dangerous human/canine interaction—but it was nice to get a verbal confirmation. He’d also taken care of dinner. There were a couple other elements on the teen-care list Kendra’d begun curating in her head for all of two hours, dinner being one of them, scholastic responsibilities being another. “Did you finish your homework already?”
“Yeah. Plus it’s Friday.”
“Oh.” Also, end of list.
If she was being honest, Kendra wasn’t really listening to Hector’s generous synopsis of the movie so far, which boiled down to a dog being in a place it wasn’t supposed to for comedy-of-errors-type reasons and having to find its way back to the little blonde girl with pigtails. The iteration of the little blonde girl with pigtails Kendra had a passing familiarity with was currently appearing in a flashback. But Kendra’s mind wasn’t concerned with sympathizing with her, or the dog, but rather flopping between insecurity at her own apparent incompetence and some lackluster attempt to combat that incompetence by coming up with new items to tack onto the end of the teen care list, which she again was having trouble doing. So she changed the topic.
“How’s the new room?”
He took another bite of the empanada. “Okay.” Another, so at least there was a reason for this bit of awkward silence. “I might need somewhere else to hide if Dad comes after me, though.”
“Comes after you?”
“Never mind. Forget I said anything.”
“Hector.” Already, Kendra found herself developing the tone her parents used to use with her for offenses less severe than this one. “Did you steal Mom?”
“Uh, yeah, is that a problem?” This, he said in monotone, not unlike an out-of-work actor given the cue to ‘sound natural.’ He nodded, gesturing behind her. “Check your window table.”
Where Kendra had once been storing a decorative skull, the urn stood, prominently displayed to any visitors or nosy neighbors.
“Oh my god. You stole Mom.”
“Uh. Is it actually a problem?”
“It is if you didn’t want to deal with Dad this early.” But otherwise, no. If anything, it took care of logistics: with the urn in her house, Kendra had a better chance of catching her mother’s ghost. This desire, she recognized as selfish and primarily centered around her own comfort, but she wasn’t going to go the social-incompetence route and start asking her mother detailed questions or anything.
Kendra’s pocket started playing ‘The Imperial March.’
“Crap. Speak of the devil.”
Hector, who caused the problem but wasn’t the one dealing with it, said “Ugh.”
As her thumb found the green phone button, Kendra brought her phone to her right ear—the side further from Hector, like that was going to do anything.
“Hey, Hector didn’t come home today and didn’t tell me where he was going. Do you know where he is?”
“Yeah, he’s with me. He’s fine.”
“Oh, thank god.”
“He’s gonna be crashing with me for a while. Don’t worry, he has his own room and all.”
“What?” A pause. “Can’t we at least talk about this first?”
“Dad, Hector doesn’t want to talk to you right now.” Hector nodded toward her in approval.
“Yeah, I don’t mean to Hector. I mean, we should talk about it first. Do you even know the first thing about raising a kid?”
“Hector’s… fifteen?” Yes. Okay, that would have been a shitshow if she’d messed up. “It’s not like he’s peeing his pants. I’ve got a job, I’ve got the cash from gardening, he’s got a desk for his homework and a fridge full of food. Just for a little while, okay, Dad? He needs some space right now.”
“It’s irresponsible to make decisions for a teen without talking to their parent first.”
“You’re saying it’s irresponsible to step up when Hector needs me?” She sighed. Mike didn’t immediately respond. There was no hope of him admitting she was right, so the silence—to her—signified that he was trying to formulate a counterargument but coming up short. It was one of the few times she’d left him speechless. She turned away from Hector to give the impression of privacy. But, again, like that was going to do anything. “Look. If you force Hector to come home now, he’s only going to resent you. Let him choose for himself. Let him heal a bit.”
And she left it at that, aware that the best she could hope for now was a change of subject. When she next heard her father’s voice, it was thinner than she remembered it being.
“Did he take anything with him?”
Kendra looked toward the urn, causing Hector to mirror her action. “Yeah, some of the relics he picked up in Selvadorada and meals for a couple years.”
The force returned to his voice. “You know what I’m talking about.”
“I’m”—she considered evading the accusation with a claim that Dad would have to be more specific, that Hector stole a lot of things, but she bit her tongue and ruled against it—“um, yes, she’s safe too. I’m sorry, I didn’t know he did that.”
“Well, can you bring her back?”
Now Kendra was the one left speechless, flailing for an excuse. “Can we keep her here for a little while? He’s not doing great right now and I think being around her is helping.”
“Do you hear yourself?”
Okay, she messed up. She’d shown a hint of uncertainty, and so he’d jumped right back to fill in the gaps for her.
“You act like Hector’s the only one grieving right now! Do you have any idea how much it hurts to lose a spouse? And a child? And now your other child won’t even look at you?” Also, Kendra. She was in there somewhere. “If Hector’s there, and Claudia’s there, then all I have left is—“
Kendra waited for him to finish the thought. He didn’t.
Finally, a sigh escaped on the other end of the phone. “Being a kid doesn’t excuse running away and stealing things that aren’t yours to take. Can’t you convince him to talk to me? We can work this out. Just let me know exactly what he thinks I did and how we can move past this. I’m more reasonable than he thinks I am.”
Glancing sidelong at her brother, she again remembered what Aileen had told her, again considered if there were any other priorities she had to shuffle around. And right now her top priority was avoiding a fight, for Hector’s sake. And there was only one person she could think of whose will could overrule them all.
“Dad, I didn’t want to mention it earlier, but—“
“Mom’s ghost came out.”
She heard the words leave her mouth, although she couldn’t believe she was the one saying them. “And we already asked her where she wanted to rest. She said here, with Hector.”
Now while it had been the case that Hector was frozen for the conversation, pretending to care about whether Scruffy got home safe, his eyes popped open like he’d seen one when she said the word ‘ghost.’ His beaming at her was impossible to ignore. Kinda annoying, actually, if she wasn’t invested in keeping him in that joyful a state for the rest of his visit here.
The phone grabbed her attention. “She came back? Really? Is she okay? Can I talk to her?”
“She’s not here anymore. She went back inside the urn.”
“Did she give you a reason? Did she tell you why?”
“No. She didn’t say much of anything. Seemed like she didn’t want to talk about it.”
“Maybe she’ll tell me. Let me talk to her. Please.” Of the emotions Kendra could expect from her father, desperation hadn’t been one. Until now. She was caught too off-balance to consider whether it was still an act or if he’d finally lost control. “Call me next time. As soon as possible.”
Then from Hector’s side of the call, he wasn’t hearing any of this, but rather had to infer Mike’s response from the blunt, almost binary answers Kendra was throwing at him, all while Hector batted at her sleeve in a manner suggesting he wanted the call to end, so that those responses were bouncy at times.
“Yeah, I don’t know why either. No guesses. Yeah. I’ll let you know. Yeah, uh-huh. Yeah, she’s shaken up but recovering. Yeah, I can visit. Bye, Dad.”
She hung up.
Still hot on the end of the phone call, Hector was already babbling at full volume. “Did you really see Mom’s ghost?!”
“No, I didn’t know she was here until ten minutes ago. Remember?”
“So you just made something up—“
“—To get Dad off our back, yeah.”
“Oh.” He looked disappointed for like a second before springing right back to record-breaking temperatures of optimism. “I forgot about the ghost! Do you think she’s going to come out?”
Kendra shrugged. “Probably?”
She didn’t expect her noncommittal response to be the last chip in his emotional casing, but if any wildlife had been on her lot when his hope and grief collided into one perfect second of sonic explosion, they’d surely have found some path out. Even Yuggoth, big and dumb as she was, looked toward the couch with both ears perked. Even Kendra found herself wishing she could join the exodus, but of course she pushed it aside for Hector’s sake. Now he’d stabilized somewhat, and throughout his sobs Kendra could identify bits of sputtered Simlish and Simlés, utterances about ghosts and nicknames for moms and how the future wasn’t so dark after all.
For her part, Kendra had not only already processed this information, she’d received pointers for dealing with ghosthood. She should have felt prepared. That being said, having her brother around and invested was a whole other meatball, especially so now that two of the wisest people she knew expressed concern for her long-term well-being. But that was an issue she wouldn’t have been able to shield Hector from anyway. Here, now, one of Bernard’s claims had been squatting in her head more than the others—she assumed before that it stood out because it was unexpected, and had only just realized how immediate of a problem it would create.
Remember that inactive spirits feel no passage of time. Her first appearance will probably be spent in shock.
And her throat closed involuntarily as she imagined the constriction her mother would just then be recovering from, and Hector’s face as he saw her in that state a second time.
When the call ended, Mike found himself still facing the empty space on the mantle. He’d have to look away and then reality would crash back and he’d find himself in that living room, that wretched space whose pallor was identified and shown to be permanent. It was insulting, patronizing somehow, that a warm environment that reeked of home could feel so empty: that he thought returning to one’s house only to find it corrupted past recognition would involve some cataclysmic physical change, not an instant’s realization, not when last night’s carne asada still sat in the fridge and well-fed hounds nipped at his heels.
Without shifting his focus, he launched himself into the bedroom, closing his eyes. He reasoned that a darker, smaller space may better reflect his mood, relieving the dissonance if not the desolation. Yes, of course the double bed held a hundred memories of her, but so did everything else in the living room, in the kitchen, anywhere he dared to look, any time he closed his eyes, so he willed himself to buck up and face it.
That was the idea. Anyway. In practice, he wasn’t sure how he’d get to sleep tonight: in practice, he hadn’t slept well the past two nights either, which was why he’d made the cards for the funeral, which was why he couldn’t bite back as fatally as Bernard did, which was why he couldn’t even manage himself, much less interplanetary diplomacy or the regular duties of a bereaved spouse. And now he didn’t understand what was going on with his son. If there were anything he could have done since the funeral, it escaped him, as did any clues he’d missed despite his knowledge of sim behavior—it was the misplaced blame, and the pain, that had poisoned Hector against him, and he watched helplessly from afar, trapped, as another family member vanished.
He sat down at the computer, trying to push aside the resentment. Hector wasn’t the only one wasting away in this house. Kendra wasn’t the only one who needed answers. And the list of people who could provide those answers was dissolving, and the stars themselves now felt closer than the sims he’d once confided in. He was dead to them, or they were dead—or saying things just to hurt him, or listening to people who said those things. All out of nowhere.
The mourners told him he wasn’t alone. They said this right before they left to talk to anyone else but him.
And with the ongoing storm, he couldn’t even look up at the sky to remind himself of the people far away who said they cared.