Close Encounters 3

I blinked in surprise. Like he had any doubts about that, after all the dirty fantasies I’d had about him?

“Uh… Yeah, of course I do! Why do you even ask?” I asked in return, confused.

Aurel blushed. He actually blushed, his normally white cheeks turning a pale purple hue like his hair — barely noticeable, but I did notice, because I’d been staring at his face for some time.

“I simply… Well… It is so very… unusual,” he replied, disconcerted. He even broke eye contact and played with his fork, and I realized that he was completely flustered. I cast about in my mind for a reason why.

“You didn’t think I could appreciate beauty? Is that it?” I asked, not so much offended as disappointed in my own behavior that first night, which must have led him to conclude that I was too primitive.

“No! No, I did not think that,” he quickly protested. “I only… You see…” He sighed, then started over. “It just seems so very unusual that anyone — especially of another species — would find me attractive, because… among my own kind, I am considered… very ugly.”

I was shocked. If he could read my emotions as well as my thoughts, I probably didn’t even need to say what I said next.

“How could anyone think you’re ugly? You’re beautiful! In fact, you’re the most beautiful creature — of any species — that I’ve ever met! You’re… tall, and graceful, and your face is so dainty and pretty a–and well-balanced,” I hastily added, hoping that I hadn’t just offended him by the feminine descriptors, “and… you have the most beautiful color hair and eyes…”

Aurel met my gaze again, a haunted look in those luminous eyes.

“You really think… my color is… beautiful?” he asked, his voice a mere whisper.

“Well… yeah!” I answered, still nonplussed.

He stared at me for a long moment, no doubt searching my mind for any trace of deception — as though I could deceive him, after my failed attempt just a minute ago. When he spoke again, his tone was hushed and his cheeks were still tinted with color.

“Among my species… bright, pure colors are valued above dull or pale ones, and for millennia our scientists have selected our genes to produce only such colors. I am… unattractive, for two reasons: my color is pale, and it is also dull. Even though my father is a… a very wealthy man, it is very unlikely that I will ever find a mate.”

I tried to process what he was telling me, but it was difficult to swallow.

“So… you’re saying that because your color isn’t bright like everyone else’s, nobody wants to be with you? Like you’re some kind of… defect?”

He nodded, his hair swaying from the movement.

“Yes. My color is a great embarrassment to my family… It shows that my parents have inferior genes. Most parents would have destroyed me before I was born, but my father did not want to. He says that our species should discard such… antiquated ideals. But… most Vanzatoans do not agree.”

I was beginning to understand the Vanzatoan mindset, at least, if not their sense of aesthetics. We Earthans had numerous examples in our past in which individuals were harassed or worse, simply for their appearance, or even their beliefs. It would seem that our two species had a lot in common.

“Yes, we do, whether many Vanzatoans would admit it or not,” Aurel agreed.

“Is that why you’re here on Ixion?” I asked. “Because you’re discriminated against on your own planet?”

“I have not been mistreated,” he answered slowly, “because we have laws that forbid such behavior. However, it has been… difficult, for me, because I can sense what others are feeling.”

Oh. Right.

“They are not intentionally unkind,” he explained, “but… many will look at me and… pity me. They feel sorry for my parents. Some do not understand why I was not destroyed as soon as my… aberration, was detected. And others… believe that I should be destroyed, even now… or at the very least, prevented from breeding, so that my flawed genes are not passed on — even though it is highly unlikely that I will ever find a mate.”

It was the second time that he’d referred to his un-mate-able status, and I wondered how that made him feel. Like an outcaste? A defective part to be discarded and disposed of? And wouldn’t that make him very lonely?

“Yes,” he answered, and my heart almost stopped — I kept forgetting that he could read my thoughts! “I am not offended, Jun Nakamura. You are very… compassionate. And although you are not a Receiver, you are very perceptive.”

“I’m sorry,” I told him aloud. “I shouldn’t be asking such personal questions…”

He smiled, and this time my heart did skip a few beats, but for a totally different reason.

“If I do not want to answer, I will tell you so. And I am sorry for asking you a… an unnecessary question, as well. Your heart tells me how you truly feel, whether you wish it to or not. I simply… could not believe it, in my own heart.”

It was hard for me to comprehend his species’ standards, too, since he really was beautiful, sitting there in the diffused sunlight with his delicate features lit up, his long hair cascading over his shoulders like a lavender waterfall.

“I guess… if everybody tells you all your life that you’re ugly, you can’t help but believe it,” I mumbled, feeling resentment towards all the other (stupid) Vanzatoans.

“I know that I am. But that is why I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to know why anyone would think that… that I am attractive, in any way.”

I must have gaped at him, as the full import of his words sank in — he really believed, even now, that he was ugly! And with that realization came an indescribable sadness, that a creature so beautiful could not see himself for what he was: a magnificent fluke. Yes, if he’d been born this color by some accident of genetic engineering, it was a blessing, not a curse. He would have to learn to see that it was true! And maybe, just maybe, I would be the one to show him that.

He shook his head and smiled, though there were traces of sadness in his eyes, too.

“I am beginning to think that you are an aberration as well, Jun Nakamura. You claim to see beauty where others do not — that is your opinion, your… preference. But to insist that something is beautiful when none other can see it as such is… madness.”

I’d always had a stubborn streak in me, and with every fiber of my being, I now rebelled against the Vanzatoan majority.

“But would you call something — or someone, in this case — worthless, just because everyone else does? Or just because the majority of people say that something is right, would you go along with it, without considering if it really is right?”

Aurel pursed his lips for a moment, analyzing my words, and probably sifting through my emotions to help expand on my meaning.

“I almost understand what you are saying, but I sense that there is a specific example to which you are referring…”

“Yes. A long time ago, some Earthans who had lighter skin decided that other Earthans with darker skin weren’t really ‘human’ — that they were more like animals than intelligent beings, simply because the lighter-skinned race had made a few, very basic, scientific discoveries first. They used that knowledge to force the darker-skinned ones to work for them, and treated them badly. It was a… a very sad time in our history… And of course, both dark- and light-skinned races were the same species.”

“That is… horrible,” he remarked, closing his eyes as though the information pained him.

“Yes. But the thing is, most of the light-skinned race thought they were right in assuming that the dark-skinned race was inferior to them. A few stood up and said that was wrong, but they were in the minority. So you see, just because most of the people believed that they were ‘right,’ didn’t mean they actually were.”

“Yes, I do see. So you are saying that… just because most of my species thinks that my color is not attractive, they are not necessarily right in believing so.”

“Exactly! Especially because they are bright colors themselves, and are the overwhelming majority.”

He smiled again, and although I could see that I hadn’t convinced him — not really — I was glad that he was at least able to entertain such a concept now.

“You are a truly unique individual, Jun Nakamura,” he said, making my insides do somersaults. “You are right that I am not convinced that my entire species is wrong in this matter, but yes… I can understand why you are willing to make such a claim.”

“You can just call me ‘Jun,'” I told him belatedly, feeling a bit awkward now that I’d vented everything on my mind — even though he probably could’ve sensed most of it without my verbalizations.

“‘Jun,’ okay,” he repeated. “May I ask you one more thing?”

“Yeah?”

“What does your name mean?”

“Oh! Well, it’s Japanese, because my dad’s Japanese, and our family name, ‘Nakamura,’ means ‘inside village’ — don’t ask me why, it’s really old, and fairly common as far as Japanese names go. And ‘Jun’ means ‘pure’ or ‘innocent.’ Uh, not that I exemplify those virtues, of course!” I added, blushing. “Does your name mean something, too?”

“Yes. ‘Aurel’ means ‘golden light,’ and ‘Galda’ means ‘fire,’ as in a cooking fire. Our family name is also old.”

I was almost giddy to realize that I was having an actual conversation with him, and wanted to hold on to this moment for as long as possible. Unfortunately, all those questions that I’d been wanting to ask — What did a Vanzatoan penis look like? Did they even have penises? — came crowding back into my mind, making me flush with embarrassment.

“I am not offended, Jun,” he told me. “You are very curious, and it seems that the Vanzatoan scientists have not given your scientists much information regarding our anatomy, most likely because our genetic codes are incompatible for mating. They must have assumed that you would have little interest in it, but since mating is such an important part of your life, it is natural that you would be curious.”

I blamed Aurel’s perception of our sexuality on all the graphic fantasies I’d had of him on the hover-bus, but he quickly tried to reassure me.

“You are not the only one obsessed with mating, Jun. Most of the Earthans I have encountered have had thoughts about mating, some quite often. In the store, I once observed a pair meet for the first time, and they started conversing… They left the store together, and I could clearly sense their intentions. Such behavior seems to be common.”

“Well, yeah,” I agreed, relieved to know that I hadn’t come across as a complete sex addict.

“But what I cannot understand, Jun, is why there are so few Earthan children here. Is it difficult for your species to breed? Or do the females return to Earth to birth the children?”

I stared at him for a moment, my mind blank, before I could formulate a reply.

“Uh… Well… We don’t have a problem ‘breeding,’ as you say — Earthan females are quite fertile, actually — but most of them contracept unless they’re trying to get pregnant.”

Aurel returned my blank look with one of his own.

“I do not know this word, ‘contracept.’ What does it mean?”

“It means… they use something — usually medication — to prevent themselves from getting pregnant. So they don’t have to worry about it, you know.”

It was obvious that he didn’t know, as I soon found out.

“But… why would they prevent it? Why do they mate, if they do not want a child?”

Our orientation instructor had warned us about culture shock, and I was sorry now that I hadn’t paid much attention to him. I was getting a full dose of it today!

“Uh… So you mean… your species doesn’t ‘mate’ unless you want children?”

“Of course. Why else would we mate?”

My mind was reeling from this revelation, and it must have been contagious, since Aurel — even with his ability to read my mind — was looking very confused. I tried to form a coherent sentence to clear matters up.

“Aurel, I don’t know how it is for your species, but for us, the act of ‘mating’ itself is pleasurable. We enjoy it, because it feels good.”

“Oh!”

The shock on his face was slowly absorbed by comprehension.

“So… you mate because it is pleasurable, and if you do not want children, you prevent — ‘contracept’ — the pregnancy.”

“Right.”

“I see…”

“Um… Aurel?” I asked, beginning to recover. “When your species mates, isn’t it pleasurable?”

He seemed to weigh his answer for a moment.

“I cannot say for sure, having never mated myself, but… my father said that it was very… satisfying, to know that he had started the lives of his children. It was not only his duty, but also an achievement… despite the unexpected results.”

“Oh.” I digested this, finally realizing why the Vanzatoan females had so little interest in me. “Wow. That sure explains a lot…”

“Jun, you said the act of mating is pleasurable for your species,” Aurel began. “Can you describe it to me?”

I looked at him, and was almost overwhelmed by the enormity of the task — how could you describe sex to someone who had no frame of reference? But I had to at least try, even if I only muddled through it.

“Well… when you touch someone, does it feel good?” I asked in return, trying to feel my way (metaphorically speaking) around the topic.

“Yes. We express affection by physical contact, also,” he replied, which gave me a starting point.

“Okay, so letting someone know that you like them is a big part of it. And I’m not sure if you can relate to this, but the actual friction — when we rub our bodies together — feels really good, too.”

“Ah. Your sensory receptors are stimulated.”

“Yeah, exactly! And of course, our sex drive is motivated by the urge to procreate, so when we ejaculate (for males, anyway) it releases the tension that’s been building up in those organs, so it’s not only pleasurable but intensely satisfying. I think it’s similar for women, too, although they don’t necessarily ovulate in response to their climax.”

“I see… It is very different from my species,” Aurel mused.

I was desperately curious to hear what the Vanzatoan version of sex was like, but was hesitant to ask since I knew now that Aurel was a virgin. Of course, I didn’t have to, since he could read my mind like the proverbial open book.

“You had been wondering about our reproductive organs as well,” he began, to my mixed embarrassment and gratification. “I don’t know how similar it is to your penis, but Vanzatoan males have a tubular organ… I believe you would call it a tentacle, although it does not resemble that of a Merenian. It is a simple tube that extends long enough to reach into the female’s… ovary, I think, is the word. Her egg-producing organ…”

“Yeah, that’s it,” I nodded, trying to visualize what he was describing.

“The male’s genetic material is… encapsulated, according to male or female chromosomes, so the male can select which gender of child to breed. He propels the capsule through his tube into the female’s body, and when it reaches the end and half of it is protruding from the tube, he stimulates her ovary with it until she senses that her egg has been released. The egg is encased in a special enzyme that melts a hole in the capsule, allowing it to enter and merge with the male’s genetic material. Once fertilized, the male implants the capsule in the female’s… growing chamber, where the child will grow until it is ready to be birthed.”

His textbook summary was certainly informative, and the very clinical way in which he had explained the process was also enlightening — it was truly “mating” or “breeding” for them, and only that. There was no shame or embarrassment associated with the act because there was no lust motivating the Vanzatoans. It also explained why Aurel had been so open-minded and forgiving about my sexual fantasies about him.

“I suppose so… although my species also finds it… well, not shameful, exactly, but… distasteful, to speak of such things with those not of one’s family. It is something that each father teaches to his son, and each mother to her daughter,” Aurel commented on my current thoughts. “But I feel no shame in telling you, Jun, since you would have no knowledge of it otherwise. And I feel… obligated, to tell you what I can, since I am able to hear your thoughts whether you wish me to or not.”

“Well… it is a bit disconcerting,” I confessed, “especially when I can’t seem to stop thinking about sex… but that’s probably because I find you so attractive.”

“Jun… that is another thing that I cannot understand,” he responded. “Even if you think my color is beautiful, why are you attracted to me in that way? You did not even know if it is possible for our bodies to mate, yet you imagined what it would be like…”

I was blushing furiously again, even though this time I had my entire species’ evolutionary history as an excuse.

“When we Earthans feel the need for sex, we tend to fantasize about it,” I told him. “It’s sort of like when you’re hungry — you can’t stop thinking about what you want to eat.”

“I see… As with appetite, your brain focuses on satisfying the need until that need is met.”

“Yeah! That’s it, exactly!”

I was struck with a burst of inspiration in that moment.

“Aurel, when you eat different foods, are there some that you like more than others?”

“Yes, of course. I actually like the flavor which you call ‘bitter.’ I had considered speaking to you in the store, to let you know that I had eaten those fruit before and enjoyed them. But you were hiding, so I did not want to startle you…”

“Oh… Well, that was nice of you. But our sex — it’s like food! If you only need to keep your body functioning, the food doesn’t have to taste good, right? Even a bland nutrition bar will do. But if you eat something that tastes really good, or something that you really like, it satisfies more than just your appetite. It doesn’t just nourish your body; it also makes you feel better emotionally and helps you relax. For us, sex isn’t just for breeding — it’s an experience that’s enjoyable in many different ways.”

“Oh! Yes, I see… I understand it much better now,” he replied, with a smile that was also enjoyable in many different ways. “It serves a purpose other than procreation for you — or rather, in addition to. I wonder if it had been that way for my species as well, and we have lost that function or ceased to need it… But you had other questions for me, did you not?”

It felt rather stupid now, but I decided that I had nothing to lose.

“Do you have pubic hair?”

“What does ‘pubic’ mean?”

“Uh… It just means in your genital area.”

“Oh! No. That is, not anymore. We had hair on a much larger area of our bodies before we were able to control our genetic traits, but then all extraneous hair was eliminated. But I am certain that it would have been the same color as the individual’s head hair and eyes. The pigment for each is produced by the same chemical process inside the body, so each individual will always have the same color for all of their coloring — unlike Earthans, of course.”

“Right. We may have dull, boring colors, but the pigments are created separately,” I agreed.

“May I ask you another question?” Aurel politely requested.

“Please, ask anything you want!”

“Well, since most Earthans have rather similar colors — even though each individual can have many — is it not hard to tell each other apart?”

I had to laugh at that — I’d never thought of it that way!

“No. I guess we’ve developed the ability to tell each other apart, out of necessity,” I grinned. “Although it must be nice to have a whole spectrum of colors to differentiate people with! But then again, your faces are more… uniform.”

“Yes. That is an area where your species has much variety. I suppose you look for different traits on individual’s faces with which to remember them?”

“Yeah, even though we don’t consciously think about it. It’s ingrained, I guess. But who knows? Maybe in the future all Earthans will be as good-looking as Vanzatoans!”

“I am sure of it. Even though you may not have the technology now, I am certain that the Vanzatoan scientists are willing teach yours how to start eliminating undesirable elements.”

Was that a flicker of wistfulness in his eyes? It occurred to me that his coloring was one of the traits considered “undesirable” in their culture, and it made me sad to think that, if the scientists had their way, lovely hues like his would be completely eliminated. He looked up at me suddenly, startled, and I realized anew how unaccustomed he was to being regarded as beautiful.

“You really are, you know,” I replied to the lingering question in his lavender-gray eyes. I leaned towards him unconsciously in my effort to convey my sincerity. “You’re absolutely beautiful!

His lips parted to speak just as I reached out to touch his delicate hand; however, the moment our skin came into contact, he gasped and slumped forward. He fell onto the table as I watched in shock, then as he started to slip off, I grabbed him and let him down gently to the floor.

Oh, shit! What did I just do?

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