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Klell, Part 1

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Feb. 26th, 2010 | 10:17 pm

This is part 1 of a longer story I'm writing, working title "Klell". The premise would take too long to explain, so I'll just let you read and find out. This is a rough first draft, so comments are very welcome. One comment: I haven't put a lot of thought into characterization, as I'm more motivated by the concept, so all the characters might sound alike. :) Also, it might be a little (a lot?) exposition-heavy.

I'm standing on the beach of an alien world, looking across the sea at the too-orange sun rising out of the water. My Earthly brain tells me that it is mid-morning, but Klell rotates more slowly: the morning is always late, so I've developed the habit of standing out here, by the ocean, awaiting the day. Sand and water and clouds are pretty much the same anywhere you go, and I've long since gotten used to the smell, so except for the Sun, it's easy to imagine that I'm standing in Chicago, looking over Lake Michigan. I'm not homesick, exactly...but it's comforting.

I hear footsteps behind me, and the spell is broken. I turn to see a group of five Klelli, tall jet-black figures in red robes, walking from their huts on the beach to the University. Advanced students, they must be: the beachhouses are the most desirable student housing, reserved for the older students and the favorites of departments. It's still hard for me to tell them apart at a distance, even after a year, but one of them turns and waves to me, and I recognize Goe, who was in my seminar last semester. I wave back, Klelli style, elbow pointed upward, although my short arms make the gesture look absurd. I wonder if those were Goe's closefriends, or if they were just going to the same class. In any case, if they're going to class, I think, I should probably start my day as well. I grab my satchel, which I had set down on the sand, and walk up the beach to the Mathematics building, my own robe (in professorial blue) rippling in the breeze.

When I first got the call inviting me for a sabbatical on Klell, I was flabbergasted. I had heard about the Exchange Program, but I figured that only top scientists would be chosen. I wasn't even an assistant professor, but an adjunct teaching calculus part-time while doing research on my own time, surviving on spaghetti and Ramen and free seminar food. I had managed to publish a few papers since my Ph.D., but they were never cited, and hardly noticed...or so I thought. In fact, I had become a minor academic celebrity on Klell-- my paper on irrational Padhi lattices solved a conjecture which had been bothering Klelli mathematicians for a century-- and so Third University here invited me to teach and study for two years. I was nervous of course-- I'd be light-years from home, one of only a handful of other humans on the planet-- but mostly terribly proud and excited.

I went through six months of training before they would let me go, drilled on Klelli language, customs, and protocol, so that I wouldn't be an embarrassment or spark some sort of diplomatic incident. We've had an ambassador on Klell for fifty years, but this was the first time that humans would live among "normal" Klelli and they didn't want us to screw it up. They even put us on a Klelli diet so that we would become used to their cuisine, and so wouldn't offend our hosts by reacting badly. For all their caution, Klell didn't seem any stranger to me than that of a foreign country on Earth. There were no bizarre rituals, no unusual taboos.

Except for one, which they mentioned nearly every day. The Klelli have two sexes just as we do, but they did not evolve the secondary sexual characteristics that species on Earth did; male and female Klelli can only be distinguished by inspection of their genitalia, located in their midsection, roughly where their navel would be. An easy task when you're naked, but Klelli wear clothes and have the same nudity taboos as we do, so knowing the gender of a Klelli is akin to seeing a human naked: accidents happen and secrets slip out, of course, but it is terribly shameful for one's gender to be revealed to a stranger, and distasteful to discuss gender in public.

"Most Klelli won't be able to tell human men and women apart," explained our instructor, "and those who've studied our culture will feign ignorance to be polite. Most will realize that we are an alien species with alien ways, and forgive us our lapses. Still, it is best not to be overly egregious." We were instructed to maintain as gender-neutral a appearance as possible: short haircuts for the women, no facial hair for the men, and the traditional Klelli robe for all. Fortunately we didn't have to worry about linguistic lapses, as we would we speaking in Klellian, which lacks separate pronouns for "he" and "she", separate words for "father" and "mother" ("child-bearer" could be used for the latter in medical circles), and so forth.

As I walked along the concourse from the beach to the campus, I thought back to my training with some amusement. Among the crowd of robed Klelli one could spot the occasional person wearing pants or a skirt, a suit and tie or a linen dress (which looked decidedly odd on a linear Klelli body). Others sported small pins on their lapels with the traditional male or female logo from Earth, which they had picked up from our literature. A young Klelli jumped up on a large boulder in the middle of the quad and shouted "I am female!"; most of the bypassers turned away in embarrassment, but some of the onlookers cheered. Humans were the first alien species the Klelli had ever encountered, and our culture fascinated them, particularly the way we shamelessly broadcast our sex to everyone around us. In the past I've seen groups of Klelli staring at me, whispering amongst each other and occasionally looking down at a pamphlet one of them was holding, probably trying to discern if I was a woman or a man.

Looking across the quad, I see Morgan sitting on a bench by the side of the road, nose buried in a Klellian book titled "Discrete Mechanics", hand reaching for the braid they made her cut off because some Klelli might recognize it as "female". Morgan is a physicist, the only other human at Third University. I sit down beside her and give her a peck on the cheek.

"I wondered when you were going to stop oceangazing and come to breakfast," she says in her deep voice, handing me a bun.
"I didn't know you had already left," I replied. Morgan and I have been sleeping together for the past few months, for the company as much as the sex. We might not have had a lot in common on Earth, but on an alien world we're practically soulmates. "Did you catch the show?" I asked, gesturing towards the rock.
"Yeah, she's one of my students," Morgan said, smiling. "Wears a suit and tie to class half the time, a dress the other half."
"Typical. He doesn't want to give anything away."
"Of course not. She's going to settle down and be a pillar of the community some day. Can't afford to let people know her real gender."

(We were speaking in English-- neither of us are linguists and it's tiring to speak Klellian all the time-- which meant we were stuck with English gendered pronouns. Our compromise was that I referred to all Klelli as "he", and Morgan used "she". It would have confused other humans and scandalized any Klelli eavesdroppers, but there were no other humans nearby, the Klelli didn't speak English, and it amused us.)

"I feel bad about it sometimes," Morgan said after taking a sip of tea. "As a human, I mean. I feel like we're mucking up their culture just by being here."
"But these are college students," I replied. "College students are the same everywhere; they'll rebel any way they can. We're just the inspiration. Plus, you gotta expect a little disruption when people meet their first alien culture. We went a little nutty ourselves when we met the Yoz."
She laughed. "I've actually got a picture of my great-grandmother from back then, painted completely blue, with an eye tattooed in the middle of her forehead."
"You're kidding."
"Nope. Puts all of this into perspective, I suppose."
"I'll say," I laughed. "Anyway, I don't think their mania has spread much beyond the campuses, and it's not even widespread here. I've seen students with horrified looks on their faces too."

"You mean Jor," she said. "By the way, I just saw Jor half an hour ago; she said she needed to talk to both of us."

"Both of us? That's strange. Why would he need to talk to you?" Jor was one of my research students, working on abstract number theory. Morgan and Jor had met when we invited the students to dinner once, but that was the extent of their contact as far as I know.

"I don't know; I barely know her." she said. "A joint research project?"

"With you and me?" I said, mouth full of bun. I swallowed, and said, "Bit of a stretch. I mean, physics and mathematics overlap and all, but you're practically an engineer, and my research..."

"...is completely useless, yes I know." she smiled. "Stranger things have happened. Anyway, she said that she would be in the computer lab across from your office, and she hoped I'd come by later."

"You might as well come now, so we can hear what he has to say." I stood up, wiping some crumbs off of my shirt, and once she grabbed her bag we headed north to the Mathematics building.
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