Tammy had failed by one question.
Grinding her teeth, she kicked at the gravel walkway, sending pebbles into the ‘grhass’, as Catati called it. Catati tended to add h’s to ’most everything they said, it seemed.
“Mhiss Hendrhickson?” asked her Catati friend Yakí.
“Hendrickson. Hard r.”
He raised both hands, shoulders dropping. “Excuse me.” He looked down at her with silver eyes, a skeletal ridge on each golden brown cheekbone. “Congrhatulhations.”
“For what?” she asked tersely. “I failed. Again.”
He shrugged stiffly. “You will pass next time.” His eyes glinted, the edges crinkling—his people’s version of curiously cocking the head. “You are the only Human who has come that close. Does that not please you?”
She whipped about, glaring at him. “You think we’re stupid, don’t you?”
The Catati nodded vigorously. “Of course not—”
“I’ve spent a year failing a class your baby sister passed in two months, Yakí.”
Yakí’s nostrils flared as a sigh. “Your minds take longer to mature than ours do, Miss Hendrickson. My sister may be a child physically, but mentally she is already an adult. Such is our life.” He spread his hands in the Human gesture. “We spend little time helpless, rapidly developing to the size of a small child. Our minds develop rapidly, interspersed with a few more spurts of growth.”
“And then you’re grown,” Tammy clipped bitterly. “I watched your sister Welé go from an apparent age nine to age twelve in a month and a half.”
“Con, mani ya,” Yakí murmured.
Tammy quickly transliterated his words, though she’d never figured out how the Catati had translated their language to use vowels like Spanish. She’d seen Catati writing, before. Its letters were closer to Greek than English.
She figured out what he’d said and tried to figure out where she’d gone wrong, because there was No way. “She grows slowly?!”
Yakí’s high cheeks darkened, gaining a violet tint. “I forgot. You are learning Catati.”
Tammy beat her head against a nearby oak. “I—don’t—believe—this!” A thud stressed each word.
Strong fingers gripped the back of her neck and turned her around. She blinked, surprised. She’d never seen a Catati squint!
Yakí’s soft tone hid a metallic twang. “Do not do that.” The pressure on her neck didn’t change.
Giving a sharp shake of his head, he released her and abruptly continued down the gravel path.
Keeping a sharp eye on him, she rubbed her sore neck. What had that meant? She sighed, realizing just how little she actually knew of humanity’s spacefaring allies.
The Catati had shown up a few years ago, eagerly learning all they could of Earth’s inhabitants and founding a compound for those of their kind who visited. Technologically, they surpassed the Humans.
Which was why she was there.
All her life, Tammy’d longed to be in the space program. Her junior year in high school, the aliens had made contact. By the time she’d been ready for college, the Catati had offered to take Human students in their complex’s school.
After a year in the most frustrating class of her life, she was wondering how she’d even passed the entrance exam. Few had.
She stiffened, her eyes narrowing at her friend’s ever-straight back. She jogged up to him. “Yakí?”
“You guys dumbed down the entrance test for us, didn’t you?”
He looked at her with those unnerving silver eyes, so different from his silky golden brown skin and hair. She mentally slapped herself at the way that sent her thoughts. Bad Tammy.
“You have a different background. The exam was altered to reflect what you would have had the ability to know.”
She glowered at him. “What’s the standard entrance test?”
Having a transparent nictitating membrane between their eye and lid, Catati had no need for blinking. It made their stares weird. “Are you mad at me, Miss Hendrickson?”
“Mad? I—I’m livid! I’ve spent the past year working my butt off to just now realize I haven’t a chance! Sure, let’s give the Humans a chance to take our tests—we’ll have to dumb them down so much that we won’t have to worry about making them interns!”
Yakí’s pear-shaped ear twitched. “Your class is at the normal level.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet!” she snapped.
His eyes crinkled at the edges. “Would you like to see the Catati entrance test? I still have mine.”
“Funny, ’cause I would’ve thought you’d be an instructor, by now.” He had to be; she’d known that since they’d first met while dodging a crowd of hyper child-students.
But he nodded slowly. “No. I lack the near-photographic memory so common to my people. Although I have passed your people’s examinations, I am still in primary Catati medical training.” His nostrils broadened. “Which is, you have undoubtedly noticed, unusual for a Catati our age.”
Tammy gaped, speechless. Yakí was a student like her? She’d thought— She swallowed, yanking herself together. “Can I see it now?”
Yakí bowed slightly. “Certainly, Miss Hendrickson.” Immediately, he turned off the walkway, cutting across the grass to some weird building-high bushes with vivid citron stems and bulbous tan leaves. They were miltar, she reminded herself, imported from Catatan. One spot wasn’t quite as well-filled as the others. He shoved through, skillfully maneuvering within the forest of bushes.
On her way through the miltar, Tammy hesitated, hearing muffled shouts on the other side. “Where are we going?” she tried to ask, receiving nothing but a mouth full of leaf juice.
Hopefully that wasn’t poisonous.
She broke through, finding herself at Yakí’s side. His eyes were narrowed with…something. They were beside a building of the resilient verdant substance all Catati structures were made of. She peeked around the corner.
Catati men and boys laughed boisterously as they kicked some champagne-colored ball around, keeping it in the air. As she watched, one child missed—
Whoosh! The ‘ball’ exploded squarely on his head. She gagged, the sickeningly sweet scent overloading her nose.
As she tried not to throw up, Yakí took her arm, guiding her into the first door of the building. Tammy heard the male guffaws even through the shut door. He helped her sit on a foamy taupe Catati divan.
“I am sorry,” Yakí said after a minute. “I forgot about the jana game.” He handed her a flimsy piece of the plastic-like material that Catati used as Humans did paper.
Tammy stared bewilderedly at the symbols. “Uh, I can’t read this.”
He sat beside her, leaning towards the sheet. The sofa didn’t react to his weight beside her. She found herself wondering how much Catati even weighed… Probably a good amount more than Humans, if strength was any indicator.
A honey finger pointed to each line as he read it from top to bottom, right to left. Not only did he read her each question and answer, but he often gave Human comparisons for each Catati reference. This “stupid” Catati could teach a most human geniuses a thing or two.
When he finished, he put it back in the stack from which he’d gotten it. “I hope that made sense to you.”
Tammy nodded. “You’re a good teacher. I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
Yakí shook his head sharply. “It was nothing.” He paused. “Are you hungry?”
She shrugged. “I dunno. Why?”
The Catati stood, his stiff posture reminding her of Human aristocracy. “It is midday. Perhaps you would like to try a Catati dish.”
Tammy frowned at him. “I thought you people wanted to keep your cuisine to yourselves.”
His cheek ridges darkened, getting the violet hue of what she guessed was a Catati blush. “You will eat our food when on our ships. Why not begin now?”
She watched him closely. If he were Human, she’d bet Yakí had a crush on her. With him being Catati, though… She doubted it. “Don’t get in trouble on my account.”
His expression one that would be puzzlement on a Human, he went to his kitchen. Deciding to make use of what time she had, she took out her smart phone to study…
After about fifteen minutes, he brought out two frosted flat round plates piled with some vibrant multicolored stuff the consistency of slop. Retreating back to the other room, he promptly returned with the most ornate glasses she had ever seen.
They were hollow, inverted cones with triangular bases. Within the frosted glass, colored wires drew a picture of a wild jungle landscape unlike any she’d ever seen, although the plant coloration reminded her of the miltar.
“Harn?” he offered her one gorgeous glass filled with an orchid liquid.
“Uh, sure,” she said lamely. Harn? Wasn’t that the Catati version of coffee that they had utterly refused, time and again, to let Humans try?
“I checked the molecular structure. It will bring no harm to you.”
Good thing that one of them had thought to check. “Thanks.”
She took a sip, her face puckering at its strength. “Tart,” she commented, yet even as she said that the aftertaste’s fruitlike sweetness soothed her tongue, relaxing her facial muscles. “Weird.”
For the first time in the year she’d known him, Yakí smiled, albeit hesitantly. “Try your nacarian.”
“I suppose that’s this.” Taking the three-pronged frosted glass fork, she took a tiny bit of the vivid mess. Melting on her tongue, the spicy twang reminded her of Christmas cookies. “Ooo.”
The Catati’s smile widened, unhindered. “You like it?” Yakí shoveled a bite in his own mouth.
Tammy knew her eyes were wide, but she couldn’t help it. “This is delicious! Yakí! What is this, a delicacy or something?”
Yakí snorted slightly. “Nacarian is a common meal for the jungle dwellers.”
“You one of them?”
His silver eyes narrowed. “Shush! You wish to get me expelled?”
She opened her mouth to retort, but thought better of it. “You’re not serious?”
He sipped his harn. “Rainforest-dwelling Catati tend to be… What is the word? Irresponsible? Survival is easy there. There is little need for them to be dependable.”
Tammy didn’t know what to say. “Oh.” I guess every culture has its people it ostracizes. For us, it’s the illegal immigrants. For them, it’s the Tarzan people.
She got out her smart phone. “I think I’m gonna retry the test this evening.”
“Need help studying?”
She smiled tightly. “Please.”
Yakí gestured with five fingers, his thumb tucked in his palm. “I took my final exam yesterday. I will gladly help you with yours.” His gaze was unreadable. “I would like to see you pass, this week.”
“Know if you did?”
“The announcement is tonight.”
She nodded. “So you gotta wait a whole day before learning if you passed?” At Yakí’s swift headshake, she continued. “Poor you. I just hafta wait a night. Tomorrow morning, it’ll be posted.”
“The medical wing is understaffed.”
Tammy considered that explanation. “Makes sense. Not as though you can use any of our doctors, huh?”
With an expression she understood to be humored, Yakí shook his head in assent. “You are right, Miss Hendrickson. Perhaps you should give me the phone, so I can quiz you.”
She sighed. Time to study. “Yeah,” she agreed and handed it to him.
Hours had passed next time she looked at the clock. “Yikes! I gotta go!” Gulping the last of her harn, Tammy braced herself for the mad dash to class.
Yakí stood, nodding solemnly. He held the door open for her. “Take care.”
Not even sparing the millisecond to give him an odd glance at the distinctly Human phrase, she fled out the door, stopping abruptly outside. The male dormitory. She’d forgotten where they were. Awkwardly, she turned around. “Uh…”
“Go right. It will lead straight to the mess.”
She nodded. “Thanks!” Berating herself for her irresponsibility, she took off. If she wasn’t in her classroom before starting time, she wouldn’t get in.
To her great relief, she dove into her seat, writing utensil ready, the instant the automatic sliding door locked. Gulping air, she yet again lamented being so much older than everyone else.
Instructor Torhl’s metallic emerald eyes narrowed. “Are you all right, Miss Hendrickson?”
She sat straighter. “Yes, sir!”
The tall, spindly Catati bent over, studying each young student’s face intently, his pasty white hair and skin evidence to his age and nativeness to the mountains. On their homeworld, Catati lived in jungles, deserts, or underneath the mountains. Ferocious carnivores made their temperate regions uninhabitable. Yakí had been kind enough to explain that to her, today.
“Are you ready, young ones?”
“Yes!” most cried, with a few “Con!”s intermixed. Same thing; different language.
Instructor Torhl’s oddly green eyes seemed to bore into her hazel. “Are you ready, Miss Hendrhickson?”
She squirmed at the curious stares of the Catati children. She raised her chin. She would pass, this time! “Aye, sir!”
Her instructor’s eyes wrinkled. “I am sorry?”
Tammy felt her face redden. “Yes, sir. I’m ready.”
A shake of the head told her he understood. “You have five hours. Make the most of them.” Taking a seat, he pressed a button on his desk.
The top opaque layer on everyone’s desks slid back, revealing the test. Each individual took theirs out, letting the lid slide back in place before starting.
Not so with Tammy. Even as the top moved back, she was already filling in answers. Five hours, she reminded herself firmly. I have five hours…
Her stomach rumbling, she handed her exam to Instructor Torhl. Wordlessly, she left the classroom, plodding down the hall.
“Miss Hendrickson?” She ignored the voice, nodding off even as she walked.
A strong hand took her arm, half carrying her. She let herself be guided into a seat at a mess hall table.
A small cylinder glass was placed in front of her, filled with a pale violet liquid. She took a sip, only realizing what it was when the pungent tartness woke her up. “Yakí?”
He gave her a bowl of some sort of stew. “Eat. Worry about sleep once you are fed.”
Temporarily awakened, she didn’t hesitate to shove a whole spoonful in her mouth. The dark meat had a sweetness resembling turkey, but was fatty and somewhat tough. “How’d you do?”
“I passed,” he said quietly, without the excitement she would’ve expected from a recent graduate. Ah, well. Catati were strange. “How do you feel you did?”
Tammy scowled at her stew. “As far as I know, I passed. But I thought I’d passed last time, too; and I missed that one question on fusion chamber efficiency.”
Yakí squinted. “You must pass,” he stated, a sternness in his voice which surprised her.
“I’ll pass someday.” She shrugged. “Maybe not today, but soon.” The Catati did not reply. She finished her meal. “Thanks, Yakí.” Tammy realized he wasn’t even looking at her and followed his gaze.
A small, copper-skinned young woman twirled on top of a table, her eyes and hair matching her skin. Ghostly white fabric swirled; and copper anklets, armlets, and bracelets jangled as she danced in movements so swift Tammy’s eye could hardly separate them. As all Catati, the woman had the cheek ridges, only hers were not nearly as pronounced as most.
“Lajhna. She’s a minor princess of one of the major desert clans.” Yakí’s silver eyes didn’t move from the weirdly gorgeous young Catati.
“You love her?”
Yakí’s expression was unreadable as he turned to look at her. “Love her? Hardly. Besides, she is engaged.” He nodded towards the copper woman. “See the ruby-eyed man beside her? This performance is to tell him, to tell us all, that she is ready and willing to wed him.”
“Do all Catati do that?”
He nodded. “No. Only certain desert clans do so. It is, however, usually performed for betrothed spouses, due to how often as such arrangements are nullified.”
Tammy couldn’t help jibing, “You betrothed?”
For a long moment, Yakí did not reply. “…I was. She desired another, and I respected that. We did not get along well.”
“What’s her name?”
Yakí turned her way, his expression odd “Lajhna.”
Her friend left, and she found herself watching the princess with new eyes. Tammy knew she should go get some sleep, but she was curious about the lovely young lady who Yakí had ditched.
All right, all right—so evidently Lajhna had ditched him. “Hi.”
The dancer’s copper eyes crimped. “Yes?”
“I’m Tammy Hendrickson. I heard you’re a princess. Lajhna, isn’t it?”
“Yes. I saw you speaking to Yakí. Rather dull, is he not?”
Lajhna’s snobby tone caught her off-guard. “Uh…”
“Of course! He’s retarded, the fool.”
“Oh, yes! Didn’t he ever tell you? He’s a delayed learner. Too stupid, for my taste. Now, Miss Hendrhickson, if you’ll excuse me, I’m busy.”
“Of course.” She was more than happy to get away from Princess Lajhna. As her feet carried her to her room, Tammy found herself mulling over what she’d just learned. It was almost too much. Yakí? Retarded?
She shook her head vigorously as she stepped into her small quarters. Lajhna probably just needed a reason for shucking Yakí, and had made it up. Yeah, that was it. …Or was his lack of the somewhat photographic memory considered retardation?
Tammy yawned with her reflection. Reaching back, she took out her plain hair clasp, letting her curls fall to her narrow shoulders. She’d have to remember to eat some extra meals, this week—she’d lost a few pounds, again.
“Darn thyroid,” she muttered.
She frowned at herself in the mirror. There was no denying it. Her acne couldn’t manage itself, anymore.
Glowering into the darkness, she settled into bed. She’d handle it in the morning.
As she fell asleep, she wondered if Catati ever had acne.
As morning dawned in her window, Tammy opened her eyes, hearing the bell-like musical chime of the school reveille.
Sighing, she obeyed. Swinging up, she washed her face and dressed with quickening speed as excitement grabbed her. Had she passed? Would she finally be assigned as intern on one of the Catati ships?
Trembling with suppressed excitement, she walked with a clipped pace, chin high. Whether she’d passed or not, she’d come close, she knew. The question was, how close?
Tammy waited in the mess hall line, gobbling her gruel even before reaching her chair. Sipping her juice, she headed towards the ‘bulletin board’, an immense sheet of the Catati plastic-like ‘paper’. In practice, it worked a lot like a dry erase board.
Beginning with the lowest grade, she skimmed the names for her own. As she worked through the failing columns without finding her name, her heart began to quicken. Ninety-nine percent… Her name wasn’t there. That could only mean—
Oh, please, Lord! she prayed. Please please please please—
‘Tammy Hendrickson, Human’ stood out at the one hundred percent column’s end.
Tammy gaped. Sidelong, she caught a glimpse of a familiar face. She elbowed her way towards him, ignoring the pain as her arms met with Catati flesh. Catati, even when children, had muscles of steel. “Yakí!” she hollered. “I did it! I passed!” Thank You, Lord!
Yakí’s face gained that unreadable expression as she came up, but she didn’t care. She wrapped her arms around him in a jubilant hug. “Your study help did it! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank—”
Tammy found herself completely derailed as she felt lips against hers. She shoved away, her palms hurting as if she was pressing against a wall. “Yakí?”
Had he been Human, she would’ve described his face as ‘puzzled’. “I believe that was a ‘kiss’.” His eyes crinkled. “Am I right?”
Her cheeks crimsoned. “Huh?” Tammy couldn’t figure out where that’d come from.
“We will be on the same ship.” Yakí smiled slightly. “Your exam was the last opportunity to get a place on the Yatorun.”
The Ferrier. But that—
She swallowed. “That’s why you told me about Catatan, yesterday.”
Yakí shook his head in agreement. “It is the best vessel to be an intern. Few surprises.” His silver eyes studied her intently. “Transporting cargo to already populated worlds.”
Tammy swallowed, as she thought how nearly she’d missed out on that prime assignment. Oh, she wanted to go places, certainly; but the Catati holdings would be enough of a jump, for now. With her friend at her side—
She stopped on that thought. Frowning, she looked up at Yakí, who was watching Princess Snob. She realized something.
She was in love with an alien. A retarded alien.
…Well, she could’ve done worse.
Reaching up, she placed a hand on his firm shoulder. Cautiously, she pressed her cheekbone against his ridge. Yakí turned sharply, involuntarily stepping back in surprise. “I think that’s a ‘fhial’. Am I right?”
Placing a hand to his cheek ridge, he looked at her, silver eyes intense.
Tammy Hendrickson swallowed, knowing her uncle would not be happy about this. He’d explicitly ordered her not to become involved with any of the so-called ‘lunatics.’
“Too late, Uncle Miles,” she murmured. At least Dad didn’t mind aliens existing.
Shaking her head, Tammy kissed him on the ridge she’d just pressed. His expression once again incomprehensible, he drew her closer, her back against him as the crowd grew rapidly.
“You know, Hendrickson’s my family name.”
Yakí hesitated. “I understand. …Tammy.”
She let his sturdy arms surround her, protecting her from the crushing crowd. Normally, her first stop after these meetings was the infirmary. She smiled smugly, secure in Yakí’s grasp. No sprains or breaks, this time!
The school dean stood atop a table. “First of all, congratulations to the first Human to pass a Catati class: Tamantha Keleanor Hendrickson!”
“No wonder you go by Tammy,” Yakí murmured in her ear.
She frowned, frustrated upon hearing her full name. But even that was unable to stop her lips from quirking. The first Human to pass a Catati class… She was a pioneer.
She gave Yakí’s arms a slight squeeze, hurting her fingers. A pioneer, yes. In more ways than one.
The dean droned on. “All unassigned graduates through Miss Hendrickson are to report to the Yatorun for the flight schedule on the marrow. Your intern uniforms are in your lockers. …”
Tammy couldn’t bring herself to focus on the speech, and didn’t care. Yakí would fill her in. She smiled, wondering just how serious the Catati was. Tammy wasn’t sure about herself. She never had been boy-crazy. That her feelings for him passed beyond friendship said a lot, she guessed.
And to think, all this stemming from a five-hour exam.
A hundred percent. She’d passed.