Contest #97 shortlist ⭐️

16 comments

Science Fiction Speculative

Someone had left the window dimmers off. The vermillion daylight lit up part of the parquet flooring in the shape of the bay window it shone through. I walked up to the window and gazed down blankly at cubical houses and mist-canals, much like my grandmother used to. Three mystics entered my view. Chanting soporific hymns to guide her consciousness on its ethereal flight, they sauntered, single file, like quivering bundles of indigo fabric. They marked their ritual circumambulation of our residence by flicking random streaks of phosphorescent purple on our walls—a regional practice guaranteed to give my finicky dad a fit. A whiff of the jaxa ink they splattered twinged my nose, reminding me of boring calligraphy lessons and childhood pranks. My eyes moistened.


Our neighbors and friends—bless them all—had arranged the mystics. They condoled with us in their traditional Kolari ways, and we were touched and grateful. In truth, though, Grandma wouldn’t have actually wanted a Kolari death rite. She would have preferred a simple and graceful human funeral. But though the databanks stored information a-plenty on a variety of human funerary rites, none of us in the human community knew how to properly organize one. The practice had died out among us. And just following old records and manuals would have only seemed phony and concocted.


Her body lay ensconced in a hazy conservation field that levitated slightly over her canopy bed; it would be a few days before they came and took her away to the community mausoleum. That dusty scent of hers—so familiar to our family yet alien to this planet—persisted in the room. Along with the peculiar old-world furniture and bric-a-brac, it asserted her presence, defining her room as a human realm. But above all it was that imposing bay window that was indelibly linked to my memories of her.


I wanted to know what drew her to this window, but the mundane cityscape I was used to left me no clues. I flipped through the scenery settings on the wall-mounted control. Overwhelmed by the number of choices, I set it to show random selections at regular intervals. The view of the familiar neighborhood morphed into dense concentrations of massive plants with green leaves and greyish brown trunks—after concentrating a bit, the word “trees” popped into my mind. These then gave way to blue lakes, starry nights, and ancient human cities bustling with bizarre vehicles.


My parents had paid handsomely for the bay window. It was their gift to Grandma. Kolari engineers salvaged it from the generation ship that brought our kind here all those cycles ago. They installed it in her room and retrofitted the panes to give the illusion of looking out onto various landscapes on Earth. It was no easy task, but they delighted in working with human design and architecture; they found it exotic and unfamiliar. They developed the deceptively realistic images using data retrieved from the ship’s memory banks.


Grandma often sat in her chair and contemplated these scenes of the home planet she never knew, save from hearsay. Whenever she heard me playing outside, she would turn off the images, stand up, and watch with an expression of melancholy and benevolence as I shrieked and tumbled with the other kids in the mist-canals. I always instinctively averted my eyes when she appeared behind the frame of the window. I was terrified the other kids would notice her shriveled face and grey hair.


A curious architectural style—Queen Anne, she always loved to point out—set apart the facade of the house where her chambers lay from the rest of the neo-geometrical Kolari structure. The human design made the bay window distinctive enough; her standing behind it made it all the more eye-catching. Not to mention embarrassing. Like an ostentatious display of human habitation.


The kids, of course, would always spot her. It was inevitable. She was the only physically recognizable human living in this sector. “Why doesn’t she go through genetic reengineering like the rest of you?” they’d always ask in chorus.


“I dunno. She’s weird. She says she’s too old for it.” I lied and tried to draw their attention away from Grandma.


Later I stormed into her room and confronted her. “Why do you always look out the window and watch us play? It’s annoying.”


She sat up in her favorite empire chair, or whatever she called it, and swiped away the projected book page floating in front of her. “Now don’t be silly. I was just watching. What’s so annoying about that?” She spoke in the old language. Not understanding all the nuances frustrated me, but I didn’t want to argue through the interpreter drone. I persisted in standard Kolari. She hardly ever spoke it anymore, but I knew she was proficient in it.


“Because you look so…so human, and my friends always notice you.” I was angry with her, but a part of me also hated myself for uttering those words. I turned to the bay window; it depicted a parched landscape on Earth with nothing but sand. What a ghastly planet, I thought.


“But I am human, sweetie. How else am I supposed to look? And so are you, by the way, despite all the genetic and cosmetic changes they put you through. Don’t you ever forget that. It’s our heritage. It ties us to our past.”


But the thing was, it was a past she didn’t even know. She hadn’t ever been on the planet of the humans. None of us had. That baffled me as a child. Like me she was born and raised on this planet, Mel’kwis. Was nostalgia for something you never knew or experienced even possible?


My parents told me when Grandma was younger she advocated hard for the mutual coexistence of humans and Kolari. She even learned the language, which was a rarity back then. Most in her generation relied on proto-type interpreter-bots the Kolari developed, but she only used them when she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t be misunderstood. I liked it when she spoke Kolari. Her accent imbued her speech with character, and she sounded more autonomous than an interpreting system’s artificial tone.


As she grew older, though, she increasingly spoke in her mother tongue, and would frequently revert to a patois I had difficulty understanding. “It’s old spacefarer talk, dear,” my mom once said. “They used to speak like that on the ship.”


Grandma’s grandparents were among the first humans to settle here. Earth had become uninhabitable and many settlers took off into space in multi-generational ships. We don’t know anything about the other ships and if they ever made it to a planet suited for settling. Fortunately for my ancestors, their ship came close to the Mel’kwis system. When the Kolari detected the ship on long-range sensors, they sent out a shuttle and made first contact with the humans. The pitiful sight of a dilapidated ship, ready to fall apart at the seams at any moment, shocked them. Having drifted through space over five generations, the ship’s crew had dwindled to a couple hundred. The Kolari invited the crew to settle on their planet and the rest was history.


=====


One day Grandma was enjoying scenes of humans frolicking around in fields covered with white powder, grabbing some with their hands, packing them into balls and hurling them at each other. Unlike most of the others, this scene always piqued my interest. It reminded me of Kolari hunting games my friends and I liked to play in the mist-canals. Grandma, of course, never took an interest in Kolari games or sport.


“Grandma, don’t you like it here? I mean, you were born and raised here. But you always stay home and hardly ever interact with anyone.”


“I’m getting too old for socializing and all that sort of thing, sweetie. Besides, I enjoy staying here with you and your parents.”


“But you could get augments to help you get around easier.”


She smiled and patted my head. “I’m grateful the Kolari allowed us to settle here, sweetie. Without them my grandparents and all the others wouldn’t have lasted much longer on that ship. And none of us now would have existed. But we’re being swallowed up by their kindness and technological wizardry.” Back then I didn’t really know what she meant by that.


The first settlers were grateful for their new life and everything the Kolari taught them. Grandma’s grandparents apprenticed under engineers, which enabled them to make a living and start a family.


In the early days, humans lived in their own separate districts. But the younger generations soon began to take an active interest in Kolari culture, lifestyles, and fashions. And by the time they grew up, many of them started living side-by-side with the Kolari, something the Kolari welcomed with open arms. Grandma even spearheaded a youth movement to abolish human districts. She and her group believed this was necessary if humans wanted to stand on a truly equal footing with the locals.


The Kolari were mostly peaceful and benevolent, perhaps to a fault. They never forced humans to assimilate, and even took great pains to give them the means to preserve human culture. Yet the subtle and implicit biases against humans and the structural pressures of living in a society where humans were such a miniscule and insignificant minority slowly but steadily pushed humans to not only adapt Kolari culture, but also take assimilation to its extreme. My parents’ generation was the first to begin altering themselves. They in turn made sure their children would grow up appearing practically identical to the locals; albeit not entirely, since the skeletal structure was still largely human. But close enough. Thanks to this, most of the standard physical augments used by the Kolari became available to us.


Grandma, on the other hand, refused to alter herself. She used walking stabilizers and took pills to strengthen her sight. That was it.


She was fond of old human novels and actually read them in the old language. I asked her once if she wanted to use my head attachment. “Then you can directly experience the story, Grandma. It’s great!” She gently shook her head. “Thank you, sweetie. But this old mind is used to actually reading the words. Go on and play, now.” She tapped the armrest and the page of the book she was reading reappeared in front of her. Outside the bay window, strange beasts screeched and whooped in an exotic thicket of green plants. I was glad we didn’t have jungles on Mel’kwis.


The more humans emulated and changed their appearance to resemble the Kolari, Grandma and a few others like her withdrew and distanced themselves from the society they once worked hard to become a part of. Grandma eventually became a recluse in our home, only to contemplate the city and its denizens from her bay window when she wasn’t reading or gazing at scenes of Earth. She rarely ate with us downstairs, and it was my job to take her meals up every morning and evening. Sometimes I would take up a mid-day meal. “It’s an old human custom, dear” mom said.


As a child I loved Grandma dearly, but I also loathed her for standing behind that bay window and displaying herself. For being so human. For stubbornly clinging to that frail human body of hers. For reminding me of what I didn’t want to be reminded of. For keeping alight the heritage I desperately chose to ignore.


=====


My parents agreed to bestow the bay window to the capitol museum. The curator explained his plans to replicate the Queen Anne chamber in a new wing dedicated to human culture—a well-intentioned attempt at showcasing Kolari efforts in preserving the lives and experiences of humans on this planet, no doubt.


Workers came and removed the bay window. A curved wall with a bland view screen stood in the space where Grandma used to stand.


I occasionally visited the museum and ambled among other museum-goers through the restored room with the bay window. Hardly any humans were ever there. Or perhaps they were there all along but hidden thanks to the newest advances in bioengineering enabling humans to become practically indistinguishable from the Kolari.


Some of my old human acquaintances even conjoined with Kolari clans—what humans used to call marriage. The Kolari discontinued natural reproduction in favor of artificial means long ago, which supposedly made the inter-species barrier moot in that regard. But I seriously doubted if any Kolari, or human for that matter, would actually design an infant that even faintly resembled a human.


Humanity miraculously survived in this corner of the galaxy, only to lose its distinctiveness, not only culturally but also physically. Our culture and history were now mere museum pieces and databank records. Standing in that museum in front of her replicated room, I began to understand what Grandma must have felt and pondered whenever she gazed out her bay window.

June 11, 2021 13:47

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16 comments

Alex Sultan
19:18 Aug 01, 2021

Well deserved shortlist. Has to be my favorite story of yours. I really like how the last paragraph makes you think - a great way to end it.

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Jon R. Miller
21:47 Aug 01, 2021

Thank you for reading! It's the favorite of mine so far too. The art of the short story is very challenging, and I also find writing in response to prompts quite challenging. I keep writing in the hopes of improving my craft.

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Zz Kailani
17:03 Jul 12, 2021

The message about staying true to yourself shone through in your writing, and I like the sci-fi. The main character and the Grandma are very well-developed. Well done!

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Jon R. Miller
22:13 Jul 12, 2021

Thank you for reading! I'm glad you liked it. Comments like this are always encouraging. :>

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Link Arneson
21:59 Jul 03, 2021

The surgeries the people have to look more alien are such a good metaphor for Eurocentric beauty standards shaped by Western colonialism. I have no doubt if this were to really happen most people would try to blend in, while some people like the grandmother would insist on preserving their heritage. The worldbuilding felt so real.

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Jon R. Miller
00:54 Jul 04, 2021

I certainly agree with you. The urge to blend in can get so strong...I see when I look back on my experiences. Thank you for reading the story! Your thoughtful comments are helpful and, above all, encouraging. :>

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Amanda Lieser
18:46 Jun 22, 2021

I absolutely loved this story. I thought you captured the frustration that the grandchild experiences with the grandparent. I thought this story was unique, but also one based in arguments we’ve had before and will have again. This was my favorite line: I lied and tried to draw their attention away from Grandma.

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Jon R. Miller
10:11 Jun 23, 2021

Thank you for reading the story and your encouraging comments! ! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I'm also happy that line worked for you too. It sticks in my memory too. :>

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Dizzy Pringle
20:54 Jun 18, 2021

I really love your attention to detail, you had me hooked from one of the first lines :)

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Jon R. Miller
23:46 Jun 18, 2021

Thank you so much! I am glad you liked it. I'm encouraged to write more. :>

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Molly Lewis
19:32 Jun 23, 2021

Same!

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Jon R. Miller
16:31 Jul 10, 2021

Thank you! :>

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Tom D
14:53 Jun 14, 2021

Loved the premise behind this story - a thought-provoking tale!

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Jon R. Miller
07:10 Jun 15, 2021

Thank you very much for leaving your kind comment! It's very encouraging. I'm so glad you liked the idea behind the story. I enjoyed thinking about it when I was writing it. I'm just starting out here on Reedsy, but I'd like to write more stories based on neat ideas with interesting characters.

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Tom D
15:45 Jun 18, 2021

Congratulations on a well-deserved place in the shortlist!

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Jon R. Miller
23:44 Jun 18, 2021

Thank you very much! Congratulations to you too! I loved your story.

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