The formal dinner ended, and the ambassadors, envoys, delegates, legates and invited office workers from both Earth and Catonia wandered away from the massive, mural-lined room where the dinner had taken place to the third floor's more informal setting. Stuart Sherwood, twenty-three-year-old minor Earth bureaucrat, tried to conceal the wide-eyed good fortune he felt at wangling a trade mission assignment to the first inhabited planet discovered by Earth. The real negotiating over trading rights, though, occurred way above Sherwood's pay grade, and he simply tried to enjoy the experience -- especially the experience of seeing his first Catonian woman.
He had his eye on Amista Oona, the daughter of one of the three high commissioners whom Sherwood had shaken hands with before dinner. She stood alone on a balcony, staring up at Hobson's Planet, a primitive world, also inhabited, controlled by Catonia, but of limited commercial account at the moment. Hobson's Planet looked three times the size of Earth's moon and lit the Catonian world with a cool, pearly light. Not quite certain of protocol but determined not to waste an opportunity, Sherwood approached the young woman.
"You must be used to this," he said, "but I've never seen anything like it."
She turned her head quickly toward him and smiled. "I've never gotten used to this. How could I?" She returned her gaze to the sky.
Sherwood's eyes pored over the young woman's profile, from the small nose down over her prominent breasts to the short skirt and low boots she wore. The young woman's radiant silver hair (all Catonians, male and female, had silver hair, which they wore long) hung loosely past her slightly pointed ears. The faint ridge on her forehead just below the hairline was not noticeable from where he stood. She certainly substantiated the stories he'd heard about the shapeliness of Catonian women. If all the stories were true, the women were also ... Sherwood smiled as he recalled the word he'd heard used. Amiable. Very amiable.
She returned her gaze to him. "Are you assigned here or Hobson's Planet?"
Wherever you are is where I'd like to be, flashed through Sherwood's mind, but the clear breach in protocol of such a reply -- aside from its vapidness -- reined him in.
"Catonia, thank heavens. I work out of Ambassador Louglin's office."
She gave a quick laugh. "Wasn't he the one who kept asking what was in each dish tonight?"
"Yes," Sherwood said and laughed, too.
"Did he think we would poison him?" She laughed again.
"I enjoyed the meal very much."
"Good thing if you're going to be here for a while."
"Your English ... it's perfect." He wanted to add, 'You are perfect.'
"It took quite a while for our two planets to decide how to deal with one another. At my father's suggestion ... " Her tone indicated she hadn't quite agreed with the suggestion at the time. " ... I began studying your language immediately. It's been five of your years. I hope you like it here."
"I'd like it more if I had someone to show me around the planet." A bold thrust, he thought, but safe enough. She could easily beg off but, to his surprise, she didn't.
"I could show you some of our planet ... if you thought it appropriate."
Sherwood realized breaching decorum concerned her, too.
"I don't see why it wouldn't be. I'd look forward to it."
"Oh, I see my father calling. Do you have an office yet?" she asked.
"Yes, the building next door. Fourth floor."
"And your name? I am Amista Oona."
"I'll be in touch. I must go now." She gave a toss of silver hair and walked away.
Sherwood's eyes followed her march toward her father and watched him introduce her to another Earthman before they disappeared into the crowd.
All hell erupted when their romance came to light. Amista Oona's father, Delping Resmid, High Commissioner of Trade, told his daughter he would be out most of the night at a dinner he could not miss, but the dinner ended early. Delping Resmid returned home to find Sherwood sitting in his favorite chair, sipping a glass of his favorite after-dinner kuzman, a delicious alcoholic brew.
Sherwood gagged on his kuzman, and from his posture of quiet contentment, he leaped guiltily to his feet. He felt some of the kuzman slosh over the side of the glass onto his fingers. He put the glass down on a side table and sputtered, "Welcome home, sir."
"I'm sorry. You are ... ?"
"Stuart Sherwood. I work in Ambassador Louglin's office."
Delping Resmid nodded. "I've seen you."
Amista Oona walked into the room, dressed in a shimmering red gauze outfit. Her eyes widened as she took in the scene.
"Something new you're wearing, Amista?" her father asked. He looked back at Sherwood, who realized he had better do something to break up this preposterous tableau.
"We were ... we were ... we had dinner, Commissioner, and ... "
"What has been going on behind my back?"
"Daddy, let me explain. Stuart, you better go."
"Yes, you'd better," Resmid echoed in a low voice.
Sherwood saw his future immolated to ash. Everyone in the Earth contingent had been warned -- business relationships only with Catonians of both genders. Sherwood feared he'd be sent back to Earth in disgrace.
Delping Resmid walked from the room without glancing his way. When he passed his daughter, Sherwood heard him say something in Catonian. Amista nodded.
She had tears in her eyes when he looked at Sherwood.
"Go," she said softly. "I will tell him everything."
Though their liaison had been trumpeted over two planets when Amista's pregnancy was discovered, the wedding of Amista Oona and Stuart Sherwood remained a private affair. Sherwood lost two pay grades, and Amista Oona moved out of her father's house. The subsequent and rapid surfacing of other interplanetary trysts prevented any further notoriety for them. The marriage of Amista Oona and Stuart Sherwood and the child they created were firsts, though. Some on each planet felt it an abomination. Others saw the dawning of a brave new world. The two people most involved, though, found it a trying time with few friends to lean on, a time which didn't brighten until the birth of their little girl. Choosing a name proved easy once Sherwood told his young wife the story of the huntress of the skies. Diana Amista Sherwood.
One friend who stood by Sherwood during his ordeal, Fred Brighthouse, sat by Amista's bed and looked at the baby in her arms. "My God, Stuart, she's beautiful. She absolutely glows. You know, she's the talk of the whole medical center."
Sherwood smiled and shrugged. "I'm just content there are ten fingers, ten toes and the ears, nose, eyes, and mouth are all in the right place."
"Stuart, stop," Amista said, smiling. The baby gurgled as if aware a fifth person had suddenly walked into the room to join them.
"Father!" Amista cried.
Sherwood and Fred glanced at each other. Delping Resmid's gaze settled on Sherwood, who nodded to him limply. Delping walked slowly to the side of the bed.
"Daddy, isn't she beautiful? Hold her," Amista offered. "Go on. If you were going to be stubborn, you wouldn't have come here."
Delping's look softened, and he lifted the baby into his arms. He turned to Sherwood. "She is special." He looked back at his daughter, beaming happily in her bed. "She is special," he repeated. "We have a word. Stellamon. Beauty into eternity. It describes your child. The first of her kind."
Diana was the main speaker at the ceremony celebrating her graduation from primary school. Her selection set off no controversy since there was now a sprinkling of Stellamon children in the major cities of Catonia, and they were the delight of the planet. They proved more intelligent, more charming, more talented than any pure-blooded child of either race and were unfailingly beautiful, boys and girls alike. Marriages between native Catonians and Earth immigrants had not yet grown common, but no longer scandalized anyone, and the vitriol originally leveled at Stuart Sherwood and Amista Oona proved a thing of the past. Diana chose this fact to celebrate in her speech.
"I can't really thank my parents enough for being brave enough to do what they did. I know theirs was the first marriage between the two races, and I know I am the first child to blend both races into one person. I've not always enjoyed reading about myself in books and articles ... but sometimes I have." She smiled the smile that captivated the hearts of a planet as the audience laughed. "I look forward to my next school as I know all of my classmates do, and even though we leave this school behind physically, we will always have it -- and each other -- here and here." She lifted her hand and lightly touched the side of her head and then her heart. "Before I end, I want to acknowledge my parents one last time before all of you as my thank-you gift to them. Mom. Dad. Please stand up." Stuart Sherwood and Amista Oona stood, and the assembled parents and school staff and graduates rose with them and applauded. Diana stepped down from the podium and walked to them. She put an arm around their waists and laid her head on her father's shoulder. He kissed the top of her head. Diana returned to her place among the graduates, and the two adults resumed their seats as the applause continued. It had been fourteen years since the night on the third floor of the ministry when they had fallen in love and twelve years since Diana had made their love memorable, both to them and to a planet.
When Diana turned sixteen by Earth's calendar, Sherwood insisted on a party. He explained the Earth tradition of feting a young woman on her sixteenth birthday, and Diana had been looking forward to it for more than a year. So was Klaren Bosto, Diana's first boyfriend.
The primary emotional change in a Catonian boy coming of age always involved the realization that he would soon experience the love of a Catonian woman. The zest and hunger of a Catonian woman for a male was common knowledge, and young Catonian men hoped, usually in vain, the hunger would strike without warning in the young woman they wooed at the moment.
Klaren had known Diana for nearly two months. They were fond of each other, but Klaren found Diana different from what he expected. Her exuberance for life, her intelligence, and her thoroughgoing naturalness were as much off-putting as alluring. He could no more make an indecent move or proposition to her than he could have to his own mother. They'd kissed only fleetingly and innocently in greeting and farewell. Klaren's friends grilled him with questions about the wonders of being with a Stellamon woman, but he couldn't tell them much.
"Is the party all set?" Klaren asked Diana one afternoon as they walked home from school.
"Yes, yes." She told him the plans. "I told my father you were inviting four of your friends." She looked to him for confirmation.
"With my friends and people we both know from school ... it will be fun. I want you to come over the night before, though."
Diana nodded shyly. "I like being with you. I'm glad I met you. This party wouldn't have been much fun without ... "
"Without a boyfriend?" he said, smiling.
"No. Without you." They had stopped alongside a building. Diana looked into Klaren's eyes and moved her face toward him. He grasped her upper arm with his right hand and kissed her. She tilted her head as an invitation to linger. Klaren was conscious of how his heart beat when they separated and began the walk home.
The party was a great success. The girls busied themselves at the end of the night asking Diana to calculate when their sixteenth Earth birthday would be. The girls who hadn't exceeded sixteen cackled with delight and vowed to have parties of their own.
The next morning Diana was slow to rise. Sherwood and Amista attributed her weariness to the party. When mid-day came, though, and Diana had still not stirred, they grew concerned.
"I don't feel well," she told them. She rubbed at her shoulder.
"What's wrong with your shoulder?" Sherwood asked. "You've been scratching at it the whole time we've been in here."
Diana pulled her nightgown off her shoulder and saw a small brown spot on the very tip of her shoulder bone.
"What's that?" Sherwood asked, leaning closer.
"I don't know," Diana said, covering herself again. "It's itchy."
The doctors could not understand what sapped Diana's strength. A month passed and the brown spot expanded rapidly until it covered the top of her shoulder from neck to arm. Two days after blood began to seep from the spot, Diana died quietly in her sleep, and doctors could provide no explanation.
The planet mourned. When Earth learned of the death, it, too, commiserated, but those nearest Diana felt true pain. Her parents were inconsolable. Amista had not been able to conceive after Diana's birth, so she and Sherwood had lost something truly irreplaceable.
Only after others read about Amista's inability to conceive a second child did it become known that no woman who had given birth to a Stellamon child ever had another. This puzzled everyone and worried many. Worse, as time went by, every Stellamon child, upon turning sixteen in Earth years, grew despondent, developed the accursed brown mark, and died with two months' time. Couple after couple who had married after Stuart Sherwood and Amista Oona broke the taboo soon felt the heartbreak of losing a Stellamon child.
These children soon understood their limited lifespan, but their unusual ability to cope allowed them to march stoically toward oblivion, adding to the wonder of these children and to the agony of loved ones forced to await the end.
A great debate has ensued, and a growing body of Catonians and Earth people alike insists the marriages producing these children be banned. Others speak just as strongly on the other side. Yet, it has been such an honor for so long to have created a Stellamon child. They are pure joy. Yet the din surrounding the issue rises.
Those parties at sixteen have become part of the tradition of the Stellamon child, a ghoulish kind of funeral where the corpse walks among the living.
Now I must decide whether this is to become a part of my life. I, an Earthman, have fallen in love with Batala Orna, a beautiful Catonian. There is no question of whether we want to make a life together. We are in love; there is no turning back. The decision pends, though. Should we have a child or not? As impossible as it seems, should I leave Batala, whom I love as deeply as love permits, and marry my own kind for the sake of having a child who will survive? To give birth to and raise and be loved by a Stellamon child, though! Such a gift. Such a glory. I don't know what to do. No one does.
Article © John Paulits. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-09-12