She pauses, her iridescent face peeking out from her half-cracked coffin of wrinkles. It curves around her body so that when she has it on, she’s indistinguishable from an aging human. Seeing her in such a demeaning costume makes me want to weep—my regal mother, reduced to having to pretend to be such a disgusting being. “Sorry, sweetie,” she says. “But you know how much I hate this thing. It makes me so claustrophobic.”
Shuddering, she pushes at the walls of her shell until it’s in two pieces, one on either side of her lovely, youthful Sa’argan body. It’s less of a shell and more of a bodysuit; since it’s designed so that she looks like an old woman, it’s pretty much a blob of prosthetics glued together into the shape of a person. But she needs it. The shell allows her to constantly bathe in her Lifeyolk, which is a gluey mixture that keeps her alive aboveground. Our people live much deeper inside the Earth than humans can. We’re able to withstand the heat of the infernos, and we’ve been strong enough to create a full civilization there. But as a result, my mom can only take off the shell for short periods of time before she freezes to death.
Now that her shell is off, my mom’s Lifeyolk is dripping from her forehead and has gotten matted in her hair. I gag a bit on my hot dog. (Humans may be revolting, but their food is truly delicious.)
“Look, Mom, I know that you don’t like the shell, but you need to stay in it. To protect both of us,” I tell her. “Remember that every time you take off the shell, you jeopardize the mission.”
“The mission this, the mission that; that’s all you ever talk about these days! Lighten up!” my mother says, cheerful now that she’s out of her shell. “All the other teenage Sa’argan girls who came with us are out seducing humans. Why don’t you ever join them?”
I open my mouth to tell her that humans are vile and I’d never want to seduce them, but my mom keeps talking.
“Now, I know what you’re going to say: Focus is important. Sure, it is, but you need to make the best of your time above the Earth’s crust! You need to see this as an opportunity for learning—not just from the Sa’argans as we try to broker peace between the inhabitants of the different layers of the Earth, but from the humans, too,” she continues reprovingly.
I finish the hot dog and sit down next to her on the bed. We’re staying in a two-person apartment, and she’s pretending to be a sick old woman whose daughter is taking care of her. That’s our excuse for why we never accept visitors: Mom just never feels well, so while we appreciate your invitation to dinner, Mrs. Fairbanks, she really needs her rest. I shudder, honestly, thinking about all those horrible humans who’ve asked to see my mom. There’s no way I’d let them near her, not with all the destruction that they cause.
“Really, Mom?” I ask. “The reason why we need the peace treaty is because as soon as humans developed sufficiently advanced technology, they went and started planting atomic bombs in the Earth’s core—in our hometown, Mom. What can we learn from them?”
My mom is suddenly nervous. I can tell because she’s fiddling with her shell. “You’d be surprised how similar they are to Sa’argans,” she mutters.
I raise my eyebrows. “How do you know?”
Suddenly, she jerks around to face me and looks me intensely in the eye. “Sweetie… I’m a human.”