Interlude: Zinc

"Hello, Fena."

I don't like that, but I don't have a better idea. Fena is the lake, Fena's where I live, Fena's not me - but I don't have a better idea.

"Hi, Milali-aniferi."

"How are you this month?" Milali asks. She's older than my last social worker, more conversational, invites me to dinner every couple of weeks to eat greasy rice-and-greens, help her daughter with her Kida homework, play netball with her sons. I like her.

"About the same as last month, pretty much," I say.

"No luck making friends at the new school?"

"It's better than the parochial one. Not by that much. They're still nearly all Aleist, and the Salvationist kids just hang out with each other," I say. "If you'd let me dye my hair and pass for Ertydon I could at least sit with the ertyfi -"

Milali shakes her head. "No, no, you're hardly an immigrant, that wouldn't make any sense. I'm sure you can make friends as yourself, Fena. My children all like you, after all."

I shift in my seat. I feel dry, itchy. I want to fly home and dive into my lake. I didn't have to leave it for the first nine years of my life. I wonder what would have happened if no one had ever found me. I could have swum and eaten fish and flown at night, under starlight, and I think that could have been fine.


"There's one more thing before I let you go," Milali says.


"Want a job?"

I'm a ward of the state, which isn't really the same thing as being an employee of the state, but there aren't a lot of dragons around so they'll settle and quietly ignore restrictions on child labor as long as I don't make a fuss. There are spells that handle sign languages - but not well. Some wizard spent weeks or months working on one that would make sure people's mouths would appear to move in ways that matched their translated words - or so I'm given to understand; I can't see it - but the state of the art isn't nearly so good on hand signs. I guess no one knows wizardry and wants to talk to sprites.

These aren't sprites.

These are sky-colored aliens, mottled with dark patches, not divided into sexes, deaf and mute and only loosely humanoid. They're small - even the adults are only about my height - and they speak with their hands.

I'm one of three dragons who the government - I think it's the military, actually, though everyone I've seen was in plainclothes - managed to scrape together to help with their language. The other two are grown, a white-haired woman and a black-eyed man. I don't ask for their stories.

"I'd rather talk to somebody my own equivalency," I say. "If I'm going to be having lots of conversations for the linguists to record."

"We'll see what we can do," says the probably-a-soldier who's running the operation.

[So what's your name?] I ask it.

It makes a sign. It's just a name-sign, it doesn't mean anything; I copy it.

"Fena, you need to tell me what you're -"

"Right," I interrupt the linguist. "I just asked it what its name was. Its name is -" sign.

"And does that mean something?"

"No. It's just a name. I think I'll call it Splay if I have to call it something out loud."

[What are you saying?] Splay asks.

[I'm explaining that your name doesn't mean anything. If I have to talk about you in their language, I'll just talk about the shape of your name.]

[But how do you know?] Splay asked, all fascinated posture and energetic hands. [That it doesn't mean anything. And the rest of my language, how do you know it?]

[Dragons just can,] I say. Draconic has a sign language; I just use a loanword. [Dragon is the kind of creature I am.]

[Yes, I heard that your world has several -]

"Fena!" I look her way and lose anything else Splay signs.

"I'm talking about how dragons do languages," I say.

"I need the literal translation, not just the topic."

It's hard to get used to, but I try, repeating a few sentences back and forth until I have the rhythm right, and eventually I'm signing and speaking in sync, and translating Splay as well as I can in real time. Once I have this down the linguist leaves me alone and I can just talk.

[How did you get picked to come here?] I ask.

[It was generally announced to my age group that you wanted a companion of my age,] Splay says. [I am interested in your world, and so I submitted myself for consideration. The organization that is mediating contact with your world selected me. I do not know what procedure they used; it may have been random or based on my academic concentration in xenology.]

Even in an unfamiliar language I can tell when someone's talking fancy. I don't know if Splay's trying to impress me or if it's just like that. [Huh. I'm only here because I'm a dragon so I can talk to you and get everyone enough information to learn the language normally.]

[Your name is made with vibrations, yes?] Splay asks. That's the closest term it has for sound.

Uh. How do I explain that I don't have a name, that I can't have a name, that I'm just down in the records as the name of the lake they found me in because they have to call me something but the magic won't hold to any syllables?

[What would you like me to call you?] it asks.

Fena Lake has no name in Splay's language, so I can't go with that. [Zinc,] I suggest. [That's the kind of dragon that I am.]

[Zinc,] it signs back. [I am sorry that I cannot call you by your real name. Does it have no meaning either?]

[I don't have a name,] I admit.

Splay's confused. [This is a custom of your culture? Must you earn it, or wait for a certain age?]

[No... most people have names. But dragons have to be named early. And I sort of lived wild, for a few years. My parent -] I can't say mother, but my father doesn't really enter into the story anyway; he died before my egg was even laid - [died when, um, budding me. It] (can't say she) [drowned, because it had to bud in water for my... bud case?... to be safe and there wasn't anyone there to help it. And it didn't have...] "Friends" plural is weakly ungrammatical for some reason. Huh. [A friend, to help it. So I came out of my bud case in the lake alone and no one found me for years. My parent was a loner and no one who had reason to find out that it died even knew it was going to bud.]

Splay's a very good... listener. It's attentive, anyway. [You lived without help?]

[I ate swimming animals and I can breathe underwater, in my natural form, which isn't this one - I assume this one by magic,] I say. [Names are magic for my species.]

[I know very little about how magic works,] Splay says sheepishly.

[Don't worry about it. But in order for me to have a proper magic name, I would have had to be named before I was five years old. And I wasn't. There's a name people call me - the same name as my lake - but it doesn't feel like it's mine. I don't pay attention when people say it. Zinc is just as good.]

[That is very sad,] says Splay gravely.

I shrug. [It's not that bad. How were you named?]

[By one of the operators of my creche, before I was decanted,] Splay says.

Wacky. [You didn't get budded? The language seems to think that's usual.]

[It once was, but not recently. Languages can think?]

[No, no, not literally - I mean, the words around budding are more basic signs, and feel more common, than "decanting".]

[You can feel how common words are?] Splay asks, fascinated. [But yes, the technology in use is only some sixty years old, and has only been the norm for the last forty-three...]

I grin. This isn't going to be a boring rugmaker-wage job after all.

[Nothing will explode if I get on one of these,] I say, watching the chain-scoot-thing (subway) scream by. The light's starting to wonder where I'm coming by all the hearing damage; I might have to ask to start seeing a military one.

[But - but - perhaps I should just reverse the transaction -]

They're so honest, so incapable of theft, that Splay could reverse the transaction and then still get onto the subway with me. No one will check us for passes, no one will wonder if we're thieves. [You wanted to see, didn't you?]

[But - but - how can you -]

[Splay, are you a folktale monster who will give me a ride on the subway and then insist on an exchange of my next budding?] I ask.


[Good, 'cause I can't bud. I wanna ride the subway and I don't have any money from here. I'll go if you pay for me.] I pause. [And if you change your mind maybe I'll just go on without paying at all.] I fold my arms; that's all I have to say.

Splay is trembling with scandalized astonishment. [How are you real?]

[Don't some of the other species in this world, on the other planets, not do the same exchange thing? Aren't you studying xenology?]

[I never met one in person.] Splay makes up its mind very suddenly; I can see it do it. [Okay. We'll take this one and go to Shining Riverfront.]

Shining Riverfront is beautiful.

[I would like to be your friend one day,] Splay says.

I don't know how to think of the word except friend; that is pretty insistently what it means - yet it won't pluralize nicely in most grammatical contexts and this isn't the first time Splay's talked about it weird.

[Aren't you already my friend?]

[No. I am your companion,] Splay says. [Friends are adults old enough to make good choices, who usually live together, and who can have longstanding conventions about what things are valued equally to what other things without needing to discuss each exchange, and they can also share things.]

And sharing things is pretty weird on Isatei: there are no couches, only chairs. No big bowls of the local equivalent of rice for six people to serve themselves from, only individual meals. No discounts for bringing a friend to the museum or the observatory or the open studio, only a flat ticket price.

This, I decide, is why I'd want to translate the sign as friend, not spouse (even apart from the fact that Splay and its fellows are sexless). I would never call somebody my friend if I couldn't so much as split a bag of popcorn with them, except Splay - who can't eat what I eat and can't share things. I've been making an exception for Splay, and Splay hasn't been.

[You only get one?]

[Most often,] Splay says. [Sometimes, there will be a group of three.]

[Would you want me to not have other friends - the way people on Elcenia have friends? What if I want to get married?]

[I want to be your friend,] Splay says. [If I did not think that would be fine then I would want to be someone else's friend.]

I smile. [I would like to be your friend, then.]