"…every game in creation and then some, plus," Richie trotted out his final argument, "I’ve heard they have these full scale models of spaceships from movies all over the place."
"You don’t have to keep selling me on this place," His father put in mildly, "We’re almost there."
"The way you’ve talked it up, it’d better be incredible." Fern added from the backseat.
Richie ignored her. Fortunately, he looked nothing like his older sister. Even with her much bragged about growth-and-development spurt, Fern was just barely taller that he was. Maybe when he finally (please!) had a growth spurt of his own, he would get so tall he could call her his little sister. She might be eleven months older than he was, but he was in the same grade and taking almost the same classes.
"Everybody says it’s really cool." He repeated again, as they turned off the back road along the railroad tracks, up a short street and turned into the parking lot.
The lot wasn’t as full as it had been when it was a department store, but it was pretty full for a Thursday night. The arcade must be as good as he’d heard.
"C’mon, c’mon." He practically danced, until he caught his sister muttering "grow up," under her breath. Then, trying act like a responsible High School student, he tried to walk slowly across the parking lot.
Fern was trying to be cool, and look grownup. Total waste of effort, in his opinion. Ignoring her, he admired the fancy neon sign across the front of the building. "The Intergalactic Repair Depot." He sighed, "It even sounds fantastic."
"Yeah, fantastic," Fern jeered, following him through the doors.
"Oh, wow." Richie fell silent and surveyed paradise. The whole building was mostly one huge room, he vaguely noticed the balcony running around the edge, but the spaceship in the center of the room held most of his attention. "It’s the Star Trader." He wound through some scattered tables and chairs and walked up to it, under it, and reached up and touched it gently. "It really is."
"It’s a fiberglass stage prop, Richie." The disgust in Fern’s voice broke his trance. "It can’t fly." He glared at her. "You can’t even get into it." She was looking around. "They do have lots of games, though." She drifted off, and he looked around in irritation. Girls! No sense of wonder. No sense of adventure. He ran his fingers along the fiberglass wing above him. Star Trader had been his favorite show, and was the main reason he wanted to be an astronaut. Or an aerospace engineer. Or…something. Something that had to do with space, with a future, looking forwards not back.
He spotted a green faced alien empting out the change hopper on one of the games, and looked around. Yeah, just like everyone had said, the staff was got up as aliens. Although the Goth sort-of-Elvis wasn’t very alien. He stopped dead and stared at one, though. Whoa, a bipedal crocodile with four arms! Cool! There was a girl trailing after Elvis and the croc who looked a bit spacey herself, staring around. Her head was practically shaved and her clothes were odd, a short open sided tunic with a fancy belt.
Fern snickered a bit, "I can’t believe that girl is out in public like that. I don’t think she’s wearing any underwear."
She certainly was showing a great deal of thigh, and side, all the way up; as Fern said, no sign of underwear.
"Well, she’s pretty flat chested," Fern continued, in a superior tone. Frankly, Richie didn’t think Fern’s newly developed form was anything to brag about, although the older boys had sure started taking long looks. "She’s probably wearing a high cut thong." Like he cared? Trust Fern to think in terms of what other girls looked like, though.
"The croc suit is much better." He told her.
The girl followed Elvis and the croc up the stairs to the balcony, maybe her parents worked here? Richie sighed wistfully. Being the son of the High School Principal was the pits.
"This is some place you’ve found!" His Dad proffered a paper cups filled with tokens. Fern grabbed hers and headed for the games.
"I don’t recognize half the models." Dad continued, "and I can’t figure out how they could have gotten those big ones in." he nodded toward the side and Richie craned his head to see.
"Yeah, I see what you mean, they’re huge." They walked over to the railing to get a clear look, but Richie still couldn’t place them.
"I can’t imagine what they were built for," his father mussed, "They’ve put some real money into materials."
Richie nodded. They looked so solid, and…functional, somehow. "Maybe they made them for a show that never got filmed? So this place picked them up to use as decorations."
His dad nodded, and turned back, as usual keeping one eye on each kid, like they were still babies. Richie stifled a sigh. Two more years till freedom, in the form of a Driver’s License. Not fair that Fern would get hers first! Another model caught his eye, and he walked over, admiring another old favorite. "This is a fighter from the Stellar Guard series." He ran a hand around the main engine nozzle, just like the pilots checking out the craft before a battle.
"That one was a bit violent," His dad frowned, "I was just as glad it didn’t go into a second season."
"They were defending themselves, when attacked, and helping the more primitive aliens fend off the aggressive aliens." Richie leaped to the defense of the Guards reputation.
His dad sniffed. "Good Guys don’t actually get into that many battles. You have to be doing something to get that sort of attention."
Richie rolled his eyes. Adults! They just didn’t understand. They were old and had had to compromise too many times. They had forgotten that there really was such a thing as genuine bad guys. You’d think a High School Principal, of all people would understand that. You’d think he’d know some history!
The shave-headed ‘alien’ girl had come back down. He spotted her hovering, watching over people’s shoulders but not playing herself. She was sorta, well, ethnic or something. Not really dark, but just tanned the way girls always wanted to be. She wandered over behind Fern, just as she blew it. Girls never could play video games. Fern glanced over her shoulder and said something to the shave-headed girl, smiling.
The girl shook her head, "I don’t know how to play."
Fern spotted him, "There you are, Richie, look, 125,839 points. Beat that."
Richie blinked, that much? At Star Diver? "Sure, no problem." Stuffing in tokens, he started a new game, quickly loosing himself in the challenge.
When he lost his last scooper, and returned to the real world, his Dad was talking to Elvis and the Croc. He walked over to get a better look at the croc costume.
"This is my son Richard, Richie this is Mr. Regal that owns the arcade and his sister Mrs. Dunagan, and her daughter, Catherine."
The shave-headed girl sort of tentatively stuck out her hand, so he shook it, thinking she was a bit weird. Her bright blue eyes were slanted a bit, sort of almost oriental. He decided he liked her coloring. Much prettier than Fern’s pasty face and blonde hair.
"So you’ll be living here, then?" His dad continued the conversation. "You’ll be attending Fossil High then. I’m the Principal there."
Elvis, Mr. Regal, rather, frowned. "Isn’t La Maize High just a few blocks away?"
Dad nodded, "Yes, but to achieve racial balance, this area is bused out to Fossil. It’s a new school," he hastened to add, "just a few years old, and we already have a solid academic record." He turned to the Croc, all smiles and charm, "I take it you haven’t registered your daughter yet? Can I be of assistance?"
"Oh, I was going to start all that tomorrow," the Croc said. Boy, that was some costume! The mouth movements were perfect. She didn’t even look human, let alone like anybody's mother! "We’ve been living abroad, so Cat’s schooling is a bit unusual."
"That’s no problem, at all, we’ll just test her for placement. All she really needs for registration is a birth certificate and a record of her immunizations."
"Immunizations?" The croc repeated, a bit blankly.
"I think I have those," Mr. Regal said, the lips of the Elvis mask moving perfectly. "Remember, you sent me copies of everything when you left for Rwanda."
"Oh, of course. I forgot. But I do have the Birth Certificate, that I’m sure of."
"Call me as soon as you’re registered, you can do most of it online, but we do have to see the original Birth Certificate, and any records from the foreign schools." Dad was smiling even more, good grief, did he like that crocodile suit? "Were you born in the US, Cat?"
"New York," she looked a bit nervous, "I don’t remember it at all." She had an odd accent, as much a wrong cadence as odd pronunciation.
"Well, the office is open and we’d be delighted to run the placement tests as soon as possible." He returned the smile to the crocodile, "Welcome back to the States." Dad was certainly talking to her like he liked her. Fern and the shave-head had moved off and were talking about something. Hair, probably, the way they were fiddling around with theirs. He hoped the new girl wasn’t taking tips from Fern.
"I wish I could cut my hair short," the Human girl, Fern, said, "but Dad says it’s Punk and not to be allowed."
"Punk." Cat ran her hand over her hair uncertainly, the term wasn’t in the vocabulary she’d been cramming.
"Punk," Fern said firmly, scanning the room. "Like the kid with spiked hair playing freeball. How long were you in Rwanda?"
"Oh," Cat shrugged, trying for nonchalance, How long was reasonable? "Forever, it seems like." She hesitated visibly, "I don’t how to do anything with my hair, or how to dress." The Human had pale gold hair with big bouncy curls in it, and the clothes that had looked clumsy in the pictures fit her perfectly, moving with her movements, and emphasizing the definite secondary sexual characteristics. Cat wondered a bit uneasily if the blobs of fat that had developed on her chest over the last year were going to get as large as this girl’s. Hopefully not, they didn’t look practical at all.
Fern was eying her clothes, "I hope that’s a costume for the arcade and not an indication of your entire wardrobe."
It’s my best tunic! My favorite belt, that Uncle Zeb gave my last year. Bet she’d run screaming if I said that. Back to the cover story. "Yeah, Uncle Rex said to wear something spacey, but I didn’t bring much with me. Mother said we’d go shopping when we saw what everybody was wearing."
"Oh, good grief, don’t buy stuff like you see in here!" Fern started giggling, "Unless you want ISS the first day."
"Eye ess ess?" Cat asked, drawing a blank again.
"In School Suspension. Incredibly boring, with really stupid jerks and a few really nasty types." Fern looked around, "Have you got a newspaper, there are plenty of advertisements, this time of year, I’ll show you the kind of stuff to start out with.
Cat lit up "Really? That would be great. C’mon up to my room." A Native Guide, I’m saved!
"You’re living here?" Fern looked around wistfully, "Totally cool." She pounced on a messy pile of papers on one of the tables by the entrance, and pulled out a couple of flashily colored sections. "This is just what we need." The native girl turned to catch her father’s eye, easily done since he was watching her like a hawk, even while talking to her mother. She pointed upstairs, and he nodded.
Cat’s room was in the far corner, with basic local furniture. She’d just glanced around and left. Sometime since someone had brought her luggage up. She wondered if there were any other children in the Embassy, well, not children because they wouldn’t be able to attend school, but someone sort of young would be nice.
"Wow, you weren’t kidding about just getting here, were you?" The native girl was looking a bit dismayed as she walked across the room to look out the window. Cat knew there was nothing but the wild field the vehicle lift was concealed in with a road and the primitive rail beyond. "You need some curtains." Fern sounded quite definite, "and posters and stuff."
"Yeah," Cat looked around, too. "I guess we’ll shop for that stuff too."
Fern rustled the papers she’d brought along pulling Cat’s attention off the bare walls as she started leafing through them.
"OK, here’s some basic stuff, nothing really cool, but you might want to start off, umm, unobtrusive." She eyed the Native girl sideways, did Fern mean that she was weird looking, like the Hisloxi kids had treated her until they got used to her?
"Yes, I don’t want to stand out too much." Cat admitted turning a page, and tapped a picture, "Do girls wear that to school?" It certainly looked like good support for those secondary sexual characteristics.
Fern cackled with the native version of laughter, "Underneath everything else! Or my Dad will have a heart attack." She was eyed Cat suspiciously. "You do know about underwear, don’t you?"
"Of course." Cat couldn’t meet her eyes and could feel her face warming. I just said something incredibly stupid, didn’t I?
"What do they wear in Rwanda?" Fern was frowning, "Those wrap things? No, that’s India."
Cat gulped and babbled "They, we, wore lots of stuff, it just depends. I mean, some people like traditional stuff, but most people wore shorts and shirts, or trousers when it was cold." She buried her face back in the papers, quickly pointing to something sort of like a tunic. "Nothing like this."
"That’s a nightgown." Fern growled, and glared at her.
My native Guide thinks I’m making fun of her! What a strange thought.
Fern grabbed a section of paper. "You should get stuff like this. Blouses, and skirts, some pants, but almost everyone will be wearing t-shirts and jeans." She scowled at Cat. "Everybody knows about t-shirts and jeans so don’t look blank. Even in Africa they have jeans."
Cat nodded. "Right. Jeans and tea shirts." I thought Jean was a name and tea a beverage.
Fern flipped a few more pages, stopping at a page that displayed bedrooms. "Oh, here’s a nice room!" She pointed out a fluffy pink and white decorated monstrosity, like a Dusek Hive Queen’s bordello. The next page had a better one, but not by much. "Or bright colors, if you like them." Yeah, If I was an Urb. The next page was rather nice, "Dull." Fern pronounced, and "For little boys." Flip. "Too drab." Flip. "Adult."
Cat flipped back and forth between the pictures, slowing. "You don’t like this one?" she asked pointing to the one that had been dismissed as dull. The subtle beiges and rich browns reminded her of a Hisloxi cabro log beach house. Just add vines, sand and surf.
"I prefer a bit more color, but you’re the one who’ll have to live in it." Her Native Guide had a bit of a superior attitude. "Anyhow, get jeans, and t-shirts. Some nice shirts too," Fern added, "You don’t want to look like a complete orphan." She stared at Cat, frowning as she looked her over. "Are your parents divorced?"
Cat shook her head, wondering how to explain without out and out lying, then grabbed one of the duffle bags and rummaged around in it, finally pulling out a picture.
Fern pounced, "Oh your parent’s wedding picture!"
Cat had always thought she looked a bit like the woman in the picture, perhaps a bit paler, but with similar eyes. The man in the picture was much paler, one of the pasty colored humans, with hair the same color as Fern’s.
"My father died in a car crash when I was two." She took the picture back and set it on the dresser. "I don’t know if I remember him, or if I just think I do because of this picture." She looked at the duffle again, but there wasn’t anything else that would help.
"Let’s go back down," Fern said, "I’ll point out what sorts of clothes will pass the dress code check, and the sort of stuff you’ll want to wear when schools out."
"Oh good." Much relieved, she stepped out the door, then hesitated. "Do you think I should let my hair grow?"
"Definitely." Fern stopped her under a bright light and frowned up at her. "It’ll have to get a lot longer before you can decided what to do with it."Down in the arcade, Fern hastily pointed out some of the more bundly looking clothes as suitable for school before her father led her out. The boy, her brother, looked back reluctantly at all the flashing games as he trailed out.