Kirien Sevireiya stared at the metal table, one finger pressed hard under her nose. The cool classroom reeked of formaldehyde and other smells she didn't feel like trying to identify. "Key, how can you bear the stench?"
Her half-sister Key turned to glance at her, an amused smile twisting her lips. "You get used to it."
As a doctor, Key had plenty of experience in dealing with disgusting things. Kirien didn't. She preferred paper and books, research that didn't stink beyond a hint of mustiness. "Used to this? How?" she asked with a groan.
Key shrugged and said, "Be glad it's not summer. In the summer it's much worse. Put that apron on, just in case."
A heavy, twilled apron already shielded Key's white dress from any ichorous fluids that might unexpectedly spew forth. She wore gloves and cotton sleeve protectors that tied neatly above her elbows. With her compliantly-straight brown hair pulled back, a tidy little cap covering it, Key looked prepared for any eventuality.
Kirien picked up the length of white twill and turned it this way and that to find the neck-strap. The apron, probably the correct length on her sister's petite frame, allowed several inches of Kirien's heavy brown skirt to show. She sighed as she tied the tapes on the apron's back. Being around Key usually made her feel like a giantess--not to mention childish, silly, and inefficient.
"Father did know you were coming by to do this, didn't he?" Key asked.
Kirien nodded as she adjusted the apron nervously. At twenty-three, she was old enough not to need her father's approval for everything. "Yes. He thought it was a good idea."
"Are you ready now?" Key asked.
Kirien nodded but, not as mentally prepared for this as she claimed, she turned her eyes away when Key folded back the sheet. The horrible smell tripled with Key's movement, chemicals and something oily roiling into the air. Kirien replaced the finger under her nose and held her breath.
Key glanced back at her, and a wry smile crossed her pretty features. "Just breathe for a minute, Kiri. You'll be fine."
Kirien squared her shoulders, determined to look strong. "I'm ready."
"Well, you wanted to see one, so here's your chance. We don't drag these out of storage for just anyone." Older than Kirien by a dozen years, Key had enough influence to be allowed to study the specimens the University of Jenesetta had on hand. Generally, such a grisly display would have drawn dozens of eager young medical students to observe from the aged wooden benches that lined the edges of the square classroom like an arena.
But this was one of the specimens they would never see.
Stored in a large vat of formaldehyde for longer than either of the sisters had been alive, the body on the metal table looked very human. "Several of his organs have been removed for study," Key went on, her voice adopting a lecturing cadence. "Also, records indicate that his heart was missing when he was originally turned over to the university."
"His heart was missing?"
"Yes, we believe that's how Grandfather made certain he was dead." Key retrieved a pointer from the chalkboard at the rear of the dais and gestured for Kirien to approach the table. "Removing the heart seems to be irrevocably fatal."
"I do know that, at least," Kirien said.
"Having seen the hearts of the other two specimens, I feel comfortable stating that it would probably have been very like a human heart. In fact, most of the organs seem to be analogous to ours."
Kirien opened her mouth.
Key raised a hand to forestall any protest. "I'm working under the assumption that you and I are, for all practical purposes, human."
Kirien swallowed her objection. Their family knew, as did few others, the secret that lay at the heart of their people's existence. Most of the Menhirre might only have a tiny percentage of aras blood in their veins, but that inhuman origin defined them as a people. Her own family had quite a bit more than a tiny percentage.
"So what did you want to start with?" Key asked.
Kirien had been trying not to look directly at the body laid out on the table. Yellowed flaps of skin opened up along the midline of the chest, folded back as neatly as the sheet. What Kirien saw seemed gruesomely similar to things displayed at the butcher shop on First Street. Those had to be lungs, she decided. She didn't dare look the specimen in the face. "Uh, what's the most different?"
"The difference in the genitalia, of course, is the easiest to see," her sister said without flinching. Key had left the body covered to the waist, but folded the sheets farther back then, exposing what appeared to be a male body, intact from the hips down.
Kirien stared, her cheeks burning. "Um, how? I mean, isn't he...normal?"
"You're blushing. I forget you don't know some things us old married ladies do." Key grinned and turned back to the specimen. "Yes, little sister, this is an apparently normal set of male genitalia. What isn't normal is this pouch in the abdominal wall into which it can withdraw."
She motioned with a pointer toward something whitish in the open cavity of the specimen's abdomen.
Kirien followed her gesture, but couldn't tell what she was looking at. Inside the cut-open edges of the lower torso lay twists and folds of things pale and not at all bloody like she'd expected. "Oh, dear," she said, feeling faint. She put one hand over her mouth and turned away.
"If you're going to be sick," Key snapped, "do it on the floor, not on my specimen. Deep breaths."
As she tried to comply, Kirien asked herself again why she'd said she wanted to know these things. The nausea faded, though, as she repeated in her head that forewarned was forearmed. After a moment, she turned back to face the body. "I'm better now. Show me again, please."
The thing that Key pointed out in the abdomen, nestled amid a sea of disturbing beige-pink folds, looked like a small off-white pouch. Unfortunately, Kirien saw a few of those in there and couldn't really tell how Key knew which was which. "So the...genitalia withdraw into that? How?"
"A few strategically placed muscles that humans, of course, don't have. We haven't discovered the mechanism that triggers it yet. If you find out, I'd love to know," Key said, and then winked. "We also have a fully developed set of female organs here." She pointed at more whitish things.
Kirien smiled weakly. "So that's the big difference?"
"Well, that and the skin," Key said, "but you can't see that unaided. I'll have to show you a couple of slides under a microscope. Their skin is actually more like a thick pelt."
"I don't understand."
"Instead of flat skin like ours, they have fine...hairs. They aren't true hairs, since they can change color and texture, but they have a similar appearance. According to Grandfather, the proper term is 'ractals.' But to confuse things, their pelt is properly called 'skin,' I'm afraid--one of our language foibles."
Since their language had evolved from the aras' own tongue, that made sense. Lacking an equivalent for 'skin,' they'd simply substituted the closest aras word. "I understand that, at least," Kirien said.
"Grandfather informs us that some Shifters have longer ractals," Key added, "while some have shorter. A matter of heredity predicated by the geographic origin of their clan..."
"Cluster," Kirien inserted--cluster was the proper name for the aras' familial groupings.
"Cluster," Key allowed graciously, and then continued. "Colder place of origin translates into longer ractals. They can, apparently, puff them up, much as a bird does with its feathers to keep warm. However, those same long ractals also translate into an enhanced ability to imitate, even to the point where some aras can imitate clothing. I'm afraid this poor fellow here could not."
Kirien chewed on her lower lip. "Does Grandfather...?"
Key's chin lifted primly. "He said that was none of our business."
Kirien felt her cheeks flush again.
"Now, other big differences..." Key started ticking them off on gloved fingers. "The vocal folds--there are two pairs. I would show you, but..."
"How many do we have?"
Key shot her an exasperated look. "One."
Kirien held her hands wide. "How was I supposed to know?"
Key sighed heavily and drew off her gloves. "There's also an extra set of glands in the cheeks, similar to salivary glands, but secreting something different. We have no idea what, exactly; it breaks down too quickly. However I will say that those glands are one of the things Grandfather has been remarkably closed-mouthed about."
Kirien parsed that out in her head and decided that making a joke about the unintended pun would be unwise. "If I happen to find out, I'll tell you."
"Oh, I have a long list of nosy questions for you to winkle out for me." A dimple appeared in Key's cheek. "I'll tell my assistants they can put him back in his vat. It didn't occur to me you wouldn't be able to see the differences, Kiri, and the devil is in the details. That's all you have to watch for." She reached up to wrap an arm around Kirien's shoulders. "Let's go look at my new microscope. You won't believe the things I can see with it."
As they walked, Key lectured about her fascinating new piece of equipment, giving Kirien a moment to gather her nerves and wonder if she'd not made a terrible mistake after all.
Archeological evidence found in the lowlands supported her people's legends that the ancestors of the Menhirre had arrived there nearly a millennium before, guided by a leader known only as the Old Man. A wide variety of her people's traditions could be traced back to the Old Man. In the eastern provinces the idea even persisted that he was a god. But given the common belief that the Old Man could walk among the people in the guise of another, there could be little doubt that the Old Man had been an aras--a Shifter--instead. That he was the ultimate source of their mixed bloodlines--and thereby her people's unusual Gifts--also seemed likely.
The university hadn't had much success in the past gathering information about the aras. While they purportedly came and went among her people, rarely had any chosen to identify themselves as such, no doubt preferring to pass as human. Grandfather was one of the few who'd done so, although he'd purportedly lived among the Menhirre of Jenear in various guises for centuries beforehand.
He wasn't actually her grandfather, either. Grandfather was an honorary title, used by Grandfather's nearer descendants to keep from clouding the issue more than necessary. He was actually her great-great-grandmother, the wife of her great-great grandfather. Once Kirien had wrapped her mind around that, she didn't think much else could surprise her.
So far, Grandfather had refused to cooperate with the university's inquiries. He didn't want strangers observing his children; he refused even to reveal where they lived, although Kirien felt certain her father knew. She'd written anyway--simply handing the letter over to her father and hoping he would know where to send it--begging permission to spend a year observing Grandfather's current family, the only group of full-blooded aras within Jenear's borders. To everyone's surprise, Grandfather approved her request. It was a brilliant coup for her.
She'd simply forgotten that the people her tiny field of anthropologists studied weren't very human after all. Today's exercise served as a firm reminder.