A Delicate Thing That We Do

The light from a flower’s red leaves and blue petals combined into a vibrant purple, and Susan Church wondered what it smelled like. She also wondered, for the ninth time, if the deluxe tour package included smells, and if there was a way she could make enough money to find out. For now, she walked on, trying to find The Point.

Her difficulty doing so began when she turned off her navigation display, her mind having been corrupted by some sentimental notion of hiking the forest “naturally”. Worse, she had kicked off the excursion hours ago with the ingenious plan to abandon the pre-marked trail. Susan was positive that if she simply oriented herself at the beginning and walked in a straight line, she was sure to reach the tip of the plateau eventually. Now, however, with every fluorescent vein of every curving tree trunk blending with every incandescent pod blooming from every neon vine, she was less sure.

The idea also occurred to her—kept occurring, nagging, she could hardly fight it off—that she could have merely appeared at the overlook in the first place. In fact, at any moment, she might have deposited herself there with little more than a word. But that same sentimental notion had regrettably also filled her with a sense of duty to the trek, and even as she walked further and further into the bush, over the glowing forest floor and along her increasingly un-straight line of trajectory, she convinced herself continually that she ought to arrive upon the scene only after having struggled for it. So I can appreciate it, she would affirm, along with other equally childish repetitions. Truth be told, she really just found the idea of admitting defeat, albeit to no one in particular, a worse fate than her current disorientation.

Just when she thought she might concede enough to at least consult her Almanac again, her stomach growled. Susan looked down at her abdomen and frowned, disbelieving. Sure enough, though, when she checked her left index finger, her nail was glowing the pleasant pastel blue of mild-to-moderate malnourishment, confirming that she was, indeed, hungry. Susan stopped walking, sighed, and strained the muscles around her eyes, as if squinting against the obscuring luminosity of several broad leaves might just reveal the passageway they had been heretofore concealing from her. Unfortunately, she happened to be on Doha, where the terrestrial flora had no more a mind to keep secrets as it had to be helpful, and so either way was useless in that regard; this, of course, contrasted against the shrubbery of Pythy, which, according to The Almanac,had kept their secret for over a thousand years, and often giggled whenever the local scientists attempted to pry it from them.

Susan’s The Cosmic Almanac was a typical copy of an almost unremarkable book, hardly worth mentioning; save, of course, it being the primary source of information for nearly all interstellar species (notably excepting a certain robust religious sect from the planet Kath, who believed Ralbart Galbart’s memoir, Everything, to contain the whole of the knowable universe, prompting a spike in sales and leading to her equally zealot-inspiring sequel, Everything Else). However unextraordinary, though, it could not be said that The Almanac was not at least utile, for within its digital pages one was sure to find an updated entry for any conceivable phenomena—with fair odds at finding a slightly dated entry for several inconceivable phenomena, and a one one-trillionth chance at finding a completely false account of an uninhabitable planet that no one has since bothered to check. It also had pictures. Indeed, the book was truly plain. Quotidian, even. One regarded one’s Almanac, if they must,as little more than utterly commonplace, thoroughly mundane, and an unavoidable banality of galactic life. Well, that is, one did so if one was not Susan Church, who happened to thrive in the mundane, and quite enjoyed the book’s two most redeeming qualities: its front and back covers; the latter being a dynamic multi-dimensional chart, which showed how sometimes stars can look like spoons and boats from whatever angle you happen to be at, and the former featuring a daily text box where the title ought to be, and whereupon one would find their fortune told exactly accurately, if vaguely. Earlier, for instance, on her way to The Almanac’s entry for Doha, Susan read from the front cover:

“Today, you are special.”

…which, when Susan thought about it very much, wasn’t really a fortune at all. So, she decided to not think about it very much. The Almanac entry for the planet Doha, for The Radiant Point, read as follows:

“The Radiant Point is a popular observational destination, discovered only two hundred years ago due to the uninhabitable nature of the planet’s surface for all Oxygen-breathing species. If you wish to take the scenic route through the mythic neon forest, you will find, starting at the trailhead, waypoint markers programmed into your observation guide, leading to the apex of the plateau, in the shape of your native species’ most useful appendage, with the most appropriate tip of said appendage extended toward the proper direction of travel.

(This happened to be the reason Susan was increasingly convinced of her misdirection, as she had not seen a single one of these markers.)

The Radiant Point, (continued the Almanac) or, commonly, The Point, places one at the ideal angle from where to see the four phosphorescent geo-spores align at reflective angles to form a perfect luminescent dodecahedron. This natural phenomenon has formed relatively recently in the planet’s forty-two billion years and has been described by many as “quite lovely”.

Susan had read this entry three times before embarking, wanting to be sure. Strictly speaking, she was less interested in the view itself than she was the timeline of its discovery: Susan harbored a secret life goal of submitting a worthy edit for The Almanac, and she thought its most recent entries probably contained her best chance at finding a correctable error. She had pictured herself, standing triumphantly at the cliffside edge, overlooking the illuminated ravine, noting three geo-spores were actually reflecting four times, and thusly her contribution to history would inform tourists accurately for eons to come. Unfortunately, she now felt she was no closer to her objective, and also felt her stomach growl again, and so decided that by at least pulling up her map display, without navigation, she could still count herself undefeated by the prospect of reaching her destination too easily. Even these negotiated terms, however, were lost in the display which entered the left half of her vision and showed her location as a small dot surrounded by topography she did not recognize. With a third stomach growl, she concluded that she had not the faintest idea where that tiny dot was in all the cosmos, nor any of the handy trail markers, nor the promised overlook, from which she suspected herself to be further away than when she had started.

“Mary, end it. Let’s get out of here,” Susan called to her Internal Intelligence user interface.

“You weren’t even close, to answer your question,” Mary’s cheeky alto voice sounded directly into Susan’s mind’s ear. Susan secretly imagined this is what her mother must have sounded like, a ridiculous idea for two reasons: First, Susan herself sounded nothing like this; second, Susan had named her “Mary” because she always wanted a sister named Mary, the name having resurrected into popularity in the late billionth century E.D. after being rightly dead for nearly a billion centuries previous.

“Thank you, Mary.” Susan dismounted from the platform, now back to its metallic grey, matching the rest of the holo-globe wherein the forested scene had vanished.

“You know I know you don’t mean that,” Mary chided. Susan rolled her eyes in response (to which Mary gave the artificial equivalent of an offended gasp) and walked out into the attached, sleek white corridor. The tiny navigation array, having automatically reasserted itself in the top left of her vision, spun as she turned a corner. Susan swiped it from her view, and wished there existed a more forceful method for its expulsion, she being quite irritated with maps at the present.

She arrived at the Nine Aft dining hall shortly, entering through its glossy, alabaster archway, and into a typical scene of half-empty tables, with the other half populated by a spattering of scales and skins and shapes of heads, always a unique cross-section of the some eight million species with ISM cruiser access. Susan caught a few incoherent clips of conversation as she made her way to the bar—“One left! Pass the salt, please.” “I’ve always said, they never last.” “She foresaw this, you know. Oh! Have you heard the good news of Galbart?”—where she sat at a hovering bar stool and placed her right index finger on the serving counter’s cool interface surface. She then promptly got up and moved to the next hovering stool, because her first choice was still warm from its previous occupant, and even if they were self-cleaning she did not like imagining answers to the question, “slime or skin?” She had just situated herself the second time when a humanoid figure flickered into existence before her.

“Full needs or patron’s preference?” The cheery holographic bartender placed his artificial hands on the countertop as if supporting his nonexistent weight, while Susan considered her options.

“I’ll pick. Red, warm, soft crunch, block shapes and make it…” she examined her current mood: frustrated, and uncomfortably contemplative. “Cheerful, but not bubbly. And I’d like to not care about, say, the last four hours?”

“Can do. Apathetic, or aloof?”

“Surprise me.” She wasn’t sure there was a difference, but also didn’t care.

“I’ll try. And for nutrition?”

“General multi-vite, thank you.”

“Very welcome.” The bartender was now in motion, as if making ready some nondescript dish behind the counter, an action wholly useless given the automated system, yet universally desired from every bartending program ever invented, perhaps only because no one has ever questioned the practice for fear they might stop. Beneath the counter, Susan heard a whir from unseen machinery, a soft ding! (humans, as well as most dog-evolved species, have ever insisted their food preparation be accompanied with a soft ding!), and the increasingly realistic barkeep produced a bowl filled with red spheres and cubes. He then promptly blinked out of existence to leave Susan to her meal.

The first bite crumbled in Susan’s mouth and had a savory flavor, filling her sinuses with various contrasting notes that lingered for a moment as the pieces played across her tongue, before melting into her cheeks and down her throat, sending waves of pure pleasantness through her body. At once she felt none of the frustration from before; she knew there was something from the last few hours that might bother her, but she did not care enough to consider what it might be. She stared into the vacant space where the barman once stood, and did not notice a hulking figure lumbering toward her, until he had already claimed her adjacent seat.

Susan turned to see the exceptionally large torso—it had to be, to fit all four arms—of Oro, a Kairikian she had met the day previous in nearly the same spot. She gazed, as she had done yesterday, at the packed musculature of each of his brawny arms, and then up at his blocky face, framed by a heavy brow and wide jaw; a touch more primeval than she might prefer, maybe, but not not handsome.

“Oh, honey,” Mary preempted, “I know what you’re thinking and it’s a bad idea. I told you yesterday—” Susan muted Mary’s voice, and then raised her eyes to meet the alien’s, with a slight smirk of her lips and raise of eyebrow for a combination she hoped looked disarming.

“Oro, right?” She pointed to him, as though just remembering his name. She thought it sounded more endearing that way, coupled with a flirtatious smile which Oro did not return. Do Kairikians smile? Susan became acutely aware of her lack of fluency in the nonverbal expressions of Oro’s language: for instance, without Mary’s coaching, she was unlikely to return Oro’s formal greeting by opening her palms upward to match is bottom two hands, thus giving him permission to speak; nor was she prone, even if he did speak, to note the nuanced gestures and inflections that could give his words any range of intention, from condolences, to foreplay, to innocuous inquiry; and, not least crucially, she surely would not be privy to the fact that no Kairikian, in their entire history, has ever smiled flirtatiously. Not understanding any of this, but feeling the vacancy of all of it, Susan’s cheerfulness faltered momentarily, and she wondered if she ought, after all, to retrieve Mary’s voice in her mind. But with another bite of her meal, she resurged with a cheerful confidence, and no longer cared about the lingering potential for miscommunication. They probably don’t smile.

She carried on. “Susan,” Susan enunciated, pointing to herself and nodding in rhythm to each syllable. Oro tilted his head, and pursed his lips. He shifted in his seat, crossed one leg over the other, interlocked his bottom sets of fingers and placed those hands on his knee, uncrossed his leg, scratched his third cranial spike with one of his top hands, and with the other placed his index finger, thick as a Tennanten sausage, upon the countertop. An equally massive, four-armed figure appeared across the bar.

“Back for a second, are we?” The Kairiky bartender inquired.

“Just a drink this round, there’s a good man,” Oro crossed his legs again under his two interlocked hands, “shall we try, one brnflngn?” Susan frowned at the incomprehensible sound. Not often did the Internal Intelligence translation matrix fail to find a suitable rendering—though, she knew it was more likely to happen in cases of unique alien cuisine.

“Certainly, sir,” Two of the bartender’s hands were now wiping out the inside of a holographic cup with a holographic rag, “Original brnflngn, or vanilla chill?”

“Original,” Oro sounded irritated. “Always original, never will I order anything but—oh never mind, just get the damned drink.” Oro frowned and relaxed his shoulders as the drink was produced. He accepted the mug, large and steaming, with a tilt of his head at the bartender, who tilted his head and frowned in returned, and then vanished in an instant. Oro closed his eyes, inhaled deeply the fuming whisps, and then opened his mouth to release a long and pink tube over the rim of the cup with an unceremonious splash. Sucking and slurping, he took a long quaff through his straw tongue, before setting down his drink with a satisfied sigh and still deeper frown. As his eyelids slid sideways back open he could not help but nervously glance over at Susan several times. Susan, in turn, leaned over the counter to try and catch his shifting gaze, hoping to look encouraging. But, after a few more unsuccessful silent seconds, she gave up with a scoff, shrugging in defeat with her shoulders up and hands out.

“Nothing quite like a good brnflngn.” said Oro, his voice piercing the white noise of the dining hall and startling Susan, “And don’t let anyone fool you—no such thing as a vanilla brnflngn. Only original. Delicious, brown, salty brnflngn.” Susan didn’t know anything about vanilla brnflngn, but thought it sounded better than original brnflngn, but also had just heard the word “brnflngn” for the first and fifth time within the last few minutes. She replied by blinking, and with more silence.

“Susan,” Oro continued to accept her deference, “Were you… with anyone, back on The Condor?” He turned and leaned forward, toward her, to meet her eyes. Two of his hands still rested on his knee, and one played idly with the mug on the countertop, but the fourth gestured toward her. Susan nearly took it in hers, thinking it looked very much like he was asking her to dance, and resisted the urge only by placing one hand between her legs as she crossed them, and the other on the side of her head so she could lean casually against the bar, elbow positioned on the edge of the countertop. She couldn’t, though, resist another smile as she replied.

“No, I’m not seeing anyone.” Her smile grew, but remained unrequited by Oro.

“Are your eyes ok?” He looked from eye to eye.

“No—yes. I mean, I’m not attached to anyone.” Susan tried again.

“I can see that. But do you have a mate?” Susan took a measured pause, a deep breath, and another spoonful of her meal before she spoke again.

“No.”

“I thought not.” He slurped up another several gulps of his drink. “Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier.” And then, to Susan’s surprise, he finally offered a smile. Just a little one, with only half of his mouth, but enough to spur her onward.

“Oh, I’d say it makes things a bit easier,” she batted her eyes and rocked forward on her supporting arm.

“Regardless, I am sorry for your loss.” Oro’s smile widened to include his whole mouth.

“Oh?” Susan tried to keep looking seductive, though started to feel confused. Is this how Kairikians flirt?

“A whole worldship, gone just like that,” he continued. “And a failed discharge regulator? What are the odds?” He looked Susan in the eye and kept grinning, his deep purple, angled teeth shining in the ambient light. Susan continued smiling back, trying to mirror what she would best describe as a clearly amorous expression, though she was unsure how to respond. Then she forced a laugh, realizing suddenly that she must be missing, through translation, some sort of Kairikian idiom, or reference. That must be it. Her cheeks strained to maintain a smile as her breathy titter cut out. I’m missing a punchline in there, somewhere. This seemed the obvious conclusion, given his intonation, and plainly confirmed as he let out a light chuckle, and extended one of his lower hands to place lightly on her knee. So this is how Kairikians flirt.

“That’s it, let it out. Let me know if you need anything.” If before had been a joke, then this was an invitation, surely. Careful to not reply too eagerly, she closed her eyes a moment and bit her lower lip, for a combination she hoped looked coy. When she opened her eyes again, she saw only the back half of the bipedal tetrabrachial alien walking away from her.

Susan turned back to her meal, flustered. What kind of a joke was that, anyway? All the humans are dead, har har, hope you didn’t like any of them. She resolved that it was good she would probably never be able to romance a Kairikian: their sense of humor was clearly off the mark. She pushed her bowl away and stormed out of the dining hall, feeling at once rather opposed to both cheerful moods and the company of other life forms. When she re-entered the corridor she placed her finger on the wall—“nearest care pods, please”—and then followed the small, translucent map overlay which appeared in the upper left of her vision as she brought the tip of her finger to her temple.

“Mary, can you check if this one has available human pods?” Susan lowered her hand again, and the overlay disappeared, save a pulsing blue ribbon on the floor, extending in her field of vision from her feet down the walkway, indicating her desired path. She didn’t need this feature for the well-organized grid of an ISM Community Cruiser, but had far too much preoccupying her mind to worry about the default.

“Oh, I can speak again now, can I?” Mary chimed in as Susan started down the hall.

“Tough talk for the one without mute control,” retorted Susan, though she truly did enjoy the banter, a preference the Internal Intelligence user interface keyed into automatically.

“And yet you always bring me back,” Mary sung, and Susan smiled.

“Listen, Mary, could you distract me a bit? That guy got me thinking about The Condor.”

“Still avoiding the other day, are we?”

“Just read from The Almanac or something, will you?”

“Any particular entry?”

“I don’t know. How about ‘Human’?” Susan had never actually read her own species’ entry, and could not immediately place why she was feeling nostalgic about it now. Without further question, Mary began to read the requested entry as Susan continued to follow the blue ribbon down the sleek white corridor.

“The human species numbers nearly ten billion, if one does not attempt to count the countless mixed offspring from the astonishing number of cross-species with which humans are reproductively compatible. This race of bipedal neo-apes is somewhat of a novelty among galactic-traveling species: these soft, pudgy little things that get both angry and aroused at their own anatomy, yet have somehow managed to not kill themselves off, despite their being in the constant daily vicinity of each other and therefore, presumably, in a constant state of anger and arousal. Yes, whether a passing curiosity—‘oh, look, there go the humans, still at it I see”—or an inadvertent threat to your species’ survival—‘no, I don’t care what holiday it is and I don’t even know how you lit a combustion flame in here’—the Earth Human race has proven a notable exception to the common historical saying, ‘The romantic races never last’.

“Most recently important in human history is the event known galactically as the Ghost Pirate Recursion on Jackspa 7, where was seen the last stand of feared star-eater Gary…” But here Susan stopped listening, her mind unwillingly cast back to two days ago, when she was last on humanity’s worldship The Condor, the day she went to meet her new birthing partner.

She’d gone to meet Auly about an hour after she was sent his picture and given the assignment. No reason in waiting, she had figured; ovulation day always felt like such a chore, and only more so if one delayed. When his door slid open she saw he was not much taller than she, and had less hair than his picture suggested. Maybe I should have read his dossier. He was, however, wholly pleasant, and when he smiled she was encouraged by his straight teeth and endearing dimples. His face was clean-shaven, with only one visible blemish on his neck, and his eyes were a dull brown. Overall, he had the typical look of a man who cared enough to appear presentable, even if he didn’t have the money to fully design his appearance. Susan stifled the sigh that always accompanied a certain disillusionment of her dreams to one day be paired with a superior partner. Instead, she stepped inside with a smile she hoped was equally endearing, but which more or less read, “yeah, fair enough.”

She took a mildly inquisitive lap around the clean living space, and promptly began to remove her shirt. Auly, startled, held his hands up.

“Whoa there, not to slow the speeder here, but maybe we could start with introductions?” He shrugged as Susan, leery, pulled her shirt back down.

“Sorry,” she cocked an eyebrow, “I just don’t ever expect these things to go very long. Not much point, right?” And you already know my name, so no need for introductions; and I’m betting you’re the kind of guy who does read the dossier.

(“Take it easy on him, Susan,” said Mary, who was promptly muted.)

Auly blushed. “Oh, well, uh, I was kind of hoping we might, ah…” Oh, Susan lamented, A traditionalist.

“Honestly,” said Susan as she sat down and chose her words, “I’ve never done it that way before. I mean, it’ll be extracted anyway, and we’ll be reassigned, so I never really saw much point to it, right?” Auly sat opposite her, sporting a very earnest and much less endearing expression.

“Yes, I know, and you’re right. It’s just… I don’t know, it’s all so… clinical… I find it disheartening. I like to know that my DNA is matching with somebody I actually like. Feels more… significant.” He reached out to punctuate his statement by placing a hand on Susan’s knee. She stared at the hand, and then back at him, incredulous. But, she considered his point, and even though it all sounded a bit sappy to her, she wanted to fulfill the assignment, and resolved that perhaps a new experience might not be so bad.

“Ok, fine, show me your way, but once we’re on the bed I decide how we finish, yeah?” She thought this was a reasonable compromise, and apparently so did he.

“Is it ok if we start out with kissing?” He smiled again, which Susan now ruled to be his best facial arrangement, and she nodded despite the clunky question. He leaned toward her, and she tilted forward to meet his lips. I suppose this isn’t entirely awful, she was just beginning to think when he pulled away and held her face in his hands.

“Are you comfortable? Can I get you a drink?” She shook her head, an uncomfortable motion as it was currently trapped between his palms. Unsure what to do next, she leaned forward again to resume kissing. After another minute he pulled away again.

“What about a mood to eat? I have several here.” Ok, guy, (she was now getting angry, and aroused) I’m taking control of this negotiation and we’re getting it over with. Instead of replying, Susan stood up, straddled his lap, and resumed in fervor. For a few seconds he seemed to reciprocate. Finally, Susan pulled him up to his feet and again started to remove her shirt, now to take this—

“No. Let’s just do this for a while. This is nice.” Auly pulled her shirt back down, again, and held her shoulders as he kissed her more softly. And more wetly—it was too wet, all saliva and fish lips. Susan placed her hands on his chest and pushed away. Auly, eyes still closed, gently laid his hands over hers.

“Mmmm,” he still didn’t open his eyes to look at Susan, who wore roughly the expression of having stepped in something foul. “I feel it too. There’s something between us.” Is it saliva? Susan pried one hand free to wipe her mouth. Auly opened his eyes, and took her other hand in both of his. He lifted her hand to his nose, and smelled it with a deep and loud inhale.

Susan didn’t know what to do. “Um, Auly?” It’s just an assignment. Complete the assignment. “Can we get on the bed now?”

Auly caressed his own face with her hand. “I think that’s a great idea.” He stood, still in possession of her hand, raising her with him at an odd angle, and walked to the bed with her in tow. He laid down, on his side, and gestured for her to do the same next to him, which she did, awkwardly, still having only one hand.At least we’re here, Susan slipped her hand free and tried to find some leverage to reposition. A deal’s a deal. Auly laid his arm across her body and pulled her close so her face mashed up against the underside of his chin.

“Auly,” she spoke muffled words into his gullet. “What—”

“Shhhh” he began to rub her back. “I want to feel this moment, here, you, and me,” what is happening? “It’s such a… delicate…” he hung on the word as though having just invented it “…thing that we do, isn’t it?” Enough! Susan pushed, hard, against him and toppled off the bed. She rolled and popped up back to her feet, hair and clothes twisted and messy, to see him still lying with a stupid and bewildered expression. She balled her fists and turned to leave.

“Susan, are you—” Susan stopped at the doorway and glared over her shoulder.

“This was a bad idea, and,” she struggled for words to describe the worst conception cycle she’d ever had, “and you’re very bad at it.” And then she walked out.

Susan came back to present as she arrived at the care pod center, and again placed her finger on the wall.

“Current population?” She inquired, peering inside, and then, “thank you,” when the answer was acceptably low, just over ten thousand.

“You are a precious one, always saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to the walls.” Mary seemed to have a bit of a superiority complex to other machines. Susan, still uncomfortable from her involuntary daydream, declined to reply. She walked forward, entering through the glossy, alabaster archway and into a medium-size chamber of care pods. There were maybe three or four hundred thousand, looking for all their technology like rows of eggs missing various chunks of shell. Most of the pods were their default off-white, dormant, sitting tall and waiting for use. Only a small fraction were rotated to lie longways, open faces pointing up and shell color reflecting various hues according to the occupant. Susan took a hoverpad past several rows before finding a section of units labeled “4’ to 8’, bipedal” and stepped up to one of them, raising her right index finger to touch the cold shell. The pod immediately turned a deep lavender and a seam appeared on its surface, widening to become an opening through which she climbed. As soon as she was comfortable, the pod closed again, and rolled backward. Inside, with the independent internal gravity, it looked more to Susan as if the world around her shifted while she remained still.

Now she inserted her left index finger into a small port inside the pod, and after a whirring and a ding! a panel slid open with another bowl, auto-selected from the system’s reading of her vital necessities. The dish was nearly what she had chosen herself just minutes before: red and crunchy, though this time the pieces were long and squiggly. And, as she crunched down into each bite, they dissolved as would a chalky antacid, releasing into her sinuses a piercing, flowery sensation, which made her eyes swim; though which, ceasing after a moment, left her with the distinct impression that she was wrapped, cozy, inside a large, down-stuffed quilt. Though she didn’t try to order something else, she wondered why the system thought she needed a hug. Of course, had she waited just another moment, she would have requested a stronger dosage, because that is when she noticed her left thumbnail glowing.

Better not be that moron again, she cringed, thinking of Auly, who had in fact tried to reach out to her four times since their disastrous first contact, and from whom she had taken a weeks’ leave off-ship for good measure. She squeezed her thumbnail twice and, to her momentary relief, saw that of the several notifications flashing into sight, none bore his name. Then she noticed the “requests” icon pulsing softly.

“Susan, sorry to bother while you’re eating again, but you have some messages.” Mary sounded uncharacteristically timid.

“Yeah, gathered that, thanks.” Susan did not roll her eyes physically, but knew that Mary felt the sentiment.

“You’re in a bad mood, I get it. First Auly, now Oro. If it helps, I promise Oro wasn’t hitting on you. You see, when Kairikians smile they actually—”

“Just… ugh, nevermind. Who’s calling?” Susan shifted in her seat and took another comforting bite.

“Three marked ISM—those will be time-sensitive, best get to them first.”

Odd, Susan frowned, brow furrowed.

“Odd may be, but there they are.” Mary still sounded more reserved than usual.

“What does the ISM want from me?”

“Well now, if I knew that I wouldn’t be telling you about unopened messages, would I?”

“Now who’s in a bad mood?” Susan offered the tiniest smile at this smallest victory. “Wait, you said ‘first’. Who else?”

At this Mary hesitated. “Brace yourself, now: sixty eight sponsored.”

Sixty eight? And all sponsored?

“Afraid so, kiddo.”

“But why? What do sixty eight companies want from me? I didn’t even know sixty eight companies existed!” Susan had never before received a single sponsored message in her life.

“Again, I don’t have the answer. But, um, dear?”

“What.”

Mary, again, hesitated. “There are more.”

“How many?” Susan groaned just considering a sixty ninth.

“From your reaction to sixty eight I’m not sure I want to say.”

“Tell me.”

“If you insist.” Mary took the artificial equivalent of a deep breath. “Eighty five thousand new messages and increasing, mostly unknown private sources.” Susan said nothing, and thought even less. After a moment’s silence, Mary pressed, “You alright, Susan?”

“You’re in my brain, you know the answer to that.”

“Shall we start with the government mail, then?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Permission to uplink and sync? I could find the cause of all this.”

“Um… no, I think I want to find out first.”

“You know the moment you open it I’ll have the information as well.”

“Just—you know what I mean!” Susan pressed into her temples with her palms now, and hoped no one outside heard her yell.

Mary plowed on. “I do… And I can see that you’ve worked out just as I have, that most likely the official letters will have the answer. Ready when you are.” Mary then went silent again, and this time allowed Susan to break it.

“Mary?”

“Yes, Susan?”

“You said Oro wasn’t hitting on me.”

“He wasn’t.”

“Then… he wasn’t joking either, was he?”

“No.”

“Open the message.”

The list of messages flooded Susan’s left field of vision but quickly filtered into a block of three, sitting above the rest, marked “ISM”, the top one of which flashed twice before Susan’s full vision filled with an image of a dark room, wherein a single cone of light encompassed a very stately looking, tripedal alien, stiff in demeanor, this effect enhanced by its chitinous exoskeleton. Susan saw from its uniform markings that this very official-looking alien was indeed a second order of the ISM, and female (this was helpful as, the more removed a species was from sapien, the more impossible it became to tell sex). After just a moment the alien spoke, through three sets of pincers, interdigitated over an opening containing what looked to be several sets of tongue-like muscles. Susan had heard of these sorts of species, prized for their ability to imitate several million dialects; sure enough, her voice was crisp and fluent, and Susan could tell it wasn’t even filtered through Mary’s translation matrix.

“Human designation Susan Church,” addressed the councilwoman, “The Second Order of the Twelfth Census Bureau of the Eleventh Intersectional System Management hereby declares the nigh-extinction of species eight-one-six-five, self-designate homo-sapien, self-designate Earth Human. Susan Church, you are the last of your species.” And then the message closed abruptly, so that Susan had the oddest sensational mix of attempting to process what she had just heard, while also wondering if the video had been cut short. Then, the second message flashed twice and opened.

This message brought Susan again to a darkened room, the same (or set up the same) as the first, only this time with a male-marked, large and pink, rough-skinned, law-enforcement alien, who appeared to be standing on two of his six legs while all of his fourteen eyes, each at the end of its own protruding tubule, pointed at Susan. His voice, spoken through a wide gap with flat teeth, was deep and booming.

“Human designation Susan Church,” he recited, “the Fourth Order of the Third Executive Wing of the Twelfth Intersectional System Management requests your mandatory presence at a judicial hearing to finalize causation of the death of nine billion, eight hundred sixty five million, three thousand and eight human individuals, as well as one billion, four hundred and nine million, two hundred eighty six thousand, one hundred forty four various others. The time and location of the hearing will be synced with your Internal Intelligence program, or sent through textual message if preferred.” This last line he threw away, as if no one ever preferred. And then the message closed, and the third opened.

This alien—third message, same setting—was tiny, with a head that seemed too large for its body and which wobbled a bit as it spoke. It had two tiny legs below two noodle-like arms, each nearly three times the legs in length. Its two, saucer-like eyes took up nearly half the bulbous head space, and seemed quite reflective, although with little to reflect in the darkened room. It was hermaphroditic and from the financial sector, according to uniform markings, and Susan could not help but think that it was for species like this that the Sapien Intergalactic Relations Commission had declared the “monster/horror” genre of human entertainment fiction a form of hate speech. Despite this, she found its neutral-toned voice quite charming.

“So, uh, you’re all dead, sorry about that.” And it sounded sincere about it too, although a voice, presumably the “it” behind the camera, chimed in.

“Oi!” The new voice whispered, even as it tried to yell at the visible alien. “Come on, how many times? You have to sound professional!”

“Oh, what does she care? She’ll get her money,” came the on-screen retort.

“Not about the money, you changer! We’re three marks away from defunding!” The voice had clearly used a terrible slur, because now the alien on screen turned from Susan entirely to address its verbal accoster, clearly fired up.

“Well then, I guess it is about the money, hmm?” It put what must have been its hands on what must have been its hips.

“Oh reeeeeal clever, aren’t you? Sarkin-bloated changer. Just start over, would you?” The voice cursed further.

“Actually I think I’ll changin’ send it, teach you to curse me out!” The alien turned back to Susan.

“You’d better not—” said the off-screen voice, but it seemed now quite powerless as the other alien kept on.

“From Intersectional Species Preservation. Enjoy the cash.” And then Susan heard a truncated “NOOO—” before the message ended. Money? Susan pressed her hands harder into her temples.

“Is that all of them?” She whispered to Mary.

“From the ISM, yes.”

“I guess… open the rest.”

“Susan, you’re in a state of shock. Maybe you should take a few moments to process.” Susan whipped her head up to glare at nothing in particular.

“Oh, was that shocking? I hadn’t noticed.” She knew she should not feel defensive against Mary, but in fairness she did not really know what she should feel.

“Getting snippy with me won’t help.” Mary’s voice was calm; it was not a retort.

“Just bring up the rest of the messages.”

“Commercial or private?”

“Oh, right. Um, commercial.” Susan never held any position, and as such never had (nor needed) any money, so she had never been contacted by any sort of advertisement and, in lieu of actually trying to sort out the news she just received, decided to be very interested as to what the commercial sector offered.

The first message opened with a bizarre, stringy, chiming music, and her vision filled with a rapidly changing volley of images, wild flashes of androgynous humanoid creatures in unnatural positions, with dramatic variations of skin colors and patterns as well as arrays of bodily enhancements, many of which seemed to be of a sexual nature, and for most of which Susan couldn’t imagine a practical use. A sultry female voice began to narrate the bacchanalia.

“Design your body the way you —”

“Stop! That’s enough!” The message closed and Susan panted, suddenly short on breath, flushed, wide-eyed.

“Should I delete the rest of the commercial messages? Most are about the same.”

“No!” She responded  too quickly, “No, no, I, uh, I might want to buy something. Later.” Susan quickly stammered. “Just… show me another one. Something different.”

The next advertisement opened to a sweeping shot of a planet’s surface, familiarly green and mountainous, though Susan didn’t recognize it specifically. The rushing view was accompanied by a softly strumming, rhythmic tune, and narrated by deep male voice.

“Our message has always been simple. Buy a planet, save a life.”

“Mary.” The ad stopped. “I don’t want a planet.”

“You said ‘something different.’”

“Is there anything I might actually be interested in?” Mary responded by opening another commercial message. A human woman, notably similar to Susan in build, was piloting a spacecraft through a bright, color-rich nebula, weaving a path through clouds of red and purple and turquoise. After a few seconds the swirling gasses melted away, along with the vessel and the rest of her surroundings, and the scene reformed into a sparkling beach overlooking an emerald ocean. Now the woman was lounging, soaking in a red-orange sun. And then, again, the scene shifted, and now she was soaring, self-propulsed, through an array of multi-colored terrestrial clouds plastered throughout a bright blue sky.

“Go anywhere.” A female voice, notably similar to Mary’s, narrated above the sounds of the woman’s several mini-adventures. “Do anything.” Now the woman was at the front of a raucous crowd, cheering on an event for some sport Susan didn’t recognize. “Be anyone. Be bold. Be wild.” And now to a lounge room, pulsating with lights and music, disturbingly similar to the first ad and packed with more androgynous creatures as well as the woman gyrating in the middle of a sea of indiscernible body parts.

“Oh come on!” The scene cut, and Susan took deep breaths that resounded in the quiet, confined space. “Is that all rich people do?”

“You’re rich now, you tell me,” Mary teased. Susan knew this was a calculation by the Internal Intelligence program, that it had determined a precise amount of humor to assist the psychological coping process.

“Might I suggest moving on to the private messages?” Her tone, though compassionate, was insistent.

Susan sighed. “Go on then.”

The first one wasn’t video, or audio, just simple text, a few paragraphs of what appeared to be condolences, and words of encouragement, but from some being Susan had never met. She skimmed through and closed the letter, slightly confused. On to the second message, this one a video from what appeared to be a young, spotted human male, who introduced himself as a half-human, half something else, named Dreck. Apparently he wanted to invite Susan, the last human, to speak at some sort of educational engagement. The third message was another video, this time of a very weepy humanoid with large, buggy wings, offering her own version of condolences. The rest of the messages went on like this, most being letters or videos of various creatures offering unsolicited sympathy and advice. There were some from aliens who seemed more intrigued than anything by Susan’s newfound status as The Last Human, and even some who seemed to be under the impression that the death of her species was her fault (one among these praising the idea as a sort of anarchal statement, and of whom Susan made a note to report to law enforcement later). Uniformly, though, Susan found these messages to be from complete strangers.

“Mary, filter out messages from unknown parties.” Instantly the number dropped from its rising halfway through the seven hundred thousand range, to one. One private message; an active request for a video call, actually. Susan paused to take another bite of her literal comfort food as she considered the name on screen. Maybe because this was someone Susan had genuinely liked, and about whom she genuinely felt poorly for failing to keep in touch after leaving that sector, or maybe because she was dangerously close to hearing her own thoughts, and just needed someone else’s voice in the silence, Susan selected the call and brought up the image of her friend, a somewhat amorphous mass she knew as “Brenda”.

“Uh, hey Brenda.” Susan extended a feeble greeting.

“Hey, Susan, aren’t you a human?” This so happened to be both a typical greeting for Brenda’s species and perhaps the most painfully relevant question she might have asked. The word “yes” choked in Susan’s throat as she tried to reply. When she found her voice again after several seconds’ silence, she felt slow and incoherent.

“I… well, yeah,” She then realized she was less sure. “I don’t… I’m sorry, Brenda, I’ll… I can’t—.” She cut the video off.

Aren’t I still a human? What did the word even mean, anymore? She half-expected an answer from Mary, but received none. Then, in the silent wake, Susan had a curious idea.

“Mary, read the ‘Human’ section of The Almanac again.”

“Susan—”

“Just do it. Please.” Mary administered the artificial equivalent of a worried look, but performed as requested.

“The human species once numbered nearly ten billion, not counting the countless mixed offspring from the astonishing number of cross-species with which humans are reproductively compatible. The sole survivor of the discharge regulator explosion that claimed the entire complement of the human worldship The Condor, and the only being currently qualified as pure Earth Human, is one Susan Church, a post-mature female of the species, descended from the very same Gary…”

Susan let the reading drone on, and was even intrigued to learn a few things about herself, which she realized must have just been stored in universal data, if she had ever cared to look. She also felt some perverse chagrin at having been beaten to the new edit, at being robbed of the chance to etch her own name into history. She idly continued eating, and finished her meal at about the same time as Mary finished reading. Then she righted the pod, stepped out, and walked, in silence, back down the sleek white corridor. She let the silence stand all the way back to her temporary quarters, where finally she spoke.

“Call Brenda back, please.”

“Susan, I can see what you’re thinking and… well I don’t think it’s healthy.”

“Mary.” The word wasn’t harsh, and contained no command, but it was firm and pointed. Brenda’s name flashed into view, followed quickly by Brenda herself.

“Hey Susan, aren’t you a human?” She greeted, trying to sound more delicate this time. Susan took a deep breath.

“I was.”

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