Guess who's coming to dinner? Actually, don't guess; tell us. Write a story based on this picture of an alien apparently breaking bread with a human couple at the dinner table.
Update: I tried to get as many stories from the comments in here as possible, but the system won't let me save all of them in the post. Sorry if I didn't post your story this week, and everyone be sure to check out the additional stories in the comments!
Here's my story:
The first thing Sam noticed when he sat down at the kitchen table was how much smaller it was. Everything was smaller now—it was the hazard of growing six feet overnight—but somehow seeing the table so low beneath his head was extraordinarily disorienting. It was worse than when he had bent down to hug his mother and shake his father's stiff hand.
His mother shoveled a steaming square of lasagna onto his plate before he could protest. They had warned him about this at the Academy, that it would be hard to avoid certain foods. He'd hoped he could stick to greens throughout dinner, but now he'd have to take a spoonful of ipecac when he got back to base. He took a bite and chewed it thoroughly, exploring the texture in his new mouth.
"So," his father said, leaning back in his chair. "This is you now."
Sam nodded and his head clipped the edge of the hanging lamp, sending the light swaying. He lifted a three-fingered hand and stopped it. "These bodies are much better suited for long-term space travel. You should see us all up there together in zero-grav. It's like a ballet—"
His father interrupted. "And what about your real body?"
Sam felt an uncomfortable heat in his cheeks, although he'd been warned about this, too. "This is my real body."
"You had such pretty eyes," his mother said, her hand cupped over a glass of wine. "Green eyes."
"Now he's green all over," his father muttered.
Sam stared at his father, suddenly conscious of the blinking of his own huge, black eyes. "You knew when I enrolled it was for an extra-solar mission. One-way trip. Human exploration of the cosmos."
"Human," his father snorted. "Call it what you want, but you're not human. Not looking like that, you're not."
His mother raised her head suddenly, as if remembering something she had long forgotten. "What about children?"
Sam turned toward her slowly. "What about children?"
"Can you? Can you still have children."
Sam sighed. "Mom, I was never going to—"
"Answer your mother."
Sam stared down at his lasagna for a moment. He tasted it more profoundly than he ever had before, could detect the individual chemical compounds, knew remarkable things about the tomatoes in the sauce and the cows behind the cheese from a single bite. But it would never taste the same as it had before. "I will live a very long time," he told them. "Centuries, maybe even a thousand years. I'll see things that no person has ever seen before in ways no person has before. I will set my feet down on distant worlds. I will contribute to the sum of human knowledge. But these bodies are non-sexual. I will never have children." Sam closed his eyes and his ears, trying to shut out the sound of his mother's sobs.
Corpore Metal's story:
It was dinner at the house of old, old friends. I figured they should be the first to know what I had done. We had talked about it many times down through the decades. Anyway, by this point, all my relations were dead so, my oldest friends were first.
When Annie opened the door for me, I could see her face twitching but, she got it under control and invited me into the dining room.
Drew was in the kitchen throwing a last few things into a sauce pot before hurrying out to us with hot pads and pans full of food. He shoveled food out for Annie and himself, almost started shoveling food out for me but, then caught himself and bade us to sit as he returned to the kitchen for the last of it.
"No more food for you, eh, Jeffries?" Annie asked as we sat with her usual ploy of addressing me by my last name. In decades past, it was her habit of friendly joshing. Now, it had an edge.
I chuckled and mumbled, "No. Not anymore."
"But from time to time, for proper maintenance, you do have to replace some fluids, right?" Drew interjected, seating himself and shoveling the last touches on his and Annie's plates. The more things got tense, the more he busied himself. It was his way of avoiding something.
"Yeah, but it's a bit like drinking water or urinating, not at all memorable. Something a lot like thirst or the urge to void comes over me and then I go off to take care of it."
We all sat a bit in silence as they speared carrots and smeared vindaloo over their rice. Staring at the food, I felt nothing, no salivation, no growling in my nonexistent stomach, no urge to inhale the aroma. There was a very mild feeling of revulsion that I couldn't put my finger on. I suspected that this feeling was part of what my doctor called "motivational realignment." Which was good, I guess. I had started to miss pizza.
"So do you feel actual hunger at all?" Drew was always an extrovert and wasn't comfortable with silences from anyone or silences in general.
"No, I'm solar now with a betavoltaic emergency cell. If my power runs dangerously low I feel the urge to sleep and plug myself in."
"You finally did it, didn't you? Just like you always said you'd do. You finally made your only dream come true," Annie said, adding with plain bitterness, "You threw away all the others for it."
"Hey, Ann, stop it. We all knew this was coming. We knew it decades ago when Mike had that conversation with Steve back in '87—"
But I angrily interrupted him, "No! Ann deserves an answer!" I turned to her, "Yeah, I did it. I did it for the exact same reasons I said then. I stopped talking about it because it made you both uncomfortable. It was the rant you both got sick of. But you both knew it never went away. It lurked behind almost everything I did or said over the last 65 years. And now here I am. I've cast away the meat and became the robot I wanted to be since I was ten!"
Ann burst into tears, "And you never married, never had a girlfriend, never enjoyed life—"
"I've know plenty of women who I love and whose friendship I am always profoundly grateful for. You are one. Stop trying to bring my sex life into this. It's no more important than the food I'm not eating with you now."
Ann clattered her fork to her plate and shoved herself up from the table and stomped out of the room and up the stairs. This was followed by a slam of the bedroom door.
Drew turned to look at me and his eyes began to blink rapidly, he turned away. "You'd better go. Just show yourself out." He got up and began to collect the plates, pointedly ignoring me. The ice was obvious.
So I left.
Peter fidgeted in the chair his father had made out of an old conduit spool. It's knobby wood felt cold and splintery in his spongy posterior. He kept his head against the dangling light fixture to stay warm in what now seemed like a refrigerator. The house he grew up in would never feel the same.
"I don't like the new you." his mother barked. "You won't fit as well in airplane seats." his father said wryly.
They were having a hard time adjusting to his decision.
"There are plenty of nice girls out there, Peter. You didn't have to go through such drastic measures to make her happy." she said.
Peter was enjoying his steak. He knew that there wouldn't be as much meat in his diet after the change had finished.
"I think it's romantic." his dad said cheerfully wile staring into his wife's eyes.
Peter ignored them. He knew that changing was the only way his new love would ever accept him. He'd have children. They just wouldn't look the way his parent's might have expected.
Max had sat down to a delicious meal. Its hosts had understood its dietary needs, not all too different from humans really - which was fortunate. Although it did need to eat more than the average human considering its size and relative muscle density. Really, it had just lounged the best it could. It was, after all, quite satisfied with the meal, and conveyed this to the family. Besides, given its height, the place wasn't built for him and they could hardly be blamed for that.
Custom fittings would be coming in the morning, including its grav chair. "Damn transport agency..." it muttered in its own language. These exchange programs were difficult and expensive enough to get into. Yet, the transport company still managed to lose its luggage. Of all the nerve, it had paid good rakbars for their service, to be subjected to such indignity because its luggage got transferred to point Denver of the Greater Los Angeles City...
Bill looked up, "Max, you alright? Sorry we don't got..."
Max giggled slightly, and waved the man off, "Its alright Mr. Jones. I may look uncomfortable, but I'm not. We're rather flexible until we hit maturity in another couple hundred of your cycles." It pondered its state, as it was want to do. Its kind could choose its sex, and even change it. Although that meant a cycle in a cocoon. The humans didn't need to know the sundry details about the sexual exploits of its species - although they probably would be very interested to know that their females ended up looking more like human females, and their males like human males - taller, yes. But still remarkably similar. Then there was the neuters like itself. The undifferentiated young who had not yet chosen a sex. They were critical to the process of creating young. After all, only a being of their size could carry the cocooned female from place to place to meet its requirements. They became quite immobile after the first day of impregnation. Of course, its hosts did not need to know this.
Martha harrumphed around a bite of food. She chewed slowly, and then swallowed and gently corrected, "We call them years here, Max."
Max blinked a bit, then smiled gently. "Years... interesting. Similar to the Asnasi 'yatas' - their word for 'cycle around the life-giving egg-warmer.'"
Bill practically spat his water across the room, but through a great deal of self control managed to maintain his composure. Coughing slightly, "Life giving egg-warmer?"
Max had the decency to be a little... sheepish. If one could call it that. "They were recently added as a protectorate member of the Stellar Alliance, only ten of your years ago. For them, this sort of environment is... well... commonplace. Low tech electricals like the lamp and its simple control circuit, electron-tube display devices like the antique you have on the kitchen counter... tele-vis-ion, I believe you used to call it. Resistance electrical elements or natural gas cooking appliances... farming and animal husbandry - similar to this community, you know."
Martha chortled a bit, "Must seem a bit, well... primitive to you. This is, after all, one of the L-Colonies we put up for the people who didn't want or couldn't handle the singularity. You could have been placed in one of the cities, I have a node or two operating in NYC right now. Granted one's at Point Miami and the other's at Point Montreal, but you get the idea."
"No, this is great, actually, Mrs. Jones. I've visited several of your cities over the last three of your years. Very advanced, one of the reasons the Stellar Alliance offered your kind full membership. Your response, though, was rather... aggressive."
Bill fidgeted a bit, "Well... someone should have realized that after all the things we've been through with our singularity and the rights every node-clone and artificial intelligence has, that we wouldn't react to well to slavery - even if its a genetically engineered slave designed to fight wars."
Martha spoke up, pointing with her fork at Bill, "Especially if its a genetically engineered species for fighting a war. You'd think they'd have been slightly more respectful of our abilities after finding out that we expanded across 6,000 cubic light years in less than 20 years using our technology."
Max agreed as well. Its species, one of the elders who sided with Humanity, believed the Stellar Alliance's use of proxy races to fight their wars was rather distasteful. The humans gave each node-clone all the rights the primary had. Even now, sitting with these two people in this house in a low-tech colony, or L-Colony as the humans referred to it, it could find more commonality with these humans than with the races of the Stellar Alliance.
"I came to the L-Colony to study those members of your society which reject the technology that allows your Primary's to control your node-clones. You're a high-tech family living here in the L-Colony to teach and act as a liaison with the governments for any who decide to join the rest of your species. As such, I'll be able to see more of humanity the way it was here before your... event... It will advance my studies greatly."
Martha looked at him, "Just try to remember they're sentient beings too, no matter how backwards they may seem."
"Oh, of course, I spent a year studying the Asnasi before our species joined your union and separated from the Stellar Alliance. While they may be primitive, they have an amazing culture and a deep spiritual belief. Not too much unlike your own species used to have before your... how did you put it?"
"Singualrity." Bill noted.
"Yes, singularity. Curious, you use the same word to describe your ascension as well as an overmass-star-collapse. I must research the reasoning of this association. In any case, it was an excellent meal, and a delightful conversation." Max intoned, as it began to move.
"Don't worry if we seem a little distant. Just tap us on the shoulder if you need our attention. We may be in another node-clone for a while taking care of business at Geneva." Martha said, "We tend to multitask a lot."
"No problem. I will retire to the basement, as there is ample room there for me to stretch out, and relax. Fortunately, I have my bacca roll for comfort..." Max said, gently moving its head to a straight position, and slightly banging it against the lamp. "Sorry." it said, as it moved the tilted lamp off its head.
If Martha or Bill noticed, they showed no indication of it. They already had a semi-blank stare that was indicative of an inactive node clone. Soon the node-clones would start executing their last orders like robots, cleaning the dishes and preparing the house and the area around it for the evening.
Max sighed slightly. It had hoped to be placed with the more technologically isolated humans. But understood the reasoning for its placement with node-clones who just worked in an L-Colony. It would still learn a great deal, and have some of the comforts of home while it was here. Although, things would be much better once it had its grav chair. Yes. Much better.
Being abducted isn't so bad, really. Once you've been through it a few times, it's a walk in the park. I mean, don't get me wrong, the first time was terrifying. Lots of prodding, and...exploring is done, but if you're good and don't squirm too much that first time around, then odds are pretty good that they will swing by Earth again some day and pick you up for another quick probing and telepathic scan. Nothing I couldn't tolerate.
The only thing is, after eight or nine times around, things start to get a little weird. I was beginning to think that my alien captor had a crush on me. I couldn't honestly tell if he even was a he, and not a she. Likely neither, or at least nothing human biology could explain to me.
I could blame it all on this one time—I think it was my third, no fourth time getting sucked up from my bed and into the flying saucer—when I decided that maybe showing him my gratitude would make him stop, or something. I don't know what I was doing. So for six months I slept with a gift attached to my PJs. It was a crocheted little green man that I had my mother make for me. I wanted to give my alien friend something homey and non-threatening. I thought, what better than a homemade doll crafted in his image as a gift?
Well that's all it took, because from then on, for the next four abductions, it almost seemed like I was expected to bring something as a gift. As though I should be thanking this otherworldly monster for probing me and scraping the innards of my skull.
By the ninth abduction I had had enough. When I was sucked up for the last time, I deliberately did not take any gifts. No more dollar store junk, or candy bars, or any of my Star Trek models. No, I was putting my foot down—and hopefully putting an end to this sham of a relationship. That didn't go over so well.
After my latest sub-orbital bodily violation had been completed, I found myself lying naked on the cold steel operating table, the blindingly bright surgical lights in my face. All pretty typical stuff. Just then my alien frienemy (That's a contraction of friend and enemy, in case you were wondering) reached out his long spindly fingers toward me. He then held his whole hand out, green palm facing up pleadingly. He looked right into my eyes and waited for me to make with the gift. I sat up and raised my finger in front of me, as if to say "One minute".
I climbed down and stumbled over to where my PJs were sitting piled on the white enamelled floor. I pretended to go through my pockets to buy time, but I knew that I just had to get this over with. I pulled my pants on in an attempt to spare some of my dignity, then stepped forward at last, my finger pointed accusingly toward my slender green adversary.
"Listen here," I said, taking another step closer, "I want to go back to my house and my bed. This is the last time I'm going to do this, okay?" I could feel my knees shaking.
The alien looked puzzled. I mean, it's not like he spoke english or anything, right? He closed the gap between us even more by silently taking two steps forward. I gulped. Time to try again.
"Take me home, now! No more gifts, and definitely no more probings!"
The creature just looked angry now. He held out his hand, and in a flash, a blaster pistol thing appeared in his palm. He held it to my forehead and grumbled some gurgly alien nonsense. We stood there silently for a few seconds. I could feel a bead of sweat running down my temple. I gulped again, and finally spoke to break the tension.
"Okay," I said, "maybe that was a bit harsh. I didn't bring you anything because...because." I had to think of something. Oh god, Mom is going to kill me for this. "Because I told my mother about you, and she's invited you to dinner. Tomorrow. At my house. How does that sound?"
The alien's eyes brightened, he lowered his blaster from my head, and gargled some cheery-sounding mew. I think he bought it. That was a close one. The next thing I knew it, I was back in my bed. Safe and sound. Now I just had to think of a way to explain all of this to Mom...
"Pass the—um—green beans, dear." My mother motioned to me, being careful not to get too close to our guest. I nodded and quietly complied. There was no noise, apart from the hushed static of the kitchen television turned on low. Understandably, there was little conversation to be had between any of us, so I decided that I might try to strike up some small talk.
"So," I looked up to the alien, "how are you enjoying the meal?" He made some positive gurgle, and made some sort of facial expression that I guess could be described as a smile. I think the meal was sufficient. Hopefully he would be satisfied, and this would be the last time I would ever have to see this greedy monster. Hopefully, but probably not.
The next month I was proven right, when the bright flashing lights of the flying saucer returned and blasted through my bedroom window. That was when my mother suddenly barged in, screaming and jumping around. (Presumably in an effort to rescue me or something). I began to lift off of my bed in the usual way. Then I began floating toward my window, when my mother darted over with something in her hands. It was a tupperware container filled with last night's lasagna. "Here!" She shoved the food at me. I took it and placed it on my belly as I floated out past the window, and over the front lawn. She just waved goodbye to me. "Have fun!" she yelled, then smiled.
From then on, she always made sure I had a gift ready for my abductor. Something tells me she'd rather give a gift, than have to awkwardly entertain him again. This is my life...
Martha picked her way through the loudest things on her plate, thick skinned roast potato's, blanched carrots, anything that would clatter and crunch around her mouth in the hope of drowning out the low hum emitting from their guest.
Finally Thomas did it for her, "You think Jake is having a good time where he is?"
"I hope so" She replied, gathering some disappointingly soft greens onto her fork. Then there was more humming.
"What do you think Simon?" Thomas continued "Is there much to do outdoors back on your planet? Jake's a very outdoorsy kind of lad."
It seemed odd to call their guest by a human name, but the school exchange program had informed them that the Murmurer's own names were quite unpronounceable to human tongues, although they themselves were able to approximate our speech quite well.
"MmmmmmmNo-I-don't-think-so-Mr-FinnyMmmm..." Simon droned, "MmmmmmmIt's-autumn-so-there-are-many-spores-in-the-airMmmmmmit-would-be-very-dangerousMmmm..."
"Oh" Said Thomas, somewhat disappointed on his sons behalf.
"Well, that does sound nice."
Thomas shuffled awkwardly in his seat as the humming filled the air again.
"I hope I'm not being impolite here Simon, but, that humming sound you're making..." He felt bad to bring it up and wished now that he hadn't, but he was in too deep into this question to back out now, "...Do erm, your....kind, always do that? I didn't notice it when you arrived?"
Simon paused, which is to say he hummed.
Martha looked up from her plate and over at Simon: His head was pressed awkwardly against the kitchen light and had been since they'd all sat down together, his breaths seemed deep and heavy, and his big eyes stared blankly off into an empty corner of the room.
"Simon, when we've finished dinner, do you think you'd like to call your parents?"
"Mmmmm-" the humming came to an end, and Simon finally untangled his head from the lampshade as all the familiar little dripping, ticking, whirring sounds of the family kitchen returned to fill the silence.
"Yes-I'd-like-that-very-much." the boy replied "Thank-you-Mrs-Finny."
Throughout the decades long program, arriving human specimens had proven extremely difficult to keep in captivity for any significant length of time. Over the years various strategies had been undertaken, carefully replicating their natural habitats, ensuring their food was indistinguishable from their familiar nourishment, and providing access to all possible forms of entertainment and stimulation.
Despite all efforts, it remained necessary to have proximal sentries monitoring the specimens at all times, to ensure they didn't self-terminate. The sentries had to be specially designed and grown from cultures to be much larger and stronger than the natural host species. Many of the arriving humans still remained quite successful at injuring or killing the sentries. This particular sentry had been re-cloned 3 times in the past, having been attacked and killed by previous specimens.
The scouting and analysis program was now coming to a close, as the colonization phase for earth was now being readied. This re-cloned sentry had requested and been granted special dispensation to exterminate and devour his last charges. To begin with them right after their meal seemed very appropriate to the sentry, and it was looking forward to savoring the privilege.
He was invisible to them. A pattern of refracted light in a dimly lit kitchen. Nlogax was part of a familial sub-cluster observing human behavioral patterns as part of a multi-generational study endorsed by the head of his 3rd mother. His infant 3000 year old brains were trying to make sense of what had just happened. He had escaped using rudimentary survival skills he learned while being brainfed by the ship's A.I. core seconds before the crash. Everything familiar to him was erased from existence, at least as far as he was concerned. The humans had recovered his ship 6 hours earlier and now he was in a kitchen of a couple who had forgotten how to communicate. He sat down, letting the silence seep into his sub-dermal resonance nerves. Suddenly he raised his head bumping into the light source , he froze and gazed into the living room where 100 ceramic dolls all looked at him with glacial indifference, a plan was slowly coming to him.
Jack and Muriel had always wanted children of their own, but they couldn't conceive. And then came the day when they discovered little Marty's crashed capsule alongside the highway. He seemed like the answer to all their prayers, and they really did love him, but adopting an alien foundling isn't like in the comics. Especially when he can't remotely pass for human.
* * *
Marty's bulbous green head bumped the light fixture. "Mom, Dad, I got kicked out of science class today."
"Again? What'd we tell you," Muriel asked, "about eating the frog you're supposed to be dissecting?"
"But I was hungry!"
Day 32. The Earthlings don't suspect a thing.
"Jim, how's school been?"
"Um, well, normal I guess." I spoke back at the earthling through the boy's windpipe.
"Did you learn anything, today?" Damnit. Learn. Which earthling word is that...
I need to respond.
"Yesssss.... Yes. y-YES." I stammered, panicking. "I learnt (Oh for the name of Qax that's wrong?) of the.... (learn to understand... what did I learn recently...) The relation of entropy and the energy gap and why glass is transparent.
"Schools these days."
They don't suspect a thing.
Mikey's Mum made the best Halloween costumes in the neighbourhood.
"Thanks Mum!" he said with glowing pride as he sat down for meatloaf. He was bursting with excitement and couldn't wait to go out and show it off.
"Finished!" he declared, having barely touched his food. His mother rolled her eyes whilst trying to stifle a benign smirk.
"Go play then - just don't stay out too late."
"Aaw Mum! I'm 37!"
"This is an intervention, Zviko," Martha said in a cold voice. "We're your friends, we're your neighbors, hell, Tom's known you since middle school." There was an uncomfortable silence that lasted until the ladle shifted ever so slightly in the mashed potatoes.
"But these late night abductions and probings have to stop."
"I'm vegan now."
Barbara just ignored him, instead pretending to cut her meatloaf and mix it with her gravy. She looked up and Henry was just starring at Een like he couldn't remember where his remote was.
"Well then don't eat the goddamn meatloaf." Henry muttered. "She also made some peas and some... what's this called again?"
"Polenta" Barbara patiently answered, careful not to let any irritation in her voice fuel Henry's annoyance.
"Yeah, then eat some of this polenta. You think there's meat in polenta? Barb, is there steak in the polenta?"
"No" she quickly answered. She then looked to Een who was morosely staring at the mound of peas and congealed corn meal on his plate. Een sighed and she could see the muscles in his long neck trying to push down whatever feelings he had about the meal.
"And I don't like peas." Een continued. "They're green."
"Oh for christ's sake." Henry grumbled. "Have you looked in a mirror lately?"
"It just hits a little close to home" Een added.
Barbara never thought about the similar color and she glanced at her own peas as if each one suddenly had it's own personality. She imagined them eventually growing their own long, throbbing neck and large eyes. As she stared at her plate the polenta also grew familiar and she found herself comparing the pale, waxen pool to the back of her own hand holding a fork on the table. Finally she pushed the plate away and rose.
"Well, I have some frozen french fries I could bake" she announced before going to the freezer and removing the bag. She looked to Een who had what she assumed was a faint smile on his pointy face.
Henry started eating his own meal again, pushing around the peas and polenta with the back of his knife before throwing it on the plate.
"Oh for christ's sake. Might as well make me some french fries too."
"Shall I clear, sir?"
It began to rise, weirdly graceful in spite of its forehead colliding with the overhead lamp. Dina gulped as the light shifted and danced. It always asked permission before doing anything, she reflected. Always. Why? That's what it was there for, wasn't it?
"Sure!" Jimmy replied, too loudly. Loud, that was Jimmy. Too loud. Too jolly, too cheerful, too goddamned optimistic. It had been his stupid idea to bring it home, "to help you with the house and the yard, and maybe, when the babies come, with them!" But the house was too small to need a servant, the yard was the size of a pocket handkerchief, and there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell she'd let that thing touch a baby of hers. And now that it was here, there wasn't a chance in hell she'd ever have a baby to touch.
Two years ago, the refugees had turned up in orbit in their derelict ships, starving, desperate and looking for a handout. After a year of quarantine and study, the hastily created Interplanetary Resettlement Bureau had been formed to facilitate their introduction to human society. There were a few million of them, more than enough to accommodate all the corporations and research labs drooling for the new technology the things brought with them in their ships, and the accompanying skills. But not all of the refugees were technicians, and many of them represented the dregs of their home planet, uneducated, unskilled and unemployable. The IRB had offered them to farmers for crop harvesting, until riots by displaced farmworkers stopped that. They were stronger and faster than humans, and the IRB proposed to use them as corrections officers, until human rights activists, prisoners and the families of prisoners protested that "imprisonment by aliens" was a violation of human dignity. More and more options were offered and rejected, until the IRB began to offer them as menials to families — and idiot Jimmy was one of the first to jump at the chance, Dina thought viciously. And once placed, they could not be returned to the IRB.
"Shall I clean, sir?"
It knew better than to ask her anything. Dina watched as the thing glided between sink and cupboard, washing, drying and storing with silent efficiency. It never complained or objected to any request. When it first came to live with them, Dina wondered what it had suffered on their home planet, or in transit to Earth, that had made it so complaisant. Then she wondered if its blank serenity was innate to the species. After six months, she no longer cared. Hope they beat you every day, Dina thought. Hope you bled, if you can bleed. Wish I could beat you ... Dina stopped. Physical abuse of the things was a mandatory ten-year prison sentence.
Jimmy beamed as the already pristine kitchen was made perfect, then looked at his silently seething wife and said in the booming, happy voice she had come to hate, "Well, now! You look like you're ready to turn in! You go ahead, honey! I'll be right up!"
Sure you will, Dina gritted to herself. She rose and left the kitchen, not waiting for the soft shriek of the table legs as the thing moved it aside so it could kneel at her husband's feet. She climbed the stairs and walked to her bedroom — once their bedroom — shutting the door behind her, but not before hearing one last request for permission:
"Shall I ... suck, sir?"
It was the damnedest thing.
Like the elephant in the room or, rather, the seven-foot-two, translucently green-hued, sloth-necked, chasm-eyed alien now sitting at his kitchen table, the extra-terrestrian that, even while slouched uselessly in a chair, breached the terms of spatiality by skewing the lampshade of the ceiling light above them, with its alienesquely-shaped skull, and depriving him the luxury of decent illumination, Mr. Fischer did his very best not to acknowledge its presence at the moment.
"Received a line from the bureau today, darling," his dear Agatha, Mrs. Fischer, mentioned, from across the table, in another of her many fleeting attempts to strike up pleasant conversation.
"Hmm, yes, very good," Mr. Fischer grumbled, staring at the last of his steak and mash, and, by all means, it was very good news. Having collected sample after sample, for a fortnight, the agency's time stipulations were beginning to rouse him from excitement to frustration and impatience. And Mr. Fischer didn't work so hard to feel frustrated and impatient.
"They said they read your feed and now unanimously anticipate the lecture on your findings tomorrow."
"Marvelous." Mr. Fischer wrenched his fork from off his plate, shoulders dancing with utmost joy, and added, gleefully, "You see, Aggy, all those pebbles and rocks? Evolutionary camouflage, I tell you, for species yet too fragile to reveal themselves!"
"Yes, dear," Mrs. Fischer bolstered, with little enthusiasm, adding a loving smile. "You called it, and now the financial branch will have to fund it."
"Oh, you insufferable number men," Mrs. Fischer's eyes darted up from her plate, awarding her husband a pointed stare... "and women," he added hastily. "Always up in arms about the bottom line."
"Like you aren't."
"You'll see, Aggy...you lot in accounting will make return and then some, once the government gets a hold of what Sn'R has to offer." Mr. Fischer retained a fanatic smile, cheeks compacted with tethers of meat and potato. Mrs. Fischer retired her attention to an old-timey television set from the late twentieth century that her and her husband's mutual compassion for retroic technologies simply would not let them discard. "Not that I concern myself with such financial matters."
"No, of course not...you love the science of it all."
Mr. Fischer's mustache bristled as his lips twitched.
"Yes," he murmured, going in for the last of his food. "It's all very good."
"Oh yeah...this'll cure cancer."
"Alright, that's enough of you!"
Mr. Fischer's fork clattered to his plate, its shingle-like chime an alarming sound amid the tense silence. Mrs. Fischer glared at Mr. Fischer, admonishing her husband's outburst with a stern and infuriated stare, but it wasn't enough to dispel his own anger.
"Was it something I said?" Frank Jr. asked, in his customary drawl, and bracing his arms against the surface of the kitchen table was all Mr. Fischer could do to stop himself from throwing himself over it and strangling his alien and only son.
"You pathetic sod!"
"Hey, dad, name calling? Really?" The muscles at Frank Jr.'s brow quirked unevenly, the sphere of his scalp pushing the ceiling light even more off-kilter, as he turned to his mother in affronted disbelief. Mrs. Fischer, however, rewarded him with equal disappointment. "Oh come on."
After all, what parent would be proud to know that their child had failed out of courses taken at an art college? Even parents of an adopted child, a child that also happened to be of another planetary species entirely, found abandoned in a space pod, left with a note that read, in Universal Intergalactic Planetary code: "Here. We don't want him. You can have him", some nineteen years ago?
"Unlike you, son, some of us in this family have ambitions, passions, and, above all else, work...work that keeps a roof over the heads of ingrate slag like you. You're an alien, for goodness sake! What kind of alien can't stay in school?"
"Glad my existence hasn't yet shattered the pre-misconceptions humans have that, for some hilariously racist reason, equates "extra-terrestrial" with "intelligent life-form," Frank Jr. sneered, quoting sarcastically with two sinewy fingers on each hand.
"Believe me, son, you've convinced me otherwise."
Frank Jr. rolled his large, rounded, pitch-black eyes, having heard this all before, on loop since the day he dropped out of school and made his way back home via security transport. He was kind of a big deal, really, what with being "Not of this world", as they often said. Even if the novelty had worn off, who knew what kind of crazies out there in mid country would want to abduct him and probe his brain out of human curiosity?
Nutter shits out there.
Frank Jr. looked to his mum once more, ignoring his father, and asked in his best, good boy voice, "Is there anymore mash potatoes?"
"GET A JOB YOU MOOCH!"
Wallace looked over to his wife, Gabrielle, who sat at the other head of the table. Her head lolled as she began to doze. In the innocent days before the war, he would have asked her about her long day teaching school. Now, he regarded her with worry; drowsiness was one of the first symptoms of the new plague.
He barely noticed the Anthropologist until the creature’s head, perched as it was on an inhumanly long neck, butted up against the ceiling lamp.
With the consequent flickering of the light, Wallace looked up and said “Oh, here. Sorry about that lamp in your face.”
“It does not hurt me,” said the Anthropologist. “Our planet has no moon; my people are more comfortable with temperature extremes than your people are.”
“But you shouldn’t have to have a lamp dangling on your head when we’re eating,” said Wallace.
“And so in general, no obstructions on the head when eating? It is a distraction?” the Anthropologist said.
“Yes,” said Wallace.
“No eating while wearing a hat, then?”
“Sometimes people eat with their hats on,” said Wallace, “but never with lamps touching their heads. Now let’s move the table and get so the lamp’s out of your way.”
The creature blinked with slow deliberation as it did whenever it was making a note of something. Before Wallace stood up, the Anthropologist gently lifted the table in its six-foot arms and placed it two feet away from its original position. Gabrielle startled awake.
“Sorry to disturb you, dearest,” said Wallace, “just making our guest more—oh, more appropriate, I suppose. It…uh, he has a lot to learn.”
“Referring to me with the pronoun ‘it’ is not a bad thing,” said the Anthropologist. “My people all have wombs. Our gamates are airborne. Some of us have gamate A, and some have gamate B, but we do not notice this.”
“But you still want to learn our gender roles?” Wallace asked.
“Of course,” said the Anthropologist. “They are very important in your literature and art, which we wish to preserve along with other aspects of your culture. I have noticed, for example, that your wife cries more often than you do. She is crying now, and you are not.”
The creature swiveled its head towards Gabrielle and said “Why are you crying while your husband is not?”
“Oh for God’s sake!” Gabrielle shrieked, startling both Wallace and the Anthropologist. “Do you both come from a planet of idiots or something?”
“Gabby, I…” Wallace began, but Gabrielle cut him off.
“I’m crying for the neighbors! Tens of thousands of them! They go to work, and no one’s there, but they still have plenty to eat, because so many of us are gone! I’m crying for the children I shouldn’t have, that no one should have unless they want to watch their babies die! I’m crying for the kids next door. Still going to school, with the teachers just making them draw pictures, and play games, and pray, because there’s no point in teaching them anything … And they did this to us! Those sick old men who just had to win the war honorably. Honorably! My God!”
Gabrielle broke down sobbing as Wallace wiped the single tear on his face away with a knuckle. The Anthropologist, his face immobile and unreadable, slowly blinked in her direction.
Once more, the creature spoke, “We are sorry that your species decided to wage its wars with viruses. It was fortunate that our species arrived in your system near the end of your war. Violence is ended. Your people are orderly again. Our treatments have extended your lives. Some of you may live for more than one terrestrial year. However, in two such years, all of you will be gone.”
With these words, Wallace began to sob right along with his wife. The Anthropologist sat in silence until both humans had dried their tears.
“I am glad that you did not cry for an indefinite period of time,” said the creature. “As you know, your world will not die with you. Your plague has no effect on us. We will make new vehicles. We will write new books. We will use your languages. We will remodel your buildings and make clothes like yours to wear ourselves. Your culture will survive, but free from conflict. We will be as your grandchildren.”
Another long pause broke the conversation. Wallace and Gabrielle rose from the table and hugged each other tightly.
“I’ll wash the dishes, Precious,” said Wallace. “Why don’t you and our friend see what’s on TV?”
“It is customary to watch TV after dinner?” the Anthropologist asked.
“Yes,” said Gabrielle.
“Then I will watch TV after dinner,” said the Anthropologist.
At the kitchen sink, Wallace had a fit coughing. He caught the sputum in a paper towel. It was dark and bloody.
“Damn us,” he muttered. “Damn us all.”
Javros sighed at Mala.
“Why do you let it sit with us when it doesn’t eat?”
“You know that’s just how things are. That’s the way they have to be with her.” Mala was worn out, tired from Javros’ badgering. “And it’s a ‘she’. You know this.”
“OK, well she doesn’t talk. She don’t even eat! What does she do?”
“Why are you acting out like this? What’s your issue tonight?”
“My issue is that we’ve been takin’-a care of this thing for four months, Mala! When will you take-a responsibility for it?!“ Thick white spit and crumbs of cod spattered out from Javros’ mouth and onto the dinner table.
“Unbelievable.” Mala pushed her chair away from the table.
“And now you-a leaving?”
“Yes. Now ‘I’m-a leaving’.”
“Don’t make-a fun of me. Where you goin’?” Javros’ question wasn’t rooted in insecurity, but in concern. He was sincerely curious.
Mala didn’t respond. She walked out of the kitchen and up the small staircase to her bedroom. Javros’ heard the door shut close from upstairs.
He looked over at the massive green being sitting to the left of him. He craned his neck upwards and to the right so that he could see her face.
“You look-a like one of them old aliens on those old Earth TV shows.”
The large, olive-colored figure stared ahead into the empty space of the living room. Her hairless head knocked gently against the lamp above the table. She heard Javros speak, understanding none of it. She wasn’t there.
Javros looked away from the being. He shifted his seat so that he could catch a glimpse of the television that sat under the cabinets.
He shoveled a hunk of cod into his mouth. He chewed slowly and with his mouth open; the sound from his mouth was very similar to the sound of someone trudging through a swamp.
Javros raised the volume on the television. He adjusted it with his mind.
“Approximately 2,000 more émigrés arrived today at Commonwealth Isle. These refugees, like most others over the course of this past month, come from lower Jord. Citizens of Commonwealth Isle are expected to report to the Provisional Emigré offices at the beginning of next week to sign off on housing at least one more refugee.”
The oversized other-worlder still sat in a catatonic trance. A few moments later she passed wind, violently. Brown and green excreta dripped down her long leg and onto the kitchen floor.
Javros stared at the alien for five seconds. He then looked straight ahead and shoveled the last piece of cod into his mouth.
"Greetings, Earthling Michael of House Sunders, and your mate, Earthling Rhonda of House Ivanov."
"Uh... May I offer you any thing?"
Sensing the alien's confusion, Michael quickly amended, "for consumption... uh... liquidor solid nourishment?"
"Yes, do you have dihydrogen monoxide?"
"I believe the local term is 'water'."
"Of course. Here you go..."
"You do not appear to be normal, Earthling Michael of House Sunders."
"I am sorry. I will reissue the statement. You are, uncomfortable, yes?"
"I am sorry. I have never had a visit from an extra-terrestrial before. This is very new to me."
"It is very new to me. We share that experience. However, new experience is how we learn new things."
"How did you learn our language?"
"Through your audiovisual broadcasts. "
"Audiovisual... oh, you mean our TV and radio?"
"Yes. I will attempt to incorporate more local terms. I will incorporate more local terms. However, adding to my knowledge requires much brain activity. "
"You mean... you need time to study?"
The alien nodded, a motion that is surprisingly similar to the human nod, except for the long neck. At least they have that much in common.
The conversation lagged from there, as the next question what brought you to Earth, is rather pointless. This family was chosen as a host of an exchange program... an Interplanetary exchange program.