Looking for Part 3?: https://atomicfeminist.com/2021/03/27/its-just-biology-part-3/
If you need to start at the beginning, here you go: https://atomicfeminist.com/2021/03/20/its-just-biology-part-1/
As the black and white came to a stop, both detectives found themselves on edge. Buchanan had been on edge to begin with, wound up with anticipation about laying his hands on whoever had attacked the woman, but seeing his partner, who was rarely on edge, on edge, put him on edge moreso. Most everyone they encountered in their work on Tashalos Station was so damn amiable – dwelling on a crowded space station was self-selecting for gregarious sorts who felt they COULD dwell on a crowded space station; the anti-social stayed at home – it tended to make one forget that there were those in the galaxy who wished you ill.
The hostility that came rolling off the q’Lurians felt downright palpable. There were no friendly faces, no nods of greeting, no thank yous and keep up the good works shouted at their police car as it passed. Instead there were scowls and glares and malevolence and individuals beating speedy retreats, as if they were in the Wild West and they were headed into a showdown, only the townsfolk all thought Nicky and Stan were the bad guys.
Duly warned, Stan and Nicky took precautions, called in their location and made sure their weapons were charged and their communications devices were working properly, which they were meant to do anyway but usually didn’t bother with, since between the two of them they rarely encountered any situation one or the other or the both of them combined couldn’t handle. Between Nicky’s muscle and Stan’s agility, they were considered the most physically capable pair of detectives on Tashalos, and thus were often the ones sent into the hottest situations. Getting into a bit of a scrap didn’t deter them.
Regardless, arresting a q’Lurian in the q’Lurian’s own neighborhood was a daunting proposition. Dispatch insisted on sending backup in case things went south – quite unusual for what should have been a simple pickup of a proved-guilty suspect.
As they waited for the uniforms to arrive, Nicky diligently began filling out the paperwork he had ignored the night before, and as he did, his mind wandered. The authorities required reams of paperwork be filled out, as Stan joked, a cop couldn’t scratch their balls without filling out the proper form, which was funny because Stan didn’t even have any balls. All for a q’Lurian, a fucking q’Lurian, he couldn’t half-believe it.
The q’Lurians were one of the few galactic races that preferred isolation, and rarely mingled with other species. There was something downright human in their xenophobia – ironic because the q’Lurians hated humans most especially. No one cared. The galaxy was full up with other species all of whom had their own business to attend to and went about it in whatever manner made sense to them, and if the q’Lurians didn’t want to take part, fuck ’em. In space, most beings one encountered embraced a live and let live attitude, and Nicky admired it, even if he couldn’t always quite muster the same level of tolerant nonchalance towards his fellow human being as he did towards the aliens.
Earthlings were inherently suspicious of their fellow man, much as the q’Lurians were of everyone who wasn’t their fellow q’Lurian. Despite their inhuman ways, the aliens had generously brought to Earth peace, plenty, and prosperity, in exchange for tales of comic book characters and dramatizations of historical figures that humans shed easy as exhaling carbon dioxide. Nicky, like most humans, felt gratitude towards the aliens, and distrust towards his own people; after all, before the galactians’ arrival, humanity had nearly destroyed itself on numerous occasions.
Perhaps it was BECAUSE aliens were so inhuman that they were able to live in peace with one another despite their differences. For the most part, they just didn’t care how others managed their affairs, and thus were able to coexist in harmony. Perhaps because aliens were so inhuman, humans didn’t hate them either, reserving their vitriol for their own species. That innate fundamental suspicion…all right, that prejudice…towards other homo sapiens proved hard for Nicky, who did not love humanity on a good day, to shake. Though he’d shaken it easily enough for the woman, he supposed. It didn’t seem quite fair, really, that a man could be burdened both with an instinctive hatred towards his own species, and a burning need to be with them.
Within their own ranks, humans were endlessly dividing themselves into various subgroups, despising each other accordingly. Myriad human microcultures had sprung up anywhere there was an open planet capable of supporting life; he had read somewhere there were as many human subcultures as there were alien species in all the galaxy, though he wasn’t sure he believed it. At any rate, there were too many.
Nicky felt wary of human beings that shunned galactian civilization as if they were q’Lurians. He distrusted the cultists who withdrew and holed up somewhere where they could follow their own rules, probably since his career involved enforcing rules, and people skirting them didn’t sit well with him. Something about a group of isolationists rejecting not only the galactic community, but basic human values completely, imagining that they had some unique insight into how people were meant to live, imagining that they were wiser and superior beings who had cornered the market on the nature of reality, disturbed him.
It surprised him that the woman had come from one of those worlds, that she had managed to shuck her upbringing off somehow. He derived an unearned sense of pride from it, as if he had cleverly selected her carefully for her wonderful qualities rather than just being thrown into a relationship by virtue of their bits fitting together so nicely.
Nicely, so nicely. Very nicely indeed. Mmmh.
You had to give that much to the aliens, since they had no imaginations at all, they never imagined a different way to live than the one their species had hit upon through evolution. While aliens had presidents and kings and even dictators, none of them seemed hell bent on creating and then inflicting externally created codes of ethics onto their followers the way Earth tyrants did. “Wouldn’t it be brilliant if only everyone lived exactly like THIS” was not a chain of thought that aliens experienced. Aliens were who and what they were, as the hand of the various incarnations of Mother Nature inhabiting their various worlds designed them to be, and they expected that everyone they met were who and what they were as well, and treated you accordingly. No one ever tried to change anyone, no one tried to inflict their way of life upon anyone else. The aliens simply accepted, on face value, the fundamental natures of whomever they met along the way.
There was an egalitarianism in the alien mindset that appealed to Nicky, even though as a human and thus prone to the temptation, he most certainly DID imagine he could design some grand philosophy superior to that of his human fellows. He just wasn’t arrogant or deluded enough to succumb to it. A foolish aspiration, being a dictator, Nicky thought, for it was glaringly obvious that embedded within the nature of humankind was a dictatorial urge, and how could a dictator ever expect to hold sway over vast numbers of other wannabe dictators? It seemed an endeavor destined to fail, as everyone scrabbled after control, and of course human history was replete with examples.
Nicky finished his paperwork and uploaded it to the Cloud. “Where the fuck is that backup?” He felt a great pressure of time, even though there was no hurry really; there was no way a person could have gotten from Kolob to Tashalos Station in a day. Even with Express travel, it would take at least four days – and few could afford Express. That meant they had days, more likely weeks to prepare, if the man did in fact come looking. Nicky would simply issue an alert and they’d catch him as soon as he walked through the DNA scanners on the way into the station.
It was simply that he wanted to know everything about the woman, even the things she didn’t want to tell him. He hungered after knowing her, wanted to lay with her in his arms and look down at her knowing every silly detail about her, what her childhood had been like, what was her favorite color, did she like strawberries better, or blueberries, all of it, he wanted to digest her and absorb her and then he wanted to have her, have her as a friend and not a stranger.
Stan looked up from his communications device, upon which he was watching a cartoon Nicky barely recognized as The Flintstones. “Eating doughnuts, probably.” He pronounced it as duff-nuts. Nicky didn’t bother correcting him, because Stan took great pride in speaking authentic English, and he didn’t want to be discouraging about a word that none but Nicky would ever hear him say. Dough was a stupid word anyway. “Don’t worry, you’ll be able to get back to your spawning soon, primeape.”
“I wasn’t trying to…well.” He trailed off, because libido undoubtedly was underwriting his sense of urgency. “Shut up.”
Stan held out the paused screen to Nicky, to show him a floating green man dressed as an astronaut upon it. “Look at this alien, Nicky. He’s such an asshole. Is that what humans really think of us?”
“I don’t know who that is,” Nicky explained. It was sometimes difficult for the aliens to comprehend that no human had an encyclopedic knowledge of centuries of pop culture. “I never watched that program.”
“I don’t understand how you can fail to know your own civilization, Nicky. The Great Gazoo is a part of television history! He was voiced by Harvey Korman of the Carol Burnett Show!”
“I don’t know who they are, either.”
“Jesus,” Stan exclaimed. “You know who that is, right?”
“Yes, Stan, I know who that is,” Nicky said patiently, and stared out the window as his partner returned to staring at his fiction program, with a barking laugh at something the comical cavemen and their alien friend did.
Nicky had only ever been to the q’Lurian neighborhood on one other occasion, when a human with a malfunctioning positioner had wandered in by accident and the human-hating q’Lurians were so aghast that they’d surrounded the bloke, calling in the police rather than allow the man to phone for an Uber, or even give him directions about how to get out of the neighborhood on foot. It struck Nicky as peculiar that there were q’Lurian separatists; they were already so separated from galactic culture. But the separatists wanted to turn inward completely, call their people home and close q’Lur down, lest the taint of humanity spread to their planet.
Given the isolationist nature of the q’Lurians, Nicky simply could not understand why one of them would even want to get near enough to a human female to speak to her, let alone attack her. But that’s what they’d come to find out, of course.
The q’Lurians dwelt in a cul-de-sac of housing projects centered round a very small marketplace, Market 101, that contained nothing but q’Lurian stores and q’Lurian restaurants and q’Lurian doctors and dentists and a nice little school for the q’Lurian children that had a mural of trees and a rainbow on it just like human schools on Earth did. It was surprising the q’Lurians disliked humans so much given that they also liked rainbows and trees and children.
Like most aliens, the q’Lurians bred like horny rabbits, and q’Lurians always bore twins. The twins were of the stuck-together sort, which on Earth was considered a birth defect and repaired by nanotechnology in the womb, or aborted if the defect proved incompatible with life. There was a proper scientific name for the condition that Nicky could not recall, and a rude offensive old fashioned one that he recalled all too well, having learned it from a grisly old book his grandmother had owned called Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Nicky would sneak off when he was visiting his nan to leaf through the pages, reading about all sorts of freakish and disturbing things his parents would not have approved of.
Whatever the term for it was, the few q’Lurians who had not fled upon his arrival were all two creatures in one, joined together in a variety of ways. It was hard to imagine the evolutionary advantage such an arrangement might confer on a species, but of course there was one or the q’Lurians would not exist in the form they did. He should have consulted his guidebook before he’d arrived, instead of shopping on Amazon, he supposed, but with any luck the terminology wouldn’t come up.
By that point, their backup had arrived, a couple uniformed young recruits who looked as if they’d be a liability in a fight, not a help. Nicky and Stan mulled it over, and decided it would be best to perform the arrest themselves, regardless of what dispatch thought. They left the uniforms to wait in the car.
Stan had parked in front of the school, and the children, who’d been out playing in the courtyard, screamed and scattered at the sight of a human being. With a sour look on his blue face, Stan glared after them. “Little shits,” he spat disdainfully. In addition to being enamored with human culture, his partner did not approve of q’Lurians for the same reason Nicky didn’t approve of human isolationists – galactian culture was based around that live and let live philosophy and it rubbed him the wrong way that anyone rejected that. To Stan’s way of thinking, live and let live was not meant to include beings that utterly rejected the very concept of live and let live, and he just couldn’t stretch his mind to comprehend that truly adhering to the rule of living and letting live would have to include people who refused the premise.
Under normal circumstances they would have had to waste time asking questions in order to track the perpetrator down, which would have been a slow, possibly even impossible proposition given the q’Lurian distrust of strangers. But because it had been a violent assault, they’d been granted a warrant to use their positioners to track the thug via DNA. They headed to his location, an apartment up on the 14th story of the building, by following a ping on their commdevs. Effortless. Nicky wished all their retrievals could be so easy.
Hallelujah, the bloody elevator worked, though when they stepped onto it, the q’Lurians already riding in it immediately got off rather than ride with a human.
While the inside of the project looked nearly identical to his own, it smelled strange and foreign. Nicky’s building contained a patchwork of smells good, bad, familiar and alien, because all different species lived side by side, emitting their various odors. But this one bore a consistent and overwhelming stench, a heavy miasma of q’Lurian musk hanging in the air. A choking smell that was the carroty taste of overcooked red bell peppers, the earthy, moldy scent of rotting compost, a hint of dead badger, and something sweet but dusty, like scented powder. So strong it was, it was near impossible for Nicky not to find it repugnant. At a couple points, the reek came at him so heavy he nearly retched from it. “Say this much for the q’Lurians,” Stan said, inhaling deeply, “at least they smell good.”
As they approached the q’Lurian’s apartment, he must have been informed they were coming or something because the ping that represented him on the positioner shifted on his phone screen. “On the move,” Nicky said.
“I see it, bro,” Stan agreed, and over Nicky’s objections, he called in the backup to assist in the arrest. They didn’t need them. They had the guy on DNA, so it was still going to be an easy pick-up, no matter how far he ran, they’d just lope along after till he tired and gave up. But it was protocol, and Stan preferred to follow protocol, except for the times when he got so excited that he didn’t.
They followed the trail to a thick metal door, locked, which Nicky was able to open by swiping his uni-key against the input device. The door led to an access corridor leading to the industrial section of the building, all pipes and wires and ducts and conduits and rubber hoses, dimly lit by a series of strategically placed LEDs, which never seemed quite as bright as they ought. Machines thrummed and ka-chunga-ed in the distance. The humidity level rose several points within seconds and sweat broke out along Nicky’s brow. “I don’t know about this,” Stan said, looking into the gloom beyond. “This feels dead-endy. We should wait for the backup.”
The corridor was so narrow they would have to go single file anyway, which would have conferred them no strategic advantage whatsoever. “Stay here, then,” Nicky said, intent on finding the creature who had assaulted the woman. He did not want to chance him getting away, maybe even escaping off station while he stood with his dick in his hand waiting for a couple useless inexperienced noobs made sluggish from eating duff-nuts.
He took his antigrav weapon from its holster and followed down a scaffolding of expanded metal, past various instrument pads with dials, buttons, levers, touchpads, and handcranks upon them. The tight quarters and the machinery made Nicky imagine being in a submarine, and he was seized with a sudden claustrophobia, a sensation of leagues of seawater crushing him from above, but of course that was merely his mind playing tricks.
Steam whistled somewhere overhead and startled him; his brain had him half-convinced that any moment he’d get jumped and knocked into a vat of acid or molten metal or into a piston-thumping squishing machine. He checked his phone to see how far ahead his quarry had gotten, and was surprised to see he had gone past the q’Lurian somehow, though there had been nowhere for it to hide, and no other path it could have taken. He turned back the other way but again, he walked right by the ping without seeing anything. He didn’t understand how he could miss the guy, there was nowhere for him to hide. Nicky didn’t think q’Lurians could turn invisible, but foolishly he had not consulted his guidebook beforehand.
The little hairs on the back of Nicky’s neck rose as he pieced it together. Without telegraphing the movement beforehand, his hand shot straight up and he pulled the creature down from the scaffolding above that it had been clinging to. As the q’Lurian fell, Nicky’s nose caught a burst of that terrible fragrance. He did not dare to inhale for fear of sicking up, and his head swam as he began to run out of oxygen. He had no choice but to suck in a mouthful of air, a shallow gasping breath trying to avoid taking much of the aerosolized stink in, and he coughed as it invaded his lungs. Coughing simply drove it deeper, but it did not seem to be toxic, only very unpleasant; the smell of the q’Lurian’s body and not any sort of a defense mechanism.
Instead of taking its feet, the q’Lurian clung onto Nicky’s suit lapels with thick curving claws on his hands and feet. The q’Lurian reminded Nicky of a koala bear, the way it clung to him with its body all hunched up into a ball, but otherwise it was not at all like a koala bear, not cute, not cuddly, not dopey and lovable and safe. He remembered that long cut down the woman’s arm, and imagined those claws raking him across the face, slashing his belly, opening his throat. Both of the q’Lurian’s heads started shrieking, a mouth in each of Nicky’s ears. One body, but two heads it had, two heads on one long neck, and both the heads were screaming loud as a klaxon. He pushed it away with the edge of his forearm against the thing’s throat.
The flesh was soft, marshmallow soft, but with a spongy crunchiness to it, like squeezing the top of a mushroom. Nicky felt his forearm sink in and keep sinking, but he feared if he continued pushing, the q’Lurian would break apart, that the heads would be parted from the body and go rolling away. Such an alarming sensation it was that he panicked and twisted away from the thing. The q’Lurian made a break for it and fled, scampering on all fours, up the wall and onto the ceiling again, keeping up that earshattering inhuman bellering. It fled from that narrow corridor to a larger open place where several paths and sets of steps led off various directions. But as it leapt from the ceiling of the corridor back to the floor again, rotating 180 degrees as it did, Nicky shot it with his antigrav and froze it in midair. Well, it didn’t quite freeze; the weapon slowed forward momentum, but didn’t stop it all together.
The q’Lurian kept falling forward, in midleap, but very slowly; if you looked away for a moment, you could see the motion, but staring at it rendered the progress invisible to the eye. Nicky walked up behind, taking care to keep the gun’s foci in phase. That was the trick with the antigrav, if you didn’t keep it at just the right angle when you were moving around, the foci would blur and the subject could break free.
“Help! Help!” the q’Lurian screeched from both its mouths at the same time.
Nicky ignored him and fumbled for his zipcuffs. He had one too few hands for this business. When he moved, the foci slipped out of phase as he’d worried they would, and the q’Lurian moved a sudden quick couple of feet forward before he shot it again. “You have the right to remain silent,” he began.
Before he could complete the ritual, much to his chagrin, he noticed movement in the shadowy places all around him. An illuminated face here, a shadowy arm there, the sound of footfalls overhead, coming fast. There were q’Lurians galore lurking in this dark place. Workers, from what he could see of them, clad in durable coveralls with smears of grease upon them, too many for one man, even a man Nicky’s size, to handle. The few he could see clearly had hatred upon their faces, and every one of them had two faces to hate him with. Some of them were stuck together at their side, some were stuck together at their chest facing each other, some had heads joined together, and others were joined together in ways that twins were never conjoined on Earth.
Conjoined, that was the word for them, conjoined.
One of them, the nearest, had two torsos and two heads but only one pair of legs. He had never touched a q’Lurian before, but they must be all made out of that same awful pillowy mushroomishness as the q’Lurian he’d caught, they had to smell equally repugnant, and have those thick sharp claws to cling with. Though Nicky knew it was morally reprehensible of him, they seemed in that moment as horrible monsters and not sentient beings. The next closest had extra arms and extra legs sprouting out of him like a spider and a flat face embedded upon its chest beneath its other head. That one had a tool that reminded Nicky of a pipe wrench in one of his hands and he slapped it into his other hand threateningly, while at the same time his other set of hands cracked the joints of its clawed paw-things as if warming up for a fight. “Hey Stanley,” Nicky yelled back over his shoulder, “Can I trouble you?” He was embarrassingly relieved to hear his partner’s steps upon the metal behind him.
“Holy shit,” Stan said, as he surveyed the onlookers, and then he hissed at the approaching aliens threateningly. “Backup? Waiting for it, does that idea ring any bells?”
“Call them in then,” Nicky said, and Stan pushed the panic button for immediate aid, but there were only two of them anyway, and who knew how many q’Lurians. He had hoped that perhaps the q’Lurians would retreat now that they’d seen the both of them, him and Stan there together. But a long moment passed and the tenseness of the situation did not seem to diffuse. “We’re the police, we’re here legitimately, just here to pick up a suspect for questioning. We don’t want any trouble.”
“Human,” someone murmured in the darkness, and then murmurs spread through the lot of them, “humanHUMANhuuuummmannnHumanHUManhumanhumanHUMAN!” Nicky felt goosebumps in places he didn’t think he’d ever gotten goosebumps before. It struck him he was a human man far from home and surrounded by hideous creatures, vile bad-smelling beclawed fungus-y things who wished him ill, and he found he wasn’t inordinately troubled by being xenophobic in that moment. The woman’s human face flashed into his mind. He would very much have liked to lay his head upon her human chest and feel her human arms around him.
“Well, that’s kind of disturbing,” Stan joked. “Pretty glad I’m not a human right now.”
“Human LOVER,” an accusing voice spat.
“Welp,” Stan said.
Nicky considered everything he knew about q’Lurians and their fear of the human stain. “If you’d prefer, I can come back with twenty humans,” Nicky lied. Short of arranging a posse and deputizing the array of sailors, salesmen, salarymen, and scumbags who resided on Tashalos, he couldn’t muster twenty humans if his life depended on it. “We can come back and turn this neighborhood inside out, see what we can find. Illegal weapons, drugs, endangered species…” he recalled the q’Lurians enjoyed eating exotic animals and were always smuggling them onto Tashalos. “Commerce without a license…and we’ll check your documentation to make sure you’re all on station legally.”
“If you’re found guilty, you won’t be going back to q’Lur, not for a while,” Stan added. “Illegal emigration is a prison sentence for q’Lurians under galactic law. And we’ll make sure you serve that time in a human prison.”
There were concerned murmurs in the dark and Nicky felt better. “This citizen is wanted for questioning in an assault, a violent assault. We are here legitimately, over a violent crime. You lot are just working men, you don’t want risk your liberty defending a violent criminal, do you?”
“Assaulting a cop is a hefty sentence,” Stan added. “And you’ll do that time on Earth, we’ll make sure of it.”
Nicky turned his attentions to the q’Lurian, who had drifted slowly forward a few millimeters during that time. “Did you assault a human woman yesterday?”
It wasn’t a fair question, really. Because q’Lurians held honesty as one of their supreme virtues, they refused to lie, even if they possessed the genetic capability for making up deceptive stories, which they didn’t. While some species, like Stan’s people, could lie when the situation required it, albeit uncreatively by human standards, the q’Lurians lacked even a fraction of the imagination necessary to invent alibis. “Well,” the q’Lurian said from one of its heads, “…yes, but…”
Nicky let his finger off of the button of his antigrav and the beam shut off suddenly. His forward trajectory restored, the q’Lurian smashed into the metal scaffold, hard. Because he hadn’t been expecting it, he had no time to prepare, no time to get his hands up to soften his fall. “You were saying?” Nicky said, as he shot him with the antigrav again to prevent him from moving, pinning him to the scaffolding. The q’Lurian’s soft flesh bubbled through the holes in the grating of the walkway.
“He TOUCHED a human!” came a shocked and horrified voice from the shadows. “On PURPOSE!” Nicky felt a burst of relief sweat down his back. There would be no civilian intervention, not for that crime.
“Yes, I assaulted a human woman,” the q’Lurian said. Only one of his heads could speak, the other’s lips were mushed against the metal grating. “But there were extenuating circumstances!” Nicky wished there was a way to lift with his weapon, like they had on the antigrav forklifts, and he’dve smashed the q’Lurian down again, harder. But the tech needed to do that was too big for handheld units.
Stan took the zipcuffs and put them around the guy’s wrists. “Save it,” he said. There were regulations to be followed. While the galactian authorities allowed LEOs a surprising amount of leeway when it came to roughing up suspects, probably because life simply wasn’t that precious in a galaxy of 400 quadrillion sentient beings, their rules about human cops hearing confessions were incredibly strict. The proceedings had to be recorded at the station, using technology that neither Nicky nor Stan could access, to be certain it couldn’t be altered. The authorities had seen so many crooked human cops on fiction programs they assumed all human beings working in law enforcement were prone to lying, and operated under the assumption humans had to be actively prevented from faking evidence.
Upon arriving back at the precinct, Nicky hoped to let the q’Lurian stew for a bit, and head straight for the Galactic Crime Database terminal. He meant to find out more about the woman’s life prior to arriving on Tashalos Station before confronting the q’Lurian. He didn’t want to overlook anything he needed to ask about. And all right, admittedly, he was curious. More than curious, fascinated. He craved after her, and if he couldn’t have her really, he wanted to see images of her, see her name written on official documents, prove it to himself that she existed, assure himself she wouldn’t just disappear into the mists.
But before he could, the superintendent of detectives swept in, or more accurately waddled, his stubby elbowless arms folded over his stout chest. “In my office, Loverboy,” he said, loudly, and Nicky’s fellow officers, who were all listening in, of course, hooted and hollered and shouted epithets in two dozen languages, none of which his translator could make any sense of. That was probably for the best. He shot Stan a look.
“Sorry,” Stan said sheepishly. “It’s just so fucking hilarious I couldn’t resist telling everyone.”
“I’ll remember that the next time you contract finworms from a robot prostitute,” Nicky threatened.
“You wouldn’t dare!” Stan said, horrified.
“No, I wouldn’t. Just shaking your tree.”
“I mean I’m teasing you.”
“Hmmm. Doesn’t your imaginary sky man say not to lie?” Stan said.
“He says a lot of things. Luckily He’s very forgiving.”
“Say a prayer for me, then. No more finworms.”
“I do already, you idiot. Of course.”
“Bluh! Leave me out of your conversations with Sky Man! That’s nearly as fucked up as that whole dream thing. Humans are such bizarres, talking to imaginary people, lying even when they sleep.”
“Dreams aren’t lies, Stan, they’re…not lies.” Even species who otherwise enjoyed fiction, like Stan’s people, found dreaming unsettling, because of its accidental nature. It was hard to explain what dreams were, exactly, probably because not even scientists really understood them.
Nicky recalled the first time he’d tried to explain the concept of dreaming to Stan. He’d said, “Your brain makes stories on its own? About ME? When you’re unconscious? Where do they come from? How can I be inside your brain when you’re unconscious?” and then he’d shuddered as if the very notion was sinister.
“I don’t know what dreams are exactly, Stan, but they aren’t lies.”
“I know, I know,” Stan replied. “You told me. See, Nicky, I can shake a tree too!” he crowed, as if he was proud of himself. “You know I don’t care if you have a demented brain.”
“Buchanan, now!” the superintendent shouted. “I’m surprised you were able to have intercourse with your human female, as in love with Stan as you are!”
“I’m coming,” Nicky said. “Don’t start without me, eh?”
Stan nodded. “Course not. I’ll take our boys here to holding.” He pushed the q’Lurian forward unceremoniously. “We’ll wait for the nice human, won’t we, boys?” he taunted.
One of the q’Lurian’s heads spat on the floor at Nicky’s feet.
“Not off to a great start, are we,” Stan sassed, and gave the q’Lurian a shove.
The superintendent of detectives was a Volg, and though he had a name, like Stan’s name, it was hard for most species to pronounce. Thus everyone just called him The Volg. To Nicky’s human eye, The Volg very closely resembled a shaved bulldog walking on his legs. He had massive jowls, an underbite, and was prone to effusive drooling. He had short bowed appendages on a hefty torso with a head that was completely disproportionate to the rest of him.
Once when Nicky had been drunk and feeling irreverent, he showed the superintendent a picture of Winston Churchill on his phone as a joke. The Volg became so enamored of the former prime minister, not only an authentic, real-life Earth Hero, but a prominent character in several dozen works of fiction, that he actually hung a framed portrait of Sir Winston on his wall. Churchill took his place of honor right alongside the King and Queen of Volg, the Chief of Police and the burgermeister of Tashalos Station, the Chancellor of the Assembly and the High Baffin of the Conclave, the Empress of the Galactian Confederation, and Jeff Bezos.
And so it was, that as he sat down to take his lumps, Nicky felt the disapproving gaze of two Churchills staring at him with their bulging, sagging eyes.
For his part, The Volg was quite fond of Nicky Buchanan, in no small part because the human reminded him of a pet Flurf he’d had some years prior. It had been a marvelous Flurf, loyal to a fault and easily trained. The Flurf slept at the foot of his bed and never once evacuated inside the house, which was a lot to ask of a Flurf.
Since discovering his strong personal resemblance to Winston Churchill – from Doctor Who! – The Volg had begun to fancy himself a bit of an Anglophile. Whenever the subject came up as it so often did, the great debate about which Earth culture was the best one, he always took the side of the Brits against the Americans and Japanese and Indians and Nigerians. Monkey Python, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, the Beatles, Mr. Bean, Harry Potter, the Pinky Blinders, Willamena Jones, the Drunken Abbots, Sherwin O’Houlihan and his Traveling Troupe of Troublesome Troglodytes…the Volg flat adored everything British. He hoped to someday go to Earth and ride on one of those very tall red multiperson vehicles, watch a crumpet match, and have tea and crickets. He had come to take great pride in having not only a human, but a British expat under his command. Though he was at times disappointed that Buchanan never showed up to work in a kilt.
The Volg actually worried about the big human sometimes, worried for the fate not only of the man himself, but his species as a whole. The truth was, there weren’t nearly enough Earthlings. Human beings had children at a glacial pace; one a year, if that even. They were vastly outnumbered. Buchanan was well along into midlife and he didn’t have a single offspring, whereas The Volg had somewhere around forty children and a lifespan of over two hundred Earth years. Homo sapiens would never catch up to the rest of the galaxy if they didn’t start spawning more enthusiastically. While they had equal representation in the Conclave of course, due to their low population they had but a single vote in the Assembly. That was a recipe for disaster for such a young species.
If it hadn’t been that many of the powerful species liked Earthlings and that strange invention of theirs called fiction, and had thus far voted to protect the interests of humanity, their quaint little blue planet would have been overrun and colonized by someone else already, maybe even The Volg Consortium. Humans would be enslaved and/or scattered, destined to be space dwellers forevermore, as the Erenhxi and the Oeantheans had been driven from their homeworlds to make way for a better organized and more numerous species.
As a result, the Volg was secretly delighted Buchanan had finally managed to procure himself a human woman. He kept his scolding to a minimum – just a stern talking-to. Well, not so stern; in all honesty The Volg had a hard time not grinning from jowl to jowl the entire time and patting his friend on the shoulder encouragingly, then sending him off with an inspirational “go get ‘em tiger” like the humans said to one another on fiction programs.
“How did it go,” Stan asked Nicky, when it was over with. He was waiting just outside The Volg’s office. “I didn’t hear him killing you, so I thought it was a good omen.”
“A bit weird, actually,” Nicky said, rather confused by the complete lack of harrumphing. The Volg could harrumph like no other. “No punishment, just a warning, and barely that. He said he’d pencil whip the paperwork for me.”
“Oh, thank Krep,” Stan said. “I hated to turn you in, you know that, right?”
“No worries, mate.” Nicky said, and meant it.
“We shall,” Nicky said, and they headed to interrogation.
Nicky was certainly eager to have first crack at the q’Lurian, but it irritated him to no end that he hadn’t had a spare minute to go to the database to look up whoever it was the woman was running from in the first place.
But it didn’t matter, they had time. Plenty of time.
After Nicky and the Stan guy left, Tamsin ate the breakfast he’d made for her, except for the peas. Peas for breakfast seemed like a bridge too far for her so she put them in the recycling chute along with the food trays and off they went with a whoosh.
It was an amazing feeling, secure enough for a moment that she felt she could throw food away. Even if it didn’t last, and it almost certainly wouldn’t, it was a welcome respite from the gnawing vulnerability that had completely dominated her life recently.
Then she tidied up because the detective’s flat was so small you pretty much had to pick things up immediately or you’d end up walking all over them. She flung the futon mattress back on its frame, flipping it over so the stains wouldn’t show. But the other side of the futon was dusty from the floor, and so she flipped it back over to the stained side again. She opened up the blanket and shook it, and laid it over as a kind of a slipcover.
Then she took a shower. Since she felt kind of sore – not that she minded really given the reason – she used another ampule of oxyprofen even though she didn’t think the first one had totally worn off yet.
That took not even an hour, so with nothing else to occupy her, she sprawled on the dirty futon in her dirty clothes, because her pride would not allow her to use the detective’s money unless it was totally necessary. Now that she’d used her security number, there was no sense hiding any more. With her security number she’d have no trouble getting a job, and she could buy her own shit in a week or two. Once she paid the detective back then the playing field would be level. But not today. Today, she didn’t have to do anything at all, not even worry. Maybe Ash would get captured. Maybe he would never show up at all. Maybe there had been a terrible accident where he had a heart attack and crashed his car into the back of a tanker full of sulfuric acid and died instantly, after several minutes of agonizing pain.
She was safe and had a full stomach. Who could ask for anything more? Tamsin stretched out with a groan, feeling torpid and lazy, in a good way, like a kept woman. It was funny that she enjoyed wallowing in the decadence, because Tamsin had actually been a kept woman, and hated it. She supposed it mattered who was doing the keeping.
Sleep seemed like a good idea, since she’d been up most of the night and anticipated being up most of the upcoming night too, but she was too wound up for it. It had been so long since anything remotely interesting, let alone thrilling, had happened, it felt like she had years of stored up adrenaline to burn through.
In her boredom, she picked up the phone. Maybe she could watch a movie or something. Though she had hated it when the detective bought the damn thing, it was kind of exciting to have a phone again, a real phone, a phone that did things, a phone just like normal people had. She hadn’t had a decent phone since the one her father had bought for her as a reward when she graduated school. Ash had promised that he’d get her a better one, and at his suggestion she’d given her old phone to her little sister. But he’d been lying, of course.
Though she had really not intended to snoop, she couldn’t resist scrolling through Nicky’s Amazon account. She looked over the fiction programs Nicky watched (action) and the music he listened to (rock), though much of both categories were things she didn’t recognize. He’d watched a series of ten movies called “John Wick” half a dozen times, but she had never heard of that. She scrolled through the books he’d read and was not only surprised but kind of disappointed to see they were mostly practical non-fiction books about living in space and law enforcement. She had imagined British people read lots of literature, snooty things like Shakespeare and poetry, and that they did that for fun, because on fiction programs they all seemed very erudite. Even Sherwin O’Houlihan was always quoting Shakespeare and he was a comedian.
Then again she hadn’t read many books lately herself either. The closest thing she’d done to reading anything since she’d left Kolob was leafing through Mademoiselle Quilnaucht’s celebrity magazines. Even though she couldn’t decipher the language, she recognized the pictures since they were all human actors and actresses, and sometimes Mademoiselle Quilnaucht would tell her factoids she read about the people, even though all of them were totally dead. “Did you know,” she would say, pushing a lock of something that looked like hair but wasn’t hair behind her eye stalks, “that Julia Roberts had twin offspring called Hazel and Phinneas?” And then Tamsin would ooh and aah over it like it made any difference to her whatsoever.
In lieu of reading, Nicky played a lot of games, mostly centered around fighting Nazis on behalf of Britain, or else fighting zombies on behalf of humanity. He didn’t seem to go into online worlds and she respected that, because she heard people got addicted to online worlds and then they stopped living their actual life. On Kolob people were warned against online worlds even more than they were warned against drinking whiskey.
She could see every product he’d ever purchased, well, at least the last six months’ worth; if she wanted to access farther back she would have had to sign in again. Some of the things were extremely personal and completely embarrassing but he’d risked letting her see them because he didn’t want her to be bored. Tamsin felt a good deal of remorse for being such a terrible snoop, though the guilt wasn’t enough to deter her.
From what she’d seen, Nicky seemed like a very nice person despite his intimidating appearance, but she knew only too well that people who seemed nice at first could turn on you just that easily, and there was nothing like wanting to get into a woman’s pants to make a guy act like a fucking sweetheart no matter what he was really like.
With that chilling thought, Tamsin suddenly came to her senses, realizing what she’d just done, which was totally insane and completely out of character. It was so shocking of a thing, she actually sat straight up. What? Spending the night with a stranger, “spending the night” in the Biblical sense, and not like a slumber party. A stranger! Just because he happened to be from Earth? What was she even thinking? That sort of behavior was incredibly stupid and incredibly dangerous! How did she know he was a good person? How did she know he wouldn’t hurt her?
She didn’t. There was no guarantee of that.
She went back over Nicky’s Amazon again, but nothing problematic jumped out at her. What was she looking for, anyway? What did she expect to find? Chloroform? A cat o’nine tails? An e-book entitled 101 Ways to Dismember a Woman? Their absence didn’t prove anything; Ash had never needed any of those things to brutalize her. All he had ever needed was his hands, and then his feet once she fell over, and Nicky definitely had those, just like all men did.
Tamsin flung the phone away in disgust. Things that people liked and bought were interesting but they didn’t tell you that much about them really. Ash donated money to charity, lots of money, but that didn’t make him a good person. He bought Girl Scout Cookies. He had been a Boy Scout, and she doubted they gave out merit badges for spousal abuse. He donated to book drives and Toys for Tots. He would do the Secret Santa at the law office and give the most generous presents of all. He never let Mother’s Day pass by without taking his mom and his grandma out for brunch and buying them big bouquets of flowers. He even bought flowers for Tamsin’s mom and her grandmas and even her great-grandma, till she died. Then he cried a few tears at the funeral and everyone said how great of a guy he was, so sensitive and everything, and Tamsin wanted to puke.
Ash wore the appearance of goodness as a costume and who’s to say Nicky wasn’t the exact same? After all, on fiction programs cops were always crooked and breaking the rules and shooting unarmed people so it seemed in the realm of possible that he was a bad person hiding in a good person disguise just like Ash.
It was probably a good thing she only had access to Nicky’s Amazon, and not his social media and porn, because she had a funny feeling she would have kept right on snooping till she found something she didn’t like, which didn’t seem fair exactly. She grabbed the phone again and tried to Google him but there were too many hits; because she didn’t know where he’d been born, in what year, or what his middle initial was, she couldn’t figure out which one was the right Nicholas Buchanan, if Nicholas was even his real first name. Nicky could have been short for all sorts of things, or a middle name for something less cool-sounding like Eugene, or the Scottish version of Eugene, which was probably Angus or something. He had said he was from someplace called Embra but that didn’t even seem to be a real place, let alone a big city like he made it sound like.
It was just about bizarre you could look up every detail from the lives of celebrities who had lived two hundred plus-some-odd years ago, you could find out the precise number of freckles on Julia Roberts’ ass probably even, but you couldn’t track down the identity of an actual real live person.
It wasn’t so much that she wanted to know Nicky’s secrets, exactly, she just wanted to know the worst of him, so she could decide where to go from there. She didn’t have the patience to play it by ear, nor did she have the courage. It just seemed like you should be able to get a preview before you decided if you wanted to be in somebody’s life or not, and for sure before you let them into yours. A short instructional video called “Here are the worst things this person you just met has ever done”, narrated by that nature program guy, David Attabro, she thought that was his name anyway, they had to watch all those in school when the teachers wanted to dick off, and she hadn’t really been paying that much attention since none of the animals lived on Kolob anyway.
For some reason she wanted to know the worst about Nicky and get it out of the way right from the jump rather than be blindsided by it later on once she got attached.
Of course even if there was such a thing there would be no guarantee they hadn’t just saved up the worst things they’d ever done to do to you. The more she thought about it through that lens, the more she was overcome by an urge to leave, to run away back to her cargo bay and get her stuff and hop a transport somewhere else…but her stuff was gone and she didn’t have any money for a transport anyway. She was stuck. What would she do when he came back and expected to have sex with her? She would have to have sex with him now whether she wanted to or not, or else he would get mad and take her back to the homeless shelter.
She remembered the Erenxhi suggesting she look into sex work and it crossed her mind that was basically what she’d done, found herself a job doing sex work. No license required.
Suddenly the previous night seemed all very sinister, a cop picking up a vulnerable woman, threatening her, intimidating her, confiscating her belongings, making sure she had nowhere else to go, and then practically forcefeeding her whiskey. Detective Stan had certainly seemed to think there was something unethical about it, he even said so, he had said there was nothing more unethical a policeman could do than what Buchanan had done. Maybe what she should do is call Stan, call him at the station and ask him if she was safe, and…but then who was to say Stan was any more ethical anyway? I mean seriously, he had a pierced nose, how ethical could he be?
And that sentiment was stupid enough to snap her out of it. Because it hadn’t happened that way. It really hadn’t. The attraction had been mutual, if unexpected, and the sex was totally consensual. She had drunk the man’s whiskey and asked for more. She refilled his drink. She had been friendly, even flirtatious. She all but invited him to make a pass at her. Tamsin suspected that if she’d been cold and standoffish Detective Buchanan wouldn’t have pressed the issue. But she’d invited him to make the next move and was with him…or ahead of him…every step of the way. That was the truth. He had even asked her permission first, stopped the forward momentum and said “Let me fuck you, then?” before he did it, even though they’d been making out for like 45 minutes at that point and it was glaringly obvious to everyone involved that things were heading that direction.
It was almost like part of her brain was trying to rewrite what had happened as some kind of a defense mechanism, to drive her away before she could get in too deep. That seemed like a pretty fucked up thing to do. And a sad thing.
Maybe the reason why was because Tamsin hadn’t been inside another person’s life, at least someone whose life she wanted to be in, for so long, that the prospect was frightening all on its own. Maybe she was just looking for a reason not to have to risk it.
Ash had been in her life. Seriously, he had taken OVER her whole life and run it himself in addition to running his own, as if one life wasn’t enough for him. But she had never been in his. He made no accommodations for her, left her no space at his table. She sat at his feet and lived off the scraps he threw her when he was feeling benevolent. Maybe she had just belonged to him, belonged to him like an object and that wasn’t the same thing as being with a person, exactly.
She felt like she was already more a part of Nicky’s life than she’d ever been a part of Ash’s, even though she only knew Nicky from an Amazon account and a single night during which they really hadn’t taken much time for deep heartfelt convos, and she’d been with Ash for over ten years. The only people she’d dated before Ash had been boys who weren’t ready to share their lives with anyone. She had wasted her life, all the best years of her life were gone because of Ash. She had more in common with a total stranger than she had the man she’d wasted a third of her life on. That realization made her feel even sadder, so sad she started to cry.
As a distraction from her overwhelming sorrow, she tried to conjure up everything about Nicky so he didn’t feel like a stranger any more. She thought about his eyes, his hair, the lines in his cheeks, his smell, the way he tasted, the way it had felt lying there with his arms around her staring at his amazing knuckles, and she replayed everything he said to her in that spectacular velvety voice he had. She pulled the blanket down off the couch so it lay over her, and it was heavy enough and warm enough and furry enough she could imagine he was behind her, holding her. It was so soothing that she drifted off to sleep for a while, the phone still clutched in her hand.
After she didn’t know how long, the phone buzzed and woke her up. Then it buzzed again, and again. After a bit she realized it wouldn’t shut up and let her drift pleasantly back to sleep unless she did something to it, and after a bit more she remembered that intermittent buzzing meant a text had come in. The text was from an account that just had a lot of letters and numbers rather than a proper name, but she didn’t think much of it because she remembered people had all kinds of weird names for their accounts and figured it was for police security purposes or something.
She clicked to open the message. They caught the guy. I have some questions for you. Uber outside, it’s paid for. See you soon.
On the way down the steps, Tamsin ran into the Chaboreth. Its eyes widened and it made a sound way down in its belly. Tamsin could actually feel the vibrations in the air. “Brrrraauhhhhh! Bruah, bruah, bruahhh! Walk of shame!” it said. “Walk of Shame! Courtship ritual! Very much success!!!” And then it looked at her expectantly, as if it was waiting for confirmation.
She laughed because what else could you do? “Very much success,” she agreed, and for all her doubts and worries and probably borderline insane fears, she had to admit it kind of had been.
As promised, the Uber driver already knew the address already. They drove Tamsin to a Vahkian restaurant way on the other side of the station, in a section she’d never been before, though Tashalos looked basically exactly the same wherever you went, apparently. She had always heard that said, but now that she had been in more than one section she knew it firsthand.
While the restaurant was packed with people, the waiter showed her to a table in a secluded corner, away from where most of the beings were eating. That was good because Tamsin didn’t think she was anywhere near dressed up enough to be allowed in the joint; everyone was wearing suits and ties and frocks and ball gowns and kimonos and caftans and togas and muumuus and vestments and all the other things the aliens wore, a melange of garbs of various cultures, but all of it was expensive-looking. Tamsin sank down a bit in the chair to hide her lack of finery.
An e-candle flickered on the tabletop. There was a door with the EXIT symbol on one side of the table. The dimly lit corridor that probably led to the bathrooms was on the other. “Please to turn off your communications device,” the Vahkian waiter requested. “The sounds of communications devices must not be allowed to interfere with the enjoyment of the meal.”
“Oh, sure,” Tamsin said, and obeyed him. “Can I have a Starbucks? Double shot, mocha?” The cookie the night before had been sooo good, now she was craving chocolate. “Just a tall.” Don’t fill up on Starbucks, stupid, she told herself, which was something she had done many times over the course of her life, back when going to restaurants was something she got to do regularly.
“But of course,” the waiter said, and brought her one. He asked her if she wanted to order, and she told him she’d wait for her friend to arrive, but the truth was she couldn’t read the menu, knew nothing about Vahk culture or cuisine, and didn’t have her guidebook to consult. She was scared of ordering something disgusting, and then having to eat it out of politeness.
She sat at the table waiting expectantly, sipping the hot drink, looking at the front door for Detective Buchanan to show up, in that nice-looking black suit she knew he’d put on only for her sake. He had a meeting, yeah, right. Just like she was sitting there at a fancy restaurant because he had “questions”, instead of at the police station. What a liar he was. She found it surprisingly endearing, maybe because it was so beautifully human. Aliens didn’t lie, if you asked them if your dress made you look fat, they’d give it to you with both barrels, no sugar coating it.
It surprised Tamsin that after everything she could still find Nicky’s boyish innocent lies sweet and charming. Apparently men could tell you good lies to counter all the bad ones you’d gotten told along the way. His intentions were what counted. He wanted to take her out to lunch, like he had fed her dinner and breakfast. Maybe he’d thought she would argue, so he lied. Or maybe he was embarrassed, he seemed to be that kind of guy, Nicky did, getting all embarrassed really easy for nothing, unlike Ash who didn’t have a shame gene in his body.
There was something very primitive about a man thrusting food in front of a hungry woman to win her over. It was just like the Chaboreth had said, a mating ritual. People dressed it up all sorts of ways to keep that reality at arm’s length, but way down deep inside that’s exactly what it was.
Maybe it wasn’t that aliens were like animals. Maybe it was human beings who were the most like animals all along.