written and illustrated by Iron Eater
I had never professionally worked with humans before, but just like any other civilized person I’d had my share of good-neighbor educational segments, so I already knew a little bit about them when I got notice of the new transfer. I’d been working solo at the Gaval De Autonomous Research Facility ever since Mijh (bless her ever-overworked heart) had finished her thesis and the university called her else-system, so I was definitely feeling the isolation; when you’re alone for too long the thought of being able to spend time around someone, anyone, starts sounding pretty good, no matter how unusual their anatomy. We could breathe the same air, endure the same temperatures and air pressures, and even eat the same food, which had not been a given on some of my past assignments. Once the powers that be assured me the new person wouldn’t get stuck on any of the architecture, I tried not to spend too much of my time guessing about the first sentient face I’d be seeing, other than my own, for months.
The thing about humans is that they have a reputation. You never want to paint an entire species with the same brush, but that wasn’t the same as observing evolutionary quirks. Humanity’s quirks were threefold: they were curious, which meant more often than not you could find them doing or exploring things just to see what would happen; they were durable, which sounded wrong when you took into account the lack of natural defenses but was hard to discount when you took stock of how much they could thrive in the most miserable environments; and they were horny, finding ways to test, and surpass, their sexual limitations with anyone who’d give them the time of day. Two of these were objectively valuable in a researcher. Number three…tell you the truth, I wasn’t so sure about number three.
It’s not like we’d be trapped inside a bottle together, I reminded myself as the big day drew near. People hear I work at a research station and assume I’m adrift amongst the stars, and this is technically true in the sense that’s how you’d define just about any planet in some bupkis nowhere solar system. Gaval De itself is blissfully landbound. We do a lot of botany, some food science, a little generalized ecology, that sort of thing, and it means anyone who gets assigned out here had better be ready to get dirt on their manipulating appendages or they’re going to hate life pretty quick. It also means there’s some simply beautiful views of the sun over the fields most days. So long as I was classy about it I knew I’d always have an excuse to step outside and away from it all.
During the long periods of waiting between bursts of activity that made up much of my routine I studied up on what to actually expect when sharing space with a member of Homo sapiens. When a species spreads across the galaxy like a robust slime mold there’s inevitably plenty to read about them. Results, naturally, were mixed.
Some accounts I read spoke of happy, professional relationships across decades of interaction. Other, more lurid tales skipped straight to somebody ravishing someone else, and these were generally so amateurishly conveyed they could’ve been pure fantasy. They could’ve been, that is, had there not been abundant evidence. I’m usually a reasonable man, and due to the law of averages I knew I’d probably never end up in that particular situation, but you try staying reasonable while being more-than-halfway convinced the next ship out will have a potential nymphomaniac aboard. Let me know how that one works out for you.
Soon enough the big day arrived. I keep on good terms with the supply crews—they’re usually the only other people I see this far out in the sticks—so we all chatted as I oversaw the deliveries. None of them looked any more ravished than usual (not that I was about to ask; there’s a big difference between being friendly and actually being friends, after all), which boded well. I didn’t really think there’d be problems, much in the way someone never truly thinks there’s a monster under the bed when they check, but this little nugget of proof nonetheless brought me the calm my frazzled self had been refusing to accept for weeks.
Some luggage-levs floated past, shepherded towards the indoor reception area by one of the crew, and I took this as my cue to look alive. The new guy was on that ship, somewhere! I felt stomach flips every time somebody stepped out of the ship and lost them the instant I recognized the familiar colors of crew gear. Were it me in there I’d have barreled out of those cramped quarters the moment I was given the go-ahead, so what was taking my coworker-to-be so long? They hadn’t managed to lose him, had they? Did humans fit into overhead compartments? If so, how difficult was it to extricate them? I know these thoughts sound ridiculous, and I knew they were ridiculous at the time, too. It didn’t make me less jittery.
Finally, at last, the human stepped out into the bay.
You can look at ten thousand different pictures of ten thousand different humans and sure enough, the next one you see won’t match any of those. I’d seen plenty of pictures of this one before—he was a future colleague and we live in a modern, civilized society, of course I’d seen pictures—so I’d known some of what to expect: brown skin, brown eyes, black hair worn twisted into long, heavy cords that brushed past his shoulders. Half of his head hair was styled that way, anyway, as the other half was shaved completely smooth to reveal a rather lovely set of geometric patterns. My personal research hadn’t implied anything about humans having markings of such complexity! Maybe it was a cultural thing. I knew I’d need to suss out whether or not it’d be rude before asking about it. At least I had long since learned how his short-cropped beard worked.
He seemed pretty average-sized for his species, which meant he came up to about shoulder height on my center mass. I’d worked with smaller. More importantly, he was neither too big nor too small to actually navigate the place unassisted. Neither of these are deal-breakers, you understand, but when resources are limited everything’s so much easier when people are autonomous. The new guy spotted me quickly and made his way over. It was time to make first contact.
“Hello! I’m Dr. Yousef Allgood, the transfer from Haumea Agricultural?” he said in a pleasant mid-range frequency. He made proper eye contact almost instantly. It’s such a small thing but I appreciated it all the same; I’ve dealt with a lifetime’s worth of outworlders who keep glancing askance when I’m just trying to have an adult conversation.
“Dr. Matra-Zin-Vezeket, at your service,” I said. “Welcome to Gaval De.” I extended a hand and he shook it. This, too, required refreshingly little prompting. “I stocked up on creature comforts for you based on the dossier I was sent, but you’ll have to forgive me if the replicators aren’t quite set up to your tastes yet. If we’re short on anything just let me know and I’ll let the powers that be stick it on the next delivery cycle.” I gestured in the direction the crewmate had herded his luggage. “Won’t you come in?”
It wasn’t quite as smooth a transition as that, since I did need to sign off on a few more things before the crew could legally leave, but in no time at all the new guy and I were safely inside and watching the transport ship’s thrusters vanish into the atmosphere. He seemed content to observe them in silence until the last little glow faded away. I liked him already.
No longer having anyone else around to impress I flopped onto a couch with a sigh of relief. Doing work in the bay can be the devil on my joints if the weather’s just the slightest bit wrong. “You got the formal greeting already, so please consider this the informal one,” I said. “It’s wonderful having someone else around again! I’ve read everything on you they bothered to send me. I’ve also never worked directly with humans before, so please do correct me if I still get something wrong.”
“Of course, doctor,” he replied as he took a seat across from me. Those words had the bright, slightly-mechanical air of a chef in someone else’s kitchen. Even if I hadn’t seen copies of his degrees I would’ve been able to smell the career researcher on him a mile away.
Just because I recognize my own kind doesn’t mean I have patience for all our peculiarities, of course. I scoffed. “We’re in the middle of nowhere and we’re both of comparable skill, so don’t feel like you have to use the title. If you’d prefer I still call you ‘doctor,’ of course…?”
“Please don’t. I’m happy working on a first-name basis with colleagues if you are.” He pursed his lips in thought, a charmingly human little tic. “Is the full name most correct, or do you have something else you’d prefer me to use?”
“So long as you credit me properly in your work, I don’t mind nicknames. ‘Zinc’ will do just fine.”
“Like the metal?”
When I’d first picked the nickname I’d been too much of a clueless kid to make the connection, but boy has it come in handy later on. “Precisely.”
It occurred to me, somewhat belatedly, that I had yet to be the most hospitable of welcoming committees; here I was, seated on some cushy furniture, without so much as asking my new station buddy if he wanted something to eat, or a chance to wash up, or if he’d like to know where his quarters would be. I was about to offer one of these options to Yousef when he kicked his feet up and stretched with a weary sigh. I could relate.
“Do you mind if we just talk here for a bit longer?” he asked. “I’m sore all over and still a little spacesick, and I’d like to at least get the basic getting-to-know-you parts out of the way before I go crash.”
I nodded to him as I figured out which of my own feet belonged on which piece of furniture. “How was your trip, anyway?”
Yousef wavered a hand. My pre-visit cramming sessions had taught me his culture used this to indicate the state of being so-so. I couldn’t help but be charmed by learning of another people that felt it important to quantify mediocrity. “As good as it could be,” he said.
“By which you mean you’re glad to be off that cramped little dinghy?”
He laughed and a little more of the tension around his shoulders ebbed away. “Am I ever. Even the ones designed to accommodate passengers are always a little bit horrible. That one was a lot horrible. They did their best, but….”
“But it’s still the equivalent of hitching a ride on a spacebound box car?”
We took our time chatting about our respective bad trips out here, and I for one was grateful to have a topic to focus on while I got used to small talk again and he got up to whatever went on inside his own head. He seemed happy to keep staring out the big service bay windows. Once he was feeling up to touring more of the facility I figured he’d love just how many windows around the place came with an actual view. For now, they ensured the gears of communication kept turning as we acclimated to one another.
Not that this meant our conversation stayed sterile. Yousef, I found, was just as keen on maintaining the good impression he’d made as I was in keeping up my own, and he was a fair sight braver than I was since he bothered to ask the sort of questions I was very good at drafting but terrible at voicing.
“Just to be sure I’m doing this right, you personally prefer eye contact with your ral, not your sudai, right?” he asked, gesturing to my parts in turn. “Socially, I mean. I know all three sets work.”
“For certain values of ‘work,’ anyway,” I said with a nod. I’ve worn prescription glasses since I was a kid and even using cutting-edge superlight materials they’re some serious cola-bottle lenses. Keeping all my sets up to date can be rough on the pocketbook between research grants, but they do at least go with the whole career aesthetic. I’ll be damned if I’m taking up pocket protectors, though.
He nodded back. “Good to know. You seemed fine with it back there,” he added, nodding towards the bay. “Just wanted to be sure.”
“I’d much rather you be sure than end up being rude for the sake of not saying anything. Goes both ways, of course, so if I’m fucking up, tell me. Text my PDA if saying so in person is awkward. I get it.”
“You talk like you’ve done this a lot,” said Yousef.
I shrugged. The longer I kept this up the more rust I could feel falling from my conversational gears, and I do have something in the way of social self-awareness. “I’ve spent my whole career around weird STEM people, myself included. Laying down the basics sucks, but at least it gets it over with and you don’t have to find out six months later that you’ve been slapping someone on the ink sac every morning.”
“Oh yes. It wasn’t me doing the deed or receiving it, but an important lesson was still learned, if you get my drift.”
Yousef made a small, amused noise through his nose. “That lesson being just how hard it is to get ink out of work clothes?”
“Deductive reasoning! Always an asset to members of our field.”
We let things ebb for a bit, him content to window-gaze and me more than happy to rest my taxed little vocal cords. Getting to know someone new always involves a bunch of unfamiliar sensations at once, at least for me, and so learning how his latent electrical patterns and heat emissions influenced the space around him was easier while I didn’t have to pay attention to what he was saying. I can’t tell you what a difference it makes to not have to think about that sort of thing.
The pamphlets they give us on new people are long on skills and allergies and things, but damnably short on personal details. I opted for the most pleasant way to show interest I could think of: asking after what Yousef’d been doing with that fancy doctorate of his. Find me someone with said paper on the wall who won’t tell you at least something about the path their life has taken and I’ll show you some credentials you ought to double-check.
“So what were you working on before coming out this way, anyway?”
At the time I didn’t notice the brief hesitation in his voice before he answered. “My last assignment was studying protein chains on the indigenous flora of Eurydice Upsilon VII.”
I’d heard of EU7 before. I tried not to use the common name for it, but no matter how much rust I’d shaken off, my social skills weren’t as fast as my mouth was. “That’s the sex pollen planet, right?” Believe me, the instant I realized what I’d said I felt like an asshole.
He sighed heavily. “Yes, it is, and yes, it comes by that nickname honestly. Did you know you can actually get bored of endless sex if there’s no chance to cut it with anything else? I had to learn that the har—the difficult way.” The way he phrased that I could feel him rebelling against a thousand bad puns long since spoken. “It works for some people, and it became increasingly clear to me that I’m very much not some people. When I heard about the opening here I jumped at the chance. Never looked back.” He leaned back in his seat, laced his fingers behind his head, and smiled. “I like it here already. It’s…peaceful.”
Those words were like a breath of crisp mountain air. A human who was fine with being less sexual? For all I knew that made him some sort of turbo-pervert among his own kind, and if so, he sounded like my kind of turbo-pervert. This also provided me a sympathetic opening that would hopefully make up for my blunder, at least in part. “I imagine just getting processed was an ordeal in and of itself.”
Yousef grimaced. “I spent a while in one of the orbital stations to shrug off the worst of things, but just because my head was clear didn’t mean I wasn’t a potential menace to others. They sure didn’t let me forget it! Felt like half my trip was spent making out with lung-scrubber equipment to keep from cross-contaminating anything.”
“Because of the spores, right,” I said with a nod. “I’m glad you don’t seem to be having any withdrawal symptoms. That is, if you are, I certainly don’t notice them. If you want some air purifiers for your quarters just in case, I think we’ve got some in storage.”
“Thanks, I should be good. Assuming nothing has mutated during my trip out here I’m supposedly well-suited to this biome.”
I nodded again. “The crops grow, I interpret numbers from how they grow, and save for one planting season ending and another starting we don’t see anything else of note. Sometimes I go on nature walks to see how the local flora is doing, making sure we aren’t doing anything to the soil and water that the place doesn’t like, right? I can say with confidence that there’s been an overwhelming amount of nothing going on with the trees and flowers. Gets me out of the lab, at least.”
“I’d lose my mind without a weight room or something to spice up my personal time,” agreed Yousef. He looked me over thoughtfully. I let him; first contact is always a trying time, in many different ways, and it wasn’t like I hadn’t been busy trying to figure him out myself over the past hour or so. Like the motivational poster says, respect is a two-way street. “I’ve got to say, this talk is going somewhere different than I was expecting.”
“What were you expecting?”
“Requests for sex stories, honestly.”
Color flooded my face. What if he was going to use those stories as a segue into a proposition? Worse, what if he was straight? I put my hands against my cheeks as though I could manhandle my pigmentation back under control. “I am just fine without hearing any.”
Yousef laughed in surprise. “No, really, I’m fine without sharing them, too. Listen…it’s Zinc, right?” He waited for my assent before continuing. “I will gladly discuss my actual work on Eurydice Upsilon VII, and maybe I’ll change my mind about things later on, but for now? Right now, if nobody ever asks me again about spending years of my life in an endless fuck cycle, it will be far too soon.”
“I’m happy to regard that part of your professional experience as exactly that,” I said. I concentrated and felt a wave of tingly calm wash over me; a quick check revealed my chromatophores were returning to normal little by little. “How about this: I won’t ask anything not related to a job we’ve been tasked to do, you don’t have to bring it up unless you want to, and we’ll pretend we’re both monks in the interim.”
“Monks, huh? Are we expected to illuminate our findings?”
“I was thinking less piety, more Punnett squares. The soil here grows peapods like you would not believe.”
“That sounds like my kind of boring. You’ve got a deal.” We leaned in across the coffee table and shook hands again. His skin was warm and smooth, and something about the lingering traces of the sanitizing gels clinging to it made my palm tingle a little. What’s even in that stuff? I swear I’ve had half a dozen different sensations from half a dozen gel-tinged handshakes. Curious chemicals aside it was a pleasingly innocent interaction. I couldn’t have been happier.
Yousef stood with a another stretch, sauntered over towards where his luggage still remained in a levitating heap, and nudged the bags with his foot. “Guess I should go get some of this put up before I tap out,” he said. “Would you mind showing me my quarters? I’m having a nice time but I know I’m going to run out of juice sooner than later, and I’d rather not end my first day passed out in a heap in the hallway.”
“Can’t be having that. Right this way….”
I picked up one of the guidance prods and began to guide part of his massive pile of suitcases in the direction of his suite. The me from the day before would’ve been absolutely beside himself to think of having a human anywhere he couldn’t see. The me from the day before was something of a wuss. It all goes to show you the power of a little positive inter-species interaction. We’d survived our introductions, after he rested we’d survive me showing him around the station proper, and we were well on our way to fostering an excellent working environment where the science would get done while nobody ravished anybody else.
Now all we had to do was keep it up.
We settled into a comfortable groove over the coming weeks. Our schedules were similar enough that we could easily socialize, different enough that there wasn’t much risk of us needing the same instruments at once, and relaxed enough that if the worst happened and we did have to double up it wasn’t a big deal. Having an extra set of hands to help keep things clean was a treasure. Even if we hadn’t had a thing to say to one another that alone would have been a nigh-immeasurable quality of life improvement. And that doesn’t even begin to touch how nice it was to have someone who’d help cook! We made a chore chart for ourselves and everything. I felt like quite the fool for ever suspecting the arrangement would be anything but harmonious.
Living with a human became its own form of people-watching. Yousef needed less sleep than I did, staying awake in one long session instead of my usual two waking cycles per day, which gave me valuable insight into the habits of a less crepuscular person. Mornings would see hygiene, a light meal, and perhaps some light exercise before suiting up for lab work, midday was a mystery for reasons already established, and his vespertine hours would see a larger meal paired with much more intense physical activity, punctuated by a shower before he gave himself over to leisure, itself lasting until bedtime. It just seemed like so much for a single person to do in a single set of waking hours, and yet that was how he approached every day that wasn’t scheduled for rest. I still get tired thinking about it.
Yousef, for his part, seemed equally fascinated by my aladryy. I hadn’t heeded his interest at first—slow-paced station schedule or not, I did have work to be doing—but once I did, it was as inescapable as noticing a glyph hidden in a logo: every time he passed I caught him stealing glances at where my aladryy rested in the little pet bed I’d gotten to help pass the slower tests.
I should probably explain the pet bed. My workspace can be cramped, you see, and the last thing I needed was to deal with pins and needles all over that part of myself any time I needed to take a leak after sitting for too long, so even if it felt a little demeaning I’d found great solace in curling up on a fuzzy cushion reading woof woof woof all over it in different whimsical scripts. You take what you can get out here.
What I was not about to take was any creepy looky-loo nonsense from a new acquaintance I’m pretty sure I outranked at the end of the day. I was 95% sure he didn’t mean anything by it. That last five? That was enough to spur me to do something.
The next time I spied him looking for a little too long I lifted my aladryy head and snapped my teeth at him with what I hoped was playful energy. “Take a picture, it’ll last you better.”
“Christ!” he said, jumping back like he was trying not to get burned. He recovered quickly and bothered to look me properly in the ral. “Sorry, Zinc. Didn’t expect your voice would come out of there.”
“All my vocal cords work, I assure you,” I said, this time out of my sudai mouth. I almost never talk out of my sudai—I think it makes me sound weird—but if he noticed how rough my words were from lack of use he was polite enough not to say anything.
Yousef looked embarrassed. “I am so, so sorry,” he said. “I’ve been trying so hard not to be the shitty alien, here, but—”
“But there’s a difference between sensitivity courses and actually not being a dick in person,” I finished for him with a grin I hoped didn’t look too mean-spirited.
“I was trying to understand you more organically before I said anything. You know, see what questions answered themselves just by paying attention.”
“Well, you’re not the only one trying to collect data points by observation,” I said. Honesty seemed like the best policy, and it wasn’t like I hadn’t been studying him like a bug whenever I thought he wasn’t looking. “Let’s both admit we were fucking up non-maliciously and strive to mutually do better. Might as well start today.” I stood my aladryy up and stretched. I was still half in my PPE from the turbine inspections I’d been running that morning, though I’d taken off my booties—I don’t know about you but I can barely sleep with socks on, much less chemical-resistant flexicloth that’s neither very cloth nor very flexi—so I hoped I still came off sufficiently professional. Having stretched, I hopped up on a spare chair before sitting down on my haunches. “What’s so interesting about this part of me, anyway?”
Yousef took a seat across from me. “Well, the shape is what’s got my attention the most. See, human cultures, ever since our homeworld days, are big on animals, especially for companionship. We’re still like that, in general. And your aladryy looks nothing like the most common creatures we keep, save for the number of legs, but my brain still sees this part of you and thinks, oh, look, a weird dog, I wonder if I can pet it.” He grimaced. “Wow, that sounds even worse out loud than it did in my head, and it wasn’t great there, either.”
“Explain to me what a dog is, again?” Aside from knowing what local fauna posed a risk to the experimental crops, xenozoology was not and never has been my strong suit.
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with wolves…?”
“I wouldn’t be able to pick out a picture of one, but I get the idea. Pack animals, predators, fairly intelligent, tend to get associated with ruthlessness or cunning. Among other things, but that’s symbolism for you.”
He nodded. “That’s basically it. What my ancestors did was look at this quadrupedal mammal and decide they wanted one of those, but different. Turns out they’re really, really easy to breed for traits, so we took an apex predator and took out the parts we didn’t want and taught what was left to love us. Now it’s really easy for us to look at anything on four legs and think it’s in the same category.”
I wrinkled my nose. I was pretty sure that wasn’t something most animals did, at least not the way my aladryy could, since it’s not like I have a muzzle. At least he hadn’t tried to pet me. “Can’t say that feels great to hear,” I said. I ruffled my frills, irritated. Agreeing to do better by one another probably wasn’t supposed to involve a colleague saying they saw one-third of your biomass as something they instinctively wanted to touch. He, or at least his most base self, wanted to pet me? Even though he knew I wasn’t an animal, even though he saw how carefully I kept my distance? The idea made my skin crawl.
“You can see why I wanted to keep it to myself,” said Yousef. “I thought, maybe if I could just internalize enough clearly intelligent behaviors of yours, that’d do it.”
“Was it working?”
“Yes and no? I’m sorta internalizing that this,” —he gestured at my aladryy— “is as much a part of you as the rest. It’s taking time. I’ve never worked with a hivemind before, so I’m not used to there being so much of a person involved at once.”
Oh, so that was part of it. It sadly wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. “Well, there’s your problem. Hivemind implies I’m separate people, and I’m not,” I corrected. “Before you ask, I’m not a symbiotic relationship between separate convergently evolved organisms, either. Common misconception! I’m just me, stem to stern, simply in more places at the same time than you are. That’s it.”
“Duly noted,” he said with a nod. He looked thoughtful. “Does that ever get confusing? Having three bodies at once, I mean?”
“Do you ever get confused by having two hands at once?”
Yousef cracked a little self-effacing smile at this. “Zinc, some days I can barely make a sandwich without risking personal injury, so I’m going to have to say yes.”
I laughed. What else could I do? He wasn’t getting defensive like the last person I’d spoken to like this (long since transferred off-planet, good fucking riddance), he’d been trying to understand me a little better on his own time before coming to me with questions, he’d clearly been trying to unpack some of those human instincts of his, and most importantly he’d been keeping his hands off me. All that, and he was willing to crack jokes at his own expense. It made me wonder what kind of life he’d lived to have so much decency front-loaded into himself. That was probably when I actually started believing there was more to him than a species reputation and a long stint on EU7. I’m ashamed it took me so long, too.
“Seriously, man, I’m sorry about this fuck-up of mine,” continued Yousef. “Can I make it up to you somehow? Aside from the boring learning-and-growing part that I really hope is assumed.”
What would be a good way to validate my aladryy’s status as part of my overall personhood that’d click with who he was as a species and an individual? Something tactile that wasn’t direct physical contact, maybe, but tied into a decidedly non-animal behavior…ah, of course!
I batted at the frames of my spectacles with a forefoot. “As penance, can you help me clean my glasses? Hands-on reminder for you, since I’m pretty sure dogs don’t wear those.” I could tell at a glance my aladryy set was absolutely filthy and grimaced, once more self-conscious. “Feels like my hands are always busy whenever I notice, and the nearest vibro-wash with foot controls is on the other side of the station.”
“Oh, yeah, I know that pain. I used to wear ’em right up until I hit my teens.” He waited for me to slip my specs off against the corner of a table before he took them; his timing was equally considerate as I rummaged for my bottle of lens spray and one of the many microfiber cloths I kept in the pockets of my lab coat. Timing our interactions was part of the daily routine by that point. We’d been doing a pretty good job of leaving some room for the saints and martyrs, as befit a pair of monks.
The thing was, Yousef didn’t wear glasses, and all his charts said his eyes were the original meat, but he still cleaned prescription eyewear like a pro. He didn’t even have trouble with the HUD projector clipped to them. I tilted my ral head in confusion. The way he’d phrased things, there was implicit permission to pry, and so pry I did. “What happened in your teens?”
“Laser surgery! Fixed things right up.”
I knew what both of those words meant on their own but together they made about as much sense as a frog spot supernova. At least you could assume the latter would be green. “Laser…what?”
He shrugged “You know, the thing where they fire these really delicate lasers into your eyes to tweak the inner workings. I was ready to take myself back home the same day, not that my parents would let me.”
“You pointed lasers into your eyes?“
“Not strong ones! And it was a trained specialist who did the pointing, not me.”
“And doing this made you see…better.”
He nodded, checking my glasses for smudges against the lights as he did so. “Sure did. I don’t even need contact lenses. Medical technology can do the most amazing stuff these days.” He polished away a few final streaks before returning my glasses, spray, and cloth to the nearby counter. I held still and slid my lenses back on with my sudai hands. The world came back into crystal clarity, complete with the usual interface overlay I relied on for what felt like half my work some days. He really had done a good job.
“I’d heard stories about human durability, but they left out the part where you could fix yourselves like that,” I said, cautiously. I’d just scolded him for being weird about anatomy and I didn’t need to go making the exact same mistake now that I was in his shoes.
“Oh, yeah, that’s us, the most fragile yet unkillable species you’ll ever meet,” said Yousef, brightly. “I should tell you about the time I broke my leg when I was a kid.”
He was still standing upright on both, and dossier mentioned no prostheses, so I was officially stumped. “Did it involve more lasers?” I asked.
“Just a cast! You familiar with the concept?” I shook my head. “That’s a thing where you set a broken bone and brace it with sturdy materials to keep it immobilized while it heals,” he explained. “Took forever, it felt like, but it fixed itself up just fine. After that I was a lot more careful picking which trees to climb whenever we visited my grandparents’ arcology.”
I goggled. You hear about humans overcoming adversity as this abstract thing, up there with which species need to hydrate regularly and which ones require a high-chlorine gas mixture to breathe. They’re sensitive to everything, but they can recover from anything, you think to yourself, like a fun fact on a trading card. Then you end up in the same room with someone who is human and he’s telling you that he has 1) broken a bone without suffering traumatic system shock and 2) healed off said break by splinting it and leaving it alone for a little while and you find your whole reality getting challenged. I was still trying to not get all weird about it.
“Is this the power of eating a midday meal instead of sleeping during those hours like reasonable people?” I asked, for lack of something more clever to say.
Yousef smiled and offered me a shrug. “I’m not saying lunch gives my species superpowers, but I’m not saying it doesn’t.”
“Well, you’re welcome to your super-strength or whatever. If I try to stay awake through my day-sleep I get very anxious. I’m sure it served my primitive ancestors well, but I don’t recommend having your enlightenment guided by the need to quickly evaluate information for danger. There’s consequences. Whoever designed the workings of our brain chemistry was clearly working on a deadline.”
“Too late. We don’t broadcast it as much as the other stuff, but anxiety is something humans are also good at.”
“We’ve never had fangs or claws or venom, and a whole lot of stuff evolving next to us sure did. Shit, we’re not even that big. At least your people got some camouflage out of it.”
I glanced at the pattern taking up the shaved side of his head. Come to mention it, it had always looked the same from day to day, and it didn’t match the color of the few freckles he had. Here I was assuming it was an act of will that kept it looking so perfect when it wasn’t a matter of chromatophores at all. “I keep forgetting that there’s plenty of species that are the same colors all the time,” I said, sheepishly. What a good job I was doing of not making assumptions! “Do you have to draw it on every day?”
“What, my tattoo? Nah, it’s permanent. Most tattoos are.”
I’d heard that word before but hadn’t really clicked to how they ended up on a person. “Right, so how did you get it to stay?”
“I’ll spare you the details, but it’s all needles and subdermal ink, my friend.”
The conversation went elsewhere after that, but I looked it up later. I nearly fainted; not only is it just as painful as getting thousands of insect stings sounds, it’s not even strictly a cultural thing. Sometimes it’s just for fun! Sometimes they get drunk and think it’s a good idea to get another one! And yes, by “another one” I mean they can and do get multiples, willingly, sometimes over multi-hour sessions that span across weeks or even months of healing. All so they can look a little more like they want to.
Humans are terrifying.
Paradigms first shifted when I decided I would take inspiration from my new human friend (we were definitely a little closer than colleagues by then) and try to hit the gym a little more often than my old routine allowed for, said routine being “never.” I’d been around the gym before, especially since it connects to the pool area, but Yousef actually found use for all that fancy equipment. As there were enough treadmills in there for the both of us, all it took was a little bit of encouragement from him over dinner one evening and there I was the next morning in some truly horrible drawstring pants.
Yousef liked to claim he was just another scientist and his fitness routine wasn’t anything special, but I am just another scientist, and I’ll tell you what: I learned very quickly that I should not keep pace with his jogs. My resultant cardio routine could be charitably described as a meander with purpose. We will not speak about the free weights. They’re weights, they’re heavy! It’s in the name! Carrying heavy things is for people who don’t compare liposoluble protein structures all day! Or at least ones who aren’t me!
After a little time spent trundling towards self-improvement I’d gotten it into my fool head that the cable weight machine would provide me the resistance training that my usual habits clearly were not, and the safe-usage videos I’d watched the night before had made it look so easy. The cable weights seemed a lot safer than the other options, after all, and hadn’t I hitched a little wagon to myself to carry my books during grad school? I’d hardly been a track and field star, but the muscles in my hind legs still had a little leftover definition from those days, I was sure of it.
It turned out that grad school had been a lot longer ago than I expected.
“You okay over there?”
I’d picked workout shoes with a good tread on them (yes, I owned some, and yes, they barely got used), I’d selected just shy of the minimum available weight, I’d secured my harness nice and snug so I could use as many muscle groups as possible while pulling, and all of this meant jack and shit. I might as well have been trying to pull out a section of the wall. The machine said it was only providing a set amount of mass, and I knew I could move that much with a pull-dolly based on my experience with loading and unloading the harvesters. Was it really so different when you didn’t have levs to help? Just how far had I let myself go?
The situation called for calm thinking. I was in no state to be thinking calmly but I could try to reevaluate what all I was doing wrong, even as my nerves jangled at me like I’d been pulling an all-nooner. I went down the line, checking each fastener between me and an intentionally undisclosed amount of mass. I didn’t see any problems with the spooling apparatus for the cable. The screen informed me I’d selected the desired weight and that everything was ready for me to go. I’d even removed the little lock-pin gizmo you’re supposed to leave in this sort of equipment to keep newbies like me from mangling themselves with it. Nothing. Surely there had to be something I was missing, here. Maybe it’d needed a moment to fire up? A lot of the gym had been left to the maintenance nanos when Mijh left, after all, so maybe there were months of firmware updates humming along in the background. Maybe the free weights would be a better choice, except I knew I’d be thwarted by even the daintiest of those stacked, candy-colored dumbbells.
All these thoughts and more ran through my head as I, owner and operator of a rather involved doctorate, continued to be unable to operate a piece of equipment any meathead worth their triceps could use blindfolded. One I thought I’d prepared to use. Not my finest hour.
Yousef was still on the treadmill, but based on the sound of his sneakers against the belt he was going much slower than before. I could feel his eyes on me even as I focused all three sets of my own on the devil’s machine to which I’d tethered my aladryy. My skin rippled with green and purple blotches of humiliation.
“You sure you’re okay?”
I strained, unsuccessfully, on the pull cable. “I’m just…out of shape, alright? This is embarrassing.” If he didn’t know what that pattern meant before, he sure did now.
This was getting ridiculous. I could remember half a dozen safety regulations for this thing, everything from how to keep my frills or tails from getting tangled in the mechanisms to proper cool-down exercises after I was done with my training for the day, but in spite of all this knowledge the esteemed Dr. Matra-Zin-Vezeket found himself unable to pick up a supposedly not-too-heavy object. Some schools of thought might view such a flaw as proof of the shackles of intellect. As for myself, I was too busy trying not to completely lose it in front of someone else to worry about whether my sheltered upbringing has rendered me unable to survive in the wild. The answer is yes, for the record, and I’d much rather live in a cozy laboratory instead of a swampy-ass cave surrounded by bigger, scarier apex predators any day of the week.
“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” I muttered to myself. It must’ve been louder than I thought since the sound of Yousef’s treadmill slowed to a stop, replaced by footsteps that approached where I slumped in defeat. He didn’t laugh at me, though, or even give me much more than a glance, as his target was the screen still promising me I could begin any moment now. He frowned at it in thought.
“Did it have trouble registering your profile when you set it up earlier?”
“What profile?” I asked. Then, “Wait, was it not set up before?”
“I looked at it the first time I checked this place out a few days after I first got here. It got this far in its most recent maintenance cycle, but it needs admin access to commit everything.”
“Where’s it say that?”
He pointed to a tiny alert in the corner of the screen, one I’d taken for a stray UI element. “We had one of these back at my old assignment. You can probably guess why all our gym equipment was constantly having to initiate self-repair and update protocols.” Yousef grinned self-consciously. “Sorry if that’s too much information. I’ve been having to re-learn how to filter what I say around other people.”
“It’s the least surprising discovery in the world that EU7’s resident researchers did a lot of fucking on the gym equipment,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. I’m a hermit, not a prude.”
Yousef tinkered with the alert and enlarged it to a far more readable size. “I didn’t have the access before to do this, but let’s see if…,” His voice trailed off as his eyes and fingers alike flicked across the screen, coaxing the system to perform a final shutdown and reboot cycle. With a hum, a click, and a musical chime, the thing clattered back to life. He put it through its paces with a practiced hand. Some quick checks verified that everything was up to date and ready to go. It’d even saved my settings from before! Technology is incredible.
Once he was satisfied with the device’s startup routine, Yousef stepped back and gave me plenty of room to try again. I went through all the safety steps one more time (you can never be too careful) before standing my non-aladryy bodies to one side, bracing my sneakers against the ground, and giving things another shot.
So, about this particular machine. It was a pretty standard resistant fitness setup: the person in the harness pulls, holding the weights in place for a set number of seconds, then once those seconds expire the floor belt moves you slowly backwards to your starting point while you maintain that tension. It simulates a hand or leg easing the weight back down, right? Generally much easier on the body than trying to walk backwards. You could, I guess, since there’s settings for that, but that’s for people who see the inside of a gym for reasons other than cutting through to the pool. The important thing to know is that there are two directions your aladryy is expected to move during the process, as well as some expectations of speed.
Thing is, neither Yousef nor I realized that in addition to needing to finish that system maintenance of its, the machine had not been calibrated to re-understand the local pressure and gravity. These things get installed in all sorts of places with all sorts of physics, and their performance presets default to a frictionless void. They assume you’ve saved your environmental settings locally so it can do some partial restores without a calibration, but that requires someone to actually have used the thing within the last few years. You can probably see where I’m going with this.
I pulled hard, expecting the same crushing resistance as before, and this time I nearly dislocated my shoulder as I rocketed ahead, only to knock the wind out of myself by hitting the end of the slack fast before I was then ripcorded backwards to collide with the rest of myself. People have been getting thrown into themselves since time immemorial, especially after the invention of dickhead older brothers, but there’s a difference between dipshit kids being dipshit kids and the weight of a grown adult’s aladryy getting launched into their own stomach. I staggered, my balance failing me, and smacked my right shoulders directly into a very solid support structure. My sudai seized up from the pain and lost its usually impeccable grip, which left that part of my anatomy to skid off and plop flat on my back to wiggle my graspers helplessly in the air while I altogether felt like the biggest idiot in the land.
“This looks worse than it is,” I croaked, hoping my glasses HUD wasn’t lying to me when it said nothing was broken.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t even think to check the defaults. Are you hurting?”
“Lots.” The pain in my everything was starting to ebb now that I’d caught my breath, similar to wanging a knee on a doorframe. I got my sudai righted with less effort than I’d feared. The gym floor was cold on my exposed chemical membranes. “Would you mind turning around for a moment? I don’t like reattaching myself in front of other people.”
He whirled around and flashed me a thumbs up. I felt my pigmentation coming back under control as I clambered back into my proper spot. I sighed with relief as I locked into place and swung my graspers against my sides. I’m not one of those people who gets all peculiar about needing to re-seat myself into a cannular passage or two during the day—or unseating myself, for that matter—but it’s like scratching your junk, right? You just don’t do it in public if you can help it.
Having my sudai back where it belonged didn’t make me hurt any less, unfortunately, and I probably would’ve sat in a pile on the floor like a baby if Yousef hadn’t offered me his hand. I took it without hesitation; there is a time and a place for pride, and it is not when you’ve just gone bowling with yourself as the ball and pins alike. I was sure to use both right hands, just in case my sudai got any more smart ideas about being able to keep a firm hold on things, and he responded to my stubby little ral fingers closing over his by placing his other hand over the lot. He helped pull me up with embarrassing ease. I’ve always been pretty wispy—much like the glasses, it goes well with the career—and while that didn’t make him any larger than before he sure didn’t have any trouble walking me to a bench. Humans can fit a lot of core strength into those bantamweight frames of theirs.
Yousef fussed over me once I was seated somewhere that wasn’t the ground itself. He checked my glasses (all three sets accounted for), went through some simple procedures to see if I was concussed, and got me some water. I wasn’t surprised he knew to do all this and how, mind you; you’re legally required to have basic first aid training before accepting assignments this remote, and the safety regulations people insist we extend that knowledge to apply to any and all lifeforms that will be working with us. SSSHA lays down fines with a fist of iron and leaves a trail of smoldering slapdash scientists in its wake, so for the sake of my job I’ve always done along with whatever Triple-S tells me to. It was nice to know the other person on the station was in a similar camp even if the circumstances could’ve been better.
That fussing of Yousef’s wasn’t the only thing I noticed. My skin tingled where he’d made contact, a little like it had back on the day he’d arrived. It definitely wasn’t the result of sterilizing gel this time, though; it was if anything more intense than our first handshake. It couldn’t have been anything else causing the reaction, either, since that tingly feeling was only in the spots he’d touched. I couldn’t make sense of it. Hadn’t we brushed by each other before without incident? Usually that was just a clothed arm against another clothed arm, or two people in PPE trying to sidestep around each other in a tight hallway, but I could have sworn I remembered the occasional friendly knuckle bump or back-pat. On one occasion I’d even had to crash out for midday on a couch he’d just recently vacated, and that hadn’t involved any phenomena worth noting beyond a warm spot. What in the world was happening?
Whatever it was, it clearly wasn’t entirely internal. “You don’t look so hot, Zinc. Need any painkillers?”
“It’s not that,” I said. “All of a sudden it’s…like I’m getting a head rush. But not entirely in my head.” I swallowed hard with each throat; my mouths felt dry in spite of the water. I guzzled the rest of the bottle anyway as I tried to approach the situation rationally. What was wrong with me? You don’t pass Triple-S certifications without learning how to recognize common maladies in yourself, so I was pretty sure this wasn’t a panic attack (which, before you ask, I am no more prone to than any other neurotypical member of my species), but that didn’t explain the cloudy-headed feeling, the shortness of breath, the slight paranoia, the—
Oh. I wasn’t getting sick, I was getting high, and as my straight-laced self had so little experience to draw upon I’d been guessing in the entirely wrong direction. Laugh all you like! I live a boring life and prefer it that way! “Are there any chemicals on your skin that usually aren’t there?” I asked him. “Any different substances you’ve been working with, anything your body secretes at certain cycles…?”
He frowned in concern. “All I can think of is how I’m a little sweaty from the treadmill.”
“Maybe that’s it,” I said. “Usually you’ve had time to shower up before we’re around each other again.” I swallowed hard. I swore I could feel every set of pupils dilating, even though he’d not even poked my aladryy. “What’s in human perspiration, anyway?”
“Water, mostly. Some biochems. Salt.”
“Salt…?” I murmured. “Humans sweat sodium chloride?“
“I know you salt your meals. What makes this so much different?” He paused. “Wait, is sodium chloride a chemical carrier for you?”
It was getting harder for me to focus on things. “Something like that. We’re really sensitive to it. ‘s why I put so much on everything, helps me digest. Gotta give all the nutrients a fair shake.” That was at least somewhat true, and it was not the time for him to evaluate how much of my eating habits were chemically based and how many were because I’m always craving salty foods, so I didn’t feel bad about fibbing in the name of science.
Yousef groaned and pressed his hands against his eyes. “Oh, no.”
“What’s ‘oh no’?”
“That stupid EU7 floramatter is apparently still working its way out of my system.”
The world was in soft focus now, like the steamier parts of a cheap serial. “So you’re…sweating sex pollen?”
“Just residuals, and only in trace amounts, but given how it bonds with electrolytes and how you don’t have any tolerance for it at all….”
“It’s probably a good idea to go lock myself somewhere private?”
“Yeah, probably.” Yousef cringed as he spoke; I could tell by the way he held his hands he was used to physically comforting someone in distress, and here my careless self was, all goofed up from skin-to-skin contact. I felt bad for putting him on the spot like this. He continued talking even as he kept his distance. “Take care of yourself, man. Message me if things take a turn for the worse and I’ll, I don’t know, slide something under the door?”
“Yeah, I’ll keep you posted,” I said as I collected my gym bag. We both pretended not to notice how I was holding it in front of my ral’s hard-on. “Sorry to make things weird.”
He waved me off. “It’s fine. Go rest.”
Consider it a testimony to just how bad off I was that I did not spend the next few minutes apologizing but instead turned and left the gym for whatever distant sanctuary my room could provide.
I was, somehow, able to get back to my quarters without incident. By then the high was evolving into what I suspected was going to be a real rip-snorter of an aphrodisiac fit and I did not need to be around anyone else until I came down. Not even the lingering soreness from my weight machine misadventure could cut it. Some ascetic I was! As I fumbled with the access panel I vowed to myself that I’d keep myself cloistered for an entire week if I had to, deadlines be damned. I owed Yousef that much.
Once inside my first action was to lock the door behind me. My second was to jerk off until I was too sensitive to continue, which was satisfying in only the basest, most mechanical sense. It had all the gratification of scratching at an itchy bug bite: a moment’s reprieve tempered with the subconscious knowledge that I was likely only making things worse for future me. A shame they don’t make boner-soothing calamine, you know? My necessary task thus finished, I peeled myself out of my now very funky workout clothes, showered up as best I could in my woozy state, and collapsed onto the bed to attempt to ride out the rest of the effects. All this and I was still raring to go. It was terrible.
You might wonder why I’m making such a big deal about this. It was just a case of too much horny, right? On the surface, sure, that’s all it was, but at the time I was so consumed with this unfocused need to get laid somehow that I could barely function. Right up until I came I was so aroused it was actually starting to hurt. What was that like for more sensitive species? What was it like for people who had to breathe it every day? I hadn’t planned on visiting Eurydice Upsilon VII at any point in my lifetime, but if one dose of diluted secondhand exposure was enough to do this to me, I knew for a fact it’d be downright hazardous to my health to risk a trip anywhere near planetside. Still shivering and helpless, I gained a newfound respect for Yousef for being able to get anything done with that shit in his system.
What were the evolutionary benefits of such a powerful aphrodisiac? Everything I knew about the EU7 atmosphere implied that said floramatter worked on any form of sexually reproducing life, and even visitors who didn’t need a partner to conceive offspring reported feeling off. Did whatever emitted the pollen rely on orgone for its life cycle or something? Most scientific bodies take a dim view of trying to quantify free-floating sexual energy as a fuel source, but the thing about science is that it’s always one step away from a brand new breakthrough. There was probably a much more plausible explanation to be had. Until I learned what it was, though, I was content to spend my self-inflicted quarantine assuming that the planet’s plant life relied on a source other than photosynthesis for its energy.
My quarters have never felt crushingly small but they are very much designed assuming I can sleep like a normal person, all tucked up front to back to front to back, so spreading myself out where I wasn’t at risk of touching myself was easier said than done. I’d ended up detaching my sudai to lie, sorely, on the floor (I’d squashed it a bit when I first lay down too hard on my back), with my aladryy up on the desk and my ral taking the bed by dint of being biggest. Save for some towels folded up under my shower-wet hair I hadn’t bothered with blankets. Why risk wrapping myself up in fabric when I could barely lie still without overstimulating myself? It was awkward and uncomfortable, and it was going to have to do.
The awkwardness actually gave me something to focus on that my dreadful id couldn’t find a way to sexualize. It was like the evil twin of a mindfulness exercise, where I put great attention on how cold and light my back felt without a sudai to rest against it, how weird and empty my front felt without a ral to rest against, and most of all how much I didn’t like lying on a work desk with my loosened tail fronds draped over the edge like so much roadkill. Just because I keep a pet bed in the lab doesn’t mean I can shove my aladryy any-old-where! Meditating on these things got me the rest of the way through the first two hours, and while I still wasn’t sober at the end of that I finally didn’t feel like I was getting worse. That the touch of a finger against my arm was still too much for me was proof I still had a long way to go before I’d be over it, though.
Have you ever tried to put on a pair of glasses without touching your own skin? Have you ever tried to do so without the use of thumbs? Putting a pair on my aladryy sounded like a good idea at the time—as with most aladryys, my sight is best through that set of eyes, and if my hands were still too shaky to type I figured I could at least rely on the HUD’s retinal tracking to turn on some music or something—but I’d forgotten how much casual contact this requires at the best of times. Long story short I had to squeeze my eyes shut and think about how much I didn’t like what was happening until some of that hot blood of mine could cool off again. Maybe there’s people out there who would’ve paid good money for the experience, but going into my third hour of being too horny to function all I could think about was how bored I was.
Was this the same it’d been for Yousef on his first day on that damned planet? Had he had it easier, since he only had the single body to wrangle, or had everything being in the same place made it worse? What was it like for people who couldn’t just rest their back against their ral to process toxins faster? The moment I wasn’t too sensitive for it I knew what I’d be doing. I’d never gotten so wasted as to need a hangover sling the next day, but I’d seen how much some of my friends would put away during grad school, and those who had an aladryy to tote around in a dorky little papoose were always back in top condition faster than lighter-drinking friends who had to go without. Sure, you do have the sorts who always carry their aladryys around like that no matter what, but they tend to be into weirdo stuff like never unwinding their tails in public and wearing bonnets when leaving the house. Something about never perceiving too much of the world and vice versa, I think? Purity culture gives me the heebie-jeebies.
I tried thinking about work but my thoughts were just too cottony, and the last thing I needed was associating a favorite book or program with my current miserable state. It was like trying to fall asleep with a headache and a boner at the same time. I tried brushing a forefoot against my cock (still erect, though I’d had a few blissful bouts of softness on and off throughout the ordeal) and was once again rewarded with that all-encompassing feeling of Too Much for my trouble.
What was I supposed to do with myself while waiting to become sufficiently desensitized to endure jerking off again? A logical soul such as myself is prone to filling their idle hours with curiosity, and by the time I gave up on guided meditation I’d resigned myself to my fate, so with great effort I was able to interface my HUD with my PDA to noodle around on the station’s modest-but-serviceable uplink. Maybe I could catch up on the latest industry findings. Surely there was a new paper on soil composition I could read, right? I’d assumed I’d recovered enough for music, too, and I’d fumble-browsed most of the way to one of my favorite relaxation playlists up until an ad played at the wrong time.
It was a totally innocuous ad, just a pair of bipeds taking a stroll on the beach while someone read off the boilerplate for some extremely personal medication or another, but that physical proximity was enough to send my thoughts into single-minded overdrive. This had nothing to do with how appealing I found either of them—I was getting turned on by the weave on my comforter at the time—but whatever was going on in my brain didn’t care; suddenly I needed to know how their species fucked, and my PDA would know no rest until I was enlightened. Information like this is trivial to find when you’re sober. When you’ve been knocked for a loop by alien plant jizz? Not so much.
I sublimated the urge to touch myself into research as much as I could. I had the gist of it already: take Person 1, apply to Person 2 through whatever means were deemed appropriate, repeat as desired. Only needing to keep track of a single body at a time sounded pretty convenient in terms of reproduction. Then again, that convenience also means you can end up with a zygote in the oven much more easily, since you can’t just pick a body to sit things out so the chemical receptors fail to harmonize during the act. Yes, yes, the gay hermit scientist knows how babies are made; I did pay attention in health class, you know. What I didn’t know was how these things managed it.
Turns out the bipeds in question reproduced by releasing genetic material into bodies of water with all the fanfare of washing their hands, like fish but even less sensual, and while they certainly were capable of physical intimacy it was unrelated to reproduction. They didn’t even experience arousal in a way I could comprehend! I wondered then, as I still do now, if they’d have an easier time living on EU7 than sex-having species, or if it’d make things worse.
EU7 was the wrong thing to think about even in passing. Now I was starting to wonder how it worked for humans.
At least guessing about whether we had compatible junk wouldn’t be a problem: thanks to the Pioneer probes pretty much all of Understood Space knows what human genitalia can look like when at rest. There was precedent for assuming them to be intergalactic sex fiends at first, you know? As for what said junk looked like when engorged, at the time I hadn’t the foggiest. Further investigation would be required.
Humans are one of those species I more or less know the shape of, but imagining anyone other than a specific individual is tricky for me. We don’t get them much out here, you know? Yousef was out of the question since he was actively taking a break from sex, period, and even in the realm of imaginary it felt rude to disregard his wishes. It’s thankfully very easy to find pictures of humans online. Soon enough I’d found some pictures of an obliging subject—”Hugo,” the accompanying text called him—and bumbled my way into the less clothed section of the gallery. It only took me four tries. As someone who had no prior experience with aphrodisiacs of any sort I think that’s pretty good.
Have you ever seen an erect human penis before? Like, not drawn on a wall or whatever, but depicted with some amount of detail? They’re strange. The shaft I understand, in concept, though there’s ridges and muscle definition there I’m not used to seeing at all. The brain can wrap itself around bonus ridges, right? There’s countless sex toys built on the concept of adding a few to a more familiar shape. They’ve got their balls on the outside, which is always nice, and Hugo’s were a little more compact than the nameless waving man flashing the whole of space from the side of his space probe, which wasn’t a deal-breaker, either. What tripped me up was the tip: imagine a graceful, long-stemmed mycoform whose rounded cap lies close to its stalk, except the cap’s set at a bit of an angle and there’s some skin that, individual depending, can cover anywhere from none to all of said cap. I was pretty sure it was static muscle outside of some twitching and flexing. You never really know how used to your own plumbing you are until you really study somebody else’s, I guess.
Hugo’s gallery was very good at holding my attention as I puzzled out his perplexing prick. The only guys I’ve been with outside my own species were at least similar in composition, so this was my first time seeing something so…fungal. Pollen-drunk me thought this was extremely funny and kept giggling to myself about spores. Sober me is glad I didn’t write any of those jokes down.
The human butthole made far more sense to me: just the one (you can never assume), that being a muscular sphincter that’s pink on the inside. Asses, proximal limbs notwithstanding, tend to have a lot less variation than genitals, and I’m lucky enough to like the basics. Hugo was very proud of his! I got to wondering: Did humans do anal? Did they like it? Was it just as invincible as the rest of them or was it a vulnerable spot? You don’t get very far in this field without learning to ask questions upon questions about every data point you scrape together, and at that point I’d gotten quite far in said field, pollen-besotted or no. Progress follows in the wake of the curious. Just how curious could a human be?
That settled it: I was fascinated, still debilitatingly horny, and not going anywhere for a while. It was time to indulge myself in a nonsense alien-sex fantasy. Now I just had to figure out how to do that.
Getting Hugo’s video archives to work on the station’s relay connection was a nightmare. Having to do everything by blinks and eye-flicks between bouts of double vision was infinitely slower than actually getting my hands involved. I cranked down the volume on a decently long video as I let the buffer build up. Had I been able to touch myself yet I probably would’ve gone for the bottle of personal lubricant in my nightstand; as it was I closed two sets of eyes and let my keenest pair take in the mysteries of the human body.
For as weird as their dicks looked it seemed Hugo’s was a species that was refreshingly straightforward when it came to sexual stimulation: touch the right places and maybe put something into something else and that gets you where you’re going. I’ve spent a lot of time on my own and that means I’ve watched a lot of porn, and not having to think that hard about what I was looking at was an absolute blessing. Sometimes that kind of challenge is appealing—I’m one of those people who’ll look at this stuff just for the sake of looking at it, not because I plan to get off with it—and sometimes you just want genitals that don’t require a few extra physics degrees to comprehend, you know? Hugo and the occasional friend rarely did anything more elaborate than getting a Tab A into Slot B, and that’s all he needed to do. I could see myself working with that.
If I was going to be banging a human, I decided, he’d need to be another scientist, so we’d have plenty to talk about, but he’d no doubt also be in a more rough-and-tumble specialty, like geology or something. What can I say, I like ’em a little rugged. Normally I would’ve spun out an entire little history for him. In my current state of mind I’d be lucky if I could say the alphabet in order, so my phantom partner would have to settle for being into rocks, into me, and not much else. He looked like Hugo with different-colored hair. Given the nature of Hugo’s little gallery I couldn’t imagine he’d mind such inspiration.
Did you know humans kiss the same we do? Damnedest thing, really, but it made my fantasizing that much more convenient. Given how I’m generally a ral-prominent guy I figured that’d be the mouth he’d go for, even if it meant I’d have to lean down a bit. Maybe especially if I had to lean down a bit. The longer I thought about it the more fooling around with someone so dinky seemed like it’d be pretty fun. Sometimes you want to think about what it’d be like to carry off a dainty little alien to your boudoir, right? So long as I pretended I wasn’t the kind of guy who could be thwarted by a two-kilo baby weight I felt I had a pretty good thing going.
I rolled over on my back and the video feed went along with me. The desk was still not very comfortable, but at least this way I could bask in more of the A/C while keeping my head on the towel. That I could touch the towel’s fluff without getting dragged through my own personal hell was promising. I carefully touched my hind feet together. The result was a little tingly, like someone teasing just to the side of an erogenous zone, but tingly wasn’t overbearing. Tingly was a little fun, actually. Another cautious foot against my dick—still erect, though now that was because I’d been watching some appealing porn more than anything else—revealed that I’d finally punched through the other side of my refractory period. If I was stuck being horny with a head full of exotic tendencies, at least I’d be able to do something with them again!
Still keeping my other eyes closed, I pulled my sudai up onto the bed to reenact a little of that kissing I was thinking about. If you ignore details like “tails” and “neck length” and “number of legs” then a sudai is more or less the same size as a human, and when you’re making out with yourself you don’t have to worry about the mouths matching up, so once I figured out how to embrace without frying my nerves I really put my jaw muscles into it. Hugo’s performance was still going during all of this; I paused it long enough to check myself out (yes, I’m a guy who’s into his own patterns, so sue me) before setting a second, steamier-looking video to buffering and finishing up what remained of the first.
There was no way I’d be able to believe one of my own cocks was a human one, but as I’ve always been a pretty versatile guy that was just fine by me. Due to either lack of opportunities in my work or school environments, or just being a bit wimpy when it comes to asking guys on dates in general, I’ve got a lot of experience masturbating in all sorts of ways. Grinding two of my dicks together while grabbing my own ass is just another one of those ways.
For a while I contented myself with kisses and frotting. My stomachs felt so warm against each other. I was still shower-fresh, amazingly, and as I broke the kiss to nuzzle where my necks met my shoulders I let the pleasant scent of the cleansers I’d used linger in my nostrils. My geologist would smell like that if he’d just gotten back from field work, I reckoned. He’d be a little worn out, since field work is no laughing matter when you’re staring at minerals for hours, but in spite of that tiredness he’d still be happy to see me, and so of course he’d be happy to let me take the lead once he’d washed off all the dust. Once we got going he’d give me a come-hither look—which probably wouldn’t look the way I imagined it, since humans don’t have chromatophores, but at the time I could not give any less of a shit—and that’d be my cue to lean back and find the lube.
I’d regained enough use of my hands to actually open the bedside dresser without slapping the two pairs of glasses atop it onto the floor, and the bottle I keep in there has a flip-cap since two-thirds of me has trouble unscrewing lids. The pollen remnants in my bloodstream begged me to just stick myself in and worry about things later; the rest of me, which knows exactly how bad an idea that is, took his time applying it to dick and digit both.
The fingers of my ral were (and still are) dexterous enough to gently work myself open little by little—I can actually hold a stylus with them, and yes it took ages’ worth of practice until my handwriting was legible—and I bit my lip at the thought of how taut an obligate biped’s butt would feel while doing this to one. Would they be that taut on the inside, too? Would my imaginary geologist be rough on the inside, or smooth, or would there be something else going on in there? By the time I could fit my finger in all the way up to the proximal knuckle I couldn’t wait any longer. With a shimmy of my hips and a brief adjustment of how my graspers fell, I sank onto my slicked-up cock all the way down to the base.
If I moaned a bit louder than I’d expected to, well, Yousef already knew the state I was in.
Some people get a little precious about the idea of self-sex and start clutching their pearls the moment you imply you’ve had genital contact with a body that doesn’t belong to somebody else, and I can assure you those people are absolutely no fun at parties. Personally, I’m not about to let my sex life gather dust just because of an insufficient supply of separate entities, so from my first teenage awakening on out I’ve taken great joy in the various ways I can get my dick in myself. I like cock, including my own! I braced my hands against the shoulders of my ral—the way a human’s would, probably—as my other hands held onto my sudai’s hips as best as I could. My lips found each other again, as did my tongues, and in no time flat I’d relearned all the right angles I needed to best enjoy myself. Once I started getting a good, steady rhythm going—just the way my imaginary geologist liked, of course—it was damn near perfect.
Normally I would’ve gotten my aladryy in on things, too, since I usually prefer my own touch to mounting the little sleeve gizmo I keep in a box in the closet, but I remembered what Yousef had said about how humans tended to see every aladryy-shaped thing as a dog, and those had no place in keeping my own human happy! Just because I controlled my jerkoff fantasy didn’t mean I was about to go squicking my imaginary partner. I compromised by fanning out my tail fronds to taste the air. Drinking in my own pheromones would be good enough until I wasn’t so busy trying to maintain a narrative. Until then I’d sate myself with swishing my tail and a lot of rewinding and replaying a particularly good part of the second video I’d loaded in. The longer I went the less it felt like a compromise at all.
Have you ever had the chance to really go to town on yourself? You can control the angles, the position, the speed, everything. You can learn exactly how to best nail yourself, then take that knowledge along next time you have someone over on a Friday night. You can feel every tense of muscle around your cock, every blissful bit of friction as you stretch your own ass beyond its usual dimensions, every warm and slick and awesome thrust into yourself from both sides of the equation, and whenever I’m coming in or around myself I’m rarely left wanting. Nobody in their right mind would claim it’s any better or worse than private time with another person; it’d be like comparing soil and mycelium, two totally different things with different purposes, instead of appreciating the strengths of either. The world would be worse off without both options available! Long story short, I’ve never felt like I’ve had to resign myself to my own company.
Since I’ve had plenty of practice with stimulating my own sudai, that was the cock that went off first. It was triumphant. I ended up with a spattered line that reached from mid-stomach to right along my jawline; had I been wearing my glasses on my ral I would’ve had to clean them vigorously. Usually I’m far less productive, and were I not still way too high I would’ve tried to have the presence of mind to take a picture for later. High I was and high I would remain, however, so I instead flipped myself over (somehow not squishing myself in the process) and hammered myself home until my ral cock came with great gusto. Logically speaking it was unlikely I’d pumped more than a few milliliters into myself by the time I was done. Illogically, however? I could’ve sworn I tasted it.
On a normal day I only need to have one of my cocks reach climax to be satisfied, and as you are no doubt quite aware by now, those still-present pollen traces were determined to keep my day anything but normal. Was I seriously going to have to set off all three before I could rest? It wasn’t like I could hop over to the bed to join in (in no small part because I have tried hopping from my desk to the bed before and it never ends well). Just dropping my partner as soon as I was done felt rude, though, so what all could I do in such a situation? If I made the wrong decision I was certain I’d never be able to face Yousef again out of sheer bleed-over embarrassment.
No matter what became of my daydreams I was running the risk of squashing my sudai if I didn’t do something. Bracing my knees, I carefully rolled my ral to the side to keep from mashing myself into the mattress for the second time that day, and I pulled out of myself as I did so. My come trickled down the underside of my tail as I withdrew, and that’s always been something that really does it for me. Turned out this was enough to get me to finally get me to curl up my aladryy to finish myself off with my mouth. Like I said, I have a lot of practice with this stuff. Between extensive time spent watching good pornography and two of my cocks having already come, the autofellatio didn’t take me long, either, especially since even if I hadn’t still been hard from before I would’ve been carbon-solid at the thought of the mess I’d made. Oh, don’t give me that, are you really that surprised a STEM guy’s a little nasty? If it makes you feel better, I did launder those sheets by the end of the day, because while I may be nasty, I’m not all that interested in being gross. What’s fun in the heat of the moment makes for a real nuisance later on.
This time, instead of feeling woozy and frustrated and still fucking horny after coming, I actually had something of an afterglow; I could also tell I only had a short while remaining before I crashed. I gave a very quick wipe-down with a damp cloth before flopping myself down with graceless abandon. My aladryy I returned to the desk just in case things backslid during my day-sleep. I was sure to toss a generous offering into Hugo’s tip jar before disconnecting from the relay and folding up my glasses next to the other two sets to let oblivion take me. The floramatter might’ve tried to strip me of my manners, and I needed to dream up that geologist again purely to apologize for dumping him mid-thought, but let it never be said I neglect supporting the arts.
I woke up a short while later with something far too close to a hangover for comfort. Miserable as I felt, I was relieved to find that most of that awful, terrible, hateful horniness had left, leaving behind the pleasant soreness of having been inside myself. Opening my eyes turned out to be a mistake thanks to the unbelievable splitting headache that followed, so I did what anyone else would do upon waking up after a biochem adventure: I clambered my aladryy up onto the bed to snuggle up against my stomach and start filtering anything still in my bloodsteam. Petting my head isn’t strictly required for this process, but it made me feel better. Sometimes I just don’t feel like I’m really myself without a little time spent touching everything to everything else, you know? I rested that way until I could sit up without feeling dizzy. After fumbling for my glasses I pinged a certain internal comms point, the only other one on the station.
“Hey, Yousef,” I said, grateful for the sound-only option on my comms link. Even after the precautions I’d taken I knew I looked, and definitely felt, like shit. Peering at my clock through the pain, I saw that it was the middle of the day; I should’ve still been fast asleep. No wonder everything felt terrible.
“Hey, Zinc.” He sounded relieved but wary. “How you holding up? It’s pretty early-late for you.”
“Better, but still not great. I’m going to be pounding medicine once I know I’m not going to fall apart.”
“You need anything?”
I’d just needed him to know I was still alive, but now that he was offering…. “Could I trouble you for some soup? I don’t care what kind, just…lots. Make it salty.”
“Chicken noodle, coming right up.”
My mouths watered. “Perfect.” Chicken, at least in broth and/or reconstituted meat form, is still one of my favorite foreign foods. I’d had it before Yousef arrived but never the way he cooked it; I’d learned the hard way that the sauce he liked pairing with chicken and most other proteins can get everywhere. That my labcoats aren’t still covered in orange stains is a testament to the station’s laundry equipment.
“You want any veggies?”
“Sure, as long as it’s still soup once you’re done. Stew’s too thick for me when I’m detoxing.”
“So like the stuff I made near the first of the month, with a little extra broth and noodles?”
A familiar chirp from the pantry drifted through the connection. He’d gotten to the galley faster than I’d expected. “I’ll send a tray over once this is ready,” he said over the sound of running water. “You want more later, it’ll be in the fridge. Ping me if you’d still bedridden and I’ll get you some leftovers.”
“That’s nice of you,” I said, gritting my teeth through a particularly gnarly chemical transfer. I hoped it didn’t sound like I was calling while on the toilet. Youthful bad habits notwithstanding, these days I try to be a little more self-aware than that.
Something clanked in the background, followed by the sound of the glove dispenser running. He usually didn’t bother with those for cooking; the sweat incident appeared to have him rattled even more than I was. “Don’t mention it,” said Yousef. “I still feel awful about this, even if it’s nobody’s fault in the end. I shouldn’t have let myself get careless.” An unseen knife chopped an unseen vegetable. “It’s going to be a little bit for things to get presentable. That going to be a problem?”
“How long is ‘a little bit’?”
“Maybe ten minutes.”
That sounded about right; the station’s galley contained a variety of devices that could cook food incredibly quickly, though you still had to take the time to assemble the ingredients and diddle with the settings. I’ve never been the most patient man—in my youth I admit to having had days where I lived off of nothing but popcorn due to deeming more formal food prep not worth the effort—but I could wait ten minutes for someone else to make me something. “I can last ten minutes. Thanks a million.”
“No problem.” With that, he cut the connection.
I groaned as another wave of discomfort rippled through me. After staggering to the bathroom and jerking off (just once, to my eternal relief) I drank from the tap until I felt bloated. I didn’t need to look in the mirror to know I looked a fright. Trying to brush my hair around my frills was a job for someone who didn’t have my current symptoms, so I put my two longer heads of it back in scrunchies and lay back down until a chime in my ear informed me that something was at my door.
Waiting for me just outside was a hovertray with three service-sized bowls of steaming soup on it, three spoons, a napkin, and a huge bottle of lemon-lime sports drink. It doesn’t matter where you go in Understood Space: there will always be someone making lemon-lime sports drink, it will always taste just a little thinner than you’d think it should, and it will always remind me of getting horribly sick when I was little. It was just the thing my poor dehydrated self needed. Yousef himself was nowhere to be seen, which was probably for the best. I guided the tray inside and let the door whir closed behind me.
For a job thrown together with minimum preparation the soup smelled glorious. I’d like to say I appreciated the craftsmanship put into it before tucking in, but that would be a lie; I tore into that shit like I’d been weeks in the desert, with the only breaks in my mealtime devastation coming in the form of guzzling from the drink bottle with one throat or another. Only when the last drop was drunk and the last noodle slurped did I push the tray away from me and wipe my mouths on the napkin. Having something substantial in my bellies certainly helped me feel better.
A glance at the time told me if I didn’t get back to sleep I’d be regretting it. I brushed my teeth, used the toilet, and lay down to sleep however long I could manage. Slowly but surely I’d beat this thing, and the last thing I remembered was some sort of pun about beating off in the process. It’s hard not to go to bed angry if your own subconscious is the target of your ire. At least I didn’t have any dreams.
Between the soup and the extra bed rest I felt like a new man come afternoon: my headache was gone, I didn’t have a hint of an erection, and while I still had an overall vibe of unwellness I didn’t have the horniness paired with it. What I did have was an appetite; given how many calories I’d burned through in my sleep I probably could’ve consumed a bathtub full of soup and still woken up peckish. My bad-sleep anxiety gets worse when I’m hungry, and while my internal clock wasn’t as fucked up as I’ve had it in the past I knew I was going to be a wreck if I didn’t take action soon. A bigger, more solid meal was in the cards if I wanted to keep on the road to recovery.
I took my time preparing to greet the day. Most of me was sluggish from hours of shuffling toxins and nutrients from body to body, but my ancestors didn’t evolve an aladryy for nothing; once dressed, I left my ral and sudai behind while my perkier third ventured out to go find Yousef and let him know his soup had done the trick.
Some parts of the station are kind of a pain in the ass to navigate when I don’t have any thumbs to work with, but I’ve never found anything inaccessible; that which isn’t already interfaced with my HUD or PDA usually has a push-button mechanism on it. It’s easier to just leave your PPE on all day when your podiacal dexterity is about the same whether or not you’re wearing booties. Not that I’d suited up to leave my room, of course; as I didn’t need to run anything in the lab for another two days, I’d opted for casual slip-ons instead of the insulated footwear necessitated by my usual working environment. If I can’t kick off a shoe when I’m done with it it’d better be for traversing deep space.
I trotted along one of the corridors overlooking the fields and allowed myself a moment to admire the view. Gaval De really is pretty most of the year and that day was no different: the crops were colorful and healthy, the distant grass lush. There was an equally pretty lake on the opposite side of the research station, though it’d been too acidic for swimming since well before they built the place. Caustic or not, I loved it, and could spend ages appreciating how perfectly it reflected the sky. Whatever reservations I had were duly banished by how, for the first time in what felt like forever but was barely more than a sleep cycle and change, I could appreciate the sight of the wind through the grass and not immediately get the most perplexing stiffy ever.
My reverie was interrupted by my stomachs gurgling again; thanks to sleeping through my usual mealtime, if I didn’t get some solid food pronto I was in for a hellish ride. I checked Yousef’s location beacon, which claimed he was once again in the galley. That was convenient! Letting him know I hadn’t suffered a relapse while getting myself an afternoon meal would be killing two birds with one stone. With luck, one of those birds would be another chicken.
The door whooshed open as I approached, revealing Yousef on the other side, humming to himself as he rummaged through the larder for something. I smiled up at him. “Good afternoon, Yousef.”
“Hey, Zinc,” he said, surfacing from his search long enough to smile back. “Feeling better?”
I nodded. “More or less. The rest of me’s still resting up.”
“Glad to hear it.” He turned around to face me in full and sighed. “I’m so sorry about everything, you have no idea….”
I waved him off with a forefoot. “Accidents happen. Don’t forget I’m the dipshit who didn’t recalibrate the weight machine in the first place. I would’ve had to go lie down for a while even without getting high on human perspiration.”
“True enough. Still feel bad about it, though.” Yousef gestured to the shelves behind him. “What looks good to you? You’ve got to be starving.” Having a diurnal fellow researcher make the attempt to understand my eating schedule is all I can ask for sometimes.
What did I want from the larder? Asking Yousef to cook for me twice in the space of a few hours felt inconsiderate, especially with me up and about again, so I’d need something with minimal prep to tide me over until dinner. I surveyed the assortment of packaging. A box of snack wafers—technically breakfast food, but they had frosting on them and we’d both agreed that made them more of a dessert—caught my eye. “Would you get me one of those strawberry things?” I asked, gesturing in the box’s direction with my chin.
“Can do. You want the whole box?” He lightly shook it. There were enough packets left inside for it to rustle instead of rattle.
Elsewhere on the station I was still brushing my hair, which involved reaping the bitter harvest of not combing it out before I slept on it wet. No matter how much I ate now I’d definitely be wanting a little something more by the time I was all back in one place. “Couldn’t hurt to leave it out. My sudai’s got a real taste for alien food lately.”
Yousef dipped his hands in the glove-layer dispenser, shook them until the gloves had dried, then unwrapped a packet for me onto a saucer. I thought was very considerate of him; who knew how much trace pollen was still lurking in the oils of his fingertips? He left his hands coated in the film—biodegradable and food-safe, of course, same as any dispenser layer you’d find in a reasonably equipped public kitchen—as he cut my wafers into more bite-sized pieces for me before unwrapping a packet for himself. He left the box on the table between us, the front facing towards his seat. I returned his thoughtful gesture by remembering to not brace my shoes on the edge of the table while I ate. Living alone for too long can encourage some pretty bad habits.
We munched on our frosted strawberry things in silence. He didn’t ask me anything about my ordeal and I didn’t offer it; the man had lived it himself for months upon months, so it’s not like he would’ve learned anything new. It was treated with the gravitas of accidentally spilling coffee on myself. Given Yousef’s history, he might’ve found the coffee thing more noteworthy, anyway.
Solid food between my teeth made me feel like a new man. A newly minted me was feeling social; we’d sworn to be like unto monks, but we’d conveniently neglected to take any vows of silence in the process. “Did you know the Standard Astronomical Unit is based on the distance of your species’ homeworld to its sun?” I asked, reading the back of the box before me.
He raised his eyebrows and munched thoughtfully on his wafer. “Yeah? Go us, I guess. I’m surprised there wasn’t one already lying around by the time people decided to standardize that. Even the most ancient of our spacefaring cultures are still total babies at this.” After wiping a crumb from the corner of his mouth, he added, “Anything else of interest on there?”
I studied the cheery packaging. “Apparently only we can guide Explorer Junior through a dastardly space maze to a snack at the other end.”
“What makes a maze dastardly?”
“There’s some false exits that empty out into drawings of volcanoes and things. One of them is just an asteroid-mounted sign reading ‘uh-oh’.”
“‘Uh-oh’ is surprisingly menacing in this context.”
“Right? If I was a kid and saw that, I’d probably worry about that way more than whatever the green thing with the teeth is supposed to be.” I nipped up another few chunks of cut-up wafer. “Thanks again for cutting these up. My other hair’s a wreck so it’s going to be a while before I’ll have thumbs of my own again.”
Yousef hummed in acknowledgment. “Is that why you keep this head’s so short, then? So it’s faster to get going in the morning?” Yousef had once told me he always thought of mornings as being the time right after he woke up, as he’d worked his share of weird shifts with weird planetary rotations. It wasn’t hard to get behind the idea of morning is as morning does.
“Nah, that wouldn’t make much of a difference. I can’t get into anything more complicated than a smock without a hand or two. I keep it short so it doesn’t get on the floor or in my food.” I raised and lowered my neck to demonstrate; even with leaving my quarters in a scruffier state than usual not a single strand threatened my plate. “The longer style works better on my ral, anyway. Some people can stand it worn that way on their sudais, but for me it always got in my face whenever I switched which side I was leaning over.”
He pursed his lips and nodded in thought. “Function over form, huh? That checks out.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said, scratching my side with a slide-shod hind foot.
Yousef chuckled to himself. “Just learning a little bit more about the sentient members of the order Geryonizoa with every single day. Consider it a compliment from this lowly chordate.”
I flipped the last bit of strawberry wafer into the air and caught it in my mouth. “Lowly nothing!” I said, trying not to spray crumbs. “You get to self-deprecate whenever you stop being able to carve ink into your skin and come out of it with art instead of a grievous injury. No need to get all backwards competitive with a fellow eukaryote.”
“So you’d say cooperation is the better route to universal understanding, no matter how much biomass is involved or what category it may bear?”
“Let’s go with that.”
He picked up my now-empty saucer and stacked it atop his own with a grin and a forceful clack. “Good news, then! It’s your biomass’s turn to do the dishes. Don’t think I didn’t notice the disaster you left in here this morning.”
“I was going to clean it up. After my workout, probably.” In truth I’d forgotten all about the mess mere minutes after I’d finished breakfast, but he didn’t need to know that. I don’t live in filth, I’ll have you know, I just tend to get around to clutter on my own terms, and apparently some people didn’t see things quite the same way. Whose name is where on the chore list tends to slip my mind when I have complex biochemistry on the brain!
Yousef grinned and made finger-guns in my direction. “And now it looks like you’ll finally get that chance. See you at dinnertime!” With that he left me alone with the dishes, which loomed menacingly from the counter where I’d corralled them. I couldn’t help but notice how much of the pile was clearly the sort of things one would need to prepare a sufficiently big pot of chicken soup for a sufficiently big co-worker. Technically it was my mess. With a sigh, I decided my hair was about as good as it was going to get for now and began the long trek from my room to rejoin my aladryy. Once the dishes were safely prepped and loaded into the washer, I was going to have some choice words with Yousef.
At least it was nice to know things weren’t about to get weird between us whenever I got around to that.
I didn’t ever intend to bring up gender with Yousef, much less sexuality, because I’ve always been a private person who’s even moreso about my own privates. Whatever he had, be it the too-complex phalloi his species defaulted to, or one of their equally complicated vulvas, or something else entirely, was no business of mine, and I was fairly certain the inverse was also true. He’d never asked what I’d done to cope with getting pollen-drunk and I’d never offered. This changed one fine day when we were swimming; rather, he was swimming and I was drying off nearby, since we’d decided to not share the pool at the same time. I trusted the water filters, and it was unlikely I’d risk contact with his sweat in any way other than the most homeopathic, but we both decided it was better to be safe than sorry. Neither of us wanted a repeat of the gym incident.
“So, personal question,” Yousef said as he slid up to the edge of the pool after another set of laps.
I flicked up my frills in interest. He was big on questions—again, it’s a thing humans are good at, I was used to it by then and actually kind of flattered by the attention—so I tried to expect the unexpected. “What’s up?”
“How does your species do sexual attraction?”
That a human might ask me such a thing didn’t surprise me; that he sounded legit curious and not trying to lead the conversation anywhere did. “That’s a pretty broad question. You mean what am I into, or what?”
“As in, when you’re into somebody, is it spread across all of them, or do you compartmentalize? Like if somebody’s got a really hot aladryy do you only really perceive that through your aladryy’s senses, or can you appreciate that from any set of eyes? Or like, is it possible for one of your species to only be two-thirds gay, but your ral is straight as an arrow?” He paused. “Maybe I shouldn’t assume queerness even works the same way for you, since your concept of gender is almost certainly very different from mine….”
I scoffed. “Oh, I’m gay as hell from noses to toeses, no need to worry about that.” As for the rest of his question, I gave it some thought. “I think the problem here is that you keep viewing us as, like, collectives or something. I mean, I’m a patterns guy, just can’t get enough of a man who knows how to flex those cells, and I’m gonna dig those however I’m seeing them, and on whatever part of said pattern-haver he’s flaunting at the time. There’s not going to be a mismatch if he’s got some nice concentric rings on his sudai and I first notice ’em via my ral.”
“So it’s all or nothing?”
“I…guess someone might only like women from a certain point of view, and prefer men or non-binary partners from others?” I’ve been around long enough never to say things never happen, but I’ve spent quite a lot of time online without encountering such an individual, so I felt secure in my statement. “I’m not gonna say it can’t happen, just that it’s not something you really hear about, and I’ve certainly never met anyone who was like that. They’d probably go ahead and list themselves as bi on their dating profile, anyway.”
He made a surprised, thoughtful noise. “And I take it your species did the usual thing with gender.”
“Starting off with two and expanding that number in accordance with consciousness and medical technology? Pretty much. Happens with most sentient members of good ol’ Animalia.”
“Neat. So did humanity. Thanks, that’s all I needed to know.” He pushed away from the side of the pool, relaxed, and let himself float face-up. His serenity was flabbergasting. It was like he hadn’t gotten me to mention one of my favorite parts on a guy at all! Usually that takes at least a few dates for me to say that! I was not about to let him off the hook so easily.
Rearing up in my deck chair—my sudai neck can get some pretty good height on it if I stretch it out all the way—I tried to reclaim Yousef’s attention. “Well, you’re welcome, but I’ve got to know: Why’d you bring this up here, of all places?”
He shrugged, still buoyant. “Seemed like the right time. Long as I’ve been here swimming’s chilled you out. And if I’m in the water, it means I have to get out of the water before I can do anything other than chat, so you’d probably subconsciously feel a little safer this way, too.”
Trying to ignore how precisely he’d pegged me, I kept going. “And you decided to just…ask?”
Yousef shrugged again. “Yeah.”
“And you’re not going to ask if we get hot for other species while we’re on the topic?”
“You’re sentient. That’s kind of a given for sentience that comprehends the concept of sexual need, at least as an abstract. Like if nothing else I figure your kind is just as susceptible to getting catfished by suitably good talkers as mine is.”
My chromatophores blazed. I knew he didn’t know anything about that particular inglorious moment in my life—she was, at least, nice about things once she realized I wasn’t in on the fiction—but I didn’t appreciate being hit with a conversational bullseye twice in a row. “Well, Dr. Allgood, got any more way-too-personal questions you feel like asking? I’m sure I’ve got some blisters in my history I could tell you about,” I said, trying to keep the mood light.
He flicked some water at me, not enough to leave so much as a damp patch on one of my towels but enough to show he was mock-annoyed. “You didn’t have to answer. I’ve been trying to look for reliable sources for more birdbrained questions on my own.”
“Which’d be why you haven’t asked if one body’s Matra, one body’s Zin, and one body’s Vezeket, I take it?”
“That’d be like you asking if my legs have different names. And I’d either say no or give some pithy answer, and then you’d needle me about assuming a triplet has more meaning than it does when my species fell in love with base ten due to our number of fingers.”
“See? Humans are good at logic problems.”
“We do tend to get there eventually,” he said, and it looked like he’d taken the half-joke-half-compliment the way I’d meant it. “You’ve just got to give me time to process the little things, my man. I’ve only got the one brain,” he said, knocking against his temple for emphasis.
“So do I.” I paused. “Wait, is yours seriously in your head?“
Have you ever had a moment of clarity where you realize you’d been making a lot of assumptions about an alien species because you’d never thought to? Sucks, doesn’t it? “Our rals have a hunch for a reason,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “It’s partially to help support the bulk of the sudai, but partially not, you get it?”
“How’s your central nervous system even work?”
“I am so not a biology guy. I just move around and study plants and my gray matter seems to make both happen pretty reliably. The details might as well be pixie dust.”
Yousef laughed. Laughter was good, it meant things hadn’t gotten too serious on us. “You know what, let’s go with that,” he said. He swam over to the ladder closest to where he was floating, climbed out of the water, wrapped himself in a towel, and hit the filtration overdrive button with his toe. “I’m going to go shower off some of this chlorine before it wrecks my hair. You need anything while I’m still out here?”
The sun was warm and aside from the slightly strange direction our talk had taken I was in a good mood; it felt like perfect napping weather. When was the last time I’d had a proper nap that wasn’t connected to being sick or otherwise indisposed? No sense in wasting a perfect opportunity. I settled back in my deck chairs. “Just make sure I don’t oversleep. I’ve been trying to get the replicators to perfect a tofu bake recipe all week and I think I’ve finally got it good enough to serve for dinner.”
“Sounds tasty. See you, Zinc.”
Maybe I should’ve put more stock in the conversation being a little off and maybe I shouldn’t have, but at the time all I knew was that I was warm and sleepy and just a little tired from my time in the water. I had the presence of mind to toggle the UV shielding before I drifted off, but that was the last thing I remember before nodding off, and by the time my PDA was chirping at me to wake my ass up and get some pants on before heading to the galley I’d convinced myself we hadn’t talked about anything strange at all.
“How long have you worked out here, Zinc?”
This question came a few weeks after the pool talk. We were in the middle of a mutual day off that we’d chosen to spend watching horror movies, during which Yousef had mostly not ribbed me too hard about puffing out my throat sac in response to the cheaper scares. I’ll be old and gray and plugged into a dozen life support machines, and I’ll still be making threat displays at musical stings.
As at the moment I wasn’t trying in vain to scare an unfeeling viewscreen, I humored him. “Solo? A few years. In total? Probably a decade and change. I’d have to think about it to give you a better answer.”
“Over ten years? Damn. I take it you’re a guy who likes being alone with his own thoughts.”
“You could say that.” I stretched one spine at a time. The couch we were sitting on was the dangerous kind of comfortable, and I needed to move around a little every half hour to keep from getting too cozy. “I mean, I don’t mind it. There’s always somebody awake online whenever I feel chatty. But I do like having somebody other than myself around now and again.”
“Must be rough, having only the cargo techs to talk to.”
“A little. I definitely don’t mind having a friend on station.”
He cocked his head and asked, “You’d say we’re friends?”
I slicked back my frills in concern. I hadn’t just crossed a line, had I? Was he trying to delicately tell me I was getting a bit too familiar? Then again, I knew about as much going on in his head as he did in mine, so it couldn’t hurt to be clear. “I’d like to think so! I enjoy the time we share. Having company is giving me a reason not to sink into one big ball of bad manners. Also you actually care about boring nerd shit like cultivar suitability evaluations, and that’s a lot rarer than you’d think.”
A small smile bloomed on Yousef’s face. “I didn’t realize how much I’d needed to hear someone say that.”
“What, that cultivars are fascinating and the plebs of the world are missing out?”
“That, and that you like having me around.”
It was my turn to cock my head. This revelation didn’t quite match some assumptions I’d made. “Don’t tell me EU7 was lacking in meaningful connections for you…?”
Yousef scoffed. “Oh, good God, no,” he said, “I had a lot of people with whom I was very close out there, and I was legit sad to leave them behind. I still miss them. There was some real community there even when we weren’t all frantically fellating one another in a floramatter haze.”
“You said you’d burned out on sex pretty bad by the time you applied for your transfer.”
“Yeah. It was the right thing for me because I was so done with that whole scene, it was time to go and everyone knew it, but it was still hard to leave.” He ran his hand over the smooth side of his scalp. “I think I was worried I’d forgotten how to be around people without, you know. Fucking my way around any problems that might come up and pretending nothing was wrong.”
For a creature as indestructible as a human I was surprised at how vulnerable Yousef was permitting himself to be. “I’ll say this much, Yousef,” I told him, “if you were ever struggling to act normal around me, I never noticed.”
“Good. That’s good.”
We watched the credits roll out all the way back to the selection screen before I found something to say again. “What else did you leave behind?”
“When you transferred. What’s back there that isn’t out here?”
He propped his chin up on his hand and looked out one of the many windows in the communal living space that housed the screen. “I miss touching people. Like I’m still on break from fucking them, but I’ve been here a few months and I think the last time I hugged somebody was right before my final detox before leaving for quarantine. I didn’t realize how often I was casually physical with friends and loved ones until suddenly they were all on the opposite side of Understood Space.” He sighed. “I’m sure I broke some hearts coming out here, but they’ve got other people to help ’em get through it. They’ll be okay. Now I just have to figure out how I’ll be okay. I’m sure I’ll think of something. I’ve got time.”
Looking at Yousef on the opposite side of the couch, in light of what he’d said, made me realize for the first time how small he was, how small his whole species was. He was two arms, two legs, a head, and a torso, and save for his brains and tenacity that was all he could muster against the incredible vastness of the universe. My sudai hung heavy and comforting against my back, my ral was a steadfast warmth against my stomach, and even my usually-separate aladryy could be picked up for a cuddle if I so chose. Yousef didn’t have that. His whole self was all in one place, from one point of view, with nothing to fall back on but himself. In the face of an isolation I then realized I’d never be able to comprehend, he’d pulled himself out of a rut of compliance into the great and empty unknown, and he saw no reason he wouldn’t learn to live with it.
Humans are terrifying.
“Do you want to, I don’t know, call somebody?” I asked.
“I call people plenty, and write, and swap messages. I’ve never had trouble keeping in touch. I’m just missing being touched, and before you get worried, I wasn’t going to ask. You made it pretty clear you’re a hands-off kind of guy and we both know what happened last time.” He clicked around on the remote and spun up a new movie, pointedly not looking at me. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, either. I’m really glad to have somebody like you around. It means a lot.”
I weighed my options. It had been some time since I’d gotten high off of accidental electrolyte intake, he wasn’t working up a sweat at the moment, and an aladryy was meant to go investigate unfamiliar scenarios and live to tell the tale, so….
“So long as you don’t get popcorn butter on me, I wouldn’t mind sharing that side of the couch with you,” I said through my smallest self. I hopped out of my lap and plopped down on my haunches in front of where he sat.
Yousef glanced between my faces. “You’re serious?”
“Absolutely.” I put my sock-clad forefeet up on the cushions. “I may be a nervous wreck but I’m not a monster, and you seem like you could use it. Besides, I’m fully dressed and you’ve had plenty more time to filter more of the pollen out. My aladryy’s probably had time to spin up some antibodies by now, too. I can just move if I start feeling weird again.”
He paused. I wasn’t expecting him to pause; since when was someone like him going to do that? From everything I’d seen and everything he’d told me he’d always been a try-anything-once kind of guy, and I’d assumed the offer of physical closeness from someone he presumably enjoyed being around would be a no-brainer.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“I’m…thinking,” said Yousef. He sighed. “Look, I know this is a personal hang-up, but you remember what I said about humans and dogs, right? I don’t think it’d be fair to you to take you up on that offer when I still partways see you as a pet.”
“I’m not, though,” I said, and you better believe I used my aladryy to do it. I continued to willfully ignore whatever mixed signals were sent by the pet bed I kept in the lab. Hadn’t we already had this conversation? Hadn’t he understood me then? “We’re both talking right now. I’m wearing clothes, deodorant, and prescription lenses. Earlier this very week you saw me working a microscope with foot controls! This third of myself is quadrupedal, but I’m hardly an animal.”
“I never said this was reasonable.”
My first instinct was to puff up at him, maybe even unwind my tail to really show I was serious, but that was something animals did, wasn’t it? I still permitted myself a scowl and some truly peeved hue-shifts. You try to be nice to some people…. “Well, what are you going to do about it?” I asked, all the while trying to remind myself that I wasn’t the only person present who was dealing with some internal shit.
Yousef gave me a half-smile. “Eat more popcorn, watch more movies, and try to consciously view my co-worker as more than just part of the wildlife, assuming he’ll forgive me if I forget myself and pet him.” He patted the cushion next to him. “Hang-ups aside, I’m open to the suggestion if you still are.”
Now, reasonably speaking, I should have accepted with dignity and poise that reflected my willingness to accept his admitted flaws while refusing to pretend they didn’t exist, and in my head I’d planned to do exactly that, but as luck would have it the new movie chose that precise moment to hit its first major scare and I leapt onto the sofa, all puffed up with my tail at full display in a vain attempt to frighten the television. A hand that wasn’t my own gently touched my back. I instinctively flexed my fingers on the other side of the couch; nope, definitely wasn’t one of mine.
“I’ll take that as a yes?” asked Yousef, and I very much noticed how the pressure behind his hand was just light enough that even a wimp like myself could’ve pushed it away if I’d wanted to. I didn’t think I wanted to.
“Like I said, just don’t get butter on me and it’ll be fine,” I replied. I tucked my feet up under myself—I’ve heard this called “loafing” before, but it’s never felt terribly lazy to me—and rested against him. The warmth of Yousef’s leg against my side was a great comfort in the face of yet another slow pan down a dark hallway. Don’t get me wrong, I love horror movies, I’m just terrible at watching all but the silliest of them. I refused to read anything further into how nice it felt to comfort someone else in the guise of needing comforting myself.
We spent the rest of the day like that, only taking a break for Yousef to have lunch and me to have my midday sleep, and whether it was the extra layer of fabric between us, or the lack of heavy exertion, or just more time for his bloodstream to purge itself, I didn’t feel so much as a hint of that awful high from before. It was a little weird getting used to someone other than myself touching me again. I kept leaning in the wrong direction to scratch itches. Maybe it’d just been longer than I’d thought since my last date but I was having a much nicer time than I’d expected during my gesture of mercy.
Our closeness seemed to be doing a world of good for Yousef, too. True to his word, he didn’t get so much as a thumbprint’s worth of snack detritus on me the whole time, and he eventually figured out how he wanted to rest his arm in a half-hug that didn’t risk restricting my throat or tail during the inevitable money shots. When we broke for dinner I kept my aladryy close to him, even though it meant leaning over to reach that mouth with my fork.
“You feeling any better?” I asked him between bites of pasta made from one of the new hybrids we were growing in the station’s fields. The results had so far been very chewy but otherwise pretty good. So long as we could stabilize the nutrients they took from and deposited into the soul, they’d make for some potentially very hardy, easy-to-grow cereal crops that a lot of food-insecure planets would be thrilled to have. Have I mentioned I love my job?
“Much,” said Yousef. “You feeling any worse?”
I shook my head. “Nope. I’m not going to trust any contact with my less adaptive anatomy until we see some blood tests, but so far I’ve not noticed so much as a heightened pulse.”
“Save for when the protagonist du jour has to evade a grisly fate.”
“It’s a scary movie, it’s supposed to freak me out,” I said, slicking back my frills as primly as I could.
He helped himself to another scoop of sticky pasta from the pot on the table between us. “Remind me to show you a picture of Earth’s frigate birds one of these days. They do the puffy-neck thing, too, just not in the context of the cinema. I imagine you’d have some opinions.”
I refused to dignify that with any response other than furious chewing. A different thought came to me in the midst of my mastication, however: “I’m amazed you’ve continued adjusting to the environment here as well as you have.”
“You’re not the only one who’s pleasantly surprised,” said Yousef. “Secluded work in a chaste environment got me through the worst of the withdrawal, and pleasant company has helped with the rest. My twice-weekly blood tests get cleaner every time.”
Blood tests? I hadn’t even noticed he’d been taking any; I opted to interpret this as proof I was capable of giving a friend privacy instead of being oblivious. “And in addition to medicine and general healthy habits, you haven’t been exposed to any more of it since, right?”
“So why is it still in your system?”
He gestured absently with his fork. “Okay, so, Eurydice Upsilon VII’s atmosphere is so inundated with spores that it becomes an indelible part of anyone who spends the slightest amount of time there, right? They’re not hazardous, just potent, and they end up getting stored in vast amounts in the bodies of most sentient beings with carbon- or water-heavy construction. Human bodies involve plentiful amounts of both.”
“Ah. So your cells sucked it up like sponges the entire time.”
“Basically! These past few months have been one long session of wringing it out. It’s why I was so careless that one time. Thought I was safer than I was.”
“Everyone makes mistakes,” I said, for neither the first time nor the last. He’d said the same to me literally half an hour before upon us learning the hard way not to half-ass the replicator inputs when trying to brew a decent red sauce. Thank goodness for easy-to-clean galley surfaces! “If you still want to schedule some off-planet time or invite guests over, though, go for it.”
“I think I’ll be fine. Would you believe knowing I’m not guaranteed to make you sick again goes a long way?”
“Since it’s the option that matters more than the act?”
“Exactly. Won’t is much less constricting than can’t. I’m still going to double-filter the pool until my tests come back full negatives, though.”
“It’s appreciated,” I said, and then the conversation went elsewhere for the rest of dinner.
We waited to start the next movie until we’d cleaned up the galley and some of the snack mess, the latter of which was set to be replaced by fresh snack mess once either of us had room from our feast of carbs. We settled into our respective spots on the couch, most of me on one side and Yousef and my aladryy on the other. He didn’t seem to give it a second thought, but I had to be sure.
“You still don’t mind me being this close, right?”
“Not at all. I missed being able to hang out with friends in a social tangle.”
We both politely ignored the implications of such a tangle. Instead I crossed my legs on one side of the couch and tucked up my feet on the other. “Good. It’s your job to contact-soothe me next time I get startled.”
“They say you’re really not supposed to hug a dog.” He chuckled. “Good thing you aren’t one, right?”
“Right,” I said, pleased, and I leaned against him in anticipation of the next big scare.
Couch time became something of a regular thing for us, even if we didn’t have the time or interest to share a video stream; I could just as easily tinker around with my PDA while Yousef read a book or listened to music or something, and in time it became sufficiently Not Weird for me to curl up in his lap before tuning my HUD in to the newest industry publication. Did you know humans smell pretty good once you get used to them? That’s my opinion, anyway, and as I was pretty used to Yousef, mutual downtime soon meant some light aromatherapy. I’d long since stopped questioning unexpected reactions to other species’ biology.
We’d also gotten into a habit of text-chatting while working in our respective labs. It’s a job with a lot of downtime you can’t really walk out on, of course we’d fart around while on the clock! Usually this was the typical cohabitant-friends stuff you’d see from anyone who worked on Gaval De long enough: meal plans, who was behind on what chores, security checks, ideas for the next cargo order. Nothing special, just friendly. As you can almost certainly guess, this, too, changed one day.
“Hey, personal question?”
I’d gotten used to words to that effect popping up in my lenses at all hours of the day, though he did have the good graces to space such things out a bit. Humans are, after all, curious by nature.
My eyes flicked across the glyph-board on my HUD as my hands busily calibrated a centrifuge that I’d been trying to fix for the past hour. “Go for it. Apologies in advance if my replies come off as short, the CV-17’s being a fucker again.”
“It’s fine,” he said, and his typing indicator remained active after that. I could suss out the tells of someone writing something very carefully over the course of multiple drafts. Eventually the second half came: “You mentioned you’re gay. Is that just for men of your own species, or do you ever date outsiders?”
“Like most of Understood Space, I’m at least open to the idea of it,” I said, which was true, even if my own experience with said was limited. I’d been too busy in college to get up to as much mischief as some of my peers. Usually I feel like I made the right choice, but sometimes a guy has to wonder.
Yousef didn’t seem like he had to wonder about anything. “Would you be open to fooling around with a human? If the answer is no I won’t bring it up again, we can forget this ever happened.”
“…I’m at least open to the idea of it,” I admitted, my occasionally revisited geologist fantasy weighing heavily on my mind. That opening ellipsis was doing some work. “I thought you were done with sex, though?”
“Not forever! Man, but I was burned out on it for a while. I’m a sexual guy at heart, though, and I’ve had time to think about what I do and don’t want for myself.”
“That being?” He probably would’ve told me without being prompted, but as I was desperately trying not to strip some screws from the mechanism I knew my replies were going to be few and far between if I didn’t go out of my way to send them.
“I think I’m done handling multiple people’s emotional needs at once. Maybe someday that’ll change again, but for now I just want to focus on myself and maybe one other person and call it a day. Being out here has been great for that. It’s so much calmer.”
I sent him a checkmark glyph. That was the best I could do while trying not to drop specialized tools into a mess of machinery.
“Just because it’s calm doesn’t mean I don’t miss sex, though,” he said. “I don’t know how compatible we’d be, physically, but do you think you’d ever want to find out? Just floating the idea for the future.” There it was, everything he needed to say out there in the open. I put down my tools; the centrifuge would need to wait just a little while longer.
My response was as clinical as I could manage. “We’re both grown adults with our own research projects in subtly different fields of study. I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest.” The moment I sent that it looked awful, like I was winding up to give him the brush-off. I added a hasty postscript. “Also I’d be a liar if I said I’d never thought about human cock.”
“You know, in the general sense. Wasn’t going to go breaking our monks’ vows even in the realm of the imaginary. It’d be rude.”
Yousef seemed to take this well. “Zinc, you really are something else.”
“One might say the same about you, too, Yousef.” A timer app chimed at me; if I couldn’t get that fucking CV-17 working soon the whole day was going to be a bust. “Look, I need to focus on getting this damn thing to stop barfing up errors halfway through each cycle, so can we come back to this later? I’d like to figure things out when I’m not chasing a deadline.”
“I’ll just have to creep on porn of your countrymen until then.”
“Try Thrice Shy. Good amateur stuff, mostly gay, nothing too gonzo, and they stay out of trouble with the unions. There’s a cheapo no-strings sampler pack.”
“You are a treasure.“
“I try,” I said, and the resulting good vibes were the only thing that kept the rest of that workday from being a total wash.
Two months later—we both had jobs to do and there was a very serious toxicological component in the delay, I do not want to hear it—I found myself in one of the smaller sitting rooms, one with a view of the fields. I’d eaten my morning meal hours ago, being an early riser by dint of crepuscularity, and as Yousef sauntered in with the last of a bagel in one hand I was glad he’d had the same idea. I greeted him with an upheld PDA. Thumbing an icon on the front, I played him a recording that had come in not long before.
“As of this morning,” said his voice from my PDA’s speakers, “at seven-fifteen ante-meridian station time, I verified I am now one hundred percent clean of the final traces of that stupid fucking sex pollen. I’d like to restate that offer of fooling around in person, the details of which we can negotiate as we go. Let me know how that works with your schedule and interest. Thanks!”
I returned my PDA to my pocket and gave him a look. “You left me a formal booty call voicemail.”
He grinned and polished off the last bite of his breakfast. “Do you have any idea what a luxury it is to be able to actually plan something like this instead of having it sprung on you on your way to checking on the power grid?”
“EU7 sounds, uh, challenging,” I said, my frills flattening against my hair.
Yousef nodded. “Very.” He sized me up. I’d worn my nicest slacks and turtlenecks for the meeting, since while he usually saw me in either track pants and tees or a full suite of PPE, I wanted him to know I was at least halfway capable of functioning in society. Yousef dressed snappily even during his off-hours, anyway, and it seemed rude not to at least make a similar effort. I’d actually gone above and beyond my usual grooming routine and used hair product. I was not about to flummox my first chance to get laid in ages!
“Well?” I asked, and if I straightened up a little to loom over him—he’d mentioned liking tall guys before—well, who could blame me?
He propped his hand on his hip with an awkward smile. “Gotta be honest, my man, it’s like you’re going out of your way to make yourself an acquired taste.”
I frowned. “How so?”
“Tie-dyed socks with sculpted foam slip-ons, Zinc? On every foot?”
“Some days I go for solid-color socks with tie-dyed slides, thank you very much.”
“You’re very lucky I’m into the absent-minded scientist look. Also the Matra-Zin-Vezeket look in general. Some personal research has revealed I’ve got a preference when it comes to your species and I’m lucky enough to be working with him.” He glanced around the room. “Why here, might I ask?”
I settled myself down on the big horseshoe-shaped settee that faced the main window. My shoes (which were very comfortable and pleasantly colorful) found themselves kicked off as soon as my back hit the cushions. “It seemed nice,” I said. “The lighting’s good, the view’s good, the furniture is comfortable, and I don’t know about you but I’d rather not have the station’s primary public room, the one where we might entertain friends or family members, be host to a Fuck Couch.” I grinned. “Another luxury compared to EU7, right?”
Yousef sat down beside me with a smile. “Fair enough.” He clapped his hands together and rubbed them. “So, about that negotiation…?”
“No penetration for now,” I said, and oh, how it wounded me to do so. What could that weird dick do? “I believe you when you say you’re pollen-free, but we don’t know if we’re allergic to each other just yet, and I’d rather deal with risking external exposure first.” I brandished the emergency injector pens I’d brought just in case. “Aside from that I’m pretty open. I mean, vanilla-style open.” It wasn’t technically a lie, since we’d both agreed to start simple. We’d get to the nastier shit when we got there. “And you?”
“I’m…going to ask you to go easy on aladryy stuff today,” he said. “It’s entirely on me, I promise I’m working on it, it’s just still a little too much right now. I’m not saying you have to split up or anything, just don’t try anything below the shoulders, okay?”
That he was willing to try things with that part of me at all was a small miracle. I leaned back to make room for myself in my lap and flicked my tail. “That’s doable,” I said. I wet my lips. Placing a foot against his upper arm, I added, “How about we start there?”
He took my face in his hands, tilted it down so he could reach, and kissed me. I’d almost gotten used to someone else being involved in hugs and the occasional chaste couch cuddle, but remembering how to make out with another person is so much different from remembering you can’t scratch an itch with a hand that doesn’t belong to you. We managed well enough to get us both semi-hard, though, and that’s a fine outcome in my book.
Yousef broke the kiss first, keeping our faces close enough that I could feel his breath against my lips. He’d yet to work up a sweat. The thought of his salt was thrilling, but I was determined to let that happen at its own pace. We were the only people out here for parsecs. We had time.
He’d been quiet for a little by then. “You good?” I asked.
“Yeah. Productive exposure therapy,” he said. He leaned in to leave a final peck on my mouth. “I think I want to enjoy a different part of you now.”
I hopped out of my lap and patted the now-empty spot with both sets of hands. “Plenty of room,” I said. We’d both spoken to one another of the glories of grinding, so I didn’t bother to unfasten my slacks. As Yousef was the smaller of the two of us, we’d figured he’d be the one to set the pace during our eventual tryst. It had all felt abstract when we first spoke of it. Now it was here, and happening, and involved some very flattering black jeans. I needed to get my hands in those back pockets immediately.
As if he’d read my mind Yousef straddled me, those spindly human legs of his so different from my graspers but no less muscular. He leaned forward with the sort of purpose I’d usually seen him reserve for long-distance treadmill runs or complicated formula work. “I’m going to ride you until one of us comes,” he growled into my ear, holding my sudai’s gaze all the while. “Once that happens, I’m using my hands on whoever’s left.”
“Hot,” I said. I’m a regular wordsmith when I’m horny. “What do you want me to do…?”
“Your best.” That kind of line can come of so corny in the wrong hands, but in Yousef’s, it filled me with a fiery need. He’d spoken of how he missed the feeling of multiple bodies against his own and how convenient it was for him that I was but one man with three distinct biomasses, all of which were (barring taxonomical working-on-it-ness) fuckable. I pulled off my turtleneck to give him greater access to whatever he wanted to touch. What would it be like if I got some of his skin oils into the furrow where my sudai rested? I hoped I’d get to find out.
He followed my lead regarding going topless, his doffed shirt revealing tattooing across his back and shoulders I’d only seen in passing at the pool. I hadn’t ogled them then out of respect. Seeing as Yousef was grinding our pelvises together with great purpose, I was absolutely going to ogle them now. Such angles! Such precision of form! They were mostly black against his natural brown, but a few places had been chemically-treated to be lighter, revealing splashes of color and even a rare bit of white, and I tried to think solely about how sexy the geometry was instead of the harrowing article I’d read on how they made it look like that. Then he pressed flush against me to kiss me again, and it was easy to not think about anything at all.
Soon I’d worked my ral fingers into his pockets, freeing up my other hands to touch him everywhere else. Near as I could tell it was a great ass: full, toned, just enough give to really dig your fingers in there, and even if all of that was just the work of the jeans, oh, how that ass filled those out. Those first humans had gone bipedal with flying colors. The lack of a tail was still a little weird to me, granted, but I was vigorously dry-humping an alien; it would’ve been a letdown if it wasn’t a little weird.
My ral thumbs rested against the curvature of his pelvis. I could’ve used that grip to rub us together, had he needed any help in the matter; had there been any more friction in the picture we would have caught fire, so I let him keep the pace. Yousef must’ve noticed something in one of my faces between kisses because he eased off just enough to fiddle with the fastens on my slacks before tending to his own straining set. I watched in rapt attention as his hands went to work: the fly unbuttoned, the zipper pulled, and with a tug of fabric Yousef’s mysterious nethers became known to me.
It was just like everything I’d seen in pictures but moreso, and I’d done enough research to know that the way only the tip shone with moisture was just how they worked. Based on the pleased hum he made as he dragged a hand along my own gleaming-slick shaft he seemed happy enough with mine, too. He’d seen porn of us before, I knew he knew what he was in for, but a little part of me finally relaxed upon receiving ironclad proof he didn’t need a genital as complex as his own to get off. Maybe he even felt the same way about me.
“This thing’s huge,” he said under his breath.
“It’s completely proportional,” I said, unused to this style of compliment; I’m entirely average. I’m not sensitive about it or anything, he just caught me off-guard!
“And you’re huge.” He grabbed us both in the same hand and squeezed us together. I gasped. “The moment I know I’m not going to go into anaphylaxis from it, I want this in me,” he added, his voice as firm as his grip.
“S-same….” What would that ridge along the underside feel like going in? What about the weird-looking tip? Surely we could both indulge ourselves at the same time, biological tolerance permitting. It wasn’t like I had a limited number of cocks or assholes to go around. I’d never given much thought to backpacking before—yes, you do know what I mean by one name or another, clinging to somebody else’s body with your sudai is not that big of a logic jump—but as my hands wandered over those magnificent markings along Yousef’s vertebrae it was hard not to wonder what it’d be like to rest somewhere that didn’t have a furrow already made for me.
Of course, if that didn’t work out, there was always the old classic of somebody jerking me off while I hammered away in myself. Back when I got face-to-face dates I was prone to chickening out before things went any further than that, but you better believe I have a lot of experience with lingering on third base. We had options, is the thing.
Now, a thing you must keep in mind is that Yousef had been living that monk’s life we’d agreed upon a little more legitimately than I had, which is to say he’d apparently been limiting himself to a single orgasm a month for the sake of his sexual detox, so neither of us were surprised when he came first and forcefully. He leaned back to do it, leaving a lovely pale trail all along one side of his stomach. I would’ve been happy to finish myself off at the sight—I’m a patterns guy, after all—but Yousef was ever the gentleman; as soon as he caught his breath he was pumping his hand along my shaft like a pro. I yelped. It wasn’t quite the munitions blast I’d hit myself with that time alone in my room, but given Yousef’s satisfied smile, I strongly suspect he didn’t care.
Being in my right mind for our little experiment meant I wasn’t still beside myself with dumbass horny afterwards. This meant I could enjoy the sight of him leaning back with his arms braced against my thighs as he caught his breath, his softening cock still proudly on display. He practically glowed with self-satisfaction. Myself, I was ready for a snack and a nap, and willing to go on the record as a card-carrying xenophile. Now all we had to do was wait a few days to see if anyone got a rash.
“I’d say that went well,” I said once enough of my happy post-orgasm chemicals had faded.
“Same,” said Yousef, who’d by then cleaned up and tucked himself away. He’d allowed me to rest my aladryy against him once his cock was out of sight. I thought it was pretty nice of him. “Don’t think this is the last time we’ll do this, either.” He brushed his fingers down the soft, loose skin of my resting throat sac. “I want to learn what makes you purr.”
“I don’t purr,” I purred. Drowsy or not I was full of ideas. Even if we were allergic there was such a thing as gloves, and exhibitionism, and good ol’ text-fucking. Having a friend with benefits on the station was going to be great.
“I’ll get some fresh blood tests running, plus a little side research into unexpected physical interactions, then I’ll—Zinc, are you falling asleep on me?”
He was warm, the couch was soft, and the light was streaming through the window just right. It wasn’t that far away from my midday cycle, either. I curled my tail against my body and made myself a little comfier. “Might be….”
“We’ll talk this afternoon, then. Also it’s your turn to pilot the vacuum drones. Just because you’ve got some good dick doesn’t mean you get to ignore the chore chart.”
“I beg to differ,” I started to say, but didn’t make it all the way through. When I woke up again at the usual time I was by myself, save that someone had tucked me all together like a set of nesting dolls and thrown a blanket over me that I knew usually lived elsewhere on the station. I also had a lot of unread texts on my PDA yelling about the state in which I’d left the galley-adjacent bathroom.
Some things you just don’t get when you live alone.
Oh my GOSH I like both of these guys so much! I hope they get to have a long and happy cohabitation full of anaphylaxis-free fucking.
“The lack of a tail was still a little weird to me, granted, but I was vigorously dry-humping an alien; it would’ve been a letdown if it wasn’t a little weird.” See, Zinc gets it!
I also love how this is kind of playing on that idea of “humans as space orcs” but Zinc is like “and that is kind of hot”. So good!
Okay, I assume the last SHA in SSSHA is the same as OSHA, but what do the extra S’s stand for? One has to be space, right? Anyway, I love all the safety signs!
Zinc is great, though I will sheepishly admit I absolutely cannot visualize what he looks like. I’ve got I think the basic idea — three bits, one quadrupedal, two bipedal and only one that has hands? — but he’s alien enough that my brain simply cannot cohere this. I don’t suppose you have a sketch or anything kicking around?
Mysteries of multiple biomasses aside, he’s ridiculously relatable. I too love poptarts, jump at horror movies, and am kinda horrified by how tattoos are made. The whole story was a wild ride made up of “I identify strongly with this person” and “whooooa he is SO ALIEN my brain can’t wrap around it”. It was GREAT and some of the overlap between the two was fascinating for me. Leaving two bodies in your room so you can trundle to the kitchen for the food you desperately need? I think I kinda get that feeling!
That overlap between understandable and alien is maybe why the whole story works so well for me. It’s feels so very PLAUSIBLE, with some cool tech that is now totally boring to anyone used to it and a lot of the same nuisances that will probably plague jobs and social interactions forever. It’s a very homey sort of future and I really enjoyed it!
I really enjoyed how you gradually revealed the nature of Zinc without contorting his monologue into describing himself outright. In fact, his whole character and point of view was great. And you somehow even managed to make a sex pollen planet not be a cheesy porn trope, while still having it be plot-relevant to the (pretty damn hot) sex scenes!
This was an absolute delight. Your species-building is, as always, amazing.