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Chapter 8 – Social Circle

Day 98, early, mind-games:

Dozens of new messages pinged into my inbox that morning. Jane and John were still at loose ends, neither attending school nor going out to find jobs, so naturally they were bored.

I was wondering how long the Slixt were going to let that drama play out. The slugs were pretty tolerant as far as maniacal-space-kidnappers went, but it was very important to them that everyone onboard got along as much as possible. In the end, everyone had to fit in somewhere (even misfits like me) and there were always ready examples of what became of people who resisted integration into the collective. I was afraid of what might happen to the only other Humans in my life, and even though we weren’t exactly friends, I hoped that we might be… someday.

So I was afraid for J&J and, in the worst case scenario, for myself as well. J&J would have to find a way to come to grips with the situation as I had.

I wasn’t exactly the poster-person for getting along with others, but had managed to find a place here. Carved out a life, of sorts. And I hated to admit it, but on a day-to-day basis… I kind of liked it here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to escape just as soon as possible, but up until that point, I might as well be comfortable.

Ultimately, I was less worried for myself than for J&J. Like, it was exciting that there were other Humans here, but I’d also gotten used to being the only one – this made me feel even more guilty for not doing more to help them fit in.

The reality was that J&J didn’t want to assimilate (there, I said it). Their uncompromising resistance to anything and everything meant that they weren’t making any progress in terms of integrating with anyone outside their “tightly-bound unit” (gross). On top of that, they preferred to speak to each other, only occasionally letting me into their lives (when they needed something from me) and even then, mostly to harass me about escaping. Their dislike and distrust of all the other aliens was certain to become an issue before long, and I could tell that they resented my friendship with Nixa since they pointedly tried to exclude her whenever possible.

The newest invitation to hang out after work made it clear that they wanted to meet, but only the three of us. I’d brought Nixa with me the last time and it hadn’t gone over well. But I was equally firm in my response: I already had plans with Nixa (again), and that it had to be the four of us… or none of us, knowing that Nixa’d be ok with it because she didn’t really care what Jane and John thought about anything and would probably just ignore them anyway. She’s a good friend.

For their part, Jane and John had become so desperate for fresh company that they grudgingly agreed and, after a lot of pointless haggling, we decided to meet outside Bahzak’s-Goblin Arcade, near the Silk Road, at seven standard time.

Day 98, is this what I wanted?:

It was the first time that I realized how sneaky Jane could be. She’d made sure that everyone else would arrive at eight, so that we could have an hour together beforehand. Alone.

When I got there, Jane was by herself, looking excited and nervous. She was wearing a flowery human-style dress (I wondered how she could afford one without working) and had done something new with her hair (this should have been my second clue).

Jane and John weren’t exactly fashion icons. Since they got here, they generally stuck to generic utility jumpsuits or the simple clothes they arrived in. On principle, they made few attempts at going beyond the bare minimum standards of personal grooming or hygiene. I figured that was all a part of their resistance to the Slixt and wondered why I hadn’t thought of that when plotting my own little acts of rebellion (it was probably because the Slixt didn’t really appreciate subtlety). What would they care what a couple Humans wore? Or if they stank a bit? Newcomers were given a lot of leeway while they adjusted. A little rebellion was expected. Tolerated even. I know: having tried just about everything to piss off the Slixt myself.

Integration was a long and difficult process, and everyone had to go through it. Most people experienced the five stages of grief (being one of the few near-universals among alien species) (sometimes the stages differed slightly; the Blerzon’s fourth stage, for example, involved trying to eat as many other aliens as possible. We didn’t have a lot of Blerzon onboard for that and other good reasons).

Seeing Jane all done-up confused me, but my heart also leapt a little. Because maybe it meant that J&J were coming around to reality, as crappy as it was. There was no point in sitting in your apartment moping all day unless you hadn’t made it through all the “Humans Are Dumb” episodes yet (somehow I didn’t tell J&J about Bleep n’ Bloop and hoped they would a) never find out; and b) if they did, never ask).

Jane had an intense look in her eyes. I was about to ask her where the others were at when she grabbed my hand, pulling me along after her.

I hadn’t touched another Human in ages.

Her hand was warm, and soft.  A little spark jump-started my heart when we made contact – an unexpected wave of heat washing over me.

Slixt television was short on Human romance, otherwise I would have remembered that holding hands was a starting point that featured heavily in those types of stories. But given the situation we were all in, I’d kind of given up on the idea. Sure, when I first saw Jane, feelings came welling up to the surface – friendly (and perhaps forbidden) but there never seemed to be an appropriate moment in which to process those feelings. For one, John was always there – and he also made me uncomfortable for similar reasons, but that was another issue.

Back home, none of this would have been a problem. Probably. These days most people wouldn’t judge any particular combination or preference too harshly. So why was it so hard? Did I have to choose? I wasn’t sure if I could. The truth was that both of them were interesting in different ways. I couldn’t tell if it was just desperation for Human contact, or because I really wanted either one of them. Whatever the case, I was glad that Jane couldn’t see me blushing as she led me between the folds of exotic silks and deeper into the bazaar.

She stopped suddenly, her hand gripping mine, and turned towards me. My forward momentum and dazed brain brought me kind of smooshing into her a bit. Instantly, she was smooshing back into me. My head spun. I wasn’t ready for any of this.

Jane was suddenly very close, my vision filled with her, our faces just inches apart. Her hand squeezing mine and her eyes filled with a mixture of urgent-need and scary-crazy.

Then she was kissing me.

It wasn’t the kiss of a friend, nor was it the frenzied passion that I’d dreamt of. It was something in between -somewhat firm and closed mouthed. Not really what I’d have expected had I expected this to happen.

The whole moment had a certain inevitability to it, like it was destined to be disappointing from the very start. Because I’m not convinced that either Jane or I really wanted a “relationship”. Maybe she was just trying “us” on for size, to see how we fit, even though I probably wasn’t her regular style.

I didn’t know what to do, so I kept my lips locked to hers, our bodies mechanically pressing into each other, my left arm limp at my side.

I knew it was over when she suddenly let go of my hand. Just as quickly as it all started, we were no longer kissing. I didn’t know what I was thinking, and tried desperately to find something useful to say, but by now, you know that that’s never been my strong suit.

Jane’s face was red as she wheeled away from me, her back turned, standing very still between the rows of silk. Her voice was icy, a knife’s edge away from cracking, and if she started crying, then we might both end up doing that. ‘I know what you want,’ she said, but in a way that made it clear that she no longer wanted me to have it, whatever it was.

‘Really? Half the time I’m not really sure myself,’ I replied, but maybe more casually than I’d meant. I wanted her to feel like the whole episode was no big deal, but I think it came across as cold instead.

She wasn’t looking at me, not directly, ‘But you’re into girls, right?’

I didn’t know what I was, to be honest. I’d always told people I wasn’t into labels, but now that I’d found myself in this situation I realized that was because I hadn’t figured it out yet. A lack of courage, maybe. Why courage would be needed to figure it out – I didn’t know. But that’s what I was thinking.

By then, too much had time had passed between her question and my non-answer (there was an upper limit to the number of seconds that could go by before one replied in a situation like this, and that passed about ten seconds earlier).

Her voice shaking, she said, ‘I think you should go.’

Admittedly, I still didn’t know how to react. Should I have tried to touch her shoulder or her arm? If so, where exactly, and with how much pressure? Such a gesture could be interpreted in lots of ways. Could a clearer signal be sent, without knowing what signal to send? (I did know that attempting an awkward hug from behind would be a definite “no-no”.)

So I turned away without saying anything and went back out into the bazaar.

The whole episode had taken maybe five or ten minutes but the aftermath would replay through my head for weeks. I found an empty table and waited for the others to arrive, half-expecting Jane to join us – but maybe I’m overestimating my optimism about that, because when Jane didn’t show up after all I wasn’t surprised.

When Nixa got there, it was as if she sensed right away that something was wrong. Her head cocked to the side and her lenses focused on my face. We looked at each other for what felt like a long time, and then she nodded her head and visibly relaxed. I don’t know what passed between us, but I was immensely grateful for her friendship just then. Within moments were laughing and joking about the stupid stuff that had happened at our respective workplaces the previous day and my mood improved rapidly.

I was also relieved that Jane wasn’t there anymore.

Day 98, it’s not so bad, is it?:

John arrived in a mood of his own; a combination of foul temper and barely contained agitation, like he had someplace better to be and people he’d rather be spending his time with. It was maddening because he was the one who had insisted that we meet in the first place.

I wanted to like him. Couldn’t help it even. But it wasn’t easy. And, aside from Jane, I didn’t think he actually knew anyone else, so his behavior was doubly insulting.

Nixa for her part, only tolerated J&J because of me and I was grateful for her loyalty and presence. She’d obviously rather not hang out with the other Humans given the choice.

Feeling guilty for some reason, I expected her to ask where Jane was. But either she already knew from some kind of womanly-intuition or just didn’t care. No matter what happened next, I wasn’t going to bring up the subject.

We sat down at a cafe table and ordered fizzy drinks. John kept looking around like he was expecting someone else to arrive (Jane perhaps, since she was supposed to be there, but he hadn’t asked about her whereabouts).

I was going to say something to John, but somehow Nixa had anticipated that whatever I was about to blurt out would probably have been the wrong thing. A tap from her clawed hand under the table snapped my mouth shut. Then Nixa nodded at me again, like she could read my mind (I really hoped mind-reading wasn’t something that her species could do).

The awkward silence that hung in the air afterward was best described as uncomfortable. To my surprise, Nixa chose to speak first. ‘How are you ( fitting in ) John?’ she asked him.

John’s eyes jerked in her direction and he said, ‘Why? What have you heard?’

Neither Nixa’s nor my own translation-bolts caught the sub-text in John’s reaction, but I’d been Human my whole life and I could tell the question made him uncomfortable. Nixa was unaware of all this, so she simply replied, ‘I just heard that you were having some trouble, from your ( case worker ). I didn’t mean anything by it.’

‘Yeah well, I don’t like you asking me questions, or asking about me, if it’s all the same to you… I don’t even know why you’re here.’

Nixa looked ( uncomfortable ) and I was already tired of John’s ( expletive ). ‘There’s no need for that,’ I said hotly.

John glared at me. ‘Yeah, so what? Look, I need to talk to you. But not in front of… it,’ he sneered at Nixa. ‘Doesn’t matter anyway… look, just forget it. Jane was supposed to be meeting us here, I gotta find out where she’s got to,’ he said, scanning the crowd. Then he was on his feet.

With a nod to me and another glare at Nixa, he was off. 

Day 99, radio silence:

I hadn’t heard from J or J since the previous evening, and there were no new messages from Nixa either. She’d seemed ok when we parted ways, but the Humans’ open hostility toward her must have been hard to bear. I hoped she wasn’t mad at me, but feared that she might be.

I also wondered if John’s strange behavior at the market was related to that thing that happened between us a week ago, but the prospect of that made as little sense as Jane’s kiss.

Nothing was adding up right (I tend to say that a lot). I felt like John must have wanted to talk about something else, something important – possibly about our plans to escape, an idea that seemed to consume all of John’s thoughts (while I’d actually started thinking about it less and less). The whole thing had become an abstract idea, or maybe just a long-term goal, kind of like telling people that you want to be an Astronaut when you grow up. Escape would be nice, wouldn’t it? But not really practical.

There was another dilemma as well; I wanted to talk to someone about the thing with Jane. You know… the kiss. Obviously, I couldn’t have this discussion with my co-workers, I mean, you know what they’re like.

The logical choice would have been to talk to Jane herself, but I didn’t think that I could, and I wasn’t sure that she wanted to talk about it either. Or maybe she did? All of my experience with different kinds of aliens hadn’t adequately prepared me for the subtleties of talking to Human girls about kissing. After all I’d been through, it should have been easy, but I knew for sure that I couldn’t talk to John about any of it. That would be a disaster. Even thinking about him gave me the shivers.

Despite everything that had happened, my feelings towards J&J were complicated, and I was unwilling to open one door if it meant having to close the other. That left Nixa as the obvious choice, but the mere idea of telling her what happened twisted up my guts.

Romance wasn’t the kind of thing we talked about.

Day 103, why does everything have to be so hard all the time?:

Jane and John were still being lame and mopey so I called Nixa up on the comm and invited her over to my place for an episode of “Humans are Dumb”. As far as I was concerned, it was the best show on the nets, and also somehow preferable to the real thing. Of all the Humans they could have taken, the Slixt had to pick J&J (it’s a cruel universe).

I was a bit nervous about being alone with Nixa, to be honest. It had little to do with the fact that she could rip my head off and suck out my brains before I even knew what happened; it was that she was my best friend, and it felt like J&J were driving a wedge between us ever since they’d arrived. There was no denying that everything had become a lot more intense in the past few weeks.

Anyway, I’d made a big batch of pop-corn (it wasn’t really corn and it wasn’t really popped, but it was the next best thing). A few spurts of Kiliak cream (straight from the Kiliak) was close enough to real butter to complete the picture. I was sensitive to the fact that Nixa probably wouldn’t, or couldn’t eat that, so I’d also stopped by the corner market to grab a tub of Nimian grubs.

The door alarm buzzed and I took one last critical look around my living-room, but there was nothing to be done now. Nixa had come over many times… besides, it wasn’t that messy. But for good measure I quickly kicked a few odds and ends under the couch before swiping the door release.

‘Er, hi…,’ I said stunned.

Nixa looked really cool. I’d never seen her like that, wearing a kind of see-through dress made of what looked like dimly-luminescent fish scales. Her carapace was coated in some fresh wax, the tips of her claws painted silver with little stars in them.

‘Hi,’ she said, embarrassed. ‘I was at this work-thing today… the reception I told you about? I didn’t have time to change, and… is this too formal?’

‘S’alright,’ I replied, feeling a bit under-dressed (but I didn’t own anything nice to begin with, and it was far too late for that anyway).

‘You, uh, wanna come in?’ I asked while speeding over to the couch, eager to get things back on my own terms. I picked up the wriggling tub and asked, ‘Grubs?’

Her eyes lit up as she scooped up a claw-full, flinging them into her mouth, a couple missing and disappearing behind the couch where I worried what would become of them. She stopped chewing suddenly and turned her head away, ‘Oh, I’m so rude!’ she stammered. ‘But these are my favorite! How did you know?’

‘Um, you’re always ordering those,’ I said. ‘Please help yourself, I’ve had enough grubs for one day, I guess.’

She laughed at that, and then I laughed, and then things got easier. It felt like the tension following J&J’s arrival had finally broken – that we were halfway back to how we were before the new Humans ruined my life (I was well aware of the irony).

We settled in for the episode, and it was hilarious. The more-so because I was able to enjoy the moment with Nixa, like the oldest of friends curled up on the couch (if one of those friends was a space monster).

I was pretty sure that Nixa felt the same because she was relaxed in a way that didn’t seem possible for her – until, in a particularly tense moment of the show, she instinctively clung to my leg. The whole time that was happening, I was hoping that I wouldn’t need a dozen stitches on account of the sharpness of her claws. I tried to take my mind off the searing pain (even after she let go, apologizing) and reached for my pop-corn, shoving a giant handful into my mouth while Nixa exclaimed, ( surprised ), ‘I thought you said you’d had enough grubs today?’

And then I was running for the bathroom, heaving into the drain. Nixa was there, patting my back and making sure that my hair (which was getting longer) didn’t get covered in vomit.

After that we sat in awkward silence for a bit before Nixa said she had to go. ‘I have an early day tomorrow,’ she said by way of excuse, but I was fairly sure her kind didn’t need much sleep.

‘Oh… Ok,’ I said, swiping the door open.

The only thing left was an awkward hug. It was really weird when it should have been really normal, and I knew that J&J were in the room with us, even though they weren’t.

Somehow, we’d all gotten entangled in their web of ( expletive ) and now everything was a big mess. I wanted to say something, but nothing came out. Nixa did a sort of shrug and moved off down the corridor while I watched the glowing scales of her dress disappear in the dim light. And then she was gone.

I couldn’t sleep that night, tossing and turning, my mind reeling, thinking about what John had left unsaid. And what Jane had said and then done. And Nixa patting my back as I puked a chalky white stream of grubs into the toilet.

Yay me.


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