I’m licking the bronze key with its tiny hook, enfolded into myself. The key is only for emergencies and I’m trying to decide whether this counts.
Then I’m at the door, slipping the thin peg into the emergency keyhole. I know the mechanism well. It clicks, jumps, and I’m in her room.
My appendages linger in piles of half-clean clothes, letting the wall of scent—uneven parts sour-sweet girl-musk, sharp dry cheese, the erasers and graphite and evenly-distributed-mark-makers and something all Nina’s—surround me, and then I’m in: licking little hems and the dry wheaty-taste of threads, rubbing myself across synthetic wood and trying to fit its bulky corners in, pulling whole pens and compasses and rulers through gelatinous openings to puzzle their parts inside of me. Nina’s space is filled with rubbery textures and bitter metallic barriers and pages and pages of paper. In my frenzy I forget that they get offended at the taking of books into oneselves; I tear through An Intergalactic Traveler’s Guide to the Far Reaches, Vol. 4; Extra-Terrestrial Artmaking; and Constructing the 23rd Century: A Brief Discourse into the Age of Progress.
By now I’m feeling weighted down and remembering why I’m here while I suck on Nina’s blanket. There must be something here to explain why Nina’s been low-energy. The pulsations rolling off of her human body are not as enjoyable when she’s sad, and she’s been sad for a while now. Maybe something’s wrong with her fish? I vibrate to echolocate her fish tank on the desk and pull within me the briney droplets of water, then the waxy plasticness of the decorative leaves, then the teacup abyssal grouper, all ruffled-sharp scales and teeth. Its little heart speeds inside my higher viscosity. It nibbles at my insides. I wriggle, delighting in all of these things in me. I want to digest them all.
A yelp from the door pulses against my membrane. The atmosphere shifts, letting in a breeze and also a mixture of soft sweat and graphite and the oil of Nina’s makeup.
I fall very still. I don’t vibrate, not even a little.
In my proprioception, the room’s pressure shifts again—enough to accommodate my other roommate’s, Tinequert’s, softly whirring AI head and her artificial solid-state brain matter. A click. "At least it went for your things this time." I know what the words mean, but, as usual, can’t comprehend her tone. The pressure from Tinequert’s head in the room disappears as she churns away into the hallway.
In a rush Nina’s short, dense body pushes into the room, snatching away her things and throwing them across the room. There are slams and crashes and ripples in the air, and I burble with the sensory input. I have come to associate this behavior with human rage, but it feels so good against my semi-permeable skin.
"Are you seriously laughing?" squeals Nina. Air presses against me, whirls around me; Nina is on the move. “You have no regard for personal space, Filo/Gee! For common . . . decency! I can’t believe I have to deal with this, with my grandmother…" Her voice goes high and tight, and after a grunt she says: "Can you please carefully take Shakesfeare out of your . . . " I almost feel her lips purse. "Put Shakesfeare back in his tank."
The grouper wriggles and thrashes as I extend to drop him into what unclean water remains. I miss him already. "I’m sorry!" I say. "We have a cultural difference!" That magic phrase, I’ve come to learn, can usually make Nina smile and forgive me before she lets me taste her old graphite-filled sketches.
This time, waves of flushed rage roll off of Nina. She doesn’t mean to reward me, so I begin to surreptitiously expel the now-slurry particles of fiber, plastic, pigment, paper, and splinters onto the floor. "We’ve been roommates for a year and a half," comes her boiling voice, so soft normally (I know the softness of her tongue from experience—just once! An accident!). "That’s not an excuse anymore." And quite abruptly, the pressure in the room dissipates.
I pursue her into the common area. "Where are you going?"
"File a report." Her tone has quieted again, back to her normal, simmering self. In her methodical way she packs her bag back up, tucking away anything that I could potentially have access to.
This quietness depresses me. I slump against the wall, which tastes of concrete and paint and titanium and bolts. I take no pleasure in it. "About me?"
"Yes, Filo/Gee." A clearing of her throat, which tickles me. "I thought I was doing a good thing, volunteering to room with you and all. But clearly we just . . . can’t live together." I feel her skin soften through the air between us. "It’s not your fault. It’s just—cultural differences." Her voice falls off and she is silent.
I twist inside myself. She doesn’t want to live with me. My Cultural Sensitivity across Species classes have taught me that much, even though I’m not the best student. "Okay," I say.
Nobody understands. Just because I can’t see doesn’t mean I can’t feel them in the room, their miniscule movements, the turns of their heads and the wringing of their hands. I know she’s there, though when she leaves she tries to close the door quietly.
The key that’s only for emergencies turns inside of me.
By the way, I have a lawyer! The AI was assigned to me when I first enrolled, the first of my kind to go to an intergalactic school. So now, even though the administration asks me a few questions, my lawyer whirrs up from the South Fourth Quadrant to tell me the station can’t bring any charges against me regarding the incident. She’s working on getting me upgraded from endangered species to protected class.
So they quietly move my things into a space of my own when Nina is in Structural Integrity IV and Tinequert is in Applications of Advanced Theoretical Physics. I have few items, because even though I’ve had plenty of money donated to me, it is too delicious to part with. And the things I do have are well-turned-over and worn, absorbed into me and licked many times.
After some hours, the delight of the new walls and chair and rug start to leave a bad taste; I’m used to a palate-cleanser of Nina’s pigments after such romps. A doctor comes to let me absorb my antibiotics, which he says helps me counteract the bacteria I ingest while living among humans and other extraterrestrials. The station pumps more highly pressurized air into my room, which calms me down some. Still I wrap the worn blanket around me and then pull it inside to suck on its bare threads.
In Cultural Sensitivity across Species 350, it’s my turn to give a presentation. I’m great at speaking now! Ever since I learned to pull some of myself concavely inward, then vibrate the lower palate against the upper, it’s not difficult to shape human sounds into words.
Still, I don’t understand them. Just like they don’t understand what it is to feel everything.
"Whatever is on your desk," I’m saying, "put it in your mouth."
There’s the usual mixture of awkward laughter, the turning of feathered and furred and leafed heads to face others, perhaps to exchange some sort of wordless understanding, and outright objection. I pulsate pleasantly with the attention as sounds and words bounce around the room, as the stillness turns to a raucous chorus of sharp bark-sounds, sweat-smells, gases and sound waves and movement all pulsating toward me.
The matter that I am most attuned to is toward the back of the room in a quiet corner. Nina smells today of musk and ink, paper and coffee and sleep still hanging over her, as if she rushed out of the dorm without showering.
The air around her shifts. She puts the cap of an expensive artist’s pen, plastic and metallic, in her mouth and closes her lips.
Nobody notices but me.
The professor tells me to get to my point, and prompts everyone else to quiet down and indulge me because I might just surprise them. They do it, even the AIs who theoretically don’t have taste sensory input (at least on this model). Most put paper in their mouths, or else food, which is cheating, but I don’t mind. "Now," I say, all my nerves alive, "imagine your mouth is a stomach, and your stomach is the whole of your body. Also, it can smell things. And it’s liquid. Turn it over with your tongue. Describe how it tastes, with your words. How big it is. How thin or thick. . . ."
"I wonder what else they like putting in their mouth," a student says.
"Everything!" I say. "It’s always like that. Sound waves tickle me. In fact, it’s better when it’s noisier! It strengthens my musculature and increases the variations in my viscosity! This is how I mature, rather than nutrition. And once I’ve experienced enough environmental stimulation—"
Another student says, "I’ll increase their vibrations . . . ."
"All right," the professor says, her voice tired. "That’s enough. And may I remind you that you are being graded on participation, part of which is your empathy score."
I slink back to my seat. It’s time for a presentation from the two AIs on theory of mind when you don’t technically have one, traditionally defined.
In the corner, the pen cap turns over and over in Nina’s mouth.
In the cafeteria, there’s a human with latex hands who will give me a glove once in a while. I like to sit and sift through the smells wafting around: meat substitute, protein leaflets, still mildly wood-smelling chopsticks, hair product, atmospheric variations, gaseous exhalations, rubber-soled shoes and the feet in them.
I ponder what my classmates could have been referring to. If they were offering to touch me, well, that was kind of them! Tasting organic material is always better than metals or other synthetic products; it is always changing into something new. I attempt to whistle.
Boisterous conversation tickles me. But I feel part of a conversation lapping toward me, and as soon as I hear who it is, I focus my attention.
". . .It’s plain survival of the fittest," Tinequert is saying. "They could not survive contact with humanity, which was an inevitability in the ever-increasing intergalactic nature of our universe."
"Then why is Filo/Gee still around?" a feline biped snorts.
A shrug of titanium shoulders indicates they are sitting somewhere behind me. I shift in the made-for-bipedal-shapes chair to more immediately feel their vibrations. "It defies logic."
"I imagine they’re pumping the amoeba full of drugs," the feline sneers. "No wonder it’s so hyped up."
A human says: "We just have to endure that oversized snot wad until it catches something and goes extinct."
"Now," says the furred, fanged creature. "Let’s not be cruel."
"At least," says the other AI, "the station’s getting funding for having it here."
It wouldn’t have bothered me—considering the fact that AIs can only reproduce under human schematics (ironic for them to cite survival of the fittest)—except the AI turns to a second human who smells of softness and architect’s graphite: “How did you put up with the brainless creature?”
Nina stirs her cafeteria stew in silence.
Eavesdropping is great fun. Usually. After the incident in the cafeteria I don’t take as much joy in it as usual as I trundle along the bare echo-chambers that are the dorm hallways, sound resonating from every angle. My own echoes are meager snacks, but they’ll do until I hear the secreted stories behind dorm doors.
At one door, someone hums to himself. It makes me feel a little better to hum back, low and soft like the air conditioner so they can’t hear. At the next, I can hear the telltale grunts and creaks of two phaseoloides twining and fertilizing each other in coitus—their thick grapey scent rolls under the door into the hallway. I linger, considering the anatomy of copulation, and the necessity of two of the species to reproduce, like most on this station. It doesn’t seem sustainable in terms of perpetuating the species. Then again, neither does having semi-permeable skin that’s susceptible to human-transmitted diseases.
I wouldn’t mind someone to rub up against and slip into.
This line of thought is enough to make me slump at the next door, which is thick with well-traversed scents. I tremble with nostalgia and press myself up against that door, the door I no longer have the key to.
Their voices oscillate: Nina’s pinched and soft, Tinequert’s full of clicking.
The soft voice hiccups, irregular. I flinch, recoiling for once at the surge of energy roiling off of Nina.
"You’re being irrational," comes Tinequert’s hollow voice.
"You don’t understand." I press myself fully against the door to better feel the rise and fall of her vibrations. "My grandmother raised me! How can I just forget. . . ."
"I’m sorry. You are not the first of your kind to be forgotten. It isn’t economical to keep wasting time for an organism that doesn’t remember you or care." Nina’s choked sob follows. "I’m sorry," Tinequert says. "I’m trying to help you."
"You’re not doing a very good job of it."
"My model came before the invention of empathy-synthesis. I’m not programmed to understand grief," Tinequert says, and her voice has something in it I haven’t noticed before. "Please don’t storm off. Explain it to me."
Thudding footsteps, vibrating my foundation. I am absolutely still, so as to catch the tremors. And then the door’s open and I tumble into the suite. Nina hesitates only for a moment, then in a wave scented with salt and sorrow she rushes past me.
"What happened!" I say, playing it cool. Cool like an AI.
Tinequert’s mechanical body approaches mine. "We are in an important discussion, Filo/Gee. Can you come back later?" She’s turned Nina against me, she wishes I’d perished like the rest of my kind. A hot, sour feeling boils in my body, but it’s not coming from outside.
I heave my mass at her and taste her sharp metals, slick bones and rubbery surfaces, and she’s sounding a wailing alarm and yelling at me to protect the hard drive, but I don’t care. I swing myself down to the ground and I take her with me, and her squeals tickle my insides as her copper wirings fray and snap and is that joint oil I’m tasting?
I’m not surprised when the station staffers come, gloved, to pull me away and lock me in my room.
It’s a week later and I’m feeling deprived. The station slips trays of pulverized nutrients under the door: protein smoothies, freeze-dried seaweed, slivers of faux animal meat. I attempt to digest them, even though they don’t satisfy. I’m downgraded from endangered species to “corrosive agent.” The doctor from the health center comes, radiating nervousness. He tells me to drink more water and get plenty of sleep, not to overstimulate myself. He ups my antibiotics. I absorb water. I push as much of myself as possible against the corner of the desk and wrap myself around it, begin to bleach all taste from it. I’m too small now for it to really fit.
My lawyer comes all the way up from the South Fourth to explain something to me. She’s making no sense. Words begin to have less meaning. I can’t translate them to feeling. I stop trying to structure them into any kind of sense.
It’s the middle of the night. I feel a click of the lock on my door. It rouses me. I expose more surface area to the vibrations.
The door swings open, bringing with it a rush of the cool air the station pumps into the hallways at night. A human shape parts the air particles around her. I get a rush of musk, sebum, graphite and erasure filings, and come all the way alert.
I release myself from around the chewed-upon desk corner. Nina has the emergencies-only key in her hand, and also something with a high rectangular volume. And heavy, too—she sets it on the desk.
Intense, vast relief cools down my body. My liquids slide along my gelatinous parts, loosening my language. "What are you doing here! It’s the middle of the night!"
Nina sits on the bed even as I slide up from it. She runs her fingertips along my threadbare blanket. "I wanted to apologize," she says quietly, in a low, fine vibration. I suddenly grasp its significance—genuine regret. "I . . . overreacted, before. When you were in my dorm."
I say nothing; I’m trying to focus on the words she’s saying, but I can’t stop myself from writhing in her scents, from reveling in the soft lilts of her voice. I didn’t even know I missed them. I didn’t even realize how numb I’ve become without her slightly-unwashed scent. "It’s okay," I burble, the bare minimum response.
"No," she says softly. Then, more firmly: "No. It’s not your fault. I didn’t realize . . . ." She trails off. "I didn’t think how you must be so . . . "
"Alone." Her scent changes: salty sorrow.
We’ve never talked about the human-transmitted disease that wiped out my friends and family and everyone I knew and the fact that I avoided it because my sibling Hali/Koo had sent me here, to this station-school. Sure, I was exposed to humans here, same as everyone else. But when my kind started getting sick, my lawyer got me the best medical care, fast. The rest of my planet? Not so much.
"I know it isn’t the same," Nina is saying, "but . . .my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s is getting worse. She had the vaccine, but . . . . One out of a hundred cases, it doesn’t work." She shakes her head. I get a whiff of her perfume and a taste of her oily split ends. "It’s like . . . To her, I don’t even exist anymore." A new scent: sweet-sour snot. I stretch to touch her face. She flinches, then holds still as I sop up her nasal fluid and her tears. I pull back, not sure whether I’ve embarrassed myself again.
"I’m sorry." I’m not sure what I’m apologizing for. Maybe all of it.
Nina shakes her head again; guilt rolls off of her in overly-sweet waves. We’re even. "Listen." She stands up. "I want you to have Shakesfeare."
So she’s brought the tank. I remember the soft, ridged scales inside me and can’t help but wriggle. "I thought you loved Shakesfeare."
"I do." We cross together to the desk. "I mean, he’s beautiful. But . . . alone. Like—us."
I dare to slip a toe of myself into the tank. Shakesfeare’s sharp, tiny teeth come up to nibble at me. All of my jelly prickles in response.
Nina’s heat radiates off of her like a low-burning furnace. She’s moving, pressing the hairs of her arms flat against her skin. "They shouldn’t have said that," she whispers. "Tinequert shouldn’t have said that about your people."
"It’s all right!" I’m feeling better and better. She hasn’t moved away from me yet, and I feel a flood of a new emotion that makes me feel warm and sweet. "They’re wrong."
"Your people survived?"
"No. They’re wrong that I’m the last of my kind." I’m practically purring with pleasure. I would be perfectly fine with letting the grouper nibble off some more of me if I could feel like this in every moment of every day. "When I experience enough matter and energy, I get larger. And when I’m too large, I’ll split into two."
"You reproduce asexually?" Nina says. "Your species isn’t going extinct!"
"Just the opposite," I say happily. "And I’m going to name them Filo/Koo and. . . " I had the names for my two selves all picked out in preparation for mitosis, but now everything’s changed. I make a decision. ". . .and Nina/Gee."
"Oh," Nina says quietly. "I’m . . . flattered, I think." The heat is rolling off of her. "Whew. I thought you were going to ask me to incubate your offspring, or something."
We’re giggling. "I’m not that kind of alien," I say. "How is Tinequert?"
"They’re putting her back together. With some upgrades, too."
We trail off to silence, both holding ourselves very still. I’m fighting the urge to reach out to her, to engulf her.
Instead, she whispers: "Can I . . . ?"
Her language runs concurrently over this other layer of understanding, as though she feels some of my vibrations, too. I hum a soft invitation. Her round, thin appendage slips into me, garnished with a keratin surface, and I’m trembling to keep myself from reacting and then I’m suckling at her epidermal ridges, callouses and all, and she tastes like everything she has touched and experienced on this day and all the days that have come before and I invite her in, deeper, surround her up to the wrist and tug at the fine dark hairy roots.
She pulls her hand out from me. Reluctantly, I release her. I’ve forgotten about Shakesfeare, who has been nibbling, and has chewed some of me off. And it hurts, a stamp-sized surface area of me even more exposed, some of my viscosity pouring out, that burst and splatter of joy.
But it doesn’t matter. It will grow back.