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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Return to Zendar
by David Goldstein

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In a large, low-ceilinged cybercafé in one of Earth's metropolises, itchy with pollution and stress, sat a pensive extraterrestrial. A youngish male Zendarian he was, a minor dignitary from Sivle; the third-largest sovereignty on a planet which, although not distant, was beyond human reach behind a hypospacial barrier. The alien, currently known to those who asked as radio journalist Zack Innes, was slowly finishing a serving of a hot, brown sustenance liquid that was popular locally. As compensation for its unfriendly taste, the cappuccino, perhaps through reacting with his metamorphic medication, made Innes a little inebriated, and eased his inhibitions about completing his government-funded mission: to make intimate contact with a human female.

Many years were spent scoping Earth by Zendarian observatories; and when spacial travel and infiltration technology were refined enough, many nations organised research missions to Earth. As far as Innes knew, there were 71 other Zendarians concealed on Earth, but only a few had been sent there on amorous encounter missions, and it was more daunting than he'd expected. Coming from a traditional culture of marriage waiting lists for the poor and courtship auctions for the rich, confidence did not run through his arteries, and flirting with strangers intimidated him. His orders called for an element of sincerity, and trust between him and his mate, so prostitution was no option.

After spending time on Earth's primitive non-classified panglobal ordinator network, Innes discovered 'internet dating'. This appealed to him as a way of selecting a potential mate with whom he felt comfortable, whilst convincing her that he was the correct male for her tastes. He concocted a witty and articulate profile, and registered it under his actual name, 'Earl Innex'. Setting out on a brisk unblinking walk through the list of possibilities, Innes rejected crowds of women almost instantly, and sank to a despondent crawl, punctuated by trips from the cyber to the café side of the outlet, to meet new cakes. The circumstance was, that having learnt good, plain English via Direct Cerebral Encoding during the outbound spacial journey, Innes was rather distressed at the wayward spelling and erratic syntax of the other users' profiles, and did not want to get to know any of them better.

Now on his second trek, he had widened the habitation radius, to include new choices on the list and was scrolling down page 7 of 264; and like a hilltop sunrise, a new profile appeared that made him adjust his posture. This woman wrote with an unusual tone and precision that matched his, and her text modestly described an interesting person with a charm that was more than screen-deep. Her photograph showed a smart and kind-looking human, and betrayed little of her simian evolutionary heritage. Her username was 'Priton'.

As Innes was scrabbling through the third draft of his overture message to her with marzipan-tinted fingers, his terminal apprised him of incoming post - from Priton, who had just found his profile, and was interested, in him! Feeling warm and giddy, Innes drained his coffee cup, took some medical readings on his wrist monitor, and charged at the typing panel.

Indeed, this was no dead end; for as their emails became longer and more frequent, and turned into online conversations, Innes relaxed. He stopped rationing his puns, and carefully dispensed prefabricated details of his human life and childhood, consisting of his real life recast as fragile half-truths along the lines of 'my mother's cooking was like nothing on Earth.' In turn, Innes learned more and more about the woman, Priscilla Horton, a vet office manager dwelling in Oxford.

Soon telephone details were exchanged, and Innes felt very optimistic indeed. Following a Zendarian courtship tradition, he suggested that they started building up a collection of shared presents of no particular use. Searching online auctions, Priscilla and Innes made many spontaneous bids, ending up with a coral paperweight, an old cricket bat, a kazoo, an Arcimboldo print, and other tokens of their developing attachment.

Having discovered that Priscilla enjoyed reading fantasy stories, after some vacillation, Innes agreed to send her some of his own writings. Back in Sivle, he had composed a trilogy, 'The Triplets Of Greysand', under the tutelage of his ex-uncle's clone; but it had been rejected by every publisher on Zendar who had seen it. Innes nervously translated the first epyllion, 'Haletta', into English by hand, and told Priscilla in a short email, 'I GAVE HALETTA TO THE POSTMAN' (he did not trust postboxes). He had almost written his name on it in cursive Sivlese, but instead HE PUT IT 'INNES, ZACK'.

A few days later, an email from Priscilla was nestled in Innes' inbox, and when hatched, sung very sweetly to him. 'I adored Haletta, completely, as much as I adore you. I won't contrive a list of reasons why, in either case, as it would make me seem less sincere... You have left me wanting more. Send me the next Triplet, and this time do not apologise in advance... enough waiting: when are we going to meet?' Innes' hand stopped toying with the last piece of caramel slice, and jumped over to the keys.

They met in Oxford, a week after Innes had sent the second epyllion, 'Miletta'. When they made eye contact at the train port, Innes went light-headed at the relief that Priscilla's photo was in fact genuine. He felt like a block of ice, already melting, had been completely shattered. Chirpily, he called out, "PRITON! EARL INNEX. MORNING!" and he wasn't aware of his feet moving as he headed towards her. This was, he later realised, not a side-effect of his increased medication, unlike the itching that persisted behind his ears through the patisserie, the park, and the joke shop visits. Innes laughed and smiled far more than his mission orders had advised, and the couple engaged in dialogue more perfect than any he could dream of writing himself. And eventually, after an afternoon of top-level diplomacy, a kiss was negotiated.

Later, Innes was standing by Priscilla's front door after a tour of her house, feeling mighty, as Priscilla rushed off to bring him something before he left for the train. Innes' medicorder, secreted in his pocket, was replete with data, so he took some optical scans of Priscilla's physical protuberances as she left and returned to his company. She was holding out a white box; he reached into the box and HE BROUGHT MILETTA BACK out, with a list of constructive comments alternating with romantic praise attached. "Earl, it is so close to magnificent that I wanted to give you some stepping stones," she said. Innes thanked her; he declared her an author's dream, promised to tailor her a version of Miletta as a keepsake, took some tactile scans and floated home.

From then on, Innes' concentration went mercilessly into flux, as he anticipated the completion of his mission. Flooded with confidence, he rewrote Miletta, smartened up the third Triplet, 'Cogetta', and planned out a fourth, 'Pritona' (intended as a parting present for Priscilla, in line with his detachment protocol). He also transmitted his first full status report to Zendar, which in turn would be passed to his secretive Supervisor somewhere on Earth. Trusting Priscilla to lay the decisive 'stepping stone', he waited keenly, regularly testing the apparatus of his metamorphosed body in preparation.

In less than a month, the moment arrived; during a visit to his second-favourite ordinator salon, a message unfurled for Innes that spoke mostly of the purchase of a new, pleasurable, dark dress, but tethered his eyes to the screen with its conclusion: 'Btw, there is a hotel room booked in our names tonight. Details attached. Just bring strawberries. Positively oozing love, Pri xxx and x'. Feeling almost businesslike, Innes wrote, 'Fruit transportation is so important in today's sociopolitical climate. In what should I bring the strawberries?' SHE WROTE, 'A PUNNET.'

When Innes returned to his seat with a gargantuan coffee and a turret of lemon cake, a piece of paper was pinned under the typing panel. Seared with green ink, in Sivlese it read, 'Supervisor Eramasil writes to Earl Innex regarding Mission. Your mission has been judged a high failure. Extension not permitted. Orders for immediate following: consume coffee and confectionery; execute detachment protocol as appropriate; RETURN TO ZENDAR. Further information after your return. Sorry, Innex. The finish.' Innes read it again, destroyed it, and decided to disobey one of his orders. He felt far too nauseous to touch the cake. Ashamed to contact his girlfriend, he left an apology with the Hearthbake Hotel reception.

The heartfelt farewell email that Innes felt obliged to send was written with fumbling keystrokes and sweaty fingertips, and emerged with the wrong words forming the wrong sentiments in more or less the wrong order. Take this array of questions, for example, that he deposited near the beginning: 'If I'd come to the hotel, would you have worn your new dress? The 'little black number'? And, dear one, was I truly 'in the zone'?' Her response was cold and passionless, the disinterest of folded arms and pinched lips, shattered every few moments by blasts of withering eye contact and slow, plaintive blinking: 'A DRESS? UNKNOWN. NO SUCH 'NUMBER'. NO SUCH 'ZONE'.' She went on to list their shared gifts - 'WE HAD A CORAL, OUR LOVER'S BAT...' - and proposed to dump all those she had. The chat transcipts, voice recordings and medical scans Innes was left with were unremarkable; there was no hope of promotion or further offworld assignments; perhaps he could sell 'The Quadruplets Of Greysand' to a new publisher; if not, maybe the second-rate eventsheets would be interested in his human pornography collection.

Feeling anxious about the effect of his departure on Priscilla - what if he had inflicted cardiac breakage, and stopped her from forming another relationship? - he penned an apology, and sent it to her along with the tailored copy of Miletta. Innes tried this three times, and thrice the book was returned. "I WRITE 'I'M SORRY' BUT MILETTA KEEPS COMING BACK," he told an absent audience. With a week-long sigh, he gave up his flat tenancy, resigned his job, tried to phone Priscilla but was rebuffed by the reply device, sold his iguana, revealed his identity to a neighbourhood kid, left his acquaintances ambiguous farewell messages about going off to find Elvis, loaded up and powered up his transastral stealth pod, and like a sequined ostrich egg in a wind tunnel, he was away.

Twenty days later, along a similar route, rose another stealth pod, its cargo room rattling with samples and databulbs, and rustling with photographs. It was piloted by a Zendarian from North Yelserp called Doctor Priton, who got halfway home before her morning sickness kicked in.

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