Zod docked the scoutpod with the mothership and hailed Qax. ‘I’m back. Do we have any results from the preliminary scans, yet?’
‘We sure do!’ replied his colleague excitedly. ‘Get the samples locked away and get up here fast. We could be onto something big!’
Soon after, Zod joined Qax in the science lab. Qax was staring intently at the scans of the two Earthlings that Zod had collected. He waved a grey, three-fingered hand at the screen.
‘Look at this, Zod. I’ve never seen anything like it!’
‘What am I supposed to be looking at?’
‘The sex organs. Every Earthling that has been studied to date has been one of two body types. Roughly half of them have food glands and sperm receptors. The other half have no food glands and sperm injectors.’
‘This one is weird. It has all of the display markers of the type with a sperm receptor, and it does have food glands, but it has a sperm injector. We may have discovered an entirely new form of Earthling!’
‘Wow, you’re right. This could make our careers. We are going to have to interrogate them very carefully.’
‘Right. Did you cage them together?’
‘Uh, yes. That’s standard practice, isn’t it? They are probably still out. Should I separate them?’
‘No, I don’t think so. I want to see how they interact. I want to know if the injector type treats the other one like a potential mate, based on its appearance, or if it recognises a different type.’
Karyn woke feeling somewhat woozy, like she’d been put under anaesthetic at the dentist. She tried to remember where she was. Then she remembered. An alien. Just like in the movies. Skinny body, big head, dark eyes. It had kidnapped her.
‘Are you OK?’
Looking around, Karyn saw a young man. His accent had been pure Yorkshire, but his jet black hair and tanned skin suggested a family origin in India. No, probably Pakistan. He was tall, with angular features, like one of those fast bowlers. She remembered her mum having a thing about that politician who had been a cricketer; somebody Khan. This chap had that look. Presumably he’d been kidnapped too.
‘Do you know where we are?’
‘No, but I feel odd, like my muscles are a lot stronger, or I’m a lot lighter. I think maybe gravity is different here, which I guess means we’re in space.’
‘Then it was real?’
‘The alien? Yeah. That’s so weird. I thought landing my job was as close to living the dream as I would get, and here I am doing First Contact.’
‘Your job? What do you do?’
‘Robots. I’ve been a sci-fi geek all my life, got myself an engineering degree, and now I actually design robots for a living. Asif, by the way.’
He extended his hand. Karyn rolled over, sat up on the bed where she had woken and returned the handshake. Asif squeezed her hand and smiled at her. He’s probably trying to keep my spirits up, she thought, realizing that the two of them could be in all sorts of danger.
‘Karyn, with a y,’ she mumbled shyly. ‘My mum wanted to name me after her favourite aunt, but I fancied something a bit different.’
‘I like it.’ Asif smiled again. ‘Have you just changed the spelling, or done the whole legal thing?’
‘Er, legally actually,’ replied Karyn, wondering how she had been so stupid as to get herself into a potentially awkward conversation already.
‘What did your mum say?’
‘Oh, she’s got used to it. We get on really well now. Or we did. Have you seen the alien again? Do you think we’ll ever get out of here?’
‘Hey, I might have watched too much Star Trek as a kid, but that doesn’t mean I know how real alien minds work.’ Asif sat on the bed next to her. ‘Since I woke up I’ve been trying to remember every story I’ve read about communicating with aliens. It hasn’t helped. I’ve just got myself worried sick. I think we’ll be better not frightening ourselves. Why don’t you tell me about you?’
‘Not much to tell. I’m a student, at UWE.’
‘It’s complicated. I started off doing a straight arts course. Then I got really interested in software and the way images can be manipulated. I’m thinking of doing a PhD studying how fashion magazines create body images that are impossible for most women to live up to.’
‘Sounds good. My sister is always ranting about how fashion mags in this country are produced by white women for white women. Does that mean you’ve given up making your own art, though?’
Whoa, thought Karyn to herself, the feminism stuff usually puts them right off. I wonder what he’ll make of my hobby?
‘Oh, I still draw for fun. I’m not sure I’m good enough to make it professionally though, at least not doing what I like.’
‘Girls with big eyes, giant fighting robots?’
‘You got it.’
‘Cool,’ said Asif, enthusiastically. He really did have a very nice smile.
Karyn felt her body reacting to the closeness of him, and was immediately overcome with shame. Thankfully she was wearing a longish tunic over her skinny jeans, so there was no danger of him seeing the bulge. The damn thing was well strapped in too, though of course that just made the experience painful as well as embarrassing. Surgery couldn’t come quick enough. Gods but she hated the people at the gender clinic.
‘Interesting,’ said Qax. ‘Both of them are showing signs of arousal. Not just the baring the teeth thing, but actual physical responses in their sperm injectors.’
‘This is groundbreaking,’ said Zod. ‘Other studies have looked at mated pairs, but no one has ever studied actual courtship behaviour between Earthlings who were strangers prior to the experiment. With the new body type too, we’ve hit paydirt here alright.’
Qax wrenched his eyes away from the screen for a few moments and looked at his colleague. ‘Time for the intervention?’
‘I think so. I’m, on it.’
The door irised and Zod walked into the room where Karyn and Asif were being held. Karyn, who had been looking that way to avoid looking at Asif, saw him first and shrieked. Asif, who had been in the middle of a story about a business trip to Japan to visit a robotics fair, stood and placed himself between the alien and the girl.
‘I’m pleased to see that you are awake, Earthlings,’ said Zod, in a voice that sounded strained and artificial to his captives. ‘It is time to proceed with our examination.’
‘We’d be happy to cooperate,’ said Asif, spreading his hands in a gesture of openness and realizing that he towered over the little grey creature. ‘Would you mind telling us a little bit about your species? We’re just as fascinated by you as you must be by us.’
‘Yeah,’ said Karyn, ‘you’re, like, the first aliens we’ve ever met.’ She giggled, nervously.
‘It is our policy not to fraternise with experimental subjects,’ said Zod, sternly. ‘Now, in order for us to be able to continue with our examination we require you to remove your artificial skins.’
‘What, our clothes?’ said Asif.
‘NO!’ said Karyn.
‘Look,’ said Asif, desperately trying to figure out how to explain, ‘in our culture these artificial skins have great significance. A male human and a female human only remove their skins together if they plan to mate, and I’ve only just met this young lady. Can’t you examine us separately?’
‘I will consider your request, but it is highly irregular,’ said Zod. The door irised again and he stalked out.
‘Nice job,’ said Qax. ‘That’s stirred them up. Now we watch.’
‘Bunch of bloody pervos,’ muttered Asif. ‘Still, at least they didn’t say anything about anal probes. Why on Earth would they want to examine us together?’
‘Oh God!’ said Karyn, ‘I think I know.’ She buried her face in her hands and began to cry.
Asif sat back down on the bed next to her and tried to put an arm around her, but she shrugged him off and sobbed more desperately.
‘Karyn, it’s OK, we’ll get out of here somehow, I promise. But we need to work together, right? Stay calm. Fight them as a team. Can you do that for me?’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Karyn, gulping through her sobs. ‘It’s not getting away that I’m worried about. I’ve just worked out why the bastards want us to undress.’
‘You’re way ahead of me, then. Care to explain?’
‘Well, they are a super-advanced civilization, right? Interstellar travel and all that. There’s no way they’d have all that technology and not have developed something like the body scanners we have at airports.’
‘No, I don’t suppose so. But why is that important?’
‘Because they will already have scanned us. They know what we look like naked.’
Karyn took a very deep breath. ‘They want us to undress together because they know I’m trans. Pre-op. They want to see what you’ll do when you see my penis.’
‘You’re kidding me,’ said Asif, realizing that he was staring at her cleavage which, to be honest, he’d been doing rather a lot since they met.
‘Would I joke about something like that?’ asked Karyn. ‘Would anyone?’
She started crying again.
Asif got off the bed and crouched in front of her.
‘Karyn, talk to me, please.’
‘You’re not disgusted?’
‘What? No, of course. I’m, er, a bit stunned. You’re amazing.’
‘Don’t say it, please.’
‘That no one would ever know. That I don’t look like a freak.’
‘Oh, right. I can see how that plays out. Us cis people can be clueless, can’t we?’
Karyn brightened. ‘Hey, you know some of the terminology. You’re really OK with it?’
‘Sure. I have a cousin back in Lahore who is a hijra. Last time I was over there she was teasing me about how Britain is such a backward country because Pakistan has legal recognition for third gender people and we don’t.’
Karyn looked up at him in shock. ‘Oh, God, I’m so sorry!’
‘What? What did you do?’
‘Well, here’s me getting all upset expecting you to have some stupid, stereotyped view of me, and all the time I had this stupid stereotyped view of you.’
‘I don’t have the beard, you know. I might be technically Muslim but I’m not very religious. I build robots, remember.’
‘I am so, so sorry. Please forgive me.’
Asif smiled broadly. ‘Of course. We need to work together, right? Earthlings versus aliens. Just give me a moment and I’ll figure out how to convert this bedframe into a fighting robot.’
Karyn laughed. ‘That would be impressive. Seriously though, I saw how you put yourself between me and the alien. Thank you. If it comes down to it, do you know how to fight?’
‘Not really. I’m big, and that means guys tend to leave me alone, but I never had much interest in sport. Dad was distraught. He was convinced I was going to be a great fast bowler.’
‘I can. Fight, that is. Defensively anyway. I do akido. Mum was terrified about me going away to university because, well, you know. So she insisted I learn martial arts, just in case.’
Relieved that Karyn had calmed down, Asif sat back on the bed. ‘Wow, I’m impressed. But hey, you keep talking about your mum. No dad?’
‘No, he walked out. Couldn’t accept me and just left.’
‘Sorry, I’ve put my foot in it again.’
‘It’s OK, he was a jerk. Beer, football, betting, nothing much else in his life. Mum and I have become really close since he left. It’s just hard. Financially, you know?’
‘And you probably need money, right?’
‘I so do. I wanted to have surgery before going to uni, but the bastards at the gender clinic kept saying there was no funding. They are making me wait until I’ve got my degree. They seem to think it is some sort of positive motivation for me. Or that I’ll grow out of being trans.’
‘That doesn’t sound very supportive.’
‘Most of the time they treat me like I’m crazy. Goodness only knows what they’d do if I told them I’d been kidnapped by aliens. But I guess we gotta get out of here first.’
Asif put his arm around her again, and this time she didn’t draw away. ‘Robot jokes aside, I don’t have much in the way of ideas, but I have the best motivation in the world.’
‘I want to be able to spend more time with you.’
Karyn looked up at Asif. He really did have a lovely smile. And hey, she might be dead tomorrow. Throwing caution to the wind, she closed her eyes and puckered her lips. To her delight, he responded.
‘Score!’ Qax squeaked with delight. Next to him, Zod was doing what even to an Earthling would have looked like a little dance of victory.
‘Do we wait for them to mate?’ asked Zod.
‘I don’t think so. We’ve got more than enough material for a kick-ass paper already. Besides, we are getting close to the time limit for release. It would be daft to risk everything by breaching protocol.’
Karyn and Asif found themselves walking out of the underpass from the Bearpit and headed towards Cabot Circus.
‘That was weird.’
‘Yeah, like I’ve never been randomly picked up like that by the police before.’
‘Maybe it is some sort of new anti-terrorism thing. Or maybe they do it all the time in Stokes Croft. It’s that sort of place.’
‘There was no need for them to be like that about you being a Muslim though. You have as much right to be in this country as I do.’
‘They were even worse to you. All that crap about you being trans.’
‘Right! And where did they get that from? Some sort of secret database, I presume. I bet the NHS gives them the information.’
‘Should we lodge some sort of complaint?’
‘I’d love to, but I clean forgot to look for their badge numbers. I don’t think we could make anything stick.’
‘Crap, I forgot too. Oh well. How about we go watch a movie and forget about it?’
‘Great idea. Pacific Rim II should still be on. I’ve been meaning to go and see that.’
‘You know, speaking as an expert, their robot suits are a bit implausible.’
‘Oh, right. I guess they probably are. But Del Torro did some amazing things with colour in the first film, and I hear the new one is just as good.’
‘I know nothing,’ said Asif, spreading his hands. ‘You’ll have to educate me.’
They rounded the corner and walked up to the Showcase Cinema. ‘Aw poo!,’ said Karyn, ‘we’ve missed the start of the early evening showing. It’s an hour and a half before the late night one.’
‘There are plenty of restaurants around here, how about I buy you dinner and we get to know each other better while we are waiting?’
‘I’d like that,’ she said.
Two weeks later
Karyn’s hot new boyfriend was the talk of the art department on campus. Asif was looking to buy a car because getting buses across Bristol from his flat to the UWE campus was beyond a joke. Meanwhile, on the mothership, the message that Qax and Zod had been waiting for finally came through.
‘Peer reviews all five star!’
‘I don’t believe it; they are even talking about us doing a lecture tour.’
‘Wait, here comes the important bit…’
‘Yeehah! We. Got. Tenure!’
The two aliens had long since shed the awkward and constricting avatars that they used to interact with Earthlings and had decanted their minds back into their natural bodies. They had reduced the gravity more, and made the atmosphere nicely thick and nitrous. In celebration they slapped tentacles together, an action that was surprisingly like what the Earthlings called a ‘high five’, though no observation team had ever made that connection.
‘You know what this means?’ asked Qax.
‘I sure do!’
‘Shall we go for it?’
The aliens swam through the mothership’s corridors to the Heartroom, caressing each other with their tentacles as they went. By the time they reached the Heartroom both were sufficiently aroused to be able to insert their seventh tentacles, the special ones with the sperm injectors, into the receptors in the mothership’s core.
Sex, for their species, was fairly perfunctory. It was over in minutes. Qax and Zod had never really understood why the Earthlings were so obsessed with the process. Nevertheless, when they did do it, the process was very efficient. They had barely got back to the flight deck before the mothership reported successful germination of an egg. It would take months to grow, but they had plenty of time. As they plotted a course for home, Qax and Zod were already sending out invitations to the hatching party.
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