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Fiction

Love Might Be Too Strong a Word

Love Might Be Too Strong a Word by Charlie Jane Anders, Illustration by Galen Dara

Here’s how I remember it:

A touch shocked me. I was reaching for a flash-seared bog-oyster, and then a fingertip, softer than I’d ever felt, brushed my knuckle. The softness startled me so much, it took me a moment to realize the hand had seven fingers, three more than mine.

Be held a striped cloth in ber other hand. I came up with the correct pronoun by instinct, even before my mind took in the fact that a pilot was touching my hand. Holy shit, a pilot!

I turned. Be smiled at me, mouth impossibly small, eyes panoramic and limpid. So beautiful I wanted to choke. “You dropped this,” be said. My bandana looked so foreign in ber fingers, I almost didn’t recognize it.

And then be tied it around my neck, so gently I couldn’t help shivering. Those fingers!

And then, it opened. Just a tiny dilation, but I almost had to lean against the cafeteria table. Everyone in the universe was watching. I knew, without reaching around, that there was a teeny wet spot on the small of my back.

Until that moment, I’d barely ever thought about my harnt, the little hole just above my tailbone. It was just there. It had never opened on its own, much less gotten wet. And nobody had ever touched it, of course. And now, somehow it knew.

My harnt closed again, but it didn’t make as tight a seal as before. Or at least, it felt restless. It was going to bother me. Right now, it was all I could think about.

The pilot had finished tying my bandana, but kept looking at me. “You’re so lovely,” be said to me. “What’s your name?

“Mab.” I managed to avoid stammering.

“Short for Mabirelle.” Be smiled. “I’m Dot.” And then be bowed and left me to face the stares of my fellow dailys.

***

Here’s how they tell it:

 

Ah love, mystery confounding! Oh lovers, your sighs the dark matter that limns our course. Who can understand the ways of love: ever cruel, ever bountiful? Not the boides, not the breeders, not even the spirers with their countless eyes and base-27 calculations!

Dot lo Manaret, honored third-level pilot of the City, known for ber gallantry and aplomb, was never word-lost. Until the day be wandered down to the daily canteen and ber eyes fell upon the surpassing loveliness of Mabirelle, most radiant of all the dailys. In that instant, Dot’s heart fell into Mabirelle’s pocket, and Dot’s eyes, which had encompassed interstellar space, now had one vista only. Lost was Dot, lost forever, to the love of Mabirelle!

A chasm wider than the Inner Axis separated these two lovers, one from the highest dar, the other from the lowest. Pity poor Dot and Mabirelle, their love against all society’s norms, their furtive meetings stolen from the moments between their far-separate undertakings. Theirs must be a fleeting happiness, but how bright the afterimage!

Love, why do you torment us so? Why must we pine, so far from our Cluster and from our new homeworld? Is happiness a mere whisper on the edge of daydreams? Why, love, why? But love, as ever, disdains to answer. Our tears must be question and answer both!

Love! Love is all they ever talk about, and I’ve avoided it like the unshielded areas where the Outringers work. The stupid, stupid courtship, the crappy poetry, the singing, the dreamliminals . . . they consume our lives when we’re not working, and usually even when we are. It’s a miracle the City hadn’t spun off course into an Oort cloud long ago.

But really, it’s true. The City runs on love. It keeps us sane, more or less. Unlike the dark matter that flows into our massive converters, it’s an infinitely renewable fuel. As to whether it pollutes, you probably already have your own opinions about that.

Right after the bandana incident, my sibs started treating me differently. “Mab, I heard be kissed you! That darling little mouth!” “Mab, isn’t be beautiful? Oh, of course be’s beautiful!” Sometimes they teased: “Mab’s going to be a pilot’s mate! Mab, what’s your secret? Did you steal a holo-shield?” I know for a fact that a few of the other dailys have been with pilots, but furtively, in dark song-booths or under laundry decks.

One daily even tried to sneak me a bubble of some noxious substance. I was supposed to squirt it onto my harnt to make it more pleasant to Dot when be manned me. As if I would ever let that happen.

Because we clean the entire City, handle the waste units and supply the food, dailys go everywhere. The lower middle dars, the boides and the outringers, romance us sometimes. The upper middle dars, occasionally. But no pilot had ever romanced a daily, as far as any of us remembered. Until now.

I figured a few days would pass, then the stupid talk would stop and the other dailys would go back to being my friends and letting me finger them in their bunks when nobody was looking.

Then the poem showed up. Typical courtship crap: Dot tight-beamed it to my handle, but “forgot” to encrypt it. Which means everybody in the City saw it before I did. “No food can I taste, my course corrections go awry. I falter in everything, dreaming of your touch. Oh Mabirelle! Your Dot will die without you.”

In other words: “Woman to me, or I’ll send the City a fraction off course, and we’ll all die in starless space.” And that’s supposed to be romantic!

At that point, I was doomed. They all took turns reading it and squealing. My so-called best friend, Idra, kept hugging me and jumping up and down until I wanted to smack ym. “Mab, it’s so beautiful! It’s like something from a sugar-box holo!”

“Oh yeah, it’s great.” I didn’t even try to sound excited.

It’s weird: I would have given anything for the other dailys to stop being ashamed of me. Even when they let me finger all their holes after lights-out, they wouldn’t look at me. They were always trying to introduce me to some dashing boide so I could woman like everybody else. Ever since we left the Cluster, they kept trying to fix me. Now, for the first time, they were proud of me, and I wanted to die.

I don’t woman. I just don’t.

Oh, I have the involuntary responses just like everybody else. When I meet a particularly stout outringer, my ruhr feels a little itchy. I make a habit of wearing a scarf when I clean the outringers’ quarters, so they won’t see anything. But I just don’t like the idea.

A couple of days after the poem, Dot turned up again. Oh, be didn’t come over and say hi like a normal person. Of course not. Instead, be turned up in the cafeteria where we’d first met, perched on top of the air shaft on ber knees. Be had all fourteen fingers on a big flarinelle and was playing some dirge-y shanty while moaning about how ber heart was imploding for the love of me. Be wore an outfit with a million laces and buckles, maybe just to remind me just how clever ber fingers were.

I wanted to turn and run back to the dailys’ hab areas, but my sibs all grabbed me and cried all over my favorite quicksuit. I had to stay and listen to the whole fucking thing. Dot couldn’t sing to save ber life. After that, I was the dailys’ greatest romantic hero ever. When was I going to send a poem back? When would I acknowledge Dot’s suffering?

The next day, I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the boides’ segment. They always claim our knees and backs are genetically engineered to make us better scrubbers. They’re filthy liars. Or at least it’s not enough. I hate cleaning up after the boides, who track all sorts of crap from the power units. At least I don’t have to clean the power units themselves, since my body isn’t designed to withstand those forces the way the boides are.

Anyway, I was crawling around trying to clean up some stuff that I didn’t even want to think about. I heard some motion behind me, and scuttled around to see a boide staring at where my ass had just been.

At first, I thought po wanted to sexually harass me, which is what the boides usually want when I’m working. Dailys, like me, are pretty much the only dar the boides can man. They woman to the pilots, the outringers and the breeders. I’ve heard the boides can man the spirers, too, but it probably doesn’t happen much.

“I had a great love once,” the boide said. “And I let zm slip away, and I’ve never forgiven myself.” Oh great. Romantic advice. All of a sudden, I wished the boide would just grope me. I could tell po wanted to, from the matching bulges on either side of por hip bones. But no. “We’re in space for countless decades, but in all that time you may only get one chance at a great love,” po said.

“Just because you blew off some dumb breeder once, doesn’t mean you get to give me advice.” I looked por over: a little less squat and greasy than most boides, but still a solid brick of muscle and radiation-resistant hide. But nimble, the way you have to be if you manipulate the City’s power grid.

“The breeders and the pilots are different from you and me,” po said. “They have higher concerns, loftier thoughts. When they train that light on us, it can feel like we’re going to burn up. But it’s the closest to real meaning, to glory, we can get.”

Normally, the boides treat us as if we’re way beneath them. It’s only in comparison to a pilot that po and I could become “we.” Or if po wanted to man me, we might be “we” for an hour or two. And po did want me, those twin bulges don’t lie.

“Thanks for the advice,” I said. “I feel loftier already.”

“Don’t laugh it off. When love comes, you have to,” blah blah blah. Po kept it up for the next hour or so, while I scrubbed and scraped. There are cleaning machines, of course, but they don’t do such a great job with the really nasty stains. And the spirers are too busy doing “exalted” things to upgrade them.

***

It went on like that. People giving me advice. Worse, the other dailys wouldn’t let me touch them anymore after lights out. “Mab, we let you touch us when there’s nothing better around,” Idra told me while we waited to step into the bathing tubes. “But a pilot! I mean, don’t you think you should save yourself?”

“For what?” I asked, but then the tubes opened and we stepped in, to fall through a tunnel where water, and then supercompressed air, sprayed us. I’ve heard the pilots and spirers have baths.

I could never get tired of seeing Idra naked, even though I’ve bathed with ym so many times now, and touched ym in yr bunk. Even though Idra drove me nuts with yr crushes and yr face-pastes and yr romance dreamliminals, y kept me sane. I didn’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t talk to Idra. Maybe I even loved ym. A little.

We’d met back in the Cluster, when we were both training for this voyage. Idra and I had been grown for this mission, but we still had to train and prove ourselves. Basic safety stuff, mostly, since the City can’t replace us if we get ourselves killed out here. Idra was the only other one, besides me, in our class who’d asked about other stuff, like how the City navigated and how the power grid worked (or failed to, sometimes).

I’d started hanging out with Idra all the time between classes, and we’d laugh at the silly questions some of the other dailys asked, about how to get face-paste in the City. I’d thought yr and I would always share everything, until the City launched and y fell in love for the first time, with an outringer. Ever since then, it was one crush after another, putting Idra in an elliptical orbit away from me and then back to me when it fell apart. I’d mostly gotten used to it.

“You know,” I told Idra when we were dressing afterwards. “There are only two reasons people are so love-crazy around here. Because the only children in the City are the dormant embryos in the breedpods, waiting for planetfall. And because it helps us forget we’re stuck at the bottom of the heap forever.”

“If you talk to Dot like that, be’ll drop you like a used snot-catcher,” Idra told me. Y had a warning look in yr eyes and mouth, but yr nose wrinkled the way it always did when I made ym laugh.

“That’s a good idea,” I said. “Maybe I’ll try that.”

Actually, here was my problem. I wanted to say no to Dot, but be never gave me a chance. Be never even asked me if I wanted to pair-bond with ber, or go live in the Pilot Quarter, or whatever. Be just kept sending little crystal cameos, serenading me from a safe distance, paying other dailys to make little delicacies for me. (A pilot wouldn’t know how to cook to save ber life.) Be never came close enough for me to respond.

And yet, I was cruel. I was coy. I tormented Dot. Or so Dot claimed, and so the balladeers announced to the whole City. I was killing a pilot, one of only 500 in the whole City, with my coldness. Had anyone ever been as cruel as me? In the entire history of the City, and the Cluster before that? Speaking of which, I was famous enough now that my sibs back in the Cluster were going to hear about this.

“I don’t get it,” I told Idra. “What am I supposed to do anyway? When be threw all those bright catsilk bandanas down to me from the upper walkway, I tried to avoid catching them, but you guys grabbed them for me. How am I supposed to respond?”

“Write back,” Idra said. “Write a poem, or if you can’t manage that, a regular letter. I’ll tight-beam it for you. You don’t even have to write it yourself, I’ll write it for you.”

Oh, Idra. I never wanted to be you, but I always want to be with you. I certainly never wanted you to want to be me.

“Can I write a letter asking ber to leave me alone?”

“It’ll just make ber try harder. Or maybe be’ll go away permanently, throw berself into the boides’ radiation zone. You can’t trifle with love, Mab. Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Love is unstoppable, unfathomable.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Love. Got it.”

***

I have no idea how long Dot could have gone on courting me, showering me with tears from those massive eyes. I took the initiative. I sent Dot a message telling ber to meet me in one of the song-booths in the dailys’ quarter, where my sibs go to have furtive sex with other dars.

Dot wrote back, a dozen sonnets filled with leaping jubilation that I would hear ber suit in person. But couldn’t we meet someplace more romantic? Someplace more beautiful? There were some lovely little restaurants in the pilot quarter. (I knew that, since I’d worked in their kitchens.) Or we could sail a skimmer around the edge of the Outring, on dalfur cushions, with a flarinelle trio playing to us.

“Sorry,” I wrote back. “You come to me, or no meeting.”

I booked a song-booth and paid for it myself. Instead of some schlocky flarinelle music, I ordered up a couple hours of the most raucous slash-and-grab, the stuff they’re always threatening to ban. I got there early, so I’d be sitting with my feet up when Dot got there.

I’ll let you pretend you’ve never been inside a song-booth. Basically, they’re coffin-shaped, with a bench running lengthwise and a big screen overhead showing patterns or dumb holo-stories. Big speakers at either end. Unless you’re really tall, you can just about sit on the bench if you scoot down, but eventually it becomes easier to lay on it lengthwise, which is what it’s really there for. Nobody ever goes there to listen to music and watch pretty colors, unless they’re really, really dumb.

Dot had feathers all over ber slender body. There are no birds in the City, of course, and I’ve never even seen a bird. But I’ve cleaned up feathers and had a chance to examine them. They’re synthetic, but intricate, with little strands that catch the light.

I hadn’t seen Dot, up close, since our first meeting. I’d forgotten quite how delicate and lovely be was, how elegant those little bones. I wasn’t prepared for the sudden awakening of my harnt and the tightness inside my stomach.

“Oh Mab! Oh my Mabirelle! You do so much kindness to my poor faltering heart!” Dot had obviously memorized tons of this crap.

“Shut up and listen,” I said. “I’ve figured out why you’re doing this.”

“There is no reason, other than your beauty, which so dazzles my eyes that all other sights are cataracted to me.”

“I said shut up. And sit down, you’re making me nervous.” I gestured at the greasy cushion next to me. “So here’s what I think: you’re doing this for attention. You were losing status, or playing some pilot game that the rest of us don’t even grasp, and you decided to make yourself the hero in some epic love story. The pilot who fell in love with a daily against all odds. They’ll sing about you forever, if you don’t get thrown out of the upper rings for sullying your honor. It’s a gamble, but you’re a shrewd one. Am I right?”

“Oh, my Mabirelle. Your wisdom is second only to your beauty, which far surpasses the brightest jewels. But no, you’re wrong. There’s no purpose to my love other than love itself. And no cure for my love other than your love returned to me.”

“I was afraid you’d say that. Okay, let’s go. I’ll do you right here.”

“But I—that’s not what I—”

“If it’ll end this. Come on, get all those feathers off you. I’ve never seen a pilot naked. I’m curious.”

And I was curious. It’s weird that pilots are the opposite of dailys, but most of us never get to see what they look like under their fancy ruffles. I helped Dot out of ber five layers (!) of clothing, and slowly ber body revealed itself. Be stared at me, terrified, as I ran my hands over ber.

Naked, Dot was even more gorgeous than dressed. I couldn’t stop swallowing. Be was all long sinews and soft skin. Ber body was much the same shape as mine, or any other human, but slender where mine was stout. And be had all those extra appendages, where I only had holes.

“What does this one do?” I pointed to a long vine that curled out from Dot’s sternum.

“It’s uh, it’s my zud, for manning a spirer. They have an opening on that part of their bodies just for pilots, called the duz. It takes three days, and there are fifteen required positions.” It went on like that. The three bony prongs sticking out just below ber stomach were for manning a breeder, and ber thighs had matching lumps, which could expand to man an outringer. No matter what your dar, Dot had a way to man you. Just like I could woman to all the other dars.

“Don’t you want to see my, uh, my tharn?” Dot gestured to ber lower back, where the outie that matched my innie was quivering with excitement. Be started to turn around, but I stopped ber. Just being so close to ber naked body was making my harnt throb, opening and closing spasmodically like a busted airlock.

“Not really,” I said. “There’s no rush. And I’m curious.” I tried stroking some of the tendrils and spokes coming from the front of Dot’s body. Dot moaned with pleasure, but they didn’t grow any bigger, because I was the wrong dar to excite them. Pheromones.

“Don’t you want me to, uh, to man you?” Dot looked from ber naked body to the quicksuit I was still wearing. It kept ber from seeing that my lumbar region was soaked.

“Nope. I don’t woman. But I’ll man you if you want.”

I didn’t think it was possible for Dot’s eyes to get any bigger, but they did. Ber eyes were as big as my thumbs.

“Pilots always man, dailys always woman. That’s just how it is.”

“That’s not how I play. You have openings. I have tools. And fingers.” My pinky was almost too big for Dot’s mouth, but I made it fit. Be sucked on it, half moaning and half gulping. I felt like I was going to implode, I was so skin-crazy.

***

I left Dot naked and flushed, thanking me through bewildered tears. No more poetry, thank god.

I figured after that, Dot would leave me alone. I might have an even worse reputation than before, depending on what people heard. But that could be a good thing, and maybe some of the dailys would respect me a little more when they heard I’d manned a pilot.

I had to giggle to myself when I thought those words. I manned a pilot! Whatever came next would totally be worth it.

“You did what?” Idra hissed. Y dragged me further away from the other dailys, just in case they had super-hearing. We were in the noisiest canteen, with the crispiest deep-fried bog-oysters. (Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but those things aren’t oysters. They grow on the coolant ducts, they’re a kind of fungus.) The canteen’s walls had been bright red when we’d left the Cluster, but by now they were maroon, and the floors were sticky no matter how much we mopped.

“You heard me.” I giggled again. Normally, Idra was the giggler and I was the frowner. Oh, this was so worth it.

“How could you? I always knew you were . . . unnatural. But this? You could be killed! You could be killed and nobody would ever say anything. Stop laughing, Mab! I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t want to lose you. If Dot tells anyone, if be even whispers it, they’ll just erase you! I couldn’t bear that. Mab, why didn’t you think about me, before you went and threw everything away?”

It went on like that, Idra keeping yr voice low enough that none of the other dailys had a clue. It was so weird, I had to go and man a pilot to find out that Idra loved me too. Love might be too strong a word, but whatever. You get the idea.

“Idra, calm down. Be’s not going to tell anyone. What’s be going to say?”

“Exactly. What is be going to say? Think about the position you put ber in. After weeks of public courtship, you agreed to meet ber in private. Everyone is going to want to know what happened. And be is going to say . . . what? That you manned ber? That be manned you? That you rejected ber? What?”

Why did things have to be so complicated? Be wanted me, so I took ber. Why wasn’t that the end of it? But even as I was reassuring Idra that everything was fine, I felt another sensation, as unfamiliar as my harnt’s opening had been. They could erase me any time they wanted. I felt weak inside.

***

“Oh chaste Mabirelle! Oh cruel, virtuous Mabirelle, that withstood temptation’s nearness with yr far-seeing gaze! How can we praise your inviolate harnt, O Mabirelle?”

I was as shocked as anyone else. Apparently, I wasn’t a crazy slut, I was a chaste virgin. Who had cruelly denied Dot’s advances even though we were in a tiny padded and sound-proofed tube. Though Dot importuned me, I preserved my virtue. Dot proved this by showing someone that ber tharn retained its outer membrane, which meant it had never been inside me.

I didn’t even know that a pilot’s tharn had an outer membrane. You learn something new every day.

As the story went, I had arranged the song-booth meeting as an elaborate test to see if Dot could respect my chastity in such close quarters. As if Dot would have been capable of overpowering me anyway! And now that Dot had passed the test, I had agreed to hear ber pair-bonding proposal.

I was grateful to Dot for coming up with an explanation of the facts that didn’t require anyone to toss me into the Inner Axis. But proposals? The way Idra explained it, I wasn’t committed to pair-bonding with Dot, just hearing ber suit.

Nobody even knew how pair-bonding would work between a pilot and a daily. It wasn’t very likely that I’d be able to go live with Dot, and the idea of Dot trying to share my bunk in a roomful of twenty dailys made me giggle. With no children and no property, it was mostly a fancy license for Dot and me to do what we’d already done in that song-booth. Except maybe the other way around.

So this time I had to go up to the pilot quarter, where the air is purer and the gravity lighter. Gleaming star-charts on all the walls and varvet covering every surface. I had to keep ducking to avoid the little nozzles spraying perfumey crap and aromatherapy at me. I usually wore my bandana around my mouth and nose when I cleaned around here, but I figured Dot might take it as an insult.

“Hey,” I said to Dot. “Thanks, for coming up with a good story. You’re good at that, huh? Telling stories. I have to kick myself to keep from believing the stuff you say about me, and I know myself pretty well.”

Dot started saying it was all true, and then some. Be wore even more layers than last time, if that was possible, and sat cross-legged on the edge of a massive crescent-shaped couch on the edge of a fake gravity well. You could toss things into it and watch them shrink to a singularity, but it was just an illusion. Dot didn’t need to wear the extra buckles, since I would hardly molest ber with five chaperones watching us from just outside earshot.

“Anyway, I’m grateful to you. Which is why I’m here,” I said, sitting a decent distance away from ber on the crescent thingy.

“Mabirelle, because I love you so, I want to be totally honest with you,” Dot said. That sounded like a good idea, so I nodded. Be went on: “I told you the truth before, when I said there was no hidden agenda here. But there is something you don’t know. Can you keep a secret?”

“You have no idea how many secrets I’ve kept,” I said. “You can trust me, don’t worry.”

Dot had to pause to offer me chocolates and little cameos, and order up fancy music. Then be went on. “The spirers think they’ve developed a much more accurate long-range scanning technique by combining stellar resonance and high-spectrum ghosting.” Be waited for me to murmur my understanding, then went on. “We think it’s dead.”

“What’s dead?” At first I thought be meant the little dove-hen I was holding.

“The planet. Our colony world. Coriolanus, or whatever they’re calling it this week. The breedpods won’t function there, the breeders won’t be able to sustain a new generation.”

“So we left the Cluster for nothing. We’re sailing towards nothing. This, all of this, is all for nothing.” I gestured around, to indicate the whole City.

“Yes.”

“Can we turn back?” I already knew the answer before be shook ber head, but it still felt like a crack in my gut. Be started talking about desperate alternatives: slingshot maneuvers, stellar recharges, increased dark-matter efficiency, but I was still saying “dead world” to myself, over and over. “Dead world.”

“I can’t stand it among the other pilots any more, or any of the upper dars. The spirers with all those fingers, with their base-27 cleverness. The breeders, tending those breedpods as if they’re going to amount to something. It all makes me feel so hopeless. But when I’m with you, it’s different. I feel alive. Like life is worth something after all.”

I started to ask why we couldn’t tell everyone the truth, but that was a stupid question, and I don’t ask stupid questions. If I thought people in this City were crazy now, just imagine if they knew they were trapped and it was pointless.

“Love,” I muttered. “Fucking love. It can’t save you from shit. It’s just anesthetic.”

“Maybe,” Dot said. “But it’s life-saving. Mabirelle, I meant everything I said before. Your beauty, your wisdom, the longing inside me. It wasn’t a pantomime, or a distraction from my existential crisis. It was itself. I love you, and I can’t bear to be away from you.”

I didn’t love Dot, but I liked ber more and more. Even though be had left me in an ugly spot. I could turn ber down, but then what? I could spend the next few decades among the dailys, knowing we were going nowhere. The dailys would never treat me the same after this, once I went from being the romantic heroine to being the fool who spurned a pilot. They might never let me touch them again. And I wasn’t sure I could go back to being who I’d been, even if they’d let me.

I took a deep breath and looked around this foolish room. I couldn’t help laughing, and then I had to reassure Dot that I wasn’t laughing at ber. “Sorry, sorry. It’s just all this. How can you live like this? It’s ridiculous.”

“I’m used to it, I guess,” Dot said. “You know what they say about pilots, we’re not like other people. I know everyone makes fun of us behind our backs.”

“Yeah, but not as much as they make fun of the spirers.” I got my giggles under control and then looked into Dot’s eyes, which looked like they could swallow me whole. “Listen, I can’t live here. But I can’t go back either. Can you make me a little love-nest, like in those dumb dreamliminals? A little place where I can live and you can visit? Not in the daily quarter, but not here either.”

Dot thought about it for a moment, then started rattling off the various lavish apartments in the interstices between the City quarters, where I could live in luxury. Eventually, be came up with something a bit more realistic, but still comfortable. Even if I was going to be a kept daily, I didn’t want to be over the top.

“I guess we can give it a try,” I said. “Just two more things. I want my friend Idra to come live with me. So I don’t go nuts with loneliness when you’re not around. Y needs yr own space, so y can entertain whoever y’s madly in love with this week. And the other thing is, I won’t woman to you. I can think of a few other ways to get rid of that pesky membrane on your tharn, don’t worry. But I just don’t like the idea of back-to-back sex, it’s too weird. Oh, and my name is Mab, not Mabirelle or anything else. Okay?”

It wasn’t the kind of courtship Dot had had in mind. And when the minstrels sang of our pair-bonding and the dreamliminals recreated it, they portrayed it very differently. The quivering Dot, the beautiful unyielding Mabirelle, the hours of ardent supplication before I finally consented to turn my back on ber and become ber mate, all that crap. I had to bite my tongue whenever people started carrying on. But I was starting to learn that you had to leave people their romantic illusions.

© 2008 by Charlie Jane Anders.
Originally published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane AndersCharlie Jane Anders’ story “Six Months Three Days” won a Hugo Award and was shortlisted for the Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon Awards. Her writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Tor.com, Tin House, ZYZZYVA, The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes, and elsewhere. She’s the managing editor of io9.com and runs the long-running Writers With Drinks reading series in San Francisco. More info at charliejane.net.

3 Responses »

  1. I love this story, Charlie. I’m a new huge fan. This is the first time I’ve read it and the world and characters intrigued me from the first sentence, and I loved the way it unfolded! It was touching, pun intended, brilliant, funny and thought provoking. I’m really thankful it was reprinted here or I would have never read it. Thanks, John for reprinting this.

  2. The simple but more accessible wordplay in “Love Might Be Too Strong A Word” reminds me of the slightly more ambitious one in “Clockwork Orange” attempted by the (clearly ahead-of-his-time) old-time sci-fi writer Anthony Burgess, where you had to turn to the glossary that came with the novel to fully understand a phrase or a section that wouldn’t reveal its meaning even if a sentence or a paragraph were read in its entirety, a practice which I usually (and mistakenlly) do in place of looking up a word and its meaning in the dictionary. But then “Clockwork Orange” presented less of a problem in the imagery it created in my mind than the various sexual orifices and appendages that the characters of “Love Might Be Too Strong A Word” are supposed to have. But since the latter is, more or less, a lighthearted story, I just stuck to the humor of the narrative and tried not to imagine a fictional world where a tongue, ten fingers, and a single set of genitals form the barest minimum instead of the absolute maximum in available sexual armory. (Am trying to be funny here.) It was fairly easier to imagine the idea that faced with imminent death, the characters turn to the old reliables of love, sex, and companionship (even on a pretend-basis) to make the approaching end more bearable.

  3. Little SPOILERS:

    At Li Renli,

    I read and enjoyed Clockwork Orange but it didn’t come to mind when I read, Charlie’s “Love Might be…”. I found it surprising the odd space creatures in “Love Might be…” were humans and it left me wanting to know more.

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