He was standing absolutely still by a service port, staring out at the belly of the Orion docking above us. He had on a gray uniform and his rusty hair was cut short. I took him for a station engineer.
That was bad for me. Newsmen strictly don’t belong in the bowels of Big Junction. But in my first twenty hours I hadn’t found any place to get a shot of an alien ship.
I turned my holocam to show its big World Media insigne and started my bit about What It Meant to the People Back Home who were paying for it all.
“—it may be routine work to you, sir, but we owe it to them to share—”
His face came around slow and tight, and his gaze passed over me from a peculiar distance.
“The wonders, the drama,” he repeated dispassionately. His eyes focused on me. “You consummated fool.”
“Could you tell me what races are coming in, sir? If I could even get a view—”
He waved me to the port. Greedily I angled my lenses up at the long blue hull blocking out the starfield. Beyond her I could see the bulge of a black and gold ship.
“That’s a Foramen,” he said. “There’s a freighter from Belye on the other side, you’d call it Arcturus. Not much traffic right now.”
“You’re the first person who’s said two sentences to me since I’ve been here, sir. What are those colorful little craft?”
“Procya,” he shrugged. “They’re always around. Like us.”
I squashed my face on the vitrite, peering. The walls clanked. Somewhere overhead aliens were off-loading into their private sector of Big Junction. The man glanced at his wrist.
“Are you waiting to go out, sir?”
His grunt could have meant anything.
“Where are you from on Earth?” he asked me in his hard tone.
I started to tell him and suddenly saw that he had forgotten my existence. His eyes were on nowhere, and his head was slowly bowing forward onto the port frame.
“Go home,” he said thickly. I caught a strong smell of tallow.
“Hey, sir!” I grabbed his arm; he was in rigid tremor. “Steady, man.”
“I’m waiting . . . waiting for my wife. My loving wife.” He gave a short ugly laugh. “Where are you from?”
I told him again.
“Go home,” he mumbled. “Go home and make babies. While you still can.”
One of the early GR casualties, I thought.
“Is that all you know?” His voice rose stridently. “Fools. Dressing in their styles. Gnivo suits, Aoleelee music. Oh, I see your newscasts,” he sneered. “Nixi parties. A year’s salary for a floater. Gamma radiation? Go home, read history. Ballpoint pens and bicycles—”
He started a slow slide downward in the half gee. My only informant. We struggled confusedly; he wouldn’t take one of my sobertabs but I finally got him along the service corridor to a bench in an empty loading bay. He fumbled out a little vacuum cartridge. As I was helping him unscrew it, a figure in starched whites put his head in the bay.
“I can be of assistance, yes?” His eyes popped, his face was covered with brindled fur. An alien, a Procya! I started to thank him but the red-haired man cut me off.
“Get lost. Out.”
The creature withdrew, its big eyes moist. The man stuck his pinky in the cartridge and then put it up his nose, gasping deep in his diaphragm. He looked toward his wrist.
“What time is it?”
I told him.
“News,” he said. “A message for the eager, hopeful human race. A word about those lovely, lovable aliens we all love so much.” He looked at me. “Shocked, aren’t you, newsboy?”
I had him figured now. A xenophobe. Aliens plot to take over Earth.
“Ah, Christ, they couldn’t care less.” He took another deep gasp, shuddered and straightened. “The hell with generalities. What time d’you say it was? All right, I’ll tell you how I learned it. The hard way. While we wait for my loving wife. You can bring that little recorder out of your sleeve, too. Play it over to yourself some time . . . when it’s too late.” He chuckled. His tone had become chatty—an educated voice. “You ever hear of supernormal stimuli?”
“No,” I said. “Wait a minute. White sugar?”
“Near enough. Y’know Little Junction Bar in D.C.? No, you’re an Aussie, you said. Well, I’m from Burned Barn, Nebraska.”
He took a breath, consulting some vast disarray of the soul.
“I accidentally drifted into Little Junction Bar when I was eighteen. No. Correct that. You don’t go into Little Junction by accident, any more than you first shoot skag by accident.
“You go into Little Junction because you’ve been craving it, dreaming about it, feeding on every hint and clue about it, back there in Burned Barn, since before you had hair in your pants. Whether you know it or not. Once you’re out of Burned Barn, you can no more help going into Little Junction than a sea-worm can help rising to the moon.
“I had a brand-new liquor I.D. in my pocket. It was early; there was an empty spot beside some humans at the bar. Little Junction isn’t an embassy bar, y’know. I found out later where the high-caste aliens go—when they go out. The New Rive, the Curtain by the Georgetown Marina.
“And they go by themselves. Oh, once in a while they do the cultural exchange bit with a few frosty couples of other aliens and some stuffed humans. Galactic Amity with a ten-foot pole.
“Little Junction was the place where the lower orders went, the clerks and drivers out for kicks. Including, my friend, the perverts. The ones who can take humans. Into their beds, that is.”
He chuckled and sniffed his finger again, not looking at me.
“Ah, yes. Little Junction is Galactic Amity night, every night. I ordered . . . what? A margarita. I didn’t have the nerve to ask the snotty spade bartender for one of the alien liquors behind the bar. It was dim. I was trying to stare everywhere at once without showing it. I remember those white boneheads—Lyrans, that is. And a mess of green veiling I decided was a multiple being from some place. I caught a couple of human glances in the bar mirror. Hostile flicks. I didn’t get the message, then.
“Suddenly an alien pushed right in beside me. Before I could get over my paralysis, I heard this blurry voice:
“‘You air a futeball enthusiash?’
“An alien had spoken to me. An alien, a being from the stars. Had spoken. To me.
“Oh, god, I had no time for football, but I would have claimed a passion for paper-folding, for dumb crambo—anything to keep him talking. I asked him about his home-planet sports, I insisted on buying his drinks. I listened raptly while he spluttered out a play-by-play account of a game I wouldn’t have turned a dial for. The ‘Grain Bay Pashkers.’ Yeah. And I was dimly aware of trouble among the humans on my other side.
“Suddenly this woman—I’d call her a girl now—this girl said something in a high nasty voice and swung her stool into the arm I was holding my drink with. We both turned around together.
“Christ, I can see her now. The first thing that hit me was discrepancy. She was a nothing—but terrific. Transfigured. Oozing it, radiating it.
“The next thing was I had a horrifying hard-on just looking at her.
“I scrooched over so my tunic hid it, and my spilled drink trickled down, making everything worse. She pawed vaguely at the spill, muttering.
“I just stared at her trying to figure out what had hit me. An ordinary figure, a soft avidness in the face. Eyes heavy, satiated-looking. She was totally sexualized. I remember her throat pulsed. She had one hand up touching her scarf, which had slipped off her shoulder. I saw angry bruises there. That really tore it, I understood at once those bruises had some sexual meaning.
“She was looking past my head with her face like a radar dish. Then she made an ‘ahhhhh’ sound that had nothing to do with me and grabbed my forearm as if it were a railing. One of the men behind her laughed. The woman said, ‘Excuse me,’ in a ridiculous voice and slipped out behind me. I wheeled around after her, nearly upsetting my football friend, and saw that some Sirians had come in.
“That was my first look at Sirians in the flesh, if that’s the word. God knows I’d memorized every news shot, but I wasn’t prepared. That tallness, that cruel thinness. That appalling alien arrogance. Ivory-blue, these were. Two males in immaculate metallic gear. Then I saw there was a female with them. An ivory-indigo exquisite with a permanent faint smile on those bone-hard lips.
“The girl who’d left me was ushering them to a table. She reminded me of a goddamn dog that wants you to follow it. Just as the crowd hid them, I saw a man join them, too. A big man, expensively dressed, with something wrecked about his face.
“Then the music started and I had to apologize to my furry friend. And the Sellice dancer came out and my personal introduction to hell began.”
The red-haired man fell silent for a minute enduring self-pity. Something wrecked about the face, I thought; it fit.
He pulled his face together.
“First I’ll give you the only coherent observation of my entire evening. You can see it here at Big Junction, always the same. Outside of the Procya, it’s humans with aliens, right? Very seldom aliens with other aliens. Never aliens with humans. It’s the humans who want in.”
I nodded, but he wasn’t talking to me. His voice had a druggy fluency.
“Ah, yes, my Sellice. My first Sellice.
“They aren’t really well-built, y’know, under those cloaks. No waist to speak of and short-legged. But they flow when they walk.
“This one flowed out into the spotlight, cloaked to the ground in violet silk. You could only see a fall of black hair and tassels over a narrow face like a vole. She was a mole-gray. They come in all colors. Their fur is like a flexible velvet all over; only the color changes startlingly around their eyes and lips and other places. Erogenous zones? Ah, man, with them it’s not zones.
“She began to do what we’d call a dance, but it’s no dance, it’s their natural movement. Like smiling, say, with us. The music built up, and her arms undulated toward me, letting the cloak fall apart little by little. She was naked under it. The spotlight started to pick up her body markings moving in the slit of the cloak. Her arms floated apart and I saw more and more.
“She was fantastically marked and the markings were writhing. Not like body paint—alive. Smiling, that’s a good word for it. As if her whole body was smiling sexually, beckoning, winking, urging, pouting, speaking to me. You’ve seen a classic Egyptian belly dance? Forget it—a sorry, stiff thing compared to what any Sellice can do. This one was ripe, near term.
“Her arms went up and those blazing lemon-colored curves pulsed, waved, everted, contracted, throbbed, evolved unbelievably welcoming, inciting permutations. Come do it to me, do it, do it here and here and here and now. You couldn’t see the rest of her, only a wicked flash of mouth. Every human male in the room was aching to ram himself into that incredible body. I mean it was pain. Even the other aliens were quiet, except one of the Sirians who was chewing out a waiter.
“I was a basket case before she was halfway through . . . I won’t bore you with what happened next; before it was over there were several fights and I got cut. My money ran out on the third night. She was gone next day.
“I didn’t have time to find out about the Sellice cycle then, mercifully. That came after I went back to campus and discovered you had to have a degree in solid-state electronics to apply for off-planet work. I was a pre-med but I got that degree. It only took me as far as First Junction then.
“Oh, god, First Junction. I thought I was in heaven—the alien ships coming in and our freighters going out. I saw them all, all but the real exotics, the tankies. You only see a few of those a cycle, even here. And the Yyeire. You’ve never seen that.
“Go home, boy. Go home to your version of Burned Barn . . .
“The first Yyeir I saw, I dropped everything and started walking after it like a starving hound, just breathing. You’ve seen the pix of course. Like lost dreams. Man is in love and loves what vanishes . . . It’s the scent, you can’t guess that. I followed until I ran into a slammed port. I spent half a cycles’s credits sending the creature the wine they call stars’ tears . . . Later I found out it was a male. That made no difference at all.
“You can’t have sex with them, y’know. No way. They breed by light or something, no one knows exactly. There’s a story about a man who got hold of a Yyeir woman and tried. They had him skinned. Stories—”
He was starting to wander.
“What about that girl in the bar, did you see her again?”
He came back from somewhere.
“Oh, yes. I saw her. She’d been making it with the two Sirians, y’know. The males do it in pairs. Said to be the total sexual thing for a woman, if she can stand the damage from those beaks. I wouldn’t know. She talked to me a couple of times after they finished with her. No use for men whatever. She drove off the P Street bridge . . . The man, poor bastard, he was trying to keep that Sirian bitch happy single-handed. Money helps, for a while. I don’t know where he ended.”
He glanced at his wrist watch again. I saw the pale bare place where a watch had been and told him the time.
“Is that the message you want to give Earth? Never love an alien?”
“Never love an alien—” He shrugged. “Yeah. No. Ah, Jesus, don’t you see? Everything going out, nothing coming back. Like the poor damned Polynesians. We’re gutting Earth, to begin with. Swapping raw resources for junk. Alien status symbols. Tape decks, Coca-Cola, Mickey Mouse watches.”
“Well, there is concern over the balance of trade. Is that your message?”
“The balance of trade.” He rolled it sardonically. “Did the Polynesians have a word for it, I wonder? You don’t see, do you? All right, why are you here? I mean you, personally. How many guys did you climb over—”
He went rigid, hearing footsteps outside. The Procya’s hopeful face appeared around the corner. The red-haired man snarled at him and he backed out. I started to protest.
“Ah, the silly reamer loves it. It’s the only pleasure we have left. . . . Can’t you see, man? That’s us. That’s the way we look to them, to the real ones.”
“And now we’re getting the cheap C-drive, we’ll be all over just like the Procya. For the pleasure of serving as freight monkeys and junction crews. Oh, they appreciate our ingenious little service stations, the beautiful star folk. They don’t need them, y’know. Just an amusing convenience. D’you know what I do here with my two degrees? What I did at First Junction. Tube cleaning. A swab. Sometimes I get to replace a fitting.”
I muttered something; the self-pity was getting heavy.
“Bitter? Man, it’s a good job. Sometimes I get to talk to one of them.” His face twisted. “My wife works as a—oh, hell, you wouldn’t know. I’d trade—correction, I have traded—everything Earth offered me for just that chance. To see them. To speak to them. Once in a while to touch one. Once in a great while to find one low enough, perverted enough to want to touch me . . .”
His voice trailed off and suddenly came back strong.
“And so will you!” He glared at me. “Go home! Go home and tell them to quit it. Close the ports. Burn every god-lost alien thing before it’s too late! That’s what the Polynesians didn’t do.”
“But surely be damned! Balance of trade—balance of life, man. I don’t know if our birth rate is going, that’s not the point. Our soul is leaking out. We’re bleeding to death!”
He took a breath and lowered his tone.
“What I’m trying to tell you, this is a trap. We’ve hit the supernormal stimulus. Man is exogamous—all our history is one long drive to find and impregnate the stranger. Or get impregnated by him; it works for women, too. Anything different-colored, different nose, ass, anything, man has to fuck it or die trying. That’s a drive, y’know, it’s built in. Because it works fine as long as the stranger is human. For millions of years that kept the genes circulating. But now we’ve met aliens we can’t screw, and we’re about to die trying. . . . Do you think I can touch my wife?”
“Look. Y’know, if you give a bird a fake egg like its own but bigger and brighter-marked, it’ll roll its own egg out of the nest and sit on the fake? That’s what we’re doing.”
“We’ve been talking about sex so far.” I was trying to conceal my impatience. “Which is great, but the kind of story I’d hoped—”
“Sex? No, it’s deeper.” He rubbed his head, trying to clear the drug. “Sex is only part of it—there’s more. I’ve seen Earth missionaries, teachers, sexless people. Teachers—they end cycling waste or pushing floaters, but they’re hooked. They stay. I saw one fine-looking old woman, she was servant to a Cu’ushbar kid. A defective—his own people would have let him die. That wretch was swabbing up its vomit as if it was holy water. Man, it’s deep . . . some cargo-cult of the soul. We’re built to dream outwards. They laugh at us. They don’t have it.”
There were sounds of movement in the next corridor. The dinner crowd was starting. I had to get rid of him and get there; maybe I could find the Procya.
A side door opened and a figure started towards us. At first I thought it was an alien and then I saw it was a woman wearing an awkward body-shell. She seemed to be limping slightly. Behind her I could glimpse the dinner-bound throng passing the open door.
The man got up as she turned into the bay. They didn’t greet each other.
“The station employs only happily wedded couples,” he told me with that ugly laugh. “We give each other . . . comfort.”
He took one of her hands. She flinched as he drew it over his arm and let him turn her passively, not looking at me. “Forgive me if I don’t introduce you. My wife appears fatigued.”
I saw that one of her shoulders was grotesquely scarred.
“Tell them,” he said, turning to go. “Go home and tell them.” Then his head snapped back toward me and he added quietly, “And stay away from the Syrtis desk or I’ll kill you.”
They went away up the corridor.
I changed tapes hurriedly with one eye on the figures passing that open door. Suddenly among the humans I caught a glimpse of two sleek scarlet shapes. My first real aliens! I snapped the recorder shut and ran to squeeze in behind them.
© 1972 by James Tiptree, Jr.
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Reprinted by permission of the author.