by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Chrysalis: A Fairy Tale Anthology, February 2020
He was the kind of guy who would give a fake name. Clarity could tell by the way he tentatively tried sitting at three different tables before settling down on a seat at the bar; also, the way his bulgy, protuberant eyes kept glancing around nervously; and, finally, the way he glared piercingly at his mottled green, slumped reflection in the mirror behind the bar before answering her question.
“So, what’s your name?” she asked.
“Uh… Stanley,” he answered, sure enough.
There was no way that an amphibioid alien like this guy had a classic terran name like Stanley. But Clarity had been tending bar for long enough at the All Alien Cafe on Crossroads Station — three weeks now! — to know better than to give a customer any trouble. It just ate into her tip.
“What’s your drink, Stanley?” she asked, and, while she concocted the vile gray mixture of alcohols he ordered, Clarity ran through all the other questions she could ask him in her mind. Where are you from? What brings you to Crossroads Station? Why haven’t I seen your species here before? But he’d already given a fake name, so he’d probably lie to any of them. Still, Clarity got better tips when she engaged the customers in conversation, so she handed his drink over with a winning smile and said, “I flew here on a cargo ship three weeks ago. It was my birthday present to myself for my eighteenth birthday.”
“Happy birthday,” Stanley said, lifting his drink to her. He held the glass with his bulgy fingertips hooked over the rim, dipping into the smoky liquid. Was he drinking it that way? Absorbing it through his skin? Clarity wasn’t sure.
“Thanks,” Clarity said. “It seemed like time to get off my native rock. More than time. I mean, I’d only ever met one non-human there! It’s such a backwards planet.” Clarity babbled for a while about all the aliens she’d met since moving to Crossroads Station — avian aliens with multi-hued feathers, bushy furred canine aliens, myrmecoid aliens with gleaming exoskeletons and n-jointed legs, among many others.
Stanley didn’t say much, but his posture grew easier as his drink slowly and mysteriously disappeared. His pastel green skin took on a glistening sheen, and his oval eyes stopped flitting nervously from side to side at the top of his wide face. Instead, he stared at Clarity in a way she found attentive and encouraging. So, she kept on babbling.
By the time Stanley ordered a second drink, Clarity found herself confiding in him about the little crush she had on her boss and how she was looking for a new roommate behind her current roommate’s back. The affordable rooms on Crossroads Station were simply too small to share with a complete slob.
Stanley stayed at the bar, ordering drinks and listening to Clarity talk about her life until closing time. She felt like they were old friends, but she knew she might not see him again. A lot of customers passed through the All Alien Cafe once and never returned. That’s the way with bars on interstellar travel hubs. Or so Clarity had been told by her boss.
So, it was with some surprise that Clarity saw Stanley slump his way up to the bar the following evening.
“Welcome back, Stan,” she said. “Same drink?”
Stanley nodded and hopped up onto the barstool. He was a short guy, probably the same height as Clarity or maybe an inch or two shorter. Of course, Clarity had no way of knowing whether that made him tall or short for his own species. “Have you noticed how much heights vary among different aliens?” Clarity asked, handing over the cloudy drink.
The oval slits of Stanley’s eyes narrowed even further, and Clarity realized he might think she was about to turn the conversation toward him. “I mean, take the Heffen over there,” she said, quickly redirecting to a table of red-furred canine aliens in the corner. “They’re so tall.”
Stanley turned to look at the Heffen, and when he turned back, he said, “They seem human height to me. On average, anyway.” He hooked his fingers into his drink, and the level of the liquid began slowly lowering. “Most of the aliens on a human space station tend to fall within average human ranges, otherwise it can be quite uncomfortable.”
Clarity was intrigued. “Have you been to non-human space stations?” she asked, forgetting her caution. But, then, maybe he wouldn’t mind having the conversation turn toward him, if she could keep it theoretical enough. “I mean, are there any? Do you know what they’re like?”
Stanley eyed the young barmaid carefully, but, in the end, her naive enthusiasm must have won him over. “Have you met any Lintar?” he asked.
Clarity shook her head.
“They’re icthyoids,” Stanley said, “with delicate fluttering fins. If you’d ever met one, it would have been wearing a breathing helmet and floating. They have swim bladders, you see, and in human atmospheres, well, they can pretty much fly.”
Clarity grinned. “And they have their own space stations?”
“Sure,” Stanley said. “The Lintar Oligarchy reigned over this arm of the galaxy long before humans got here.” He told her about their spherical space stations — gravity-free and filled with liquid.
“Wow,” Clarity breathed. “What else have you seen? Oh, I know! Do you know anything about those bush-like aliens? The ones with all the flowers and leaves that roll around like tumbleweeds?” She’d seen a few tumble their way past the bar earlier — all emerald leaves, pink daisies, blue roses, and mint-green curly fronds. They were among the most beautiful things she’d ever seen, like living bouquets.
The moment Clarity mentioned the plant aliens, though, Stanley’s narrow shoulders hunched, and the smooth mottled green skin between his bulgy eyes creased. “I should go,” he said, hopping off the bar stool.
“I’m sorry,” Clarity said. “You don’t have to go. I’ve got stuff to do in the stockroom anyway.” She got out of his way, and when she peeked back from the stockroom a few minutes later, Stanley was still at the bar, frowning at his drink and fiddling his bulbous fingertips in it, playing with the ripples he could make on the surface.
She didn’t think he’d be leaving a tip for her today. Still, she wanted to go talk to him. He’d been more real with her than any of the other aliens she’d met on Crossroads Station these last few weeks. Possibly because he didn’t have anyone else here either. At least, it seemed that way. And she was worried about him.
When he got up to leave for real, Clarity came over, leaned way over the bar, and said in a low voice, “If you need to talk, I get off in an hour.”
Stanley’s bulbous eyes goggled in a way Clarity didn’t understand, so she just shrugged and said, “You seem like you need a friend. If not, don’t worry about it.”
But an hour later, Stanley was waiting for her.
The human and froggy-alien wandered through the merchant quarter of Crossroads Station, commenting on the doodads and tchotchkes for sale. It was pleasant, and Clarity would have loved to think she was building a real friendship with Stanley, but behind it all, he seemed like he was drowning in a deep well of sadness. Finally, Clarity couldn’t take it any longer and said, “So, the flower aliens. You didn’t like it much when I mentioned them earlier.”
If Stanley had had fur, it would have bristled. Instead, his mottled splotches stretched and distorted as his smooth, nearly glistening skin wrinkled. “I don’t like it much now either.”
Clarity waited, pointedly.
Finally, Stanley conceded, “But you’re right. I need to talk. I need to figure out what to do.” He looked around nervously. “But not here. Do you have a place?”
Clarity tried to work out in her head whether her roommate would be home or not. She wasn’t sure. “What about your place?”
“Don’t have one,” Stanley said.
“What, you mean you’ve just been roaming around the station with nowhere to stay for the last few days?”
Stanley shrugged his skinny arms.
“Where do you sleep?”
“Behind the anti-grav generator in the playground in the refugee quarter.”
Crossroads Station generated natural gravity with centripetal forces, since it was a rotating wheel station. However, anti-grav generators that created bubbles of low- or zero-gee were popular playground structures. Clarity had seen the Heffen puppies in the refugee quarter floating and playing tag in the altered-gee bubbles before. She’d also seen the anti-grav generator, and she couldn’t imagine sleeping behind it was comfortable.
“Come on,” Clarity said. “We’ll go to my place.”
Clarity’s place was a studio — the smallest and cheapest size of quarters available on the station. Her roommate was an insectoid alien with mechanical wings — kind of amazing, kind of creepy — but Lee-a-lei wasn’t home, thank goodness. So, Clarity locked the door and shoved as much of Lee-a-lei’s junk off of the small couch as she needed to to make space for Stanely.
Clarity perched on the corner of the coffee table. Actually, their only table. But it was short, so she thought of it as a coffee table.
“Tell me about the flower aliens,” she said.
Stanley got a faraway look in his bulbous eyes and croaked out the words, “I loved one of them. She was perfect.” He said the next word like it was a holy sacrament, “Doripauli.” It must have been his beloved’s name.
“Didn’t go well?” Clarity asked. She didn’t have a lot of experience with relationships. She’d had a girlfriend for a few weeks and a boyfriend or two before that. But it had all just been holding hands, passing notes in class, and then being heartbroken when she realized that no one on her backwards planet understood why she wanted to leave.
Now she was here, and she’d seen that relationships could cross all kinds of boundaries — not just gender but species — and it was all kind of intimidating. She had no idea what she wanted anymore.
As Stanley talked about Doripauli though, Clarity started to get an idea: the love story he told of an amphibioid and a photosynthetic floral alien was the stuff of fairy tales. He’d loved Doripauli with his whole heart, every fiber of his being. When her bell-like flowers had chimed his name, it had been enough to send shivers all over his slimy green skin.
Clarity wondered what that name had been — clearly not Stanley.
Some day, Clarity hoped to be in love like Stanley was. Or loved by someone like Stanley. Someone who could spend hours describing her human body the way that he described every one of Doripauli’s flowers — the blue light-sensitive ones she used to see; the yellow petaled ones that could taste his skin when they touched; and the green fronds that vibrated, singing like violin strings to form her ethereal voice.
Clarity had no idea how long Stanley might have gone on, rhapsodizing about the wonders of Doripauli, if her roommate hadn’t come home. Lee-a-lei beat on the locked door for a while until Clarity let the cyborg butterfly alien in.
Lee-a-lei stomped around, rearranging her junk until she found the jetpack component for her mechanical wings. “Going asteroid hopping,” she fluted with her long curled proboscis. “Back tomorrow.” She was far more noisy and abrupt than Clarity would have ever pictured a month ago if asked to imagine a butterfly-like alien.
The door slammed behind Lee-a-lei, and Clarity immediately turned back to Stanley. “All right,” she said, “I get the love part. But what happened?”
“Political differences,” Stanley mumbled, his bulbous eyes clouding.
“Seriously?” That had to be the worst end Clarity had ever heard to a fairy tale.
Something in her tone caught Stanley’s attention, because his eyes snapped back into focus on her. He stared at her for a while, measuring her with those giant liquid eyes. She must have measured up, because he said, “Doripauli’s world is over crowded. The solution? They decided to burn an entire generation of sproutlings. I helped a small band of rebels free the sproutlings from the firelands before it was too late. Now her world is plunged into the depths of a civil war, and Doripauli is on the other side.”
That was more like it — life and death, generations pitted against each other, war and love torn asunder. It was horrible. But Clarity couldn’t help loving it. The universe out here was so big.
Then she looked into Stanley’s eyes and saw the depth of his pain — big enough to match the size of his story.
“I don’t know what to say,” Clarity said. “I feel like I should offer you some advice, but I don’t even know how to tell my roommate how unhappy I am with her junk all over.” Clarity shoved at a pile of indistinct fabric with one foot. She wasn’t even sure what it was — it wasn’t like Lee-a-lei wore clothes over her exo-skeletal body. “I have no idea what you should do.”
To her surprise, Stanley responded, “I know what I need to do. I just don’t know if I can do it.”
“What is it?” Clarity asked. “Can I help?” She moved off of the edge of the coffee table to perch instead on the corner of the sofa, closer to Stanley. She reached down and took one of his bulbous-fingered green hands in her own. His skin glistened like it would be slimy, but it was just smooth and surprisingly warm. She’d assumed he was cold-blooded from his amphibioid features, but now she wondered if she was wrong.
Stanley squeezed her hand back and said, “Maybe I just need someone to come with me when I do it — otherwise, I’m afraid I’ll lose myself completely. Will you come with me? Would you really do that?”
Clarity felt like she’d missed a step and worried that she’d agreed to do more than she was comfortable with. But Stanley looked so hopeful for the first time since she’d met him, and after talking all night, she felt like she knew him deep into his soul. Even if her feelings were only an illusion caused by the excitement of their sudden intimacy, it was still dizzying, and Clarity found herself saying, “Anywhere.”
Stanley led Clarity through the refugee quarter of Crossroads Station to the sketchiest, most rundown hole-in-the-wall restaurant she’d ever seen. The dingy paper signs taped to the walls — yes, actual paper — claimed the menu featured fusion cuisine, but didn’t say which cuisines they were fusing. Human? Heffen? Other aliens? All of them together? Clarity was relieved when Stanley led her straight through the empty restaurant to a curtained off room in the back. In there, the walls were plastered with pictures of different alien species, but these were flashing over vid-displays instead of printed on paper.
An antlered alien with a long neck, floppy ears, and wide round feet like an elephant’s pushed aside a curtain in the back and came into the room to greet them. Clarity had never seen an alien like this one before. Honestly, it looked like an amalgam of other aliens. Some sort of bizarre chimera.
“You’re back,” the antlered alien said. “Are you serious this time?”
“I was serious before,” Stanley said, reaching subtly and nervously out for Clarity’s hand. She let him take it, and he squeezed really tight. “I don’t have a choice. I just… needed time to get used to it.”
“Have you decided what you want to be?” the antlered alien asked.
“Not yet,” Stanley said. “Can we see the menu?”
The antlered alien snorted but then adjusted one of the vid-screens. It began displaying a list of alien features and phenotypes alongside astronomical prices. “I’ll give you some privacy.” The antlered alien stomped back through the curtain, leaving it swinging.
“What is this place?” Clarity asked.
“The Genie Shop,” Stanley said.
“It’s short for Genetic Errant — someone who’s had their physical form altered from the genetic form they were born with. Some of it is legal. Some of it isn’t. A lot of it is used to… escape legal consequences.”
“Why are we here?” Clarity asked. She put her free hand up to the vid-screen and ran her fingers down the different options. Every species she’d seen on Crossroads was listed here, along with many she hadn’t seen.
“I told you that I helped the rebels.” Stanley turned away from her, but he kept holding her hand. “Their government is looking for me. I’ll never be safe in this form. I’m surprised they haven’t found me already. I… I should have done this as soon as I got here, but I’ve already lost so much… It felt like changing my body would mean losing the last I had of myself.”
“You really have to do this?” Clarity asked.
Stanley didn’t answer, but that was answer enough.
“Okay,” she said. “What do you want to be?”
Stanley shrugged, dropping Clarity’s hand finally. “I want to be home with Doripauli. Since I can’t have that…” He looked back at her, his bulbous eyes again infused with hope. “Will you pick for me? Pick something you’d like.”
Clarity looked the choices over. She didn’t know what she’d like. She kind of liked Stanley the way he was… but it would be mean to tell him that. If he was trying to hide, the most common species on the station — other than human — was the red-furred canine Heffen.
The antlered alien returned, swishing the curtain aside, and asked, “Have you decided?”
Clarity started to answer, but Stanley said in a rush: “Don’t tell me. Let it be a surprise.”
“Okay,” Clarity said. Then looking to the antlered alien, “Yes, we’ve decided.”
The antlered alien looked back and forth between the human and amphibioid before rolling his eyes, sighing exasperatedly, and saying, “Fine, we can get you started before she tells us what we’re turning you into. But no refunds.”
Stanley agreed amiably, almost hopping with excitement now that the big decision was out of his hands.
“If you don’t like it, too bad,” the antlered alien snarled before leading Stanley back behind the curtain. They were gone for several minutes, and then the antlered alien returned alone. “So what are we making Stanley into?”
“Heffen,” Clarity said.
“Male or female?”
“Oh, uh, male, I guess.”
“So, a gender-flip too,” the antlered alien muttered, typing information into the nearest vid-screen.
Clarity started to object, but then she realized that she’d had nothing to base Stanley’s gender on other than a typically masculine human name — a name she now realized that she might have misheard. Besides, a gender-flip might be good for helping Stanley elude the flower alien government. “Does Stanley have a gender preference on record?” Clarity asked, wanting to be sure.
“We’ve discussed all kinds of options. Every species. Every gender. The only preference Stanley’s expressed until now is uncertainty.”
“Then, yes, male Heffen.”
“Okay,” the antlered alien said. “It’ll take about three weeks. You can go now.” Those final words didn’t sound like a suggestion. More like an order to get out.
So Clarity did.
She went home to her cramped quarters. Dazed and bereft. She’d spent days making friends with Stanley, only to realize that the person she’d made friends with was on the edge of disappearing. She’d left an amphibioid alien at the Genie Shop, and eventually a Heffen would emerge. And that Heffen had gone to such trouble to rid himself of his past that he was unlikely to ever seek out Clarity again.
Stanley was gone.
Nonetheless, after three weeks passed, Clarity started watching each new Heffen who came into The All Alien Cafe closely, looking for signs of Stanley’s slumped posture or soulful eyes. She found nothing. And after a few days, she stopped looking. She also stopped making small talk with the customers. Sure, it got her bigger tips, but it was too hard — feeling that flicker of potential friendship followed by the hardening in her heart as she protected herself. It was easier to keep a distance.
Then a red-furred, perky-eared, bright-eyed Heffen with a swishing tail — as little like Stanley as a customer could be — stopped her after she poured him his drink. He laid a paw on her hand and said, “Hey, aren’t you going to ask me my name?”
“What’s your name?” Clarity asked mechanically, but as she looked up at the Heffen — far taller than her — she felt a dizzying sensation, like the eyes she was looking into should have been lower and larger. She’d never seen these small, sparkly eyes before, and yet she felt like she could fall into them. They were the eyes of an old friend.
Or at least, a friend.
“I don’t have a name yet,” the Heffen answered. “I need a new one. Would you pick it for me?”