issue 1

First Dates, by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers

In retrospect, I’m dying was a bad pick-up line.

Maybe that’s why Valerie found herself chronically single, hopping from dating site to dating site until finally relenting and signing up for actual, face-to-face speed dating events. Not that those were going much better; they were held in swanky restaurants she could never afford otherwise, where half the items on the menu were imported from off-planet and not strictly digestible for human beings. She always ordered what was cheapest, even on the limited menu available for mixers. Half the time she ended up with the food lying cold on her plate, congealing in unpleasant ways.

Honesty was her policy at these events, and that was the problem. Five minutes to make an impression and Valerie certainly managed that every time, just not in a good way.

“Look, let’s not waste our precious time here,” she said to the guy sitting across from her. He was generically good-looking, though clearly anxious. Probably some kind of tech bro; three-quarters of the city did something esoteric with computers. Besides, he had the classic geek chic glasses, the kind that got you beat up in middle school but were all the rage now. Val knew from personal experience.

“Um, okay.” He swallowed anything else he wanted to say with a gulp of beer, not quite meeting her eyes.

“So I don’t know how long I have to live,” she began. “Could be five years, could be fifteen. Probably not going to be more than that though.” Her companion opened his mouth, so Val held up a finger and barreled on. It was so much easier when they didn’t look at her. “Don’t feel sorry for me. I just want a date, same as everyone else here. Someone to come home to, somewhere down the line.” Desperation gave her voice a whiny quality that Val hated, but never seemed to shake. How could she even articulate everything she was feeling? Somehow, she doubted God, I am so lonely and I swear I’m not as bitter as I sound would work any better than her other pick-up lines.

Date number three for the evening (she wanted to say he was Ted; he looked like a Ted) merely blinked. “That’s, uh . . .”

They were both saved from whatever maybe-Ted’s answer was going to be by the dinging of the bell. Time to swap partners. He didn’t even look back in his grateful scramble away, rattling Val’s water glass and making her plate and fork clink together.

Thus went the rest of the evening. Some of the men managed to squeeze in polite platitudes that she absolutely hated, saying how sorry they were for her, how they were sure that there was someone out there that would love to date her. Just, you know, not them. Others simply talked over Val, never letting her get a word in edgewise. They told long stories about their work and their clubs and their apparently rich social lives, exaggerated just past the point of credulity. Screw them. They didn’t deserve her story anyway, but it still stung that they didn’t even give her the room to speak.

Thoroughly exhausted, Val opted to save a few precious credits and walk home, though her eyes lingered on the hovering silver capsules that could sweep her back in minutes. It was only a mile and a half, but her body ached and her lungs never quite seemed to draw in enough oxygen. Didn’t matter. Money always won out.

All the soft, tasteful lighting in the world and all the genuine leather booths could not make the day redeemable. While she walked, Val buried herself in her tablet, messaging a faraway friend. It was an awful habit, one that had killed other, better people, yet Val felt sure this wasn’t how she would go out.

VJay#519: Speed date night was a bust . . . Just as I expected.

AHartman#82: There’s got to be more out there. You can’t have gone to every single event.

Vjay#519: Sure feels like I have.

AHartman#82: I think I’ve got an idea . . . Check your inbox tomorrow.

User AHartman#82 has gone offline.

Val’s apartment building had been nice once in the past, long before she’d ever stepped foot in it. It filled her dreams all through that night into the next day, what the building must have been like. Fifteen years ago the solar panels on the roof had been 100% efficient and the hydraulics/hydroponics combination elevator had worked and had not smelled like rotting fish. Most importantly, at least to a certain class of clientele, all the tech had been human-made, and no aliens were allowed inside the lobby, even as maintenance staff.

Now, half the units weren’t even occupied and one of the hallway lights had burnt out, casting Val in darkness as she inefficiently jammed the elevator button four times before giving up and going down the stairs. She’d have to move sooner or later, before her health got too bad for stairs, but it was hard to pass up on the rent here.

A message had arrived early that morning, the sender marked as unknown. Its urgent beeping had woken Val up, bleary eyes struggling to read and brain at least two steps behind.

You are cordially invited to attend an exclusive dating event. Your utmost discretion is required. Please RSVP by following this link.

That was all it said, but it had been enough to get her hooked. The link was thoroughly anonymous, a series of letters and numbers combined in a mishmash leading to a page that held only the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ with the dates, and it was another hour before she even received another message. This one contained just an address and a date. That night, 7 PM, 424 Clipper Street.

She wasn’t familiar with that part of town at all. It was far enough away that springing for a hovercab was a necessity and not a luxury. When the driver let Val out, he asked her if she was sure this was where she wanted to be.

“It’s just, you know . . . not our folks here,” he said.

“I don’t know what you mean,” she replied, tone saccharine. The driver gave her a look before departing. He had a point, reluctant as Val was to admit it. She was right on the fringes of where human and alien territory intersected uneasily. Some signs were displayed in English and the rest in a series of scrawls representing several languages. The storefronts gave way to warehouses as she walked down the block, lights few and far between. She could feel eyes on her, even if she couldn’t see who was looking.

Another block and down an alley and this was the address. A single, neon-lit sign marked the front: a classic martini with the olive popping in and out in a display of garish green, orange, and blue. Symbols were easier than letters in this part of town, and she’d been to plenty of events in a bar before. Okay. Deep breaths.

The interior was dimly lit but not all that different from any other bar, at least from first glance. The longer Val looked, however, the more strangeness showed. Chairs weren’t the right shape for the human body. Tables were too high or too low. There were bottles behind the bar filled with liquid that glowed, snacks that smelled so foreign that she couldn’t begin to find a point of comparison.

There were people in the back, or at least vaguely humanoid-shaped things. Before Val could wander into the shadows, someone took a hold of her elbow gently. He was human, dressed in a sports coat and jeans, nice but not too formal. “Ah, you must be Miss Valerie. Could I see some ID, please?”

“How did you know who I was?” Even as she spoke, Val was extending her wrist for a scan, more bemused than anything else.

“All of tonight’s guests have been thoroughly vetted.” The man grinned as he spoke, smile only becoming wider when her identity passed muster. “Please, take a seat in the back and the rules of the evening will be explained.”

Roughly half the crowd was human, and as Val slipped behind a table and focused her mind away from the nervous pit in her stomach, she saw that the other half was . . . other. Alien. Not confined to a single species; a riot of colors, though most were bipedal and at least vaguely human-shaped, and all were from species capable of communicating in English.

“Welcome to a very special event. The first of its kind, but hopefully not the last. You’ll have five minutes with each date, so do enjoy.” Their host dismissed them and a generic-looking waiter gracefully slid a cocktail in front of Val. Her first date took the seat across from her, eying her with speculation.

He was human. It was difficult to parse her feelings about this, given the room’s rather colorful occupants. Strictly speaking, a relationship between humans and aliens wasn’t against the law. But culturally it was frowned upon, to put it lightly. Species didn’t matter much—alien was alien, and that was simply not done. She should have been grateful to start off the night in familiar territory, but with the possibilities suddenly open before her, he felt so pedestrian.

Luckily it was over soon. Val couldn’t even get her usual spiel out. The man barely gave her space to breathe. “Isn’t it great being here? I’m excited to really meet some aliens. I mean really, really meet them. If you know what I mean.” She could only nod. Then Val’s next date arrived.

He (they all wore pronoun tags—helpful, when a species looked largely identical) looked a bit like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, if the Creature had been avian instead of amphibian. His face was mostly human-like, save for cat-eyed pupils and a beak in lieu of a nose and a mouth. Protofeathers covered his head, rather than hair, with longer, more fully developed plumage jutting outward where ears would be normally. He had six fingers instead of five, but at least he walked on two legs. His nametag said ‘Phil.’ She thought he might have been smiling, with the way his feathers seemed to crinkle up near his eyes.

They must have wasted a full minute of their time just staring at each other. He wasn’t bad looking, Val finally decided. Brown feathers tipped in red—it was a look, kind of punk rock. He filled out his own sport coat well, though she wasn’t sure how the whole jeans situation worked. Did his species have a tail? Was it bad to ask? Finally Val spoke. “I probably only have five to ten years left to live.”

“My species, on average, only lives to forty of your human years,” he shot back, definitely smiling now.

“And how old are you now?” This wasn’t the response Val had anticipated; she was dimly aware that her heart had started to pound.

“Thirty.” Another smile from him, his hand resting on the table, leaving her to wonder what six fingers entwined in five might feel like.

“It won’t be a pretty death. I’ll gasp and be useless. My lungs will fill with mucus and I’ll choke on myself.”

“Death is very rarely beautiful.” He was so calm, prepared for a response no matter what she said.

From a distance, she heard the host saying that time was up and it was time to move on. There was a problem with that—she didn’t want Phil to leave, and from the way he stayed seated, he had no desire to get up either. They had so much more to talk about. “Should we get out of here? Skip the rest?”

When Phil took her hand, his fingers had a light coating of feathers, downy soft. Maybe they were actually down. “Yes,” he agreed. “Let’s split.”

As they exited the restaurant, the moon appeared from behind the clouds. Val’s phone buzzed once, ‘you have new test results’ appearing on the screen. Phil looked down at her screen, and then at her, and Val shook her head. Checking it immediately seemed suddenly far less important.

“I know this great coffee place that has a talent night open right now,” he began, and she nodded eagerly. There were so many things they had to do together.

Elizabeth Rogers is a California Bay Area based writer. As well as fiction, she writes for a local nature magazine and an international cystic fibrosis centered website.. As a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, half her heart resides in Scotland. Her Twitter is @KestrelUnicorn.

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