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Story Excerpt

Alien Housing
by Karen Heuler

Marisela Feddie had profound reservations about her job. She was old enough to miss the world as it had been, and smart enough to know that it would never be that way again. The two current beliefs—that someone would find out the aliens’ weak­ness, or that it was best to learn to live with them—both annoyed her. There were waves of aliens, coming and going, and no one had figured out any weaknesses in the past ten years. And she didn’t want to live with them.

Livelihoods were, of necessity, altered. The decrease in human reproduction—whatever its cause—meant that as a teacher, she had been in a field now too competitive to be solvent (the world was running out of children). She took an ad­ministrative job with a large housing complex, but the aliens were interested in ac­quiring more housing, and they got what they wanted. They might keep her on if they liked her; she was about to be interviewed.

The Phosians had not been the first aliens to arrive. Two other races had come and gone, after a struggle that destroyed three Earth cities and no alien ships. The others left when the Phosians arrived, without comment and apparently without hostility. But the Phosians came in massive ships filled with their kind, announcing their good intentions and assuring everyone that they were friendly. Very friendly.

They all needed housing and would adapt, in their friendly fashion. They required a reliable temperature range, water, refrigerated storage, food preparation areas—in fact, a standard Earth apartment. Marisela had handled some of them in her old position; she would handle more of them if she actually got the job.

*   *   *

By the time Poonce interviewed Marisela, she had gotten used to the way Phosians looked. They had two extra arms (one in front, one in back), and a head that swiveled, and their strangely stippled skin was gray. 

“You have an interesting resume,” Poonce observed, checking his palm device. “Once in charge of the young—an important qualification. Our population has chil­dren and the young. The almost-grown.”

Poonce had come with the second wave of Phosians. By then, the race was univer­sally hated, but the aliens didn’t care. They didn’t hurt anyone, but they also didn’t realize that the spaces they took belonged to someone else. And no one felt secure with these aliens—with their higher technology, their space flight, their ability to speak to Earth people in their own language—all of this was difficult. But what were the choices, exactly? And what was next? Until she found that out, she needed a job.

Poonce seemed to approve of her; his voice was warm and encouraging—but Phosians had nice voices. Poonce’s voice came from deep in his throat, or from the high point of his palate. It had an unusual vibration. She found it soothing; she found it encouraging, even if it was a Phosian trick to sound kind and caring.

In fact, Phosians could mimic not only voices but movements, gestures, even alter their appearance somewhat to look like something else. They were fascinated by dogs, for instance, and often sat next to them, letting their stippled skin take on a fur-like texture.

It was much easier to hate a Phosian when they weren’t speaking to you. She shifted in her seat, flexed her hand on her thigh, looked past him out the window, and reminded herself that the pay was good, and she could control her reaction to that voice.

He told her she was hired, and although she was grateful, she asked, “Why me?”

“Teachers,” he said in that admiring voice of his, “are so helpful. Our children reach a certain age—adolescence—and they leave home and live together or travel togeth­er, often getting into mischief—”

“Gangs,” she said, surprised. “You have gangs.”

“We don’t have gangs,” he said firmly. “They are,” he paused, “peer groups.”

Which was the kind of thing a parent would say, she noted. She could handle par­ents. “What kinds of things do these peer groups do?”

“They play and they are reckless. But they mean no harm. We have a code of ethics.”

“Like us.”

He winced. “Stronger than yours. But sometimes they defy constraints.”

“So why bring them here?” Or dump them here, she thought to herself. She was fa­miliar with the way parents worded their explanations of their children’s bad behavior.

“We bring them here to learn,” Poonce said. He shifted awkwardly on his chair. Earth design did not account for four arms. Phosians sat on stools rather than chairs, and preferred scooters to cars. They had large mouths with very mobile lips and a vague chin. She kept looking at that chin.

“You can stare at me,” he said courteously. “We stare at you.”

She felt her face grow hot. His politeness made her feel inferior. She had to stay professional. “What exactly do you want me to do?”

“We like the wealth of alien experiences on this planet.” She blinked at the word alien. For a second she almost felt she was the alien. She shook it off. “We want our young to be comfortable with aliens. Courteous. Respectful. But the young can some­times go too far. Adults know the difference between a real gun and a fake one, and the psychological difference as well. Our young might not. We encourage them to re­search your society, even watch your movies. They are delightful. We like the chases, the gunfights, the hurts, betrayals, vengeance, killings, wars. . . .”

His voice was lovely. His voice made it all sound magical. She leaned a little closer, then sat back again. “If you’re having a problem with your young, why don’t you just tell them to behave better? To acknowledge your ‘restraints’?” She felt good about that, as if she’d put him in his place.

“The purpose of childhood is to learn how to be an adult, no?” he asked. “They will learn. There’s plenty of time.”

His tongue protruded. It was not as large or disgusting as the external tongue of the Burvins, but was fairly large and unpleasant. He pulled it back in.

She considered what he’d said. It implied a long stay, an easy stay. Phosians had always avoided discussing their intentions. “Why did you come here? To Earth.”

His front arm made a small, sweeping gesture. “It’s just one of many planets we visit,” he said kindly. “We live for a long time, and we’re curious. You live for a short time and are curious.”

“Are you taking over?”

He stared at her. She wished she knew what that stare meant—annoyance; anger; respect? “We’re not interested in taking over,” he said. “Then there would be no reason to visit. You would no longer be independently unique. We find you . . . interesting.”

“So you won’t stay forever?” She kept herself sitting straight. Sometimes, with dif­ficult students, she had had to remove herself emotionally from any confrontation. She would straighten up, clasp her hands, and observe them from a distance.

“There are other planets. Right now, this one is popular.”

“Because we’re interesting,” she said.

“You are. You truly are.” There was so much warmth and support in his voice. Her suspicions (if she had suspicions; she really couldn’t think of any at the moment) dis­appeared. He seemed all right.

*   *   *

There were some occasional housing issues, but she was mostly expected to over­see the Phosian young, who often gathered in groups. She got a call about one group and went to see what they were doing.

They were hard for her to tell apart, especially since they sometimes chose to mim­ic each other. Her eyes swept across the group—some of them ignoring her; others staring at her with interest. Now that she was dealing with them constantly, they no longer repulsed her as much, but her best tactic was to single out one Phosian and ask it to tell the others to leave. It had sometimes worked with human adolescents, creating a connection rather than simply giving orders in a loud voice.

“Why should we leave?” this Phosian asked her in a reasonable voice. “There was a group of humans here a little while ago.”

“This is a school building,” she said. “The parents were waiting for their children.”

“We too are patiently waiting for our children,” he answered.

There was a pause. “Their children,” he corrected. “Grammar error.”

The alien next to him snickered. And then the next one snickered. The snicker ran around the crowd like an excited dog. It was very annoying. But she snickered, too, and that seemed to stop them. They shrugged all four arms and left.

But were they actually waiting for children? Were there younger children in those groups? Poonce said no. “Soon there will be,” he said. “It will inevitably happen—but not yet.” 

Fine. They were teenagers, then, clumping together as teenagers did. They gath­ered outside ice cream parlors, too. Of course, there they actually purchased and ate ice cream. But they dropped the napkins and paper cone covers on the ground. She went to discuss this with Poonce. 

Was she complaining about the young Phosians too much? Poonce always accepted her reports without irritation, as if all of this was to be expected. But what was the Phosian experience? They probably had disappointments, irritations, displeasures?

“They’re not fond of the food,” Poonce said.

This was surprising. “They keep eating it.”

“They’re curious. It’s an oddity. None of them have gotten sick, and they can me­tabolize almost anything. It’s not a problem.”

“They throw it away. It’s litter.”

“They’ve watched your habits. They’re copying you. Do you want me to tell them to stop? If so, what do they do with it?”

“Put it in the garbage cans. They throw food away and then try the same food again. And throw it away again. So tell them the taste won’t change. If they don’t like it once, don’t eat it again.”

And from that time on, they put their garbage in the cans! She was gaining au­thority, she was sure of it. Perhaps she had judged them harshly before. Poonce was always courteous; perhaps even kind.

Movie theaters would call to say that they had been invaded by aliens who sat through the same film over and over again. She told the theater to shut off the film, they wouldn’t riot, and she went there to make sure. The aliens came out in a crowd, repeat­ing lines of dialogue, shoving each other or dancing, depending on the movie. Across the street, a crowd of humans (perhaps waiting to see the film) watched with disapproval.

Once, all the aliens lined up and watched the humans with equal disapproval. Or that’s what it looked like, she couldn’t be sure. She said she would report them all to Poonce if they didn’t leave immediately. But really, she thought to herself: wasn’t it just as annoying for all the humans to stand there and disapprove?

It seemed to be going well until the day she got a call from the police, who wanted to show her something. Of course the aliens had been up to something! 

A detective led her to a small office and then shut the door, motioning her to sit down. He turned his computer to face her. “I want you to see this,” he said. 

He nodded at the screen, where a group of aliens were shown shambling up and down the aisles of a liquor store. Her eyes watched carefully. They stumbled a little, perhaps already half-drunk. And one of them looked—well, there was something about it . . . she leaned forward. The detective leaned back, satisfied. She was aware of his movement, but she didn’t turn to note it because she was so interested in the figure onscreen. Then no longer interested. Appalled.

“I think that’s supposed to be me,” she said in a hushed tone. 

She had thought the camera was poor quality, but it wasn’t the camera. The fig­ures were poor quality. The features were blurred, a trifle too far apart or too close. The clothes fit in a static way, not moving the way clothes would move.

But she recognized that jacket—it was her favorite, the one she wore most often in cool weather. It had a slightly fitted waist, and covered buttons, and generous pockets marked by a slightly darker stitching. But here it was, blocky, with one too many buttons, and stitching around pockets that didn’t actually exist. With those ex­tra arms of theirs.

And her face was blunted, her eyes too far apart, her nose too large or something—

“My nostrils aren’t that big?” she asked.

He snorted.

Because this was a cheap knockoff of her appearance. She didn’t know who the others were; she didn’t recognize the clothing or the distorted faces. But the figures walked up and down aisles, grabbing bottles apparently at random.

They brought them, wavering back and forth, up to the counter and stood, waiting. The clerk, his eyes on them, put the goods into two shopping bags. His shoulders were tense; his eyes kept darting.

The figure that was hers made a pretense of taking something from its nonexis­tent pockets and held out nothing to the clerk, whose hand moved stealthily under the counter. A silent alarm.

The figure that was hers still held out the hand as if waiting for the receipt or the nonexistent credit card again.

The clerk looked increasingly unhappy. He glanced to the door. 

They all glanced to the door and then moved in a shaky group to it and out of it.

She stopped the video.

They were mimics, so none of it was absolutely shocking, though it was moderately shocking at least. No one likes to look at their own caricature. It was nasty. She need­ed to see Poonce; he had a way of making such things unthreatening.

“We should have killed them all,” the detective said. 

She glanced at the frozen screen, with the Phosian dressed like her caught in pro­file. “How?” she asked, and then felt bad about it.

*   *   *

Poonce set up a meeting with Vaten, who had impersonated her at the robbery. He/she/it was sitting at a café table, with a cup of coffee steaming. She ordered the same and sat down.

He sat all the way forward (that back arm they had must be annoying). They could probably take turns being a chair, she thought uneasily. And then she wondered if they could actually use part of their body to turn into a chair, and then the rest of their body could sit in the chair. . . .

“Are you feeling well today, Marisela?” Vaten asked.

“Of course I am!” she said. She was off her game already. The image of the alien being part chair had tripped her up.

“Because you look disorderly at the edges,” Vaten continued. “We often find it hard to assume a shape perfectly.”

“I’m not assuming a shape,” she said sharply. Did he somehow know what she’d been thinking? “This is who I am. This is my shape.” She took a deep breath; she would not allow him to influence her.

“I am happy for you,” he said. “Did you wish to ask me anything?”

She needed to regain her composure and figure out what she wanted to know. 

“Why did you rob that store? Why did you change your appearance? How do you change your appearance? What do you want?”

She had blurted it out, though luckily her tone had been reasonable.

“Doing that was very educational,” he said cheerfully. “I learned a lot.”

What had he learned? “What it is like to be human. It’s very fun. An unusual ex­perience. Would you take us to the horses in Central Park? We believe they will be more comfortable than this chair.”

*   *   *

Perhaps Phosians at that age couldn’t concentrate, but she still wanted to under­stand. She went back to Poonce. “Why would they do that?” she asked him. “Don’t they know we use money?”

“They know. They probably ran out, or forgot to bring it. They are hasty, at that age. They may have thought it really didn’t matter. We study your culture—books, movies, art, TV. They like the movies and TV best. So they sometimes play out scenes.”

Yes; it had looked like a scene. Or surveillance camera footage. Kids at a bodega. Kids acting out a robbery. Poonce’s voice made it all seem so ordinary, so acceptable.

Her mind, however, got stuck on one detail.

“They forgot to bring money?” she asked. “Where do they get money? Does our gov­ernment give you money?” It had never really occurred to her to wonder what the specific arrangements were with the aliens. They got what they wanted, obviously, since they were in charge. Was her government paying them to be in charge?

Poonce nodded. “Money is a novelty to us, of course, but the youngsters think it’s funny.”

She couldn’t move on for the moment. Her government wouldn’t give out handouts to their conquerors, would they? She considered the implication. “What does our gov­ernment get in return?”

“Ah.” His voice was sympathetic. “Yes. Exchange. In exchange, we give them a little of our technology. Our science.”

“Spaceships? Propulsion?”

“Fertility treatments. You are a dying race.”

She had to take in a big breath and stop for a moment. Of course the birth rate was plummeting, but no one had said it was permanent. No one had said this was the end. She looked at him sharply. “Treatments? What would you know about hu­man physiology? That you’d be able to know how to do this?”

“We are engineers with excellent memories and no wars. Your biology is not as complex as you think. That’s a good thing. The Burvins are complex and aloof. The Dadii are complex and cruel. I like to believe we are complex and kind.”

“You seem kind. At least I think so. And complex in what way? In your physiology? Culture? Your mental abilities?”

“Yes. And perhaps as well in our intentions.”

Her heart beat a little faster. Was there a warning in this statement? But he sat there, as benevolent as ever, leaning slightly toward her. She could almost feel his hand patting her, but of course he would never touch her—such a thing would be ethically uneasy, even if only a friendly gesture. “Why are you here?”

“You keep asking. My people are here because they’re bored, and you’re a novelty. No other race is like you, exactly like you. The Dadii look for high culture of a very specific kind, and you don’t have it. No one understands the Burvins, nor wants to. The Tem­dem are always looking for oil and get into ridiculous standoffs when they find it, but they use hydrogen fuel. No one uses oil in any quantity. I assume they trade oil some­where primitive. ‘Assume’ is inaccurate. I don’t know what they do, and I don’t care.”

She smiled. There was a trace of defiance in that—as if he had been told to care, but found it demeaning. “You say you’re bored, and yet we constantly have problems with your youth. They never allow themselves to be bored.”

“At their age, everything is still new. Soon they’ll be interested in the Universe in­stead of these enactments.”

“I wonder if we should actually get them to put on a show,” she said tentatively.

“They will not learn lines,” he said sadly. “But improv—perhaps improv?” He watched for her reaction.

“They’re already doing improv,” she said, and laughed. Then a deep hum broke out from the back of Poonce’s throat. It was his version of her laugh, she was sure of it.

*   *   *

The young Phosians loved all the amusement parks: Coney Island, Six Flags, Dis­ney. Water slides didn’t appeal; roller coasters did. They stood up when the coasters rocketed down. One fell, but didn’t die. Instead, he landed on his back arm and broke it. Soon, others sported a cast on their back arms. They never sued, yet the owners soon refused to let them on their coasters. They were afraid the aliens would show the human boys how to unlock the safety bar, and the amusement parks would be littered with figures standing up and falling. Human figures.

The aliens also loved traffic. Groups of them stood at intersections, just waiting. Of course, sometimes they caused an accident just by being there, by startling people. Humans looked. They took their eyes off the road and stared at the aliens. And then crashed. 

And just why did they bring so many youths here? If they were youths. She really couldn’t tell. Maybe it was something like the Amish rumspringa? Were they all sent out in the Universe to see what other planets were like before they went back to their own planet? She wondered what their own planet was like, and if it would in­terest humans the way humans interested Phosians. So far, there was nothing about them that made her want to know them better. But they weren’t bad, really. She caught herself, surprised. They were invaders. Of course they were bad.

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2022. Alien Housing by Karen Heuler

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