HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.
Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue
Wesley O. Cohen
To their first meeting, Marcia Hernandez of Earth brought a platinum-coated quantum computer containing evidence of all of humankind’s most impressive accomplishments, and Nyrgris Xxixa of Yrgrys brought a potted plant.
Over the length of her visit, Marcia saw many of these around the embassy, and most were larger and more impressive than the one she’d received. Similar plants framed the high-ceilinged greeting chamber, many-fronded and housed in fine, faceted crystal cases. Through the tunnel halls of the space station, these plants stood atop marble podiums in shining urns carved with symbols telling the stories of Yrgrys’s greatest peacemakers. Marcia’s plant was squat, in a simple stone bucket. It matched the ones in the bathroom.
During Marcia’s diplomatic presentation about Earth, Nyrgris looked uncomfortable, even bored. He seemed to be feigning surprise:
“Oh my, you’ve been exploring nearby solar systems? You discovered fission-fueled travel three whole eons ago?”
During Nyrgris’s presentation, Marcia wept at the beauty and diversity of Yrgrys’s moons, the biological wealth of its algae forests, the yellow depths of its sulfur seas. After all this time, humankind was not alone! The children of Earth would grow up in a new age of interstellar friendship. She was overwhelmed with joy. Seeing this outpouring of emotion, Nyrgris stopped his presentation and drew in his antennae in disgust.
“Oh, wow,” Nyrgris said, “that’s a lot of eye fluid. Do you need to go to a soiling chamber?”
Marcia thanked him and left before her Yrgrysian security team could follow.
Marcia Hernandez of Earth puzzled through the twisting halls of the space station towards the bathroom. Again she wished she had been allowed to bring a fellow earthling on her mission – she would have liked a buddy. But the voyage was too dangerous: forty sheep and ten dogs had turned inside out during the system’s development, and the illegal human tests (on prisoners, of course) had left their subjects constipated, gibbering, and fingerless. The governments of Earth voted to use the system officially only when the first non-human life was confirmed on Yrgrys, and only a single human life would be risked. Marcia was selected for her long, thin fingers and her strong young body: this was a woman who would meet the brutal physical forces of space and refuse to constipate or gibber.
In the bathroom, Marcia rinsed her face with the queer glowing water, blew her nose on a napkin, and walked back towards the presentation room. She rubbed her forehead, trying to gather her thoughts, and bumped into a large extraterrestrial with sandy-coloured skin that had the moist, spongy texture of a bed of moss. They were wet all over, and dripped brown liquid onto the shiny tiles of the embassy hall. A Yrgrysian assistant followed behind them, dragging a towel like a cape to mop up the fluid.
“Pardon me,” Marcia said, in awkward Yrgrysian. “I am a foreigner.”
“Holy shit,” the alien said.
“Sorry,” Marcia said. She was unsure what level of formality was required in this interaction. “Which of Yrgrys’s continents are you from?”
The alien didn’t look like Nyrgris and his entourage, who were bug-like and covered in small eyes. This individual had no eyes at all, as far as Marcia could see, making it difficult to know where she ought to look. Things became even more awkward when the creature started laughing, which sounded something like an Earth in-sink garbage disposal.
“I’m not Yrgrysian, are you crazy? Where are you from?” The alien reached out with one of their many arms and pulled at Marcia’s sweater, then stroked her left eyebrow for several seconds.
“Fuck, you’re weird,” they said.
Nyrgris came running down the hallway, stopping just short of Marcia’s companion and placing an antenna on their arm. “Oh, EIIIIErn, how nice to see you! And you’ve met our Earth diplomat, I see?” EIIIIErn made a choking sound. Nyrgris continued talking quickly in a language that wasn’t Earthspeak or Yrgrysian. EIIIIErn looked shocked, then embarrassed. Finally, they left, looking back twice over what might have been their shoulder.
“Who was that? Were they from Yrgrys?” Marcia said.
“Well, no, not exactly,” said Nyrgris, grasping and ungrasping his mandibles in discomfort. “That was the IEAAAEan diplomat. But they have a very important off-planet appointment to attend.”
“There’s other species, other planets? I’ve got to meet them! I have more gifts from Earth. We would love to establish ties–”
“They don’t want to talk to you,” Nyrgris said.
“Oh! Is their civilization hostile?” Marcia said. She didn’t want to start a galactic incident. But EIIIIErn had seemed friendly enough, if somewhat informal.
“No, they’re fine,” Nyrgris said.
“Well then I’m sure a master diplomat like you could easily set up a conversation between–”
“Look,” Nyrgris said, “the galactic government decided to ignore your messages, okay? We got them, but we didn’t want to meet you. Nobody wants to meet you. We didn’t think you’d just send a person here. It’s not our fault Yrgrys is the closest planet to Earth.”
“Wait, there’s a galactic government? Where is it based? Can I go there?”
“Look, I didn’t want to do this,” said Nyrgris, “but I think you should leave. The IEAAAEans are already going to be pissed that you know about them, and that was totally EIIIIErn’s fault.”
“But don’t you want to learn about Earth? What about universal peace and trade?”
“Oh, come on,” said Nyrgris. “Everybody knows everything about Earth. We watched your TV for centuries before giving up on you and shutting off the signal. Can you just go? Christ, it’s like talking to an algae-eater.”
Marcia took her plant and left.
Back on Earth, Marcia Hernandez held a press conference on her interstellar diplomatic mission. She stepped to the lectern and read the statement she’d prepared.
“The lifeforms of planet 4K869 are extremely advanced,” she said, “and extremely hostile. We are no match for their technology unless we move quickly and take them by surprise.”
The hall was quiet.
For the first time in history, all of Earth’s leaders reached a speedy agreement: the next diplomatic gift to Yrgrys would be a forty-ton nuclear warhead.
At home, Marcia Hernandez of Earth watered her space plant. It had started to bloom, a single bud the colour of coal. Every news channel was playing footage of her speech, but she didn’t want to watch it. She changed the channel. A man was wading into a river in search of a large and mysterious fish that he planned to trap and eat. On the next channel, strangers lined up to purchase and then auction off the possessions left behind in other people’s foreclosed homes. One man with bleached hair was certain that he could sell a bankrupt family’s bottle cap collection for a large profit.
“The secret,” the man said, holding up a bottle cap with a picture of a dog on it that he believed to be very old and valuable, “is in the ridges.”
Marcia settled back into her couch and drank a beer. During a commercial break, she noticed that the bud on her Yrgrysian plant had opened, revealing a pure white center with many arching stamen. She brushed the pollen with her finger, distracted.
As a young diplomat, Marcia had avoided more feminine hobbies, like gardening and having children, in order to present an androgynous, no-nonsense persona. Perhaps now, as Earth’s hero, she would start a garden. Perhaps she would donate a greenhouse to a horticultural institution. Several colleges had offered her honorary degrees in the past hour – she would research which ones had strong botanical programs.
The flower’s smell filled Marcia’s apartment as she daydreamed. The scent was industrial and strong, like hot metal, and she liked it. She wondered about the plant’s role in its far-off world. Perhaps the smell was meant to lure and trap a type of ant in the watery chamber of the flower’s stem, where it would be digested by enzymes and used for energy. Perhaps it mimicked the sex pheromones of a common, soon extinct, Yrgrysian bee. Soon it would be the sole surviving knot in the tapestry of Yrgrysian ecological interactions.
Marcia wondered whether the flower could be cultivated on Earth. The shape of the bloom was charming, now that she thought about it. It was its own sort of ambassador, in a way. Keeping it alive in an unfamiliar climate would be an interesting challenge. Now, after all – her trials finished, her future secure, Earth’s reputation protected – now was her time to nurture.
WESLEY O. COHEN is a San Francisco writer and editor who specializes in short stories. Her work appears or is forthcoming in sPARKLE & bLINK, Mad Scientist Journal, Matchbox Magazine, Star 82 Review, and Potluck Mag, and she’s a contributing editor at Foglifter journal.