“This is the only brand of gorkzak I drink,” she said trembling, heavy green tears welling up in the three corners of her many eyes. “Honestly you people should think about these things. I mean, what am I supposed to do now? Never drink gorkzak again?”
Rahn shifted his frustrated gaze to the high-gloss faux-marble floor, gnawing at different parts of his inner lower lip to keep from saying something honest.
“I’m sorry, I’m really not sure why this line of gorkzak was discontinued, decisions like that are made above the store level.”
“But this is your store and your brand of gorkzak!” She waved a loose hand of tentacles ever closer to his face. His own tentacles drew together, the better to keep from gesticulating.
“I’m truly sorry for the inconvenience this has caused you,” he said blankly.
“I’ll just bet you are.”
Rahn felt wobbly and queer, caught inexorably between the utter meaninglessness of the interaction and the fact that it was his job.
Snardon? SnardonWa, his wrists told him. A foreign movie quote – “Does it matter? It does not matter.” Or, that’s not the exact translation, but it works pretty well in context.
“It’s also the name of a game in Brbn culture, somewhat like our Forthrightness or Foolishness. These two young Brbns, both named Wla, are basically fooling each other into forthrightness, which leads to some pretty funny breakdowns in their restrictive Brbn culture. You have to remember, this was the totalitarian 600s,” he’d say, just as he realized he had lost his interlocutor completely.
“Like, they trick older Brbn business people into buying them food at the tube station, promising to ride on with them but always stepping off at the last moment. There’s a lot of food waste, a big food fight at the end, and then of course the young Brbns are thrown in a pool of gla. It was still banned by the regime, though.”
I bet they wished it just said something like “I love Mom” in Tlang, he’d think once he’s gotten done describing his tattoo. People always want to know the deep personal meanings of tattoos, as long as they’re universally applicable and knowable at a glance.
By now the weeping woman of the discontinued gorkzak had turned, wheeling her cart off toward the large wall of eggs. Rahn sighed and pushed his way through the swinging double doors to the back room and, at last, into the cooler.
He liked it in the cold and quiet. Sure, they piped in corporate radio though a large zabhorn-shaped device in the back corner, but he was left relatively to himself to stock the milk and sing along to the badly aging popular songs.
Many of them were hits enjoyed by his parents in their own late youth. From time to time he’d send his father a message about this song or that, treasured or, often, otherwise. A couple of days later his father would return the message with a joke that made them feel like family, albeit at a distance, and the whole thing repeated itself two or three cycles later.
Rahn liked watching the shoppers from between the racks of milk. He liked guessing what kind of milk they would buy, conventional or integral, nardu or baka nut. He knew he could see them better than they could see him, a situation he always found exhilarating. He liked to spy on them, and to think about the stars.
Forrd from frozen cracked the cooler door open and poked his head through the plastic curtain flaps: “I’ve got a real treat for you on the floor, wants to talk about the sizes of integral eggs.”
“Norfaps. Thanks, Forrd, I’ll be out in a second.”
The sizes of integral eggs. Hoo, boy.
As he rounded the corner past the gardermilk and derdap creamer, he recognized the woman: an Ermianx immigrant, the mother of a friend he had once stayed with at third school. He was studying their language then, and he remembered complimenting her dress in his best idiomatic Ermianx.
“Are you the one to whom I speak about the eggs?”
She didn’t recognize him. Why would she? And yet he could never forget her.
“It seems like almost every time I come to this place, the medium integral eggs are even larger than the large integral eggs. You will please now tell me how this is possible.” Her thick Ermianx accent rendered her consumerist rage all the more palpable, and if this had been a television program, Rahn would have laughed.
It was not a television program. Rahn scanned his brain quickly for the least offensive thing he could say.
“I’m very sorry that this seems to be an issue. That is something I would need to look further into, the eggs are not packaged in-store.”
Rahn felt very grateful for the large balibanaa cigarette he had smoked that morning; it really helped control the temperature of the pool of anxiety into which he continually sank.
“This is just outrageous,” she spat, only partly because of her native radula. “I demand to speak to someone more important than you.”
Oh, thank God, he thought, visibly relieved to be off the hook. Which was a very bad place to be, indeed.
“Of course, I’ll see if I can go find a manager.”
“You see that you do.”
This would take some digging, and even for this Rahn was grateful. Managers were not plentiful; at most there were three ever on duty, and that was usually in the morning. At this time of day, it would be hard to find one indeed. Difficult and time-consuming. Blissfully time-consuming.
Rahn worked his way south, passing frozen, aisles of cleaning supplies, first-meal sugar treats, and their extensive offerings of derdap. Nary an employee to be seen, let alone a manager. He finally spotted one by the wall of expensive integral snacks across from meat and airfood, raising both hands to wave in greeting. “Hey, there’s a customer who’d like to speak to a manager about the comparative sizes of integral eggs.” He loved saying things like this, keeping as straight a face as he could manage, hoping to never gain even one more responsibility in life.
“Are you copulating with me?” The manager’s eyes all seemed to double in size for a moment.
“I am not…sir?” Rahn did not know this manager well, and he wasn’t quite sure what to say.
“You know I can’t do anything about that, right?”
“I am aware of that… sir?” Rahn felt enveloped in a beautiful cloud of balibanaa smoke that carried off responsibility in its wake.
“Fine,” the manager grumbled, retracting the blade of his box cutter and placing it back in it’s holster.
“And I can’t do anything about it either, sir,” Rahn said to no one as he turned to go back to the cooler.
The whipped narm was looking low, and he turned to the back stock cart to replenish it. The glossy aerosol cans stung his tentacles with cold, and he realized he hadn’t put his gloves back on.
As far as they knew, they were the only intelligent, technological species in the universe. Alone in a sea of galaxies, each populated by billions upon billions of stars, they, as yet, had no proof that they had any extraplanetary neighbors.
Not that there wasn’t much investigation and conjecture. The international scientific community was engaged in an organized search for extraplanetary life (SEPI for short), and the world’s motion pictures, television programs, and trashy books were replete with depictions of alien lifeforms.
It was precisely this question which most preoccupied Rahn’s thoughts: were they alone? Were they truly the only space-faring civilization – the only civilization at all? Between the whipped narm and milk alternatives, Rahn couldn’t quite take it: that this might be consciousness, life in its entirety.
There were mathematical models proving the near certainty of other intelligent life, and counter-models showing just how slim the chances were. If the universe was homogeneous and isometric, if nowhere was special, then there must be alien life. And yet, if it exists – where the hell is everybody?
All killed off in civil wars, or bested by invaders from the sky? Taken down as part of a cycle of asteroidal bombardment? Not yet advanced enough to traverse the stars, or so advanced as not to care?
Rahn had once seen a pundit on television shake his whiskers in dismay and suggest that the only thing that could truly unite the Girax race was a full-scale hostile alien invasion. The idea was troubling but hard to ignore; the only thing that makes an us is a them.
A container of sour narm cracked in the tentacles of his right hand, coating his glove with its flat white and soaking through the thin spots in the fabric to his skin. He couldn’t wash the gloves because they were too cheap, so he had to always kind of smell like sour narm or constantly buy new gloves.
If there were aliens, he thought, none of this would matter; the sour narm, the gloves, the disapproving tentacles and whiskers. If the aliens came tomorrow, everything would change.
For the better, he believed. He felt he had to believe.
He wished he understood the math. So he could do more than regurgitate facts from science videos he had seen on the infonet. So he could come up with some novel approach to finally find EP.
Just so he could know they really weren’t alone; that somewhere out there, someone else was stocking milk and gorkzak, or whatever their words for those things are. That a boundless spirit on a distant world somewhere was wearing a uniform and mopping up milk and its derivatives. Just to know that the Girax weren’t the only ones who had gotten everything wrong.
“Hey, Rahn?” Forrd again. “An old lady, uh, just last bladder control right in front of the eggs.”
“Are you copulating with me?”
Forrd was not.