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art by Jason Stirret

Soft

Cat Rambo lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. Her short story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," (Near + Far) appears on this year's Nebula ballot.

Her work can be found in such places as Asimov's, Clarkesworld, and Weird Tales. Her short story collection, Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight, was an Endeavor Award finalist in 2010, and her collaboration with Jeff VanderMeer, The Surgeon's Tale and Other Stories, appeared in 2007. This is her sixth appearance in Daily Science Fiction. [Go to www.dailysciencefiction.com and check out the others via our search box!] Her website is www.kittywumpus.net
When Bjorn and his fellows were selected to supply context for the alien overlords who kept insisting they were just there for the Earth's own protection, he'd expected something different. Warriors in exo-skeletons, four limbs with a laser in each, maybe machine intelligences with scalpel-like fingers.
Instead, he found, they were soft.
Soft, this race. They called themselves something that Bjorn's wonky translator insisted on rendering as "Gitchee Gummee." Their ambassador Felfur, green fronds ferning from its triangular forehead, eager-to-please, puppy eyes, smelling of ozone and wet soil, was just as soft.
Soft. They cared what others thought, even if they phrased it differently, as genuine concern for well-being.
A weakness in Bjorn's book.
But it was why he was here. To help the Gitchee Gummee understand the messages pouring in. Every crank, every kook, every person with a cause, eager to tell the aliens how they should guide the world.
It was worth it though. Tech for clean energy, cheap transportation. Medical science at an unheard level of sophistication. Now he and Felfur stood in a conference room that smelled of iron and burnt plastic, watching the wall screen's video. He sipped his coffee.
On screen, a vervet monkey, dark face framed with white fur, spasmed and stiffened. A jerky and erratic dance. Its arm uncurled.
It reached to the camera, eyes to the ceiling, gesturing. He knew that sign. Fingertips touched to the forehead and drawn away, palm facing inward.
Why?
Twitch.
Why?
The screen blanked as the clip ended.
Felfur regarded Bjorn, awaiting context.
"Some feel animals have rights," Bjorn said. He shrugged to convey their lack of importance. People wanted crazy things, each of which this ambassador and its counterparts had refused over the past year. "They don't believe in animal testing." Felfur nodded. It pointed at the dead screen. "Those were animals. Being tested how?"
"We test substances on animals to determine their effect on humans," Bjorn said. "That was a military nerve gas experiment."
"So you test weapons?"
"It's necessary to test everything. Medicines, cosmetics, household chemicals. That way people know they're safe."
"You test the chemicals, not the animals," the alien said.
Bjorn nodded.
"Because it is important that your people know they are safe."
"Of course."
"Our medicine and techniques will need to be certified in this way."
"Of course," he said. "How else will people trust them?" He stifled a yawn.
"You have been working too long," Felfur said. "Go and rest."
Another disappointing day.
He still hoped he'd go down in the history books, assist with or even make some wise decision that would shape humanity's future. But once again he nodded and left.
A mirror-walled elevator took him down. A white-tiled tunnel led to the Radisson. This late at night, no footsteps other than his echoed.
Sooner or later he'd help make some important decision. One that would convince the Universe to revoke Earth's wardship and grant it full status.
He stripped and lay down on the bed. Cold air rattled from the fan, washing over him. Tomorrow more madmen and fanatics and fools. Why did the aliens do it?
Soft.
Next morning. Espresso-infused coffee burned in his throat as he entered.
The alien stood by the table, still as a tree. Bjorn hadn't seen outside greenery since he'd begun work here.
Would this parade of complaints and petitions never end?
"We have a mission for you."
His heart quickened beyond the usual caffeine-staccato beat. His chance, finally.
"We wish to obey your customs. Although we must remove superstition from them where it impedes efficiency. You will recruit ten thousand of your people and set up a program for recruiting more."
He frowned. "What for?"
"Testing. How else will we know that our medicine is safe? A valid concern. But animals as surrogates--there we can improve on the process."
Its leaves rustled in an invisible wind. He couldn't hear it over the blood roaring in his ears.
"Now your people will know they are safe," the alien said.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, March 28th, 2013


"Soft" came out of a round of flash stories from my writing group. It was inspired by an NPR story about the monkey experiments described in the story which are, sadly, very true.

- Cat Rambo

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