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Just Desserts

Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but has lived in Pittsburgh for over twenty years. She writes both fiction and poetry, and has won the Rhysling Award and the Elgin Award. Her two latest books are from opposite ends of the poetry spectrum: Elemental Haiku, containing haiku for each element of the periodic table (Ten Speed Press, 2019) and The Sign of the Dragon, an epic fantasy with Chinese elements (JABberwocky Literary Agency, 2020). She tweets at @MarySoonLee and hopes that her antiquated website (marysoonlee.com) will be updated before this story is published.
First Contact wasn't like any of the scenarios I'd ever read.
I'd spent twenty years out in the belt and beyond, trying to persuade Texans to negotiate with Muscovites, Oligarchists to listen to Chinese Technocrats, the Separatists to even acknowledge the existence of the Anarchists. Getting all of them to sign the aid-in-distress treaty for space emergencies had driven me prematurely gray.
When a Botswanan ship detected an anomalous sphere on the outskirts of the belt, the crew immediately radioed me. Naturally. I have no staff, no authority from any government, a cobbled-together wholly-inadequate budget, but still I'm the go-to-woman to mediate issues involving more than one off-Earth constituency. Call it my reward for youthful recklessness. (Looking back, I'd say my actions were more rash foolishness than bravery, but two decades ago the outer planets wanted a hero.)
Anyway, the Botswanans radioed me, and I reviewed their data. Their ship was on a high speed trajectory, moving too fast for them to investigate. They'd have been ten million kilometers away from the sphere before they matched velocity. So instead I requisitioned telemetry from every available sensor array.
The sphere was smooth as a billiard ball, six hundred and eleven meters in diameter, highly reflective at frequencies from X-rays through infrared. It was proceeding sedately in a low-eccentricity orbit with a semi-major axis of 3.38 AU. I backtracked its orbit. A week earlier, a micro-probe classifying asteroids had scanned the area where the sphere would have been, assuming the sphere had maintained the same orbit throughout. The micro-probe had spotted nothing but vacuum. Eschewing speculation on the sphere's origins, recommending calm restraint, I shared my preliminary analysis.
ALIENS INVADE, EARTH DOOMED, blared Terran headlines in a thousand languages.
I like to think that space settlers are among the best of humanity. Capable, intelligent, rational. ALIENS INVADE, DOOMSDAY COMING, blared the newsfeeds from Mercury to Pluto.
Half of humanity despaired, the other half plotted attack. Fortunately nobody had a weapons-bearing spaceship close to the object. I pointed out that the sphere had done nothing to harm us. Also that if the sphere was of alien origin, our weaponry might merely irritate them. Leveraging my reputation for all it was worth, I again urged calm restraint. With considerable effort, I talked even the paranoid Jovians out of a military response.
The sphere continued placidly orbiting, returning no reply to our communication attempts.
The best-positioned spaceship to take a close-up look was the Inelegance, a lumpy ore-processing behemoth with a crew of two. They maneuvered the Inelegance to within a hundred meters.
No discernible reaction.
The captain, twenty-two years old and with the fragile bones of one who'd never been in so much as half a gee, as reckless as I'd ever been, exited her airlock on a tether, and waved at the sphere.
A smaller sphere, bright pink, about twenty centimeters wide, irised out of the large one. It glided over to the captain, who, somewhat hesitantly, took hold of it. Her shipmate hauled her back inside.
During the hour-long communication lag before I could give them advice, the pink sphere opened up to reveal two bars of chocolate.
The captain and her shipmate didn't wait for my advice. They'd both been born off-Earth, but they'd heard of chocolate. And either the smell, or months of eating flavored sludge, or telepathic alien manipulation led them to promptly gobble it up, leaving only two morsels to be analyzed later.
Done is done. I didn't see any virtue in berating either of them, though I did dispatch a state-of-the-art medic bot in case the bars contained a slow-acting poison. (If the bars had contained a quick-acting poison, the bot would have been the one to perform the autopsies.)
Neither the medic bot, nor the subsequent lab studies, found any evidence of anything but chocolate in the bars.
Hours after this first offering, the large sphere released a rainbow profusion of thousands of further small spheres, which then proceeded toward every spaceship, every settlement outside Earth orbit. From Titan to Ganymede to the Martian poles, sped the spherical armada. 18,091 spheres to be shared among the 265,662 space settlers. Inside were candies, chocolates, pastries, each sphere tailored to its recipients. Profiteroles that might have come from Paris, gulab juman garnished with almonds, cashew baklavas, scones plated with strawberry jam and clotted cream. Indistinguishable from their human equivalents, yet undeniably alien.
I myself received deep-fried durian, a treat that transported me back to my mother in Malaysia. I like to think of myself as capable, rational, intelligent. But the durian made me helplessly, fiercely happy. For a moment, I was a small child again, loved without question.
Not content with this munificence, the alien sphere continued to release its treasure, additional dessert offerings arriving once every three weeks.
How could they duplicate our foodstuffs so exactly? How did they know what each of us would want? Were they trying to guide human affairs? Did they gift us in simple friendship? Did they guess what it would mean to us?
Out of every three thousand settlers in space, only one will ever return to Earth. Of those born in space, even fewer ever set foot on the home planet. We are of every human color, come from every nation. Almost without exception we are driven, dedicated, hard-working. We don't waste resources on costly luxuries. We count ourselves lucky to eat vat-grown protein. We don't have cacao trees to produce chocolate, nor vanilla orchids, nor hundred-foot tall durian trees warmed by the tropic sun.
The aliens, without speaking a word, have given us something we'd forgotten we needed, some intangible connection to where we came from.
Their bounty shouldn't make much difference, yet it has. Month by month, tensions have been dropping. Old disputes are amicably resolved. The Texans and the Muscovites formed a joint choir--a choir of all things. They've opened it up to everyone, using software to merge performances that are scattered across the solar system. The kinder critics describe their music as "enthusiastic."
One of these years, there will be nothing left for me to mediate. Maybe I'll retire and join the choir.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 18th, 2020


I had the idea for this story in the middle of the night--about 3:45 AM--which is very rare for me, and went downstairs to my computer to jot it down. A few hours later, as I drove back from dropping my daughter at school, I heard Miranda Lambert's song "The House That Built Me" on the radio, and the mood the song invoked played into the story. For the record, many years after leaving England, I'm still very fond of scones. (Sometimes I even resort to baking them myself.)

- Mary Soon Lee
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