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Just Below My Heart

Over the past thirty-odd years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and young adult novels and more than 350 short stories. Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her fiction has won Stoker and Nebula Awards.

Nina does production work for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. She teaches short story classes through a local college and through Wordcrafters in Eugene. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

For a list of Nina's publications, check out: http://ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html.
My boyfriend lives inside me.
Okay, so he's not really a boy; The Druklad don't have the same genders as humans. And since we're different species, we can't reproduce, so who cares about genders anyway? Not that I want children. I am proud to be a drone and an Ender; my gene line ends with me. The universe doesn't need more of me.
Maybe I should call Sukkuk my Main Friend. Sukkuk's not a he or a she or a they or a one or an it, and maybe I'm not, either. I had the plumbing that made me female removed when I was old enough to be trusted with the decision, and I asked them to leave room for something else. Initially an oval compartment behind my navel I could carry protein snacks and water bulbs in, which was weird, because I'd take them out and put them back in, just in a different way. Then I met Sukkuk in my Aliens class, where beings alien to each other got together and compared notes. Everybody in the class was a different kind of alien; I was the only human. It was a university class, a requirement for freshmen on Center, the planet where the United Beings Alliance headquarters was.
The Druklad were new to the Alliance. I couldn't find much information about them.
Sukkuk had a robot shell when I met him: A clear dome on top held something oval, orange, and spiky in cloudy liquid, supported by a smooth, slender, metal body with five leg-arms at the bottom, each multi-jointed and tipped with a different kind of hand-claw. His voice came out of an orifice below the dome. He spoke good interlingue, with a mid-range voice.
Our class facilitator, a Sommeline, had us separate into pairs and gave us a list of questions to ask each other.
Do you build structures to live in? Do you build communities? If you do, how are they organized?
Do you have families? If you do, how are they organized?
Do you have friends? If so, how many, and how are they organized?
How do you reproduce?
How do you view those outside your species?
Sukkuk and I faced each other across a desk. Two of his hand-feet held a notescreen. One was poised to tap it. His other two hand-feet held him steady against a backboard with clips that helped support him.
I sat in a chair, with a notescreen on the desk in front of me.
I swallowed and stared at him. How could you make eye contact without eyes?
We had questions to ask. That was good.
"Do you build structures to live in?" I asked him after we'd introduced ourselves.
"We build structures, but not to live in. To do in." His dome tilted a little, then straightened. "That is not right. We build structures like this," he tapped his body, "to live in, but only sometimes. Mostly we live inside others."
"Other what?" I asked.
"Other living things."
I stared at the dome with the orange object inside. "Uh," I said. "Do you build communities?"
"Yes, yes," he said. "You tell me about your kind now."
He kept me talking the rest of our session. He asked me questions that weren't on the facilitator's list, and he made me feel as though he wanted to know everything about me, and not in a creepy way, but because he was really interested. I never got a chance to ask him any more questions.
At our next class, I got paired with an Avenima. During our question session, she morphed into my twin. I wished I knew how to do that. It made the question session weird, though. I couldn't tell if she was telling the truth about her species or giving me answers she thought suited me.
After class, she morphed into a male human form, someone I'd seen in more than one movie, and invited me and some of the others to the Student Union for refreshments. It sounded better than going home to my dorm cube. My diplomat parent had told me my job this term was to make friends with aliens, and this seemed like a good start.
At the Union, I ended up sitting with Sukkuk. He asked if he could sample me.
"What does that even mean?" I said.
One of his claw-hands lifted, and a probe extended from its palm. "May I take a little bit of you?"
"Ew," I said, then shrugged and held out my non-dominant hand. The probe drilled into the heel of my hand, extracted a little skin and blood, and retracted. Another hand-claw tapped the tiny wound and left something that sealed and hardened.
After our third Aliens class, Sukkuk said he had created a mod that would let him join me, and asked if I were interested.
My parent had been super surprised when I told her I had met a Druklad in Aliens class. The newsfeed was full of questions about them. She had told me to find out everything I could about him.
So I told him yes.
We went to my cube and I emptied out my internal storage compartment. The liquid in his dome drained from it, leaving a pulsing, spiky, oblong, orange thing just a little bigger than my two hands clasped together. I lifted it out of the robot body and slid it into my compartment, wondering if this would kill him. Did he need to be in a liquid medium? How would he breathe? How would he eat? How would he see, sense, or speak?
I closed my compartment. Inside it, Sukkuk pulsed, thrummed, and did--something--and then we were connected. I opened my compartment and looked at him. All his spikes had grown up and poked into me, leaving a small knot of Sukkuk in the center.
Warmth and pain radiated out from him. My blood ran hot, and I felt like I was being sliced apart. I yelled, and then everything went dark before I could even wonder if I'd survive.
When I woke up, I felt different. I stared at the wall image of a landscape on the home planet, and I saw every detail so sharply. Subtle scents printed themselves on my mind as I breathed in. I blinked and sat up. The pain was gone.
Sukkuk's voice spoke in my brain. "I've analyzed and optimized you," he said. Then he tapped my pleasure center.
I still don't know much about him, but he knows lots about me.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 30th, 2020


One of the Wordos Workshop's Valentine themes for this year's short-short read-aloud meeting was "Alien Dating." I wrote this story as a response to this prompt.

- Nina Kiriki Hoffman
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