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No Worries

Jason A. Bartles, originally from West Virginia, now calls Philadelphia home. He lives with his husband and two dogs, a blue-eyed husky and a pit-mix who will lick your face off. He teaches Latin American literature at a regional university. His most recent stories can be found at Metaphorosis Magazine and in The World's Revolution: Gaia Awakens. Check out his website for links: jasonabartles.wordpress.com Follow him on Twitter @jabartles.

I stand in line to buy a beverage, tuning out the halitosis and manufactured perfumes that bristle against my wattle. Its purpose is not to keep us cool. We don't perspire like the humans, always leaking fluids from every crevice and fold. They must find it uncomfortable to live on this planet, adapted to colder climates as they are. Our wattles are finely tuned to detect minor changes in the wind, whether it be the oncoming storm or the return of springtime.
"Hey," says a human behind me.
I know what they will ask.
"Can I touch that dangly thing on your neck? What do you call it?"
"No thanks," I say and turn around to order.
"That was rude," the human whispers to another.
"The older ones struggle to adapt," they reply. "Old dogs, you know?"
"The children are progressing quite nicely," chimes in a third.
"Ginger tea for--" the barista hesitates to pronounce my name.
I smile with kindness as I collect my beverage. As I turn to leave, I bump into the nosy human.
"My bad," I say, following their customs.
"No worries," they reply as they clump the receptors on my wattle with oil from their germ-encrusted fingertips. A pang of bile erupts in the back of my throat. "It's not as flabby as you'd expect," they explain to onlookers. "You ever consider getting it removed?"
My tea splatters on the floor as I try to free myself from their grip. Later I will wish I had struck back, but in the moment, I have the good sense to walk away. The humans have demonstrated what will happen if we stray from our new place in this world. I rush out the door, and with any luck, I will have time to unclog my pores before the workday begins.
Each week, I inspect the cellar entrance beside my cabin. No rust or warping, and the weatherproofing remains intact. The locks slide open, and the scent of damp clay and roots relax my wattle.
The cellar is pitch black after I seal the hatch. I feel my way in the dark, an exercise I have maintained since childhood, long before the humans arrived. Soon-to-expire canned goods rest on a shelf near the ladder. I place them in my basket, shift the remaining jars leftward, and stock this season's batch. I tuck freshly laundered towels into drawers and change the bedsheets.
I return to the surface, and as I lock up, I hear a rambunctious group of humans in an approaching vehicle. The passengers tuck their hands into noisome armpits and wave their elbows, while cluck-clucking in my direction. I grind my teeth in silence.
Whenever this happens in the presence of friendlier humans, they explain it as an innocuous display of mirth and gaiety.
"You're just being sensitive," they say.
"I'll work on that."
"It's all good," they reassure me.
I prefer to enter the conference room last. My job is to record my employers' endless debates about which of our ancestral thoroughfares to pave and rename in their own image.
"This one's a keeper. It learned to cover its genitals," says my boss, pointing at the fabric that drapes below my chin.
"Forgive me, but these are not my genitals," I blurt out before realizing what I have done. Their absurd statement catches me off guard. I do not suffer this gauzy covering out of modesty or decorum, but to keep my passages clear. The humans have developed interstellar flight, yet the minor differences in our physiology leave them utterly flummoxed. And when they struggle to understand, they can become incensed, which causes them to emanate hormones that linger on my sensors for days. I have to weigh the risk of missing vital ambient signs against the possible long-term damage from an unexpected outburst or a public groper.
"No need to get embarrassed," they say. "I'm complimenting you."
I need this job, so I regain my composure. "My apologies," I say and take my seat along the wall.
"Whatever it is, we're glad you act normal about it," says my boss. The other humans in the room either nod along or stare at the table.
A fellow secretary invites me to lunch. We step outside and remove our coverings. Immediately our wattles swell as trace amounts of carbon monoxide waft through the air. We scuttle our plans and hurry home.
I was quite young for the last of these storms. My elders rushed us down the ladder and sealed us in the lightless shelter. After endless days of migraines and itchy lungs, a neighbor knocked with the all-clear signal.
Distracted by the memories, I bump into a human on the sidewalk.
"Excuse me," I say to preempt their rage.
"No worries." They flash a closed-lip smile.
The humans bustle about the surface of our planet with cool indifference, but today they should be more alert. Instead, they saunter away with not a care in any of the worlds under their control. I prepare to explain the dire circumstances, to implore them to seek cover, but they will dismiss me as an overly sensitive native.
The bile rising in my wattle snaps me back to the danger. By nightfall, anyone left on the surface will perish in the noxious clouds. All of us are headed underground until the air becomes breathable again. It could be a day or a week, but we prepare for twice as long. I open the hatch and climb down. I wonder what it will take to break the humans of their false sense of security, of their belief that nature can be bent to their every whim. I suppose we're about to find out.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, June 30th, 2022

Author Comments

Microaggressions can be described like little cuts, each by a different hand. For this story, I thought about how to show the accumulated effects of living daily in a world in which microaggressions feel anything but micro. Also, I wanted my narrator, and their community, to get the final word.

- Jason A. Bartles
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