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Smooth Like Glass

Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. She has had over 130 short stories published in places like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex Magazine, and Escape Pod. Her debut novel, Left-Hand Gods, is available from Hadley Rille Books, and she has two short story collections available from Air and Nothingness Press. In addition to writing, she spends her time reading, playing tabletop RPGs, baking, and hiking. You can find her online at jamielackey.com.

The alien curled onto what I could only assume was meant to be a chair and turned on its translator.
I lowered myself onto the provided couch. It was soft blue velvet, and I wondered where it came from. Had the aliens stolen it? Created it themselves? Clearly, they'd have no use for it.
The alien leaned forward, the protuberances on its teardrop-shaped head glinting in the cold artificial light. "Welcome, #5842880132. Do you understand the charges leveled against your species?"
I frowned. "No, I guess not. Not really."
The alien tilted its head. "Have they not been explained?"
"You think our ancestors colonized this planet. But that doesn't make sense. And even if they did, that doesn't make us guilty of some crime."
"So, you understand the charges, but not the consequences or ramifications."
"I guess."
"That is acceptable. Are you ready to proceed?"
"I just have to answer your questions, right? We all cooperate, and no one gets hurt?" I tried not to imagine probing or vivisection. The alien's body was all curves that led into points. I hadn't touched one, didn't know if their flesh gave, or was hard and chitinous, but their edges looked sharp.
The alien made a soft noise, like a purr. "Yes. Are you ready to proceed?"
I nodded. "As ready as I'll ever be, I guess."
"How many times does your planet rotate in a single revolution around your sun?"
I took a moment to process the question. "You mean how many days are there in a year? 365. And a quarter or so, I guess."
The alien didn't seem to be taking any kind of notes. I wondered if the conversation was being recorded. "How many digits do you have on your limbs?"
"Ten fingers, ten toes, five on each hand and foot."
"How do you divide time within the rotation of your planet?"
"Into hours?"
"And how many of these hours make up a rotation?"
"In your mathematics, does that divide evenly by five or ten?"
The questions didn't really make sense. "No. Does it in your math?"
"Irrelevant. How are hours divided?"
"Into minutes. Sixty of them. And those divide into sixty seconds. Which divide into milliseconds, I guess."
"Are you familiar with a creation myth involving a man coming down from the sky to create humans in his own image and animals to serve him?"
I shifted on the couch. "I've heard it, yeah."
"Are you familiar with a myth of a great flood that spared only certain, chosen creatures?"
"I didn't hear anything about only certain creatures being spared."
"But you know of this flood?"
"Does the light from your sun burn your skin and damage your eyes?"
"It can, if I'm not careful."
"Is your climate unstable and dangerous? Are there places where you cannot live without shelter from the elements?"
"Of course we need shelter from the elements."
"Are you aware of creatures living deep in the ocean that are utterly alien to any other life on your planet?"
Ocean life could be weird, but all life could be weird. "I'm not a marine biologist."
"Are you familiar with stories of cities that rose to prominence as if aided by some magic or greater technology or knowledge, then fell or vanished? Camelot, Shambhala, Atlantis?"
The questions felt like attacks, but I wasn't sure why. And I couldn't imagine how my answers could help them. "Everyone's heard of those places. But they weren't real."
The alien inched just a bit forward. "Are you certain of that?"
"Well, we didn't think aliens were real a year ago, so maybe King Arthur was real. But I doubt it."
"An interesting perspective." It made the purring noise again. "Have you ever felt like you don't belong? Like you are a spoon in a drawer full of knives, or a puzzle piece dropped into the ocean?"
"A puzzle piece dropped into the ocean?"
"I apologize, the idiom does not seem to translate into your language. It will be noted. Please answer the core question, if you understand it."
"I think that everyone has felt that way, at some point."
It purred again. "Are you aware of a great extinction event that occurred here approximately sixty-six million of your years ago?"
"The meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs?"
"You know it was a meteor?"
"Well, I think scientists proved it."
"Are you aware of how many digits they had on their limbs?"
I thought back to Jurassic Park. "I think some of them had three?"
"Does twenty-four divide evenly by three?"
"You know it does. You're not seriously trying to imply that we wiped out the dinosaurs and then stole their planet because of how many hours are in a day, are you? That's absurd. We made hours up, we could have made them however long we wanted. You could try to make the argument for days, but 365 does divide evenly by five, but the planet's revolutions and rotations aren't evenly lined up. It's not all based on some weird sacred geometry."
"That is certainly true currently. Are you certain that it has always been the case? Can you say definitely that nothing threw off of the balance at some point in the past? A meteor perhaps?"
I was no space expert, but that sounded like bunk. "I'm pretty sure that none of the planets in our solar system work that way."
"Once balance is thrown off, if spreads outward like ripples on the sand. That is why colonization is now forbidden. Why even though none alive participated in the crime, the consequences are unavoidable. The balance must be restored. The sand must be smoothed."
"What if it isn't?"
"Entropy. Chaos. The unbalance will ripple out, unchecked. The malaise that rots your hearts will infect others."
"I don't have a malaise rotting my heart!"
"How else do you explain your treatment of this world? You know you do not belong here, so you punish it. Reshape it to your will, but you've forgotten what form you wish to press it into. But we will make you a place to fit. A place where you already belong, without pressing or striving or breaking. We are doing you a kindness, even though you cannot see it. Eventually, you will understand. Eventually, you will see that the chaos that you live in, that you spread, is a disease that must be rooted out. Eventually, you will be like smooth sand. Like glass."
"And what if we refuse?"
"Why would you?"
It seemed genuinely curious, so I tried to come up with an answer that made sense. "Because this is our home, even if you don't think we belong here. Let's say that you're right, and we did wipe out the dinosaurs, come down from the stars, and then create a flood to kill off anything we didn't like. But now we've grown into this planet. Like a snail that finds a new shell."
"Perhaps it is time for you to shed this shell and find a new on that fits properly."
I didn't have any arguments against that.
Our new world was artificial. Mechanical. Fake. And yet, everyone agreed, something about it felt right. Things were easier. Resources were plentiful. People got along. We didn't like that these things were true, but the evidence was unassailable.
Our new shell is a better fit.
But sometimes, I would walk through the carefully constructed forests, where trees grew in careful rows, where the soft sunshine never burned my skin, and think about ripples on sand.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 27th, 2018
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