Garble’s feelers drooped in the damp air. Her overview of the properties of water had prepared her for the shock of seeing it for the first time-- but not for feeling it in the air. It was all around her all the time, from the moment she stepped off of the ship. Too-small-to-see droplets clung to the ragged edges of her scales and trickled down the grooves, tickling like the unwelcome whiskers of a constantly-inspecting stranger. There was a lot that Garble didn’t like about Earth. But what she did redeemed the rest entirely.
She checked her wrist-com. There was an episode scheduled for later that night. Garble didn’t know how her producers would react to the news. Her lover lay beside her in the grass. The two of them waited in the dark, close and angled towards each other. It was quiet, and in that moment Garble found it hard to imagine how Earth could be so much bigger than home while feeling so much cozier.
There came a low electronic hum as her wrist-com warmed up and began to project an image in front of them. Garble’s main producer, Fectum, appeared in the image, frowning at someone off-screen. There was a constant flurry of movement behind him; the crew was setting up.
“Filming for ‘Star Crossing Lovers, Season 1, Episode 4: Update with Garble’ is starting in one hour,” Fectum announced to the room, then turned his attention directly to the camera in front of him. “Garble, are you there?” Without pausing he continued, “we’re starting the episode off with another date with Maxwell, all right? You’re going to plant a tree. Really dig in to the dirt, too. But we need a one-on-one beforehand. Just like the other ones, yeah? Say whatever’s on your mind, how you’re feeling about Maxwell, is he ugly, is he cute, any reservations you have about the species difference, etc. How does that sound?”
It would have sounded fine. Garble had found that she and Maxwell actually had a lot in common. As for the difference in bodies, Garble, along with the other contestants of “Star Crossing Lovers, Season 1” had filled out a questionnaire before filming about what she would find acceptable in a suitor. Fins: no, slime: no, number of limbs: no preference, etc. The contestants were sorted and sent to their various matches. So when the producers had placed Garble in front of Maxwell, with short bristles on his head instead of four long feelers, fleshy skin instead of scales, and hands that branched into fingers that seemed to act as feelers, except they came out of his trunk instead of his head, she still felt relatively lucky, compared to what some of the others got.
They had been awkward together at first, before realizing that neither was truly interested in romance with the other. After that, they quickly settled into a friendship where their commonalities stood out much more than their differences. It turned out they had signed up for the show for similar reasons. Maxwell was just out of college with what Garble understood to be a rather broad field of study, not sure what he wanted to do next, and Garble was just out of military service, similarly adrift. They shared their fears together, of losing their own potential, of being forgotten, of never finding love. They had both signed up impulsively, needing something to do and hoping to further suspend questions of ‘what next?’ The show had seemed like a good buffer between the structure they came from and the ‘real’ world, and might even provide a path afterward, a way into the real world that didn’t seem too difficult. Completing the show successfully as an inter-species couple would bring a sizable payment as well as guaranteed celebrity for life.
“What?” Fectum had a habit of immediately forgetting that he had just asked a question. Garble had realized weeks ago that it was usually easier to not respond at all. But whenever she had to, the time it took him to get over his surprise at actually being answered annoyed her.
“I wanted to say something,” she said, finding confidence in her frustration with him.
“Oh.” He disappeared from the frame for a few moments. “Yeah, go ahead,” he continued, once he had popped back into view.
“I am in love,” Garble confessed.
“Congratulations,” he said, looking around at others in the room, Garble presumed, as she couldn’t see his expression when he turned, in exasperation.
“Not with Maxwell, though,” said she quickly, afraid he’d cut her off again, “not with any of the humans.” She looked him in the eyes directly.
“Not Maxwell…” muttered Fectum, still distracted. Garble realized he seemed to be looking at something beyond the screen rather than meeting her stare, and eventually shook his head to some mouthed question from wardrobe or lighting maybe, before focusing back to Garble, her words catching up to him. “Not human?”
Garble didn’t know how to explain further, so she picked up her lover from beside her and placed it on her lap. She ran one feeler down its beautiful neck and slid another along one of the strings, letting the low, comforting buzzing travel up and around her.
“We don’t have anything like this back home,” she said, arranging her feelers how Maxwell had taught her on their last date, and strumming across the strings gently. She felt it all reverberate through her, and even though it hurt to press into the strings so hard she never wanted to let go.
“Right, so, that’s an inanimate object,” said Fectum, “it’s no different than a toy you may have played with as a hatchling.”
Maxwell had told her that here, some humans spent their whole lives strumming one of these things, as a job. Garble couldn’t imagine anything better.
“It’s different,” she said.
“We need you to commit to this process,” Fectum’s intensity was rising, and others were picking up his frustration around him, “we will find you love, I promise, but you can’t be this distracted by a piece of wood.”
Garble continued to play the one chord that she knew. She had tried to discover others on her own, but none of them felt as right. She would have to ask Maxwell for more later. Two to three seconds after each strum was her favorite part. The strings by then aligned themselves. There was just something satisfying about it, like a ball circling around a perfectly-fitted tube and then rattling through. After those first few seconds, the notes in the chord began to separate again and eventually, just one or two could still be heard. But then she would strum again and get the same rush two seconds later. She would have sworn she could feel her scales vibrating too, shaking the oppressive droplets off and making her safe and dry.
“I did commit, and I’ve found it,” she said, “it worked. I’m in love.”
“Look, you signed a contract,” said Fectum. By then, everyone in the room behind him was trying to get a peek through the screen.
“We can still do the show,” said Garble, “maybe we just change it a little, like, Maxwell could give me lessons. That could be good, right? And besides, once everyone back home hears one of these things they’ll want to hear more.” She stood for emphasis, anchored by the massive Earth pulling her downward. She wasn’t used to weighing this much, but she liked it.
“No,” said Fectum, “absolutely not. The cameras will be there in 30 minutes. Be ready for the one-on-one.”
The holographic video cut out, and Garble stood still for a moment, considering the life that awaited her. Then she took off her wrist-com and flung the device into the darkness in front of her. Hearts pounding, she ran, clutching her lover and slamming her feet into the hard ground.