Talk-To-Me-Xeno was sold out on Earth—had been for weeks. Every galaxy-class parent in the Andromeda wanted this lovable plushy, pre-programmed with 10,000 Togrol phrases, under their Christmas tree. It wasn’t just the creature’s imploring black eyes (backlit with the intricate characters of the Togrol alphabet—brilliant, Lena thought), or its smooth brown tentacles that undulated gently when they detected a voice. Really, Lena reasoned, it was about the opportunity to immerse one’s child in the native language of the newest beings to have made contact.
Even to Lena the language sounded like a garble of clicks and grunts and hard-to-pronounce slurps, and she had a trained ear. And a trained mind. Nevertheless, when she tried to speak Togrol—to say her name or ask for a bathroom—it sounded like she was eating soup obnoxiously, so bad was her Earth accent.
But if Shreya could learn it now, at two years old… Her mind was the perfect sponge. Lena imagined the possibilities—imagined her daughter as an ambassador with an entourage of staffers or even Chief of Thought Marketing at an intragalactic corporation. So when Lena’s lens implant alerted her to a fresh delivery of Talk-To-Me Xenos at Target on Enceladus, she and Kevin decided the overnight trip would be worthwhile.
Kevin had volunteered to go, but something inside Lena longed to be the one to venture out. “I think I should go,” she had said.
“Are you sure? I'd be more useful if there was a tousle,” Kevin had offered.
Lena had shrugged her willowy shoulders. “But if we need to negotiate, I’d be the one.” Fluent in four languages and conversant in five more, Lena felt confident in her ability to barter, cajole, or demand. She was eager to try. She could feel her Naru getting rusty from lack of use (somehow none of the other moms in playgroup knew enough Naru to keep her sharp).
“I want this,” she had said in a flat voice that belied the pressure of her fingernails digging into her balled fists.
So here she was, on the crowded express shuttle to Enceladus, breaking the earth’s atmosphere for the first time in over three years. Lena felt a pang of nostalgia along with the pull of gravitational force on her cheeks. Strange how she’d never appreciated the ache of it before.
As soon as the shuttle escaped the bonds of gravity, Lena felt her cares melt away. She unbuckled her straps and floated up to the handholds of the upper level, pressing her nose to the window to watch Earth fading quickly behind her: hot air balloon, beach ball, basketball, tennis ball, marble, a flickering star. Kevin and Shreya and twenty-seven spill-proof cups (all of them the wrong color!), all shrunk to the size of that impossibly small star. Lena wondered, is that really how small her world had become?
Her attention drifted through the shuttle cabin, meandering through the hum of conversations.
“Wǒ de érzi…”
“Wǒ de nǚ'ér…”
“...lamenta o dia todo!”
“Serves me right for procrastinating.”
For the journey, passengers put aside the fact that they were adversaries, vying most likely for the same few hundred toys. For a few hours, they were comrades. The lucky ones. The parents. And they were taking their jobs seriously.
Across the aisle, someone pulled out a pouch of wine. Another pouch moved through the cabin as it was passed along from the stern. Lena bit down on the valve as the pouch floated into her hands and she tasted the bitter liquid, tinted with notes of cedarwood and cinnamon and...plum? It didn’t matter. Lena bit down once more and let the flavor spread across her tongue before dutifully passing the pouch to the pudgy blond woman beside her.
The conversations around her began to slow and swirl. Lena opened one of the carabiners on her jacket and clamped it into the handhold. She let the absence of gravity carry her limbs like a current. She stared deep into the stars until her eyes lost focus. How wonderful to escape the weight of the world. Lena was glad she had insisted.
At hyper-speed, the express voyage to Enceladus took five and a half hours—an intense commute, but worthwhile for many earthlings. Enceladus, the icy moon circling Saturn’s E ring, was a commerce center, and its paraterraformed capital of Agrestibus was a gathering place for many varieties of oxygen-fed beings. Lena had made the trip before, and Enceladus Target was one of her favorite places in the galaxy. Freight ships from across Andromeda poured in daily, bringing a steady flow of intragalactic must-haves, and the creature-watching was unparalleled.
Lena woke now to a beam of red light flashing on her retina. When she opened her eyes she saw passengers returning to their seats to strap in for landing. Already! That must have been the longest nap she’d taken in years. Lena paused so briefly to rub the crust from her eyes before doing the same.
Enceladus gleamed like a jewel on the horizon, the green of Agrestibus a conspicuous inclusion on its gleaming white surface. A haze of erupting snow cannons stretched toward Saturn, its swirling colors looming beyond.
Lena looked out her window as they slowed for approach, searching for a glimpse of the universal wayfinding signage she’d helped design once, a lifetime ago, before Shreya’s little pink hand had grasped her pinky. After Shreya, she’d been so content just to stare into that baby’s brown eyes—watch them light up with laughter, widen with the surprise of discovery and narrow into deep trenches of determination. Those eyes had become Lena’s world.
As their small shuttle docked in the outer bubble of Agrestibus, Lena looked into the bigger world once again. She felt her arms tingle with the excitement of it.
A twenty-minute ride in the terrestrial shuttle deposited Lena in front of the largest Target in the known universe. The glowing red bullseye suspended four stories up competed with Saturn for the focal point of the skyline.
The world inside its double automatic doors was almost familiar. It had the same white tile floor, fluorescent lights, and red shopping carts as Earth Targets. Seemingly endless aisles of merchandise were punctuated by colorful endcap displays and tasteful tableaus. Shimmering white Christmas trees, probably carved from the ice boulders outside the bubble, made a wintery wonderland. Beneath their boughs sat a bounty of Target’s hottest gifts, including Talk-To-Me Xeno, Lena noted. She reached out and swiped her hand through the hologram.
A wave of smells hit Lena as she passed the food court—spicy, earthy, salty. The best chefs from around the galaxy were ambassadors for their worlds here at Enceladus Target. She wondered if she had time to pick up some ghorrol. Her mouth watered as she thought of the fluffy fried balls of loshi dough and the way they fizzed and evaporated on the tongue. Like eating a good kiss, she thought.
But one look at the herd of bodies migrating toward the toy section told Lena she had best follow the crowd. Priorities, she reminded herself.
At Housewares, it became too crowded to move another step. Lena was pressed shoulder-to-thorax with a throng of bodies. She trained her lens into the distance and discovered the toy section tied off in lasers, a hologram clock counting down the time until Talk-To-Me Xeno would be available. Three hours and forty-seven minutes. A pouch of ghorrol would have sweetened the wait, but then she would have been a layer further back in the herd. Even now Lena wondered if she had a chance at getting one of the coveted little Togrols.
There was nothing to do but relax into her spot and enjoy the Naru carols playing through the store. It was a hummy language anyway, full of sighs and nasal sounds, and Lena soon found herself humming along. Once she saw a group of actual Naru women wagging their mouthparts in unison and singing along enthusiastically, Lena began to think that three hours may be too short a wait.
The din in Housewares was similar to that on the shuttle:
“He has to learn or else…”
Or else what, Lena wondered? Or else their children ended up earth-bound, never seeing any of this—Saturn’s icy rings reaching out like an explosion, mannequins with tentacles and air bladders and fleshy nose-parts, sporting opaque silvery oxygen hoods and lavender morning jacket overcoats buzzing with families of bioluminescent bacteria.
Added to the loud symphony of human voices (by far the loudest) were guttural rumbles, shrill chirps, and a clucking light as moth wings—more a feeling in the inner ear than an actual sound. Lena wanted to cry, and not from the blisters forming on her feet. The universe was so big! She had been so busy looking into one little face that she’d forgotten.
By the time the clock counted down to two hours and thirteen minutes, Lena found herself in conversations with the parents pressed around her.
“You don’t have the color-morphing sippy cup?”
“Yes, mine does that, too!”
“Yeah, well just wait until three…”
“But we’re so lucky!”
“School? We’re thinking of moving to Finland.”
“Zorg slorp,” a long, fleshy Xid interjected. “Come to our planet. We inject the little ones with knowledge. Much kinder that way.”
Lena smiled and the Xid extended her front leg, offering a pouch of big, ovular flexor beans. Lena relished the gush of salty chlorophyll between her teeth and looked forward once more to the ghorrol. No one made it like Enceladus Target.
A collective murmur shivered through the crowd and Lena was jostled by a surge of bodies. She glanced at the countdown clock. Five minutes. She felt her heartbeat quicken. As she scanned the crowd she observed faces once friendly and open now set in quiet determination—each being its own little world.
Three minutes. Lena braced herself for the forward thrust, a rush of flailing elbows and tentacles. Two minutes. She felt a jab in her back and did not turn to see where it came from lest she miss one minute. Lena locked her lens on the clock and tensed her thighs.
Zero. The lasers evaporated and the hunt was on. Lena leaped over the friendly Xid, whose broad, fleshy head bulldozed its way through a pack of petite Phozedes. She was gaining ground. She felt energized with sleep and giddy with freedom. When was the last time she had moved like this, thrown her body into the fray, no little bones to shelter in her arms? She extended her arms, grabbing on to shoulders and antennae—anything to propel her momentum toward an open space on the white tile floor.
She felt her foot land without being able to see the ground beneath her. She was pressed tight against the hard shell in front of her. “Excuse me,” Lena said to the creature. “Floshsh.”
Lena followed in the wake of the Hezloth’s momentum. “Floshsh. Floshsh,” the Hezloth bellowed as her hard legs parted the crowd, and “Floshsh,” Lena would echo as she followed like a barnacle on the smooth black shell.
They had no formal alliance, but so long as she stayed behind, the Hezloth seemed content enough to let Lena draft. She could see the aisle of Talk-To-Me Xenos with her bare eyes now. Her lens kept an inventory countdown as beings grabbed toys off the shelves.
169, 165, 161…
“Floshsh, floshsh…” and there was a human body pinning Lena to the shell. It was time to escape.
147, 146, 143…
Lena saw an opening on the floor to her right. She lurched backward, dislodging the man behind her enough that she could lunge toward the opening. Lena could feel her body falling and willed herself upright, safe from the herd’s unseeing feet, paws, and claws. Her arms reached blindly for anything to steady herself.
Lena felt her fingers latch around a soft, smooth tentacle that quivered at her grasp. Eyes facing forward, she was surprised to see a Togrol, there in the flesh.
“Sorry,” she slurped. At least she hoped her inflection was correct. She released her grasp as she felt her feet hit the floor.
The Togrol clicked indignantly. Lena imagined it clicking its tongue at her. It? Her? Him? She wasn’t sure. She’d never met a real Togrol before. Her feet followed it as she tried to reel her mind back in.
96, 95, 92…
Lena moved shoulder-to-shoulder with the Togrol as they pushed their ways forward.
87, 56, 39…
Lena’s stomach flipped. She was there. She reached her arm out and felt her fingers connect with number nineteen. She pulled a plush tentacle toward her, but felt resistance. The Togrol—the real Togrol—had also grabbed on to the nineteenth-to-last doll.
Her lens continued to count down—13, 8, 5. It was this one or Lena went home empty handed. There went Christmas. There went her daughter’s future.
She tugged against the Togrol’s firm grip and it tugged back. Behind them, a red-vested Xid activated the laser barrier as a pile of beings clamored over the last Talk-To-Me Xeno. The struggle over nineteen came down to Lena and the Togrol.
How ridiculous, she thought as she pulled—fighting a Togrol for a Togrol doll! What could it want with this? It already spoke the language.
“Why?” Lena clicked. “Why?” She tried to remember the word for daughter, or child. If she could make the Togrol understand…
“Me,” it grunted back. Then in labored English, “Me. My.” Lena noted how it pressed its small, floppy mouth-part awkwardly to form an over-pronounced mmmm.
Well, it was, almost. Lena looked from the Togrol to the plushy, which now seemed a silly caricature, its eyes too wide and hard, its smile imbecilic.
And yet, here was a being that, until last year, may have thought its kind alone in the universe. Someone who had never been to Target, who may not have known what a talking plushy was. An untapped market, they called it. And wasn’t that the point of the Togrols' sudden popularity? For many people it was, though Lena liked to think of her curiosity as more intellectual than commercial. That seemed more pure. More tolerable.
But the experience of that Togrol, in Target, learning English, over-pronouncing ems with maladapted anatomy—it somehow humanized the creature. This wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. Lena looked into the Togrol’s wide black eyes. “You,” she clicked. Her grip loosened. “Yours?”
Her hands returned empty to her sides and her throat ached.
The Togrol did not run off with its loot. It stayed, its eyes locked with Lena’s. The tentacles forming a crown over its head began to stir, as if ruffled by a breeze. Lena watched as the two outermost tentacles began to stretch, longer and longer like snail antennae until they reached Lena’s ears. She felt a whirring through her head as those tentacles cupped her ears. Her body was consumed by the sound of a slurp. She felt like it would suck her inside-out, but she dared not move. Her vision went dark.
Then suddenly she knew. Before her eyes, clear as anything, Lena could see a young woman. She was happy and content. She floated among the stars, her smile beaming like the gentle rays of a distant sun. Lena looked into her eyes. She knew those eyes. They were her world.
“Shreya,” she breathed.
The din of Enceladus Target trickled back into Lena’s ears as the Togrol retracted its tentacles. Lena blinked and the vision faded. She saw the empty shelves, the tile floor, the Togrol. “Thank you,” she slurped.
“Thank you,” the Togrol slurped back, correcting Lena’s inflection.
“Thank you,” Lena repeated back, more satisfied with her effort.
The Togrol turned toward the end of the aisle, cradling the last Talk-To-Me Xeno in its arms. Lena stood transfixed. She considered her next step and her feet traveled automatically to the food court.
What would Kevin say about her failure? Would she get to be the one to escape next time? What would he have done in that situation?
Maybe not a failure. It was a stupidly underpowered toy, anyway, Lena realized. That’s what she’d tell Kevin. Had the product developer even really spoken with a Togrol the way she had? Did humans understand how they communicated?
Lena had more than two hours until the express shuttle departed for Earth. Two hours and four floors of satisfying and stimulating gifts to pursue. She had leisure. And didn’t Shreya turn out fine in the end? She remembered those radiant eyes.
That vision stayed with Lena as the ephemeral balls of ghorrol evaporated on her tongue. It allowed her to linger over her sour flaberberry tea. From her food court table, she watched the beings clutching their pouches as they moved through the check-out, some expansive and triumphant, some slumped with the exhaustion of a fruitless effort. She hummed along with the Naru carol.
Lena’s world was small, but the universe was so vast, and for now she was part of it.