I was midway through a series of concept sketches when Chuchuko popped out of my drafting table with a high-pitched dojyan. “Ohay?gozai-nezu, Otsuji Yuko!” chirped the RariJump mascot. “You have two guests waiting in the president’s office. Your presence is requested immediately! Otsukaresama deshita!” With that, the hot pink mouse swan-dove back into my table, rippling my sketches like reflections on water.
Guests? I didn’t get guests. I didn’t want guests. But I would get yelled at if I didn’t show up in five minutes.
I holstered my plastiq stylus and saved my work; belatedly I noticed the horrors that had snuck into my doodles yet again. Skulking among studies of a book-loving omu-raisu were disemboweled teddy-bears and headless kittens. The art of kawaii was surgery, taking ordinary things and amputating what was sharp and hard and ugly, injecting them with fluff like a botox treatment; these were botched patients I couldn’t remember cutting, more kowaii than kawaii.
Instead of SAVE I hit TRASH. Yet another file of morbid crap onto a heap eight months tall. You weren’t going to be anything anyway, Chappu-chan. We both knew that.
I headed for the president’s suite, confident that this was going to be nonsense.
The offices of RariJump Kawaii Company occupied the outermost ring of Cooperation Tower, some eleven million stories outwise from the face of the moon. From the window that was our whole southern wall you could spend a lunch watching Visitors arrive at the General Port a microscopic thirty stories outwise, via space-crunch and fusion catapult and asteroid barge. Our location was worth the rent as high as a small GDP: looking in, they’d see our most famous characters parading from left to right across the glass, welcoming friends from afar to our humble space elevator. We were never more than a presh-reg glitch away from a critical decompression, but a good first impression was a first stab in an industry as murderous as cuteness.
Guests. Plural, and how perfectly ominous. My mother and sister maybe, to confirm that I was still alive. More likely, HR here to politely fire me. It would be about time.
“Come in, please,” said President Abioye Okabe at the sound of my knock. I found him at his sequoia trunk desk, its polished stump littered with bobble-head Moto-Shiba-kun’s and beanie-bodied Giving You Song’s and other RariJump top-selling characters.
“Take a seat, Otsuji-san,” he said, smiling broadly. He waved me over to the emptier of two chairs. The other contained a stranger, a plain man of silvering hair. His armband bore the emblem of two clasped hands. He glanced at me once and returned to not seeing me.
“This is Mister Sauerbrey,” Okabe said, “from the Cooperative. He’ll be moderating as needed. And these—” he gestured to the other two guests, “—are Lovely Vanilla-san and Chocolate Tiger-san.”
I didn’t sit just yet. Standing to either side of him were two Visitors like I’d never seen.
They were of the same xenospecies, erectomorphs like us humans but much taller; I was a sixth less than Okabe’s six-one, and they towered over him. They possessed digitated fingers, though wrongly jointed, and their faces were reminiscent of Homo sapiens in the way that tigers are reminiscent of cats. Too-huge eyes, thickly lashed, lips painted on. Rubbery cables of something approximating hair were tied into rainbow-dyed twintails on one and a bubblegum princess cut on the other. One had skin of eggnog, the other cookies-and-cream, and nearly every inch was flyered in character stickers; I recognized more than a few RariJump products among them.
My eyes burned at the brightness of them. They were dressed in the fashion of human Decora Girls: frilly skirts and blazers fit for a different phylum, clashing legwarmers puddled around their shins, each finger ending in a fifteen-centimeter false nail painted pink and blue and polka dot. I might have been offended at the blatant cultural appropriation were the aesthetic not so unnervingly inapplicable. What would have been cloying on a Japanese teenager was on them as good as a ribbon around a centipede.
Toikitti, I realized after a bamboozled lag. The rarest of Visitors to Cooperation Tower.
<(:D)(´?`)(^-^)(?)?> the one on the left said.
<(:D)( (/???)/)(<=3)> the other replied, seeming to concur, and both laughed in sync. Less like people, more like hyenas.
“Please excuse me, Okabe-san,” I said, still hovering by the door. “But what exactly is going on?”
The president beamed like a solar flare. “Otsuji-san, do you remember Goodnight Smile?”
“Yes, of course,” I answered warily. Goodnight Smile had been one of my bigger successes. My sleepy reindeer with her omnipresent sleep mask had appeared on a few decently-selling lines of bedtime supplies, but that was about it.
It was also my last success since Eiichiro had gone away.
Okabe could hardly contain his excitement. “Then you will be overjoyed to know that our guests here have just put it an order for two million pairs of your Goodnight Smile house slippers.”
I looked back and forth between the twin Toikitti. The rightmost grinned; its teeth were small and uniformly sharp, like the tines of a comb.
“I am very confused.”
He shrugged and motioned for the Visitors to explain.
They crossed the room and backed me up against the door. The tang of port-issued disinfectant was overpowering; they must have docked within the hour. <(->)(:DDD)(Q-Q)(->)(T3T)( _(._.)_)(>)> the leftmost, Lovely Vanilla, chittered. As the emotograms left her tongue, the tower’s AmBab snatched them and reorganized them into something intelligible to the human brain.
“We are honored to finally meet you. It is a human custom to shake hands in order to express appreciation, yes? May I do so?”
“By all means,” I said, and found my hand swallowed by their spidery paw. Their flesh was textured like a lollipop, with subtle seams between joints. Mechanisms revolved on tracks around their heart-shaped irises.
“We are the biggest fans of Goodnight Smile,” the other, Chocolate Tiger, eagerly explained. “See?” They parted their hair-analogue to show me the slipper hung from her chiropteran ear-analogue. “We love all of your characters, but Goodnight Smile is our favorite.”
“Extremely yes!” Lovely Vanilla agreed, still pumping my arm. “She is ‘Super Kawaii!’”
I looked to the president for help.
“Our guests have a special request for us,” he said. “One that I have agreed to fulfill, in light of their exceedingly generous purchase.”
“You mean that I will fulfill,” I replied, putting two and two together.
“Just so,” he said, pleased to have me on the same page. “Beginning tomorrow your priority assignment is to design a spaceship.” His tone narrowed to a point. “You weren’t doing much anyway.”
I returned to my apartment forty floors moonwise in the Residence Block to find a message from my mother waiting to ambush me. I let the apartment read it off as I changed clothes and watered the cat. “Yuko-chan. I hope you will call me when you get this message. Yukiko and I are worrying ourselves to death over you. We know you are hurting, and we want to help make it better. Please, call me. Love you, Your Mother.”
More of the same then. Delete message. That was one of the secret perks of living in the middle of a space elevator on the moon. Moonwise or outwise, everyone was far way.
Design a spaceship. I hid from the new assignment in the shower, where the hot water helped defrost my icy guts. It must have sounded so simple to Okabe-san, from whom everything got done via inter-office memo. No no no, he’d chuckled, don’t worry about the hardware of it. All they want is the aesthetic. As if that were appreciably easier for me.
With my mauve-dipped hair in a towel turban I came to sit on the edge of my bed. Eight months later and my husband’s shape was still imprinted into the mattress. I swept my hand through that crater, hoping against impossibility to scoop up some dreg of his warmth. But no, nothing.
My apologies, Okabe-san. It was hard to see the world in pastel colors with an open wound in your bed.
I retrieved my pants and turned out my pockets; a glossy black business card dropped into my palm. The man from the Cooperative had remained silent throughout the meeting but had smuggled this into my hand as we’d shook our farewells.
I brushed my thumb along the icon of two clasped hands and hissed at a nip of static. I dropped the card as a thread of blue light lanced from its center. I scrambled for a T-shirt to throw on as that thread dilated into a window in AUGer space. If only I’d bowed like a more stereotypical Japanese, I thought. I’d have saved myself this imminent trouble.
“You want me to be a spy.”
“The official term is Voluntary Xenological Informant,” Sauerbrey said. “But basically yes.”
His light-knit simulacra hovered a foot above the fallen card. This rendition made the government man no less unremarkable. If bureaucracy had a mascot character, he was it.
“I refuse. Please leave me alone.”
“Hear me out. This is a matter of Security and Advancement. Of all those Visitor species known to us, the Toikitti are the most obscure. We view your situation as an opportunity to further Human-Alien Cooperation.”
Ah, yes, Cooperation. The cultural doctrine that had seen humanity through a universe older and smarter and tougher than us. It hadn’t taken long after first contact, when our fleet of quaint little warships came up against the Hanrit species like a bird against a glass door, for war to start showing diminishing returns. As much as we loved it like an old sweatshirt from college, we had to let it go. From the rubble of outmoded nation-tribes arose the One Earth United Government and Cooperation Tower, a neutral agora facilitating commerce and cultural exchange between Visitors in the furtherance of intergalactic good will. And if we happened to pick up whatever exotech they didn’t keep a close eye on, well, who got hurt?
“If we want to Cooperate we need common understanding,” Sauerbrey went on, “and these bastards are a big sparkly question mark. We’ve established a Minimum Tolerance Basis with them but beyond that, we don’t know where they’re from, we don’t know how they reproduce, and we don’t know what makes their ships work better than ours. About all we do know is that they go nuts over our cute crap.”
“The official term is kawaii,” I shot back, a little offended. “It’s different. And it’s not crap.”
“Whatever, sorry. All we need is for you to record your interactions with them. Give us more observations to work with than what we’ve got. We’ll be providing you the necessary equipment.”
“I’m not hearing anything about a carrot here,” I said, folding my arms.
“I’ll do you one better,” Sauerbrey replied, his gray voice suddenly going ice-blue. “Here’s a stick. If you choose not to comply, as is your right, the Cooperative might decide that this highly in-demand apartment here would better serve a citizen with a higher Utility Score. Apropos of nothing, your boss tells me you’re in something of a slump. I’m sorry to hear that.”
I bit the inside of my cheek until I tasted blood. “Fine.” Losing my home meant losing my job. I’d plummet as hard into my old room at my mother’s place in Nowhere Prefecture as if I’d fallen there from all the way up here. I told you, Yuko-chan, she’d say. You go to live with the aliens (using the Cooperative-discouraged slur) you wind up broke with a probe up your backside.
But worse than saying I told you so, she’d pity me.
That I could not stand.
“Excellent.” Sauerbrey’s lips twitched into the bare minimum of a smile. “You’ll receive what you need via GoPak within the hour. Have a good evening, Miss Otsuji. Best of luck.”
Eight AM Lunar Time at the General Port, and already as bustling as a souq in Marrakech. The arrival platforms beneath the docks had been adapted into an informal marketplace where you could go to brunch on tempura-fried hellprawn from Picaresque-8 and sip espresso with an Irhuz hotel princess on holiday, where a hayseed Ÿhh could squander xeir hard-earned vertebrae on Earthly tchotchkes and gewgaws. Everywhere you looked was glorious Cooperation. Human and Visitor working together to hawk interplanetary fusion cuisine and exchange nervous First Encounters in pay-by-the-minute love hotels, discovering new points of commonality and making one another better. I may not have liked Sauerbrey, but I believed in his cause.
The Toikitti and I rode a cramped lift outwise to the docks overhead, where ships exiting the Custom’s Belt were parked—whales and leviathans of exotech like eldritch fossils hung in a museum. I gripped the safety railing, and grappled with the instinct to keep the Toikitti in view at all times. Chocolate Tiger at least seemed interested in the task at hand. Lovely Vanilla, on the other hand, was live-streaming the whole thing.
“The Otsuji Yuko wants to see our ship,” she was saying to the phone screen implanted into the palm of her augmented hand. “We can’t wait to show her. Let’s watch!”
“Which one’s yours?” I asked, squinting at the parade of miles-long spacecraft.
“There,” Chocolate Tiger replied brightly, aiming a candy-cane-striped claw. “Berth 844.”
I don’t know what I’d expected, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Toikitti ship was a poof ball the size of a hockey rink hanging in its berthing grips like a claw machine prize. I pulled the lift in close to run my hand along it and found that its hull was furred and yielding. Heat washed across my palm in waves—the ship had a pulse. Like the Toikitti themselves, a slurry of flesh and tech. I moved back for a wider angle; it had a face as well, six beady eyes and a gormless, catlike smile.
“Isn’t she adorable?” Chocolate Tiger swooned. “Her name is (?•?•?)(*´?`*).” This was translated to me as Walk-along Friend.
“We love her very much, but she is getting old,” Lovely Vanilla added sadly. Not to me, but to her audience lightyears away. Exactly two seconds of tears streamed from her eyes. “We need to retire her soon.”
“She is still cute though,” Chocolate Tiger said.
“That’s what you consider kawaii then?”
Both Toikitti nodded vigorously, jangling their necklaces of charms and keychains. “Very much yes,” Chocolate Tiger said earnestly. “It is important that one’s ship be kawaii. You will be looked down on if it isn’t. If you are not kawaii, you will be looked down upon.”
“But don’t worry, Otsuji Yuko,” Lovely Vanilla chimed in. “You are super kawaii.”
Why they thought that, I couldn’t say. Outside of work I was in jeans and a T-shirt. I wore my hair in the fastest ponytail possible. But never mind their nonsense—I gnawed my thumb to help mute their giggling and thought.
Kawaii came from the basement of the brain, where outgrown instincts still skittered around like silverfish. Kawaii was the innocence of infants, their soft-bellied vulnerability, the urge it envenomed us with to adore and die for them, distilled into an adjective and spritzed on absolutely anything. My company produced everything from Cocoa Kuma Squeeze Pudding to Sanny the Moon Rabbit toilet seat covers. Kawaii was anything that made us want to crush it against our heart and feed it treats. But I did not feel that from the Toikitti ship, and I couldn’t say why.
Chocolate Tiger cocked their head. “Is that all you needed to see, Otsuji Yuko?”
“No, not quite,” I said at last. “We humans have a certain conception of what constitutes kawaii, and you have yours. There seems to be some overlap, but I don’t believe they line up perfectly. If I’m going to do this right, I need to understand what kawaii means to you.”
The Toikitti glanced at one another, conferring on a wavelength beyond my perception. “We understand,” they said in unison. “We will do everything we can to make your vision a cute reality.”
As disconcerting as they were, so verging on human but so far from it, their enthusiasm at least was genuine. Best case, your career takes an Olympic leap forward, I told myself. They make you a Champion of Cooperation.
Worst case, you still get fired and career falls apart. Okabe hadn’t put it in those words but that was the easy translation. Two million pairs of house slippers would keep him happy right up until I failed to do it again. This was my unspoken last chance.
“Great,” I said, knocking back a big gulp of dread. “Let’s get to work, I guess.”
“Yes,” Ichrii primly agreed. “But first! As is tradition, a selfie.”
They struck together, quick as mantises, clamping me in between the two of them with Chocolate Tiger’s claws cradling the small of my back. Lovely Vanilla extended her arm and flattened her hand; the phone screen on her palm showed me that I looked as baffled as I felt.
“Big smile!” Lovely Vanilla chirruped, and despite myself, I did.
The tool of the scientist was a microscope. The tool of an anthropologist was a shovel. The tool of the character designer pretending to be an anthropologist was liquor.
“Is this cute?” I asked, raising my voice over the clomping computer music, and placed on our table a miniature plastiq teapot with a dopey sloth face on one side. Chamakemono-san, not our most popular character, but up there.
The Toikitti bent and examined it with eyes squinted exaggeratedly.
“Yes,” Chocolate Tiger said with an air of great deliberation. “He is kawaii.”
“But,” Lovely Vanilla cut in dramatically, “Not super kawaii.”
“He looks soft,” Chocolate Tiger agreed, swaying slightly. “Soft is cute. But this little fellow is blue and hard.”
“I see.” I made a note of that in my AUGer-space notepad. I also updated my tally of how many drinks they’d had so far. It had taken ten of the Oort Lounge’s foofiest cocktails to get them tipsy. In that time, however, I had determined that they were lovers, though in a more professional sense than I could wrap my preconceptions around. Similarly, they were resistant to being labeled male or female; they simply couldn’t translate the concepts into terms they understood. I’d learned also that their hominid silhouette was a recent fad kick-started by our first contact, that they were naturally more sphecoid. Their dress, their speech patterns, their very physiology, all an emulation of what they found most adorable in humanity.
I’d asked before drink one what kawaii meant to them, but they weren’t quite able to say. The tower’s Ambient Babel System had fumbled with their answers, given me gibberish. For that at least they were apologetic. We’d have to hash it out the hard way.
“All of these human drinks are super delicious,” Lovely Vanilla said to her hand, still narrating to her followers. She rattled the dregs of her Galatea Sunrise. “Maybe Otsuji Yuko will let us have another!”
“Yes, that would be wonderful,” Chocolate Tiger chimed in. “With more strawberries please.”
“You two are going to drink my bonus before I even get it.” I rolled my eyes and pinged for the waitress to slither back around. This nightclub too was Cooperation at work. If we couldn’t defeat the universe we’d lure it inside us with good food and new sex and subsume it. Seven decades ago the Hanrit had held a gun to the Earth’s temple to make us stay down. These days they were running drinks and working for tips like the rest of us. Please, tell me again how we lost that war.
I waited until the Toikitti were happily nursing their curly straws before bringing out the next subject. “Next up we have Shutoko-chan,” I said, sliding the figma carefully out of its box. “What’s your hot take on her?”
Shutoko-chan was the protagonist of Rocket Star Gatling Girls, a popular anime from a few years back. By day she attended Zen’n? Academy with her friends, and at night they henshin’d into Calibre Witches to fight the forces of InvaDark. As a toy her head was bigger than her body, her hair curling into drills and to help prop her up. In one hand she brandished La Justice Gatling, the gun that could purify evil at six-thousand rounds a minute. It was safe to say to say the Toikitti appreciated softness; I wanted to see how they responded to something with more of an edge.
The two of them stared at her for a good long while, their pupils flexing into acute and obtuse polygons. I watched their lips recoil from inky gums, unsheathing those wire-cutting teeth.
“Not cute,” Lovely Vanilla said revoltedly. Their pupils settled into affronted slits.
I hadn’t expected such a sanguine reaction. “Why is that?”
“This,” Chocolate Tiger said, prodding Shutoko’s magical machine gun like I would a live cockroach. “A weapon is not kawaii.” They took the figma between two claws and tugged on her gun with two more until the piece of sculpted plastiq snapped. Their expression grew instantly sunnier. “There,” she said, relieved. “That is much better. I like her now.”
The lens in my left eye spasmed, swallowing video. Sauerbrey, you peeping tom. “You don’t think danger is cute?” I asked, drumming notes into my notepad. “As it happens, a lot of people like this character. They’d say the gun is part of her charm. It accentuates her innocence.”
Lovely Vanilla furiously shook their head.
“But why is that?” I persisted, equally fascinated as frustrated.
Chocolate Tiger made a motion like a shrug but one too rehearsed to be anything but mimicry, a gesture understood academically but not emotionally. “Can a solution easily study the equation that produced it?”
That hit me like a slap across the jaw. Until now I’d had them pegged as vapid and flighty as cats.
“Especially a solution as complex as a person,” they went on. “We Toikitti are very clever, but we are still the product of unobservable chemistry, like you. Through technology we can reconfigure our bodies, but we can only guess how they were configured a million years ago. The same is true for how we think, wouldn’t you say, Otsuji Yuko?”
“All we know is what we like,” Lovely Vanilla blithely agreed. “Why worry about it?”
“We are familiar with your species’ propensity for introspection,” Chocolate Tiger said. “We have always found it quite adorable. Do you know why you are that way?”
“Not really,” I said, backed into a rhetorical corner.
“Then what good has your worrying done you?” they triumphantly replied. “Your worst predator is doubt. A thing unborn is already dead. Would you not agree?”
“I think I’m not as drunk as I should be,” I groused.
I dialed up a sh?ch? for myself and while we waited for the neon-flushed dark to deliver it I presented the next subject: about two tons of synthetic cotton crammed into an eight-inch amigurumi corgi doll. Lovely Vanilla and Chocolate Tiger gushed like a couple of broken dams.
I came home late to find my husband had called. My heart leapt and then slammed itself against the floor of my chest when I saw he hadn’t also left a message.
He had left divorce papers though.
They hovered in my apartment’s AUGer space, alongside my morning alarms and shopping lists, revolving slowly and blinking red for attention. Would you like to autosign? My apartment asked. Y/N?
I clenched and unclenched my hands to break the ice in my veins. This was it then. I’d waited, dreaded, for so long I’d begun to think it would never happen. But this was really it.
Somehow, I’d hoped he’d—
No. I don’t know what I’d hoped. Every little girl was entitled to their one prince, but they were stupid to think he’ll come back.
Would you like to autosign? Y/N.
I ran the documents through the apartment’s on-board lawyer. No chicanery, no buried snare clauses. He didn’t want to play games. Just a clean break. From me.
Would you like to autosign? Y/N.
The papers turned green and disappeared out of the reach of second thoughts.
I held my breath five, ten, thirty seconds, then let it go. I’d hoped to feel some catharsis, but no. Nothing changed from one moment to the next. My brain knew it was over now, oh sure, but my heart still hoped in the face of finality that he would call again.
I sat down on the kitchen floor and cried until Sauerbrey called.
The apartment answered on its own. Secret powers of the Cooperative, I supposed. “That was good work today, Mrs. Otsuji,” Sauerbrey said. Just voice, no visuals, and thankfully so. “We were hoping you could take a stab at getting on their ship next. We want to see how they behave where we don’t have cameras.”
“Whatever, fine.” Who knew how I’d do that, I just wanted him to go away.
“Once again your cooperation is appreciated.”
“Please, respectfully, leave me alone.”
A long silence on the other end. I thought maybe he’d come back swinging his golden government scepter around telling me to watch my plebian tongue, but he simply said, “I hope you have a better night, Mrs. Otsuji,” and hung up.
Well. Still an asshole, but maybe I’d overestimated his circumference.
I cleaned myself up, got ready for bed. Emily was at my AUGer-space window patrolling for simulated neighbor cats, so I pulled my large-size plush Goodnight Smile down from the bookcase and crawled into my gone husband’s blast radius with her. I love you, I whispered into her ear, crushing her to my chest until her antlers squelched like pseudopodia, as the night wound tight around the spindle of Cooperation Tower. She’d sit and gather a year of dust before she left me. She never could, with her swollen head and endearingly amputated legs. Cute things were better than real things sometimes. With their claws and teeth surgically extracted, all they could do was smile at you. Without bones, they could fit into any cavity you needed filled.
My baby, I tell her in my thoughts. You were the last beautiful thing I brought into the world.
But not the last thing.
Over the next few evenings I took the Toikitti out for more surveys and considerably more drinks. It continued to infuriate me that they couldn’t articulate their own tastes despite recognizing them so intuitively. I could only chalk it up to a differently wired switchboard of instinctual priorities. The Toikitti seemed to lack the existential angst that compelled humans to vivisect themselves down to the Id, to scrape at their own excavated trauma like a mysterious bone. They knew that they enjoyed bright and clashing colors but had little wonder why that was. Why bother, when this little human was feeding them new and increasingly gooey desserts on a conveyer belt?
In the end it wasn’t necessary for the job, but that was the fundamental difference between our species: humanity was curious, and they were hungry.
On our fifth night out, they asked to go dancing at the Mare Nectaris Club. I wasn’t much for that myself anymore, but I was content to observe them from our booth. They abandoned themselves in that music, so alien to them. I envied their absolute self-certainty. They savored each new moment they came upon with no wondering why or if they should. One hand taking what it wanted, the other somehow not knocking it away.
“Dance with us,” they beckoned, bobbing in that dimmed gravity. But I could think of no song that would not make a fool of me.
So I kept drinking.
By the time we stumbled into the alley I’d had eight shotbulbs of Knaipurish toad-wine and was feeling like an infant in a universe made of blanket. Part of that had been the Toikitti egging me on; part of it had been my need to slip a mitten on my heart.
“Ref just called time, ladies or gents,” I said, teetering towards the curb outside the club, where a GoPak was waiting in standby hover to box me up and ship me home. Normally it’d be an easy fall but trying to navigate a busy Directed Gravity Corridor whilst utterly sloshed was a hairier prospect. “You two have a safe hike home. Try not to get mugged by one guy sitting on another guy’s shoulders.”
“Actually, we were wondering if you would like to come home with us,” Lovely Vanilla said.
“Now that we are such good friends,” Chocolate Tiger said, “we thought it would be fun to engage in a consensual sexual encounter together.”
That took a minute to paddle the length of my booze-basted brain.
“You mean you want to—”
The two nodded excitedly and on the same axel.
“We think you are kawaii, Otsuji Yuko,” Chocolate Tiger said, outlining a heart with her fingers.
“Super kawaii,” Lovely Vanilla added.
I glanced between the two, trying to figure out how that would even get started without a step ladder available. “Is… is that even possible?”
“Oh certainly,” Chocolate Tiger said. “Toikitti are an eight on your Veittman Scale of Xeno-Pudendal Interoperability. Our genitalia and yours are highly compatible.”
“Otsuji Yuko does not think we have done our research,” Lovely Vanilla said to the audience in her hand.
“Does that line work on all the ladies?” You always heard about this sort of thing—alluringly tentacled Visitor sex-tourists whisking your hominid-ass away for a night of psychedelic interstellar Diplomacy, but I never thought it would happen to me. I looked Lovely Vanilla up and down, and they swayed their hips as if to flaunt what they were offering. I conceded that they at least had the correct curves in the correct locations. I was more curious than aroused, but I was very curious.
And it had been a long time since I’d been with someone.
“Alright, sure, why not,” I finally said. I was in that Goldilocks Zone of inebriation where I was prone to make bad decisions but sober enough to be cool with it. And was it not, after all, my duty to go where no woman had gone before? Gosh, how could a self-respecting spy not jump at the chance. “Just take me there before I smarten up.”
The Toikitti smiled and took me by either hand. They and the swarm of butterflies in my stomach carried me the way back to their ship, where I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of them was their equivalent of male after all.
It was good. It was fun. It was weird, but fun.
And even though it shouldn’t have, it felt like cheating on Eiichiro.
It was terror that woke me up. As the alcohol drained out of my system the understanding that I was alone on a Visitor’s spaceship skyhooked me into reality. I shot up, heart plinking my ribs like piano keys. But the Toikitti were curled up on the bed beside me, harmless as kittens. Fear of the unknown cooled slowly into wonder at it.
I’m in their ship.
Careful not to rouse them, I crawled out of bed to do some espionage in the light of sobriety.
The ship’s interior surface was as warm and spongy as the inside of my lip. It sucked fetishistically at my toes as I navigated by the room. Toikitti décor was as gaudy as their fashion; plushies lay in random heaps or hung in arrangements that meant nothing to me. I could feel the camera in my eye palpitating anxiously as the government transmuted vision into intel.
In an alcove like a canker sore I found a little Goodnight Smile alarm clock, a bit of deliberately archaic kitsch that hadn’t caught on. Yet here she was, enshrined by visitors from lightyears away. They really do love her, don’t they? I smiled to myself. Who didn’t want to see their kids do well?
I’d wanted to give her brothers and sisters. A character designer couldn’t retire on one success—I didn’t want to get edited out of history like the guy who first drew Mickey Mouse and whose name wasn’t Disney. But in eight months I hadn’t come close; every attempt had died in conception. Sperm wasted on a thigh. Whenever pen touched paper my sketches inevitably disemboweled themselves. Things meant to be cute came out monstrous, botched by my knife.
“You are distressed, Otsuji Yuko. What’s the matter?”
I turned, startled. The Toikitti was a bare tree on a moonlit field. I only knew it was Chocolate Tiger by the lay of their hair. Beneath their clothes they were as sexless as a wasp, their tech-blended thorax contoured but not endowed.
“I’m fine,” I said, returning the clock to its place. “I should be getting home actually. I’ve got a cat to feed.”
“You can’t lie. I am listening to your pulse, not your lips.” Chocolate Tiger’s claws alighted upon my shoulder. “You can give some of your hurt to me. That is the purpose of friends.”
I hadn’t been touched that way in a long time. But their skin was like hard candy, not the velvet my body craved when sober.
“Like I’d tell you,” I said. “How would you even know what I was on about? You’re not human.”
“Do you think us incapable of empathy, Otsuji Yuko?” Away from the public eye their voice had lost that affected mewl I found so grating. “My species can feel pain as well.”
“Do humans always understand other humans?”
“No,” I admitted, feeling like dirt.
I thought of my mother, calling every other day to make sure I wasn’t dead.
“Do you know what a husband is?” I asked. “I used to have one of those.”
I told them the story of Eiichiro and me. I did leave out a fair bit of chaff; like most romances, our love was only unique to us. I’d just transferred from the RariJump office down in Old Tokyo; he was a xenobotanist for the Cooperative working to make sure Earth didn’t get overgrown by some innocuous alien shrub. We’d met online, when he DM’d me to tell me the flower I most reminded him of was the Knaipurish Ice Rose. I’d had no idea what that was, so of course I had to let him explain over tea. Good times followed. Ordinary, but many, and ours.
“A while into it we’d decided we wanted a baby,” I said. Well, I decided, because I was the one who needed convincing. And he’d convinced me good, got me invested deep in all that poesy about the miracle of childbirth.
I told them the story of why he was gone now, pulling it out of me hand over hand. Living on the ‘Tower you consented to a checklist of risks. Most of them microscopic, invisible, like gamma rays, like disease. You couldn’t keep a place like this perfectly sterile. Visitors came in basted in the toxic gases they respirated. They arrived carrying parasites and viroids, sweating natural carcinogens and doling out STD’s. Your immune system was a gutter and every radioactive star in the universe was taking lightspeed potshots at your DNA. They warned me about all that when I applied, but all I cared about was getting off the same old planet as everybody else.
“He came out… wrong,” I managed. But how could they know what that meant, what an incorrect human looked like. The Toikitti had told me how they grew from anonymous hundreds of larva oviposited in the fat of other animals. They wouldn’t understand the horror of feeling keratin scales scraping out of you, of seeing your child’s everted eyes glistening red like licked lips.
He never cried. He’d died before he’d been born. There in my hospital bed, as I regurgitated his corpse inch by bloody inch, I swallowed the name he would have had so that I could scream.
Eiichiro left as soon as I could take care of myself again. He said it was him, not me, but that was a lie. The Ice Rose gave seeds of cubic crystal carbon, every one of them a perfect diamond. Eiichiro left because I was not his flower anymore.
“I used to love my job,” I said. “I, I made things. I got to manufacture smiles. My job was to make people happy. I mean I wasn’t the best, but people really did love my characters. I felt so lucky, so talented. I’d think of all the little girls on Earth going to bed feeling safe because they had a stuffed Goodnight Smile in their arms. I’d see a little kid drinking juice out of a Goodnight Smile sippy cup, and I’d just—” My voice broke there. Could only take so hard a beating.
“When Eiichiro left he took all that with him.”
I went to sit at the foot of the bed. Ichrii had woken and was listening quietly. I did not feel any better than before. I only felt inside-out.
“I can’t design your ship for you,” I said, eyes in my hands, holding the tears in. “I’m sorry. There’s just nothing good left in me. I don’t know how to make cute things anymore. I wouldn’t have had my baby if I’d known that first.”
I told them all that, and they soaked it up like fresh sponges. They crawled to me and laid their hands upon me, webs of pulsing warmth. They were bereft of context, I realized. Not cluttered with preconceptions. They couldn’t judge, make me into something I wasn’t. They did not understand enough to let my tragedy shrink me in their eyes. They were with me in that dark place, not above me looking down. They cared, and nothing else.
“Your doubt is your worst predator,” Chocolate Tiger chided. “You have made people so happy, Otsuji Yuko. So many like us, that you will never meet. We know you will again. You are kawaii, and so kawaii must come from you. It is simple logic.”
“I don’t think it works that way,” I said, but with a hiccupping laugh.
“Of course it does,” Lovely Vanilla replied dismissively. “Your ship will make the universe gasp in awe. We are without doubt. Everything is cute to someone. Be sad that you lost your child. But be happy you can still make another.”
“Remember Goodnight Smile’s favorite saying.” Chocolate Tiger made antlers of her fingers. “It is printed on her tag. Ashita wa mi kaif? no okurimonodesu. Tomorrow is an unopened gift.”
As the simulated sun climbed out of the simulated sea outside my bedroom window, I poured over the video I’d recovered from the Toikitti ship. Getting them back from Sauerbrey hadn’t been hard. Yes, they were government assets now, but it wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen them once already.
“I got on the ship like you wanted, didn’t I?” I’d argued. “You know what I had to do to make that happen?”
“Yes,” he’d replied, itchingly uncomfortable. “Yes, we know.”
“Then I want my carrot already. Come on, it’s five seconds out of your day.”
I’d developed an idea of what the ship needed to be, though not much more than a quilt of their individual tastes, and lacking a face. It would have to have a face like Walk-along Friend, for their ships were family as close as cousins. The Toikitti had made that clear. And I had to do this right for them.
It hadn’t caught my eye at the time but had lodged itself in my subconscious like a bee sting. Hidden in the scrimshawry of their furniture, in the embroidery of their rugs and pillows, a tessellated motif. It was like a football, but with two buds—perhaps ears?—and curling flanges that could be tusks or tentacles. It was everywhere in the parts of the ship I’d had access to, if you knew to look for it.
My job was done with a scalpel, not a hammer. You could turn out someone’s pockets with a whap of blunt appeal to the brain, but real kawaii was an emergent property of a mindful arrangement of elements. This shape was the smallest particle of their ship’s aesthetic. My instincts told me it was therefore the most important.
“Ah!” Chocolate Tiger exclaimed when I brought it up at our date at the Comet Tail Diner later that afternoon. She began to bounce with excitement. “Yes, I’m glad you noticed. That is an animal from our homeworld.”
Lovely Vanilla had ordered themselves a whole strawberry shortcake and currently wore half as a beard. “It is called a <(???)(>–<)(>:3)>,” they said, which the tower translated to me as ‘Jelly Fox.’
All I had was coffee, which the Toikitti wouldn’t so much as sniff without a half-gallon of creamer. “What, are they cute or something?”
The Toikitti replied out of the same throat. “Oh yes. Extremely cute!”
I was able to put it together that the jelly fox was to the Toikitti what the panda or the kitten was to us: something universally adored, a kawaii Rosetta Stone. The black-eyed artist in me smelled material.
“I’d like to see one,” I told them. “Could help with the ship.”
“Certainly.” Chocolate Tiger chirped. “We shall have one delivered immediately. You will have anything you require—”
“Wait, no,” I hurriedly cut in. “I don’t need a live one. Video would do fine.”
“Nonsense,” Lovely Vanilla insisted. “The expense is no matter. Now please, let us have more cake.”
That expense is a matter to me. But I let it go. They were going to do what they were going to do. “Alright,” I said. “But I’m not going to get stuck taking care of it.”
“Don’t worry,” Chocolate Tiger grinned. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”
I was turning the corner towards the DGC home when a man coming the other way stopped in place to gawp at me.
I froze from the gut outwards. My husband stood an arm’s length away, the bookbag I’d bought him for his birthday slung across his hip, his glasses sliding off his nose just as they always had.
My heart leapt out of my chest to get at him. I could suddenly taste our last kiss as if it had only been moments ago. I remembered how we’d come together on the dance floor at the Mare Nectaris Club; they’d turned the gravity all the way off for that last song, but in his arms I’d never felt surer in my place in the universe.
Then I looked at his face and saw that he already regretted calling my name. In the reflection in his glasses I could see the black ghost of our child clinging to my belly. Some part of me reached for him and, he flinched away as if from a leper.
“I’m late,” he said, an excuse I hadn’t asked for, and hurried past me.
It hurt like being killed a second time. My thoughts swelled with stillborn things I could have said, should have said. In the dreamlike edges of my vision crawled caterpillars of chained torsos, halved kittens and hemorrhaging figma. Of course he ran away—he always could see through me, and he knew I’d gone bad to the marrow.
With an exertion of will I choked down those brilliant, useless words. I blinked my eyes until I’d shooed away all the ugly things infesting my head. I know you hurt too, Eiichiro. He was both of ours, and you had a name for him as well. I’m the receipt for what you lost.
I ground my teeth until sparks flew. But I don’t forgive you.
I will prove you wrong.
It took three weeks for the jelly fox to arrive from wherever the Toikitti requisitioned it from, and another for the Cooperative’s xenobiology team to clear it for interaction at the STF. You didn’t get to bring anything new into the ‘tower without the government invoking its right to Primae Noctis. From what I heard it had involved some intense negotiations, but I suspected that had been Sauerbrey playing hard to get.
I rendezvoused with the Toikitti at the Sterile Inspection Facility some two hundred floors outwise into the administration block. We were required to go through separate multi-stage DeconSec procedures and sign disclaimers agreeing that the Cooperative would not be at fault if this thing ate my face off with its alien enzymes. I showered and signed and jittered in the waiting room.
The STF was a rotunda surrounding a sterile containment unit with an airlock in one side, through which the guards admitted us. The only thing inside was a cardboard Standard Transportation Unit with its lid off.
Lovely Vanilla was live-streaming again. The small space felt overcrowded, knowing how many others were looking on and commenting. “Otsuji Yuko is about to meet a jelly fox for the first time,” she whispered, like she was trying not to spook me. “I am so excited. Could this be true love? Let’s watch!”
It didn’t look at all like a fox. More a blob of white mochi with an oily sheen. It did indeed have two pointed flanges like ears, and four stubby tentacles around its base. There was no mouth I could see, but it did have two huge, watery, and admittedly loveable eyes.
I stood back to observe as Lovely Vanilla scooped it into her palm, squealing like a starstruck schoolgirl. Chocolate Tiger oohed as she stroked its invertebrate back, eliciting a low and rhythmic trilling. The jelly fox was not frightened—if anything, it basked in the attention.
“May I hold it?”
Chocolate Tiger’s smile chopped her face in half. “Please! Everyone should know the joy of a jelly fox.”
The creature took up both hands and was surprisingly dry, its outer membrane textured like fine-grit sandpaper. Even so, its charm hit me like the heat of a rocket launch. Placid as a lapdog, it pawed at my face as I looked it up and down. I couldn’t imagine how I’d make it more kawaii than it was.
The Toikitti had no instinctual fondness for their offspring. I wondered if this instead was, for them, the mean against which the cuteness of a thing was scored. But what would evolution want with it?
I put the lid back on its box and set the jelly fox down on top. “I need to make some sketches,” I said, unsheathing my stylus. “Take some photos too. Try to restrain yourselves, please.”
The Toikitti looked at me like I’d announced Christmas was delayed until March.
My work took an hour, and then another. For such a seemingly simple silhouette the creature offered a wealth of new contours to explore, new colors to play with, new material unconstrained by associated memories and emotions. I filled a book of virtual paper with assorted poses and alternate color schemes, seeing what the creature wore best. In some sketches I’d shaved down some features and exaggerated others, uncovering its most appealing proportion.
In others, I’d cut it in half.
I could feel creativity lunging from my fingers, scenting the undiscovered vein of cuteness within the jelly fox, closer to escape than ever before. But as I continued to draw, it hit me like the shock of cold water that I’d set myself a trap. For all its novelty there was nothing about this creature different from the kittens and puppies I typically operated on. Nothing that made it impervious to my clumsy scalpel. Watching the jelly fox explore its enclosure, I could only imagine how it would look transplanted with the blood-swollen eyes of my child.
My skittering stylus slowed to a stop, fell slack in my hand. It didn’t matter how alien the subject. I couldn’t make it my own without butchering it.
I switched off my notepad and sat quietly for a while.
“Is that all you need, Otsuji Yuko?” Chocolate Tiger asked.
“Should be,” I heard myself say.
I looked up to see Lovely Vanilla squeeze the jelly fox like a hamburger and bite into its face.
The stylus slipped from my fingers.
Chocolate Tiger bent to sink their protracting fangs into the jelly fox’s flank. It squealed miserably as the two Toikitti pulled it apart like taffy. They tossed their heads back in the manner of crocodiles to wolf each half down without chewing. Blood the phantasmagoric color of an oil-slick runneled through the camouflaged aqueducts in their candy coating.
“Why?” I asked, when it was over.
Their eyes flicked towards me, pupils drawn into black slashes, and I cringed involuntarily against the sealed airlock.
“So sorry,” Lovely Vanilla mewed, as Chocolate Tiger leaned in to groom their partner’s neck. “We should have saved some for you. But we couldn’t help ourselves. It was super kawaii.”
The light in the room went health-hazard yellow, and an alarm began to blare. I could hear the guards shouting something fuzzy on the other side of the airlock. Any moment they’d break in and arrest us for violating quarantine procedures. I braced myself to be tased to the floor, but first I had to know:
“Why do you think I’m cute?” I asked, my heart beating fast enough to escape gravity.
The Toikitti cocked their heads, perplexed.
“What a silly question,” Lovely Vanilla said.
Chocolate Tiger, coming up for air, strummed her segmented tongue along bloody teeth. “You’re cute because you’re small, and soft, and sweet, Otsuji Yuko. Like a Jelly Fox.”
The day after I saw the Toikitti off at the General Port I was called in for a debriefing in the administration block. It was serious but not testy; the Cooperative just wanted to know what I’d gathered from my time with them that the cameras and microphones hadn’t. I got a fruit cup for my trouble, along with a mug of surprisingly alright coffee that Sauerbrey brewed himself.
“My mistake was assuming that to reach the same destination, you had to come from the same direction,” I explained. “Which, you know, is never true. I assumed that for them to have similar reactions to ours towards similar things, they’d have had to’ve followed a similar evolutionary path. But in hindsight that was a little anthrocentric of me.”
Sauerbrey narrowed his eyes at me. “Can you elaborate?”
I shrugged. “Sure. I’m not a scientist though—this is all uneducated hypothesizing.”
“Not a scientist. Noted. Proceed, please.”
“When we think something is cute,” I continued, “it’s because it inadvertently triggered our nurturing instincts—hit the baby button. Toikitti don’t give live birth or raise their young; the same buttons aren’t there to be pushed. When they think something is cute, something else is triggered. And why’s that?”
I paused to kill the rest of my coffee.
I put my mug aside and leaned conspiratorially across the table. “They like loud colors because a million years ago that’s what gave their prey away in the wild. They like soft textures because solidity indicates a shell they’d have to overcome. Big heads and stubby limbs imply helplessness. You and I would see something to protect. They, on the other hand, would see an easy meal. We’ve both arrived at the same place, culturally. An appreciation for a mostly same-y aesthetic. We just came down opposite paths.”
Sauerbrey’s eyes widened at some private horror. “When they said you were super kawa-ee—”
“No, no,” I hastily interjected. “They know better than that. You’ve seen they’re perfectly rational creatures. Just like how we don’t take time to care for every feral raccoon we come across.”
“Cigarette?” Sauerbrey asked, offering a fresh pack of synth-spliffs.
“Not my thing.”
He rolled his shoulders and sparked up. “Just between you and me, I’m not seeing a lot of room for us to get along in.”
“Really? I see the opposite.”
“Yes. I think with the way they are and the way we are, we can Cooperate happily.” I took from my pocket the gift the Toikitti had given me before they’d left for home: a Goodnight Smile keychain that Chocolate Tiger had plucked from their plushy rosary and tucked into my hands. “You know why we make stuff like this?”
“They remind us of babies?”
I squished Goodnight Smile between my thumbs, shunting fluff into her head and then down into her belly. “More or less. And what are babies? Soft, helpless, entirely under our control. Same place, opposite directions.”
Sauerbrey’s lips unzipped into a smirk. “I see your point.” He stood up and pushed his chair in. “The Cooperative thanks you for your assistance, Miss Otsuji.”
He stopped halfway to the door. “You didn’t have your camera in when you showed them your design,” he added. “It’s going to bug me if I don’t ask. How’d they like it?”
I had to smile.
The day before I ended things with Sauerbrey I saw the Toikitti off at the General Port.
“For remembering,” Chocolate Tiger said, folding the Goodnight Smile keychain into my fingers.
I stood on the lift and they stood on their ship’s wet tongue with their crated SIMK on a gravity pallet. Their purchase of two million house slippers had more accurately bought them a discounted Limited License to produce that many with a Standard Industrial Matter Kiln thrown in at no charge, it being easier to print the product than move it in bulk between star systems. “What do you want all that for anyway?”
“Resale of course,” Chocolate Tiger said. “We are not your only fans. You are highly in-demand.”
“We want to hang your art upon the stars.”
I hung my head and sighed, to hide a smile I could do nothing about. “Come back when the ship’s born,” I told them. “I want to see how my baby turned out.”
The two Visitors nodded and curtsied. I pictured them fussing over the gesture for hours like self-conscious tourists and snorted a laugh.
“Of course, Otsuji Yuko,” Chocolate Tiger said. “And thank you.”
Lovely Vanilla turned and raised her phone-hand to get a shot of all three of us. “It is time to say goodbye to Otsuji Yuko! So sad, but so happy too. Bye-bye Otsuji Yuko, we will miss you!” She blew a lipless kiss at her followers, but I felt it anyway.
I waved goodbye like a dope as they boarded. I could admit I’d miss them, to myself at least. Was it strange to love another only for the child we had in common? Just because they cherished what I cherished? If that tendency was perfectly human then it was perfectly more than human as well: I knew the Toikitti felt the same. Perhaps that was how one held hands between stars.
I felt guilty for not cluing them in that Sauerbrey had probably bugged their SIMK. That it was a matter of time until we knew where to find them in the universe. But I wasn’t such a good person that I’d risk prison over it, and the seal between our species was broken regardless. The Toikitti would gobble up those cheap slippers, the custom ship, and then come slavering after our cuteness like sharks scenting blood.
We were going to get to know each other very well, very soon.
After the debriefing I called Eiichiro. I wanted to show him what I’d made for the Toikitti. I wanted to smear his face in it and laugh. But I was informed that my ID had been blocked by the receiving party.
I hung up knowing this was not the last time I would try to reach him. The hope that he’d one day let me through burned to the touch but wouldn’t snuff out. I didn’t expect I’d stop looking for him in the crowd on the way to work. Eiichiro was not a physical thing but an aching absence with his profile, and the one quality of a vacuum was that it must be filled.
I wanted him to know he’d done wrong and rush back into my life forever. I wanted him to know he’d messed up so I could refuse him and be done with it. I didn’t know which I wanted more, and either way there would be no closure. I knew that. I’d always want it anyway.
But he was wrong about me.
That, at least, I could live on.
I called my mother next and got her voicemail. Disappointing, but in that, at least, a jammed door, not one bolted shut. “Hi mom,” I said, thinking not one word ahead. If I hesitated I’d remember to fear pity again. “I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch. I just wanted to tell you not to worry. I’m okay. I’d like to come see you and Yukiko on Earth some time, if that’s alright. I can tell you about my new job.”
I’d told President Okabe the same thing I told Sauerbrey, and he’d all but winged his credit card at me. Where the Cooperative would see an opportunity to raise civilization up upon the rock of cultural intersections, an entrepreneur saw profit to frack from our differences. And what made the Toikitti distinct, he’d asked, from the Hanrit or the Yhh or any other Visitor to the tower?
Nothing but meaningless DNA.
The next day I reported to work as the head of RariJump’s new Alternate Appeal Division. The founding principle was the bone of the Invisible Hand itself: for every taste, a market. The human model of kawaii would begin to show diminishing returns as just one of an expanding menu of flavors. There was an unexplored universe of design space out there for other, stranger definitions.
Within the first week I’d filled the memory of my new drafting table to traumatic levels with the morbid grubs of my imagination. No, I didn’t expect I’d ever be rid of them—stains don’t rub out in people. But not every kid comes out pretty, everything was cute to someone. The difference between kawaii and kowaii was a matter of microscopic lightyears.
Where other people might have had pictures of their children, on the wall of my office I hung framed copies of the designs I’d given to Chocolate Tiger and Lovely Vanilla. I came to enjoy the expression on each new hire’s face when they saw them for the first time. Lose the monkey in you, I’d say. What would a carnivore find cute? When the Toikitti returned they’d come in a swarm, I imagined, and my team would have to be ready. We’d wake up one day to find the stars blotted out by their tourist fleet. A hundred ships in my design all mimicking the popular original. A hundred soft, terrified, newborn babies crawling crippledly through space. Super Kawaii, through a certain eye.
Lovely Vanilla and Chocolate Tiger had been correct. My ship would make the universe gasp.
If not necessarily in awe.
Evan Marcroft is an aspiring speculative fiction writer from Sacramento California, who uses his expensive degree in literary criticism to do menial data entry. Evan dreams of writing for video games, but will settle for literature instead. His work can be found in a variety of venues, such as Pseudopod, Strange Horizons, and Asimov’s.