Here’s my holiday gift to you. This story was original to the collection that came out in September, Near + Far. It’s one of my favorites. Here’s the print version as well as a link to the audio version, read by me and edited by the wonderful Lauren Harris.
UPDATE: Thank you to the people who put the story on the 2013 Nebula ballot! I am tickled pink.
Five Ways to Fall In Love on Planet Porcelain
Over the years, Tikka’s job as a Minor Propagandist for the planet Porcelain’s Bureau of Tourism had shaped her way of thinking. She dealt primarily in quintets of attractions, lists of five which were distributed through the Bureau’s publications and information dollops: Five Major China Factories Where the Population of Porcelain Can Be Seen Being Created; Five Views of Porcelain’s Clay Fields; Five Restaurants Serving Native Cuisine at Its Most Natural.
Today she was composing Five Signs of Spring in Eletak, her native city.
Here along the waterfront, she added chimmerees to her list as she watched the native creatures, cross between fish and flower, surface. Each chimmeree spreading its white petals as it rose, white clusters holding amber centers, tendrils of golden thread sending their scent into the air along with the most delicate whisper of sound, barely audible over the lapping of the water.
The urge towards love beat along every energy vein of her silica body, even down to her missing toes, but she resisted it. She would remain alone this spring, as she had every spring since she had made her vow and inscribed it in the notebook where she kept her personal lists, under “Life Resolutions,” 4th under “Keep myself clean in thought and mind,” “Devote myself to promoting Porcelain’s tourism,” and “Fall in love.” The third item had been crossed off at the same time, in vehement black pen strokes.
Her first sign of spring had been the singing of the tree frogs, which had awoken her three nights ago, in the small hours when most of the citizens cracked, gave way to despair, and crumbled in the manner of the elderly.
She was afraid of cracking, examined herself with obsessive care in the sluice for any sign that her surface was giving in, allowing the forces of time to work at her. She’d lain awake in the darkness, checking her mind with the same care. Were there any sorrows, any passions that might lead her thoughts along the same groove till it gave, eroded into madness?
She knew of one, and she kept her thoughts away from it as though it were made of thorns. Pain surrounded its edges and she could not avoid brushing against them even as she avoided it, but she kept herself from touching its tender heart, when silica melted in emotion and loss. She clicked her eyelids shut and contemplated what the morning would bring: ablutions and prayers, and a walk to the stop where the balloon-tram would take her to work. The sides would be hung with flower-colored silks in honor of the season. That would be her second sign of spring.
At work, there was jostling going on over a corner, windowed office. A writer had given way to cracking, premature, as sometimes happened with those who lived carelessly. Tikka was keeping back; she liked to do her work outside, and didn’t think herself enough in the offices to merit such a coveted space. Not that she would have been first in line for it; of the three Minor Propagandists, she was the most junior, with only six years to the others’ respective ten and fifteen.
Attle met her with a list in hand.
“Not again,” Tikka said. “I like doing my own, you know that.”
Attle shrugged. She was tall and willowy to Tikka’s squatter lines. “He says they’re only suggestions.”
Tikka took the list and studied it. “Suggestions that are heavily encouraged,” she said. “If I don’t take at least half of them, it’ll affect my next review.”
“No one really worries about reviews,” Attle said. It was true; the small Bureau’s turnover rate was glacial. Like most government jobs, it was steady and guaranteed work in a place where poverty was rampant.
“I do,” Tikka retorted. She was all too conscious that she didn’t resemble most of the other citizens in the office. She had won her post through a scholarship, was one of the tokens allowed positions so they could be held up to the lesser advantaged as what they could be if they kept their mouths shut and worked hard.
More tourists meant more money for everyone, even if it did have to trickle through the layer of upper citizens at first. She didn’t think many of the topics were designed to attract tourists.
“’Five spots celebrated in the works of the poet Xochiti’? Who reads him? We need things that tourists are looking for, new experiences and new trinkets to buy. Five places where they serve fin in the manner of the Brutists is not going to do it.”
“He believes in niches,” Attle murmured in habitual response.
“Some niches are so small that no tourist would fit in them!” Tikka waved Attle off when she would have spoken again. “I know, I know, it’s none of your doing.”
She went to her desk, situated in a paper-walled cubicle. The patterns were from several years ago; the department’s budget had been shrinking of late and even the plants that hung here and there were desiccated but unreplaced, delicate arrangements of withered ferns draped with dust that no one wanted to touch, lest they be mistaken for a lower-class servitor of the kind the Bureau could no longer afford.
Her fingers danced across the transparent surface of her data-pad, which dimpled beneath her touch. She pulled up a master document and transferred the least objectionable of the Master Propagandist’s “suggestions” into it, scoffing under her breath.
A clink of drummed fingers behind her snatched her attention. She turned so quickly she nearly collided with the author of the suggestions himself. “Sir!” She stepped back to a safer, more polite distance.
“Am I to believe you feel you have worthier candidates for your time than those I have advanced?” he said. Master Propagandist Blikik was made of smooth white clay, a material so fine that it gleamed under the office lights in a way Tikka’s coarser, low-class surface could never match, even with disguising cosmetics. His colors would never fade, while hers would eventually succumb to the sun, give way to pale, unfashionable hues.
She dropped her gaze to the felted carpet beneath his feet. “No, sir.”
“I’m sorry, sir.” She met his eyes. “I thought perhaps we might consider some alternative ways of attracting tourists.”
Clatter of halted movement behind her as others stopped to listen. She could feel the shockwave reverberate through the office as whispers of her boldness were hissed to outliers who hadn’t heard.
Blikik’s robes, swirled with gold and crimson, a style as outdated as the cubicle walls, rustled as indignation drew him upwards, made him tower over Tikka.
“You will do as you are told,” he barked, so crisp his teeth snapped together with an unpleasant, brittle sound. “You are not paid to think. If you wish to think, other accommodations can be made for your employment. Is that what you wish?”
“No, sir, not at all, sir,” she rushed to supply into the shocked void his words had left.
He nodded once, turned on his heel, and walked away.
After she’d drafted a couple of lists, Tikka escaped outside to the terraced gardens overlooking the sound garden (one of Eletak’s five most impressive sites). Its massive steel structures were strung with cabling and wire that sang whenever the wind stopped sweeping across the water and came to investigate the inland. Shapes huddled on the sculptures, the winged monkeys that made them their nesting grounds, where they raised their thumb-sized offspring and lived the lives of one of Eletak’s five most distinctive native species.
The air smelled of monkey shit, which, combined with the unpleasant sensation of the vibrations from the sound garden, drove most visitors away. Rumor held that the sound garden could set off interior echoes that might leave someone dust on a pathway, but she had never believed it. Childhood prittle prattle, don’t do this or that or you’ll fall afoul of unseen forces. Meaningless superstition.
She leaned on the wooden railing, using her jacket to cushion her arms. The wires sang a song she’d heard years ago, love love careless love.
She could give way to it. She could go find a mate and the two of them could pose, take on the shape of love and freeze together in the most intimate contortion. She hated the helpless feeling afterward, where you were caught still mingled with the other person until the rigidity that came with orgasm, lasting hours, seeped away and you were your own unique person, rather than part of the larger construction, again.
How freakish, the ways of love on this planet, or anywhere else. The illusion that you had become something other than you were. The illusion that you could be something other than alone.
She would not succumb.
Love, love careless love, the wires complained. It was unseasonably cold. Two monkeys huddled together for warmth in a metal Y only a few feet down from her. Pathetic.
She would not love again.
Too many memories were in the way.
It had happened the second spring that she had been working for the Bureau. She had traveled a lot the first year, taking pictures and conducting interviews of tourists in various areas to find out what had brought them there. She had written a private list: Five Things Tourists Dislike about Porcelain.
- The standoffish nature of its people.
- The unabashed attitude of greed towards tourist money.
- The slowness of the balloon transit center.
- The number of political uprisings.
- The number of native species prone to throwing shit at tourists.
The man had been trying to clean monkey shit off himself near the sound garden. She’d intervened, led him to a public sluice.
“No wonder all your people seem so clean,” he’d said, washing himself off in the stream of heated water.
“Down here,” she said. She didn’t know why she said it. It was forbidden to speak to tourists with anything other than pleasantries. She’d had to go through weeks of training to do it.
“Other areas don’t have these?” he said.
“Other areas don’t have running water,” she said. “Why waste technology on lesser clay?”
A monkey screamed behind him and he flinched. His eyes checked the badge on her chest. “You can deal with tourists, can’t you? Not like most of these, forbidden to talk to us. Come and have lunch with me.”
So few restaurants catered to both kinds, but she took him to a place near the Bureau, disks of aetheric energy which she slotted into her mouth, a salad for him, odd grainy lumps scattered through it.
Humans. The richest of all the multi-verse dwellers, at least many of their branches were. Was he from one? She rather thought so, given the cut of his clothing, the insouciant ease with which he leaned back to survey her and the restaurant. His was not a species accustomed to scraping or scrabbling.
He said, “I’ve never understood why more people don’t come here. A world peopled by china figurines.”
There were more interesting worlds in the multi-verse, she knew. Paper dolls, and talking purple griffons. Intelligent rainbows and everyone’s favorite, the Chocolate Universe. She shrugged.
“I want you for my tour guide,” he said, staring at her. “Can we do that?”
It was unorthodox. But he had unexpected pull. Blikik had been forced to allow it, although he heaped her with instructions and imprecations. Porcelain must preserve its public face for tourism, he had said. No talk of politics, no talk of clays or those who did not live in the cities.
She nodded until she thought her neck would give way from the motion.
Places to take tourists on Planet Porcelain:
- A birthing factory, where the citizenry are mass produced. The list is short; tourists are only taken to the upper class factories, where citizens are made of the highest quality porcelain, rather than one of the more sordid working class manufactories.
- The bridges of Etekeli, which run from building to building in a city more vertical than horizontal. There is a daring glee to the citizenry here; the ground is littered with the remains of those who came to this place, which has a suicide rate twenty times that of elsewhere on the planet.
- The Dedicatorium.
The first sight of the Dedicatorium awed him. She understood how it must look: from afar a wall of thorny white. Then as one approached, it resolved itself into a pattern made of feet and hands, arms and legs.
“People leave these here?” he half-whispered, his voice roughened by the silence.
“They do it for several reasons,” she told him. “Some in gratitude for some answered prayer. Others to leave a piece of themselves behind.”
As they watched, a woman approached. She carried a bundle in her only hand. When she got close to the wall, she fumbled away the coverings to reveal the other hand. She searched along the wall until she found a place to fold it into a niche. It curled there, its fingers clustered as though to form a hollow where a secret might be whispered.
His face was flushed, but she could not read the emotion. “Your people can detach their own limbs?”
“It is easier to get someone else to do it,” she said. “It is not without pain. The joints must be detached, and it usually breaks them to do so.”
“I have seen no amputees on your streets,” he said. His eyes searched the wall, taking in the delicate point of a toe, the rugged line of a calf’s stilled muscles.
“It is an injury that often leads to cracking,” she said. “Few survive unless they take great care of the point where the limb was severed.”
“It’s barbaric,” he said, but she heard only love and appreciation in his voice.
“You spend too much time with him,” Blikik complained.
She let his complaints wash over her like water, eroding irritation. Through his eyes, she was learning to craft lists tailored to humans, their petty desires for restrooms and food that tasted like the food they had at home. And their greed, which must be fed with lists of the cheapest markets, the most inexpensive hostelries, free performances.
Tourism had increased a very small percentage, but it was due to her efforts. She could not spend enough time with him. He was too full of valuable information, conversation, insight.
He was such good company, so interesting to listen to, so fascinating in his different viewpoint. She wrote lists specifically for him, five restaurants that served his favorite condiment, five places to view a sunset shaded with indigo and longing.
Five places to be alone with your native guide.
Ways to fall in love on Planet Porcelain:
- Slowly, so slowly. At first just a hint of delight at his face when he heard the chimmeree singing.
- Like a revelation, a book opening as he told stories of his childhood, life under a different sun, where different songs held sway. He never talked of taking her there, but she was content. This was his story now, its happy ending on Planet Porcelain.
- Knowing that it was wrong, unheard of. And knowing that its forbidden nature gave it extra savor, gave it the allure of something that shouldn’t be, overlying the touch of the exotic that it held for them both.
- In snatches and glances, moments seized outside the monitors. In a corridor, his fingers touched hers, warm against cool, and she felt a liquid warmth pervading her brain until she could barely think. Apart from him, she dreamed of him, and totted up list after list of the things she loved: the hairs on the back of his wrists, the way his teeth fit into the gum, the shape of his ankle, the burr his voice took on when tired or irritated, the flush that mounted to his cheek when he felt aroused.
- Verbally. Word after word, opening secrets. He asked her about coupling and she told him how it was, how the urge drove you together, touch and caress until the moment where you froze and fused, knowing yourself a single part of a larger thing. And how, afterwards, that feeling faded, until you could see the body that had been part of yours and think it something entirely different.
“Can we go to bed together, you think?” he asked her. At first she didn’t understand what he meant. There was no reason they could not share a bed. But his words, the heat in his face, made her realize her mistake.
Could they? Lovemaking was mental as much as physical, she had always been told. As long as they took care, could they not touch each other to arousal and beyond?
She could find nothing about such moments in her research. Unthinkable that they could have invented a perversion new to the multi-verse. And yet perhaps they had.
He circled the topic, over and over. She could feel her resistance wearing away.
It was the only flaw in their affair, his curiosity about her body. Everything else was so perfect.
Asked again. And again.
At some point she realized she would give in eventually. Her determination crumbled beneath that assault.
In his hotel room, she removed her clothes, let him stroke her.
“How would we do this, if we were the same?” he demanded.
“As we become aroused, our flesh softens,” she said. “Can you feel how mine has changed?”
He touched it cautiously, as though afraid he might leave finger marks. “It’s closer to my own now,” he said.
“We soften and we come together, and merge,” she said. “It is a very intimate and secret thing.”
“And you harden again, together.” His breath quickened as his fingers dragged across her skin.
“When the moment of the most pleasure comes and peaks, we harden,” she said. “We become a single thing, melding where our skin touches.”
“And you stay that way for hours?”
“Till the state gives way, and we can separate,” she said. “Hours, yes.”
“And you think I can bring you to the point where you come like that?” he asked.
Everyone made their own experiments in self-delight as a child. It was not the same, but it was similar, and hard to hide, although the motionless state was shorter. He could do that for her, at least.
She reached for him.
He entered her arms without hesitation.
He played with her as he would have a human woman, licking, spreading, opening. He did not penetrate her—they had both agreed it was too dangerous.
This was the only time most people could touch without fear of chipping, of breaking each other. Was that the draw he’d had for her all along, that she could touch him like that and know there was no danger of breaking him?
Her breath filled her, energy rushed along her like swallows fluttering in the wind, trying to break free of its grasp. Pleasure drowned her and she succumbed, feeling her flesh shudder and stiffen, frozen in the moment.
Where a Porcelain lover would have stayed with her, he drew away. She was aware of him circling her, his fingers straying over and over her surface.
He began with a toe. Pain surged through her as he broke it off. If she had been able to move, she would have screamed. As it was, all she could do was let it shine in her eyes. What sort of mistake was this? An accident, surely.
But then he began to detach the joints in her knee. He intended to take her foot. Anger and pain and agony surged through her and she fell unconscious, carrying with her the vision of him sitting on the side of the bed, examining the foot in his lap with an expression she’d never seen before on his face.
Tikka had never seen him again. She had never been able to guess if the moment had been there in his head all along or if the desire had seized him somewhere along the way, perhaps when she showed him the Dedicatorium.
In time, she did learn that the perversion was not new. In some channels, the severed limbs sold very well, particularly those unmarred in any other way.
She padded the stump with soft plastics, a cap that fit over the protrusion, the jagged bits of joint that had not fallen away. She limped, but not much, grown accustomed to the way she moved.
She paused to watch the sky. Clusters of limentia, like jellyfish floating on the wind, translucent tendrils tinting the light. They filled the air with their mating dance, drifted around her till she stood in the center of a candy-colored cloud. Love surrounded her in a web of tendrils, unthinking action and reaction that drove life, all life, even hers.
She made a mental note of their presence, of the way they shone in the sunlight, of the acrid smell of their lovemaking, filing details away with clinical precision.
They were only another sign of spring on Planet Porcelain.