Personal Space, part one

Story no. 27. 


The bloobie dropped from cruising height to communication height an arms’ length from Eliza’s nose.

She had been daydreaming, her brain somewhere in the south Pacific or maybe on the tundra in spring, feet carrying her toward the market without much input from her frontal lobes, so the sudden whoosh and appearance of the alien made her start backward, arms wheeling wildly.

It arched its neck down to look at her, antenna and eyestalks twirling inquisitively. It adopted the I-Wish-To-Communicate position: floating like a vertical log in the air, tail rolled up beneath, segmented arms folded neatly over its torso. She noticed this one had only four pairs instead of the usual seven.

 

The tail uncoiled briefly to pass a device into its bottomed pair of claws; the little box was shuffled quickly up to near its head. It buzzed, and the talking device released a puff of steam and scrolled words across the small cloud.

IT IS A PLEASING GOOD DAY, FRIENDLY HUMAN, the cloud read. Bloobie messages were always that — far too optimistic for the circumstances.

It waited, waggling its eyestalks expectantly.

“Uh, good morning, bloo — fellow Inhabitant,” Eliza said.

Buzz, buzz.

WOULD YOU CARE TO PARTICIPATE IN A SOCIOLOGICAL STUDY, FRIENDLY HUMAN, scrolled across the cloud. YOU HAVE BEEN RANDOMLY CHOSEN AS A REPRESENTATIVE INDIVIDUAL OF NEBRASKA REGION 26783.

“No, I do not wish to participate in a study, thank you,” Eliza said, and tried to step around the bloobie.

It hovered backwards to block her way. Chrrrk. Bzz. THIS IS A VERY IMPORTANT STUDY ON THE PERSONAL SOCIAL INTERACTION PREFERENCES OF VARIOUS POPULATIONS OF HUMAN BEINGS. IT WILL HELP AVOID aNTISOCIAL aCTION IN THE FUTURE OF THE INHABITATION.

The antenna waved. THE STUDY WILL CONSIST OF INTERVIEWS AND QUESTIONNAIRES. FRIENDLY HUMAN PARTICIPANTS WILL BE COMPENSATED WITH LUNCH AND DINNER FOR THE DAYS OF THE STUDY.

That put things in a different light. “Wait, so there’s no touching in this study,” Eliza said.

THAT IS CORRECT. ALSO THE SCIENTISTS WILL PROVIDE NUTRITIONAL SNACKS FOR A POSITIVE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT.

The cloud dissipated and the text with it, and Eliza found herself accepting a sheet of paper printed with the time and date she was to report for her questionnaire.

***

Investigative Notebook of Scientist Gyo Uo page 26.

Cycle 42 since start of Inhabitation, day 94.

Observations: Successfully inscribed another study participant, for total of 36 participants.

Name: Eliza Jennings
Age: 25
Profession: agriculturalist
Position in family network: lives in home with two parents, one sibling, and one grandparent
Occupation status: descendant of colonization of continent 4 five hundred years ago, not relocated during the Inhabitation
General demeanor: hostile

As with the others, the offer of lunch appeared to be the deciding factor.

Impressions: As always, it is important to recognize one’s emotions and therefore one’s biases during a scientific study. I loathe the method of communication the humans prefer. Mindmind is far quicker and leaves far less room for misunderstanding of one’s intentions and meaning. Humans always suspect one of Antisocial Activity, but if they would allow one to speak properly, it would be obvious that this is not one’s intent.

***

You could always tell you were walking into a bloobie neighborhood. Most of the alien clans had occupied McMansion neighborhoods in West Omaha, rationalizing that this displaced the fewest number of humans; one occupied house on west Maple made one investment banker and his estranged wife homeless, and provided docking spaces for fifty or sixty bloobies. In the forty years following the arrival of the bloobies, they had filled in the awkwardly tiny yards separating most of the mansions with yet more docking spaces and installed dozens — sometimes hundreds — of tiny windows to illuminate the labyrinthine compartments inside. Certain bloobie clans had painted their complexes in blue or purple, for reasons that remained unknown to their human neighbors.

Eliza had never been inside a bloobie complex, nor did she know anyone who had. At first the bloobies had tried to encourage integrated neighborhoods, but the humans chosen for such endeavors generally moved out within the year. It was just too unpleasant to wake to four or five bloobie babies floating around your kitchen, scrabbling at the walls.

But the address for the interview, though it led her through a bloobie neighborhood so dense with panes of glazing and compartments and stalls and launch tunnels that it looked rather like a cluster of icy stalagmites, ended up being an old-fashioned brick office with Beaux-Arts molding around the windows.

PLEASE KNOCK AND ENTER, said a sign by the door. Eliza knocked and entered.

The waiting room had been maintained in an antiquated human style, with a threadbare carpet, paintings of large flowers hanging slightly askew on the wall, and a long couch and padded chairs. It was clear, however, that a human had not done the decorating: a large bouquet of grass sat in the center of the couch, with a pair of leather shoes sitting on a stack of automotive manuals next to it. The arrangement was deliberate, the edges of the manuals carefully in register with one another, the leather shoes set at a perfect sixty-degree angle to one another, the laces tied in symmetric bows.

It was like a bloobie to incorrectly identify a couch as ornamental and the coffee table as the most comfortable place to dock oneself. Eliza hung her jacket on a shelf by the door and sat down to wait.

She recognized the bloobie who had dropped in on her before by his missing arms. It was fairly hard to distinguish facial characteristics on a bloobie; their mouths kind of folded into their heads when they were not actually eating.

Poof, went the steam sprayer on his communication device. Bzz, bzz, went the bloobie.

HELLO FRIENDLY HUMAN, scrolled in yellow letters across the communication cloud. I AM SCIENTIST UO AND I WILL BE CONDUCTING YOUR INTERVIEW. WE WILL INTERVIEW IN THE INTERVIEW ROOM. WOULD YOU LIKE A NUTRITIONAL SNACK?

“No, thanks,” Eliza said, and followed him a doorway that had been enlarged for the bloobies’ enormous height. “Is this an independent project?”

He twirled in the air to face her. NO OF COURSE NOT.

“Are the other scientists doing other interviews, then?”

THERE ARE ONE HUNDRED EIGHTY SCIENTISTS AND THIRTY-SIX PARTICIPANTS. TWENTY ARE ANALYZING DATA AND THE OTHERS ARE WAITING UPSTAIRS.

“Waiting for . . . what?” Eliza asked, puzzled.

Scientist Uo waved his antenna and eyestalks but did not answer.

IN ORDER TO FACILITATE OUR DISCUSSION, WE HAVE PROCURED HELPFUL DEVICES, Uo said, and produced a small black box from the curl of his tail. HERE IS YOUR HELPFUL DEVICE.

Eliza shivered a little when the bloobie’s claws passed over her palm. “What does this do?”

IT IS A SPACE-MAKER, Uo said. Abruptly he floated toward her, waving all his arms.

“What . . .ack . . . get away, get away!” Eliza said, covering her face with hands. As she did so, her thumb hit a button on the black box.

Uo bounced away, as though he had been hit by a gust of wind or a blow-up hammer. Timidly he hovered back toward her, stopping a good ten feet away. THIS WILL ENSURE THAT PERSONAL SPACE CAN BE RESPECTED WHILE KEEPING ANTISOCIAL ACTIONS TO A MINIMUM.

“Does this work on people?” Eliza said, experimentally aiming the black box at a bookshelf. Nothing happened.

NO IT REQUIRES THE RECIPIENT TO BE IN ANTIGRAVITATION. IT IS USED FOR A CHILDREN’S GAME OF BUMPER BUDDIES.

“Bumper cars,” Eliza muttered, mildly disappointed. “So are you taking measurements on how often I click this and comparing it to how far away you are each time?”

Uo scratched his torso with his uppermost pair of arms. NO WE ARE NOT. BUT THAT IS A GOOD IDEA. He floated up to the ceiling and made the air-hissing-out-of-a-balloon sound that meant a bloobie was doing mindmind with another bloobie. THERE I HAVE TOLD SCIENTIST UO YOUR IDEA.

“I thought you were scientist Uo.”

I AM SCIENTIST GYO UO. UPSTAIRS IS SCIENTIST GYo UO. HERE IS A QUESTIONNAIRE.

Eliza spent two hours responding to multiple-choice questions such as:

43. How would you feel if your mother took a cooked potato off your plate at lunchtime?

(Please circle one.) 1 very uncomfortable 2 uncomfortable 3 neutral 3 comfortable 4 very comfortable

44. How would you feel in the situation described in question 43 if the person removing the potato was your employer?

. . .

45. How would you feel in the situation described in question 43 if the person removing the potato was unknown to you prior to the potato removal?

. . .

46. How would you feel in the situation described in question 43 if the object removed was a fork?

. . .

47. How would you feel in the situation described in question 43 if the object removed was a packet of sugar?

. . .

48. How would you feel in the situation described in question 43 if the situation occurred at breakfast-time?

. . .

49. How would you feel in the situation described in question 43 if the situation occurred during snack-time?

. . .

50. How would you feel in the situation described in question 43 if your mother had exhibited a behavior pattern of repeated potato removal?

. . .

And so on.

After question 600, Eliza heaved a huge sigh. Scientist Uo clicked one hand on the wall to get her attention, then flipped on his communication device.

THERE ARE NUTRITIOUS SNACKS AVAILABLE. SHALL I FETCH THE NUTRITIOUS SNACKS?

Eliza flipped through the rest of the packet. Eight hundred questions left. “No, I’m good, thanks.” She sighed again and massaged her left hand with her right.

***

Investigative Notebook of Scientist Gyo Uo page 42.

Cycle 42 since start of Inhabitation, day 98.

Observations: Statistical analysis of the 1200-question survey attached in Appendix 14.

The most common comments received at the end of the survey were variations on the following:

1. The survey was too long.

2. Inquiries about whether the survey had been written by a human. (?)

3. Requests for a pencil sharpener.

Appointments have been scheduled for all but three follow-up interviews for candidates who, upon further examination of their survey responses, do not seem sufficiently lucid to provide helpful insight. One of these participants was removed mid-survey by her granddaughter, who explained they preferred the participant to stay within sight of their garden.

All participants who stayed for lunch seemed pleased.

Impressions: Dealing with humans is upsetting. Their communications are all ambiguous and with no clear explanation for why. For example, fully half of the participants refused to avail themselves of the proffered snacks, though they were exhibiting clear signs of hunger.

I am very distressed and I think I will go dock in my compartment until I feel better.

***

Eliza walked about ten or fifteen miles a day. She took care of the garden in the morning, took her parents’ two cows and the stupid goat to the communal pasture where the baseball stadium had been fifty years before, then wandered. The closest library was a good three miles, and usually the shelves were almost empty by the time she could get there, unless she could talk Gil into taking her cows along with his. After the bloobies had shut off the electricity, the public library had had to institute three-day loan periods for most books, with a hard penalty of being refused entry to the building if you exceeded that period by more than two days. Eliza had accumulated a little collection of her own, but she had read each of them so many times that she spaced out her re-readings as special treats to herself to preserve the spines.

The bloobies’ coming had been, she supposed, perhaps the least painful apocalypse possible, and certainly not the one anyone had imagined. Within three months of their arrival, all of the world’s federal governments had shut down; within a year, most cities had reverted to neighborhood village councils. The bloobies could not tolerate Antisocial Actions, and there were so many of the bloobies that it was virtually impossible to hide the execution of an AA. Nearly half of the U.S. Senate had spent these first few months floating just below cruising height — about six thousand feet in the air — with bloobies bringing them water, meals, and snacks several times each day. Putting them in antigravitation was not meant as a deterrent or a punishment, one of the clan leaders clarified in a statement that was printed on a leaflets that were distributed nation wide. It was only that they could not be returned to the earth without immediately commencing AAs again, including but not limited to, supporting environmentally degrading legislation, sexually harassing their interns, drinking coffee of unethical sourcing, littering, using racist language with cab drivers, and abusing pet dogs.

It was this anxious distaste for AAs that led to the Redistribution and the Relocation, the blow that finally destroyed most internationally powerful governments. The bloobie scientists had found that humans had an optimum occupation density, above or below which the frequency of AAs rapidly increased, as well as an optimum “resource density,” above or below which the frequency of AAs rapidly increased.

“People need enough to eat and they need enough space to swing a cat,” was the brusque way Eliza’s father had explained it. The state of Kansas was now mostly occupied by Bengali Indians, and, as far as she knew, her contemporaries in Minnesota mostly had grandparents from Henan Province in the former People’s Republic of China.

Grandma Madison occasionally muttered about a before-time when Nebraska had been open and empty, without the constant gentle whirring of blue aliens flitting by overhead. But then, she also liked to reminisce about having a thin flat computer that she could slide into her back pocket and send messages to her friends with when she was bored, but for Eliza, those stories seemed irrelevant if not a bit boring. There were still computers, of course, but since the bloobies had banned burning oil and coal, electricity was too expensive for most households.

Sometimes Grandma Madison would ask her in tones of grave concern if it bothered her that she didn’t have much of a Future. It had taken Eliza many years to understand that when Grandma used this word, she was not talking about the ordinary meaning of the word, but a hypothetical time when Eliza would be middle-aged and wear suits (she had never seen a suit in real life, but she knew what they were from looking at old JC Penny’s catalogs they ripped up to insulate the storehouse) in a job where she would sit in one chair in a small room in a tall building all day and then come home to a house with enough room for ten people and forty bloobies where she, a man, and perhaps a single child would live.

In Eliza’s twenty-five-year-old reality, once she had finished picking the worms off the cabbages, mending holes in the rabbit fence, and taking the cows in, she spent the remainder of the day walking: sometimes the hills that stretched north of the city; sometimes along the marshy riverbank; sometimes she even crossed one of the old railroad bridges into Iowa and picked wild corn from the fields that were no longer farmed. She had never had a boyfriend, and neither Grandma Madison’s reminiscing about dating (with the help of her thin flat computer) nor the leaflets with attached condoms that the bloobies distributed, printed with the slogan THINK VERY CAREFULLY ABOUT OVERPOPULATION! endeared the experience overmuch to her. The bloobies were very worried about overpopulation. She had heard from someone — she didn’t remember who — that there were over ten billion bloobies on Earth, but because they spent so much time at cruising altitude or sleeping in docking compartments you’d only ever see a hundredth of the population of a given area on any ordinary day.

The day after she took the survey she decided to walk south along the river, near where there had once been a railroad yard. This was where she found the yellow bloobie.

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