by Emilie Reed.
The woman two desks down from where I sit sometimes ends up working in the same spreadsheet as I am. Checking and filling in the columns is a background clutter task that hardly registers as a skilled behavior to everyone in the office, but I still watch as she does it. Because she sits still all day she paces madly along the columns and rows on the screen when she's thinking or bored. I hear the rapid tapping and glance at her wrist, bouncing above the desk as she types a quick succession of arrow keys, and then see if I can catch the movements, with a slight lag, on the sheet we're both editing. Action at a distance.
Across all the different lives I’ve stepped into, it strikes me how much of the things humans make are oriented around shoring up their own ability to act. They don’t seem to think much of other animals or even features of their environment, beyond, in some cases, how they can flatten it or tame it, to make it easier to deal with. They’re easy and interesting to live among, it’s both more comfortable and more pleasantly complicated than being most other animals on Earth. Still, sometimes I feel like I’m treading water here (one of their sayings, as a mostly land-dwelling animal who moves through fluids ungracefully), that they do not understand cooperation, and that it’s too complicated and too risky to try to get them to understand. Some of the others I’ve had brief contact with already have concluded this; they’ve vanished to go deep into generations of life as octopi or gibbons, to try and find a better lead. I haven’t made up my mind yet.
I’m going deep into my thoughts again, I realize. I always remind myself to be careful about doing that at work, but usually end up doing so anyway. It’s because my position requires a lot of thought. Any day could be the day when I next run into another of my kind and have to combine knowledge with them, and I want that process to produce some sort of novel insight, not to have them peek in and feel embarrassed over spending another few months or years fumbling around in the dark. Oh. My face is turned towards her, like I’m staring. She’s noticed. We both politely look away, because there’s not much to look at in the office, and sometimes you do just end up staring in someone else’s general vicinity.
But she brings it up while I’m retrieving my sandwich from the fridge, and she’s heating her own leftovers in the kitchenette.
“You always look like you’re so deep in thought,” she comments.
“I’m really sorry about that. I was zoning out, I swear.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty mind-numbing stuff, isn’t it?” She doesn’t say any more, frowning at her food while it spins inside the microwave. For some reason, this comment makes me curious. It makes sense to be dissatisfied with this work because the actual tasks are so repetitive, only barely above what they could set a machine to handle by itself, and the outcome is so abstract. Even I don’t fully grasp it, though I’ve tried to pull together as much info about this company as I could. But she seemed to, with few exceptions, maintain a positive attitude about it, rarely saying anything like this. I find myself wondering what the rest of her life is like, outside of the approximate third of all weekdays I spend sitting a few feet away from her.
“Got any plans for the weekend?” I ask.
“Nah, not really. Weather forecast looks horrible, so I’ll probably stay home.”
“Do you want to get a few drinks, or something?”
She says “ahh,” and laughs. “I’m pretty sure office relationships are frowned upon here.”
“I didn’t really mean it that way. I feel like I hardly talk to anyone at work so–”
I trail off. Maybe it is a poor imitation of what humans are meant to say in this situation, but it is my sincere feeling, and I think she understands.
“Just hanging out then? Sure,” she says. “Why not, I guess. How about Sunday?”
Sunday afternoon on the bus, I'm thinking about sex differentiation. Because my coworker is a woman and I look like a man there's an unpeerlike charge to asking to see her outside of work hours. The implication is interest, which I intend, but a vaguely sexual subtype that I'm not so sure of. Do the lines separating us have to be maintained, enhanced even, by clothing and appearance and custom for some functional reason? I only follow these general guidelines because they make a good, straightforward disguise, though I feel myself developing certain affinities and frustrations with them, with each new change.
The growth and spread of the human population hardly implies that the species is really so cluelessly unable to fumble towards their evolved sexual reproduction mechanisms that they need blunt force slot-A hole-B signalling. Other species fuck, play, fight, whatever, as they are and how they feel, and generally manage to carry on. Really most human problems on that front come more from not effectively redistributing under-utilized food or shelter. So why?
My species has no sex. We reproduce through approximately what the humans call “kleptogenesis,” which again, is an almost hilariously individualist and accusatory term. As if they desperately need and have to account for every bit of genetic material, as if they’re not sloughing off the stuff in great clouds around them all the time. As if they somehow have ownership or control over how chance has decided their bodies maintain themselves, and it’s some sort of trespass to take that into yourself. Like it’s another technology for them to act out against the world with.
A mother with a boy and two girls gets on and says, you get in behind the girls, directing the boy to a separate row of seats that still has room. Is that maybe how it emerged, and why it stuck around? An easy way to approximately divide up groups of young children, for harried caregivers? Sure, that is a helpful feature, yet, yet-- My brain keeps folding out refutations in a long list: of course not, it's too imprecise, too complicated in implementation, and then, why keep it up after childhood-- I miss the bus stop for the bar we agreed to meet at and have to walk back down the street in a steady drizzle. Uncharacteristically, I have to emphasize, I arrive five minutes late but she seems happy that she gets to act excited and relieved to see me, waiting under a narrow awning over the sidewalk outside.
Inside the bar we order the first set of drinks separately, and it makes me feel kind of glad, to strategically defer the potential for rejection. She gets a mojito which she seems excited about and I get plain whiskey, which is easiest to manage. Appearing to drink alcohol increases your affinity with humans quickly, and it makes them less on guard, a little less attentive and easier to talk to. The downside to it is, once I put it in my mouth, I have to whisk it away and metabolize it quickly, or it starts acting like a solvent against my biofilm mimicry. Managing this makes me come across a little antsy, but fortunately the humans seem to operate on the general principle that alcohol causes a variety of changes in disposition and demeanor. It almost makes them more understanding.
Our conversation starts on work topics, since it’s the only known area of commonality we have. I try to feel out more of her own thoughts on the work we do. It’s very monotonous, impersonal, and seems to have no immediate impact. We’re very distant from the outputs of the databases our tiny adjustments are impacting. From what I can tell, all the whole process does is shore up this human capacity to consolidate, to manage, though whoever’s really benefiting from it is high above our heads. The best we’re expected to conclude is that it contributes in a very roundabout way to maintaining the general sort of life humans are used to, most directly in that it gives us gradual, incremental access to the resources we need to arrange that life for each of ourselves.
She’s back to being a good sport about it again, talking as if there’s interesting aspects, particular consideration or strategies that go into the work, or maybe she doesn’t want to come off as too much of a drag. Maybe she really does actually want to be friends with me.
“Enough about that,” she says after a while, two-thirds of her drink gone. “Sorry. You always seem like you have other things on your mind at work.” I nod and take a careful sip from my own neglected drink, trying to stay on top of her pace. “So what are you interested in?”
“I’ve been looking at the lichens around here a lot, actually.” She doesn’t contribute anything immediately so I go on. “They aren’t a single plant or type of moss, you know. It’s the interaction of an algae and a fungus, that’s why they can grow on rock or a metal gate or even in arid environments or extreme cold. They decide to do something they have to do together.”
She looks at me, confused and a bit startled, and for a moment I feel like I’ve made a mistake, that maybe a chunk of my face has peeled off from the booze. I lightly touch my chin, trying not to draw her attention, and glimpse a sliver of my reflection in the window behind her without seeming too distracted. I’m fine.
“What?” I say after a few more seconds pass.
“It’s just a really random topic, lichens. Not something I’d expect someone from work to know about, I guess.”
“Even though they’re all over the park?”
“I mean, of course I’ve seen them. I just never looked that deeply into how they worked. Like where did you find that out?”
“I observed them. And I looked up where else they lived.”
“You realized that just from looking at them?”
I realize I have to fib.
“No, I mean, I looked up a book about where else they lived, because I was curious. About why they could grow so many places.” She’s tentatively satisfied with this. “Can I buy the next round of drinks?” I ask.
She takes my lead bringing up walks in the park to shift to talking about the things she likes doing in her own spare time. She goes for walks too, though usually to either the necropolis or the botanical gardens rather than the woodland park. The museums are also really good, there’s all sorts around here. She wants to get a cat but her landlord doesn’t want to allow it. We’ve been talking for a while, so we order some food, another round of drinks. It gets dark outside, the rain gets a bit steadier, and lights squiggle across the damp streets. We’re both hesitant to end the conversation, so I buy one more pair of cocktails.
“Last one,” she emphasizes as they arrive. “Work tomorrow.”
“Right.” I feel like I’m only barely hanging on to my face.
“I’m still thinking about what you said earlier, bringing up the lichens. I didn’t know that about them. I really thought they were just some other type of moss or something. It’s fascinating that they’re two things working together, actually.”
“It’s a kind of perfection, to me,” I say. She’s impressed by the conviction in this statement, a little outlandish to her.
“Almost romantic,” she says back after a pause.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that.” I gauge her reaction. “Though maybe, kind of.”
Our plates have been cleared away, the ice is starting to dwindle in her drink. Around us, the bar is noisy with everyone absorbed in their own conversations. It’s a sort of privacy by interference. I reach out to try lightly touching her hand because it feels like the right thing to do. She’s surprised, tenses under me, then smiles. Not a bad surprise.
“What do you think is the smallest scale for something to be considered a utopia?” I ask.
She’s a bit tipsy, her face is a little flushed. An unusual line of conversation intrigues her now, rather than being something which should be redirected into the acceptable questions of work or hobbies. She thinks for a few seconds, her fingers drumming slowly under my palm.
“You mean like, am I an all-or-nothing type or do I think it’s good for things to be improved at a smaller scale?”
“Yeah, does it only count at the point that it includes a whole universe, a planet, a country?”
“Maybe you have to have that intent for it to be utopian, but most people who tried to do things like that, mostly cults and stuff, I mean, were comparatively small groups of people.”
“And even then, the first person to come up with the idea had to convince someone else, in the first place.”
“So it could be in the relationship between two people, or any two objects, then.”
“It has to start there, yeah. Like the lichen. Just thinking logically.”
I can’t believe my luck. Some days I really want to give up, to scrap this whole line of inquiry and commit, next life, to the grindingly slow consciousness of an underground mycelium, or a baleen whale, because I get so stumped by the humans. And now this. I realize I’m in my own head again, grinning and looking off to the side.
“Why?” She asks. “What are you looking so pleased about?”
“No, it’s nothing, sorry. It’s just fun to ask a weird question like that. I’m feeling a little drunk.” I pull my hand back, and then place both in front of me, resting around the base of my glass. “But this was really nice. Can I walk you to your bus stop?”
She is happy for me to go with her. Among the crowd, pushing fast in the rain, I watch the illuminated number on the back of the bus as it pulls away, until it disappears around a corner, taking her somewhere else in the organism of the city.