Nothing exemplifies human pettiness more than a Sunday morning trip to the supermarket. People waddle through the aisles, bickering with their families. They cluster around the shelf of reduced items, shoving strangers out of the way, fingers reaching greedily for cut-price cream cakes and punnets of half-rotten strawberries. When I prepare my report for the committee, these Sunday morning shopping trips will supply a large part of the evidence I need to justify my conclusion that humans do not qualify for protection under the Mature Species Preservation Act.
In my disguise as an unhappily married, middle-aged man who is running to fat around the middle, I tell my daughter to put the ice cream back in the freezer. I say “my daughter,” but of course she is not. Her father’s consciousness has been suppressed, leaving his body free for me to use while I conduct my investigations into Earth life.
Dr. Bennington taught science to human children aged between eleven and sixteen Earth years, an occupation I have continued since taking over his body. By “science,” I of course mean falsehoods derived by human scientists, erroneous concepts such as quantum physics and the orbital model of the atom. My investigations suggest he didn’t much like the job, although I assume he, like the rest of the human species, was ignorant of the scientific errors in the material he taught. As he also seems not to be too fond of his wife, Catherine, or his daughter, Ginny, it appears the committee did him a favour by freeing up his body for a higher purpose.
Dr. Bennington’s daughter is thirteen, in that awkward phase between juvenile and adult. In denim short-shorts, she is all legs. When I tell her she can’t have ice cream, she rolls her eyes and dumps the carton on a shelf, where it will spoil. In the same gap on the shelf (the store has somehow sold its entire stock of tinned mackerel) is a frozen pork shoulder. I have yet to work out whether humans dump food like this out of spite—yet another example of their “if I can’t have it no one can” mentality—or simple laziness. In Ginny’s case, I suspect both motives apply.
“Put it back,” I tell her.
Ginny pretends not to hear me, feigning interest in the many rows of tinned tuna. I take the ice cream back to the freezer myself, manoeuvring the trolley with difficulty. Despite having discovered electromagnetism hundreds of years ago, humans still haven’t implemented levitation technology and instead rely on wheels. Yes, wheels! A Slime Age technology.
One of the things that makes supermarkets so awful on Sundays is that they aren’t allowed to open until 11am, and they close at 5pm. This is something to do with religion, which is a uniquely human obsession. Whereas other intelligent species have applied themselves to finding technological solutions for mortality, often with very good results, humans have instead constructed a make-believe place called heaven to make themselves feel better about dying. There are no fewer than 4,200 human religions devoted to fleshing out this belief, and all of them have their own set of bizarre rules. The particular religion that once dominated the damp little island to which I have been assigned insists that humans do nothing useful on Sundays. Even though very few of the inhabitants still cling to this belief system, no one has bothered to repeal the law that restricts shops to opening only certain hours on a Sunday. By the time 11am rolls around, human greed and impatience have built up, creating a mass of hungry people ready to elbow each other out of the way to get the last fresh loaf.
None of the other members of my “family” seem to mind the delay. On Sundays, they indulge in a “lie in,” which involves sleeping for an obscenely long time. I do not sleep. I stare at the ceiling, feeling exhausted, wishing I could be among my own kind. I am so lonely.
My wife returns from the produce section clutching two bags of kale. Humans have an enviable ability to thrive on an extremely wide variety of diets, and yet an astonishing number of them are convinced they must eat “superfoods” or suffer some ill-defined malaise. Catherine is one of these people. Every evening she inputs her day’s intake into a piece of computer software that tells her she’s consumed 10mg too little calcium and five percent too much saturated fat. I point out that the daily amounts the human scientists recommend are based on guesswork, but it does no good. She can spend hours looking for the perfect combination of foods to address the imbalance.
It is sad to see a human waste her short life this way. If Catherine would only apply her industriousness to something useful, she could be a decent observer for the Species Preservation Service. She’ll never get the chance, of course. Over the last three months, I’ve gathered all the evidence I need to say that humans’ redeeming qualities do not outweigh their many flaws. When the planet they call Earth is vaporised during the construction of the new wormhole transportation service, no humans will be taken to a reserve for preservation. Instead, resources will be diverted to saving more worthy species. Personally, I have high hopes for the X’Chulthula, a slime-based species of cannibal worms with a surprisingly rich and complex culture.
“I had to fight for these,” says Catherine. “Some woman tried to tell me I didn’t need two bags, and tried to take one from my basket. Can you imagine?”
I can imagine. Theft is an integral part of human culture.
Ginny is now trying to convince her mother to buy her a magazine. This is a variation on the ancient human technology of books, but instead of useful or even entertaining content, the pages are filled with articles telling human women they are not pretty enough (amazing as it may seem, humans do sometimes consider each other attractive) and advertisements for mostly ineffective products that are supposed to fix the flaws.
“Tell her, Harry,” Catherine says. “I can’t argue with her anymore.”
“No magazines,” I say. “And that’s final.”
It’s surprisingly easy, pretending to be Dr. Bennington. I smile when people expect me to smile, say “Oh, fine,” when anyone asks me how I am, and pretend to care about those close to me. Sometimes I wonder whether humans are actually like this, cold inside, and their displays of emotion—the songs, poems, paintings—are fake.
The next part of the shopping trip is the only bright spot. We head to the biscuit aisle, where Catherine allows Ginny and I to each pick out a single packet. For those unfamiliar with human culture, a biscuit is a small, hard-baked wheat product. They are divine. My favourite consists of a sweet layer of chocolate cream sandwiched between two chocolate wafers. When I bite into one, I forget for a moment that I don’t belong on this planet. I forget that I am alone. I even forget my plan to dispose of the useless body in which I am trapped. It’s a mystery to me why any human ever does anything other than eat biscuits. I’ve yet to meet a person who doesn’t cheer up at least a little while crunching one.
Next, the most arduous part: the checkout. As we join the queue, which tails back into the aisle so shoppers who are still collecting their goods have to push their way between us, another family’s small boy is screaming. I wish humans could close their ears. At least I’ll be getting out of here tomorrow. I have it all planned out. Instead of going to work, I’ll drive to the pass that winds along the side of a hill and, instead of slowing down as the signs suggest, speed up until I smash through the barriers, hurling the car into open air. My consciousness will be beamed back home, while Dr. Bennington’s body will be crushed between seat and steering wheel as the car nose-dives onto the rocks.
I won’t be sorry to be rid of this body. It always seems to be hungry or hot, cold or tired. The knees are creaky, in dire need of regenerative therapy. Prickly hair grows from the nostrils and ears; trimming it back is a constant battle.
The queue inches forward. The small boy, who stopped crying when his father threatened to “give him something to cry about,” is now squirming and whining that he needs to go to the toilet. Every time he tries to squat down, his mother yanks him up by the arm.
Finally, the family pays for their shopping and leaves. We step forward. I am ready. When the cashier passes the items through, I pile them into the trolley, keeping pace with her breakneck scanning. This isn’t even my planet, and I still manage this process better than the idiots who try to pack their items into bags at the checkout. Ginny and Catherine are still arguing about the magazine.
I tell the cashier I’ll pay by card before she even asks. I reach into my back pocket for my wallet. My pocket is empty. I remember seeing my wallet sitting on my bedside table. Did I really forget to pick it up this morning?
“Where’s my wallet?” I ask Catherine.
“I don’t know. Have you checked your pockets?”
“Yes.” I pat them down again to confirm. “It’s not here. You’ll have to pay.”
“I can’t. I didn’t bring my purse. You always pay.”
We both look at Ginny. “Don’t look at me!” she says indignantly. “Why would I carry a wallet? It’s not like you give me any pocket money to put in it.”
“Honestly, Harry,” Catherine says. “How could you forget? We’re going to have to go all the way home, and by the time we get there and back again, the salmon will have defrosted. And someone will steal the kale. I got the last two bags in the store!”
She looks like she’s about to cry. I feel her pain in my chest: dull and nauseating, as though someone has kicked me in the breastbone. Although I’m sure I have never before felt what humans call empathy, the sensation is strangely familiar. And there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. How could I know how to comfort a human?
“Excuse me,” says a voice behind me. Do humans have no patience at all?
The speaker is a small woman, no taller than Ginny and almost as thin. There are wrinkles around her lips, the telltale sign of a smoker. She holds out a debit card. “I can pay.”
“Why?” I can’t think of anything else to say.
“I know what it’s like. I’ve been in this situation, or as near as. Card declined, account empty. It’s awful, to have to leave it all in the trolley and go home empty-handed. Someone once paid for my shopping, and I’m passing it on. One good deed.”
Stunned, I step aside to give her access to the card machine. “Thanks.”
At the packing shelf, I ask Catherine, “Why did she do that?”
She sighs. “I know you don’t believe it, Harry, but most people are nice. They want to help each other. Lately you’ve been determined to see the worst in everyone.”
Outside, the car park is even busier now than it was when we arrived. Growling 4x4s stalk shoppers to their vehicles and hover until the space is vacated, belching diesel fumes. The usual crowd of homeless people clusters around the trolley park, hoping to guilt shoppers into handing over their pound coins.
“Please?” The woman is grey-haired, her cheeks sunken.
One good deed. Why not? I hand over the coin.
She thanks me effusively. I smile, waiting for a flush of pride to fill me up. But as I walk to the car, I feel only foolish. I have given away money and reaped no benefit in return.
Still, perhaps walking away without giving anything would have felt even worse.
In the car, Catherine and Ginny are already waiting, seatbelts fastened. “Come on, Dad,” Ginny says. “I want to go home. The football’s on TV soon.”
Let them wait a moment. There’s something I need to figure out.
“What did you mean?” I ask Catherine. “About me seeing the worst in everyone?”
Ginny groans. Catherine sighs. I take the key back out of the ignition.
Finally, Catherine says, “You haven’t been yourself lately. I don’t think you realise, but it affects everyone around you.”
“You’ve been so cold. People have noticed; it’s not just me.” She lays a hand on my arm. “It’s not your fault. The depression is back again, isn’t it?”
“It makes it hard for you to see the good in people.”
Dr. Bennington has a condition that affects his ability to observe people? If true, that would invalidate all my research. My time on Earth has seemed unrelentingly negative. For other species, I’ve been able to see through their flaws and report their virtues fairly.
“Harry, I think you should go back to the doctor.”
Something strange is happening to my eyes. They feel hot and itchy. My cheeks are wet.
From the back seat, Ginny says, “I’m sorry, Dad.”
My eyes are leaking so much I can’t see. Catherine puts her arms around me. She takes the keys from my hand. “Don’t worry,” she says. “We’ll fix this.”
Catherine drives us home. I sit in the passenger seat, watching the human world roll by. To me, they still look ugly, angry, and mean. But what if I’m wrong? What if Dr. Bennington’s condition has clouded my judgement?
One thing is for sure: I can’t leave Earth tomorrow. Let’s see what this doctor has to say.
This story first appeared in Asymmetry Fiction, December 2018.