We always want what we can’t have—which usually comes in the form of something new and shiny and utterly unattainable.
Alien Sex, a collection of short stories from award-winning author Ellen Datlow, features a particularly dark piece by prolific science fiction author, James Tiptree, Jr.—a pen name used by Alice Bradley Sheldon. The story was first featured in the March 1972 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and serves as a warning about letting our desires get out of hand.
In a futuristic society, in which humanity interacts with aliens all over the galaxy, a station engineer warns a young journalist about becoming obsessed with alien visitors—especially in a sexual way. The station engineer recounts his own experience in Tiptree’s startling short story.
Datlow's collection explores relationships with other species—and how sometimes those relationships don't go as smoothly as those involved might like.
Read on for an excerpt of James Titpree, Jr.'s short story "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side" from Ellen Datlow's short story collection, Alien Sex.
“Y’know Little Junction Bar in D.C.? No, you’re an Aussie, you said. Well, I’m from Burned Barn, Nebraska.”
He took a breath, consulting some vast disarray of the soul.
“I accidentally drifted into Little Junction Bar when I was eighteen. No. Correct that. You don’t go into Little Junction by accident, any more than you first shoot skag by accident.
“You go into Little Junction because you’ve been craving it, dreaming about it, feeding on every hint and clue about it, back there in Burned Barn, since before you had hair in your pants. Whether you know it or not. Once you’re out of Burned Barn, you can no more help going into Little Junction than a sea-worm can help rising to the moon.
I had a brand-new liquor I.D. in my pocket. It was early; there was an empty spot beside some humans at the bar. Little Junction isn’t an embassy bar, y’know. I found out later where the high-caste aliens go—when they go out. The New Rive, the Curtain by the Georgetown Marina.
“And they go by themselves. Oh, once in a while they do the cultural exchange bit with a few frosty couples of other aliens and some stuffed humans. Galactic Amity with a ten-foot pole.
“Little Junction was the place where the lower orders went, the clerks and drivers out for kicks. Including, my friend, the perverts. The ones who can take humans. Into their beds, that is.”
He chuckled and sniffed his finger again, not looking at me.
“I ordered … what? A margarita. I didn’t have the nerve to ask the snotty spade bartender for one of the alien liquors behind the bar. It was dim. I was trying to stare everywhere at once without showing it. I remember those white boneheads—Lyrans, that is. And a mess of green veiling I decided was a multiple being from someplace. I caught a couple of human glances in the bar mirror. Hostile flicks. I didn’t get the message, then.
“Suddenly this woman—I’d call her a girl now—this girl said something in a high nasty voice and swung her stool into the arm I was holding my drink with. We both turned around together.
“Christ, I can see her now. The first thing that hit me was discrepancy. She was a nothing—but terrific. Transfigured. Oozing it, radiating it.
“The next thing was I had a horrifying hard-on just looking at her.
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“I scrooched over so my tunic hid it, and my spilled drink trickled down, making everything worse. She pawed vaguely at the spill, muttering.
“I just stared at her trying to figure out what had hit me. An ordinary figure, a soft avidness in the face. Eyes heavy, satiated-looking. She was totally sexualized. I remembered her throat pulsed. She had one hand up touching her scarf, which had slipped off her shoulder. I saw angry bruises there. That really tore it, I understood at once those bruises had some sexual meaning.
“She was looking past my head with her face like a radar dish. Then she made an ‘ahhhh’ sound that had nothing to do with me and grabbed my forearm as if it were a railing. One of the men behind her laughed. The woman said, ‘Excuse me,’ in a ridiculous voice and slipped out behind me. I wheeled around after her, and saw that some Sirians had come in.
“That was my first look at Sirians in the flesh, if that’s the word. God knows I’d memorized every news shot, but I wasn’t prepared. That tallness, that cruel thinness. That appalling alien arrogance. Ivory-blue, these were. Two males in immaculate metallic gear. Then I saw there was a female with them. An ivory-indigo exquisite with a permanent faint smile on those bone-hard lips.
“The girl who’d left me was ushering them to a table. She reminded me of a goddamn dog that wants you to follow it. Just as the crowd hid them, I saw a man join them, too. A big man, expensively dressed, with something wrecked about his face.
“Then the music started and I had to apologize to my furry friend. And the Sellice dancer came out and my personal introduction to hell began.”
The red-haired man fell silent for a minute, enduring self-pity. Something wrecked about the face, I thought; it fit.
He pulled his face together.
“First I’ll give you the only coherent observation of my entire evening. You can see it here at Big Junction, always the same. Outside of the Procya, it’s humans with aliens, right? Very seldom aliens with other aliens. Never aliens with humans. It’s the humans who want in.”
I nodded, but he wasn’t talking to me. His voice had a druggy fluency.
“Ah, yes, my Sellice. My first Sellice.”
“They aren’t really well-built, y’know, under those cloaks. No waist to speak of and short-legged. But they flow when they walk.
“This one flowed out into the spotlight, cloaked to the ground in violet silk. You could only see a fall of black hair and tassels over a narrow face like a vole. She was a mole-gray. They come in all colors, their fur is like a flexible velvet all over; only the color changes startlingly around their eyes and lips and other places. Erogenous zones? Ah, man, with them it’s not zones.
“She began to do what we’d call a dance, but it’s no dance, it’s their natural movement. Like smiling, say, with us. The music built up, and her arms undulated toward me, letting the cloak fall apart little by little. She was naked under it. The spotlight started to pick up her body markings moving in the slit of the cloak. Her arms floated apart and I saw more and more.
“She was fantastically marked and the markings were writhing. Not like body paint—alive. Smiling, that’s a good word for it. As if her whole body was smiling sexually, beckoning, winking, urging, pouting, speaking to me. You’ve seen a classic Egyptian belly dance? Forget it—a sorry stiff thing compared to what any Sellice can do. This one was ripe, near term.
“Her arms went up and those blazing lemon-colored curves pulsed, waved, everted, contracted, throbbed, evolved unbelievably welcoming, inciting permutations. Come do it to me, do it, do it here and here and here and now. You couldn’t see the rest of her, only a wicked flash of mouth. Every human male in the room was aching to ram himself into that incredible body. I mean it was pain. Even the other aliens were quiet, except one of the Sirians who was chewing out a waiter.
“I was a basket case before she was halfway through ... I won’t bore you with what happened next; before it was over there were several fights and I got out. My money ran out on the third night. She was gone next day.
“I didn’t have time to find out about the Sellice cycle then, mercifully. That came after I went back to campus and discovered you had to have a degree in solid-state electronics to apply for off-planet work. I was a pre-med but I got that degree. It only took me as far as First Junction then.
“Oh, god, First Junction. I thought I was in heaven—the alien ships coming in and our freighters going out. I saw them all, all but the real exotics, the tankies. You only see a few of those a cycle, even here. And the Yyeire. You’ve never seen that.
“You can’t have sex with them, y’know. No way. They breed by light or something, no one knows exactly. There’s a story about a man who got hold of a Yyeir woman and tried. They had him skinned. Stories—”
He was starting to wander.
“What about that girl in the bar, did you see her again?”
He came back from somewhere.
“Oh, yes. I saw her. She’d been making it with the two Sirians, y’know. The males do it in pairs. Said to be the total sexual thing for a woman, if she can stand the damage from those beaks. I wouldn’t know. She talked to me a couple of times after they finished with her. No use for men whatever. She drove off the P Street bridge. The man, poor bastard, he was trying to keep that Sirian bitch happy single-handed. Money helps, for a while. I don’t know where he ended.”
He glanced at his wrist again. I saw the pale bare place where a watch had been and told him the time.
“Is that the message you want to give Earth? Never love an alien?”
“Never love an alien—” He shrugged. “Yeah. No. Ah, Jesus, don’t you see? Everything going out, nothing coming back. We’re gutting Earth, to begin with. Swapping raw resources for junk. Alien status symbols. Tape decks, Coca-Cola, and Mickey Mouse watches.”
“Well, there is concern over the balance of trade. Is that your message?”
“The balance of trade.” He rolled it sardonically. “What I’m trying to tell you, this is a trap. We’ve hit the supernormal stimulus. Man is exogamous—all our history is one long drive to find and impregnate the stranger. Or get impregnated by him, it works for women too. Anything different-colored, different nose, ass, anything, man has to fuck it or die trying. That’s a drive, y’know, it’s built in. Because it works fine as long as the stranger is human. For millions of years that kept the genes circulating. But now we’ve met aliens we can’t screw, and we’re about to die trying. … Do you think I can touch my wife? Sex is only part of it, there’s more. I’ve seen Earth missionaries, teachers, sexless people. Teachers—they end cycling waste or pushing floaters, but they’re hooked. They stay. I saw one fine-looking old woman, she was servant to a Cu’ushbar kid. A defective—his own people would have let him die. That wretch was swabbing up its vomit as if it was holy water. Man, it’s deep … some cargo-cult of the soul. ”
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A side door opened and a figure started toward us. At first I thought it was an alien and then I saw it was a woman wearing an awkward body-shell. She seemed to be limping slightly. Behind her I could glimpse the dinner-bound throng passing the open door.
The man got up as she turned into the bay. They didn’t greet each other.
“The station employs only happily wedded couples,” he told me with that ugly laugh. “We give each other … comfort.”
He took one of her hands. She flinched as he drew it over his arm and let him turn her passively, not looking at me. “Forgive me if I don’t introduce you. My wife appears fatigued.”
I saw that one of her shoulders was grotesquely scarred.
“Tell them,” he said, turning to go. “Go home and tell them.” Then his head snapped back toward me and he added quietly, “And stay away from the Syrtis desk or I’ll kill you.”
They went away up the corridor.
I changed tapes hurriedly with one eye on the figures passing that open door. Suddenly among the humans I caught a glimpse of two sleek scarlet shapes. My first real aliens! I snapped the recorder shut and ran to squeeze in behind them.