CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Reliable People
Charlie Jane Anders



We have no quota, no set hours. We keep going for as long as burnt coffee recharges us, slouching in lumpy plastic chairs that scritch on the parquet floor of a ground-floor office whose single plate window is blotted by standees of the Candidate, wearing a reassuring smile and a dark pantsuit. We repeat phrases like “bringing back forward thinking” and “the bronze path to the light,” as if we know what they mean. We never look at each other, but we imagine that all our faces wear the same look: professional, focused, ecstatic. Everything smells of sweat, pizza, and overcooked coffee. Nobody ever ventures inside the office, apart from the Candidate and us.

      We know this is a losing campaign. That’s what makes it so amazing to be a part of.

      I don’t even realize I’ve missed dinner with my wife until I look up from the phone and see the old-fashioned digital clock reading 20:38:07. Then I curse and leap up so fast, my chair goes halfway across the room on its side. On my way out the door, I pass the line of standees, and one of them comes to life and waves at me. How long has the Candidate herself been standing there, in the flesh, gazing out our window onto Mason Street?

      “Great work today, Jonah,” she tells me. “Way to keep the sevens fiving.” I nod, as if that phrase means something to me. That’s just how the Candidate talks.

      My wife doesn’t pick up the nine times I try to call her on the drive home, in between throttling the steering wheel and yelling curse words aloud. It’s one thing to have a hobby, but you have to draw a bright line under it. You have to keep the balloons from rubbing together until you’ve got static all up in your thing.

      When I get home, my wife is putting stuff away, like she does when she’s ultrapissed. “Don’t,” she says, preemptively. “Just don’t. I have a conference early tomorrow.” Sukey goes to bed without saying another word.

      I don’t even realize until later that she probably thinks I’m having a fling. I can’t tell her the Other Woman is Marigold Prentiss, the congressional candidate for the nineteenth district from the Greater Good Party, and we’ve barely even shaken hands. I do not think Sukey would understand.

      Things I have done for the Candidate: 1) Show up at a downtown fish restaurant at 5:00 p.m. (leaving work early) so I could occupy a table for ninety minutes—eating several lobster rolls—to hold it for the Candidate, so voters could see her eating at the Ocean Palace during peak hours. 2) Put leaflets on every windshield outside the stadium during the Worthington Slammers ball game, in hundred-degree heat. 3) Follow Congressman Jenkins around in a chicken suit for a whole day, over his refusal to debate Ms. Prentiss, his only challenger.

      All of us in the Candidate’s campaign office are convinced this is the beginning of a great transformation. We will stop destroying the environment, greed will disappear, all living things can have dignity. We repeat her trademark phrases like “Square the Random,” with only a sliver of irony. I bite my lip to avoid saying things like, “Well, I guess we ought to orange our forms” to my wife, in the middle of a conversation. My wife gazes at me with a line through her eyes, somewhere between fatigue and anger.

      The smell of singed coffee makes me feel more alive than anything in years. I wish those standees could guard my bed while I sleep.


 



The Zakanh don’t have a home planet. They evolved in an asteroid cluster revolving around a black hole, as five or six separate species living on separate asteroids. Which converged, enabling them to crossfertilize and splice their DNA together. Before they even spread out into space, they had already stopped thinking of themselves as a race, but rather as a group of beings who were united by a set of cultural tenets.

      They have managed to make a life for themselves on planets with up to twice Earth gravity, and with as little as one-third our gravity, and their societies have changed a lot depending on the type of planet they’ve settled on. Their method of space travel requires a terminus, which must be built locally, including a focusing array inside the nearest asteroid field and a series of jump-hexes.

      The Zakanh spread to new worlds first in the form of pure mathematics, and only much later in physical form.


 



Marigold Prentiss stands in front of her campaign volunteers, all five of us. We sit in our usual chairs, just turned away from the card table where we phone-banked. I still don’t know what the other volunteers look like, because I’ve never looked at them. The next few days are crucial for the campaign, the Candidate says, because we’re on the verge of a historical transformation of human consciousness and the Greater Worthington Area will be Ground Zero. We can end selfishness, she says. The human race is meant to be better, as sure as the raisin underscores. As she says these things, she opens and closes her hand—quick and sporadic, like she’s flicking water off her fingers. I get lost in her voice. As sure as the raisin underscores.

      The new ideas go all the way through me, unpinning all the scaffolding I have built around my mind. So alive, so wild—but then Sukey bursts in to the office, making the door jangle. I snap into the moment and meet Sukey’s eyes. “You gotta be kidding me,” she says.

      “Uh, hi,” I say. “Everybody, this is my wife. Sukey, this is Marigold Prentiss, our, uh, our next congresswoman. And these are her, uh, staff.”

      “Seriously?” Sukey looks at the standees and the leaflets with their pictures of the Earth as a monkey fetus. “Seriously? This is what you’ve been doing instead of coming home to me?”

      “Hello, Sukey.” The Candidate approaches my wife, reaching out with the same hand she’s just been flashing at us over and over. “I’m so pleased to meet you. Marriage is what separates us from angels. Your husband is one of our best.” She wears the same warm, unblinking smile that she displayed when she was at the senior center and unveiled her plan for every retiree to have between one and three llamas to take care of. Or alpacas, one or the other.

      Sukey just takes Marigold’s hand for a moment, looks at it, then lets it go. “I’ll be home waiting.” She turns and leaves.

      At home, Sukey has a bunch of the leaflets out on our IKEA table, which she and I spent a whole weekend assembling—at one point, believing we had put it together correctly until one of us placed a glass of water on top. The table takes up most of the space in our kitchen, and juts into my ass whenever I try to use the stove.

      “Have you read these?” Sukey flips through pages. “‘The seventeenth great ninefold of the era of humble.’ What does that even mean? I mean, the basic ideas are all good. I like the idea that income inequality, racism, sexism, all those things, are just a part of our obsession with hierarchies that put humans above other creatures. That’s not really a viable political position, but it’s cool. But then she goes into this long section about Weathering the Stop, and I’m like ‘What?’”

      I feel shame. Sukey looks at me like I’m some kind of child. There was a time in our relationship when we both started from the assumption that all our mistakes would only bring us closer together. When the two of us spent fourteen hours up to our shoulders in quicksand, on purpose, as part of an Extreme Trailblazer weekend, to work on our relationship. Another time, Sukey baked cookies with ten times as much salt as the recipe called for and no sugar, and they made my mouth prune up. We bought a season ticket to a local rep theater and all their plays were melodramas in Pig Latin. Sukey always smelled like heather, I always wore a hat with a curly insignia. We laughed all the time.

      “Listen, hon,” I say. “I’m getting engaged in the political process, so I thought you’d be proud of me. We’re in a safe district and Jenkins hasn’t even had a real challenger in years. What if we could show that things don’t have to be set in stone? Even if Jenkins fails to win in a landslide this time, that could be the start of something.”

      Sukey looks from the page about Earn-Masking to me, and back to the page again. Her eyes are more circular than linear.


 



The Zakanh apologize instead of saying hello, and they thank each other instead of saying goodbye. The Zakanh word for “visit” is the same as their word for “forget.”

      They have no music or art, but they do have jokes, including a whole range of physical comedy that everybody dances to. Dancing and laughter are the same thing, for the Zakanh. If you dance to their jokes, then you are Zakanh. That is the only test needed for citizenship or marriage, and genetic compatibility doesn’t enter into it.

      The gravest insult one Zakanh can say to another is, “No need to thank me,” or “Don’t mention it.”


 



Sukey keeps complaining about the plastic chair: too low to the ground, too rickety, no lumbar support. But she’s working the phones, dialing and dialing, getting hung up on, leaving voice mails. Occasionally she gets a live human on the phone and puts on the same supersweet hustle that always made me melt when we were first dating in B school. “I was wondering if you had a moment to talk about the upcoming congressional race. What if you had a choice this time? What if you could make a change?”

      It’s Saturday, and I thought Sukey would be at Pilates or something, but when I reached for my weekend jeans and Generic ’90s Band T-shirt, Sukey was lacing up her Skechers. “Let’s go,” she said. “If you’re doing this, then I’m doing it with you.”

      Sukey turns out to be way better at phone canvassing than I am. She sounds reassuring and kind, like someone you want to trust, and she actually draws a few people into a conversation about the Candidate. I feel proud, but also a little jealous and threatened, because I’ve been doing this for weeks and I still kind of suck. After a few hours, I forget what Sukey’s face looks like, and I don’t look at her even though she’s right here.

      Marigold brings in a box of donuts. “Relegate the overhang,” she says jubilantly, and we all nod, stuffing donuts in our faces before returning to the phone lists. Before I know it, another couple hours have passed, and I feel calm and sore all over my body. These chairs are the worst. I smell like donut to myself.

      Sukey goes with Marigold on a visit to a local farmer’s market where the Candidate will tour the stalls and shake hands with business people. Left behind to get hung up on, I try to call as many numbers as possible in a five-minute period, and when someone actually picks up I bleat, “You have a chance to orange your form! Don’t throw this away!”

      Somehow the Candidate has actually raised enough money to put an ad on basic cable and the local The CW affiliate late at night, in which she looks at the camera, motionless except for one pulsing hand. And she says, “I’m serious about fiving my sevens, and you should too. Don’t underflank the commonplace. I’m Marigold Prentiss, and I want to be your next congressperson.” This ad has become a viral sensation on YouTube and social media.

      When Sukey comes back, she immediately slides into her seat and starts making calls. I notice that Marigold keeps coming over and telling her, “Great sixwork, Sukey.” Why isn’t my sixwork great? This is bumming me out.

      At home, Sukey says, “That was actually pretty fun. Are we going back tomorrow? I want to see if I can really Square some Random this time.” I nod slowly. Still not sure what Sukey’s face looks like. In bed next to me, she is a long bean.


 



The Zakanh have only one type of sensory organ. But there are seven separate kinds, dealing with the gases they’re surrounded by, the type and intensity of radiation, the force and vibrations hitting them, and so on. They don’t distinguish between light and heat, or between sound waves and physical force, but they have other distinctions that would be hard to explain. To an outside observer, the different members of the Zakanh would look nothing alike, but they all look the same to each other.


 



The big campaign rally happens at a Unitarian meeting hall that we rented weeks ago, and I’m bracing myself for empty chairs and untouched Costco veggie platters. You know, the kind of sad wilting that happens to broccoli florets that have been left out in a humid room for hours during speeches with no applause, and Q&As with no questions. The curdling of the chive dip, the uncrisping of the carrot sticks! But instead, the meeting hall is full, the veggie platters disappear into mouths that are talking about the great transformation and the Era of Humble. I’m bustling around, making sure everyone has a seat and all the disabled people can get access, and also that the A/V is working. At first I don’t notice Bryn sitting near the front row, and then my heart goes whoops.

      Bryn is the office clown at the Standard Insurance office I work out of, the master of the burn that everyone else repeats for hours afterwards. She’s always tagging other people’s Instagrams with a barbed comment, too. She’s sitting there, perfect eyebrows lifted in hilarity, and I notice Lee and Jasper sitting nearby too. The whole office has come out for this. They’re going to see. They’re going to know what I’ve been sneaking away for.

      “Oh hey, Jonah,” Jasper shouts out. “Come to see the spectacle?”

      “Um, not exactly,” I say. This is what happens when your campaign video becomes a meme.

      I go and sit next to the chair Sukey has claimed, at the edge of the stage, where the Candidate comes out leading an ostrich on a leash. “This ostrich knows something you don’t know,” she tells the audience, “about the bronze path to the light.” Everyone cheers, with irony but also appreciation. I’m one big trash compactor on the inside.

      The Q&A is lively, with people asking the Candidate all about the Roses of What. And whether a domestic thankfoot is compatible with our national economy. She answers very seriously, and repeats the same phrases over and over, while doing that thing with the fingers of her left hand: fist to palm, fist to palm, fist to palm. “Relegate the overhang,” she says, and everyone repeats it after her. “I can’t hear you,” she says. Everyone says it louder.

      As everyone mills around, grabbing the last of the snacks and taking pictures with the Candidate and her ostrich, I cringe. Bryn keeps taking photos with a smug scowl. Lee and Jasper come up and tell me how great it is that I’m hanging my freak flag out to dry, and I want to punch them both blind. They’re trying to keep me trapped in the web of constructive boredom, Congressman Jenkins trampling everything forever, my soul decaying at a predictable rate. The question isn’t Why am I ditching work to toil for a weirdo political figure and her ostrich? but Why aren’t you?

      I turn to Sukey to vent about the shittiness of it all, when I realize she isn’t anywhere to be found. She left before the event even got started.


 



The process of integrating the separate species of the Zakanh into one people took half a million years of congruent evolution, with actual genetic engineering only happening in the final few thousand years. These races were not genetically compatible for most of that time, but they tried to mate anyway, as soon as someone discovered a way to travel from asteroid to asteroid. Thousands of futile mating attempts later, someone succeeded. Over time, hybrids emerged. Some Zakanh scholars theorized that all these constituent species had originated on the same planet, long ago, before they wound up on separate rocks. Or else they wouldn’t have had any chance of interbreeding. Others believed that evolution had randomly converged into forms similar enough to intermingle if people tried long and hard enough. In any case, the Zakanh have gone on to colonize a few dozen actual planets without succeeding in producing offspring with any of the natives of those worlds. But given enough time, anything might be possible.


 



Sukey and I go away for the weekend, to a B&B in the mountains where all the locals smoke weed and make saltwater taffy. After enough cannabis and taffy, everything in life feels squishable. Ever since the rally, Sukey stopped going to the Candidate’s campaign office, like that was just too much of the wrong kind of humiliation, and she couldn’t deal with people seeing her so gullible. I’ve kept showing up now and then, but only to prove something or other. I’m seeing the outlines of Sukey’s face, and we’re holding hands in the mountain air, which tastes crisp as apples. “Relegate the underscore,” I say with some satisfaction.

      There is a long painful silence between us halfway up the mountain trail, which usually means that we’re about to open up and say some difficult stuff. I don’t want to open up. I realize that there’s a version of this story in which I’m the asshole, and I don’t like that version.

      “Are you sick of me?” Sukey asks, adjusting her backpack over her tank top for the tenth time, where it has been chafing the bare part of her shoulders. “Is that what this was about? Why you went off and joined that cult, and didn’t tell me what you were doing?”

      “No,” I say. “No! It’s really not about our relationship. I kind of resent that you want to make this into a relationship thing, in fact.” I steal a glance at her, and what I see makes me feel like total rotting food waste, a crappy partner. I modulate my tone to something softer, more cajoling: “I just wanted to make a difference. I want to be a person again. I am tired of being reliable. Reliable people are shit. I miss the way our life used to be when we were up to our necks in quicksand on purpose. I miss that idea of us. I guess I’m having a quarter-life crisis. Or I dunno, third-life crisis.”

      The mountains are halfway occluded by mist, but they put in a decent effort. They muster some mossy rocks and a lot of half-naked trees. The mountains are fiving their sevens.

      I’m thinking about something Marigold used to say: “The only truth is when.” Unlike a lot of her crazy phrases, that actually sounds kind of profound, but I can never quite unpack what it actually means. Like, is she saying that timing is everything? Or that something is only true at a given moment?

      “Remember when we went and did that Lithuanian LARP, with the sensory deprivation tanks?” I say. “Our lives used to be really bizarre.”

      “So, you’re not having fun any more.” She hitches her pack up and strides ahead of me. I catch sight of her eyes, and they’re like the sea serpents on a treasure map.

      “I mean, yeah. Are you? Having fun, I mean.”

      “I don’t know. Is life supposed to be fun? Is it about fun? Maybe being a grownup is just not fun sometimes. You can’t go out every night in your thirties, or you’ll die.” Sukey’s job is cooler than mine: she works for an organization that classifies sites on the Internet, according to the reading level you need to be at to read them. So if you wanted to know if a website used big words, you could go to this nonprofit’s ranking page, and see if it was at a fifth-grade level or seventh-grade level. I sometimes see Sukey laughing with her coworkers when they go out after work, and it has occurred to me that she might be the Bryn of her office.

      “Okay,” I say, taking the lead on the path, trampling branches. “I don’t want to have fun. I just want to be miserable in an interesting way instead of a boring way.”

      “You’re just another stupid asshole child,” Sukey snorts behind me. “You’d rather light our house on fire than have to grow up. You actually think Lithuanian sensory-deprivation LARPing is a thing to build your life around. Jesus.”

      Later, back at the B&B, we have amazing sex on a pile of taffy. My body is sensitized, from the gaps between my toes to the skin behind my ears, and I am moaning like a cop-car siren. Sukey gets on top of me and grinds.

      “Anathemize sharpness,” she hisses in my ear. “Anathemize … sharpness. Anathemize! Sharpness! Anathemize! Sharpness!”

      “Castigate the parabola!” I yell back. “Castigate the parabola!”

      I think I may have orgasmed three or four times without ejaculating, or maybe I’m just so excited that everything feels like an orgasm. Sukey is thrashing against me, her breasts slapping my face. She bites my nose, then shouts, “Anathemize sharpness!”

      She fucks me into the melting taffy so hard, I have taffy in my ass crack for the next two days. “Regularize bounceback,” she laughs when I tell her this on our way out to the car, to drive home. On the highway, we hear Marigold being interviewed by the local NPR affiliate about her viral notoriety, and we turn it up. Neither of us talks the rest of the way home.


 



Here’s a Zakanh joke: Someone fell ill in the middle of a party. Everyone agreed to keep the party going until they felt better again. In the end, the sick person got well, and everybody else got sick.



Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky, the organizer of the Writers With Drinks literary series, and a founding editor of io9. Her fiction has appeared in Tin House, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, ZYZZYVA, Tor.com, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and in various anthologies.