“This is naughty,” Kinky678 linked me to a porn web page, “this is naughtier, and this is horrible.” With each chat ping, another naked woman materialized in my kitchen.

“Whoa there,” I said, pissed that she hadn’t asked if I found porn acceptable. The pay per view holograms began to cajole me for money. I erased them with a sigh.

I’d only met her a couple of weeks ago, and she teased incessantly, but I kept coming back for more. She had sass, and made wry comments about my genitals (which she hadn’t seen) as other women comment on clothes. She kept sending me pictures of herself, a foot, a wrist, a fluorescent tattooed navel. Nothing that would help me recognize her if I met her on the street, but enough to set my mind aflame. She insisted I call her Kinky.

“Let’s meet in person,” I asked again. She laughed me off.

“Are you sure this girl is cool?” asked Joanna at lunch-break. “She could be a drug dealer, or a minor. Have you thought of that?”

I winced. Kinky did sound young sometimes and I had considered that possibility, but I hadn’t asked because I didn’t really want to know. I was smitten. I looked imploringly at Joanna, but she glared back.

“Promise me you’ll ask her age. And don’t have another off-color conversation until you know she’s legal.”

I promised. Joanna was right. I wondered if I wasn’t already in trouble.

When I got home, I popped the question.

“16,” she answered.

Damn. I hesitated on the verge of continuing the conversation. No, I couldn’t. I wondered if, deep down, I hadn’t known all along. I hated myself for it.

“Nice talking to you, Kinky, but you need to find someone your own age.” She wouldn’t like this. The screen flickered and I wondered if something was wrong with the computer. Then Kinky’s personalized chat slides disappeared and were replaced by a message:


Kinky678 is a program operating under Anti-Minor Abuse Law 278. You have not committed a crime. No charges will be brought against you. In accordance with New Jersey citizen privacy laws, Kinky678 is an artificial persona. There were no human operatives monitoring your conversations.

I stared at the screen. I already missed her. I thought for a while, and then I bought the latest dating software. I couldn’t have Kinky, but her older sisters were fair game.

After twelve years, the Gate, constructed on Peaks Island off the coast of Maine, was complete. The Cancrians had removed their spaceships from where they had been parked around Portland and Brunswick, explaining that their drive mechanisms would interfere with the Gate’s operation. We–everybody, I mean, the whole world–was watching when the First Lady, escorted by an honor guard of Marines and several of the tall, hunched Cancrians, stepped up to flip the switch.

And by “everyone,” I don’t just mean Americans: this had been a world effort. After the initial arguments, the raging debate, a feeling had gradually spread that the interstellar age really had dawned, and it was our destiny to enter it as a species. I doubt there were more than a few thousand people in the entire world who weren’t there in Portland or else glued to their TVs to see the Gate opened.

There had been speeches, you know, obviously. I’m not going to tell you there weren’t speeches. But who cares about the speeches? What could they say other than “Wow, we’re about to open a portal directly onto another populated planet! How cool is that? And scary. And sobering. Wow, people!” Not much. The speeches took up an hour and a half, but that’s all they said.

The First Lady stepped up to the control pedestal, and a deep, stomach-shaking whirr shook the world as it lit up automatically. She placed her hand on the receptor, and with a sound like angels gargling, the Gate opened, spilling light out onto the massive crowd. We looked through it and saw … Maine. There was a grinding noise. Something crackled, and all at once the lights on the unit went out. It was deathly quiet. The Gate had failed.

We were all stunned for a little while, so stunned that I think it was at least a few minutes before anyone realized that the Cancrians had snuck off somewhere. Where were they? The odd, shy, infinitely harmless-seeming Cancrians … what had happened to them? And why, when they clearly were technological geniuses, didn’t their gate work?

“Hey!” someone shouted (I later found out that he had been checking a Hawai’ian webcam on his Blackberry). “Where the hell is the Pacific Ocean?”

I’d been on a panel discussion about Noh theater, and the bison girl had caught me on my way out and asked if I wanted to have coffee. I should have gotten out of it, but 1) I couldn’t come up with an excuse and 2) I was distracted by her tight-fitting costume. She had a lithe, beautifully-proportioned body. But it disturbed me that the body had a tail and a bison’s head.

My friend Isaac had tried to explain furries to me before I left for the convention. At one point he’d said, “There are furries, and then there are yiffy furries. The regular furries are just having fun.”

“Then what are the yiffy furries doing?” I’d asked.

He’d just laughed at me.

We were sitting. The bison girl sipped iced coffee through a long straw she’d taken from her purse. “Insurance,” she said, answering my last question. “I’m a field adjuster.”

“I should have guessed you’d work in the field,” I said. She laughed: a beautiful laugh, for a bison. And you had to admire her mask, especially around the eyes. Of course, the expression didn’t change–but then, masks aren’t an extension of your face: they’re a replacement for it, a veil, a barrier, a statement, a simplification, a distraction.

My watch beeped. “Oh, I have to get to my next panel,” I said, relieved.

“What are you doing after? Want to get some dinner?”

Just for a moment, I considered it. I thought of the graceful shape under the fur. Then I thought about Isaac laughing. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. I waited for her to ask me why. Apparently she didn’t need to.

“Fine,” she said. “That’s funny coming from you–but fine.”

“I just don’t feel very comfortable with … uh, furries.”

“Obviously,” she said. “I just thought, working with masks, you might get what this is about.”

“Artistically? Sure,” I said. “Personally? No clue.”

She stood then and pulled off her mask. Her face glimmered with perspiration, framed by damp tendrils of dark hair. I would have recognized her anywhere: Jessie Rosner, the girl I’d been obsessed with all though high school. I’d never gotten to say more than two words to her, until today.

“You know, just because your face shows,” she said, “doesn’t mean you’re not wearing one.” Then she turned her back on me and left.

Rowena blew dust from the stone tablet.

“Look here.” She pointed at some blurred characters.

“I can’t read them,” I replied, “these are pre-Mayan. No one can read this script.”

“I know,” she replied, brushing a lock of hair away from her face. “But last night I dreamed about a stone city. I read this inscription on a temple gate. Listen.”

As she recited the alien syllables I felt that I almost understood them, that I knew the dread city of which she spoke.

I clapped my hands over my ears. “Stop!”

“People stood around an altar. A priest cut out your heart with a gold knife. The heart was given to me.” I looked at her, but she turned away. “I ate it. You were dead.”

“We should leave,” I said. “Now.”

I seized her arm, but she slipped out of my grasp, darting through a door that gaped nearby. I ran after her. She eluded me among the shafts of light and darkness. When I came to a courtyard I was surprised to see her standing there beside a stone table the height of her chest.

“This is the place,” she whispered, “this is where I saw you slaughtered.”

“That was a dream.”

Even as I said this I thought I remembered the scene she had described, and I felt something stir within me. Her sorrowful expression changed to one I could not interpret.

I was on my back. I tried to tell her that I needed food, that I felt hungrier than I ever had, but no words came. I sat up. I caught her hands and tried to explain, but she would not listen, trying to pull free, and shouting. I gave up on talk. There was no time for that now. Hunger was all I had, my vision shrank to a blurry point, and I could do nothing but fill my belly.

I came to my senses on the open hillside. My shirt was wet. The sun set in a welter of crimson and ragged shreds of cloud. A couple of Mayan youths in shorts and dirty shirts stood near. I called to them, but when they approached me their faces changed and they fled. I struggled to my feet, felt the awful hunger returning. Maybe the young men would give me food. I stumbled after them in the gathering dusk.

The end

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