Chapter art by Novae Caelum.
From the author: You’ve never felt the urge to go base jumping, or reverse-gravity climbing, or any other of the human extreme sports. But…you’re here now. Maybe it’s because you won this trip out of a random cereal box tab contest, and who does that anymore? Or maybe you’re just ready for something new. You’re here. And you’re willing to give this a go.
This story was born from a base jumping suggestion by Marc Criley. See more of his questionable ideas by following @That_MarcC on Twitter. (Thanks, Marc!)
* * *
You’ve just won an all-expenses-paid trip to YoorOOOONGGG-a-u-CHAK-arGEEE, which your phone’s translation app in your earbuds assures you is DonGUUURRZ-ian for “Falling Up.” Whatever that means.
Now, you’re standing in what amounts to a line with a dozen or so non-humans and one other human in the waiting area of Falling Up. As best you can tell, you’re near the core of an enormous space station spoke—one of a nine-pointed star, if you counted correctly out the holo-window as your passenger ship arrived. And, if you’ve read the brochures right, and if the translation app you purchased didn’t totally glitch on you, when it’s your turn you’ll step out into the spoke’s open core and then…fall up?
You’ve never felt the urge to go base jumping, or reverse-gravity climbing, or any other of the human extreme sports. But…you’re here now. Maybe it’s because you won this trip out of a random cereal box tab contest, and who does that anymore? Or maybe you were getting tired of office life, answering customer service calls for non-human species who want to enter the human space of the Terrish Consortium and don’t understand humans’ arcane bureaucratic rules. Or maybe you’re just ready for something new. You’re here. And you’re willing to give this a go.
Whatever that means.
“Here!” The Gurz host (that’s what you’re calling them, because you’re pretty sure your throat can’t make the noises that add up to their full species name, no matter how hard you try) pushes an elaborate-looking contraption toward a Venoram tri-sex person a few people ahead of you. The Venoram’s neck-sacks open and puff out a whiff of noxious-smelling spores that your earbuds helpfully translate as, “Elation!” You watch, trying not to cough, as the Gurz fits the contraption around the Venoram like a harness, bulky parts near the waist, and then guides the over-excited alien toward the smoky-glass door that leads to the open core.
You’ve been squinting out that smoky glass ever since you’ve arrived, trying to figure out how Falling Up works. You can sort of see dots of what might be windows far on the other side of the station spoke, and once or twice you saw a moving speck that might have been a person…or a ship…or a bot? But whatever happens to the extreme tourists who are taken through that door and led somewhere to the right, you haven’t seen it yet.
Your stomach gurgles.
“Hey,” the human two spots in front of you says, turning back to grin at you. “Isn’t this great?” They’re up next.
You wonder if you should say something like, “It’s been nice knowing you, for all of three seconds before we both die,” but decide it’s not funny. Definitely not funny.
Before you can decide what to say, they lean around the person in front of you and hold out their hand. “I’m Dishi. ‘He’ and ‘him.’”
You take his hand and mutter your name and pronouns but wonder if he even hears before he gushes on, “I’m here because I won a vacation! Can you believe that? I mean, I never win anything. I kind of suck at everything. I mean, I didn’t even get close to making any of the null-gee sports teams in school—”
“Wait, what?” You let go of his hand, ignoring the eight-eyed glare from the alien in front of you. “You won this trip, too?”
Dishi’s eyes go wide. “You, too? No way. I mean, that’s great! What do you do? I’m a systems analyst with—”
“Did you win it off the bottom of a cheap box of rip-off cereal?” you ask incredulously. Because this is just too weird. You’re both here as contest winners at the same time? Your ticket didn’t specify a time, it just said to use it within one Standard Galactic League Year. Which is a little over thirteen Earth months.
But then, you decided to take this trip as soon as you got the ticket, so maybe it isn’t that strange. Or that there would be more than one winner. Or that Dishi, excited as he is, would sign up on the first ship he could find, too.
Dishi blinks. “Um. Yeah. I mean, I was so excited to win something, right? But maybe it’s a little weird that a cereal box had a trip to this…place? Whatever you call it?” His thousand-watt smile dims.
The Gurz comes back in, making noises that your translator helpfully supplies as, “I’m pleased, but rushed, but annoyed, but rushed…”
You step out of the line. “Hey, Gurz person?”
The Gurz stops, the weird harness-thing swinging in their three-fingered hands. “What is this? You are not next! This other person here is next. Step up, other person.”
You shake your head. You’re pretty sure the translator earbuds are adding way more enthusiasm than the Gurz is actually displaying. Well, translators, right? It was a cheap app.
“Yeah,” you say. “But, do you know about this contest? Like, why did we win a trip off of random cereal boxes? Both of us?”
Will the Gurz even know what a cereal box is?
You did a bit of research about the Gurz on your trip here. They’ve been out and about in the galactic realm for a while, fought a few wars, instigated various troubles, claimed a place in the Galactic League treaty a few thousand years ago, and are generally considered to have settled down. They’ve now turned most of their worlds into amusement and pleasure planets full of attractions that would appeal to many types of species (and likely repel others). You know plenty of people who’ve vacationed on Gurz worlds. So nothing about a trip to a station orbiting one of their amusement worlds seemed off to you. At least, nothing you weren’t willing to ignore.
But…a cereal box contest? Okay, maybe you were a little desperate to get away from work. Maybe a bit too desperate for adventure.
“Oh!” the Gurz burbles in translation. “Oh! Are you a human! Oh, by the three-toed-gods! Humans! Cereal! The great human food of the many gods!”
Yeah, that translation’s definitely off. But at least the gist of it came through.
Dishi barks a laugh. “What? Cereal?”
The Gurz makes a wailing sound that translates as “extreme excitement” as they stomp in place. “We are so thankful to humans for cereal! We have now implemented this amazing delicacy as a menu item in the food establishments on all our worlds. I myself eat it every day for dinner. And sometimes after dinner, too. I personally like the ones with ultraviolet marshmallows, though I have been told that humans sadly can’t see that color. The color enhances the flavor, you know.”
You look at Dishi. He looks back at you. You’re both wide-eyed, not sure what to do with this.
Okay, so maybe the translated enthusiasm wasn’t that off. This Gurz person just fan-gushed on humans. About cereal.
You narrow your eyes. Have you ever known an alien to fan-gush on humans? Even when you talked to excited tourists, they were almost always condescending. Humans are the new species on the block, after all. It’s only been twelve years since the fall of the Empire and the start of new and actually friendly human governments. With the old Empire’s nastiness toward everyone, you don’t really blame the aliens.
“So…you Gurz made the knock-off cereal?” you ask. Was this whole thing a weird marketing thing? Had they determined that the pinnacle of human cuisine was cereal and wanted a piece of the profit pie?
“Oh no, we have not yet been able to top the perfection of human manufacturing of this delicacy! However, we chose the best brand and paid for special giveaways to thank the humans for inventing such a wonder. It was all over the news. You must have gotten the boxes with Falling Up as the prize! There were twelve different variations of prizes, but this was my favorite, ha! Because I work here, get it? How wonderful is that? I get to help humans of the great cereal makers fall up!”
Okay, so no vested interest in selling cereal. But the Gurz certainly wasn’t that excited about helping the Venoram fall up.
“Uh,” Dishi says, still looking at you, the corners of his mouth turning up uncertainly. “So this isn’t a scam or anything? We’re here all legit, and you’re not going to throw us off the station spoke and harvest our brains or anything?”
“Oh, we’ll throw you off the station spoke,” the Gurz says happily, closing in on Dishi. “It’s fun! Haven’t you read the brochures? You fall up! Up!” They demonstrate with a grandiose sweep of their hands. “And make sure you leave a positive review, each of you, on the Galactic League travel boards—”
“Oh for—” You throw up your hands. “This is a review-buying scam? You give us tickets to get us to pad out your review stats, because we’re humans and we’ll fall for it?”
“Fall up for it,” Dishi helpfully supplies.
You shoot him a glare, but you’re halfway to laughing yourself at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.
The Gurz waves their arms, trills something, and your translator says, “Emphatic negation!”
“No! This is a legitimate contest! We love cereal, truly—I can show you a holo of my very own hatchling eating cereal this very morning—”
You fight the urge to roll your eyes. You got burned on that once before when an Anjeri interpreted it as a mortal insult. You have no idea about the Gurz. “Yeah, I’m sure. Look, is it dangerous?”
“Oh, no, it’s perfectly safe—”
“And are your reviews mostly good so far?”
“Of course! We just—I mean—” The Gurz’s enthusiasm winds down. “We just opened a half year ago. The competition’s fierce, you know? I put everything into this ride. Everything my family has. It would mean so much—the hatchlings—if you left a positive review—”
They’re panting now. Or laughing at the stupid humans, or crying—you aren’t sure. And your translator app is singularly unhelpful because you couldn’t afford a body language module.
You look at Dishi. And you wonder how much contact he’s actually had with non-humans by the way his face is all scrunched up, flickering through competing emotions. Granted, this Gurz is more…well, more than you were expecting, but you’ve seen that pained look before on the faces of brand new co-workers answering calls. It usually lasts about a week. Dishi’s in cultural overload.
You’ve helped Ete-kepattet navigate human traffic systems and once talked an aquatic Bloofth through filling out a Consortium customs form that ran counter to her species’ native thought patterns. (Actually, it ran counter to most species native thought patterns, including your own.) You ate a whole tub of ice cream congratulating yourself on remaining sane after that one.
Maybe the contest is shady, but the Gurz seems sincere enough now. And you can’t imagine they’d be after good reviews if the ride was actively killing its passengers or anything. And, you’re here. On vacation. With a winning ticket and another human who needs some fun in his life as badly as you do.
You shrug, cut around the grumbling alien in front of you, and grab Dishi’s hand.
You ask the Gurz, “Can we do it—whatever we’re about to do—together? I think it would be more fun that way.”
Dishi gives you the biggest, most relieved grin you’ve ever seen. “Yes. Yes, please? Together would be great.”
“Oh! Are you a mating pair?” The Gurz perks up. “Here, I have a special harness that lets mating pairs stay close together without bashing into each other while they’re falling up—”
“No, we’re not a—” you protest, but the Gurz has gone off again.
Dishi squeezes your hand. His smile turns shy as dimples poke his cheeks. You feel your own lips stretching in answer.
You keep holding hands as the Gurz comes back and hooks you both into the double harness. And when you go through the smoky door out into the echoing expanse of the open station spoke, you both gasp.
“Wow,” Dishi says.
You just nod. That’s the only word you can think, too, as you look up and down, surveying several cities’ worth of lights. It’s like someone took a whole world and wrapped it all around you.
“And, we fall up?” you ask, pointing upward.
“Yes!” the Gurz shouts. “Do you want to fall fast, or slowly?”
You bite your lip and look at Dishi. There’s a glint in his dark eyes and you know what he’s thinking. Fast might be more fun. But slow would let you take it all in, wouldn’t it? Slow would give you more time. Slow, your hands locked together, might be the greater adventure.
You look up again and, far up the station wall, can just see a blinking red light and a Gurz in a harness leaning out over a ledge, lazily waving one of their arms. It’s not that long of a fall up. It would be a rip-off, actually, if you chose to fall fast. And if you’d actually paid for this trip.
“Slow,” you say. “Definitely slow.”
The Gurz adjusts your double harness. “Eat your cereal! And leave a good review!”
Then you and Dishi step off the ledge and slowly float upwards in a tunnel of lights.