Yeah, I’ve come to terms with it. I’m not going offworld to do anything noble, like teach aliens how to speak human languages, or to plant trees, build houses, or pass out blankets and water during emergencies. I’m going offworld to go live in the house of some rich Blorgnathian who’ll spend the next five years licking my face.
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Roy, seriously? Seriously, Roy? You’re going to let those guys put their slimy, warty tongues all over you? You don’t really believe they’ll stop at licking, do you? Have you read that article in the Times? ‘Humans: A Blorgnathian Delicacy?’”
I get it. But I have no idea, no idea what to do with my life, and I’m a few seconds away from the big three-oh, and even if I do end up getting eaten by a scaly, slime-tongued alien in the end, at least I’ll get to see the stars from space and as much of their planet as I want to see. Their planet, Blorgnat, is…stunning. Lavender sky. Deep blue forests. Almost as stunning as Earth.
I love Earth. But I don’t appreciate Earth. Maybe I will once I’ve spent some time away. Maybe I’ll miss it. Maybe it will miss me.
I’m not going to get eaten. That might be considered heroic. And when have I ever been heroic? Embarrassing and undignified is probably more my style. So it’s more likely I’ll return home, unharmed and intact, after five years of…well, I can’t call it “service” even though that’s what it says on my paperwork. After five years of…submission? Compliance? Yeah, I’ll go with compliance. After five years of compliance, I’ll return home to where everyone will know what I allowed a Blorgnathian to do to me.
But why is it such a big deal? People let dogs lick their faces all the time, and don’t get me wrong, I love dogs as much as the next red-blooded Earthling, but we all see where their tongues go before they go on a human face, don’t we?
It’s the power dynamic, isn’t it? Dogs are under our thrall, so it’s fine. Let them lick. They’re showing affection. It’s their version of a kiss.
Going down that line of reasoning makes me feel uneasy. I don’t know why. It’s inaccurate. I won’t be anyone’s pet. That’s not what will be happening. I’ll just stand still while a slimy tongue wipes across my cheek. A clean, sterile slimy tongue. One meal a day. No more. “Blorgnathian palate cleansing” they called it. That was a nice and neutral term.
Neutral. That was the name of the game. Neutrality.
Blorgnathians didn’t eat sentient species, and lucky for humans, we qualified as sentient. But on top of that, they had discovered over a decade ago that the natural secretions of human skin had health benefits for them when absorbed through the tongue. (I don’t know and don’t think I want to know how someone figured that out.) The Blorgnathians are a clever people, and let’s not be shy about it, so are we humans. Both peoples immediately started working on developing a synthetic version of whatever it was about our skin that helped the Blorgnathians so much. While they worked it out, there was a temporary demand for humans for them to…uh…lick.
I know. I know what you’re thinking. “What the hell, Roy? Walk away. Walk away now.”
Just hold on. Let me finish.
It wasn’t until I started looking into becoming a volunteer that I learned about what really happens when a Blorgnathian tongue hits a human face. (I was looking for subtle clues, or rather, red flags. You know, words like “flavorful,” or “savory” or even “satisfying.”)
What I found out, assuming it’s true, was surprisingly boring.
To the Blorgnathians, human skin was not so much a treat as a neutral palate cleanser between rare and pungent delicacies.
I had signed up on a five-year commission to stay on Blorgnat as a “Cultural Ambassador.” But the reality was that I was there to do one job and one job only. I was there to serve as a Palate Cleanser.
The Blorgnathians were giants who had very sensitive tongues and who enjoyed very elaborate meals. The eating and enjoying of food was a meaningful cultural (and I think spiritual?) tradition. To fully enjoy their meals of two dozen or so different foods, they’d always used Palate Cleansers, tools to cleanse their palates in between trying different dishes. Since ancient times, they’d searched for and tried to develop more effective Palate Cleansers. Nothing has ever quite worked completely.
In modern times, some Blorgnathians trusted in ancient remedies, like chewing on the branch of a rare tree that only grew in a single mountain range that was hard to access. And some trusted in cutting edge technology, like nano-juices that were supposed to release little robots to “chemically neutralize flavors and odors.”
Then, along came humans.
Human skin secretes a unique set of chemicals that completely neutralizes the flavor sensation in a Blorgnathian tongue. The discovery was unprecedented. The phenomenon made us completely uninteresting as a potential food, and at the same time, made us the potential key to unlocking the greatest treasure they had ever sought. Neutrality.
After some resistance on the part of human governments, an agreement was made about ten years ago. Human volunteers would go to Blorgnat and allow themselves to be studied by both Blorgnathian and human researchers. People were nervous about that. I remember my Uncle Manny glaring at the screen whenever the Planetary Presidents came on, talking about “our new friends.” The Blorgnathians had a lot to offer us, in terms of technology and raw materials, especially when it came to space travel. They had no trouble hopping from system to system. But we were still chugging along studying our own sector with unmanned probes and landers.
Then, things got weird. The governments of both planets put out a call for another type of volunteer. They needed Palate Cleansers, humans who would allow themselves to be licked throughout the one meal that Blorgnathians ate each day.
There would be no pay, no benefits to the individual PCs. They would be serving for the good of humanity. In return for providing human Palate Cleansers, the Blorgnathians sweetened the existing deal with the Planetary Presidents. It was a good deal. If no one volunteered, we still had a great deal. But if people did volunteer, Earth would only benefit more.
To protect human Palate Cleansers from being sold, traded, or trafficked the Blorgnathians were forbidden from providing any kind of compensation, even room and board. The PCs had to find jobs and a place to stay on their own. There were volunteer organizations on Blorgnat who helped with that though, so that wouldn’t be a huge problem.
And what did the volunteers get out of it?
Certainly not any recognition back home. The choice to be a PC was considered optional. It didn’t add anything to humanity’s overall advancement—or that’s how people saw it. And there was so much work that a person had to do before even being accepted to the PC program—exercise, diet, language learning, and all.
There were rumors that Blorgnathian saliva had some benefits for the humans they licked. Some said it would give you a nice buzz. Others said it was like youth serum and kept wrinkles away. And still others said it could be used as some kind of osmotic knowledge transfer.
All of it was wishful thinking probably, by PCs who wanted to believe there was something more to the ritual of palate cleansing. I hadn’t seen any legitimate research studies on any of the rumors.
If Blorgnathian saliva had medicinal properties, I’m sure our people would have been on it from the get-go.
I had to shake all that off and keep my head on straight. The only benefit I’d have is that I’d get to travel to and around another planet. And if I finished out my five years, there would be a permanent commendation on my citizen service record. That would definitely help me get jobs back home.
And I had unlimited education credits to spend on whatever I wanted to learn for the next five years. People don’t talk about that much, which is weird. But that was the real reason I had signed up. My family and I had paid for me to get a college education. And I had wasted it on a marketing degree that I had no idea how to use, even if I wanted to. I should have become a philosopher like I had dreamed. I thought it would be impractical.
And then along came the Nujowie. And their hunger for new philosophies.
Of all the alien races that we’d gotten to meet and know over the course of my lifetime, the only one that could I be of any use or value to was the Blorgnathians.
I see you. Arms crossed, giving me side-eye. Shaking your head. “Oh, Roy,” you’re thinking. But done is done. I’ve made my decision. I’ll live with it.
Or I’ll die with it.
I left everything behind, just as I was instructed. I put my stuff in storage. I actually made arrangements in case something happened to me. The only thing I’d be taking to Blorgnat was me myself. The clothes on my back would have to be returned. The security tag embedded in my forearm belonged to the Joint Earth-Blorgnat Council.
And pretty soon…even the invisible stuff I was shedding and secreting on my skin would not be mine to keep.
I’d hoped to see a nebula or something on my way to Blorgnat. Before being accepted, I’d imagined looking out of a window when the ship went to hyperspeed or whatever their ships used to travel between galaxies. But I and every other living thing onboard—human, Blorgnathian, animal, plant, you name it—had to be suspended in some kind of translucent goop to protect us from the stresses of…hyperspeed or whatever.
So the only nebulas I saw were in my actual dreams as I slept through the seven months it took for us to travel from Earth to Blorgnat.
I woke up in a bright room. It felt like less than a day. And it also felt like I’d woken from a years-long coma.
I could breathe easily. The room was sized for me. The bed was as big as two kings put together. Human attendants came to check on me and measure my vital signs. They told me I was in a volunteer center, the one closest to my assignment. One of them announced herself as my “situation liaision,”Gail. That part I had managed to read about. Gail would be checking up on me from time to time, to make sure I was okay. And I could call on her any time if I ran into any trouble related to my “work” as a Palate Cleanser. (Any trouble I got into on my own would be mine to deal with. Though, I don’t know that I’d be doing any dealing. If I violated even a minor law, I’d be stripped of my position and sent home.)
Gail would make sure that I was okay. But she would also make sure that I was in compliance.
I had a lot of ground rules to follow. I had to keep up with reading about the latest volunteer policies and procedures. I had to keep myself in good shape with exercise and activity. I had a strict diet (which despite being marked as “strict” just seemed like my regular pattern—days of normal food with the occasional junk scattered in). I mentioned being curious about Blorgnathian cuisine, but Gail said it was forbidden for humans to even taste. The way she made it sound, I’d be defiling the Blorgnathian’s sense of decency by even thinking about trying their food. She emphasized that the diet rules were in place to ensure that the composition of my skin secretions remained consistent.
Even though the air and the gravity seemed identical to Earth, it was different enough that I’d need a day or two to acclimate. I spent that day or two feeling slightly woozy and blinking a lot. I still felt a little off when Gail took me over to the house of the Blorgnathian who would be my host for the duration of my service.
I thought he’d meet us at the front door—the gigantic front door. It must have been five stories high and wide enough for four cars to drive through side by side. There was a small, human-sized door set into the giant door. Gail didn’t knock. She handed me a key and a marked map of the areas that I was allowed in. And she reminded me that I must return to the volunteer center by curfew. I had a job interview in the morning. I’d only be allowed to stay at the volunteer center till the end of the week.
She left, and I looked down at the map.
It led me right to the dining room.
The room was sparse, just a giant dining table and a couple of giant stools. No décor on the walls. I climbed a set of stairs that were built for humans and pushed against the side of the dining table so I could reach the tabletop. Music was playing. Some kind of stringed instrument that sounded like a harp, but watery. There was nothing on the dining table except a single silvery platter.
“Good, you’re here!” a warm voice boomed.
Until that moment, I’d only seen Blorgnathians from afar, even on the ship coming over here. When my host approached the table and settled onto one of the stools, even though I’d known what to expect, I couldn’t help but to gape. He…was…huge!
Like me, he had a head with two eyes, two nostrils, a mouth. He might have had ears, but I couldn’t see them under the brownish hood he wore over his head. He had two arms and two hands, and even opposable thumbs. I noticed he held familiar-looking utensils in those hands. A knife and a fork. Both to taller than me. My host’s chest and arms were covered in scaly plates, and some of them were cracked, which made me wonder if he was older. From his waist, I couldn’t see anything but what looked like the top of a huge pumpkin. A huge green pumpkin. He was all green, green like an olive, except for his tongue. I saw glimpses of it when he licked his tubular lips. His tongue was a sickly yellow-green.
“Welcome to my home, Roy!” my host said. And as…nervous as I was at how he looked, he sounded, well he sounded nice.
I raised my arms to my sides according to their custom of professional greeting.
My host’s shoulders jigged up and down.
“Very good,” he said. “Please, step onto the platter so I may have a good look at you.”
My mouth went completely dry. My heart began to pump faster. I gulped and it was a dry gulp. Even seated he was so tall that I couldn’t quite see his eyes under that hood.
I did as I was asked. I approached the platter.
The scent of fresh ripe strawberries suddenly overwhelmed me. I knew something about it. But I couldn’t really think.
Before the core meal, Roy. What do they do?
Oh, that’s right. I remembered. They ate fruit before they even came to the dining table. I must have been smelling it on my host’s breath.
Standing on the platter, I fell under his shadow. I raised my arms again and looked up at him.
He leaned his head back a little. He rested his fists on either side of the platter, still holding those utensils. I began to wonder how fast he could move. If he tried to jab that fork into me, could I get out of the way? I shifted my eyes downward, looking for the stairs. I couldn’t jump off the table. It was too high. If I needed to get away, I’d have to go for the stairs. They seemed so far…
My host began to speak again.
“You’re so…well, don’t take this the wrong way, Roy, but you’re rather disgusting-looking. I didn’t think a creature with bilateral symmetry could be so…” He trailed off with a shudder.
I guessed that gesture meant the same on Blorgnat as it did on Earth.
Then his shoulders jigged up and down again, and I realized that he was laughing.
“I’m so rude,” he said. “No need to put up with it, Roy. You put me in my place if I go too far. I don’t expect you to be thick-skinned.”
“Uh…thank you, sir,” I said. The Blorgnathians had thousands of languages. But they developed a common planetary language, first for themselves, and then for teaching other species. It was designed to be easy to learn, but I’d still been surprised at how quickly I’d picked it up during Earth-side training. Still, I couldn’t help worrying that I’d pronounce something wrong and cause an intergalactic incident.
“Sir?” My host leaned toward me now. “Oh, that’s right. I haven’t introduced myself yet. Told you. Rude.”
He shifted in his stool and straightened his shoulders, and I expected him to spout off a long impressive title, like the ones that the Blorgnathian ambassadors to Earth had. Murglowin, the Star-traveler, Born of the Line that settled the Eastern Marshlands, Seventh Ambassador to our Esteemed and Cherished Ally, Planet Earth. Something like that.
I took a breath and waited for him to speak.
“I am Jim.”
I waited. But that was all he said.
I smiled. “Esteemed host, have you chosen an Earth name to make it easy on me, because your true name would be too difficult for me to pronounce correctly…or maybe, perhaps, is too revered to be revealed to me, a humble Palate Cleanser?”
My host’s shoulders jigged up and down. He was laughing again. He knew what I’d been getting at, and he set me straight.
Jim was his name. His name was Jim. On Earth. On Blorgnat. Jim.
Small world, I thought, and decided I’d try real hard not to make assumptions.
But just as I made that decision, Jim’s mouth opened, not to speak, but to make way for his tongue. Strings of saliva stretched across his gaping maw. I saw teeth inside the dark cavern of his mouth, blunted and some cracked. The yellow-green tongue extended out and then down, and down. It slithered down his chest until it was more than the length of his torso. Globs of saliva dripped from his tubular lips. His tongue was pocked with small pits, and there were these raised round areas that looked like some kind of pox, but I had the feeling it was a normal part of Jim’s tongue. The tongue thinned and tapered until came to a point that was as wide as my hand.
I felt the heat coming off the tongue as it stretched past me and closer to me. Except my face and hands, my skin was covered head-to-toe. The uniform of a Palate Cleanser was dark pants and a lavender lab coat and purple sneakers.
I stood still as the tip of Jim’s tongue rippled next to my face. It brushed against my cheek and I couldn’t help flinching a little and closing my eyes.
I opened them immediately. I didn’t stop myself from looking up and gaping as that massive tongue retracted back into Jim’s mouth.
Jim set his knife and fork down. He was silent for a moment.
He bowed his head toward me. “I have never in my life experienced true Neutrality until this moment.” His voice was quiet as he spoke, quiet and deep.
I was supposed to respond with “it is my pleasure to serve,” but I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t my pleasure. Or his. This was…it’s weird to say it, but it felt…solemn.
“Thank you, Roy,” he said.
I felt my eyes go wide for a second. I still couldn’t tell where his eyes were, and if he was looking at me. But I bowed my head.
“I’ll ask you to leave now,” Jim said, and his voice changed again. The liveliness returned to it, the warmth. “Please return once my first course is finished. I’ll yell for you, all right?”
I blinked. “All…all right. Thank you, sir—Jim.”
As I walked down the stairs from the tabletop to the floor, I saw a door swing open, and a house servant holding a blue platter with steam coming off the top walked through it. I couldn’t see the food. But I smelled it, like a tangy curry. To the Blorgnathians, eating was a private activity to be enjoyed alone or at most with one intimate partner. Jim wouldn’t touch any food until he was alone in that dining room.
I followed the map to the PC’s waiting room. There was a couch, a pitcher full of water, and a shelf full of books to read. I’d already had my dinner before I left the volunteer center.
I braced myself for another three or four hours at Jim’s house, and another nineteen or so licks.
I touched my cheek where Jim’s tongue had made contact. It was dry. He’d barely touched me.
While Jim ate, I stared at my cheek in the reflection of the metal drinking cup in the room.
I didn’t seem to be developing hives or redness or anything.
Half an hour later, I heard Jim calling.
I marched back into the dining room and up the dining table stairs. The blue platter was gone. The knife and fork were gone too. A pungent lemony-cumin aroma lingered in the air. I noticed something else too. That watery harp music was gone. Something else was playing. Something familiar.
The popping percussion, the strumming of the same three chords, the surging but sweet voice of a woman belting out a rhyme about love and kisses. I knew that song.
I grinned as I approached my host.
“Rock and roll,” Jim said.
I burst out laughing.
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
“Don’t get comfortable, Roy. Don’t let him fool you into thinking he’s all right. Any minute now, Roy. That fork is going straight through your heart. And even it doesn’t…Roy, even if it doesn’t, I mean look at what you’re doing. You’re disrespecting your body.”
I hear you, friend. I hear you. But I’m not sure if you’re right on this one. If you were here, maybe you’d change your mind. Or maybe you wouldn’t. But you’re not here. I am here. And I’ll have to figure it out for myself. I think there’s more to this than what anyone knows who hasn’t done it. Is it right? Is it wrong?
I stepped onto the silvery platter.
I’d been warned against saying and doing a lot of things—most of them having to do with not offending my host. And it was only just my first night. But I’d have to figure a lot out for myself. I might as well start learning now.
“Have you ever tried human food?” I asked. I held my breath.
Something like a sigh escaped Jim’s nostrils. “I have actually.” He paused and leaned down. “I must tell you, Roy, I found it a bit bland.”
I nodded, and I braced myself as I watched that tongue, that crazy unnerving tongue come slithering toward me again.
And when it was over, I bowed to my host. He bowed to me.
I breathed deeply, and I walked back to the Palate Cleanser’s waiting room to the faint sound of human rock n’ roll.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel