"So this was in space?" said Bizarro Kate. She picked up a hollow dome of packing foam, the ION SHIPPING half of the CONSTELLATION SHIPPING casing, and nearly dropped it, surprised at how light it was.
"Yeah," said Jenny, "for about ten minutes."
"It's strong, yeah? Can I sit on it?"
"I guess," said Jenny. "Is this your thing? Have we found your thing? Sitting on stuff that was in space?"
Bizarro Kate dropped the foam onto the floor of Jenny's living room and straddled the dome like a mechanical bull. "Wee-hoo!" She waved her baseball cap around by the brim.
"Put some friggin' weight on it if you're gonna," said Jenny. "It can take it."
"I don't think you need to sculpt it at all," said Bizarro Kate. She de-straddled the casing. "Just do a readymade. I mean, it's a phallus from space. Ain't no topping that."
"Seriously?" said Jenny. "Space phallus? That's some sloppy-ass symbolism."
"Not as sloppy as your mom."
"Oh, you're real classy," said Jenny. She lifted her half of the casing above her head like the Ten Commandments. "Now, attend to the Reverend Jenny. Are you attending?"
Bizarro Kate yawned deliberately, hand in front of her mouth.
"This is an eggshell," said Jenny. "The color of the moon. A hermaphrodite dropped it from the sky and it gave birth to a machine. We got a whole creation myth here. I'm not wasting it on a dick joke. Can I get an amen?"
"Amen," said Bizarro Kate reluctantly.
"And I already sculpted it," said Jenny. "I cut it open with alcohol and scooped out the goodies. So it's not gonna be some lazy-ass readymade. That cherry been popped."
"So use the negative space," said Bizarro Kate. She stood up and turned the ION SHIPPING half of the casing upside-down. There was a hole in the casing the size and shape of an antique Farang computer. "Yeah, it's a womb, too! Use it as a mold."
"I want to sculpt it," said Jenny. She set the CONSTELLAT half of the casing on her work table and dipped a cotton swab into a Petri dish of alcohol. "Look at this shit." She gently swiped the side of the casing and tiny grey particles of who-knows-what broke off the friction-blasted surface into the cotton. "It's a totally new material. It's like being the first person to sculpt marble."
"Can I have some?" said Bizarro Kate.
"You may not," said Jenny. "The one you dry-humped is officially my practice piece. Once I figure out how to work the material, I'll sculpt the other half."
"Into what?" said Bizarro Kate.
"I'll get an idea once I work with it," said Jenny.
"Do the Godzilla statue," said Bizarro Kate. "Do it in space foam and get it over with."
"Mecha this," said Bizarro Kate, indicating the part of her body she would like mecha-ed, preferably on an outpatient basis.
"Protector of Earth is two hundred feet tall," said Jenny. "That is how tall it is. I'm willing to compromise on the scale if we can get, like, a shrink ray to reduce the relative size of the viewers. Otherwise..."
"Oh, do what's-his-name. The guy who gave this to you."
"Ariel?" said Jenny. "I don't think he—"
"The hermaphrodite," said Bizarro Kate.
"That'd be Curic," said Jenny.
"I saw them on the net," said Bizarro Kate. "They're tiny. Like teddy bears. Same basic shape as the, uh, eggshell. You could do him life-size."
Jenny tried to gauge the size of a Farang with her hands and the CONSTELLAT half of the casing. "They gotta be bigger than this," she said. "Your computer can't be bigger than you are."
"Well they're pretty damn small," said Bizarro Kate.
"I'll do a study," said Jenny thoughtfully, "and we'll see how it looks."
How it looked: awful. Jenny's clay study was a kindergarten gift for an undiscerning parent. Nothing she did to this bastard made it look like a Farang, or anything that could have lived on any planet, unless there was a planet where freeform blobs of modeling clay lived carefree lives, unencumbered by gravity or the laws of anatomy.
Humans are hard-coded to recognize human faces. If a sketched or sculpted face is the slightest bit off, you notice. Farang had eyes and a mouth in roughly the right places, but their faces didn't trip that wire, the shortcut in Jenny's brain that told her whether a contour was correct. She had to compare her sculpture against anatomical references every time she tweaked it.
And there were no anatomical references. Instead there was television news, a stream of talking heads from the contact mission's Hierarchy Interface department. Farang in front profile, waving their leathery hands to imitate human body language. There was also some semi-candid footage from the greeting video and the actual first contact. That was about it.
How did the muscles move beneath the fat layer? What did a Farang's ass look like? What did its feet look like? How many feet did they even have? Were they all tiny, or were there different kinds, ethnic groups? Nobody seemed to know, or care.
The public was more interested in Charlene Siph and the Aliens, who looked lizardish, like proper ETs. Science blogs had become gossip blogs, passing along unconfirmed speculation in hopes that the truth would precipitate out. Internet porn artists drew whatever they wanted and slapped on some antennacles. Solid information existed, somewhere, but it was being mediated through politicians who were busy preventing the impending enslavement of Earth—or at least avoiding the blame for it.
Jenny gave up on her creepy clay alien and resumed experimenting with the test piece. She discovered that by spraying on alcohol with an atomizer and wiping it off with microfiber, she could polish the foam to a pretty good grain. She was taking notes while being very careful with a martini, when Bai of all people called her up.
"Hello?" said Jenny, fearing an accident in their social network, a funeral with nice clothes, Bai wanting emotional support or something.
"Did Ariel tell you about the deal?" said Bai.
Jenny was unaware of any deal. "Ariel's not the most reliable," she said.
"Don't I know it," said Bai. "Uh, at work, a supplier took all us engineers out to lunch. Woman from Tekrete Composites. They make... uh, well, anyway it was this nice steakhouse."
"Steakhouse, okay." Where was the "deal" in this story? Had Bai sold his soul for a deep-fried onion?
"So I mentioned that we'd just gotten a drop from Curic," said Bai. "And this chick got really excited about the packing material. She said Tekrete would pay eighty bucks a gram. Under the table."
Jenny squeezed the phone between her cheek and shoulder. She sat down her martini and picked up the smoothed test piece. "It's not a lot of grams," she said.
"Eighty bucks," said Bai. "It doesn't have to be. I told Ariel, but I think maybe he didn't pass it on."
Jenny picked the martini back up. "Well, he should have told me," she said, "but I understand why he didn't, because I'm not going to sell Constellation technology to a company called fuckin' Tekrete Composites. They'll just use it in missiles."
"They'll use it in everything!" said Bai. "Engine casings, casts."
"Yeah, them too. It's a heat-resistant, impact-resistant aerosol. It's going to change every manufacturing process there is."
"They don't need the whole thing," said Bai. "You can sell half and still have some for your art."
"And your cut of this is what?" said Jenny.
"Who says I get a cut?" said Bai. "It's your foam. I just wanna see you know your options. I don't like how Ariel tries to babysit you."
"Bai," said Jenny, "I think I've misjudged you."
"'Sokay," said Bai. "Women always underestimate me, until they see what I'm packing."
"No, I take it back," said Jenny.
<ArielBlum> Hi cubic
<ArielBlum> This is Jenny
<ArielBlum> I'm Ariel's friend
<Curic> Your Internet connection identifies
<Curic> you as Ariel.
<ArielBlum> I'm using Ariel's phone
<ArielBlum> He's in the bathroom
No response. Had she scared Curic away? Did Curic have a thing against phone-borrowing or bathrooms? Finally:
<Curic> Are you and Ariel enjoying
<Curic> the computer I sent to you?
The Brain Embryo, property of Crispy Duck Games, lay on the floor in front of her, like a silver sea creature bloated from its sudden trip to the surface. Rainbow chains of umbilical cords connected it to Ariel's television. Jenny smiled at the alien computer. She showed her teeth and squeezed the crows feet into place around her eyes. She was enjoying it!
<ArielBlum> Yes, it's very enjoyable
<ArielBlum> I have a favor to ask
<ArielBlum> I was wondering if you could send some good pictures of farang
<ArielBlum> Full body shots
<ArielBlum> Video of someone moving around would be ideal
<Curic> Are you a pervert?
<ArielBlum> Not in any way you need to worry about
<Curic> A fair response.
<ArielBlum> I'm an artist
<ArielBlum> I'm making a sculpture out of the reentry foam you sent us
<ArielBlum> I thought it would be appropriate to sculpt the person who gave us the foam
<ArielBlum> But there's basically no reliable information about Farang anatomy
Another long pause. Out in the hall, Jenny heard the toilet flush and the faucet run for not quite long enough.
<Curic> I appreciate what you want to
<Curic> do, but a sculpture of
<Curic> myself is the last thing I want to
<Curic> have in my house.
<Curic> It would give me the howling fantods.
<Curic> Please do not foist such a gift on me.
<ArielBlum> I wasn't going to give it to you
<ArielBlum> Just trying to expand my skill set
<Curic> Oh, then it's fine.
Speaking of high-maintenance, Ariel came out of the hallway with a spring in his step. "What are you doing with my phone?" he said.
"Sexting your shemale girlfriend," said Jenny.
Ariel frowned and looked at the floor. The cleaned-up parent-presentable Jenny of Ariel's imagination was fighting in his mind with the actual Jenny sitting on his ugly secondhand couch. Ariel finally came up with: "Better you than me." He sat back on the couch and scratched at his hair and picked up his laptop.
"You really should have told me about the offer," said Jenny. "From Bai."
Ariel shook his head. "Bai doesn't get it," he said. "Everything's not about money."
"You should have told me." Jenny was so sick of the person Ariel pretended she was, the fantasy woman he'd created just so he could be unworthy of her. She wanted to pull that other Jenny out of Ariel's mind and trib her right on the living room floor until she transcended the virgin/whore dichotomy.
"You're not going to sell it?" said Ariel, realization slowly bleeding through that the real-life Jenny was just crazy enough to jump off this cliff.
"I'm asking Curic if it's okay," said Jenny, and suddenly that's what she was doing. She brandished Ariel's phone. "You never thought of that, did you?"
"No, I didn't," said Ariel, "but I don't think that reflects any huge personal failing on my part."
"Don't be like that," said Jenny.
"Fuck you," said Ariel.
"Do you fuck your mother with that mouth?" said Jenny.
"I'll fuck you with—"
"Oh, be my fucking guest." Jenny grabbed Ariel by the ears and mashed his face into the crotch of her blue jeans. Ariel twisted and struggled free. His laptop hit the floor. He half-knelt between Jenny and the Brain Embryo, like a football player on the line of scrimmage.
"Are we going to do this?" said Ariel. His eyes were on her zipper. "Are we really going to go through this whole thing again? Because this is not how I wanted to spend the next three weeks."
Jenny stared Ariel down, letting the bomb tick, unwilling to deescalate, to be the grown-up. Every trip down this mineshaft had been a colossal disaster, but there was something appealing about cupping that colossal disaster in your hands and pulling the God-damned trigger. Sending the whole installation piece crashing down, the machinery and electronics complaining in the language of sparks and smoke, the pillows exploding in clouds of whatever they stuff pillows with these days, the paint buckets bursting suggestively on the ground, showering the gallery-goers who are finally starting to realize that this is not part of the show, that this is not confrontational or in-your-face or safe in any way, but rather that the artist has unleashed a colossal disaster from which there is no escape and after which there will be no future.
You have one new message.
Ariel broke the stare. "Curic?" he said. Jenny took a deep breath and picked up the phone.
<Curic> Jenny, I've sent Ariel some anatomical
<ArielBlum> One more quick thing
<ArielBlum> I'm considering selling some of the reentry foam
<ArielBlum> There's a company that wants to buy it for 80 bucks a gram
<ArielBlum> That's a lot of money in human terms
<ArielBlum> Is that okay with you?
No pause this time:
<Curic> This is an awful idea.
<Curic> Reentry foam is worthless.
<ArielBlum> What exactly do you mean worthless
<Curic> Its value is negative.
<Curic> It is less useful than the
<Curic> energy used to produce it would be.
<Curic> It should not be used as the object of
<Curic> economic exchange.
<Curic> I don't know how
<Curic> much more clearly I can put it.
"You can go up to the bedroom," said Jenny. "If, um, you need to."
"What's she say?" said Ariel. He had turned his laptop back on. He craned his neck towards the phone.
"Curic's an anarchist," said Jenny.
"Yeah," said Ariel.
"So I can do what I want."
"Cheers!" Jenny said. She clinked her martini glass against Bizarro Kate's. Jenny reached towards the ottoman and tapped her tablet, pushing play on the week's crop of pirated fansubbed anime.
"Can we please skip the intros?" said Bizarro Kate.
"No," said Jenny. "The intro is part of the show."
Bizarro Kate slurped at her mojito and it went down like a rattlesnake. "What the," cough, "hell is," cough.
"Nice, huh?" said Jenny.
"Are you trying to get me drunk?"
"That, my friend, is Mud Flower Rum," said Jenny. "Brewed and distilled right here in Austin from sustainably grown sugar cane, et cetera, et cetera." She took a sip and let the liquor sit in her mouth like a painful kiss.
A look of horror infected Bizarro Kate's face. "You sold it," she whispered. "You sold the foam and you blew the money on booze."
Jenny paused the video, freezing a gigantic mecha in mid-transformation. "I sold the foam for six thousand dollars," she said, "and then I spent forty dollars on a nice bottle of rum to share with my friend."
"You said they were offering ten thousand," said Bizarro Kate.
"Yeah, well, the price went down," said Jenny. "Someone else sold theirs to Tekrete while I was waffling. And then Curic said not to sell, so I sold."
"So it's Opposite Day with Curic?" said Bizarro Kate.
"Curic has abundance privilege," said Jenny. "She doesn't understand how money works. She thought the foam had some objective value and it was wrong to sell it for more than that. If that's the Constellation's attitude, they must be flooding the market. So I sold as soon as I could."
"You sold it all?" said Bizarro Kate. "What about your piece? You really wanted..."
"This time next year," said Jenny, "reentry foam will be five dollars a can. I'll buy it back and finish the Farang dude then." Bizarro Kate was still showing a lot of lower lip, so Jenny added, "C'mon, I'll show you the study."
Over on Jenny's work table stood a little clay Farang, looking to its right as though that was where the camera was, one arm outstretched and holding a cube of packing foam. Printouts of Curic's anatomical references surrounded the sculpture like dressing room mirrors. It still wasn't quite right, but Jenny know knew enough to make the gaps in her knowledge look like stylistic decisions: smoothed-out fur, one foot hidden behind the other.
"Whaddya think?" said Jenny.
Bizarro Kate struggled to suppress a proud smile. "It looks like ass," she said.
"Looks better'n your skinny ass," said Jenny.
"What did you do with the rest of the six thousand?"
"Saving it," said Jenny.
In Jenny's mind the money was saved in a box labelled EMERGENCY. It sat next to information about first aid and CPR, the best routes out of Austin by bike and on foot, lists of what to put in the bag and what she could leave behind.
If there was no EMERGENCY, no war, if the human race survived what it was going through, she could move the money into an adjacent box, labelled EARTH, PROTECTOR OF. There were blueprints in that box: freshly updated blueprints showing a wooden frame surrounded by an extremely strong, extremely lightweight aerosol foam.
The stainless steel would be prefabbed and fastened on top, like a suit of armor. The weight was down to a couple tons, and maybe something—a cerametal—would be found to replace stainless steel. Five thousand, nine hundred sixty dollars would make a nice dent in the materials cost.
This was the big time. For the first time since Protector of Earth had moved into Jenny's head, she saw an achievable path to the real thing.
Now she just needed to find a place to put the bastard.