by Sara Kate Ellis


I wouldn’t have looked Jenny up if it hadn’t been for two things.  I had a forty-hour layover in that tin can port, and I was rich.

Not stinking, but comfortable by Jenny’s standards, and I’d been waiting years during that climb to security, the marriages — and the divorces, thank god – for a chance to show her up.  Maybe even before, when no one could foresee Jenny’s plummeting fortunes, and all I could think about was punching her in those perky tits till they were facing the opposite direction.

Here’s how I played it in my head. Jenny’d appear at the door of my suite, or I’d stroll casually down to meet her in the plush, carefully guarded portel lobby.  I’d lift my arm, curl my fingers just so like I was playing a bar of light, plinky jazz and say it.

“Oh. Hi, Jenny.”

Full stop after the Oh. Almost like I could see a stain on her jacket, but chose to keep it to myself.  I’d even practiced in the toilet on the shuttle in.  Couldn’t let the Gicks see.  After decades in their company, it was still spooky how those large, ophidian eyes could deduce every thought from a toss of the hair or chew mark on a bottom lip.  The Gicks were why the judge banished Jenny to this shithole in the first place.

I sat on the bed in my suite and slid my hand over the remote, watching as the walls melted to let in a view of the port.  Nothing devastating, not like the view of Proxima Centauri a few stops over, but pleasant just the same: Shuttles and police drones lifting off and landing, the Hub crackling up there in the dark with Jupiter rising up from behind like a wheel of cloudy pastels.  Serene enough to make me nod off, but when the COM buzzed I jumped.

“Maddy?”  The voice on the other end was arch, but warm.  “You did know they wouldn’t let me up.”

“Oh. Hi, Jenny,” I said.  I pulled my hand from the mic, got silence.

“Hello?” I said again.

“You’re in the executive suite, smart ass. I can’t get up without clearance.”

I forced a chuckle and Jenny met me halfway, her laughter vibrating through the air like something unsavory had just fluttered in through the vent.

“I’ll be right down,” I said.

I wasn’t going to apologize.  Whose fault was it that no one could trust her anymore?  Or that I’d found her ten years back with her legs wrapped around my fiancé?


The lobby was all fake wood and plush modular furniture, predictable comfort for a soft class of anthropod whose money didn’t put it above the worst kind of sentimentality.  In the bar, a piano trilled under the ministrations of some Gick’s gummy, attenuated claws.  It was swaying from side to side, its large eyes reflecting warm nostalgia as it crooned out a near perfect rendition of Armstrong that made all the faces in the room sag with a longing for home.

Everyone but Jenny.

She was turned away as I approached, her arm curled over the back of a half moon sofa like she had it in a headlock.
I steeled myself before meeting her eyes. Like the Gicks, Jenny was good at mimicry, at exuding warmth and charm, but she had to have some sucker to mirror first.

It was that same fiancé who’d first explained them to me, a few years after the Gicks made landing.  Stan was biologist who specialized in alien neurochemistry for the now not-so-big pharma. He was working in one of their think tanks, cooking up new drugs for a new age.

“The Gicks evolved around millions of sentient life forms,” he said.  “Their neurochemistry, hell, their entire biological makeup is primed for mirroring and mimicking, kind of like the voice box on a lyrebird, only it’s mostly,” He took off his glasses wiggled his brows. “In the eyes.”

Jenny turned, that dazzling smile had already lit across her features.  She held up a half-finished martini.  “Hope you don’t mind, but I put this on your room.”

Before I could answer, she was up, her arms flung around me in a throw back to those squealing embraces of our girlhood.

A decent act, I noted, but nothing that could work on me.  As we came together, she patted my back like she was drying her hands on a washroom towel, and I glanced warily over her shoulder, calculating the price of the gin in her glass.

“Don’t be so shocked,” she said, pulling back. Her eyes narrowed as they swept over me. “You thought I’d be living in the ducts? Maybe, mopping floors for the Gicks in this here hotel?”

It was true.  Jenny’s resolute beauty had dashed part of my hopes. Her skin shone from recent treatments, and her eyes displayed the same eerie circumspection that had always made her recklessness such a shock. She certainly didn’t look like a woman who’d been incarcerated for two years, however cushy the circumstances.

“Laying it on thick, don’t you think?” I said, my voice faltering.   The waiter, a gawky human with a rash cresting beneath his bow tie, passed me a Scotch and I nearly missed my mouth as I sipped. Less than a minute and Jenny Belveth had ruined my entrance.  Or maybe I’d just stumbled into hers.

“Sit down,” Jenny said. She took my arm and shoved me gently down on the sofa.  “We’re wasting time.”

As I expected, she gave short shrift to my career, the marriages, and that last, interminable divorce.  Our conversation hemmed safely around the old days, politely skirting her trial, the jail term, and when we ran out of past, I listened to her spew hatred at the Gicks.

“You wouldn’t believe what it’s like outside,” she said, pointing down rather than at the view.  “They are so goddamned literal.  They insist workers’ subsistence levels be based on that of most humans on earth, so much for making us richer.  They put most of the indentured into goddamned shantytowns to avoid incongruity with their ‘peasant sensibilities.”

“Huh,” I said, keeping my voice level.  These sob stories were nothing new.  Gicks controlled all transit, the technology to harvest the energy from stars and gas giants to power their Hubs, and they fancied themselves as cultural arbiters, so long as those cultures were versions that abetted their narrative of adulthood.  Their evolutionary quirk meant they were the only beings capable of cross species communication and authentic mutual understanding – a term I’d always laughed at — and thus the only ones capable of running the Hubs.

“What about you?” I said.  “Is that where you’re living?”

“Please.”  She brushed a strand of hair from her eyes.  “Got out of that hole in the first week.  Of course, the shanties are spotless, a goddamned theme park of poor.” She put down her drink and glanced at me cautiously. “You know, you really should see it while you’re here.”

I stared blankly into the bottom of my glass.  “I’m not really here long enough to-”

She sighed, drummed her fingers on her knee.  “Don’t tell me you’ve sold out. After all that talk about social justice back in law school?  You used to bore me so.”

We both laughed, but her remark was was more jab than tease. The idea of Jenny burning with moral opprobrium for the disenfranchised was the real joke when she couldn’t drum up enough for those closest to her. She’d done a number on Stan after I’d left, put him in therapy.  For that, I was perversely grateful.

“I guess I have.”  I kept my smile firm and made to stand.  “It’s been really good to—.”

Jenny leaned over and snatched the bill.

“You can leave that.”

She glanced up at me.  A glimmer of disbelief crossed her features.  “Oh my god.  You thought I was serious.”

“I didn’t mind.”

Jenny stood and slipped her handbag over her shoulder. “Let me get this, Maddy.”  She grinned slyly as she strolled toward the register.  “Get a cab. You must at least be hungry.”

I bristled.  I hadn’t planned to leave the hotel, much less the area.  Jenny, however, knew my fondness for discretion and she used that moment to blow it wide open.

“I know a great place,” she called across the room. She gave a meaningful nod toward the Gick pianist.  “And it sure as hell beats trying to eat with all the you-know-whats in the room.”

I felt the heat rise to my face.  Every Gick in the bar had registered her insult, along with every human most likely, but Jenny’s lack of tact had forced my decision.  While she paid the bill, I told the Gick concierge I wanted a hotel driver, Gick security preferably, and all of my contacts routed through.

As always, the thing’s eyes mirrored back my unease with alarming reassurance, and I felt a friendly loosening in my chest.  Here was the trait that allowed them to gain trust, to work their way in among so many divergent civilizations, stringing up Hubs through the galaxy like tinsel around the branches of some great suspiring tree.  It was why Jenny had volunteered for the study all those years ago, the one that shoved her out of a dull, pimply gracelessness and into a world that for a few years anyway, was unequivocally hers.

The cab waiting for us was a climber, equipped with spidery grapplers meant to usher the workers into the most hard-to-reach depths of the port. The Gick concierge had seen to that too.  It must have picked up where Jenny wanted to go, or at least the seediness of our destination.  Likely there was a tracker on the car as well, I told myself. The Gicks think of everything.

This Hub was one of the main transfer points out of Sol, and the Gicks employed thousands of workers to mine energy from Io and Jupiter.  Many came voluntarily, excited at the chance for higher wages or credit toward interstellar travel, but some, like Jenny, were sent up to serve sentences or wait out their paroles.

“I’m not sure about this,” I said.

“You called the cab,” Jenny said. She took my hand and tugged me into the warmth of the car.

“Where to, Madame?” the Gick spoke in a clipped British accent, but Jenny chattered back in fluent Gick.  I caught a whiff of irritation in her voice, and the thing raised the glass barrier between us.

“Some privacy,” she said. “Finally.”

I hiccupped as a hole opened in the surface and the cab dropped into the duct. It felt the way I imagined it might to find myself hurtling down an elevator shaft.

“This ought to help.” Jenny pulled a flask from her handbag, opened it and waved it under my nose.  She giggled as I recoiled at the strong, yet familiar scent.

“I don’t forget,” she said.


It was the cherry liqueur we slugged in college.  We pounded it back that night we crashed the opera. Jenny’s idea, of course, a first sign someone else was emerging from that grabby, insecure kid I’d known growing up. I chalked it up to a new pair of contacts.

“Put it on,” she said, tossing me a blouse.  It was white and downright frumpy, its coarse fabric grazing my fingers.

“I thought you said opera.”  I gestured to the strapless black gown I’d spent a fortune on, and Jenny grinned and lifted my arm, slipping it into the scratchy confines of the cloth.

“We’re ushers,” she said, “We stake out the empty seats in the first act, then right before intermission, we head off for a powder and then—”

She lifted her shirt to reveal her own sequined garment, the fabric clinging to her like a second skin.  I swallowed as I took in the glow of her skin, the red silk augmenting her hair, her eyes. The baby fat, along with the old Jenny, had simply got up and left.

By intermission we were sipping champagne in the lobby, our shirts crammed into our handbags, the hands of wealthy older men tickling our elbows as they led us to our seats.

“Fitzgerald got it wrong,” Jenny said, as we settled in for Gatsby’s fate. “Second act’s when you’re home free.”


     I took a swig of the liqueur and felt it burn with the memory in my chest.  “Where are we headed?”

“I’ve got to stop somewhere first,” Jenny said.

The other shoe, I thought wryly.  But the alcohol and Jenny’s nearness had dulled the impact, turned it into a foot massage.

In Jenny’s second act, she’d had a star turn as a litigator, winning billions of credits in cases for her firm.  In the third act, which none of us had anticipated, she’d gone from star to villain, an expert jury tamperer in one of the biggest doping scandals since the Olympics of 2048.  Headlines called it the Charm Offensive, and her firm went under the same year Jenny went to trial.

“Where is that?” I asked finally.

“I’ve got a guy.  He’s keeping something for me.” She lowered her eyes, and then lifted her chin to face me.  “It’s something I’d like you to see.”

“I thought you wanted me to see the ducts,” I said.

It was dismaying how fast, how smoothly her expression could shift from a lighthearted arrogance to the kind of dejection that made you want to throw your arms around her or worse, yank out your billfold.  It was my first discernable sign that evening of the change in her, the evolution, pharmaceutically triggered, that had turned her into such a charming pariah. I reminded myself that this was artifice, that Jenny could work on me like a toy surprise on a sugar-starved toddler.

“What is it?”

Jenny reached into her bag and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. She lit up and answered me through a cloud of smoke.  “I’ve been doing some consulting.”

I sighed, batted the smoke away.  “They’ll put you back
in for that.“

“I know that.”

Officially Jenny’s diagnosis was listed as a disability, an incapability “to connect on an equivalent level of human interaction,” but it was a defect that gave her an unfair advantage. Fellow human beings just couldn’t keep up.  She wasn’t allowed to practice law anymore, couldn’t work in marketing, or most types of business for that matter. It was a condition of her parole.

“What if I said it’s for a good cause?” She turned away again, her eyes traversing the shadows, the random streaks of light that flashed by as we descended into the ducts.

“You?” I laughed. Workers’ compensation and labor rights had been my niche back in law school. It was how I got myself taken seriously. Jenny, on the other hand, went straight into corporate litigation, those giant payoffs I’d been too ashamed to admit I wanted.

“The prisoners are having problems with the Gicks.  It’s a mess. You wouldn’t believe the conditions they work in, the utter lack of safety standards.”

Jenny exhaled the last of the smoke, stubbed the cigarette out on the window glass.  “Working the harvesters on Io takes crews of ten, fully armored, hundreds of thousands worth of Lead-Bismuth coolant pumped through by the minute.  Even then, they need to switch shifts every ten minutes or risk permanent damage. Only the Gicks are sending them out there in teams of five, most with substandard protection.  They’re coming back so hot their neighbors are getting nosebleeds.”

“Why don’t they report to the clinics?”

Jenny shot me a look of disbelief.  “You think they haven’t?”

She took another pull on the flask, then went on easy breezy like she was midway through a presentation.
“The problem is getting the evidence and testimony into the right hands back home. That’s where you come in.”

“Me?” I laughed and pressed my feet against the back of the front seat.  “You said it yourself, Jenny,” I said.  “I’ve already sold out.”

I was trying to appear blithe, but Jenny snatched my wrist and squeezed hard enough to hurt.

“No, Maddy.”  She said, relaxing her grip. She rubbed her thumb over my palm, tickling the skin.  “I’m the one who’s changed, remember?  You were always the bleeding heart.”

“I’d like for that not to be literal.”

“It’s just a few files,” she said.  “Harvester layouts, radiation readings, medical charts, affidavits, all on paper. No one here trusts the signal. Gicks could intercept it in a heartbeat, trace it back. I promised them I could get it to the right people.  You can do at least that, can’t you? Christ, slip it under the door of the State Department and run if you have to.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  Jenny reached up, took my chin in her hand and forced me to look at her. Once more, I felt the pressure of her fingers on my hand, and found myself dumbly squeezing back.

“Maddy,” she said.

“I can’t promise anything.”

“That’s enough. Thank you.”

She closed her eyes and slumped back into the seat in exhaustion and relief.  When she let go of my hand, I felt bereft.


    Neither Jenny nor Stan told me she was volunteering.  The study was confidential, but that summer before we both took the bar, I sensed something irrevocably different about her. That day she came striding through the crowd at my engagement party, there was looseness, a fluidity to her manner that made her seem less material than the others. Jenny was more flicker than flesh, applying her attention with light speed precision to whomever might need it.
And they did need it, I saw.  They craved it.  As Jenny neared, people’s bodies drew in around her, their faces brightened and their voices rose in greeting.  Everyone but Stan.  Stan was impervious, holding forth on his work: a drug synthesized from a Gick hormone.

“It targets transmitters that fire up the mirror neurons, even stimulates growth when there’s a deficit,” he said. “We’re seeing treatments for autism, depression, a whole host of personality disorders, even shyness. Our subjects are already showing progress.”

Even then I noticed she was standing a little too close to him, but Stan was still talking. He was the only one not trying to get her attention. I reminded myself that this was why I loved him. I didn’t know his indifference by this point was practiced, pulled off like a Gick.

“How do you know?”

It was Constance Turner, the kind of woman who’d compliment you for wearing a skirt instead of pants. She’d also noticed Jenny’s proximity to Stan, and was watching me smugly, waiting for my response.

“Know what?” Stan said.

Constance folded her arms.  “How do you know they’re not faking?”

Stan’s expression soured as Jenny plucked his drink from his hand.  She tossed me a playful grin as she downed the glass.

“Good question.”


Jenny knocked on the shade, chattering more instructions as the Gick lowered the barrier. We circled down the ramp into a sprawling vaulted chamber, cluttered with tin shacks and abandoned vehicles.  Tarps extended from the ends of abandoned sewage pipes, inside of which I could see light and movement.  A few of the human inhabitants peered back, their weary eyes locking on the Gick driver as we passed.

“Gicks don’t come to these areas much.  It’s not part of the showroom,” Jenny said. There was indignation in her voice, but underneath a twinge of haughtiness, as if the driver’s presence had boosted her status. We pulled up in front of what looked like one of those prefab construction site offices on earth.

“Here?” I said.

Jenny didn’t answer as she stepped out of the cab.  I wondered if I shouldn’t tell the Gick driver to turn tail, but the slumminess had piqued my curiosity.  The light was on inside the trailer, and music, a heavy thrum of curse and boast, vibrated the structure’s thin walls.

“Ioan?” Jenny said, strolling up the ramp.  She banged her fist on the door.  “Ioan, open up!”

The door opened and a burly man wearing a T-shirt under a suit vest glared out at us. “They’re in back.”

The inside didn’t betray my expectations.  It looked prepped for a construction crew the next day.  There was a fridge, an old desk, and one of those cheapo filing cabinets someone had dented with the toe of a cheaper shoe. On the wall hung an earth calendar from two years back, the entire month of October drooping blank beneath a girl riding a “vintage” Gick Skyskipper.  She hadn’t lied about the paper at least.

Jenny glanced around the empty disheveled room, her face betraying a whiff of anger.

“They started already?”

“They waited long enough,” Ioan said.

She pulled the fridge open and took out a beer, passed me the open bottle a little too fast.  It spewed some of its head onto my hand.

“Just a sec, ‘kay?” she said, her mouth quirking into a cynical glower, her shoulders lowering, readjusting themselves as if completing a transformation.  “These Joes are real secretive.”

I stood there, taken aback by the change in her demeanor, the downshift in her speech as I blanched at the smell coming from the bottle. It wasn’t beer, but some nasty combination of hops and molasses, maybe the only thing they could get down here.

Ioan blocked me as I tried to follow her in. Jenny turned around, cupped my cheeks as she leaned in and mouthed, “Fifteen minutes. Tops.”

I leaned in as the door closed, trying to get a glimpse of the men in the room, see those downtrodden souls she’d talked about, but these men looked nothing of the sort.


 It was hard to remember the Jenny from before, that endearing, pathetic shadow I’d never quite had the heart to shove away.

There was the time in fifth grade when Billy Hollis shoved through the cafeteria line, knocked the food right off of our trays.  I remember picking up my half spilled milk carton, barging through the crowd to dump the remainder down the back of his shirt.

“That was so cool,” Jenny told me, even as she handed Hollis a paper towel.

Or the summer when we were sixteen, when Jenny came to all those movies, must have been a dozen, and said she didn’t mind sitting apart while Greg Peabody and I necked in the back row.

I didn’t care how Jenny might feel, sitting there by herself, only a chewed up straw and the remnants of the crushed ice in her cup to keep her company.  I was too busy having my mind blown by the possibility of freedom, of rebellion and the feel of a boy’s hands beneath my shirt.  I’d always thought Jenny adored me, maybe up until the day I’d walked in on her and Stan, and discovered it was the other way around.

By then, it was too late. By then the Gicks had long since come and blown all our minds, and made some of them unrecognizable.

The results would take years to confirm, but there was that expert testimony at her trial, the same research trotted out in the hundreds of doping scandals that cropped up around the same time.  The outcome was clear: Years of abuse of the drug meant irreparable damage to the amygdala, a permanent deadening of empathy. The ability to charm, however, to diffuse tension and manipulate remained seamless.  Alien, yet so familiar.


I checked my phone.  Twenty minutes minutes gone, almost an hour since we’d left the portel. I got up.  Ioan stood up.

“Can I help you with something?”

“You got anything better?” I said, nodding to the drink on the table.

Ioan snorted, gave me a little bow as he stepped over to the fridge and I snuck another glance out at the cab.  Good Gick, I thought.  I wasn’t going to wait much longer. Give Jenny maybe five more minutes.  I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. The number was from work, a signal bounced all the way from the nearest company station. A signal delay of 19 minutes registered at the bottom of the screen.

“Ms. Foley?” said an automated voice. “This is Daniella from accounts. We’re calling regarding charge made to your account at the Io-Onyx Suites at 38:01. Please confirm.”

I ran a sweaty hand through my hair. I guess Jenny hadn’t picked up the tab at after all.  She’d likely been sitting there for hours guzzling up bottles of Grand Cru.

“Amount?” I said.

“40,000 credits,” the voice continued chirpily.

40,000.  The phone nearly slipped from my hand. That’s what all the nonsense had been about at the bar, Jenny feigning poverty and then making a big show of wounded pride as she magnanimously took the check. It was the perfect in to wheedle, somehow, just enough information from the tab, from that waste duct of waiter to access my expense account.

My teeth were grinding something fierce.  I felt the ping of an untended cavity and stopped.

“Decline it,” I spat.

“OK.  Transaction declined. Your confirmation number is-“

The phone was halfway in my pocket as I hung up.

Ioan was still rooting in the refrigerator, most likely having difficulty reading the labels on the bottles, and I stood, and crept cautiously toward the backroom. When he turned, I made a run for it. The door gave easily and I found myself falling into the room.

Jenny was at the center of a rickety table, hunched over it in a perfect mimicry of her slouching companions who presided over an enormous pile of currency: paper cash from various countries and Hubs, account slips and Gick transport credits. There was even a stack of gold coins, piled high and shiny like an illustration in a kids’ adventure book.

I felt Ioan’s knobby hand on the back of my arm, and tried to shove him away, but he held fast, squeezing hard enough to make me buckle.

“Don’t!” Jenny said.  “It’s okay.”

“What’s okay?” I said.  “You just…” I stopped myself.  Why give her a chance to argue? I’d lose, had lost already. Slowly, Jenny rose from her seat, raised her palms in a placating gesture.

“Maddy,” she said.  Her eyes were shining with warmth and understanding, as if I’d been the one caught in a lie.  “Everything is going to be okay. Really.”

“Don’t,” I said, breathing hard.  The smell of that god-awful drink still was on my hands, my clothes even, and the silence that passed between us was loud enough to drown out the music. “Just don’t.”

The other men, I realized, weren’t looking at me.  Their eyes were on the spread of hands circling the table, and Jenny’s, a royal flush.

“Well, that was fun,” she said, stretching her arms in a yawn before reaching down to sweep up her winnings.  “I hope Mr. Gick is still out there. I’m knackered.”

So that had been part of it too. Jenny had banked on my trepidation; she knew I would ask for a Gick driver as protection. For myself.  These men wouldn’t dare touch her now.

She shoved a wad of bills into her pocket, another into her bag. “I hope you’re not too upset, Maddy.  The charge was just collateral.  Otherwise they wouldn’t have let me into the game.  I knew they wouldn’t really let it through.” She winked. “You’re too much of a big shot for that these days.  “Of course you get a cut. I really appreciate you—”

“I don’t want anything,” I said.

“Don’t you?”

I don’t know what it was that made me do it. Maybe it was the way she tilted her head, her chin jutting out slightly in a mode of provocation. Or maybe it was the hopeless, stammering need to respond all the while knowing she’d hit right back with something sharper.  I saw myself reaching out, taking Jenny by the arms and pulling her to me, heard the cheap cat calls and whistles of Ioan and the others as I pressed my lips to hers, and felt silence.

If Jenny responded at all, it was to relax and play along. But I knew it was all wrong because for the first time since those early years of college, Jenny Belveth seemed awkward, her arms limp, her mouth slack and half open, just enough for me to taste the cherry liqueur that still clung to her breath.  And when I pulled back, I knew just how badly I had blown it.  The blue in Jenny’s irises grew darker, her pupils dilating to form a great sucking whorl in which I felt drawn, powerless. Not powerless so much as meaningless.  She looked away, plucked up a stack of gold coins, and hands trembling, slipped them into mine.

“Well,” she said, taking a step back.  “I suppose we should get going.  You’ve got a transfer to make in the morning.”

“Jenny,” I said.

She glanced up at me, her expression demure, yet mildly patronizing.  “We sure had some fun tonight though, didn’t we?”

I felt the weight of the coins in my hand, gripped them hard enough for it to hurt. I wanted to bend them, to squeeze them into pulp and let all of Jenny’s assumptions about me, the calculations and extrapolations she’d pulled from my voice and behavior, ooze through my fingers like shit.

I loosened my grip, let the coins drop soundlessly to the carpet. Then I lifted my foot and kicked the table, or tried to, but my heel only set it to wobbling. Jenny threw back her head and laughed.

“Oh, come on!” she called after me as I stumbled out the door and down the unsteady ramp toward the cab. “We’re still okay, aren’t we? We can call it even!”

The driver stood ready, holding the door of the vehicle, and as I approached I caught myself in the empathic shimmer of its gaze, saw my confusion and shame, the desires unsung and unrewarded. No one could be that transparent, I thought.  Then I stopped, stepped back into the light seeping from the open door and waited for Jenny.



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One Response to “Liarbird”

  1. Ralph Roney Says:

    Great article!

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