"Are you sure you want to do this?" Alex asked, looking up at the sign hanging on the building ahead of us. Celestial Mates, it read, and that was where we were going. Where I was going anyway — Alex was just here as moral support.
I nodded, trying to look more confident than I felt.
"I need a change," I told him. "Something has to give."
Looking for a boyfriend from space might be an extreme answer, but it would be something. The last couple of years had convinced me that if there was a guy for me at all, I wouldn't find him on Earth.
Fortunately, these days there were other options. Unfortunately, they were pretty limited. Earth's place in the galactic community was unsteady, and trips into space were expensive. More expensive than I could afford on a waitress's pay, anyway. And with automation getting cheaper and cheaper, it was only a matter of time before I lost even that crappy job to a robot.
Like I said, something had to change.
"For someone who's certain, you're not exactly hurrying inside," Alex said with a grin. "We can come back later, you know."
I shot him a glare. "Okay, I'm maybe a little frightened of what we'll find inside. What if they match me to some kind of squid-monster or something?"
Alex's grin widened, and he waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "I'm sure you could find a way to have fun with that. Just think about what he could do with all those arms."
He ducked back just fast enough to avoid my playful slap at his arm and I felt my face heat. Growing more serious, or at least as serious as I'd ever seen him, he held up his hands for peace.
"If they match you with someone you don't like, you'll just walk out of there," he said reassuringly. "You don't have to commit to anything you don't want, and I'm not going to let anyone take advantage of my best friend. Okay?"
"Okay," I said. Alex might be a joker, but when it came to looking after his friends he was reliable. That was one of the scary parts of this whole deal — if I left Earth, I'd leave him behind along with all my other friends and family. Not that I had many, but I'd miss Alex.
And I'm still putting off walking through those doors. Squaring my shoulders, I drew a deep breath and counted to three before letting it out. Then I walked up to the building, the doors sliding open as I approached them.
I don't know what I'd expected, but nothing about the space inside said 'alien' to me. It was an office like any other, except for the art hanging on the walls. The pictures showed scenes that looked like they could be from science fiction shows. Photos of couples against strange, unearthly backdrops, and every couple was a human with an alien. I tried to get a better look, but Alex pushed me forward to the reception desk. I tried to protest but he wasn't having any of it.
"If you're going to do it, let's get it done," he said quietly. "You can look at the pictures later."
The woman behind the desk looked human enough apart from her silver skin and golden hair. Like, metallic gold. The lights reflecting off her made it almost painful to look at her, and I mumbled something as Alex gave me one last shove towards her.
"Hi!" Her voice was a beautiful, calming, musical sound. "Do you have an appointment?"
"Oh. No," I answered, disappointment and relief mixing. I wouldn't have to go through with this after all. "I'll, um, I'll come back once I've made one, shall I?"
"No need," she said, smiling brightly. "We can fit you in now. Just take a seat and I'll ask a few questions to get started. Can I start with your name? Mine is Ellarixa."
"I'm Gemma Wexler," I said, sitting down opposite her. The chair adjusted under me, alien technology shifting to fit my body. It might look like a cheap office chair but it was the most comfortable thing I'd ever sat on. "Are you sure it's no trouble?"
"She means, she'd be glad to do this now," Alex said with a laugh. "That's what we're here for, after all."
The silver-skinned alien looked like she was typing on thin air, fingers dancing in space. She glanced up at Alex. "Are you also looking for a match?"
"Oh no!" Alex held up his hands. "No, I'm just here as Gemma's moral support. And to make sure she doesn't run away."
Ellarixa nodded as though it was perfectly normal for someone to bully their friend into coming in. No, that's not fair. This was my idea, Alex is just backing me up. It wasn't easy to remember that, now that I was here and faced with actually doing this. Blaming my friend was a lot easier.
"That's perfectly fine, as long as Gemma's okay with you being present," Ellarixa continued, glancing at me. I nodded, only a little reluctantly, and she clapped her hands. "Wonderful. In that case we can get started. What are you looking for in a mate, Gemma?"
That question shouldn't have been a surprise to me, but somehow I was completely unprepared for it. Come on Gemma, this is the whole reason you're here. I wracked my brain for an answer, my cheeks flushing as I looked at the alien woman.
"I, um," I started to speak and then trailed off, looking up at Alex who rolled his eyes.
"Gemma's looking for a male," he said, answering for me. "The usual, I imagine. Tall, strong, handsome. Someone off-world. And someone with a big—"
"Alex!" I interrupted, face red, caught between outrage and laughter. Ellarixa almost managed to hide her smile, nodding and typing away.
"We should be able to meet those requirements," she said. I turned back to her, relieved. "The details we'll get from an interactive scan, but it's helpful to narrow things down a little first. Just to be clear, do you require a humanoid mate?"
Visions of some alien squid thing flashed in front of me and I shuddered. "Yes please!"
"That's fine," Ellarixa said with a grin. "Not many people say no to that, but it's best to ask. So: a humanoid male, tall and strong, and big. We can do that."
Opening a drawer on her desk, she pulled out a golden headset and passed it across to me. I took it gingerly — the thing looked fragile, the metal almost paper-thin.
"That's the scanner," Ellarixa told me. "Put it on and we can check your reaction to various scenarios. It'll read your subconscious reactions, which is both faster and more accurate than a questionnaire."
I looked at Alex dubiously. He shrugged. What can it hurt? I asked myself, putting the golden circlet on my head. Somehow it fitted perfectly, and Alex laughed delightedly.
"You look like a princess with that crown on," he said when I glared at him. He didn't seem the least bit sorry for laughing at me. Fair enough. I'd have laughed at him too, I had to admit.
"So now what?" I asked, turning back to our host.
"Just lie back and relax," she told me. "The scanner will do the rest."
Before I could ask any more questions, she hit a button on the desk and everything went weird. Images flickered in front of me too quickly to focus on, and I heard a faint rush of sound like a hundred overlapping voices far away. As I tried to keep track, everything seemed to shift around me.
All I could make out was that the images were of aliens. They all fitted the basic description we'd given Ellarixa: humanoid, tall, muscular. Aside from that they looked nothing alike. Skin tones varied from midnight black to palest white, with every shade imaginable in between. There was even one alien with rainbow skin, and one who seemed almost transparent.
I didn't need to respond to them. No sooner had one appeared than the scanner judged my subconscious reaction to him and went on to the next. Their voices played out over and over into my ears, voices harsh or musical or emotionless. I couldn't make out a single word of what they were saying, or even if they were speaking a language I knew.
It wasn't just appearances that I was being shown. Other things flitted past too quick to be aware of, but somehow I knew that they were testing my interest in personality, in behavior. A few images lingered... a sunset, a plate of food I didn't recognize, a shimmering beach. But that was only a tiny fraction of what I was shown.
How could even a computer keep track of my responses? For that matter, could my brain really respond to things that passed by too quickly for me to see them?
Apparently it could. The images slowed, then stopped, leaving only one for me to stare at for a second before it, too, blinked out.
Ellarixa smiled across the desk at me as I blinked and shook my head. There was a faint ache behind my eyes and the room seemed to be spinning slightly as I pulled the scanner from my head and handed it back.
"Congratulations," the alien said with a grin. "We've found you a perfect match."
I blinked again, dazed. "That's it? Nothing more needed?"
"Nope," she said, gesturing in the air. As if by magic a document appeared in her hand and she offered it to me. "Our computers compared your needs and desires to our database and came to a 99.8% compatibility rating. We pride ourselves on never being wrong."
I've heard that before, I thought. Plenty of companies claimed that their systems were perfect, that they never got things wrong. Usually it was just a matter of time before that ended in tears for someone.
But what was my alternative? I looked at Alex again and he nodded encouragingly.
"This is what you're here for," he reminded me, snagging the document from Ellarixa's hands. "Come on Gemma, at least take a look. Or I will."
That threat was enough to get me to pull the paper out of his hand. It shimmered and flowed, showing me a figure with deep blue skin and muscles that looked almost too good to be true. Perhaps on a human they would be, but this man was no human. Aside from the color of his skin, his fangs were a clear sign of that. And his claws. I shivered. Apparently my subconscious had decided I liked the look of an alien who was built for combat.
Thanks, me. Just what I needed.
It was almost enough to distract me from the fact that this was a naked photograph. And whatever other traits this alien might have, modesty wasn't one of them. Not that he had anything to be modest about. Wow!
"Okay, they really took me seriously about the size thing, didn't they?" Alex whispered, peering over my shoulder. I blushed brightly and turned the page away from him.
"What do I do now?" I asked Ellarixa, trying to keep my mind off Alex and the mystery alien. She smiled.
"If you consent to the match, then simply apply your thumbprint to the page at the bottom," she told me. "Then be at the spaceport at 8 AM tomorrow morning, and you'll be on your way to love and happiness."
I must have looked terrified because she leaned across her desk and patted my hand. "I know it can be a little overwhelming, but you can trust the system. And your travel is paid for by your mate — the computer takes your financial situation into account, you know."
Thanks a bunch, I thought a little resentfully. Of course it was right, I couldn't afford to pay for a space journey. That was still only for the rich. If my 'mate' wasn't going to buy me a ticket, I'd still be stuck on Earth. There was no point in complaining about that.
"Tomorrow seems a little quick," I said instead.
Ellarixa smiled sympathetically, shaking her golden hair. It was mesmerizing to watch. "I'm sorry, but the next ship to Crosos after that won't leave for six months. It's tomorrow or wait half a year."
I swallowed. If I waited that long, I knew I'd talk myself out of going at all. Looking to Alex for help, I tried to work out what to say.
Alex knew me well enough that he didn't need to wait. He grinned wide, putting an arm around my shoulders for an encouraging hug.
"Hey, that's enough time for me to throw you a kick-ass going away party tonight," he said. "And it's better than if you had to wait, right? This way you won't be worrying about it until the ship arrives. Just go. If you don't like it, we'll all be here when you get back."
Then he frowned, turning to look at Ellarixa. "She can come back, right?"
"Of course," the silver-skinned alien said. "That's a requirement of the system — if you don't like what you find at the far end, Gemma, you can come home any time. But we're confident that you won't."
99.8%. The number seemed surreal, too good to be true. But Alex had a point. If I was going to go, better to do it quickly. No point in giving myself time to second guess everything.
Putting the agreement down on Ellarixa's desk, I pressed my thumb to the space indicated. My decision was made.
* * *
The next morning dawned gray and dreary as I staggered to the spaceport. Packing all my worldly belongings had taken distressingly little time, and my boss had been almost gleeful about accepting my resignation. At least he'd been happy enough to pay out the wages he owed me without grumbling. I wasn't sure if I'd need the money, but it couldn't hurt.
So now here I was in the rain, head pounding after the party last night and belly full of doubts. Could I really jet off into the cold darkness of space?
As I watched, a ship landed with a roar and a blast of hot air that I could feel even outside the spaceport itself. It looked more like a giant metal box than anything else, and it didn't seem quite real to me. Something that big shouldn't be able to fly, let alone cross the distance between stars.
This is stupid. I can still turn around and go home. Maybe even get my job back.
"No backing out now," Alex said, and I jumped. I hadn't heard him come up behind me.
"You ass, don't sneak up on people like that."
He laughed. "Come on, did you really think we wouldn't be here to see you off? It's just me and Becca and Morgan, but we've brought everyone else's good wishes."
That brought tears to my eyes. Knowing I had friends here didn't exactly make it easier to leave the planet, but I could hardly chicken out when they were here to say goodbye again. Becca and Morgan must have skipped work to be here, and that was more than I'd expected.
The three of them crowded around me in a tight hug that left me speechless. But that was alright. We'd said our goodbyes the night before, and I could see that my friends understood. Picking up my bag, I waved to them one last time.
Whoever the Celestial Mates have paired me with is going to have to be awesome to make up for leaving my friends behind.