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              “Docs or flats?” I say. “He’s into holo-clash, right?”

            “Right,” my housemate says. I hear her voice inside my head, and the muffled sound of the show she’s watching on TV.

            “The flats look better with my dress but I don’t know,” I reply. “I don’t want him to think I’m too conservative.”

I change the colour of my iris implants in the mirror. Green? Blue? Purple? Red? I’m wearing black so I guess it doesn’t matter.

            “He’s heard a lot about you. I’m sure it doesn’t matter either way,” My housemate says. I hear her getting up and walking down the hall.

            “I just want to get off on the right foot, you know? I haven’t done this in a while,” I say, cycling through tattoos across my chest.

            “Casey, it’s just dinner,” my housemate says, coming in behind me through the door. Her words are doubled in my mind. I turn off the communicator.

            “Besides, you look great.”

            “Really?” I say, and look into the mirror.

A pale, green-eyed girl stares back at me. Her nose too big, her lips too small… I look away. I think about changing my eyes again.

            “Really,” my housemate says, and smiles.

Ever since the breakup I haven’t liked the way I look. It’s not rational, in fact, it’s fucking stupid. The last thing I want is to let a guy like Tracy into my head. But I keep thinking, maybe if I looked a little better. Maybe if my thighs were smaller or my hair was straighter maybe he wouldn’t have gone for her instead. And I don’t even want him, that’s the stupid part. I just don’t like the way he suddenly decided that I wasn’t good enough for him. He used to tell me that he thought that I was the most beautiful person in the world. Then, one day…

            “Don’t let him get to you,” my housemate says.

I look at her short pink hair and hazel eyes. Her copper skin and skinny waist. She doesn’t even need appearance mods. She’s perfect, just the way she is. She puts her hand on my shoulder.

            “Don’t let him get to you,” she says.

She’s right, of course. I smile.           

            “I don’t even think it’s about him anymore,” I say.

            “I know,” she says. “That’s why you’ve got to get out there and meet people again. Find someone who makes you feel desirable.”

            “What if he doesn’t like me?” I ask.

My housemate shrugs.

            “Well, you’ll find another one. Plenty of fish in the sea.”

Ugh, I groan.

            “I really hate that metaphor.”

            “Doesn’t mean it isn’t true,” my housemate says. “Besides - you already know he finds you attractive.”

Green eyes are fine. They’ll be fine. I step away from the mirror.

            “It just doesn’t feel real, you know?” I say.

            “I know,” she says. “But it’s happening. You’ve just got to get out there and do it.”

When Tim and I were matched on Datebook nobody was happier than Lucy. Her eyes lit up when I told her. OMG, yes, she texted. I’m just shocked I didn’t think to hook you up myself! Tim’s a writer. Smart, attractive, and doing pretty well for a guy our age. He had his own apartment. Not a shareflat or a housing commission place. A real apartment. That he owned. That he’d earned with his writing money. He worked from home, supposedly he was a bit of a recluse. He could cook, had a dog, liked all the same movies and TV shows that I did and best of all – he was interested in me. We talked for hours on the internet. Eventually he asked me over on a date.

            “The flats are fine.” I sigh. “They’re fine.”

Lucy hugs me.

            “You’ll be great. Honestly, I’m proud of you.”

I smile.

            “Thanks Lucy.”

            “Tell me all about it when you get back, okay?”

            “I will, don’t worry.”

            “Love you.”

            “Aw, I love you too.”

I hear a ding inside my head. My cab has arrived.

            “Cab’s here.” I say.

            “Good luck,” Lucy says. “Tell Tim I said hi, okay?”

I step outside, and head into the open cab parked across the street. The doors close in around me. The cab ascends.

            I look down at my hands, watching the lights of the city drag their colours across my lap. I hate that I’m so nervous. It’s just a fucking date. Years ago, before I met Tracy, I used to do this all the time. I don’t even think I had to think about it. Dates were fun, and things were simple. There would always be another girl. Always be another guy.  I don’t know why I can’t go back to that. I’m twenty-six, but I feel like I’m a hundred ninety-seven.  I feel alone and out of touch. I feel like nobody will ever want me again. And I feel so old. Even though I’m pretty much a child. And I know all that is crazy, but it’s just the way I feel. The stakes are so much higher now. The cab descends. I step out in front of a nice flat and hit the buzzer on the door. I hear his voice.

            “Casey, is that you?”

            “Yes.” I say.

            “Come on in.”

The buzzer rings. I push open the door and climb the marble staircase, heading up towards the door to his apartment.

            This building is so nice!  I follow along the delicate golden letters on the doors until I get to his, apartment number 6.  I knock. There’s butterflies in my stomach. The door opens.     

            “Hey,” he says.

            “Hey,” I reply.

            “Come in. Dinner’s almost ready,” He swings the door aside to let me pass.

Tim is effortlessly attractive, with his clean-cut blonde hair and bearded chin, his collared shirt hanging open under a tight, double-breasted waistcoat. Like a feudal lord just chilling in his manor. It’s affected, but it’s kind of cute.

            “How long did you work on that outfit?” I ask.

He laughs.

            “Oh, I obsessed about it for a little while,” he says. “The date was at my house, but I didn’t want to look too casual. But I didn’t want to look too formal either. You know how it is.”

            “It’s cool, I like it.” I say.

            “Thanks,” he says. “I like your outfit too.”

We step inside.

            His lounge room is beautiful, with large French doors leading to rounded balcony. A big couch, coffee table, bookshelf, and the most expensive looking holocaster that I’ve ever seen. He catches my eye.

            “We can play with that one later,” he says, “I saw on your profile you were into games. Have you played the new F-Zero vs. Wipeout Core? It’s intense.”

I can almost feel the air from the cockpit of the simulated hover-racer hit my face at a thousand kilometres a second. I like this guy already.

            “No,” I smile, “but I’ve heard it’s pretty gripping.”

            “You have no idea,” he grins.

            Doubt wells up inside me as I look over to the books on his bookshelf and the literary journals on the table: The Canary Press, Overland, and The Galactic Review. This guy has really got his shit together. What’s he doing with a girl like me?

            I follow him down the hall into the kitchen. His westie barks and jumps up to his waist.

            “What’s his name?” I say, sliding into one of the stools beside the kitchen counter.

            “Daryl.” Tim says.

I laugh.

            “What sort of a name for a dog is fucking Daryl?”

            “I don’t know, I got him from the shelter,” Tim says. “I tried to change it, but he won’t respond to anything else. I guess he really likes it, don’t you Daryl?”

Daryl barks.

            Tim turns around and heads towards the stove. Darryl runs around his ankles and comes over to me.

            “Oh, hello,” I say.

I pet his tiny fluffy face. His tail wags, and he barks.

            “Dinner will be ready in a second,” Tim says. “I think you’ll love what I’m preparing…”

Then I see the pan he’s using on the stovetop. Crystal. Looks like a Cookwell. My face falls.

            “Oh, is that real?” I ask, hopefully.

            “What?” he says, steam billowing out of the pan.

            “That Cookwell pan. Is it real?” I ask.

            “Of course!” he says.

My blood turns to ice.

            “I’m a bit of a gourmand,” he continues. “Cookwell make the best pans in the galaxy.”

            “You know where they come from right?” I narrow my eyes.

            “Potsandpansworld. They’re imported.”

The dog runs away to drink some water from his bowl. Tim continues cooking. I don’t know what to say.

            He’d have to know about the problems. The Galactic Review ran a feature article on them last month. Even if he wasn’t a subscriber, which he probably was, it was shared all over the galactic net.  Even people who weren’t usually into xeno-rights were commenting. It was a major controversy.

            “Hey, this is done,” Tim says. “I’ll meet you over at the table.”

I get up and sit down at the table near the window. He’s done it up with two plates, two glasses, candles, and a bottle of wine in ice. He brings the steaming pan over to the table and ladles out a couple of spoonfuls of a chunky, violet soup. I look at it and think about the Cookwell pan. I realize I’m no longer hungry.

            “I got the recipe from a guy I met on Mars,” Tim explains. “Apparently, it’s a traditional Dagnarc ocean bisque. All the ingredients were sourced from their home world.”

            I take a sip. It tastes amazing, but I shudder.

            “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” Tim says.

He continues eating.

            Tim seems like a sensitive guy. Lucy said he’s nice, and he does seem pretty cool. So why is he okay with cooking with a Cookwell pan? I have to say something. I can’t just let this slide.

            “Um…” I start.

Tim looks up. He holds a spoonful of the bisque before his lips, looking concerned.

            “Did you read the article on Cookwell pans last month?”

            “Oh, you’re one of those,” Tim says.

He rolls his eyes and puts the spoon down in his bowl.

            “What?” I say in disbelief.

Tim cleans his mouth with a silken serviette.           

             “Look. I’m not some monster who doesn’t care about the aliens. Some of my best friends are aliens,” Tim says. “But it’s not like we’re eating meat that used to be an animal or something. These are crystals that we’re talking about here.”
            “But those crystals are alive,” I think back to the article. “They might live a different way than we do, but they suffer when you take them off the homeworld.”

            “They live for like, a billion years,” Tim scoffs. “And Cookwell says they take them back after you die. The time they spend as cookware is infinitesimally small compared to their actual existences. I doubt they even notice.”

He picks up the spoon again and swallows pointedly.

            “But they scream when you use them,” I say. “They scream on a telepathic level. They scream when you take them off the planet, and when you use them to cook your food. They’re screaming all the time because it’s torture. It’s torture to be separated from the homeworld.”

            “Well, they shouldn’t have evolved into the shape of pots and pans,” Tim shrugs.

He continues eating silently. I can’t believe I’m hearing this.

            “When we first developed the ability to grow our meat without a brainstem, there were people everywhere like you,” I say.

            Tim rolls his eyes.

            “They continued hunting and consuming animals, even though we had a better option.”

            “It wasn’t actually better though,” Tim interjects. “Now it’s better, sure, but back then it wasn’t even on the level when it came to taste. It was only ethical, and cheaper.”

It was ‘only ethical’… what the fuck?

            “So you think it’s okay to eat a living being just because it tastes a little better than a viable alternative?” I say, rising to my feet.

            “Of course not,” Tim says. “All I’m saying is they had a point. I told you that I’m into food, remember?”

I sit down.

            “Anyway,” Tim says. “The government sided with the ethics people in the end. They banned the meat that wasn’t vat-grown altogether. There was a black market meat trade, for a while, until the vat stuff started tasting better than the hunted or the farmed alternatives. Now we don’t touch other animals at all except for having pets, and even most of them are simulated. I’m not sure why we’re arguing about it now.”

There’s an awkward silence. My food is going cold.

            “It’s the principle,” I reply. “We shouldn’t torture other living beings just because it leaves us better off. And those crystals are alive.”

Tim swallows. He shakes his head.

            “I know that, but I take issue with the torture thing. Now, I know you’re not going to like this, crystal lovers never do,“ Tim slurps at his bowl.

‘Crystal lovers’. What a fucking jerk!

“But we don’t even know if the so-called” he air quotes. “screams they make are really screams of pain. We can’t tell anything about them at all, because we can’t communicate with crystals. Even other telepaths can’t talk to them. And from what we do know of their thoughts –“

            He finishes his food.   

            “The world they really live in? It’s paradise!  Some kind of telepath utopia. And they’ve been living there for longer than recorded history. Probably longer than the history of every animal on the planet Earth. I think they can stand to be away from that for a couple of centuries. It’s really not the same as torture.”

            “But the screaming,” I say.

            “Have you heard the other theory?” He doesn’t wait for me to answer. “It’s just a pulse they send to check if others like them are nearby. Some tests have even shown they’re happier with other Cookwell pots, and I have three of them,” he softens. “It’s not like I don’t care about the issues. They’re just really good for cooking food with.”

Three pots? Wow! The man is such a xenotarian!

            “So you think it’s okay because you’re not sure if they really feel it?” I ask.

Tim shrugs.    

            “As Wittgenstein says, only I can know whether or not I am really in pain; another person only can surmise it,” he quotes.

            “I’m not really sure that’s what that passage means,” I reply.

            “Nevertheless,” Tim says. “Even if they’re used for cooking now and again, they seem to have a better life than anything else in the galaxy.”

            “So you think it’s okay because it’s temporary?” I ask.

            “I think it’s okay, because I can’t relate to an animal that lives forever and has nothing else to worry about in its entire life,” he makes the point with emphasis. “Other than whether or not it’s been separated from its homeworld.”

            “So that makes it okay to use them as cookware?” I ask.

            “They’re already in the shape of pots and pans!” he snaps. “We don’t have to cut them up or anything. Just pick them up, ship them out, and ship them back when we’re done.”

            “And you think that makes it okay?” I say.

            “That – coupled with everything else we’ve talked about, yes.” Tim nods. “Yes. That makes me think that it’s okay.”

I can’t believe him.

            “Anyway,” Tim says. “Can we talk about something else, please?”

I get it up to go.

            “Aw, come on,” Tim says. “I like you. Can’t we go and play a game or something?”

I feel the anger rising in my chest.

            “I don’t like you.” I snap. “I don’t like your philosophies, I don’t like your opinions. I don’t like your twee and stupid house.”

Tim actually looks a little sad.

            “I’m leaving. Don’t contact me again.”

I storm down the hall towards the door. I fumble with the lock. Tim chases after me.

“Wait,” he says. “Allow me.”

He unlocks the door. I step outside.

            “I’m sorry that we couldn’t get along,” Tim says.

            “Well,” I look at him.

He smiles apologetically.

“I’m sorry too,” I say.

We stand there for a while in awkward silence.       

“Lucy says hi by the way,” I say.

His face lights up.

            “Oh, you know Lucy? I haven’t talked to her in ages…”

I squint at him.

            “Sorry.” He says.

            “It’s okay,” I smile.

He hugs me stiffly.

            “Tell her to call sometime, okay?” He asks.

            “I will,” I reply.

He lingers for a moment, sighs, and closes the door.

            I call a taxi and send a mental text to Luce: Date didn’t go so well. Coming home now.

There’s a ding in my head as the taxi lands outside. Lucy responds: What? Why? Are you okay?

I run down the stairs.

            I’ll tell you about it in a sec, I write.

I get into the cab. The doors close and it ascends. I look out the window as I’m leaving. Tim is standing on the balcony, watching the taxi rise into the air. He’s holding a glass of wine and looking pensive. His dog yaps around his feet.

            Just then I realize how lonely he must be.  On the internet, he told me this was the first date he’d been on in over two years. He’s got money, but he’s scared to leave the house. And now the world is leaving him behind. I think about him. I think about us. I think about going into his bedroom and sliding in between his probably designer sheets. I think about hanging out with him and Lucy. Drinking beers in Fitzroy, and singing along to the radio in his autocar. I think about everything I’ve lost and everything that Tracy did to me, and I realize that I don’t regret a thing.

            Lucy meets me at the door to our apartment.

            “Hey,” she says.

She hugs me.

            “Let’s go out tonight,” I say. “I’ll buy the drinks.”

Lucy grins and pulls away.

            “What’s gotten into you?” she says.

Her face seems to sparkle in the moonlight.

            “Have you got a mirror?” I ask her.

            “Dude, I’m in my PJ’s,” Lucy says.

I laugh.

            “I guess we both need to get ready,” I say.

            “I don’t know what this is,” Lucy replies. “But I like it.”

I go inside and check the bathroom mirror. A girl stares back at me. Black hair, green eyes. She’s pretty but she isn’t quite herself.

            I strip away the augmentations. My hair puffs out and goes red. Freckles streak across my face, I shrink two inches, and my eyes turn their regular brown. And I’m beautiful. I’m fucking beautiful. Just the way I used to be.

            I hear Lucy’s voice inside my mind.

            “Ready to go when you are,” she says.

She sends me a live recording from her eyes. She’s wearing her cutest dress.

            “Alright,” I grin. “Let’s go.”