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William Highsmith

April 2009

Discerning Women

“Am I being exterminated?” said Alexa, feeling her pocket for her pepper spray. Artwork © 2009, R.W. Ware
“Am I being exterminated?” said Alexa, feeling her pocket for her pepper spray.

Artwork © 2009, R.W. Ware

Alexa Cambridge reported to the Human Registration Center as instructed by the Braxian governor. The room looked like a polling place on election day, frantic with women at two dozen stations. Alexa read her kiosk’s instructions, with its famously fractured English, and began.

> Test Set 1:
> You knowing you subject of Brax Empire?

“Freakin’ Braxlish.” Alexa pressed the EXPLAIN button.

> Explanation:
> You will be exterminated if question not answered.

“Ah...that clears it up.” Alexa pressed the Yes button: YES.

> Are you a mammal? Yes/No:


> Are you a mammal now? Yes/No:

“What the...?” YES.

> Please unlatch your child.

“Jesus...I didn’t mean that.”

> You have value to Brax Empire? Yes/No:


> Value: A) man skills, B) woman skills, C) other skills:


> Please report to extermination station.

“Dammit.” Mary pressed the Mistake/Repeat button.

> Value: A) man skills, B) woman skills, C) other skills:


> Woman skills: A) domestic, B) other:


> Please report to extermination station.

“Aiieee!” Alexa saw a woman being dragged from her interview station and pressed the Mistake/Repeat button.

> No more mistakes permitted.
> Woman skills: A) domestic, B) other:


> Test Set 1 result
> Pliability: 7/10.

Hmm, not bad.

> Test Set 2:
> Will you mate Brax master? Yes/No.

Oh, hell. Alexa tried to discern what the aliens wanted to hear. She didn’t know if they played chess. NO.

> Why? Yes/No:

“Good grief.” NO.

> Please report to —

Mistake/Repeat: YES.

> Was ’No’ answer for biological incompatibility? Yes/No:


> Was ’Yes’ answer for your species’ panicky nature? Yes/No:


> Test Set 2 Result
> Krassak-Nekon index: 4/10

I’m doomed.

> Test Set 3:
> 13 Braxians enter a wormhole at point A. At point B, 3 get off and 4 Trels get on —

“Damn history degree!” YES.

> Invalid response, re-enter:


> If you combine 4 moles of acetic acid with —


> Invalid response, re-enter:


> Why are Earth women the way they are?
> A) DNA, B) Earth men, C) Spiked heels?

Alexa’s eyes widened. She stood up to see if any aliens were snickering, but it was too difficult to tell with Braxians.


> Test Set 3 Result
> Gender stress: 5/10; psychic index: 10/10.

Four more women were dragged away, so Alexa figured she’d done okay.

> Test Set 4:
> Are you now or have you ever been a Girl Scout? Yes/No:


> Records show that —


> Congratulations: you have advanced to Level 2.


A Braxian male approached Alexa and directed her towards a door.

“Am I being exterminated?” said Alexa, feeling her pocket for her pepper spray.

“No one’s being exterminated, Mrs. Cambridge. The next phase is a personal interview.”

“That machine interview of yours — ”

“Is ludicrous. Just a test of temperament, dear.” The Braxian led her to a private room. “Sit and put your accusing finger into the lie detector.”

“Okay.” Alexa tried her index finger.

“Fine. Now, Mrs. Cambridge. Does your husband cheat on you?”

Alexa’s jaw dropped. “What has that got to do — ” Her arm then jerked from an intense pain.

“I should have said lie detector/punisher. Answer the question, please.”

“No,” said Alexa. She received another jolt. “Yes.”

“My name’s Qur, by the way,” said the Braxian.

“An unfortunate choice for English-speakers.”

“I know. Was it worth it? Your marriage? Are the children worth the cheating?”

“What right do you have — ”

“Five seconds until the pain returns.”

Alexa rebelled through two jolts of pain. “Yes, for my children. Easy choice.”

“I see. What was the worst day of your marriage?”

“When Tom forgot Mary’s birthday and didn’t call her.”

“That was worse than his cheating?” said Qur.

“He was cheating during the party, but if you’d seen the betrayal in Mary’s eyes...” Alexa swallowed her anguish.

“What was the best part?” said Qur.

“Nursing my babies.”

“That’s beyond our experience and understanding, I’m afraid.”

“Your loss,” said Alexa.

“Besides that, then?”

“Mary’s Christening...she was so sweet, all in white, the candles, the doting parents and brother, the lovely ceremony.” Alexa couldn’t help smiling.

“We have something like that....” Qur’s chin wobbled at an odd angle. “I wish I could go home, Mrs. Cambridge.”

Alexa was almost beginning to enjoy the conversation.

“So sorry for that melancholy. Quite unprofessional of me. You’ve made mistakes, too, Mrs. Cambridge? What was your greatest?”

“Tom was depressed and under medication when he started cheating. I blabbed it to the children, but later explained it away. They were very willing to believe me.”

“Which child would you give up, if you had to choose one?” said Qur.

Alexa stared at Qur with hatred welling in her eyes. She sat through three jolts of pain with barely a flinch.

“Please answer, Mrs. Cambridge. It gets worse. Please?”


“Why Brad?”

“If you take him, perhaps you can cure his degenerative disease. If you’re intent on murdering one of my children, Mary is too young, too sensitive, and is the healthiest.”

“I suppose you hate me now,” said Qur.

“Of course.”

“Go home now. I’m charged with researching marriage and am close to my recommendation about Braxian adoption of that custom. Your guarded defense of a troubled marriage was enlightening. A transcript of our conversation will arrive at your home momentarily. That is our way of, well, you’d call it interfering. I’ll make up for your pain by sending a Braxian physician. We’re awful administrators but great scientists.”

“What about the women who were dragged away?”

“Sent home, not suitable subjects for research.”

Alexa wandered the streets for an hour or two to gather herself. Qur had proved unpredictable, so she began worrying about Brad and hurried home. She found her family sitting at a formal table with candles burning, Tom rising from his seat, Mary sitting prettily in white, and Brad feigning bravery, absent his persistent tic for the first time in three years.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” said Tom. “We’re glad you’re home.”

“Good, I’m famished,” said Alexa. She looked at Brad. “I see you’ve had visitors.”

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About the Author

William Highsmith

The eyes of William Highsmith

William Highsmith has been rejected by some of the finest publications in the world, including Flash Fiction Online (several times), but is now on the right track, hopefully, writing science fiction, fantasy (maybe), and literary fiction, often with a hint of humor. He likes very speculative fiction as well as mundane science fiction... and anything else written with great skill.

His writing background includes fatally boring engineering manuals, user technical manuals, white papers, and contributions to a professional telecommunications book. (But never a microwave oven or toaster manual, so don’t call.) The writing at work is a sidebar, a consequence of not hating to write, like most engineers. His real job is writing software for a radio manufacturer. He also imagines himself to be a photographer.

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