Learning What it Means to be Human

Here is one of my favorite stories that I have written so far for my anthology of short stories.  The story is about an alien, but really it is about us.  What it means to be mortal, grow old, and die.  It is about the heights we have reached given the flaws we all must face.  This is the kind of stuff that lingers in my mind long after the story is finished.  So, please join me in a lesson for an extraordinary alien named Sensu.

Sensu Learns a Lesson


Robert Garbin


Sensu was Altharian.  However, he was considered too eccentric for the tastes of the average Altharian, who considered humans to be the least promising race in the galaxy.  When asked in later years why he chose his current posting on earth, Sensu, now John Bartlett, would only smile with that disturbingly human face and change the subject.

History of a Renegade by Danarian




Sensu was quietly making his way along the school corridor when the quivering blue, gelatinous mass of a fellow student forcefully blocked his path.  Fluting a sign of resignation, he turned his optic pads toward Tenir.

“Why do you persist in these pointless studies of the human race Sensu?   No one important studies a race with such minor power in politics!”

Sensu had heard it all before from friends and family.  Quit being stubborn and grow up!  Listen to us because we are right and you are wrong!  You will have no future on the path you are taking!  When he was younger, he had tried desperately to fit in with the other grubs but no matter what he did, he was always picked on.  Now that he no longer tried, they sought to drag him to their point of view, as if his choices threatened the superiority of their adopted beliefs.

Sensu just walked away from Tenir, leaving him aspirating in self-righteous anger.  He made his way through the twisting hive of tunnels, smoothed by millennia of Altharian students, on his way to his next class in human biology.  He puffed up his air bladders in frustration.  Why couldn’t they leave him alone?  He had tried fitting in but couldn’t and now that he found something to satisfy his interests, others were sticking their olfactory buds in.  Even his parents kept trying to change his mind.  They were constantly sending him to seminars with high ranking teachers that studied other, so called, important alien species.  He was of a differing opinion, but maintaining rank in upper society was more important to his parents.

Sensu reached the lecture hall just as Quanam entered.  Like Sensu, Quanam was denigrated by other mentors for his interest in humans; however, he had never been cowed by his peers, which earned him a modicum of respect.  The old gray professor of human physiology slithered slowly to the teaching dais making a head count as he went, an easy one, considering that classes for more politically active races numbered in the thousands.  Twenty nine was the tally, including Sensu, who made his way to a convenient resting trough near the front of the hall.

Sensu grew more attentive as mentor Quanam slithered onto the dais, fluting his air sacs to get the attention of a pair of unruly students near the back.  Ignoring the childish students, Sensu extruded an appendage toward his pad as the first hologram appeared beside his mentor.  He instantly noted something wrong with the anatomy.  The poor creature seemed to have both male and female attributes and, with his appendage hanging forgotten in the air, Sensu blew out a soft grunt of laughter.   Quanam looked directly at Sensu, causing him to unconsciously slither backwards.

“You have something to say, student,” asked Quanam.

Feeling awkward, Sensu rippled his surface.  “I think someone has been playing with your program mentor.”

“And why is that student?”

“Well … ah … it seems that your example has been given both human genders at the same time,” ventured Sensu.

“Are humans so easily predictable then?”

“No … but I do know that the genders are clearly defined in the study materials,” Sensu cautiously replied.

“What is represented here does not appear in any of your official texts.  Human genetic patterns are very adaptable; however, that very adaptability leaves more room for errors like this specimen.  Sometimes there are humans born with both genders, which is one of their societal secrets and not the norm.  Student Sensu has wisely demonstrated the folly of focusing only on the provided course materials; now let us begin the lecture.”  Quanam nodded toward Sensu as he began discussing the case in point.

Sensu hunched down over his touch pad, hiding his embarrassment by studiously taking notes.  When the lecture was over, he left through a lesser exit to avoid other students; unfortunately, Tauna and his group blocked the hallway, making it impossible to pass without confrontation.  Tauna was a large male Altharian with a very pale blue coloration, a sign of a royal bloodline and several shades lighter than Sensu’s own.

“Humans are such a pathetic race,” Tauna said aloud, pointedly not looking Sensu’s way.  “They can’t even keep their sexes straight.”

Sensu never understood why Tauna took this class, other than to bully those who seriously were interested in humans, since it was an elective course.  He was the schools know-it-all from a ranking family so he never passed an opportunity to degrade someone like Sensu.  Arrogance and privilege almost always soured into littleness and cruelty.  Ignoring Tauna and his friends with a grim determination, he focused his attention on the other side of the hall and slithered forward.  However, Tauna made a wheezing sound with his sacs and let out a percussive burst.

“Sensu, what cheap cleanser are you using now?  It is positively foul.  You’re almost as pathetic as those humans you’re so interested in.”

Sensu turned, expanding his size, preparing to give Tauna a piece of his thoughts when Mentor Quanam exited the hall through the same tunnel.  Tauna and his friends quickly turned away, leaving him alone with Quanam.

“Trouble student Sensu?” inquired his mentor.

Sensu sighed.  He wanted so much to cause Tauna trouble, but what good would it really do.

“No,” was all he said.




Alone in the hall, Sensu reared before the non-descript door, artificial light shining through his translucent flesh; his thoughts turbulent with fear and excitement.  Today he would put the last three years of training to the test, the endless hours of studying the anatomies of every sentient alien in the galaxy.  Sensu was an infiltrator in training.   Unknown to the rest of the Galaxy, his people were a race of shape shifters capable of replicating any sentient carbon life form and even a few non-carbon.  Only the best were given assignments.

On this day, Sensu stood nervously outside a prison cell that held an alien, which one was a guarded secret for the test.  He extruded an appendage from his sinuous form and touched the sensor plate beside the door; the room within was dim.  Across a table of formed metal, the bipedal prisoner stared balefully at yet another Altharian student come to mock its long captivity and take more of its self-esteem.  Letting the door close behind him, Sensu entered the cell.   Across from the alien’s seat was another chair.  He extruded his body into a bipedal form and took the seat opposite what he discerned to be a human from the worlds of the Earth Hegemony.  What luck he thought as a wheeze of relief sighed through the membranes of his air sacs.  He had paid close attention to Quanam’s lectures hoping for this opportunity.

All through Sensu’s ruminations, the alien quietly stared at its captor with what Quanam had called anger, a narrowing of the eyes, tightening of the jaw, and creasing of the brow.  He noticed, in his frank examination of the prisoner, that it was a male of fairly advanced years with slightly greying hair and wrinkling skin.  As he was told, the prisoner’s upper appendages were bound to the table to facilitate contact for his task.  Sensu slowly stretched an upper limb toward what were the human’s hands, hoping not to betray a shake of nervousness.  His flesh made contact and sank slightly beneath the prisoner’s skin where special secretions drew out samples of DNA for his system to replicate.  Sensu quivered with the explosion of chemical changes coursing through his flesh.  At the same time, his mind was connected to the human’s brain by means of synaptic fibers attached to its nervous system.

Sensu’s brain was awash with visions of another life in another form as his body solidified and became less transparent.  His bluish hide faded to pink with odd splotches of pigmentation, while he lost his native flexibility when bones grew, locking him into a rigid form.  He felt sluggish.  Sensu tried his best to filter the physical and mental changes to avoid being overwhelmed; however, the sheer magnitude of information being absorbed through the fleshy contact made him swoon.

With a final flash of memories, Sensu was able to pull his hand from the prisoner.  Hand, what an odd thing he mused.  Shaking, Sensu reached clumsily for the mirror left on the table for students to see their new form.  He found himself staring at a reflection of the man sitting across from him; experimentally, he tried to smile like he had seen in a reference photo.  It turned out harder than it looked even with the memories he had gained.

Sensu jumped in alarm as a gurgling rumble emitted from his midsection followed by a very loud exhalation from his lower backside.  His new nose registered an awful stench while the area he sat on burned and, he believed, the word was itched.  When the gurgling continued, he realized that something was dreadfully wrong.

“Yeah you son-of-a-bitch, that is what your damn food does to my insides!  Painful isn’t it.  Of course that is only the prelude for how it comes out.  Bet you’d like to run your ass across a carpet right now.  Hemorrhoids are like that, wait ‘til they wipe you down later” crowed the manacled human.

Sensu struggled to move but the legs he had acquired ached and felt weak.

“Sucks to turn instantly old don’t it.  The arthritis keeps me awake more than the hemorrhoids and my back is nothing but misery.  Not looking so good there lad.  Maybe you caught something from me.  I sure wish I had a dose of the clap to give you ya bastard alien!” cackled the human.

Sensu dropped to the floor and crawled to the entrance panel wracked with pain beyond his comprehension.  He had to get help.  His new hand pawed feebly at the door panel as a whimper escaped his borrowed lips and tears ran down the cheeks of another’s face.  The door opened as he fell back to the floor.  Before he blacked out, Sensu heard the human growl to those who came to his aid.

“You’ll need lots of mops to clean up after this one ya bastards, fine lot of good it is!”


“Sensu, wake up.”

Slowly he opened his eyes to a blurry wash of colors.  The realization that he still had eyes made him struggle desperately to rise; however, something held him down.

“Calm yourself, Sensu, you are safe.”

Lying back he worked to make sense of what had happened to him.  His vision began to clear into the strange visual spectrum seen by humans, which he had not fully assimilated previously.  Turning his now crude head, he saw a large blue slug standing erect by his bed; a formed tendril resting on his pale pink shoulder.  Sensu shivered.

“Easy now” Quanam spoke into his nervous system.  “You are still adjusting to the shock of your first absorption; your body wants to hold onto the shape while your mind desires to reject what you have become”

“What went wrong?” Sensu asked his mentor.

“Nothing …”

“What do you mean, nothing?” he replied!

“Every trainee goes through this lesson.  It can’t be explained or taught; it simply has to be experienced.  The raw amount of information absorbed from the target overwhelms even the trained at times, but experience will teach you to manage the change and minimize the transfer of physical discomforts without losing the essentials of the target’s behaviors.”

“But, why do I still look like this?” Sensu asked plaintively.

“Well,” Quanam’s skin rippled in an Altharian’s version of an embarrassed shrug “The first transition may take a few weeks to wear off.”

Tears ran down Sensu’s face as the itching misery of hemorrhoids made him squirm in bed.

“Don’t feel so bad my young student,” said Quanam.  “Your friend Tauna fared worse than you.  He was completely unprepared for the powerful nature of methane flatulence.”

Now Sensu’s new eyes watered even more but, surprisingly, he felt better and a huff of air forced its way between his malleable lips.




In his last interview with his intelligence handler, Sensu expressed why he found the human species worthy:

“Until I had my first human transformation, I truly did not understand the greatness, which lay hidden beneath the surface.  When an Altharian sees a human for the first time, they note the rigid structure defined by their skeletal system.  No ability to alter their form to suit the situation.  Within minutes of contact, their comparably limited senses become apparent when they fail to see the blatant warning signs posted throughout our cities to warn of dangers.  Finally, their short life spans are written on their worn exteriors for all to see.  Almost all sentient beings in the galaxy have triple the years of life that an ordinary human has to accomplish their dreams.  However, given all these drawbacks, humans have managed to claw their way into a spotlight on the galactic stage.  Couple this with the fact that they live the better part of their short lives enduring the constant misery of their decaying forms, I find it breathtaking that they can even think beyond their bodily needs.  I have learned so much from them.”

After the interview, Sensu broke all contact with the Altharian government.  Any further information gathered on him comes from human media sources concerning the rise of human functionary John Bartlett to Senator Bartlett, including his death at the age of seventy, which is well short of the average Altharian life span.

Sensu:  A Biography by Quanam


Will a Mr. E.T. please pick up a White Courtesy Phone


This is a picture I created way back in junior high school, which of course dates my age, but it is a unique piece of my artwork since it is the only one done in this style.  If you look closely, you will see that it was made with only vertical lines of color as per the teachers instructions.  I hope to try something new soon just to see what I can do with the technique now.

New $3 Reward (from my Patreon page)



I’ll Bite Baaack!

Here it is finally, the finished version of Termanicz.  To get a downloadable copy, join my Patreon page.  Here is what I wrote:

“Yay, finally done.  This is the first half of the Termanicz project with the robot disguised as the aliens it was modeled after.  Hopefully I will find time in the future (lol) to come up with the other half that has the robot fighting in the devastated city.”

Eight Layer Painting Recipe (from my Patreon page)


I have been painting digitally for well over a year now and I have to say that I don’t know how I did it before.  Yes, I still have a long way to go but with each painting I gain in strength and skill.  The aspect I enjoy most is the ability to change plans on the fly, which is a benefit in painting by layer.  My current project consists of eight different layers that build the image from back to front.

Initially I started with just three layers, one for the drawing of the alien, one for the painting I planned to do, and one for the background.  At this time I had no idea what I would do for the background but began painting the alien anyway, trying different background colors to better highlight the image.  I turned the drawing on and off as I needed to check placement of features.  When I got fairly far along with the creature design, I began playing with images for the background just painting over it when I did not like the progress.  I was able to do this without worrying about damaging the alien image.  Of course, this meant that the alien would look disconnected from the background.  However, I figured that I could touch up the creature image to fit it with the background.

Experimenting with making a drawing for the background, I was able to scan in and piece together the background buildings I wanted and added two more layers (city drawing and city painting).  The city was very basic and meant to be seen at a distance.  Again, I used the drawing layer whenever I wanted to compare the painting to my original idea.  Working with the city painting layer, I knew I wanted some haze in the background to help push the city back a bit.  What I ended up doing was painting the background layer black (my initial thought was that the city was underground but I decided to just go with in darkness) and placed another layer between it and the city painting.  By doing it this way, I could paint on thin washes of dark colors and experiment with how they changed the image without having to fix the other painted layers if I changed my mind.  In addition, as I tried ideas on other layers, I could go back to any number of layers and work to make them fit together, so much flexibility.

After getting further with the buildings and haze layer, I decided I wanted to add light glow to the lighted buildings and lighted highways.  I made a new layer over the city adding washes of light colors that matched the lighting of the buildings, letting the other layers to be seen through a filter of glowing color.  Of course this effect is achieved best with dark layers behind.  Remember, I still had not completely built the full image.  Working on the city, I had filled the top half of the image but with large gaps that allowed the black background to show through.

Finally making a decision on the area immediately behind the alien, I created another layer above the glow layer but still behind the alien painting layer.  On this layer I painted grass until I partially covered the city background.  See how easy it is to build a digital painting without completely designing the image.  Yes, you can make changes with physical methods; however, it is not as easy and sometimes you try things that cannot be undone.  With the layers I can add or remove ideas without damaging other elements.  In addition, I can even play with where layers sit with respect to the overall painting.  Compare the above image to other updates and you will see that I have shifted the alien from the center to the left of the image.  If this had been a physical painting, I would have been stuck with my first choice or have had to start over from scratch.  That would have probably been the end of the painting for me because I usually cannot muster the enthusiasm to start over.

All in all, I am enjoying painting in Gimp for the same reasons that I like using a word processor.  I can change and adjust ideas without having to start all over, which frees me up to experiment with composition and tone more than with physical media.  I find that this suits my creative methods.  I always started with one element and built outward from that, making decisions as I went.  Unfortunately, with physical media, the results were nowhere as good as you see now.