Story Excerpts

Semper Augustus

by Nancy Kress

I.

The trucks stood in a ragged row in gray October rain. Beyond them a lurid red light blinked on and off: TR CK STOP EAT SHOWER FUEL SLEEP. The girl lumbered into the lot, rain sliding over her huge belly, and smiled sourly. “Trick stop,” she said to no one. Then another pain came and she bent over, gasping.

When the contraction passed, she took tools from her duffel. Bypassing the self-driving vehicles with their e-locks, she chose a large, dented truck with a cab, one transom window, and red letters:

BRENNAN HOUSEHOLD MOVING

The Personal Touch for Long-Distance Moves

Deftly, the girl picked the lock and peered into the truck. Cardboard boxes, furniture covered with cloth pads and roped to the sides of the truck, oversized plastic bags. Some space left, but not enough to pick up another household’s belongings. Grunting, she hauled herself inside and pulled the door closed.

In the dim light from the transom, she broke open a big plastic bag. Her pains were coming faster now. She tossed sofa pillows, knitted throws, and a child’s bedspread on the narrow floor space, pulled off her pants, and lay down.

“‘The personal touch’ . . . aaahhhhh!”

Twenty minutes later, the cab door slammed and the truck began to move.

Labor was neither too hard nor too long. The baby was born amid blue-and-gold tasseled sofa pillows, blood and amniotic fluid soaking the Disney princesses on the bedspread. The placenta followed. The girl tied off and cut the umbilical cord. She pulled a corner of the spread over the baby, not touching the child. It didn’t cry, just stared at her from unfocused eyes under a wisp of brown hair.

The girl slept. But when she woke, she wrapped the child in a clean blanket from her duffel. A note was already pinned to the soft cotton, giving a name and address in Tacoma, Washington, followed by a sketch of a raised middle finger.

The baby didn’t wake. The girl’s face creased with emotion, gone in a moment.

The truck rolled on through the night. At dawn, it stopped again and the cab door slammed. The girl waited three minutes, opened the door, and looked out. The truck stood in a diner parking lot in a mostly deserted strip mall.

Perfect.

She climbed out, leaving the truck door ajar. Without looking back, she walked along the sidewalk until she reached a row of dark houses with sagging porches and peeling paint. Walking hurt, but not as much as she’d expected. She called Uber. Her phone glared with huge letters that filled the screen: ALIENS APPROACH EARTH. Another stupid internet hoax. Anyway, who cared? A ride was nearby.

Her body suddenly lurched and she sank to the curb. It was a huge effort to rise just before the Uber driver saw her.

She left her phone buried in a clump of weeds. Those things could be traced. Anyway, she’d gotten from Uber the only information she needed: her location, just outside of San Francisco. She must have slept longer than she thought as the truck rolled from Tacoma through Washington, Oregon, California.

They were going to have a hell of a time with the birth certificate.

*   *   *

Jennie’s earliest memory was falling. She toddled into Gramma’s bedroom and discovered that she could pull herself up on the old blue chair. From there, she could haul her small body to the top of the dresser. So high! She leaned out to see what else she could do. A yank on the knobbly thing below her, and a drawer opened. Jennie reached in and grabbed something just as the entire dresser teetered forward.

She screamed. The dresser fell. In the tiny, shabby room there was space for it to fall only forty-five degrees before it hit the bed. Jennie pitched forward onto the bed, followed by three small drawers raining underclothes and socks. Gramma rushed into the room. “Jennie!”

The little girl wasn’t hurt but she was terrified. She’d done a bad thing. Gramma’s face made that clear. She started to cry.

Gramma bent her arms across her chest. “Let that be a lesson to you not to go where you don’t belong. Now stop crying, you aren’t hurt.”

Jennie stopped crying. Gramma didn’t unbend her arms. Jennie, still scared, did the only thing she could think of: say what Gramma said. If Gramma said it, it must be good, and maybe then she would unbend her arms.

“Leb wat be a lebbon be oo nob go ear oo doon bewong. Nou stob cry oo arb urb!”

It didn’t work; Gramma’s face got the terrible squinch that meant Jennie did another bad thing. Then, abruptly, her face changed. She said, “What did I say to you? Tell me again.”

But Jennie was too terrified to speak.

Gramma sat on the bed. She took Jennie in her lap, something she almost never did, and said, “Tell me again, Jennie, what I just said to you.”

“Leb wat be a lebbon be oo nob go ear oo doon bewong. Nou stob cry oo arb urb!”

Gramma stared at Jennie. Then she said, “First shift starts work at 6:00 a.m., second shift at two o’clock, graveyard shift at ten-thirty, for continuous coverage. Say it, Jennie.”

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Opportunity Space

by Nathan Hillstrom

Kova floated in darkness. She dragged webbed fingers through the water, settling into the human-standard morphology of her new body. Her limbs hung off her torso like ballast. She hoisted her arms and pivoted, slipping around an unfamiliar center of gravity. Vertigo twisted her core, and she thrashed, directionless.

A hundred tiny feelers found and steadied her. Light seeped in as she established vision. A wall of brown, opaque mucus, centimeters from her nose: a Washe, up close. The alien wheeled her upright with rough, cilia-like feelers, and let go. She’d lobbied the Fiscality for this opportunity, trained for it—and now, an actual Washe floated centimeters away. It had even touched her.

They hung in the center of a water-filled, oblong chamber. Ambient light radiated from mother-of-pearl walls and diffused a halo around the amorphous alien. Kova took a breath to calm herself, cool water flooding her lungs.

The Washe’s skin resembled a rumpled plastic bag, undulating in the water. Its body was translucent around the edges, opaque as it deepened. Within its murk, flat planes of cartilage intersected at haphazard angles, an architecture of squashed geometries. Discrete bundles of black eyes coated its insides, each sac trailing a clutch of entrails. The collection of eyebundles made up the creature’s mind, a neural distribution closer to the arm-spanning intelligence of a cephalopod than the tidy contents of a human cranium.

Kova could scarcely believe she’d traveled the sunspan to unaffiliated space, trusted by the Fiscality to help prospect a new species. Save a new species, even: a blight swarm was devouring the Washe’s system. But through their desperate attempts to harness additional energy, the Washe had discovered something valuable—a rare infection seethed within their sun, a stellar virus entangled with the stars of the sunspan. The Washe figured out how to broadcast a plea over this network of infected suns, and the Fiscality, Kova’s employer, responded with blueprints: a depot to interact with the sunspan, containers for agents to transit into, and defensive hardware to defeat the blight. Proposed contract terms followed, and the Washe began to build.

Now Kova was here. She’d assisted with blight cleanup before, had transited into new bodies before, but only in controlled volumes—all of it commodity work. The Washe orbited a new sunspan node, unaffiliated and unencumbered. A much higher-margin opportunity. She met the creature’s sea of eyes and smiled.

Two Washe squirmed against each other at the end of the aquatic chamber, ten meters distant, where it tapered to a hatch. Outside, more water: an aquatic planet three times the mass of Earth. But Kova didn’t see any Fiscality technology—no rows of fab banks, no churning magnetohydrodynamic displays, no suspended scan cages. This did not look like a sunspan depot. Tubes and mechanicals coiled over the sheen of the chamber’s walls, but none of those had assembled her present body. And Tulevuus, where was he?

Lights scrolled along the edges of the nearby Washe’s cartilage, a colorful sequence flickering beneath its skin. The creature was talking. Kova let the image fade from her conscious mind and focused on meaning, engaging her embedded translator’s pre-processing. A cacophony of words and ideas spilled into her, an overlap of meanings she couldn’t parse.

Slower, please, she responded. A corresponding light sequence burst around her torso as the translator interpreted her thoughts. Simpler. I don’t understand.

The Washe’s message shortened and repeated on every length of its cartilage: Hurry, it flashed. Hurry.

Kova reporting. She offered a wave. Who are you?

I am [colorful flicker], the Washe signaled.

She assigned “Profit” as the creature’s name in her translator. Perhaps a fancy, natural-built human could identify aliens as light sequences, chemical signatures, syntactic operations, or whatever else, but Kova needed words. And the creature did mean profit: her pay rate for this trip was the highest grade she’d been offered by the Fiscality—plus, an opportunity for a massive bonus.

Hello, Profit. Where is Tulevuus?

Your director is aboard a different spacecraft. Its external feelers flailed. You must activate the hardware in this one.

A different spacecraft. Her mind reeled as she reframed the outside from water planet to the vacuum of space. The weight tugging at her limbs wasn’t gravity—it was acceleration. If they weren’t on-planet, that meant she’d been transferred from the depot to the central water chamber of a Washe ship, dragged unactivated and unaware during the critical start of the mission. Her synthetic skin prickled.

Why aren’t we at the sunspan depot? The depot was her lifeline back to affiliated space, her only way home. She didn’t even know how far they’d traveled. What happened to mission prep?

The cartilaginous panels inside the Washe shifted and folded, disappearing into murk and reappearing. They carried additional eyebundles forward like paddles. Later. An eater is engaging now. Hurry.

Crap, Kova flashed, unintentionally. The translator was a miracle of the Standard Mind, but when communicating non-verbally, she found it too easy to trip from thinking into speaking.

The hatch at the end of the chamber rolled open, and the three Washe flitted through on jets of water.  READ MORE