9680 words, novelette
Won’t Hurt, I Know
You don’t look Sweetbaby in the eye when he pushes out from under the tree throw. We know that now. Instead, the ears, or what’s left of them, are a better place to settle your gaze. They’re close enough to the face that you can tell which way he’s looking and whether or not he’s smiling at you, and, in the end, those are the two things that matter most with him.
Luckily, the moonbugs are out tonight, which always helps things. He likes the swirl of their lights as they gather around the lanterns planted in the backyard, their floating ember-bodies clustering around those glowing glass boxes at the base of his tree.
With them keeping him calm and easy, we’ve got a shot at a good Christmas.
The rest of us wait a bit until his head clears the roots, and he starts digging his chin in the soil to get some momentum, inching forward, little by little. That’s when we’re good to walk over in his direction from the back of the house. Past the outer ring of blue posts, then step-by-step-by-step to the yellow posts, before stopping at the last and closest ring around the oak, at the posts that are brown-red.
“Hands.” Captain holds his up—palms toward the tree.
Shay wipes her apron and raises hers.
Then I pull mine out of my dress pockets too, so Sweetbaby knows we aren’t carrying anything sharp.
And when he’s ready, he gushes a little more out into the grass, a glistening torso that unfurls in the cool chill of the mountaintop air. Then his fingers, almost as long as my forearm now, reach up, fan out, then grip at the dirt to move things along.
Part of me always hopes that he’s grown too much since the last time, that he’ll get good and stuck, but there’s always more body than I anticipate before the metal collar and chains around his middle clink up to the surface where we can see, that safe sound of restraints Captain nailed deep, in and all around, in that grimgray oak.
“Console, Christmas lights,” Captain says. The house behind us shimmers in sequence, red, white, red, white, red, and I can see his eyes are glassy and not really taking in what’s in front of him.
It’s Shay’s turn, and she picks up the tray she brought for Christmas dinner. It clatters as she puts it down over into the inner circle where Sweetbaby can reach, the roast and other sides sloshing and shifting around. Even with a synthesizer, I know it took Shay all day to prep and finish. She likes to cook the meat with a special oven and range Captain made out of modified heating coils. Makes it taste closer to the real thing, even if it is more work and pain, and leads to those fingertips of hers, all bandaged and sealed. She’s nervous, like she always is. Wondering if what she brought is really what Sweetbaby wants.
“Console, music.” Captain sits—we all sit, making ourselves a little like rocks—and the old-world songs, warbling songs, settle over the yard. We’ve got everything set up right. The dinner. The moonbugs. The lanterns. The Christmas lights. And we relax our shoulders, finally, when Sweetbaby nudges the food with his nose, snaps up the first few bites where it’s hard to see, under the drapes of his dark hair.
“Won’t hurt you.”
None of us realizes the voice is coming from Sweetbaby at first. It’s been so long since he’s talked. But when I look over, one of his eyes is there under that hair, on me.
Captain and Shay exchange looks, but they don’t get up. They don’t say anything to me. They don’t say anything to him. They just keep on looking.
Sweetbaby’s head gets closer to the brown-red post where I’m sitting, maybe where I’m sitting too close now that I look at it, since he’s grown longer.
“I know,” I say.
All at once there’s a cutting of his rowed teeth digging—fast and deep—into my tender outer shoulder and down to the solid, and I see better now his lips curling at the corners in that smile I must have missed just a second ago. I don’t think I can even process the heavy throwing-up-and-shaking kind of pain rushing through me when my arm leaves the socket, or the blood dumping out on the grass and on the posts and all over his face. And the only real thought about my brother that I can barely muster then, if I have to give it words, is something like:
Seriously, what the fuck?
A Good Dreamer Wouldn’t Dream That
Of course, I already know what’s waiting for me after. Captain and Shay will probably be hovering at my bedside, watching for any stirring before I finally come to. They’ll be all edgy and pacing, eager to talk me through my fogginess and get some kind of handle on me before I’m too clear.
“What happened?” I’ll say, or something dumb along those lines.
“Nothing,” Captain will answer, which is just as dumb.
“I got hurt. Sweetbaby hurt me. A lot. Felt bad.”
“Just a little,” Captain’ll answer firmly. “A little was all it was.”
“I don’t know. It felt like a lot.”
“Well. No,” he’ll say again. “Feelings are confusing that way. Make things seem worse than they are sometimes.”
“Think I lost my arm. Don’t know. That’s worse, I’m pretty sure.”
“Like I told you, Fran. It’s confusing. Feelings. It was only some cuts, damaged tissue. Nothing our med-station couldn’t handle. Right as rain. Look. Arm. Right there. If you lost your arm, how’d you get your arm right there? Think the pain made you imagine things. Dream things. You know what I mean?”
“Don’t think so. Didn’t really feel like a dream to me.”
“Maybe that’s just how good a dreamer you are, Franny.”
“No. A good dreamer wouldn’t dream that. No way.”
He and Shay will get uncomfortable and quickly run out of words, so they’ll send Dowabot trotting over, with those little blue lights blinking, as it brings in a needle with some sedative to put me out again. And they’ll leave me like that for days until I stop asking questions, when I’m just quiet. That’s when they’ll let me up and out of the bedroom again.
But this time, when I creep my eyes open and see them, waiting, right there, by the bed, I don’t go with any of the dumb starters. No what-happened’s or where-am-I’s. I don’t see the point anymore.
“You okay?” Captain goes. “Nothing you . . . nothing you want to ask?”
And the answer’s a big “no.” Because there’s only really one thing that crops up—the thing I already know they won’t answer, no matter how I ask it, no matter how I prod or press, because they don’t have a story for it prepared and ready to go.
Why did you let me die like that again?
Why do you always let him kill me?
The upshot after a death, if there ever is such a thing, is that they’ll leave me alone, because they’re afraid of the things that might come out of me, or maybe of what will come out of them, if I keep up my questions. So they mostly keep to the far corners of the house if at all possible, each of them finding a way to be elsewhere.
Our house has six rooms, which feels like a lot and not at the same time.
My room. Captain and Shay’s. The deck. The engine room. The cargo hold. The medical office. Then, in between, a couple of bathrooms (Captain calls them “shitters,” but Shay says not to repeat it) and a spot up top with windows we call the View.
After something with Sweetbaby, those rooms aren’t enough. So I take a walk down the mountain, and Captain and Shay don’t try to stop me or anything, so long as I don’t go all the way down to the Gloomfields.
Dowabot stays close, responding to my occasional prompts, while I practice throwing rocks at trees, feeling out this arm and all the rest, that isn’t really mine.
“How’s the soil in this spot?” I lob something a good distance.
Dowabot lowers its forelegs and dips a sensor implement from the underside of its shell and processes.
“PH 4.9. Phosphorus 22.5 ppm. Potassium 72 ppm. Magnesium 57 ppm. Limestone fabrication recommended for target pH.”
“How about the Gloomfields? Any idea what it’s like in there?” I whip a pebble that clacks somewhere in the brush. Dowabot’s lights flicker from blue to yellow, that machine body turning, almost like it’s looking the same way I am downhill at all of that gray, but it doesn’t answer because of the Captain’s content blocks. Well before he and Shay started coming up with bullshit stories about the Gloomfields and how Sweetbaby got sick, he was putting all sorts of blocks in our consoles and terminals.
Dowabot and I have found little ways around that though, the two of us.
“Rephrase query,” Dowabot offers, and I know it doesn’t technically modulate its voice. But I like to imagine there’s a playfulness to the instruction.
“Do you know what the soil is like . . . five hundred meters west of our current location?”
“From Captain’s prior readings: pH 6.6. Phosphorous 45 ppm. Potassium 148 ppm. Magnesium 100 ppm. Numerous trace elements, including zinc, copper, sulfur.”
“Good growing, eh.”
Dowabot whirs and widens one of its lenses at the blanketed foot of the mountain without an answer. Sometimes it stares at that steamy-looking terrain the way humans might, at least that’s the way I interpret it.
“Any signs of lifeforms in the Gloo—five hundred meters west of our current location?”
“Any . . . biometric readings?”
“Any multicellular organisms?”
One of my rocks finally chips a bit of bark from the towerpines.
“Ugh, Dowa. Come on. Can you give me a hint?”
“Any sign of unusual activity, within, say, the last seventy-two hours, in the area five hundred meters west of our current location, that isn’t because of the family?”
Dowabot’s lights pick up their blinking from yellow to blue.
I’ve spent as much time fuming and flinging things around the lower mount as I can, so we hoof it uphill back to the house, where Shay’s putting up sheets and underwear on a line to dry—a convenient way to act like she hasn’t been hanging around on my account.
“Fran? Hope you’re keeping out of the Gloom. Spending a lot of time at the bottom of the mountain.”
“Yep. I know.”
“Can we talk?”
She comes up in front of me with sleepless eyes, strewn hair, all of her worry, but I keep peeking over her shoulder around the corner of the house at that grimgray oak and that dark little hole beneath.
“Captain and I, we’re sorry. I just want to say that more than anything. About Christmas dinner and everything. Clearly we didn’t do enough, and I understand if you’re still upset. Makes perfect sense. I would be too, if it were me.”
Big splotches of brown in the yard are visible from here, on the grass and the posts.
“It’s a lot, I know it. You deal with a lot.” Shay turns my chin and pushes some of my hair back. “It’s not easy dealing with what you deal with, and it’s too much. Too much.” She hugs me to her. It’s a bad habit, but I find myself leaning and holding too. “Captain and I have been talking it over, about what went wrong. We think we’ll keep you back in the blue circle for the next Christmas dinner. That way—”
“Next dinner?” I straighten up.
“Well, I don’t mean . . . Not right away or anything, Fran.” Shay’s mouth gets thinner. “He’s going to have to eat again at some point. You realize that. So I’m just thinking ahead. Trying to plan, so we don’t get him riled, you know?”
“Don’t get him riled?”
I push my way around and almost knock into Dowabot.
“Wait a sec. Franny. Come on. Can you talk to me?”
“Rephrase query!” I yell over my shoulder.
“What’s that supposed—just wait a sec. Calm down. Will you just calm down?”
“Where are you going, Fran? Fran?”
I grab one of the loose stones in Shay’s garden that’s sitting on one of her little dirt mounds, point a finger with the other hand because I’ve seen people do that in archive clips, and let it fly. There’s a satisfying pak-kak as it nicks the edges of the tree and vanishes into the dark, and I wait to hear something, any kind of rustling, or breathing, or snapping, or thumping.
Nothing happens though.
A Lot Less Meaning
Shay’s trick to meals and smoothing things over, food and otherwise, is the same, every time. You have to mix the old with the new, she says, so your head doesn’t always know what’s what. She synthesizes the proteins, the basic ingredients. But she takes anything else she can, fresh from her garden, to cook together, or sprinkle over, or whatever it is she decides to do. I once pointed out to her that the seeds in her garden are originally synthesized too, printed by nanites within the Gi-Fab to mimic the properties of vegetables and fruit from prim-space. Didn’t matter, according to her. Because in the growing and soil-learning they acquired their own flavor, she insisted.
All for us to consume.
Captain eats his meals with us in silence. Glassy eyes, heavy breath, and sharp smells from his nose that I can pick up from my end of the table. He says it’s an old habit from service, that I.C. soldiers don’t like to talk in mess, but like everything else they tell me, that may be untrue. I think if he had a choice, he wouldn’t eat with us at all.
Usually, Shay’s the one to steer things when we eat, with talk about rains forming over the Gloomfields, or maybe some project for me and Captain, for the house, like building a greenhouse, or a ramp to the porch so it’s easier to bring things in with the longcart.
But I’m still feeling prickly, I guess, because I decide on different conversation.
“Did you know Christmas is once a standard year?”
Shay doesn’t hear me or doesn’t want to, and Captain stops chewing.
“It was supposed to be a holiday, religious. From before. Pre-Mother, old-old-world stuff. Meant to represent the birth of a deity, I’ve read.” I take a bite. “That’s why it was probably once a year.”
“Interesting.” Shay looks into her glass. “Well, traditions have a way of changing over time, I suppose.”
“Not really, though. The sects that still observe do it once a standard year too,” I reply. “Not like us.”
Captain’s blinking, thinking, wondering how I got past the blocks he’s put in the consoles—a lot of contemporary information is restricted. He’ll probably up the protections on the archives, not knowing that I’m not getting it there.
He hasn’t any idea about the Goat Shed.
I take another bite. “I think that’s what made the event special, for them. Christmas, I mean. That there was actually only one.”
Shay wipes with a napkin, even with nothing on her face to clean up.
I look back and forth. “I mean, I suppose you can pick other days too, call them Christmas and pretend every couple of weeks. But when there’s more than one, over and over, that gives the real one a lot less meaning, I feel like.”
Captain’s pushing food with his knife.
“And the more there are, the less and less each of the fake ones mean too,” I conclude. “Can’t be as meaningful if there’s more than the real one. Don’t you guys think?”
The rest of the dinner’s wordless.
Later that night, Dowabot accompanies me up in the View, and I can hear Captain and Shay whisper-yelling at one another somewhere in the hold. To be safe they’re using colony-speak, in Shay’s dialect, which I don’t know as well. They’ll probably check Dowa’s logs to see where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing.
But it doesn’t matter—Dowa showed me how to delete and replace those a long time ago.
The oak out back is particularly hard to see this night out of the glass, which, for some reason, I think will help me let go and rest easy. But in a weird way, it makes it worse. To know the shape of the oak’s out there but not distinguishable from all the other trees on the mountainside. To not know where exactly he’s curling up, and whether he’s sticking his head out, like me, to hear what scraps he can of the whisper-yelling too.
Things I Remember from Before
These days, Shay thinks I’m turning bitter, like something in her garden that got twisted in on itself. She says I only remember the bad things—about her, Captain, Sweetbaby—that I don’t remember the good, and that’s why I’m so mad all the time.
Here’s the thing, though.
I do remember what Shay means, the things she’s talking about, albeit in snaps and snips. I remember when our house used to fly, for example, and everything looking like nighttime out the windows. I remember all kinds of I.C. colonies and outposts where we’d refuel and repair across settled civ-space. There was one place that was ocean everywhere, but colored red, because of the coral networks, and another where you were so light you could jump to the top of the doorframe if you tried.
I remember Sweetbaby—boy-Sweetbaby—before the weird parts spread, when his hair was straight and shiny. When he was only just a little bigger than me, but big enough that I somehow couldn’t imagine ever being his size. How we’d play with dolls Captain made with parts from the Gi-Fab and silly hand-clap games.
Don’t talk like a Jack—or you’ll fall right off the track—and your bones will start to crack—when you have to bend your back!
I remember him being a kind of mad that didn’t make any sense to me, even then.
The first time he slapped me, we were scrapping over one of Captain’s dolls and a piece of the head came off. He said it was because I bit it, and he smacked me right in the mouth. Except, he’d been the one to bite, and I could tell from his eyes, he didn’t know that what he was saying wasn’t true.
I remember all sorts of meanness like that, that never seemed to match what I said or what we were doing, didn’t follow any pattern or time of day or season or track with the weather outside. Screams and scratches, kicks that just came and went without warning.
And I remember Captain and Shay starting to tell stories about him, at first to others, then to me, and then over time, to themselves.
How, in the beginning, Sweetbaby wasn’t sick, no matter what they were seeing or what I said. And that was the story, for a while, until his body started to change with his behavior—first the forehead and jaw swelling, then the torso stretching, and the fingers lengthening.
Then, it was only that his body was sick. His mind was okay. He was still their boy underneath. He just had trouble showing it, was all. And that was the story Captain and Shay stuck with too, for as long as they could, until his mind started going in bigger stretches—when they started having to use the locks on the cargo hold, and learn different tricks with lights to bring him some calm.
Then, it was finally a bad sickness, yes, something that had to be monitored and contained carefully, but treatable, reversible. Something that the doctors in other settlements might be able to slow, maybe even fully cure. But none of those people seemed to have ideas or explanations, no matter where or how far we traveled to find them.
And through all that, over and over, version after version, they didn’t ask to hear any of my stories about Sweetbaby, no. Because when you’re little, people want to tell you the stories, never want to hear yours.
If they were to ask me about it—and, believe me, I know this for certain, they never will—it was there from the beginning.
My brother was sick from the start.
And the things Shay says I remember here, now, they aren’t all that different from before Sweetbaby was this way, just more extreme.
Like the time he took out my arm, and I bled everywhere—that’s obviously still fresh in my thoughts. Another time when I tripped into the red circle, and Sweetbaby rushed over, not to help, but to shove his fingers in my gut. A colder Christmas, when I was huddled up with blankets, and he crushed me underneath his long body when Captain and Shay were getting something out of the house.
Then there was a good one, at least to me, when I stole Shay’s garden shears, before we started the “show your hands” rule. I got one stab in Sweetbaby’s side before he threw me against the tree and broke me.
At some point, when I started to realize that Captain and Shay were taking my body into the Gloomfields each time this happened, I had Dowa keep a running counter with a carefully phrased command: How many times have Captain and Shay traveled together more than five hundred meters from the house?
Dowa’s answer: twenty-one.
Twenty-one times they took me off into the Gloomfields to do whatever it is they do when I die. So maybe Shay’s right, that I’m angry because of all the things I can’t remember.
Twenty-one minus the four I can remember is seventeen more times of dying.
That’s a lot of death to just go and forget like that.
Things I Learned from the Goat Shed
For a long time, everything I knew came from Captain and Shay, until the Goat Shed.
It had just been waiting there, right there, not a few minutes from the house, and, even now, I can’t remember how I stumbled on it that first time at the bottom of the back road. Maybe the sunlight just caught it the right way, or maybe it was Dowa who pointed it out with one of its proximity scans—I can’t even be sure anymore. But sitting between a few of the bigger towerpines by some slanted rocks, embedded in the slope and covered with a creeping growth was that yellowing, dimpled door, with the outline of a horned animal etched in its surface. I’d learn later, after cracking the new archives, that these were goats.
The simple truth is that nothing ever comes from nothing.
Even empty worlds like these always have something that came before. This little alcove, lined with metal, a couple of bunk beds at the far wall, a desk in the middle, a terminal, some supplies, this is from before. I think it was meant to be some kind of shelter or observation post—rigged to last one to two people for months, if not years, if they needed. But whoever planned on using it never got around to it from the looks of things.
“What’s that?” I think I said, when I first came across the box in the corner. It looked similar to a Gi-Fab. But instead of the glossy panels around the outside of our synthesizers, this was translucent glass. I could see an interior chamber of reflectors around the center, and around that, a moving gray swirl, like steam or fog.
Dowabot reviewed and blinked about for a moment.
After some searching, the two of us found a battery wall, and Dowabot instructed me on how to get power going in the shed. The one terminal at the desk had standard-I.C. letter and number keys, so I had Dowabot run a simple permutation of up to ten characters for a booting up. Dowa got it in just a couple of hours.
“Does Captain know about this place, you think?”
Dowabot blinked blue. “Unknown.”
“Does he know anything about the people who made it?”
Dowabot blinked yellow when I hit the block. “Rephrase query.”
“Does Captain know anything about any settlements that were here before we arrived?”
Dowabot blinked blue, to my surprise. “Because of his rank, the Captain has access to certain privileges and information, including about prior colonies. He has researched this one in detail.”
“Has he been here, to this colony, before? I mean before us, when he was in the I.C.”
Dowabot blinked blue. “Unknown.”
We spent weeks after fiddling with the terminal and the device in the corner. With some trial and error, we confirmed the thing was, indeed, some sort of Gi-Fab. I synthesized little objects that were in the shed’s logs at first—toolkits, extra components for the terminal. Then I had an idea for speeding up the process of figuring out the Goat Shed.
“Can we create another Dowabot?”
“Typically, complex machinery is not synthesizable. It is recommended that you fabricate the components and then assemble them.”
I had my suspicions that the Goat Shed was capable of something different, even then, but I deferred to Dowa if it wanted to do things the traditional way. I asked Dowa to access its own designs and begin the process of fabricating and constructing a second quadrupedal bot, and while it undertook that request, I found other ways to keep busy myself, reading through the shed’s archives. These non-Captain, unblocked archives were disorganized, but useful. Here’s some of what I learned from the people who built the Goat Shed:
1. This is one of many posts that belonged to a research colony, a settlement that was once called Asclepia.
2. Scientists and their families assigned to Asclepia were particularly focused on synthesis technology. I haven’t found a direct link, but the more I read, the more I’m convinced that their research and engineering were tied to the precursors to common Gi-Fabs.
3. The Asclepians studied animals, plants, and all kinds of organic and inorganic material in order to test the ways they could or could not be synthesized from constituent matter, transferred energy, and prefabricated designs.
4. The Goat Shed has a backlog of supplemental designs for synthesis beyond anything I’ve seen in Captain’s house.
5. Synthesized butterscotch candies are incredible.
6. The Asclepians advanced synthesis well beyond what was distributed to other I.C. colonies. So they worried about what the I.C. colonies would do if they found out.
7. Some aquatic mammals, in addition to various species of bird, engage in asymmetric slow-wave sleep. Half their brains stay alert and operate the body while the other half gets the chance to recover. I don’t know, it was in one of the files of background research material. I just thought it was neat. One part carries the burden; the other part gets to rest.
8. The colonists on Asclepia kept writing about something called the Nine Moon War. I’ve heard Captain talk about it too, in the past. They thought it would lead to something disastrous, if they weren’t careful.
9. According to local charts, the area where the Gloomfields are located is called Open-Access Facility 10101. It was one of the last large-scale synthesizer tests that the researchers undertook before the war broke out. It’s unclear how close to finished the facility ultimately was.
10. Synthesizer design file names and codes to remember: Barbecued short ribs (18BC782224). Chocolate pudding (2ER25339220). Guava mango passion fruit cake (90UIO23MM2)!
11. The undershell of Dowabot, which typically stores its sensors, repair implements, and end-effectors, is surprisingly spacious—approximately 50 cm long and 15 cm wide. This can be used to hold foreign objects, if requested. It’s also possible to use the Goat Shed’s synthesizer to create other tools that can fit perfectly within the cavern of that undershell, if so desired. And if you wipe Dowa’s logs afterward, no one, not even Dowa, will know that you placed something helpful there, for when you need it later.
Posts and Pots
Captain lowers his rounded shoulders after each swing. He pauses in the afternoon’s oily heat between hammering the posts back into the ground, farther out from where they once were, to account for Sweetbaby’s reach. First the circle of blue posts. Then the yellow. Then the brown-red. I hand him a water glass when he takes a break, and he sips at it, watching the grimgray oak like I am.
“What do you want me to say?”
He doesn’t look at me when he asks.
“Nothing,” I answer honestly.
It’s never been like us to have long father-daughter discussions. I think maybe he feels things are changing and has to have some part in it, no matter how late or inconsequential it may be. “You know, we would run into all kinds of problems, in the I.C., a lot of them probably our own making.” Captain’s hand drifts to something in his back pocket before he remembers himself. “I think part of what they teach you is figuring out that you sometimes have the tools for the solutions, too.”
He stares at Dowabot for a long time before I take the glass, and my nervousness starts to prickle, wondering if he knows something. But if he does he’s content to just let it sit, the way he lets everything just sit.
In the end, it’s a lot of nothing for someone lecturing me about fixing things.
Back in the house, there’s a crash and sizzle of pans on heating coils, and I can smell Shay’s veggies popping and crackling in synthesized oil. She asks me to bring over one of the serving dishes, and out of one of the pans she rolls off a crumbling mountain of sweet potatoes and onions and carrots. Just from the way she’s carrying herself, eyes squinted and focused and muscles all around her neck bunched up, I can tell that she’s getting ready to talk.
“It’s a shame to me, you know. That you never really see it.” The hum and rhythm are of words that have been cycling in her head for a long while, with a practiced rise and fall. “You never see how much better Sweetbaby’s gotten through all of this. It’s not just the setbacks and problems. There’s improvement, too. I mean, there are times now, when he’ll eat from my hand, put his head down and listen when I sing to him out at the oak. He’s getting better.”
I stir one of the sauces before it gets hard and clumpy and burned at the bottom.
“The thing of it is, you have a choice in how you act, Franny. You have a choice. He doesn’t. That’s the illness that stops him from having the choices you have. And you’re old enough to appreciate that, before you do the things you do.”
I could let this go, I suppose, continue to stir and keep the sauce moving instead of stopped and burned, but something about it just gets to me.
“I’m confused . . . ” I cluck my tongue. “Didn’t you just say he was getting better?”
Shay’s lips are pressed.
“You know, eating from your hand, listening to songs. ‘Improvement.’” I tap the spatula on the rim of the pot and let it rest.
Shay’s pretending to swipe oil spatters off the range. “What are you getting at?”
“It’s just a coincidence, right? That stuff. I mean, has to be. You caught him at the right time. Luck of the draw. Because good Sweetbaby. Bad Sweetbaby. It all just depends.”
“I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Well, is he getting better or not?” There’s intentional softness and sharpness at the same time in my voice. “Because if it’s sickness driving everything, then none of what you said about feeding and songs means anything. He’s just sick. He’s got no choice in what he’s doing, good or bad. But if he’s getting better, that means he can change. And if he can change, that means he has a choice when he does the things he does. So which way do you want it to be right now? Is he capable or not? Is he a baby or not? What allows you to tell me what to do today, I wonder?”
Shay moves about the room and checks for different pots and pans for no reason. “I never raised you this cold,” she finally mutters. “No pity in your heart.”
“Thanks, but I’ll save my pity for where it matters.”
One of the empty pots leaves Shay’s hand and clacks hard against the backsplash. “At least what’s wrong with him is a sickness we can point to. Have some goddamn compassion!”
For some reason, I can’t even look over at her, and I find myself staring at every little detail of that stupid fucking pot, askew and leaning off one of the heating coils where no one’s grabbing it.
And I obviously have no way of seeing it, but I picture Captain out in the yard reaching into that pocket of his, taking out that flask he thinks we don’t know about, and taking a long drink while the sweat burns his eyes.
Fixing nothing going on in the house, like always.
I Make It Count
Another swirl of moonbugs across the chilly pockets of evening air, another Christmas that isn’t really Christmas. We walk past the blue posts, the yellow, and show our hands to the oak. Captain turns on the red and white lights, the warbling music. Shay puts out the platter of dishes she’s worked all day making. Again, always, this thing of ours.
Sweetbaby’s head comes out from under the tree, and I’m locked in on those lumpy ear stubs. The long fingers up and out, digging into the soil, dragging the unwinding torso. Inch by inch, he squeezes onto the grass, his skin tight and splitting where it isn’t shiny.
While Captain sits hunched and rocking unsteadily, Shay’s humming and nodding to the music, trying to keep everything smooth and calm. They’re both just watching their Sweetbaby, which is how I want it to be.
“How’s the soil over here, Dowa,” I whisper.
The bot lowers its forelegs and opens its undershell to extend its sensor, and I reach my hand in.
Sweetbaby seems to know something’s different, or maybe he’s just looking to make some trouble, because I can feel him turning away from the food he’s snapping up, toward my part of the lawn.
It’s been years since I’ve taken in his face in full. More than forever really since I’ve dared. Hard not to notice that his eyes have dropped down to the sides, almost to the cheekbones, where they’re almost all spotted black, inflamed, and weepy. The slant of his nose and mouth fuses into one long face that reminds me of pictures of horses. Not as bad as I’d thought it was, honestly, now that I take a moment.
And I think he’s confused too, that I’m not backing down or away—there’s no twisting back or running or flashes of fear in me tonight.
Captain and Shay start to tense, both of them sitting up, but not doing anything to stop Sweetbaby as he slides slowly toward me. I think they’re yelling my name when I start to approach the brown-red posts, step-by-step-by-step, not turning from the enlarged head craning in my direction.
He’s listening to me whisper, no smile, so I know there’s no attack coming just yet.
Don’t talk like a Jack—or you’ll fall right off the track—and your bones will start to crack—when you have to bend your back!
Sweetbaby tilts his head, out between the dancing moonbugs, and over my way, to my open hand. And my other hand appears from behind my back; I make it count.
The fabricated knife plunks into one of those spotted black side-eyes, sliding stiffly in a couple places, with a couple of bumps of resistance that comes with thicker matter, up and in at an angle to the very back of his head.
Sweetbaby doesn’t thrash or snap at me like I’d expected. I brace myself for a spasm or reflex that might send me flying back. But all that I get out of him is that heavy lopsided skull of his dropping hard like a rock, smashing down by my feet all limp and still.
Screams mix in with the music over the house speakers.
Sweetbaby lies there under flashes of red, white, red, white, red.
Captain’s hands are rough, I notice, like sandpaper, like they’ve seen a lot of sun and cold, cracking at every seam. First time I’ve ever picked up on that, when he squeezes my upper arm and drags me into the house. Dowabot and I are lobbed in, and he gives me a look before he orders the main console to lock the doors until he returns.
He’s tired maybe, but not angry, not surprised, I observe.
When he’s gone, I stand in front of Shay’s full-length mirror and look at the stains all over my neck and down my dress. For some reason I think, what would it be like if Sweetbaby were covered in blood and inspecting himself instead? I imagine sometimes what it would be like if I were the one sick and in the tree and he got to be the one in the house. Since, I mean, it could just as easily have been that way.
Dowabot pads over and stops next to my knee in the reflection.
Not at all how I thought this’d look for some reason.
I’ll have to clean every drop carefully.
Up in the View, I can barely discern the outlines of Captain and Shay’s arms moving rapidly against the glow of the yard lanterns behind them while they talk back and forth in muffled colony-speak. Captain walks off into the gardening shed and comes back with something I don’t recognize. It looks like a metal rod or a staff half a meter long, not like anything we’ve kept in the house.
Shay’s on the ground cradling Sweetbaby’s head, parting the hair.
The grimgray oak splits open when Captain moves the rod in front of it, almost like the lines of a zipper spreading apart. Then Captain presses that device down against the restraints, the collar, the mechanisms around Sweetbaby’s lower body keeping him bound to the underside of the tree, and it all unlatches.
Meanwhile, Shay pulls the fabricated knife out and tosses it behind the towerpines.
Captain drives his longcart out of the shed and into the brown-red circle. It takes both him and Shay to lift the stretched-out body of Sweetbaby onto the thing.
The cart idles for a moment at the edge of the yard.
I can see them not speaking to one another while they sit there, looking out at nothing. Then they disappear together, with Sweetbaby, wherever it is they go for this thing, somewhere I can’t follow, away from the View.
“It’s time,” I tell Dowabot.
Dowabot answers me with a few blue blinks.
In the Goat Shed, Dowa2 powers on, extends its hind legs and forelegs, and rises from the floor.
Into the Gloom
The thing I hate about stories is that they’re only ours until we tell them, and then, whether we like it or not, they belong to someone else. You can’t control them, even if you want to, the second they’re out of your grasp. And there’s no putting them back and hiding them away again, after you let them loose and they leave your head.
Now, I don’t know if the stories I have are right or wrong or true or false, and I guess, if I’m pressed, I don’t really care one way or another. The stories I’ve taken from Captain and Shay, the stories I use to understand them, they’re mine, in the end. Not theirs.
In my story, Captain’s a boy that grows up on a station that’s out orbiting some territorial dwarf planet that’s got no inherent value except as a fuel depot or repair spot between more interesting places. He mentions the station when he’s grown, once or twice, but he doesn’t like talking about it in detail because it makes him upset. The people there are nasty and small-hearted, apparently. The boy’s father, to hear him tell it, is the nastiest version of that kind—always close to a bottle or a needle or a powdercase, only bothering to talk to the boy to order him around or otherwise tell him poisonous and unsettling things the boy tries to keep from getting into his heart.
It’s no surprise, then, when the boy’s barely old enough to write his name and to make a run to a recruitment center, that he signs a contract with the Instrasystem Consortium, so long as they agree to take him quickly. And, true to their word, the Consortium takes him as soon as he can make it to the docking bay, far out to all kinds of places, all over the stars, but most importantly, away from the station, that nastiness, and the man who says those poisonous things.
Someone in the I.C., gentle, grandfatherly, teaches the boy early on how to fix up ground-troop machinery. Another old-timer helps him learn the proper way to carry a rifle. He memorizes the safety protocol for landing with a dropship and deploying safely on new planetary terrain. His body gets bigger and coated with muscle from the weight of all that gear. Sometimes, his bones get too soft, from too much time in ships between deployments, when he’s not careful about taking his treatments. But he learns everything he needs to make his way in the I.C. Eventually he works hard enough, in all kinds of roles, before they start calling him Captain.
He almost never thinks about the station he’s from, that place and those nasty people, when he’s doing work for the I.C., which is just the way he always hoped it’d be.
On one of his last contracts as captain, he takes up a command on an extraction colony he’s never been to before—a beautiful place where you can see through the water and people speak a dialect that takes him a few years to learn.
But he learns it a lot faster after he meets the girl.
This girl, unlike the boy, she’s absolutely in love with where she’s from and the people who helped put her there. She works in her father’s restaurant just off one of the I.C. bases, and she talks about that colony in detail, even years later, like she’s only just left it a week or two ago, instead of the decades it’s been. Her parents, her three brothers and two sisters, the people working the restaurant who they all call uncles and aunties—she can remember all their favorite foods and what they look like and what makes them laugh.
I think that’s what makes the boy so enamored from the very beginning, because she’s so enamored, with everyone and everything.
I don’t actually know much about the courtship, retold or otherwise, but I imagine it’s got to be romantic. A lot of sneaking off-base to sit by water that goes beyond the horizon, under cloudless night skies that were only starting to grow cloudier as the I.C. extractions picked up their pace. A lot of long conversations about what their ideas of life might be like if they decide to give whatever it is they have a go, if they leave together before the inevitable decay that follows I.C. operations in these kinds of resource spots.
I’m not sure why I’m thinking about this tonight, of all times.
I guess, watching that longcart drive into the Gloom, seeing it closer onscreen on Dowabot—who’s picking up a live feed from Dowa2, who we’ve sent to trail after Captain and Shay and document what they’re about to do—I just keep thinking about the kids they used to be.
What did the boy think when one of his kids got sick—when the child’s body started to reshape itself into that horrific, lifeless thing sprawled out on the back of that vehicle bumping up and down on the dirt?
I’m betting he remembers that station in the middle of nowhere, again and again, after all that time and energy trying to forget it. I’m sure his mind turns around and around, hunting for reasons. Suspecting, perhaps, that he was exposed to chemicals from repair work or fuel tanks when he was young, or, later on, the experimental weapons or serums they use in the I.C.—something, at some point, that marked his blood and got to his children. He doesn’t know. And even though he’ll never have an answer, or know one way or another if he has anything to do with what’s happening to his family, he’ll believe it, inside, where his old man’s words managed to creep in all those years ago.
He’s the one at fault for Sweetbaby and the way he is.
And what about the girl?
I don’t believe she thinks too hard about who or what’s to blame the way the boy does. No, I think she dwells more on what’s ahead and what they’ll do when it’s clear the sickness is here to stay. She probably keeps remembering those parents of hers, those brothers and sisters, those aunties and uncles, the clear water and cloudless skies she was so fond of all the way back where she started—all the things she didn’t realize she was leaving behind forever when she joined the Captain on whatever it is they’ve created together all the way out here. All those men and women behind her that are probably long gone by now.
She’s never going to let her people go again after that, if she has her say.
Dowa2 whirs a lens at the longcart when it stops in that swirling grayness, pulling back so we can see what they’re approaching.
There’s something up there, a series of reflective panels, rectangles glinting in that fog, but they look almost suspended, not connected to anything I can see. They’re bigger than our house, way bigger, gathered in a kind of circle above a metal platform.
Captain and Shay, boy and girl, take the body in the longcart together, and they approach the structure ahead of them.
When they come out, they’ll have a brand-new, unconscious Sweetbaby to drag home and nail back to the inside of that grimgray oak, as if nothing ever happened, just like they always come back with another brand-new me.
This is where they’ve been going, and what I needed to see.
This is what I needed to learn.
The only story that matters, and they can’t take it back from me once I know.
A Sort of Goodbye
Everything creaks when they move through the home, leaving scattered dust and dirt that they won’t bother to clean. Shay goes to lie down in the bed, whimpering from what I can hear until she slows to little halting breaths. Captain passes out in the living room in his armchair, head tilted back and spit catching in his throat while he stirs every once in a while, eventually dropping his flask on the carpet with a dull thud. I take a look at both of them, one by one, in a sort of goodbye that’s not goodbye.
Dowa2 eventually gets here, and he undoes the restriction on the front door for me. Being built from scratch, he doesn’t have any of the Captain’s blocks, which makes this a lot easier. The three of us—me, Dowabot, Dowa2—we head out into the chilly air, down the slopes, toward the gray out in the open.
I walk ahead with certainty through the Gloomfields, following Dowa2’s directions.
I realize it’s my first time leaving the mountain and entering the Gloom alive.
Why We’re Here
There’s a vague feeling right away, in the Gloom, of other things, other almost-shapes in the corner of my vision that seem something like shadows, trailing at the sides as I walk with the Dowabots trotting beside me.
“Is there someone here?” I ask more softly the farther we go.
“Rephrase query,” Dowabot says.
“Not in the sense you mean,” Dowa2 answers more candidly, without the Captain’s restrictions. “There are no living bioforms in the Open-Access Facility.”
“Then what am I seeing, moving around?”
“Rephrase query,” Dowabot weighs in, unhelpfully.
Dowa2 tilts his lens toward me. “Based on my observations, I believe that these are fabricated nanites, not dissimilar from the ones found within I.C.-manufactured Gi-Fabs. They’ve replicated to the point of permeating the entire area, giving the impression of this fog, as well as what you may be perceiving within.”
“Will they harm us?”
“Rephrase query,” Dowabot repeats, and I imagine the tone is frustrated.
“The archives you’ve had me review suggest that they will not. Their primary function is to assemble constituent matter and print designated forms from stored energy. Previous records of Captain and Shay’s visits indicate that they are essentially inert machinery. The shapes are, perhaps, residual forms.”
They seem to flicker in and out of the moving mists, and I see them, more than anything else, as shapes my size, or smaller. I imagine them as little girls somehow, perhaps because that’s what I know. The Dowabots see only bots, and I see only little girls.
“Do you know a way we can talk to them?”
“Rephrase query.” Dowabot seems resigned.
“That’s why we’re here. Them. Us. This place.” Dowa2 hums ahead cheerily. “To talk.”
We continue on.
Whenever You’re Ready
We find the structure after a time, in a clear area where the Gloom swirls apart—the huge rectangle reflectors suspended above the dark metal platform. The reflectors don’t seem to be in an even, octagonal configuration the way they are within a Gi-Fab. More like helter-skelter tiles loosely gathered and bobbing in the air around a center.
This is why Captain brought us here, to this colony, for this. He knew about Asclepia and what they had been working on, and maybe at one time he hoped it would fix things that had gone wrong. But in the absence of fixing things, he and Shay would use it to keep things as they were, exactly as they were.
I let the Dowas plug into a series of connected terminals, repeating what they observed Captain and Shay do, and perhaps picking up more information from the terminals themselves. While they do that, I find my way to the side of the platform, where there are a bunch of mounds in the dirt. There’s a large hill, freshly dug, from the most recent visit by Captain and Shay, I assume, and then rows of littler mounds behind that one.
All of that digging makes me sad, if I’m being honest.
“The facility is operational.” Dowa2 catches my attention. “If you want to come to these steps, the scanning equipment is embedded all along the base of the platform.”
“You talked to them? The nanites? They know what to do?”
“Yes.” Dowabot blinks blue.
Dowa2 waves an end-effector from his undershell. “Whenever you’re ready.”
I take my place on the steps, right where I’m directed, and I expect something intense to come next—light shining from the reflectors or the Gloom around me beginning to crackle and glow. But there’s only a flash, like a little camera.
Time for Us to Go
When Fran steps toward me from the platform, I don’t quite know what to make of her. I guess I’m used to seeing a mirror me, with my sides flipped, so it takes a moment to adjust. Since she remembers everything, she must be thinking the same.
I suppose Fran and I could talk about what’s going to happen now that she’s here, but there’s not really any point to it. You don’t need to tell yourself what you already know, do you?
I even predict how she’s going to move, breathe, and blink, gesture, because it’s still very much a part of what I’m doing. But with each passing second, her movements get less familiar. Her body is less and less my body. She’s becoming her own person, which is good.
It’s what we wanted.
And I know it for sure, how separate we are, when she starts crying all of a sudden, because it’s the first time she does something I don’t expect, and I feel a little flutter.
“Scared?” I ask.
“No.” She wipes her eyes and toughens up. “Just worried . . . for you.”
“Don’t be. Remember, the Goat Shed. And the plan.”
Fran forces a smile, takes a breath, and nods.
“Asymmetric slow-wave sleep.”
One part carries the burden; the other part gets to rest.
I wave Dowa2 over and I command him to do whatever Fran tells him at this point, transferring any authorizations I have with him over to her. I mean it, of course, that she doesn’t have to be worried. I’m excited more than anything, about the possibilities. She can go anywhere, do anything, explore with Dowa2 and fabricate all sorts of supplies from the archives in other outposts and Goat Sheds and whatever else Asclepia might have in store for her. If she needs help, I tell her she can always make another Fran here, if she wants. She can build a whole Fran City on the other side of this colony, I tell her. And the idea of that makes us both laugh pretty hard.
Captain and Shay won’t come looking, because they won’t even know she’s left.
It seems only right that I stay, because she doesn’t need any of this put on her.
I reach into Dowabot’s undershell and remove a little pouch I’ve made for tonight and hand it to Fran. I’ve—or we’ve—filled it with seeds, synthesized based on Shay’s garden. She knows there’s good growing out here, soil-learning and flavor that these little things can pick up wherever she goes. I hope it tastes good.
Then, I have a silly thought, especially silly considering that I’ve technically only been living in this particular form a few days, so I’m not much older or wiser than Fran, but I sort of feel like a mother saying goodbye to a child.
We embrace, and she’s warm.
I tell her she’s going to be fantastic.
Dowabot and I watch our others leave.
Then it’s time for us to go.
What an Idea
As I sit now, back in the yard and under the eaves of the house, letting a few of those little moonbugs crawl over my hand, their small bulb-bottoms flickering about here and there on my skin, I have a few more funny thoughts that just start flying by in my mind, one after another. I ask Dowabot, “It’s dumb to even be mad, isn’t it?”
It doesn’t know how to answer a question like that, of course.
“I mean, what’s there to be mad about, when you really break it down, piece by piece?” I point to the oak trunk a ways from us. “That’s not even Sweetbaby when you consider how he got to be there. And what’s more, I’m not even Fran. I haven’t been for a long time. He hasn’t, and I haven’t.”
Dowabot stands silently.
“Their fights, their problems, they don’t have to be ours, if we’re not them. We don’t have to keep doing what they were doing, just because they were doing it. We don’t have to do anything, if we don’t want to.”
All the way from the back porch I can hear Captain’s throat-snores, and Shay’s pitter-patter sighs, and, though I know it’s an impulse that’ll flow through me and disappear before it ever solidifies, I think, all of this is their fault, but in a way, none of it is too. Because nothing comes from nothing, and all they did was take the old and the new, what they understood and what they didn’t, and tried to do what was right, even if it wasn’t right by me.
They’re trying to hold something together that can’t be held, and it’ll all slip away from them whether I get mad about it or not.
There’s no stopping what’s coming, and, gradually, they’re starting to figure that out.
Dowabot’s lens whirs at the lines of trees in the dark, and it bends its hind legs to settle down by my hip, comfortably.
“I was energy and Gloom just a little while ago, and pretty soon, I’ll just be energy and Gloom again, you know. And more and more, I think that’s something to welcome rather than shut away and get mad about.”
Something stirs beneath the oak, and I think I see weepy, spotted eyes under those overlapping roots, where I imagine Sweetbaby is listening to these stupid, rambling ideas of mine. I look at those eyes for a long time, in those shadows, without the burden of fear, and it feels nice, even just for fleeting moments, to be untethered from these tired and hateful forms.
To be free of our names and our stories—what an idea.
The both of us, free.
Thomas Ha is a former attorney turned stay-at-home father who enjoys writing speculative fiction during the rare moments when all of his kids are napping at the same time. Thomas grew up in Honolulu and, after a decade plus of living in the northeast, now resides in Los Angeles.