Welcome to day one of my Week of Short Stories! None of these stories will be seriously edited. I'm writing and posting within 24 hours after all.
This one came about from several ideas I've had over the last few years. Perhaps, one day, I'll retool it it into the military sci-fi romance novel I'd envisioned. For now, here's a few thousand words about a colony world, aliens, and a woman who doesn't quite fit in.
An Abominable Gift
Explaining to the children was always the hardest. They looked up at me from their beds, bright yellow eyes shining with a growing trust I would be forced to break. I lifted my hands and made the sign for “attention.”
Six children sat up in their beds.
My heart broke six times.
“They said no,” I signed. “They said they were full.”
None of the children spoke. They wouldn’t until I’d left. We’d only been together for three weeks and they had not welcomed me to their clan yet. I wish I could say the same. If I could harden myself to this situation I wouldn’t spend my nights sobbing.
“I’m so sorry,” I signed. I watched them move, long scaled limbs lowering themselves to the floor and converging on the smallest of them. Her feathers spread into a crown at the base of her skull and I was struck by the crimson and gold flash. “We can try again. In a day.”
They paid no attention to my hands now. They clustered around her, stroked her arms and legs, and were petted in return. I left them alone, and in a direct violation of protocol, turned off the cameras in the room. Privacy was all I could do for them and it seemed nowhere near enough.
“Claire, the cameras turned off.”
I drew my arm across my eyes before I faced Doctor Whitcomb. We rarely agreed on how to deal with the aliens. His one desire was to study them, but I only cared about finding them a home. They deserved a home. Their parents had sent them here to find a home.
“I know,” I signed.
“I can see your implant is in.”
I really disliked Whitcomb.
“Claire, we need to observe them. Turn on the cameras.”
“Turn them on yourself,” I signed before leaving. My boot heels made more noise than necessary as I walked down the hall to my small room. When my door didn’t open. I slammed my hand against the palm reader and it flashed red. A deep breath later I tried again, palm pressed gently against the black glass plate. Still nothing.
I walked down the hall to the maintenance panel. The iris opened and a green light appeared. I held up my badge and waited for the beep.
“Assistance forthcoming, Doctor Randall.” The screen brightened and the words were repeated until I pressed the accept message button. At my door I waited. Followed by more waiting as I watched others in our research group move past me as if I were invisible. Annoyed, I popped my earpiece out and leaned against my bugged door in silence.
I should be used to it, being an anomaly. To most of our team I was as much a creature to be studied as the aliens who came to our colony seeking shelter. My parents had been Fundamentalist Seekers. Our sect did not believe in physical modifications. Those of us born, like myself, with some perceived defect, lived with it. My family, when I was born, had learned sign language. My “defect” was why I had been recruited to this scientific team. The team I couldn’t stand most days.
A tap on my shoulder pulled me back to the hallway and I looked up to see a face I didn’t recognize. He smiled and I put the ear piece back in. My fingers fumbled, as always, to insert it properly. I hated it, but no one was interested in learning my language. Their talk of inclusiveness only meant everyone was welcome to conform to their lifestyle.
“Claire. I have no degree.” I had, to the minds of the rest of the team, an education hardly worth mentioning. They had graciously conferred some honorary degree upon me, likely to avoid tarnishing their own reputations by working with an uneducated yokel. Where I was from the only doctor mended bones and dosed out medicines.
“Claire. I’m Boden. Give me just a minute and I’ll get your door open.”
I stood next to the door and scratched my ear. I could forget the implant until I had to re-insert it. The doctors here said it was all in my head, but of course it was. My ear itched.
“Would you press your palm against the plate?”
I wiped my hand off on my shirt and laid it on the plate. Nothing. The red light flashed and I swear I heard Boden utter a curse. I tapped his shoulder and when he looked at me signed, “What’s wrong?”
His answer surprised me. Mostly, well, because he answered. He signed back. I might not have noticed otherwise that his right arm was mech.
“We’ve had this problem up and down the corridor today. Someone’s reassigned all rooms to people in other divisions. I found a work around, but it’s not working for you.”
I sighed as I signed, “Do I need to do voice print to get to my room?” I hated my voice. It wasn’t mine. I rarely wore the implant for it.
Boden shook his head. “No,” He signed. “Just…give me a few minutes?”
“I’ll go get a coffee. Do you want one?” He shook his head so I left him to argue with the electronics. We had stories at home about the dependence of the scientists on machines. The elders said one day they would lose their machines and their world would collapse. As if we did not have machines of our own. At least, should that end come, I would not have an arm go out on me.
In the dining room I pulled out my implant. Once I sat it on the table no one would bother me and I did not want to be bothered. Coffee and muffin in hand I sat in the middle of the room. The disconnected implant kept potential company away so I was free to sit and feel sorry for myself. For three days I’d been talking to the leaders at Linear. They ran the settlements at the base of the mountains and were often willing to take on Graff as part of their teams. Today, with no warning, they sent an abrupt decline message and refused to take my calls.
The muffin, some citrus thing, turned into a pile of crumbs on the table. Whenever someone would walk by I would brush them under a napkin. Wasting food was frowned upon and as a child I’d received several reminders of the fact. Accompanied by sharp words and swift switches most of the time.
Cold coffee was left in the bottom of my cup when someone sat across from me. Habit sent the pieces of ruined muffin under the napkin to hide. Boden smiled and slid a second muffin across the table.
“Waste not the fruits of your labor,” he signed.
“You’re not Seeking.” The words were too fast to stop and I hoped he could not read so swiftly.
Boden tapped his metallic arm and smiled. “I was told that, yes, but I continue to hope the path leads back around.”
“How?” I asked, muffin ignored.
“I fought the Ungur. The military rewarded me.”
Doctor Whitcomb said it was impossible to converse by sign. Words lost a part of their meaning without vocal emphasis. Maybe he was right if a person only cared about the sound behind the speech. Boden’s whole body told me all I needed to know about his military gift. Had he even been allowed home or had the elders sent word as he lie alone in a hospital somewhere recovering? I forced my hand to touch his. The abomination was warm. Surprised, I looked up and saw him grinning at me.
“Will you confess?” he asked before I jerked my hand away. Boden was exactly what we were taught was wrong. If our Great Mother had wanted him to have one arm he should have embraced her will.
Before I knew what I was doing I shook my head. The elders worried I was becoming corrupted by my time here and maybe they were right. I did the ceremonies every day, prayed for purpose, and sought to help those in need. And yet, I sat with a man I should shun and when he smiled at me I blushed. Because he knew my language, I was sure. Not because he was handsome.
“What are you thinking?” he teased with strong fingers.
“I’m worried about the Graff. I thought I had a home for their clutch. It’s been three weeks and the longer the delay the harder it will be.”
I stood and left. I should have known.
I waited for the screen to light up. Boden had fixed my door. I went inside and set the lock to privacy. On my monitor I had three messages, two from Whitcomb berating me for the camera issue and one from my sister with a request to call. This is what I meant about our use of technology. Not that I wanted to follow the Lefthand Path. They lived in the woods and lived with nature, claiming that is what Great Mother wanted. Personally, I’d never read anything in the texts that said we shouldn’t have indoor plumbing.
“Claire!” Jeanette’s grin was huge and she made a show of tugging her sleeve up.
“Jeanette! Congratulations!” I signed. Her betrothal bracelet was green and red. Jeanette had been matched with Kirk and Lenore last year and carried two children for them. I’d always suspected they would marry her.
“Can you make it for the ceremony? It’s next month.”
I sighed and saw the light in her eyes flicker. No one understood. When I’d been approached by the city science team to help with the Graff I’d been excited. Once assurances had been made I would not be forced to have surgery my parents agreed to let me go.
“Hey, Jeanette?” I signed. “Do you remember someone named Boden? He enlisted against the Unger.” Any guilt at changing the subject died away as she lost the kicked puppy expression.
“Boden? Wait, Boden D’Aramitz?” Jeanette’s fingers stopped signing so they could make the ward against evil, a circle formed with her thumb and pinkie. “Claire, you can’t be around him. Is he there? The elders will revoke your permissions.”
I forced myself to smile and hoped she would take any oddness in the expression as merely the transmission’s fault. I didn’t want to go home. Part of my reason for wishing to avoid the wedding was because I feared they wouldn’t let me leave. They would see my fascination with the scientists and the Graff as corruption. A cleansing would be ordered and then, likely, a marriage arranged. Since I was unable to have children it would be a trinary marriage like Jeanette’s. I wouldn’t mind both a husband and wife, but I know myself well enough to know the feeling of inferiority I would experience being unable to breed.
“I only heard his name.” Had I been quiet too long? “One of the scientists.” Lying was a sin. The Great Mother despised liars. “No one has said he was here.” That, at least, was no lie.
“Claire,” Jeanette signed. “Please be careful. And come home.”
A red bloom at the bottom corner of my screen drew my eyes.
“I have to go. I love you.” I disconnected and pressed the button. The words flashed across the monitor and I left so fast I forgot my implant.
I tugged at Boden’s sleeve to get his eyes on me. “What are you doing?”
“Claire. They agreed to the transfer.”
“Like hell they did!” I didn’t even blush as I swore. “You can’t take them.”
The military was leading the Graff from their isolation room. I shoved past them and stood in front of the small clutch.
“You do not have to leave with them,” I signed.
They clustered around her, stroked her arms as her feathers spread. I thought she looked anxious, but as Whitcomb liked to point out, I had no formal anthropological training.
Her clutch, her brothers, kept the rest of the people away from her, but they let me step closer. I touched her elongated fingers and once her eyes were on me I signed.
“You do not have to leave with them. I will find you work.”
“They have offered work.”
“You don’t need to do this. I have other options to try.”
“Do you not think us tough enough? We are the Tirr’ak. Our people were mighty. It was us who fought off the Unger when they destroyed our home.”
I hadn’t known that about them. The Graff rarely spoke to me about their battles. When the Unger had attacked they had fought and then scattered throughout the solar system. Many of them came here and we worked to integrate them into our works either here in the city or farther out.
“We are Tirr’ak.” They signed together. “We will fight.”
“This is your fault.” Boden watched as I called him every word I’d ever learned in secret from my aunt who was also deaf. “They’re children!”
No one seemed to care about that fact but me and I watched the Graff follow the soldiers out.
I shook my head and spun away to see Whitcomb watching from the door to the observation room. My hands shook as I approached him, but he stepped back and the door closed. Well, he wouldn’t have understood me anyway. A soft touch on my shoulder turned me around, but I didn’t want to talk to Boden. I ran to my room, but the panel flashed red when my palm touched the glass.
The red light mocked me as I tried over and over to get my door to open. Since I had left my implant I couldn’t even use the voice print. They had insisted I voice print with it and not my real voice. With no other option I left the building.
The city parks were tame in comparison to our own. Should I even call myself a Seeker any longer? My worry over the Graff had given me an excuse to not cleanse myself after speaking to Boden. After touching him. I had been so happy to have someone to talk to I had not worried about my soul.
Maybe Jeanette was right and I should go home. Cleanse myself of my sins and accept a role I didn’t desire. If the military were recruiting the Graff it was only a matter of time until all work with them transferred to the base across town. A base I would get no access to as I had no citizenship papers. Technically I was a foreigner here.
The weight of aloneness was too much and I stood and left the carefully manicured paths of the city park. As I dove deeper into the wild underbrush I stopped caring about holding back my tears. Who would see here? Even if I ran into someone wouldn’t they be hiding from their own lives? Eventually, once I felt well and truly lost, I stumbled to a halt under an ancient tree. I slipped off my shoes before I reached for a branch and then braced my feet against the trunk.
Once I was high enough I pressed my back against the ancient wood and closed my eyes. Wedged as I was, between limbs and trunk, I didn’t fear tumbling down and fell into a depressed sleep.
My dreams ran wild in the cradle of the old tree. They were full of feathers, scarlet and gold plumes that dripped blood from their pointed ends. I sat up with a gasp. The terror of my dreams forced me to wakefulness and I clawed at my face before I realized it was not blood, but rain, that covered my skin. This would make it harder to get down the tree, but not impossible.
My feet touched the damp grass and I looked around for my shoes. They were gone. Where had they gone? Sometimes those with no home slept in the park, but why would they take my shoes? Modesty asked a more important question. Had they seen me climbing up and down the tree in my skirt? Well, I didn’t care for my shoes enough to hunt them.
As I stepped out from under the tree I realized how bad the storm had become. The full branches had protected me, but without them I was instantly soaked. Dashing back under the tree I sat down and waited. I had nowhere to be right now so there was no sense getting wetter. Unfortunately, the storm showed no signs of abating and as daylight diminished I grew cold. Fires were forbidden in the parks so I would have to brave the rain or freeze.
Deciding to brave the rain I stood and then froze when someone stepped under the tree. The dim light made it hard to see the movement of his hands, but I didn’t care to see what he had to say. Boden frowned and stepped closer so I stepped back. The trunk of the tree stopped my retreat and he hung a light from one of the branches.
“Claire, will you please talk to me?”
I shook my head.
“I want to explain.”
“Go away, abomination.” I’d wanted to hurt him. I signed slowly, carefully, as if to a young child learning his first words. He flinched and I felt uncharitable glee. To which I instantly added guilt. I was supposed to seek charity all the time. He turned away from me and I thought he would leave, but he didn’t.
“You’re freezing,” he signed when he faced me again. From a bag he pulled out a coat. If I thought I could not feel worse, I was wrong. My word wasn’t wrong. Boden was an abomination. I’d be surprised if his arm was the only mech that corrupted him, yet he showed more charity than I. He draped the coat over me and then pulled a small heat generator from his bag as well. Soon my teeth had stopped chattering and when he laid a waterproof blanket on the ground I sat.
“Thank you,” I signed.
“Did that hurt?” he asked back and I ducked my head.
His hand, the real one, settled atop mine and I lifted my head up to see him smiling.
“I’m sorry. Are you hungry?”
“I want to help them. Not leave them indentured to the military. Is that why you came to fix my door? Which is broken again, by the way. To see if I would help you steal them away?”
“Is that what you think? That we’ll force them to stay?”
“They forced you to accept mech!”
Boden shook his head and I was stunned enough I almost missed his words.
“They offered, yes. Despite my file showing I was a Seeker. And I said yes, Claire. No one forced me to become an abomination.” He mocked my words with his own.
“Why?” I demanded.
“Because I like my work. I’m good at my work. I enlisted and never intended to go home. When I was wounded I took it as a sign.”
“Of the Evil!” We did not say the Evil’s name. To name it conferred more power upon it.
“No, Claire,” he signed. “I know you understand. You’ve been here six years now and still refuse corrective surgery.” I shuddered at the words, unable to stop the automatic reaction. “But, you also won’t go home.”
“I’ve been home!”
“Four years ago. For your brother’s initiation ceremony. Not a single visit since then. Admit it, Claire, you don’t want to go home.”
He was wrong. He was also sitting close enough our knees touched. I should move.
“I read your file before they sent me to talk to you, Claire. You’ve spent more time with the Graff than anyone. Their leaders speak well of you. I’ve seen your reports on integration. Despite what Whitcomb says, you’re the best source for information on the Graff.”
“What does Whitcomb say?”
“Nothing that matters. Claire, the military is prepared to pay for you to get a degree. Once you have the proper credentials you can work anywhere. We need your help.”
“To turn them into soldiers!”
“The ones who wish to, yes. Why should they be denied? We need soldiers, Claire. The Unger will return someday.”
I’d never heard that before. No one talked about the Unger except in past tense. We’d beaten them. We’d driven them back. They had left.
“Claire, in four years you could have an actual doctorate. Less if you worked hard and I know you work hard.”
“Because you spied on me!” I accused.
“I researched a potential asset. I was asked to make contact despite my status as an abomination. Claire, will you at least come and listen to General Suharto?”
My fingers were already forming a no, accompanied by several other choice words, but I stopped myself. Would it be so terrible to hear out this general? Had I slipped further off the path for even considering it? Would they even want me if I denied surgery? I couldn’t do it.
Warm fingers stroked my hand and the weight of the metal felt weird. I wondered why he’d not had a full reconstruction. Was this Boden’s way of defying his past? The thin layer of false skin over his arm was nearly transparent. There was no hiding his mech. I felt like my skin burned with corruption at the touch, but I shoved the thought aside.
I pulled my hand free to ask, “Would I be working with you?”
He nodded his head.
“Would I have to get surgery?”
He shook his head.
I laid my hand on his. The contrast between real and fake, dark and light, was distracting. The touch didn’t feel wrong. Surely I had fallen from the path. Even now the Evil crept into my soul. Should I fight it? I should. I should cast him out by turning from Boden and his temptations. I should return home, marry, and forget the Graff. Somewhere I had strayed, but it was not too late for me.
Boden’s other hand cupped my chin and lifted my eyes to his. “Claire?” his lips formed. I preferred when he signed over having to read his lips, but my hand was still atop his.
Suddenly I was nothing but afraid and I pulled my hand away and twisted my body around. The chill from my damp clothes was not the only reason I shivered. If I took the offer, even if I only met with the general, I knew my fate was sealed. My family would cast me out. My siblings would never speak to me again. I would be alone. Alone, but I could continue to help the Graff.
Is that what She wanted from me? Was my lack of hearing not Her only gift? Was this it? To be shunned and alone for the rest of my life, but able to help so many. Charity was Her greatest wish of those who were Seekers.
Or perhaps I bent my own desires into a form I could rationalize as representing Her wish. The Evil could, even now, be working through me to get its desires. Still, deep down, at the base of my soul, I knew what I wanted: To stay.
Which was why, when Boden’s hands laid on my shoulders some time later, I turned to face him. My kiss took him by surprise and I felt good. His files hadn’t told him everything he needed to know. The first kiss warmed me up. The second was hotter, like boats burning on the shore of an unknown land. Like that, my fate was sealed.
The elders had never succeeded in driving out my lustful thoughts. I suppose I’d only done so well here because there were so few I found attractive. Boden though, he was almost a reminder of home. Which was why I let my lustful thoughts take over. I don’t know why he did. Maybe I reminded him of home as well?
Whatever the reasons, we sealed my future under the tree in the middle of a storm. I had been right, the arm was not his only mech. Even so, I would stay, go the city’s school, and work with the military. I would embrace Her gifts. Even if those gifts tore me from my family.
“Claire?” Boden signed.
“Can I still work with the Graff while attending these classes I must have?”
“Then I will stay.”
He pulled me close for another kiss and I let him. After all, who was to say what gifts She was going to give me for accepting this path? I would accept them all, even if they were abominations.