Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Faces in Revolving Souls

The woman named Sylvia, who might as well still be a child, is waiting for the elevator that will carry her from the twenty-third floor of the hotel—down, down, down like a sinking stone—to the lobby and convention registration area. She isn’t alone in the hallway, though she wishes that she were. There are several others waiting to sink with her—a murmuring, laughing handful of stitches and meat dolls busy showing off the fact that they’re not new at this, that they belong here, busy making sure that Sylvia knows they can see just exactly how birth-blank she is. Not quite a virgin, no, but the next worst thing, and all that pink skin to give her away, the pink skin and the silver-blue silk dress with its sparkling mandarin collar, the black espadrilles on her feet. The others are all naked, for the most part, and Sylvia keeps her head down, her eyes trained on the toes of her shoes, because the sight of them reflected in the polished elevator doors makes her heart race and her mouth go dry.

No one knows I’m here, she thinks again, relishing the simple nervous delight she feels whenever she imagines her mother or sisters or someone at work discovering that she lied to them all about going to Mexico, and where she’s gone, instead. She knows that if they knew, if they ever found out, they’d want explanations. And that if she ever tried to explain, they’d do their best to have her locked away, or worse. There’s still a multitude of psychiatrists who consider polymorphy a sickness, and politicians who consider it a crime, and priests who consider it blasphemy.

A bell hidden somewhere in the wall rings, and the elevator doors slide silently open. Sylvia steps quickly into the empty elevator, and the others follow her—the woman who is mostly a leopard, the fat man with thick brown fur and eyes like a raven, the pretty teenage girl with stubby antlers and skin the color of ripe cranberries—all of them filing in, one by one, like the passengers of some lunatic Noah’s ark. Sylvia stands all the way at the rear, her back turned to them, and stares out through the transparent wall as the elevator falls and the first floor of the hotel swiftly rises up to meet her. It only stops once on the way down, at the fourth floor, and she doesn’t turn to see who or what gets on. It’s much too warm inside the elevator and the air smells like sweat and musk and someone’s lavender-scented perfume.

“Yes, of course,” the leopard says to the antlered girl with cranberry skin. “But this will be the first time I’ve ever seen her in person.” The leopard lisps and slurs when she speaks, human vocal cords struggling with a rough feline tongue, with a mouth that has been rebuilt for purposes other than talking.

“First time, I saw her at Berkeley,” the antlered girl replies.

“And then again at Chimera last year.”

“You were at Chimera last year?” someone asks, sounding surprised, and maybe even skeptical; Sylvia thinks it must be whoever got on at the fourth floor, because she hasn’t heard this sexless voice before. “I made it down for the last two days. You were there?”

“Yeah, I was there,” the girl says. “But you probably wouldn’t remember me. That was back before my dermals started to show.”

“And all the girls are growing antlers these days,” the leopard lisps, and everyone laughs, all of them except Sylvia. None of them sound precisely human anymore, and their strange, bestial laughter is almost enough to make Sylvia wish that she’d stayed home, almost enough to convince her that she’s in over her head, drowning, and maybe she isn’t ready for this, after all.

Another secret bell rings, and the doors slide open again, releasing them into the brightly lit lobby. First in, so last out, and Sylvia has to squeeze through the press of incoming bodies, the people who’d been waiting for the elevator. She says “Excuse me,” and “Pardon me,” and tries not to look anyone in the eye or notice the particulars of their chosen metamorphoses.

Fera is waiting for her, standing apart from the rest, standing with her long arms crossed; she smiles when she sees Sylvia, showing off her broad canines. There’s so little left of Fera that anyone would bother calling human, and the sight of her—the mismatched, improbable beauty of her—always leaves Sylvia lost and fumbling for words. Fera is one of the old-timers, an elder changeling, one of the twenty-five signatories on the original Provisional Proposition for Parahuman Secession.

“I was afraid you might have missed your flight,” she says, and Sylvia knows that what she really means is, I was afraid you’d chickened out. Fera’s voice is not so slurred or difficult to understand as the leopard’s. She’s had almost a decade to learn the mechanics of her new mandibular and lingual musculature, years to adapt to her altered tongue and palate.

“I just needed to unpack,” Sylvia tells her. “I can’t stand leaving my suitcases packed.”

“I have some friends in the bar who would like to meet you,” Fera purrs. “I’ve been telling them about your work.”

“Oh,” Sylvia whispers, because she hadn’t expected that and doesn’t know what else to say.

“Don’t worry, Syl. They know you’re still a neophyte. They’re not expecting a sphinx.”

Sylvia nods her head and glances back towards the elevator. The doors have closed again, and there’s only her reflection staring back at her. I look terrified, she thinks. I look like someone who wants to run.

“Did you forget something?” Fera asks, and takes a step towards Sylvia. The thick pads of her paws are silent on the carpet, but the many hundreds of long quills that sprout from her shoulders and back, from her arms and the sides of her face, rustle like dry autumn leaves.

“No,” Sylvia says, not at all sure whether or not she’s telling the truth.

“I know you’re nervous. It’s only natural.”

“But I feel like such a fool,” Sylvia replies, and then she laughs a laugh that has no humor in it at all, a sound almost as dry as the noise of Fera’s quills.

“Hey, you should have seen me, back in the day. I was a goddamn basket case,” and Fera takes both her hands, as Sylvia turns to face her again. “It’s a long road, and sometimes the first steps are the most difficult.”

Sylvia looks down at Fera’s hands, her nails grown to sharp, retractable claws, her skin showing black as an oil spill where it isn’t covered in short auburn fur. Though she still has thumbs, there are long dewclaws sprouting from her wrists. Sylvia knows how much those hands would scare most people, how they would horrify all the blanks still clinging to their illusions of inviolable, immutable humanity. But they make her feel safe, and she holds them tight and forces a smile for Fera.

“Well, we don’t want to keep your friends waiting,” Sylvia says. “It’s bad enough, me showing up wearing all these damned clothes. I don’t want them to think I’m rude in the bargain.” Fera laughs, a sound that’s really more like barking, and she kisses Sylvia lightly on her left cheek. “You just try to relax, mon enfant trouvé. And trust me. They’re absolutely gonna love—” but then someone interrupts her, another leopard, a pudgy boy cat clutching a tattered copy of The Children of Artemis, which Fera signs for him. And she listens patiently to the questions he asks, all of which could have been answered with a quick internet search. Sylvia pretends not to eavesdrop on an argument between one of the hotel staff and a woman with crocodile skin, and when the leopard boy finally stops talking, Fera leads Sylvia away from the crowded elevators towards one of the hotel’s bars.

#

And this is before—before the flight from Detroit to LAX, before the taxi ride to the hotel in Burbank. This is before the bad dreams she had on the plane, before the girl with cranberry skin, before the elevator’s controlled fall from the twenty-third floor of the Marriott. This is a night and an hour and a moment from a whole year before Fera Delacroix takes her hand and leads her out of the lobby to the bar where there are people waiting to meet her.

“What’s this?” her mother asks in the same sour, accusatory tone she’s wielded all of Sylvia’s life. And Sylvia, who’s just come home from work and has a migraine, stares at the scatter of magazines and pamphlets lying on the dining table in front of her, trying to make sense of the question and all the glossy, colorful paper. Trying to think through the pain and the sudden, sick fear coiled cold and tight in her gut.

“I asked you a question, Sylvia,” her mother says. “What are you doing with this crap?”

And Sylvia opens her mouth to reply, but her tongue doesn’t want to cooperate. Down on the street, she can hear the traffic, and the distant rumble of a skipjet somewhere far overhead, and the sleepy drone of the refrigerator from the next room.

“I want an answer,” her mother says and taps the cover of an issue of Genshift with her right index finger.

“Where did you get those?” Sylvia asks finally, but her voice seems farther away than the skipjet’s turbines. “You’ve been in my room again, haven’t you?”

“This is my house, young lady, and I’m asking you the questions,” her mother growls, growling like a pit bull, like something mean and hungry straining at its fraying leash. “What are you doing with all this sick shit?”

And the part of Sylvia’s mind that knows how to lie, the part that keeps her secrets safe and has no problem saying whatever needs to be said, takes over. “It’s one of my stories,” she says, trying hard to sound indignant, instead of frightened. “It’s all just research. I brought it home last week—”

“Bullshit. Since when does the network waste time with this kind of deviant crap?” her mother demands, and she taps the magazine again. On the cover, there’s a nude woman with firm brown nipples and the gently curved, corkscrew horns of an impala.

“Just because you don’t happen to approve of the changelings doesn’t mean they aren’t news,” Sylvia tells her, and hastily begins gathering up all the pamphlets and magazines. “Do you have any idea how many people have had some sort of interspecific genetic modification over the last five years?”

“Are you a goddamn lesbian?” her mother asks, and Sylvia catches the smell of gin on her breath.

“What?”

“They’re all a bunch of queers and perverts,” her mother mumbles and then snatches one of the Fellowship of Parahuman Evolutionists pamphlets from Sylvia’s hands. “If this is supposed to be work for the network, why’d you have to go and hide it all under your bed?”

“I wasn’t hiding anything, mother, and this isn’t any of your business,” and Sylvia yanks the pamphlet back from her mother. “How many times have I asked you to stay out of my room?”

“It’s my house, and—”

“That means I have no privacy?”

“No ma’am. Not if it means you bringing this smut into my house.”

“Jesus, it’s for work. You want to call Mr. Padgett right now and have him tell you the same damned thing?” And there, it’s out before she thinks better of pushing the lie that far, pushing it as far as it’ll go, and there’s no taking it back again.

“I ought to do that, young lady. You bet. That’s exactly what I ought to do.”

“So do it, and leave me alone. You know the number.”

“Don’t you think I won’t.”

“I have work to do before dinner,” Sylvia says, as calmly as she can manage, turning away from her mother, beginning to wonder if she’ll make it upstairs before she throws up. “I have a headache, and I really don’t need you yelling at me right now.”

“Don’t think that I won’t call. I’m a Christian woman, and I don’t want that filth under my roof, you understand me, Sylvia?”

She doesn’t reply, because there’s nothing left to be said, and the cold knot in her belly has started looking for a way out, the inevitable path of least resistance. She takes her briefcase and the magazines and heads for the hallway and the stairs leading away from her mother. Just keep walking, she thinks. Whatever else she says, don’t even turn around. Don’t say anything else to her. Not another word. Don’t give her the satisfaction

“I know all about those people,” her mother mumbles. “They’re filth, you understand? All of them. Every single, goddamned one.”

And then Sylvia’s on the stairs, and her footsteps on the varnished wood are louder than her mother’s voice. She takes them two at a time, almost running to the top, and locks her bedroom door behind her. Sylvia hurls the stack of changeling literature to the floor in a violent flutter of pages, and the antelope girl’s large, dark eyes gaze blamelessly back up at her. She sits down with her back against the door, not wanting to cry but crying anyway, crying because at least it’s better than vomiting.

And later—after her first three treatments at the Lycaon Clinic in Chicago, after the flight to LA, after Fera Delacroix takes her hand and leads her into the murmur and half light of the hotel bar—she’ll understand that this afternoon, this moment, was her turning point. She’ll look back and see clearly that this is the day she knew what she would do, no matter how much it terrified her, and no matter what it would mean, in the end.

#

They sit in a corner of the crowded, noisy bar, two tables pulled together to make room for everyone, this perfect, unreal menagerie. Sylvia sits to the left of Fera, sipping at a watery Coke. Fera’s already introduced her to them all, a heady mix of changeling minor royalty and fellow travelers, and Sylvia has been sitting quietly for the last fifteen minutes, listening to them talk, trying to memorize their names, trying not to stare.

“It’s a damned dangerous precedent,” the man sitting directly across from her says. He has the night-seeing eyes of a python, and he drums his long claws nervously against the top of the table. His name is Maxwell White, and he’s a geneticist at Johns Hopkins. Her last year in college, Sylvia read his book, Looking for Moreau: A Parahumanist Manifesto. It’s made the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned books seven years straight.

“What the hell,” Fera says. “I figure, it’s just fucking Nebraska—”

Maxwell White stops drumming his fingers and sighs, his long ears going flat against the sides of his skull. “Sure, this year it’s just fucking Nebraska. But, the way things are headed, next year it’s going to be Nebraska and Alabama and Utah and—”

“We can’t afford to be elitists,” says a woman with iridescent scales that shimmer faintly in the dim light. As she talks, the tip end of her blue forked tongue flicks across her lips; Sylvia can’t recall her name, only that she was recently fired from Duke University. “Not anymore. That asshole De Vries and his army of zealots is getting more press than the war.”

“Oh, come on. It’s not that bad,” Fera says and frowns.

“How bad does it have to be?” Maxwell White asks and starts drumming his claws again. “Where do you think this is going to stop? After these anti-crossbreeding laws are in place and people get used to the idea that it’s acceptable to restrict who we can and can’t marry, who we can fuck, how long do you think it’s going to take before we start seeing laws preventing us from voting or owning property or—”

“Maybe that’s what we get for signing a declaration of secession from the human race,” Fera replies, and Maxwell White makes an angry snorting sound.

“Jesus Christ, Fera, sometimes I wonder which side you’re on.”

“All I’m saying is I’m not so sure we can realistically expect to have it both ways. We tell them we’re not the same as them anymore. That, by choice, each of us will exist as our own separate species, and then we act surprised when they want to treat us like animals.”

“De Vries has already started talking about concentration camps,” a woman named Alex Singleton says; she glances apprehensively at Fera and then quickly back down at the napkin she’s been folding and unfolding for the past ten minutes. Alex Singleton has the striped, blonde fur of a tiger-lion hybrid, and six perfectly formed breasts. “Are you still going to be talking like this when they start rounding us up and locking us in cages?” she asks, and unfolds the napkin again.

“That’s never going to happen,” Fera replies, and scowls at Alex Singleton. “I’m not saying there aren’t a lot of scary people out there. Of course, there are. We’ve just given the bigots and xenophobes something new to hate, that’s all. We knew there’d be a difficult adjustment period, didn’t we?”

“You have the most sublime knack for understatement,” Maxwell White laughs.

And then Fera turns to Sylvia and smiles, that smile so beautiful that it’s enough to make her dizzy, to make her blush. “You’re awfully quiet over here, Syl. What do you think of all this? You think we’re all about to be rounded up and herded off to a zoo?”

“I’m afraid I’ve never been much for politics,” Sylvia says, not meaning to whisper, but her voice is almost lost in the din of the bar. “I mean, I don’t guess I’ve thought much about it.”

“Of course, she hasn’t,” Alex Singleton mutters. “Look at her. She still wears clothes. She’s pink as—”

“I think maybe what Alex is trying to say, in her own indelicate way,” the woman with iridescent scales interrupts, “is that you’re probably going to find the political ramifications of our little revolution will suddenly seem a lot more important to you, once you start showing.”

“That’s not at all what I was trying to say.”

“Some of us forget they were ever blank,” Fera says, glaring at Alex Singleton, and she stirs at her martini with an olive skewered on a tiny plastic cutlass.

The thin man sitting next to Maxwell White clears his throat and waves at Sylvia with a hand that’s really more of a paw. “Fera tells us you’re one of Collier’s patients,” he says, speaking very slowly, his lupine jaws and tongue struggling with the words. “He’s a good man.”

“I’m very happy with him,” Sylvia replies, and takes another sip of her Coke.

“He did my second stage,” the wolf man confides, and his black lips draw back in a snarl, exposing sharp yellow canines and incisors. It takes Sylvia a moment to realize that the man’s smiling.

“So,” Maxwell White says, leaning towards her, “what’s your story, Sylvia?”

“Like Fera said, I’m a journalist, and I’m preparing to write a book on the history—”

“No, that’s not what I’m asking you.”

“I’m sorry. Then I guess I didn’t understand the question.”

“Apparently not.”

“Max here is one-third complete bastard,” Fera says and jabs an ebony thumb at Maxwell White. “It was a tricky bit of bioengineering, but the results are a wonder to behold.” Half the people at the two tables laugh out loud, and Sylvia is beginning to wish that she’d stayed in her room, that she’d never let Fera Delacroix talk her into coming to Burbank in the first place.

“Is it some sort of secret, what you’re hiding under that dress?” Maxwell White asks, and Sylvia shakes her head.

“No,” she says. “It’s not a secret. I mean—”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Back off just a little, Max,” Fera says, and the man with python eyes nods his head and shrugs.

“He does this to everyone, almost,” Alex Singleton says and begins to shred her napkin. “He did it to me.”

“It’s not a secret,” Sylvia says again. “I just—”

“You don’t have to tell anyone here anything you’re not ready to tell them, Syl,” Fera assures her and kisses her cheek. Fera Delacroix’s breath smells like vodka and olives. “You know that.”

“It’s just that none of us are wearing masks,” Maxwell White says. “You might have noticed that.”

“Excuse me, please,” Sylvia says, suddenly close to tears and her heart beating like the wings of a small and terrified bird trapped deep inside her chest. She stands up too fast, bumps the table hard with her right knee, and almost spills her drink.

“You’re a son of a bitch,” Fera growls at Maxwell White, and she bares her teeth. “I hope you know that.”

“No, really, it’s okay,” Sylvia says, forcing an unconvincing smile. “I’m fine. I understand, and I’m fine. I just need some fresh air, that’s all.”

And then she leaves them all sitting there in the shadows, murmuring and laughing among themselves. Sylvia doesn’t look back, concentrates, instead, on the sound of her espadrilles against the wide stone tiles, and she makes it almost all the way to the elevators before Fera catches up with her.

#

On the plane, somewhere high above the Rockies and streaking towards Los Angeles through clearing, night-bound skies, Sylvia drifts between the velvet and gravel folds of dream sleep. She dozed off with the volume setting on her tunejack pushed far enough towards max that the noise of the flight attendants and the other passengers and the skipjet’s turbines wouldn’t wake her. So, there’s only Beethoven’s 6th Symphony getting in from the outside, and the voices inside her head. She’s always hated flying, and took two of the taxi-cab yellow Placidmil capsules her therapist prescribed after her first treatment gave her insomnia.

In the nightmare, she stands alone on the crumbling bank of a sluggish, muddy river washed red as blood by the setting sun. She doesn’t know the name of the city rising up around her, and suspects that it has no name. Only dark and empty windows, skyscrapers like broken teeth, the ruins of bridges that long ago carried the city’s vanished inhabitants from one side of the wide red river to the other.

The river is within us, the sea is all about us, and isn’t that what Matthew Arnold wrote, or T. S. Eliot, or Maharshi Ramakrishna, or some other long dead man? Sylvia takes a step nearer the river, and a handful of earth tumbles into the water. The ripples spread out from the shore, until the current pulls them apart.

Behind her, something has begun to growl—a low and threatful sound, the sound of something that might tear her apart in an instant. She glances over her shoulder, but there’s only the buckled, abandoned street behind her and then the entrance to an alleyway. It’s already midnight in the alley, and she knows that the growling thing is waiting for her there, where it has always waited for her. She turns back to the river, because the thing in the alley is patient, and the swollen crimson sun is still clinging stubbornly to the western horizon.

And now she sees that it’s not the sunset painting the river red, but the blood of the dead and dying creatures drowning in the rising waters. The river devours their integrity, wedding one to the other, flesh to flesh, bone to bone. In another moment, there’s only a single strangling organism, though a thousand pairs of eyes stare back at her in agony and horror, and two thousand hearts bleed themselves dry through a million ruptured veins.

And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.

Countless talons and fingers, flippers and fins, tear futilely at the mud and soft earth along the river’s edge, but all are swept away. And when the sun has gone, Sylvia turns to face the alley, and the growling thing that is her life, and wakes to the full moon outside the skipjet’s window.

#

“You can’t expect more of them,” Fera says, “Not more than you expect of the straights, not just because they’re going through the same thing you are.”

“None of us are going through the same thing,” Sylvia replies, not caring whether or not Fera hears the bitterness in her voice. “We’re all going through this alone. Every one of us is alone, just like White said in his book. Every one of us is a species of one.”

“I think you expect too much,” Fera says, and then the elevator has reached the twenty-third floor, and the hidden bell rings, and the doors slide silently open. Sylvia steps out into the hall.

“Please promise me you won’t spend the whole weekend locked in your room,” Fera says. “At least come back down for Circe Seventeen’s panel at eight, and—”

“Yeah,” Sylvia says as the doors slide shut again. “Sure. I’ll see you there,” and she follows the hallway back to her room.

#

Sylvia is standing in front of the long bathroom mirror, her skin tinted a pale and sickly green by the buzzing fluorescent light. She’s naked, except for the gauze bandages and flesh-tone dermapad patches on her belly and thighs. The hot water is running, and the steam has begun to fog the mirror. She leans forward and wipes away some of the condensation.

“There’s always a risk of rejection,” Dr. Collier said, and that was more than three weeks ago now, her third trip to the Lycaon Clinic. “You understood that before we began. There’s always the risk of a violate retrovirus, especially when the transcription in question involves non-amniote DNA.”

And, of course, she’d understood. He’d told her everything, all the risks and qualifying factors explained in detail long before her first treatment. Everyone always understands, until they’re the one unlucky fuck in a thousand.

No one ever lied to me, she thinks, but there’s no consolation whatsoever in the thought.

In places, the bandages are stained and stiff with the discharge of her infections. Sylvia dries her hands on a clean white wash cloth, then begins to slowly remove the dermapad just below her navel. The adhesive strips around the edges come away with bits of dead skin and dried blood still attached.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” Dr. Collier said, the first time they met. “Even now, with all we know and everything that we’ve been able to accomplish in the last fifty years, what you want is very, very dangerous. And if something does go wrong, there’s very little hope of turning back.” And then she signed all the documents stating that he’d told her these things, and that she understood the perils and uncertainty, and that she was submitting to the procedures of her own free will.

She takes a deep breath and stares back at herself from the mirror, the sweat on her face to match the steam on the glass, and drops the dermapad into the sink. It stains the water a dark reddish-brown. And her mother, and all the faces from the bar—Maxwell White and Alex Singleton and all the rest—seem to hover somewhere just behind her. They smirk and shake their heads, just in case she’s forgotten that the rest of the world always knew she was weak and that, in the end, she’d get exactly what she’s always had coming to her.

I know all about those people. They’re filth, you understand? All of them. Every single, goddamned one.

The rubbery violet flesh beneath her navel is swollen and marbled with pustules and open sores. The tip of a stillborn tentacle, no longer than her index finger, hangs lifeless from her belly. Dr. Collier wanted to amputate it, but she wouldn’t let him.

“I hate like hell to say it, but he’s right,” Fera Delacroix told her, after the scene in the hotel bar, while they were waiting for an elevator. “You can’t keep it a secret forever, Syl. What you’re doing—what everyone here this weekend is doing—it’s about finally being honest about ourselves. I know that doesn’t necessarily make it easy, but it’s the truth.”

“No,” Sylvia says, gently touching the dead tentacle. “This is the truth.” She presses her finger into one of the tiny, stalked suckers, teasing the sharp hook at the center. “I think this is all the truth I need.”

She cleans the cancerous flesh and covers it with a fresh dermapad, then peels off one of the patches on her left thigh and repeats the process. It takes her more than an hour to wash and dress all the lesions, and when she’s done, when all those dying parts of her that are no longer precisely human have been hidden behind their sterile masks, she shuts off the water and gets dressed. She still has time for a light dinner before Circe Seventeen’s talk on the link between shamanism and the origins of parahumanism, and Sylvia knows that if she isn’t there, Fera Delacroix will come looking for her.

 

© 2005 by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Originally appeared in Outsiders,
edited by Nancy Holder and Nancy Kilpatrick.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

 

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Caitlín R. Kiernan

Caitlín R. Kiernan by Kyle Cassidy

Hailed by the New York Times as “One of our essential writers of dark fiction,” Caitlín R. Kiernan has published twelve novels, including  The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl which are both being developed into feature films. Her short fiction has been collected into several volumes. In 2017, Subterranean Press will be releasing the latest collection, Dear Sweet Filthy World.

Caitlín studied geology and paleontology at the University of Alabama and the University of Colorado, and has published in several scientific journals, including the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.