Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross

I had bought half an hour with Malka and I was making the most of it. Lots of Off girls, there’s not much goes on, but these Polar City ones, especially if they’re fresh off the migration station, they seem to, almost, enjoy it? I don’t know if they really do. They don’t pitch and moan and fake it up or anything, but they seem to be there under you. They’re with you, you know? They pay attention. It almost doesn’t matter about their skin, the feel of it a bit dry and crinkly, and the colour. They have the Coolights on all the time to cut that colour back, just like butchers put those purply lights over the meat in their shop, to bring up the red.

Anyway, I would say we were about two-thirds the way there—I was starting to let go of everything and be the me I was meant to be. I knew stuff; I meant something; I didn’t givva what anyone thought of me.

But then she says, “Stop, Mister Cleeyom. Stop a minute.”

“What?” I thought for a second she had got too caught up in it, was having too good a time, needed to slow things down a bit. I suppose that shows how far along I was.

“Something is coming,” she said.

I tensed up, listening for sounds in the hall.

“Coming down.”

Which was when I felt it, pushing against the end of me.

I pulled out. I made a face. “What is it? Have I got you up the wrong hole?”

“No, Mister Cl’om. Just a minute. Will not take long.”

Too late—I was already withering.

She got up into a squat with one leg out wide. The Coolight at the bedhead showed everything from behind: a glop of something, and then strings of drool. Just right out onto the bedclothes she did it; she didn’t scrabble for a towel or a tissue or anything. She wasn’t embarrassed. A little noise came up her throat from some clench in her chest, and that clench pushed the thing out below, the main business.

“It’s a puppy?” I said, but I thought, It’s a turd? But the smell wasn’t turd; it was live insides, insides that weren’t to do with digestion. And turds don’t turn over and split their skin, and try to work it off themselves.

“It’s just a baby,” Malka apologised, with that smile she has, that makes you feel sorry for her, she’s trying so hard, and angry at her at the same time. She scooped it up, with its glop. She stepped off the bed and laid it on top of some crumpled crush-velour under the lamp. A white-ish tail dangled between her legs; she turned away from me and gathered that up, and whatever wet thing fell out attached to it.

This was not what I’d had in mind. This was not the treat I’d promised myself as I tweezered HotChips into artificial tulip stalks out at Parramatta Mannafactory all week.

The “baby” lay there working its shoulders in horrible shruggings, almost as if it knew what it was doing. They’re not really babies, of course, just as Polar “girls” aren’t really girls, although that’s something you pay to be made to forget.

Malka laughed at how my faced looked. “You ha’n’t seen this before, Mister Sir?”

“Never,” I said. “It’s disgusting.”

“It’s a regular,” she said. “How you ever going to get yourself new girls for putcha-putcha, if you don’t have baby?”

“We shouldn’t have to see that, to get them.”

“You ask special for Malka. You sign the—the thing, say you don’t mind to see. I can show you.” She waved at the billing unit by the door.

“Well, I didn’t know what that meant. Someone should have explained it to me exactly, all the details.” But I remembered signing. I remembered the hurry I’d been in at the time. It takes you over, you know, a bone. It feels so good just by itself, so warm, silky somehow and shifting, making you shift to give it room, but at the very same time and this is the crazy-making thing, it nags at you, Get rid of me! Gawd, do something! And I wouldn’t be satisfied with one of those others: Korra is Polar, too, but she has been here longer and she acts just like an Earth girl, like you’re rubbish. And that other one, the yellow-haired one—well, I have had her a couple of times thinking she might come good, but seriously, she is on something. A man might as well do it with a Vibro-Missy, or use his own hand. It’s not worth the money if she’s not going to be real.

The thing on the velour turned over again in an irritated way, or uncomfortable. It spread one of its hands and the Coolight shone among the wrong-shaped fingers, going from little to big, five of them and no thumb. A shiver ran up my neck like a breeze lifting up a dog’s fur.

Malka chuckled and touched my chin. “I will make you a drink and then we will get sexy again, hey?”

I tucked myself in and zipped up my pants. “Can’t you put it away somewhere? Like, does it have to be there right under the light?”

She put her face between me and it and kissed me. They don’t kiss well, any of these Offs. It’s not something that comes natural to them. They don’t take the time; they don’t soften their lips properly. It’s like a moth banging into your mouth. “Haff to keep it in sight. It is regulation. For its well-being.” Her teeth gleamed in another attempt at smiling. “I turn you on a movie. Something to look away at.”

“Can’t you give the thing to someone else to take care of?” But she was doing the walk; I was meant to be all sucked in again by the sight of that swinging bottom. They do have pretty good bottoms, Polars, pretty convincing.

“I paid for the full half-hour,” I said. “Am I gunna get back that time you spent . . . Do I get extra time at the end?”

But I didn’t want extra time. I wanted my money back, and to start again some other time, when I’d forgotten this. But there was no way I was going to get that. The wall bloomed out into palm-trees and floaty music and some rock-hard muscle star and his girlfriend arguing on the beach.

“Turn the sound off!”

Malka did, like a shot, and checked me over her shoulder. I read it in her face clear as anything: Am I going to get trouble from this one? Not fear, not a drop of it, just, Should I call in the big boys? The workaday look on her face, her eyes smart, her lips a little bit open, underneath the sunlit giant faces mouthing on the wall—there was nothing designed to give Mister Client a bigger downer.

• • • •

Darlinghurst Road was the same old wreck and I was one loser among many walking along it. It used to be Sexy Town here, all nightclubs, back in history, but now it’s full of refugees. Down the hill and along the point is where all the fudgepackers had their apartments, before the anti-gay riots. We learned ’em; we told ’em where to stick their bloody feathers and froo-froos. That’s all gone now, every pillow burned and every pot of Vaseline smashed—you can’t even buy it to grease up handyman tools any more, not around here. Those were good times when I was a bit younger, straightening out the world.

It didn’t look pretty when we’d finished, but at least there were no ’packers. Now people like me live here, who’d rather hide in this mess than jump through the hoops you need for a ’factory condominium. And odd Owsians, offshoots of the ones that are eating up the States from the inside, there are so many there. And a lot of Earth-garbage: Indians and Englanders and Central Europeans. And the odd glamorous Abbo, all gold knuckles and tailoring. It’s colourful, they tell us; it’s got a polyglot identity that’s all its own and very special. Tourists come here—well, they walk along Darlo Road; they don’t explore much either side, where it gets real polyglot.

I zigzagged through the lanes towards my place. I was still steaming about my lost money and my wasted bone, steaming at myself for having signed that screen and done myself out of what I’d promised myself. There was nothing I could do except go home and take care of myself so I could get some sleep. Then wake up and catch the bike-bus out to Parramatta, pedalling the sun up out of the drowned suburbs behind me.

That EurOwsian beggar-girl was on my step again, a bundle like someone’s dumped house-rubbish. She crinkled and rustled as I came up. When she saw my face she’d know not to bother me, I hoped.

But it wasn’t her voice at all that said, “Jonah? Yes, it is you!”

I backed up against the opposite wall of the entry, my insides gone all slithery. Only bosses called me Jonah, and way back people who were dead now, of my family from the days when people had families. Grandparent-type people.

Out of what I had thought was the beggar girl stood this other one that I didn’t know at all, shaven-headed and scabby-lipped. “Fen,” those lips said. “Fenella. Last year at the Holidaze.”

“Oh!” I almost shouted with the relief of making the connection, although she still didn’t click to look at. She put her face more clearly in the way of the gaslight so that I could examine her. “Fen. Oh, yeah.” I still couldn’t see it, but I knew who she was talking about. “What are you doing in here? I thought you lived up the mountains.”

“I know. I’m sorry. But, really, I’ve got to tell you something.”

“What’s that?”

She looked around at the empty entry-way, the empty lane. “It’s kind of private.”

“Oh. You better come up, then.” I hoped she wasn’t thinking to get in my bed or anything; I could never put myself close to a mouth in that condition.

She followed me up. She wasn’t healthy; two flights and she was breathing hard. All the time I’m also, Fen? But Fen had hair. She was very nearly good-looking. I remember thinking as we snuck off from the party, Oh, my ship’s really come in this time—a normal girl and no payment necessary.

She didn’t go mad and attack me for drug money when I lit the lamp and stood back to hold the door for her. She stepped in and took in the sight of my crap out of some kind of habit. She was a girl with background; she would probably normally say something nice to the host. But she was too distracted, here, by the stuff in her own head. I couldn’t even begin to dread what that might be.

“Sit?” In front of the black window, my only chair looked like, if you sat there, someone would tie you to it, and scald you with Ersatz, or burn you with beedy-ends.

She shook her head. “It’s not as if there’s much we can do,” she said, “but you had to know, I told myself. I thought, maybe he can get himself tested and they’ll give him some involvement, you never know. Or at least send you the bulletins too.”

I tipped my head at her like, You hear what’s coming out your mouth, don’t you? I’d just about had it with women for the night, this one on top of Malka and of Malka’s boss with the cream-painted face and the curly smile, all soothing, all understanding, all not-giving-a-centimetre, not giving a cent.

Fen was walking around checking my place out. No, there was nowhere good for us to settle; when I was here on my own, I sat in my chair or I lay on my bed, and no one ever visited me. She came and stood facing across me and brought out an envelope that looked just about worn out from her clutching it. She opened it and fingered through the pages folded in there, one behind the other. “Here, this one.” She took it out and unfolded it, but not so I could see. She looked it up and down, up and down. “Yes. I guess. May as well start at the beginning.” She handed it to me. “It’s not very clear,” she apologised. “I wouldn’t keep still for them. They’d arrested me and I was pissed off.” She laughed nervously.

It was a bad copy of a bad printout of a bad colour scan, but even so, even I could work it out. Two arms. Two legs. A full, round head. For a second there I felt as if my own brain had come unstuck and slopped into the bottom of my skull.

“It’s… It’s just like the one on the sign,” I said, with hardly a voice. I meant the billboard up on Taylor Square—well, they were everywhere, really, but I only biked past the others. People picnicked under the Taylor Square one; people held markets and organised other kinds of deals; I sometimes just went up and sat under it and watched them, for something to do. Protect Our Future, it said; it was a government sign, Department of Genetic Protection, I think: a pink-orange baby floating there in its bag like some sleeping water creature, or some being that people might worship—which people kind of did, I guess, with all the fuss about the babies. This was what we were all supposed to be working towards, eh—four proper limbs and a proper-shaped head like every baby’s used to be.

Fen looked gleeful as a drugger finding an Ambrosie stash. One of her scabs had split and a bead of blood sat on her lip there.

I went to the chair; it exclaimed in pain and surprise under me. “What else?” I looked at the envelope in her skeleton hands.

She crossed the room and crouched beside me. She showed me three bulletins, because it was two months old. Each had two images, a face and a full-body. The first one gave me another brain-spasm; it was a girl-baby. The hope of the line, said the suits in their speeches on the news screen down the Quay; their faces were always working to stop themselves crying by then; they were going for the full drama. Man’s hope is Woman, they would blubber. We have done them so wrong, for so long.

In every picture, the baby girl was perfect—no webbing, no cavities, no frills or stumps, and nothing outside that ought to be in. Fen showed me the part where the name was Joannah. She read me the stats and explained them to me. These things, you could tell from the way she said them, they’d been swimming round and around in her head a long time. They came out in a relief, all rushed and robotic like the datadump you get when you ring up about your Billpay account.

When she finished she checked my reaction. My face felt stiff and cold—I had no blood to spare to work it, it was all busy boiling through my brain. “It’s something, isn’t it?” she said.

“You and me under the cup-maker. It only took a few minutes.”

“I know.” She beamed and licked away another drop of blood. “Who would’ve thought?”

I was certainly thinking now. I sat heavily back and tried to see my thoughts against the wall, which was a mass of tags from before they’d secured this building. I needed Fen to go away now—I couldn’t make sense of this while she was here watching me, trying to work out what I thought, what I felt. But I couldn’t send her away, either; this sort of thing takes a certain amount of time and no less, and there was no point being rude. It takes two to tango, no one knew that better than me.

After a while I said, “I used to walk home behind that Full-Term place.”

“Argh,” she said, and swayed back into a crouch. “You’ve got one of those skip stories!”

I nodded. “Mostly it was closed, and I never lifted the lid myself.”

“But.” She glowered at me.

“If someone had propped it open, with a brick or, once, there was a chair holding it quite wide? Well, then I would go and have a look in. Never to touch anything or anything.”

“Errr-her-her-herrr.” She sat on my scungey carpet square and rocked her face in her hands, and laughed into them.

“One time—”

“No, no, no!” She was still laughing, but with pain in it.

“One time someone had opened it right the way up—”

“No!” she squeaked, and put her hands over her ears and laughed up at me, then took them off again and waited wide-eyed.

“And taken a whole bunch out—it must’ve been Ukrainians. They will eat anything,” I added, just to make her curl up. “And they’d chucked them all over the place.”

“No-no!” She hugged her shins and laughed into her knees. This woman had done it, this scrawny body that I couldn’t imagine having ever wanted or wanting again, had brought a perfect baby to nine months. In the old days she would have been the woman who bore my child, or even bore me a child, bore me a daughter, and while I had to be glad she wasn’t, I…

Well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t know what to think about her, or about myself, or about those loose sheets of paper around her feet, and the face that was Fen’s, that was mine, two in the one. Joannah’s—my name cobbled together with a girl’s. I didn’t have a clue.

“It’s true,” I said. “All these—” I waved at the memory of their disgustingness against the cobbles and the concrete, across the stormwater grille.

“Tell me,” she whispered. “It’s mostly the heads, isn’t it?”

“It was mostly the heads.” I nodded. “Like people had hit them, you know, with baseball bats, big . . . hollows out of them, every which side, sometimes the face, sometimes the back. But it was . . . I don’t know, it was every kind of . . . Sometimes no legs, sometimes too many. It was, what do you call those meals, like at the Holidaze, where it’s all spread out and you get to put whatever you want of it on your plate?”

“A smorgasbord?”

“That’s it.”

“A smorgasbord of deformities, you reckon?”

“Yeah.” Deformities, of course—that was what nice people called them. Not piggies or wingies or bowlheads. Not blobs for the ones with no heads at all.

“And don’t tell me,” said Fen, “some of them were still alive.”

“Nah, they were dead, all right.”

“Some people say, you know? They see them moving?”

I shook my head. My story was over, and hadn’t been as interesting as some people’s, clearly.

“Well,” she said, and bent to the papers again, and put them in a pile in order.

“Let me see again.” She gave them to me and I looked through them. It was no more believable the second time. “Can I have these?”

“Oh no,” she said. “You’ll have to go and get tested and take the strips to the Department. Then they’ll set you up in the system to get your own copies of everything sent out.”

“That’ll cost,” I said glumly. “The test, and then getting there—that’s way up, like, Armidale or somewhere, isn’t it? I’d have to get leave.”

“Yes, but you’ll get it all back, jizzing into their beakers. Get it all back and more, I’d say. It’s good for blokes; you have your little factory that only your own body can run. They have to keep paying you. Us girls they can just chop it all out and ripen the eggs in solution. We only get money the once.”

“They have to plant it back in you, don’t they?”

“They have to plant it back in someone, but they’ve got their own childbearers, that passed all the screenings. I don’t look so good beside those; where I come from used to be all dioxins. My sister births nothing but duds, and she’s got some . . . mental health issues they don’t like the sound of.”

“But you brought this one out okay, didn’t you, this . . . Joannah?”

“Yeah, but who knows that wasn’t a fluke? Besides, I don’t want that, for a life. They offered me a trial place there, but I told them they could stick it. I met some of those incubator girls. The bitchery that went on at that place, you wouldn’t believe. Good thing they don’t do the actual mothering.”

She took the papers from me and we both looked at the top one with its stamp and crest and the baby looking out. Poor little bugger. What did it have to look forward to? Nothing, just growing up to be a girl, and then a woman. Mostly I think that women were put here to make our lives miserable, to tease us and lure us and then not choose us. Or to choose us and then go cold, or toss us aside for the fun of watching us suffer. But you can’t think that way about a daughter, can you? How are you supposed to think about a daughter?

“Well, good on you, I say.” I tried to sound okay with it, but a fair bit of sourness came through. “Good on both of us, eh,” I added to cover that up. “It makes us both look good, eh.”

She folded the papers. “I guess.” She put them away in the envelope. She gave a little laugh. “I hardly know you, you know? There was just that one time, and, you know, it wasn’t like we had any kind of relationship. I didn’t know how you were going to take this. But anyway.” She got up, so I did too. She was no taller than me—that was one of the reasons I’d had a chance with her. “Now you know everything, and . . . I don’t know what I thought was going to happen after that! But it’s done.” She spread her hands and turned towards the door.

I believe it used not to be like this, people being parents. Olden days, there would have been that whole business of living together and lies and pressures, the relationship, which from what I’ve heard the women always wanted and the men kind of gave them for the sake of regular sex. Not now, though; it was all genes and printouts now. Everyone was on their own.

I closed the door after Fen, and went and sat with my new knowledge, with my new status. It was some kind of compensation for the rest of my evening, for not getting Malka properly to myself. What’s more, I might end up quite tidily-off from this, be able to drop assembly work completely, just sell body fluids. I should feel good; I should feel excited, free and stuff. I should be able to shake off being so annoyed from my poor old withered bone. Some people had simple feelings like that, that could cancel each other out neatly like that.

What I hadn’t told Fen, what I wouldn’t—her of all people, but I wouldn’t tell anyone—was that I used to go home behind the Full Term place because there was always a chance there’d be someone in labour down the back wards there. And the noises they made, for a bloke who didn’t have money then, who was saving up his pennies for a Polar girl, the noises were exactly what I wanted to hear out of a woman. No matter I couldn’t see or touch them; it was dark, and I could imagine. I could hang onto the bar fence like the rungs of some big brass bedhead and she would be groaning and gasping, panting her little lump of monster out, or—even better—yowling or bellowing with pain; they all did it different. And some nurse or someone, some nun or whatever they had in there, would be telling her what to do. Oh, what a racket! she’d say. You’d think you were birthing an elephant! Now push with this one, Laurie. And I’d be outside thinking, Yeah, push, push!, and somewhere in the next yowl or roar I would spoof off through the fence and be done. There was nothing like the night air on your man-parts and the darkness hiding you, and a woman’s voice urging you on.

There’s always the buttoning, though, isn’t there? There’s always rearranging your clothes around your damp self and shaky knees, zipping, buttoning, belting. There’s always turning from the bed and the girl, or the fence and the yowling and the skip there, and being only you in the lane or hallway, with no one missing you or needing you, having paid your fee. You’re tingling all around your edges, and the tingle’s fading fast, and that old pretend-you floats back out of wherever it went, like sheets of newspaper, blows and sticks to you, so that then it’s always there, scraping and dirty and uncomfortable.

I turned out the lamp and crawled into bed. Now stars filled the window. In the old days of full power and streetlights, Sydneysiders saw bugger-all of those, just the moon and a few of the bigger stars. They say you couldn’t see the fifth star of the Cross, even. Now the whole damn constellation throbs there in its blanket of galaxy-swirl. People were lucky, then, not knowing what was out there, worse than a few gays poncing about the place, worse than power cuts and restrictions and all these “dire warnings” and “desperate pleas,” worse than the Environment sitting over us like some giant troll or something, whingeing about how we’ve treated her. Earth must have been cosy then. Who was it, I wonder, decided we wanted to go emitting all over the frickin’ universe, saying, Over here, over here! Nice clean planet! Come here and help us fuck her right up. That was the bloke we should have smashed the place of. The gays, they weren’t harming anyone but themselves.

I jerked awake a couple of times on the way down to sleep. My life is changed! I am a new man! They’ll show me proper respect now, when they see that DNA readout. To get to sleep, I tried to fool myself I’d dreamed Fen visiting. Passing those billboards every day, and Malka’s baby this evening—everything had mishmashed together in my unconscious. I would wake up normal tomorrow, with everything the same as usual. Fen’s scabby lips, the proper kisses, full and soft, we’d had behind the cupmaker—thinking about those wouldn’t do any good. Push them into some squishy, dark corner of forgetting, and let sleep take me.

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Margo Lanagan

Margo Lasagna by Ellen Datlow

Margo Lanagan lives in Sydney, Australia. She is a four-time winner of the World Fantasy Award—in the short story, collection, novel and novella categories—and her short stories and novels have won and been shortlisted for many other awards. Her latest collections are Cracklescape, part of the Twelve Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press, stories from which are nominated in the Ditmar and Aurealis Awards, and Yellowcake, a collection of mostly previously published stories. Her latest novel is The Brides of Rollrock Island, which was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal in the UK, and shortlisted for the inaugural Stella Prize and the Norma K Hemming Award in Australia.