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Fiction

The Thing About Shapes to Come

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015

This story also appears in the BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2015, edited by Joe Hill (guest editor) and John Joseph Adams (series editor). Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Monica’s new baby was like a lot of new babies these days in that she was born a cube. She had no external or internal sexual organs, or for that matter organs of any kind, being just a warm solid filled with protoplasm. But she was, genetically at least, a girl, and one who resembled her mother as much as any cube possibly could. That wasn’t much in that she had no eyes, no nose, no mouth, no chin, no hair, nothing that could be charitably called a face or bodily features, not even any orifices larger than pores. But she had inherited Monica’s healthy appetite. Placed in a dish in a puddle of Monica’s breast milk, she throbbed in deep appreciation and absorbed it all in a matter of minutes, becoming as plump and as satiated as a sponge. As far as anybody could tell, she was a happy and healthy cube.

It had been a difficult birth, given all the corners involved. Labor had been the biological equivalent of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. But there was no reason, they said, to worry about her health; her constitution was strong, and there was no reason to believe she couldn’t live a long, comfortable, and healthy life, devoid of any serious problems unrelated to the general inconvenience of going through life shaped like a cube. The presence of nerve impulses even confirmed that the child could think, while providing little in the way of speculation over what she could possibly have to think about. Look at her the right way and it was even possible to consider her beautiful, in that she was smooth on all her planes, sharply defined on her edges and corners, not off by so much as a millimeter, in any of her vital measurements. This wasn’t the kind of beauty Monica had envisioned when she’d hoped for a beautiful child, but there was a starkness to her daughter’s lines, a mathematical purity to her, that made it impossible to want to use terms like disfigured or deformed.

Monica had hoped for an old-fashioned baby, of the kind that had been common when she was a child, the kind with the rounded features and drooly toothless smile and the foreshortened arms and legs and even—yes, she’d looked forward to this as well—the end that would need to be wiped clean and powdered on a regular basis. She had wanted a child who would someday delight her by calling her “Mama,” and one day rise on uncertain feet to toddle off and force her to give chase. That would have been the ideal. But she had also known that these days the odds of ending up with a baby that looked like that were about one in a hundred thousand, and dropping. More and more women were giving birth to cylinders and pyramids and crosses and rhombuses, with the vast majority of the newest generation emerging as playful spheres. Of all the young mothers Monica knew, only one had been blessed with a baby shaped like a baby; and that mother seemed genuinely haunted as she pushed the infant around in its pram, aware that the world was watching, feeling surrounded on all sides by legions of frustrated kidnappers and pederasts. The mothers of children-shaped children had to take care to shield their progeny from such predators, because the number of predators remained constant even as the number of possible targets for their vile intentions now described an asymptotic curve that approached but never quite reached zero. Most of the young parents Monica knew were lucky enough to have been blessed with spheres that could roll around and bounce into one another and even learn to descend household stairs, though rarely to ascend them. A sphere, Monica thought, would have been a fine alternative to a traditional baby. A sphere she could have taken to the park and played with. But complaining about that was like spitting in the face of God. Certainly, a cube must have other talents, other good points to love.

Of course, Monica’s mom and dad were upset, not just because their teenaged daughter had given birth to a cube but also, unspoken, because that cube’s mocha-brown coloring suggested that, since Monica was white, the unknown father must have been black. Dad wore an unmistakable scowl as he held the new arrival in his hands, his rheumy eyes a million miles away as he bid a mental farewell to any future birthdays involving tricycles and baseball gloves, or even dollhouses or drum batons. He weighed the cube in his hands, wondering aloud whether he was holding her upside down or right side up, or if there was any way he could tell that she even knew she was being held. He said, Maybe we could put a label on it, to let us know which way is up. Monica’s mom was even less subtle, complaining: She’s square. A doctor corrected her at once, saying, No, Mrs. Hufready, she’s not a square, a square would be flat. She’s a cube. Mom was slow to absorb the correction and demanded, What the hell is my daughter going to do with a square kid? It was impossible to hear Mom’s tone of voice and not know that she would always fail to get it, that even if she came around to loving her granddaughter for the beautiful, geometrical solid she was, she would still be slow to pick up the etymological differences, using the offensive s-slur for years to come without ever quite understanding why it was wrong.

As for herself, Monica felt the tug of maternal love the second her child was placed in her hands, and rotated so she could see that her baby was indeed the same on all sides. She was a member of the younger generation, the one that had grown up in the age of such births, the one who had been prepared to gestate and nurture a darling shape of her own. She saw in her daughter’s being, her substance, the oneness of her, a divine spark that all of her dreams of a more conventional child could not deny. She felt the pit of bottomless responsibility open wide before her and, with no reservations, leaped in. Asked for a name to put on the birth certificate, she told the doctors, “Her name’s Di.”

* * * *

Di was a well-behaved child, who lay in her crib and regarded the world around her with a calm acceptance that never crossed the line into brattiness or fussing for the sake of fussing. She didn’t cry, but from time to time she hummed. This was always a sign that it was time to feed her. She was an angel whenever food was provided, sitting in the center of any puddle laid out for her and plumping visibly as she absorbed it. She also thrummed in the presence of her mother, though rarely so in the presence of her grandparents, whose generational instincts had somehow failed to kick in, and who most often referred to the baby as “that thing.” Monica did whatever she could to jump start their hearts, but that seemed a losing battle, and she spent more and more time retreating from them, taking Di into her own bedroom and doing all the maternal things she was required to do in private, where they would not be a source of constant irritation.

Aside from that, there was no shame. Monica felt no compunction about taking Di out to the park, where there were only a couple of lonely “normal” children who looked furtive and uncomfortable in the playgrounds littered with mostly immobile shapes other parents had brought and placed about the rusting swing sets and jungle gyms, in the hopes that the environment would provide the kinetic opportunities that the limited motive ability their own offspring lacked. The most popular item of equipment among the parents seemed to be the sandbox, where the pyramids, cubes, and rhombuses, arranged in rows and left to interact in any way they could, resembled the half-buried buildings of some desert city, assaulted by the aftermath of a sandstorm. A couple of times Monica placed Di there, among the other edifices in the miniature boulevard, until she noticed that when playtime was over the parents didn’t always leave with the same kids they’d come with, and excused away any accidents of identification with the excuse that they were just too hard to tell apart.

Some conscientious parents made more of an effort to personalize—as in, “render a person”—their shape-children. Sometimes, Monica sat beside one determined young woman who dressed her pyramidal boy, Roger, in jean overalls that buttoned midway up his converging slopes, held in place by suspenders that hooked around his single vertex. The outfit came complete with plush-toy, fake legs dangling from his base. The effect wasn’t very convincing, not even with the cartoonish smiley-face drawn on one of Roger’s three risers, a representation of two dot eyes and bubblegum pink cheeks curving into a happy mouth that, on Roger, resembled disrespectful graffiti more than an actual personification of a child. Even when Monica forced herself to entertain the premise, she couldn’t help noticing that the simulated head came to a point, which to her mind made Roger look feeble-minded. To be sure, Roger’s mother had tried to ameliorate that point with a scruffy little wig and baseball cap, but how much more noble, she thought, was his actual shape, shorn of pretense? It was primal; it was classical. It was the shape of monuments, of constructs that lived forever. The pyramid-in-boy-suit was, by comparison, just a transparent ploy, a stab at imagined normalcy that emerged as grubby and pathetic by comparison. Monica could only glance at her own Di, who embodied self-contained perfection so well that she looked the same from every angle, and tried in vain to summon the mindset that would have led her to subject the darling to indignities of the same sort that Roger’s mother subjected on him. It seemed deluded, anti-maternal, and likely hurtful.

Other times Monica wandered over to the fenced-in area where the spheres played. It had been a basketball court, though the poles and hoops had been taken down, and the game being played by about two dozen spheres of different sizes resembled nothing that had ever been played between teams. Unlike cubes, which were stable once placed in any given position and could be trusted to remain where they were put until somebody came by to move them, spheres were pure chaos, harder to stop than to start, an explosion of play potential that manifested as a collection of runaway ids. They rolled about at high speeds, some describing predictable orbits and others changing their course according to the whim of each passing moment. They collided. They bounced. They slowed, pretended to rest, and then accelerated like streaks of light, as if fired by invisible cannons. It was impossible to tell if they were actually playing with one another, or, as it seemed to Monica, at one another. Perhaps they perceived their fellow spheres as annoying obstructions and not as fellow inhabitants of the universe. But there was an energy to their play, a potential that reminded Monica of atoms colliding with one another, searching for others with which they could combine and form strange new substances, with none of the properties of the original contributors. But when Monica put Di down in the center of all that splendid chaos, just to see what would happen, the answer was nothing; her child just sat in the center of it all, unstirred, a closed system.

* * * *

When Di was two, the world experienced a slight upswing in instances of what were by then called traditional pregnancies. It wasn’t much. It didn’t amount to more than about five thousand more than the population had been told to expect. But the furor over this development vastly exceeded its statistical significance. The news media questioned: Is the “plague” over? Had mankind been saved from this strange mutation?

In a few short months further numbers would come in, and the answer to both questions would turn out to be no. This was nothing more than a statistical fluke, the kind of phenomenon that only happens because the numbers come up that way; no more significant that the occasional odd family that, in the old days, would produce ten boys in a row without a single female face among them, without much affecting the fifty/fifty ratio in the general population. When things evened out, the vast majority of young mothers continued to pump out spheres and cubes and pyramids and rhombuses, and the line on the graph that reflected the percentage of pregnancies that resulted in baby-shaped babies continued to descend, inexorably, toward zero.

But while the illusion lasted, many people seized on the premature intimations of hope to initiate debates over what to do with what they considered a lost generation. Shape-children were abandoned, thrown out, offered up for adoption. Many mothers were pressured by loved ones to admit that the things they’d carried in their bodies, expelled, and cared for, were, not people, but things unworthy of their love that could now be discarded.

Monica’s parents were among the people who took this position. They pointed out that she had not held down a job, or done anything else with her life, since Di’s birth. They said that all she did was feed “it” and care for “it” and talk to “it” as if “it” could hear her. They told her that she showed even more devotion than a “regular” mother, but that it was a devotion poured down a black hole that swallowed far more than it could ever return. It’s a parasite, they told her. She argued that it had always been possible to see babies as parasites feeding off the generation that birthed them; for a while, at least, they contributed nothing but smiles and coos while demanding food, attention, and energy. How, she wanted to know, was Di different? This somehow never closed the argument but rather brought it back to the beginning, to the declaration that Di had done nothing in her short life but increase in size and in her need for nutrients. You don’t like the word “parasite”? her parents asked her, Try “vegetable.” The point was that Di still showed no sign of ever being able to interact with others in any meaningful way. There was no reason Monica had to continue paying the price of being devoted to her, not when there were “places” that could take care of Di just as well as she could.

This was not just a single conversation. Or perhaps it was, if you can say that a series of conversations, continued over days and weeks with only short interruptions for sleep and the necessary business of being alive, was a conversation. There was no halt to it. Monica took it with calm, and then with anger, then with long bitter silences, and then with weakness: Yes, she said, Of course, I’m not saying I agree, but I’ll look at one of those places, already.

And so they went to a facility for abandoned cubes. It wasn’t called that. It was called a juvenile home. But it was only open to cubes, specializing in that particular shape and no other, to the point of specifying in its charter that any children whose parents submitted applications would be carefully measured before acceptance, to ensure that none of them had sides that differed in proportion by even a stray millimeter. As Di thrummed contentedly in Monica’s lap, the administrator, a woman who seemed inordinately configured out of ninety-degree angles herself, explained that “fitting in” here was not a social concern but a physical one. The children were stored on shelves in stacks of three, and any whose dimensions were at all disproportionate caused dangerous instability among those stacked on top of them. But—she smiled—there was no reason to believe that this would be a problem with Di, who was just lovely. In her case the examination would be, doubtlessly, no more than a formality.

Monica and her parents took the grand tour, and by now were not surprised that the place was, very much literally, a place for warehousing unwanted children. The shelves stretched twelve feet above a cold concrete floor and the length of a football field into gloom, each stacked five high with cubes of sizes ranging from newborn to adolescent, the latter being so large they could have contained old-fashioned console televisions. A sprinkler hose moved down one of the aisles on a track, spraying them with a liquid that, the administrator advised Monica, had been formulated to fit all of their nutritional needs. Another spraying light mist washed them off. Stereo speakers played gentle instrumentals while the cubes thrummed, staying in tune. Dust motes danced in the cold, dim light. Monica’s father asked the administrator if they had a system in place for knowing which child was which, and she pointed out a placard at the end of each row, which detailed the number range of those stored on each shelf (as in “1200- 1503”). The names, she said, were backed up weekly and stored off-site, for convenience, but they didn’t really matter all that much, as these were not children who would ever come when called.

The silence and seeming acquiescence of Monica and her parents encouraged the administrator to ramble. She told them about the most memorable mishap the facility had ever suffered, a case where none of the attendants had noticed that the cube on top of the stack had experienced a growth spurt faster than those of the cubes it rested on, and a cascade occurred that had toppled first that stack and then the other stacks next to it, resulting in a pile of thrumming objects who may have been unhurt but who presented a challenge that didn’t often come up when dealing with other children, in that they were faceless and identical. It had taken a flurry of DNA tests, undertaken at great expense, to determine which child was which, not that anyone at the facility felt it especially mattered.

Monica asked permission to place Di on one of the shelves, just as an experiment. The administrator beamed and told her to go right ahead. She placed Di on an empty spot, murmured that there was no need to worry because Mommy would be right back, and backed away, stopping only when she was ten feet away, and then again when she was twenty, and finally again at fifty. Di was hard to pick out among all the other cubes. She was indistinguishable from the others her size. But Monica thought of all the times she had been in public places like busy streets or stadiums and auditoriums, looking out upon crowds of hundreds or even thousands—the way all of those faces, as unique as they may have been as Joe, or Sue, or Brad, or Laura, had been reduced by the sheer number to shifting pixels, making up a grand mural whose only identity was that of the mob. It wasn’t easy to pick out any one person in that place either, because they were all alike, becoming something different from all the others only when they were approached and examined for the cues that made them individuals. She wondered if anybody working at this warehouse ever picked up one of the cubes and felt its warmth against their own. But mostly, she wondered how many of them were screaming.

* * * *

The spheres rebelled the year Di turned fifteen. By that time it had been years since Monica had been able to hold her only child in her lap, or cradle her in her arms. Now Di was the size of a dishwasher and could no longer be moved except with a hand truck; at the speed she was growing, it would soon be impossible to move her from Monica’s little studio apartment except by knocking down one of the walls. She was by far the most prominent item of de facto furniture in a place that otherwise knew little more than a kitchenette, a convertible couch, and a second-hand television.

Monica, who since cutting off all contact with her parents had worked two jobs to maintain the place, remained as attentive a mother as she could be under the circumstances. She made a point of eating breakfast with Di every morning; Di absorbing the contents of a sponge saturated in shape chow, Monica using Di’s ceiling-oriented face as the dining table she otherwise didn’t have room for. Di was, if nothing else, a considerate person to eat a meal on. She absorbed spills, and to Monica’s maternal eyes seemed to be particularly fond of coffee.

Monica still spoke to Di all the time, telling her that she was special, assuring her that she was loved. There was no way for Monica to know that her child heard or appreciated any of it, and though she held on to her faith with a ferocity that her few friends considered heroic if not deluded, those doubts sometimes overwhelmed her, leading to sleepless nights and a sense of all her life’s energy being poured down a black hole.

The little studio became a fortress when the spheres rebelled, many millions of them at once, a revolution declared at the same moment in a hundred major cities around the world, though it was hard to say what grievances they thought they had, or what cause they might have championed, other than anarchy. Thousands, of all ages, from newborns to near-adults, rolled down the Spanish steps in Rome, thousands more down the zigzag planes of Lombard Street in San Francisco, uncounted numbers rebounding at high altitudes from glass skyscraper to glass skyscraper in Tokyo in what amounted to the most horrifying Pachinko game ever played. Cities with steep hills were the most vulnerable, of course, but they were not above tailoring their acts of terror to the local possibilities: Witness what they did in Saint Louis, where hundreds of them herded shrieking innocents through the Gateway Arch and back, scoring goals.

In the city where Monica lived, they just broke things, smashing through automobile windshields, overturned trucks, and made it their solemn duty to pay a visit to every single china shop in the greater metropolitan area. She spent that long night huddled in her studio, assuring Di that everything would be all right as the sounds of fear and destruction rattled her windows. She lost herself in bleak thoughts of the price that would need to be paid for all this, the price that would no doubt be levied against innocents like Di, who could not wage war against anybody. Spheres, she thought savagely, were troublemakers by design. They could spin; therefore, they were revolutionary. It was not just their privilege but their nature to take the path of least resistance, no matter what lay ahead of them. It was just the way they rolled. But cubes, like Di? They were solid, dependable, and uncomplaining. They received love and asked for nothing more. How terrible it was, that they would now be lumped into the same category as such delinquents.

But in the morning, the sounds of destruction gave way to an eerie silence that persisted until the sun reached its height in the sky. Monica ventured downstairs alone and discovered what those who had already left their homes already knew: that whatever had driven the spheres to their destructive madness the night before seemed to have exhausted, not just their rage, but their will to live. Wherever she looked, in every direction, the spheres remained in the places they had come to rest, moving only when some of the people they had terrorized kicked them against walls or beat them with golf clubs and bats. Some, damaged by their fury of the night before, had lost so much of their bounce that they responded to any fall from a height not with an exuberant spring but rather with a sullen and indifferent thud. As she walked the city, she saw workers clearing their unresisting forms from the streets and loading them into trucks; and she knew that, all over the world, all those not claimed by loyal parents would be taken somewhere far from sight where they could be stacked in pyramids or plowed into canyons or otherwise forgotten about. For the first time in a life spent taking it as matter of faith that her cube had a soul, she found herself doubting that all shape-children did, and wondering if they would even care about being discarded in this manner. But what was the alternative? Tolerating what they’d done? Leaving them where they’d landed and trusting that they’d never run roughshod over the landscape again? It was not that she had no answer. It was that every answer she had made her feel dirty. It was a warm day but she hugged herself, shivering from a cold that originated somewhere deep in her marrow.

Before she returned to her apartment to check on Di, she stopped by the riverfront, where some of the smaller spheres had landed. Hundreds, ranging in size from golf ball to weather balloon, had landed in the water and were floating downstream toward the sea, where she supposed their next adventure would be serving as the playthings of dolphins. She supposed it as fitting a fate as any.

After a while Monica picked up one of the tiny ones that had landed on the shore, which, judging by its size, could not have been more than six months old. She spoke to it, asking if it could say anything to her that would help her to help them, or at the very least, explain just what, in any of their short lives, had embittered them so much that they had to turn to violence. Naturally it didn’t answer. She asked if there was anything it could tell her that could help her understand her own daughter, who was so close to being too large to live at home. Again, it didn’t answer. Tears sprung to her eyes and she cried, At least you could move! At least you could have an adventure! But no reply was forthcoming and in a fit of rage and resentment she tossed the infant into the river, somehow unsurprised when it didn’t land with a single splash but instead skipped over the waves, landing here and there but between those moments of impact remaining in flight, like something defiant and free.

* * * *

Nine months later, the very last shape-child—a random squiggle, like a strip of twisted macaroni—was born in Jakarta. Baby-shaped babies filled the Earth again. It’s worth noting that nobody ever came up with any reasonable scientific or theological explanation for the nearly two decades that saw such a drastic change in Mankind’s reproductive output; nor did it seem all that important, as long as it never happened again. Explanations are perhaps best left to the philosophers, who persist in seeking meaning even for those of life’s mysteries that remain random, or pointless, or so subtle in their inner workings that examining them is as destructive to the wonder itself as scattering the components of a pocket watch.

For all of us, meaning arrives in installments. It might be actual and it might be wishful thinking. We can only report the facts and hope that they provide closure.

To wit:

Many years later, a rented car drives across the desert, taking a unmarked exit off the paved road to a dirt trail that carries its lone driver past some low hills to a hidden valley on the other side. Trailing a cloud of dust like a comet trail, it passes a little-used gate and descends into a vast caldera that, from a distance, looks like a recent settlement constructed in haste, with prefabricated buildings. It is in fact one of many around the world. Sprinklers water the immobile cubes, spheres, and squiggles, making rainbows in the air that, left to its own design, would be dusty and arid.

The car parks in a place that has been marked off for that purpose and out of it emerges a silver-haired, but still energetic, woman, squinting at the harsh desert sun. She looks out upon the survivors of a generation, the biggest of which are now three times her own height but which remain as voiceless and without affect as they ever were. Donning a pair of mirrored sunglasses, she sighs and makes her way down to the orderly paths past a very small number of other visitors, finally reaching a certain cube among many, that she has visited so many times she could probably find it in her sleep. No one other than her could see anything about this particular shape, which now towers over her like a monument, that could possibly distinguish it from all the others in its row or the rows that bracket it. But she smiles sadly when she sees it. To her, the shape before her has an individual character different from all the others. It is a person.

To be sure, Di also shows some of the ravages of time. The side facing east shows some sun-damage, and a swath of the side facing north shows some bad discoloration left over from the last time she needed to be sand-blasted for graffiti. But she thrums as always in the presence of her mother, who places a single wrinkled hand against her side and speaks words very much like those she’s uttered on any number of other visits. We do not need to know exactly what the silver-haired woman says. We can likely already imagine it, and reconstruct its meaning if not the actual words. What she says is not clever and it is not significant, and it will never appear in any book. But it fulfills its purpose, breaking the silence and ameliorating the harshness of the desert air.

Eventually, though, it’s time for the visit to end. The silver-haired woman whispers a few final words, lets her right hand brush the side of the vast shape before her, and turns to leave. Always, before, she never turned back. But today something—perhaps maternal instinct, or perhaps a voice that only she can hear—makes her turn before she has traversed twenty paces. And this time she sees something in her strange daughter that she has never witnessed before: an alteration in the nearest of her previously, featureless faces. It’s a rectangular opening, seven feet tall and three feet wide, extending upward from the patch of dirt that has become Di’s permanent home.

The silver-haired woman returns to what she has no trouble recognizing as a doorway, and runs her fingers up and down the jamb, filled with wonder at its sudden appearance. She turns away from it and peers up and down the path between the other children of her daughter’s generation, to make certain that nobody is watching. As it happens, nobody is. Di has chosen the perfect moment. This gesture is only meant for one.

The silver-haired woman cannot see anything past the opening but darkness, not even when she removes her sunglasses and shades her eyes from the glare. The precise nature of the answers to be found inside are not available to her, not out here. But she senses no threat: just the welcome the young are supposed to extend to the old, when the most inexorable of life’s many passages transfers the responsibility from one to the other.

With another glance up and down the row, just to be sure that she remains unobserved, the silver-haired woman murmurs the first words she has been ever been able to speak in response to an act Di has committed out of personal volition. “All right,” she says. “Good girl.”

Then she takes the first step, and her daughter lets her in.

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015

This story also appears in the BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2015, edited by Joe Hill (guest editor) and John Joseph Adams (series editor). Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to SPY magazine in 1987. His 26 books to date include four Spider-Man novels, 3 novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and 6 middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. The penultimate installment in the series, Gustav Gloom and the Inn of Shadows (Grosset and Dunlap) came out in August 2015. The finale appeared in August 2016. Adam’s darker short fiction for grownups is highlighted by his most recent collection, Her Husband’s Hands And Other Stories (Prime Books). Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). He lives in Florida with his wife Judi and either three or four cats, depending on what day you’re counting and whether Gilbert’s escaped this week.