Science Fiction & Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner_Final_Lightspeed Oct 2018

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Fiction

Webs

The suns were setting over Ariel’s cliffs, a great blaze of crimson and gold, when the first pounding came at Anna’s door. The stories from old Earth talked about the glories of their sunsets, but they were nothing, nothing, to the drama of Ariel’s twin suns. And yet, it wasn’t the sunsets that brought people to Ariel, that had brought her and her husband, all those years ago.

Bam-bam-bam! No polite neighbor knock, but desperation in the hammer of fist against metal. Anna had taken three steps across the small room, automatically, but now she hesitated. She’d been watching the news for hours, and though nothing dramatic had happened yet, the newscasters sounded tense. They spoke in short, clipped sentences, and their eyes flickered up and down and away, as if they were monitoring a dozen developing situations, just waiting for something to break. The air felt thick, almost too thick to breathe—it was a good flying night, the kind her husband had loved.

No one would be flying tonight; no one with any sense. They were all at home, with the doors locked. She was alone in her little house, had been for years. It wasn’t smart to open up to strangers.

“Anna, please!”

They weren’t strangers, of course. She sighed and touched the panel to signal the door. It slid open obediently, revealing the people standing outside. Javier and Katya, her next door neighbors, and little Sara. She had watched this child grow up.

“What do you want?” Her voice came out harsher than she intended it, and Sara shrank back. Anna hadn’t meant to frighten the girl, but it wasn’t surprising—she hadn’t really spoken to her in years. She tried to gentle her tone. “I was about to go to bed.”

Katya said, “We received word from friends; there’s going to be another riot. They say it’ll be bad, that they have lists of the gliders.”

Anna’s heartbeat sped up a little. “Medical records are confidential.”

Javier said, “The pro-human faction has been lobbying against the gliders, against us, for a long time. It just takes one person in the government willing to turn over the notes on which of us has had the genetic modifications. Not that it isn’t obvious to anyone with eyes.”

He gestured, and Anna’s eyes were drawn to the webbing between his fingers, the larger web between arm and side, only partly disguised by the cut of his shirt. With those webs, and the bones he’d had modified to be lighter, on a good night, Javier could cast himself off from the cliff tops of Ariel, catch air currents, and glide long and slow. As close as humans had come to true flight. Her husband had flown like that, so often.

“Not all modifications are so obvious,” Anna said. Most humans had some mods, of course—the basic contagious disease mods were government-provided and mandatory, and almost everyone who could afford it selected better health for their children, and often a little extra beauty or height, too. Some went further, with both visible and invisible mods, and until recently, most of galactic society had taken such modifications in stride. But there was a rising wave of “pure human” sentiment, and Ariel’s gliders had become one of the targets in recent months. Perhaps it was envy—those who were afraid to fly raging at those who had dared to give themselves wings. Perhaps it was something else—Anna wasn’t sure it mattered. What mattered was that people were dying. Three riots so far, each one escalating in scope. The last one had burned out a city block; hundreds of gliders had died.

Katya reached a hand out, upturned, pleading. “That’s why we’re here. For Sara. Can we talk?”

Anna wanted to slide the door shut in their faces. But the girl’s eyes were wide and scared. Sara was trying to be brave, but this wasn’t normal, and at seven, she was old enough to know that. She should be having dinner now, maybe watching a holo and getting ready for bed. Not banging on a neighbor’s door while the sky darkened overhead. Anna sighed. “Come in, then.”

• • • •

Anna had been standing on her back step, surveying the garden at her new house, when she’d first met Katya. She was trying to decide what to do with the plantings—the previous owner had had a fondness for bright colors, and the yard was a riot of reds and oranges and yellows. Earth plants adapted well to Ariel; blazing roses and tall sunflowers dominated the yard. It was all a bit intense for Anna, quite the change from the grey station corridors she’d lived in all her life. She was tempted to rip it all out and plant something blue and prickly instead. She’d need to do research; she’d never planted anything in her life.

“Hello!” The woman stood on the far side of the wooden fence that delineated their property line, waving a cheerful gloved hand, holding a gardening trowel. Anna felt a cautious surge of optimism. Perhaps this woman would be a friend. Perhaps she’d teach her how to keep plants alive.

“I’m Anna,” she said, walking across the grass, wondering if she were killing anything as she went. There were little flowers under her feet, small and fragile. She reached out a hand across the low fence, and the woman reached for her, and then laughed and paused, switching the trowel to her left hand, pulling off her muddy glove, revealing slender fingers and the webs between them. Anna forced herself to keep reaching out, to meet them, palm to palm, clasped together.

She should be used to the webbing by now, since her husband’s transition, but still, the gliders’ more obvious physical attributes sometimes repulsed her. Like bats, or frogs, the sorts of things that lived in dank places, musty and animalistic.

“Katya. And my husband is Javier, and the baby is Sara.” She gestured toward the back deck, and there the child was, a little bundle of brown cheeks and enormous eyes. Anna felt it, like a punch in the gut, the longing that rose up in a tidal wave. This was why they were here; this was the deal. A child for her, a child of her own body, and wings for her husband. She had left the safety of the station, the only world she had ever known, to come to this piece of dirt, this rock tethered to two flaming balls of gas.

“My husband is Piotr. We’ve recently moved to Ariel, and he’s just finished his transition. He’s wanted to be a glider for many years, but it took us a while to get the money together.” It cost so much more to make genetic modifications as an adult, and you were never sure it was going to work. But nothing in life was certain, and Piotr had wanted this so badly.

“Has he been out yet?”

“Just once, on the training cliff.” The look on his face, when he cast off, was just glorious enough to balance the fear churning in her gut.

Katya nodded. “He’ll be looking for teachers, then. We’d be happy to take him out on the cliffs; we just need to line up a babysitter.”

“I could watch her,” Anna offered, shyly.

“You don’t fly?”

Anna shook her head, more fiercely than was perhaps warranted. But the thought of it repulsed her—months of pain as the body rearranged itself, bones leaching away to be lighter, skin stretching. She’d watched Piotr, had supported her husband as best she could through the process. She couldn’t bear to go through it all herself. And maybe it was because she’d grown up on a station, in space—she’d spent her entire life flying. Anna felt no need to throw her physical body off a cliff.

“It’s not for me,” was all she said, in that first meeting, though in the following few years, she would discuss the subject, and so many more, with Katya, sometimes over that same fence, sometimes over a pot of tea, or a bundle of knitting or sewing. Little sweaters, tiny shirts. They could get whatever they needed extruded from central store, of course, but there was something special about the handmade. Babies wouldn’t appreciate it, but someday, they’d grow, and they’d know their mothers spent time and effort and love, making something beautiful to wrap their tender bodies in.

Katya asked, her tone hesitant, careful—“And you and your husband don’t have children?”

“Not yet.” And the two women smiled at each other, sharing the moment of something beginning. Friendship, perhaps. Hope.

• • • •

They’d sent Sara off to the kitchen table with some coloring sheets and markers, which would keep her reasonably distracted, for the space of a conversation. “Can we sleep here tonight?”

“I don’t have a guest room.” Katya knew that, of course.

“We don’t need much. Javier can go back, get some bedding from our place. We can set up in the basement.”

“It’s not finished; it’s damp down there.” Anna’s heart was racing, and her palms were sweaty; she wiped them, hard, against the sides of her slacks.

Katya’s careful calm cracked a little at that. “Do you think we care? Anna, please. It’s just for tonight. We’re leaving tomorrow—we’ve booked tickets out Rimward.”

“You can’t—the gravity will crush you.” Not literally, not right away, but with their lighter bones and adapted lungs, they’d struggle on a normal world. Every step would be like walking through sludge. “You can’t do that to Sara.”

“Maybe we can find jobs on one of the lower-gravity stations. It doesn’t matter; we can’t stay here. We can’t risk it, not with Sara. She doesn’t have any visible mods yet, but puberty is just a few years away. And we don’t think we have that long.”

“It’s not that bad.” Anna said it, knowing it wasn’t true. Piotr should be safe enough, as safe as he could be, on the other side of the planet, living in an all-glider community he’d joined after leaving her. But here, their city was mixed, and gliders wore cloaks in the streets now, in a futile attempt to disguise their webs.

“Easy for you to say!” Katya snapped.

She bit her lip. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea . . .” The wind gusted outside, rattling the windows in their frames.

“Anna. Anna, what have I ever done to you?” A world of hurt in those words, not just for tonight, but for the friendship broken, abandoned. It wasn’t Katya’s fault, of course; it wasn’t anybody’s fault. But sometimes, you needed someone to blame.

Anna was pregnant at Sara’s first birthday party. It was early days yet, but after a solid year of trying, she couldn’t help but tell her best friend. They’d blown up balloons, spread icing on cupcakes, making plans for when the girls (the fetus was female) would grow up together. Two years apart was a perfect spacing, they’d agreed—near enough to share closeness, far enough that they wouldn’t be competitive. When Anna lost the baby a few days later, Katya had gotten her drunk on homemade dandelion wine and the story of her own miscarriage, before Sara came along. A few days of sadness, and then Anna was past it, or mostly. Looking forward to the future.

By that point, Piotr and Javier had finally bonded as well—it had taken a while, but they’d discovered a shared love of twentieth-century Earth poetry, and would spend hours arguing over the relative merits of Fellner and Coviello while their wives blithely ignored them. Anna and Katya’s conversations veered wildly between the domestic and the technical; Anna’s field of engine design overlapped more than one might expect with Katya’s work in planetary ecology—the specifics were different, but there were patterns that correlated surprisingly well. And it was always good to have someone outside the field to bounce your more radical ideas off. Occasionally they’d invite others to their dinner parties, but most often they were a cozy fivesome, with Sara the star of the show.

It started falling apart when Sara was three—two more miscarriages by then, and the doctors were starting to say ominous things. No one ever promised you that you’d be able to carry a child to term. Anna knew that, of course she knew that. She’d signed every informed consent form they pushed in front of her, had known the odds. For enough money, they would retro-engineer an entire female body for her, make every trace of her original male form disappear. But the doctors, the gene techs, the medical establishment—they still hadn’t quite mastered the complexity of human conception and gestation. Even if you were born female, there were no guarantees.

You could throw as much money as you wanted at the problem—and Piotr and Anna had thrown all they had, to get the best doctors they could for her transition. She had loved him so much then—Piotr had fallen in love with what he’d thought was another man, with Matthew, but then kept loving the person inside the body, as he became she. Piotr had supported Anna wholeheartedly through the process, and then they’d sold their comfortable apartment, given up their prized central space on the station, moved to Ariel, so he could have his heart’s desire, too. Anna had made it through, all the way, or so she’d thought, and they had come here, to start a family the old-fashioned way. The doctors had said, Well, if it doesn’t work out, there are always other options. She hadn’t listened, hadn’t wanted to believe. The odds were in her favor; it would almost certainly work. And then it didn’t.

The fifth and final one was the worst—Anna had made it all the way to twenty-two weeks, had started to show, had even started wearing maternity clothes, a little appalled at her own daring, but happy, so happy. She had never managed to garden, and the backyard had turned into rather a mess, but they’d cut a gate in the fence, and Sara loved to run in, strong four-year-old legs churning, to play in Aunty Anna’s wild jungle. The child was there when it happened, and everyone else was out, so that Anna had to stifle the moans when the wracking cramps hit, the gush of fluids staining her pants, the chair, the deck beneath her. She shouted for Sara to stay outside, that she’d be back soon, and then staggered inside to lose her last child in blood and pain and misery. This one, she had even named. Too early, much too early, but she had dared to hope and been punished.

• • • •

She hadn’t been able to bear Sara’s presence after that—the families’ time together had quickly tapered off. Javier had added a latch to lock the gate, and dinners became separate affairs. But it wasn’t Katya’s fault. Anna bowed her head and gave in to the inevitable; decency would allow nothing else, no matter the risk. “You three take my bed. I’ll sleep on the couch.”

Javier and Katya made only token protests—it would be better for Sara to sleep comfortably between her parents in a nice bed, rather than huddling in a dank basement. They took a hurried simple meal together, Anna only pretending to eat for the child’s sake, and then retired to the bedroom. Katya paused before closing the door, her face asking a question—did Anna want to talk, finally?

Anna knew she should reach out, should offer some apology for the silent years. Not an explanation—Katya would know why she’d pulled away. They were leaving, they’d be gone at the dawn light. Two years of silence and now a final chance to break it. But Anna turned away, and the door shut behind her, slow and certain, like the falling of a coffin lid.

• • • •

That was how her marriage had ended too, slow and certain, though she hadn’t seen it at first. It was tempting to blame the miscarriages, to say Piotr had left her for them, but the facts didn’t bear the weight of that conclusion.

“We can adopt, or use a surrogate. There are other options, Anna!” He didn’t start out yelling at her—the conversations had been quiet at first, supportive. But as the months and years rolled on, and their child receded further and further into the distance, Piotr began to crack, like an engine too long neglected. And he was right, but she couldn’t do it. Anna couldn’t give up on the dream, not yet.

So she became quieter and quieter, and he raged more and more. Until finally one day, Anna had said, “I just want some peace and quiet around here.”

“Fine. I can give you that, at least.” And he’d walked out the door, letting it slide closed behind him, and she could have wished for an old-fashioned door to bang shut. A marriage deserved that much punctuation. Even though he’d left empty-handed, Anna had known that Piotr wouldn’t be back. She’d punctiliously sold his things over the next month, calculated the worth of the house, transferred half of their net worth to his personal account; in return, he’d sent her a forwarding address for his mail.

• • • •

Anna stood in her kitchen, sipping a cup of coffee, staring out the window at the wildness of jungle-yard. It seemed like rain should fall, should curtain the darkness of this night, but the sky refused to break, to grant that release. Just the wind, even harder now, sending plastic pots skittering across the yard, tearing tender vines from their supports.

She’d said she’d sleep on the couch, but Anna had no intention of sleeping tonight. She doubted Katya and Javier were sleeping either, but they could monitor the net from the bedroom screens as well as she could out here. It was three hours past sunset when the thick tension erupted in what were at first isolated incidents of violence. It started at a shop that sold glider accessories, wings that some used to extend their strength and reach, though the purist gliders sneered at that. The windows were broken, the shop set aflame, and then the fire spread impossibly fast. Her stomach churned, watching the violence on the screens. The thugs dragged gliders from their homes, sliced the webbing and sliced their necks, too. One city block, then another, and the police kept showing up too late, always a step behind. The firefighters couldn’t keep up with the flames.

Anyone who grew up on a station had a justifiable terror of fire; fire suppression systems were some of the most critical, linked intimately with the essential air. Anna would have thought that fire would be less frightening on a planet’s surface, but no—it might not move quite as fast, but it came on, unstoppable, with the force of fear and rage behind it. Only a tenth or so of Ariel’s population were humod gliders; the rest had settled for other reasons—for jobs or family or had just been born and raised there. Three generations in was plenty of time for a planet’s worth of prejudices to grow and add fuel to the flames. Every human who felt life hadn’t given them all they wanted, all they needed, all they deserved, found a convenient target in the humods. The gliders were freaks, and selfish, too, diverting resources a young colony world could have used for planetary development to their own individual pleasures.

What would Anna do, if they ever came for her? It wasn’t likely. She’d lived as a woman for a decade now, indistinguishable from those born female. Even the failure of her reproductive organs wasn’t enough to give her away; women throughout history had endured their bodies’ betrayals in that regard. Only if they looked at the records would they know.

The gliders couldn’t go back. Their change was irreversible, at least to modern science—you could slash the webs, but the bones, once lightened, would not easily gain mass again. On the screen, she watched the carnage in the streets, coming closer with every hour—it was appallingly easy, it turned out, to snap a glider’s bones. Not quite the job for one person, but take two individuals of strong and passionate will, give each a firm grip and something to brace against and oh—you could practically hear the crack through the screen, through the roaring and the screams.

She could go back, at least in theory. That was in the consent forms, too, the ones that she had signed, when she was Matthew. Anna pulled a scarf from the wall hook, draped it around her chest, pulled it taut, flattening her breasts. Could she survive giving them up? They hadn’t been much use to her, in the end. She could slim her hips, grow a beard, slide her voice down a few registers. It hadn’t been so bad, living as Matthew; she could have lived the rest of her life as him, had a good marriage to Piotr, had a successful career. But that body had felt wrong, as if every breath, every step had subtly, disturbingly, gone awry.

Anna couldn’t go back, she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t throw her neighbors out into the night either, to take their chances in the dark. The coffee cup was empty. She hung the scarf up again, tidily, and went to make another cup. Two more hours ’til morning. Despite the warmth of the cup in her hands, her fingers were cold, like ice.

• • • •

It was almost dawn when the second pounding came at her door. Anna walked from the kitchen down the hall, past the bedroom with its closed door and her neighbors undoubtedly awake on the other side of it, past her workroom and toilet and the dining room, finally emerging into the open front room—a walk she’d done a million times in seconds, but tonight it seemed to take forever, each step falling heavy and final. Oh, she loved this little house, this life, even if it hadn’t been everything she’d imagined. Even in its brokenness, it was hers, and Anna was not ready to let it go.

Bang bang bang—not a hand this time, something strong and metal and solid. Anna opened the door, unsure of her ability to act, but sure they would batter it down if she didn’t. A dozen people with weapons in hand—her poor door was nowhere near strong enough to bear that stress. They were wet; it had finally started raining, but just a drizzle. Not enough to put out the flames.

They muscled their way into the front room, pushing her back. “Show us your hands!”

Anna spread them out, mutely, spread her arms wide. Free of webbing, of any visible marker.

“Strip her!”

She should have been expecting this—some geneticists had been experimenting recently with true wings, springing from the bones of the spine. Anna tried to forestall them, reaching to remove her shirt, but before she could do more than get her fingers curled around the fabric, one of them was slamming her down, face flat against the entry table, tearing the back of her shirt open. Nothing to see, of course.

They let her up, and Anna clutched the remnants of her shirt to her chest at first—then let it drop to the floor, baring her breasts. If they were going to act like animals, let them see the results. She could feel blood trickling down the side of her cheek—she must have cut her face when she hit the table. Some had the grace to glance away, ashamed.

“Sorry, sorry, ma’am.”

Another growled, “Don’t apologize to her. No one home next door—I bet the humod-lover has them hidden here. Two gliders registered, fully certified.”

Oh. A burst of comprehension, like lightning cutting through the dullness of despair. Those were the lists they had. Not the full medical records—just the flight records. Anyone could jump off a cliff; no one would stop you. But if you wanted to train others, you needed to go through a program, be certified. Javier and Katya would be listed—but not Sara, not yet. No webs, no visible markers—unless they actually picked her up and felt the lightness of her, they’d have no way of knowing . . .

Before Anna could say or decide anything, her neighbors emerged from the darkness of the hallway, blinking into the light.

“Leave her alone,” Javier said gruffly. “We’re here. We made her hide us.”

Two adults—no child. Javier stared straight ahead, but Katya’s eyes locked on hers, begging for help. Anna stared straight back, desperate for their old communion again. Five years of friendship, two years of silence—were the connections still there? Each conversation a slender filament, binding the two of them together in what, it turned out, was still a perfect web of understanding when it counted. I will take care of her for you. Anna could see it in the minute relaxation, the shift in the set of Katya’s shoulders, as they grabbed her, pulled her with Javier out of the house, into the night. She had no power to save them; Anna fisted her hands at her sides, willing herself to hold together, just until the thugs were out the door.

One of the men stopped on the threshold, halfway in, halfway out. “Is there anyone else in the house?” His voice loud, demanding, sure in its righteousness.

Anna set her voice as steady as she could. “Just my daughter; she’s sleeping.”

He turned to another, the leader, perhaps. “Should we bring her out?”

The second man shrugged. “We’re not barbaric; we don’t visit the sins of the parent on the child. But give this traitor bitch something to remember us by.” And a weapon barrel slammed into Anna’s face, knocking her to the floor.

The door slid closed behind them, and outside, the screaming began, muffled only a little by walls and door. Oh, my friend. Anna’s chest ached, sharply, as if someone had reached in, grabbed it, yanked it out again. In the bedroom, Sara started crying: soft, but audible to the ears of a mother.

Mary Anne Mohanraj

Mary Anne Mohanraj wrote and edited Bodies in Motion (finalist for the Asian American Book Awards), The Stars Change (Lambda & Rainbow finalist), and eleven other titles. Mohanraj founded Strange Horizons and was Guest of Honor at WisCon 2010. She is Executive Director of the Speculative Literature Foundation, has taught at the Clarion SF/F workshop, and is Clinical Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Other recent publications include stories for George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series, chapters for Ellen Kushner’s Tremontaine at Serial Box, and stories at Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Lightspeed. Recent and forthcoming books include Survivor (a SF/F anthology, co-edited with JJ Pionke), Invisible 3 (co-edited with Jim C. Hines), and Perennial (a breast cancer memoir/romance).