Lorrie stood inches from the curved one-way mirror, her eyes following the motions of what she suspected was a human child. For starters, as he weaved through the bars of the jungle gym, the inverted swing set, and the scent slides, she hadn’t once detected the too-familiar blur. His body seemed neither to exceed nor fall short of the parameter she projected.
But what really tipped her off was his hair: red. His playground companions’ blurred outer or inner projected parameters passed through rope, playmates’ hips and heads, and smeared with the inhuman colors underneath. Excluding projection glitches, they all had dimpled chins and wide eyes the color of loam-rich soil matching their wavy hair exactly.
The motion of the swings betrayed feelers, quadruple-jointed limbs, or the sheen of a mucus shell. Lorrie watched as the redhead hung from a web of what looked like overdone noodles. She willed him to make his way to the swings. Then she’d know for certain.
Lorrie blinked and felt the corrective lenses scrape against her inner lids. Perhaps it wasn’t the motion of the swings that was tripping her projections. It was past time that the Council gave her another pair. After all, they were never intended for use past the initial three months.
Or, thought Lorrie, watching as the trap door below the observational playroom opened, they could approve her request for a more permanent solution. The procedure was so routine that it could be performed while she was in bed at home, though it would require sedation. She shuddered, remembering the last time she had gone under.
She watched as adoption agents motioned to a figure at play. It stopped and followed them under. They closed the door after them which ushered in a hushed din around the circular confines of the darkened, crowded reception room.
Over the reception room whispers, Lorrie picked out Paulo mumbling in a clipped combination of human chords and gurgling whirs he was incapable of making on his own. Lorrie blanched. Here was one of humanity’s Rank Negotiators. Reversing humankind’s downward spiral in the Interspecific Council’s Taxonomic Ranks and the resulting decline in allotted privileges and resources depended on Paulo and his bungling coworkers.
Humankind’s last respectable Rank had been earned after the invention of the twenty-plus year old vocal converter that clung to Paulo’s thin throat. A modern marvel of technology when Lorrie and Paulo’s rocket launched, it had since been replaced by surgical solutions.
From the time Lorrie and Paulo had launched to the time they had landed, the vocal converter and the species responsible for its invention had been blamed for the Mistranslation That Launched a Thousand Spaceships, and high ranking human Rank Negotiators chose expatriation on a tropical dwarf planet over the PR nightmare that hung daily over Paulo.
“What do they look like to you?” asked Lorrie more from a desire to get him to stop gurgling, than from any real interest. The reception room was crowded, but she doubted many of its occupants had their sensory translators set to detect Human Pidgin. That required customization thought Lorrie, grimacing. Two decades ago, it would have ranked among the manufacturer’s default settings.
“Potential sons and daughters,” said Paulo from his seat. The vocal converter accentuated the glottal stops.
She ran some bio system calculations mentally. Nothing exact, not without access to more exact measurements in the redhead’s caloric intake, gastric functions, physical measurements, cardiovascular performance…
“Paulo, you’re contraption’s still on,” said Lorrie. She tore her eyes from where the redhead further tangled his limbs in noodles.
“I’ve got a meeting with the delegates from,” the contraption interpreted the species name in its ear-splitting language, “in three days,” said Paulo. He patted the seat next to his. He’d let her have the seat that didn’t share a side with a stranger.
To his left, a hulking humanoid projection sat, his false head resting on his hand, staring at the young bodies at play.
“And that’s where vocal converters come in handy,” said Lorrie, sitting. In a matter of moments, her chair conformed to her size.
The child still struggled in the noodles. She wondered if they had run brain scans. She’d be sure to order them up first thing. And a saline drip, she thought, remembering how dehydrated her body had become after their journey.
“I’m not leaving the future of interspecific relations entrusted to those hunks of orbital debris. I shudder to think what could be lost in translation. Plus,” said Paulo, pinching the nape of Lorrie’s neck with his bony fingers, “I plan on wooing the delegates with my firm grasp of their native tongue.”
Paulo shut off the contraption, pulled out his lone ear piece, and rolled up his techpad, tucking it in his shirt pocket. “The real question, plum, is, what do you see? What’s your pleasantly familiar figure?” he said, using the corrective lens brand’s tagline. He jabbed her in the side with his elbow. “Mini versions of me?”
“Earth’s crust, no,” said Lorrie. “I wouldn’t will that on anyone, even subconsciously,” she said and smiled.
Paulo returned her smile with his new laugh. Since landing, his laugh had grown louder, as if he had never meant it on Earth.
She gritted her smiling teeth. Let him believe what he wants, thought Lorrie. The children, the hulking humanoid on Paulo’s right, and the other bodies fidgeting in their many-sized seats, none of them had Paulo’s knobby knees and bushy brows; none had his lean, weak-chinned face or his protruding ears.
Her projections had stouter builds, dark wide eyes, and dimpled chins. When they smiled with crooked teeth, she was reminded of autumn nights back on Earth: the bitter-sweet taste of honeysuckle; the smell of the rocket fuel refinery in the distance; and the feel of Roman’s hand, dirt underneath fingernails, on her goose-bumped thigh.
Lorrie wondered if she would have seen Paulo if they had never endured two decades of semi-suspended animation.
The boy had untangled his limbs from the noodles and joined in on a playground game which involved intervals of standing on his head and tucking himself into a rolling ball.
She cringed as his rolling body collided into a projection’s blurred parameter. Of course, his play dates would be strictly monitored to minimize contact with nonhuman excrement which could contaminate the data and completely unhinge the input-output systems.
“What?” asked Lorrie, twitching in her seat and twisting to look at Paulo.
“What?” asked Paulo. He had unrolled his techpad and resumed his mumbled gurgling without Lorrie noticing. He pulled out his ear piece.
A voice over the speaker called a name. Moments later, a trio of bodies whose projected parameters were so blurred, Lorrie guessed they stood half the height of the smallest human shape her subconscious could muster, came into view from around the curved mirrored glass. The three bodies exited the reception area.
“Those three came in after us,” said Lorrie.
“Well, if they did, it’s probably an honest mistake. There are more here than usual,” said Paulo. He glanced around the reception area as if just realizing it.
“No, they are making us wait longer on purpose. We’ll be the last ones in here, mark my words,” said Lorrie.
“You know, I think I saw our neighbor by the vending machines,” said Paulo.
“Can’t be, it’s too busy watering its precious pusback plants.”
“Lorrie,” said Paulo, frowning. He glanced around the reception area.
“I know the beast’s siphoning our water rations,” said Lorrie.
“I had such high hopes that the two of you would be good friends. What, with all you have in common, both of you in the hatchling Caregiver Program,” said Paulo.
“That’s all we have in common. And since when do you say hatchling?” asked Lorrie.
“Lorrie, if we’re going to succeed here, we’ve got to negotiate,” said Paulo. “We can’t just think about our own comfort.”
“And that’s exactly the kind of attitude hurting human rankings…”
“Lorrie,” said Paulo. He rolled up his techpad and tucked it in his shirt pocket.
“…You think the billions of humans will be comfortable…”
“Lorrie,” said Paulo. He put a hand on Lorrie’s. She could see where the bones lay. She pulled away.
“Let me finish,” she said. “…when they are devalued into the ranks of Edible Taxa?” asked Lorrie.
“You finished?” asked Paulo.
“I’m sure I can think of something else to say on the matter,” said Lorrie.
“They’ve called our names,” said Paulo, standing. He was smiling. Lorrie wondered what level of meltdown she’d have to reach before he’d wipe the grin from his face.
Lorrie looked past his bony shoulder and saw an adoption agent standing in the doorway, its exterior parameter blurring a halo around its body.
When they entered the agent’s office, Paulo turned his back to it, shoved his hands in the crook of both armpits and arched his back, proffering his bald spot.
Paulo had once told her that the greeting was usually performed by Antropod young, those too young to have developed the pustular fungal growths across their backs.
Adults would rub their backs into the pockmarked walls, leaving traces behind to merge and grow into what Lorrie had first thought was shag carpet.
Lorrie looked away and wondered how long she could feign ignorance of Colony customs before she was expected to join along. By then, she’d have custody and the question of impressing the adoption agency would be irrelevant. But until then, this agent was what stood in the way from fulfilling her caregiver training. She’d play along.
Their agent returned the gesture of greeting, moving with a de-boned fluidity that didn’t quite translate into the figure it projected.
The agency offices had begun to take on an aura of feeble familiarity. The same faded advertisement urged her to “Consider Interspecific Adoption.” The same walls overgrown with fuzzy muck reached out to her. The same sticky particle chair met her with its sand-like embrace.
The branching shape of the agent’s chair gave Lorrie further clues into its true form.
The agent screeched; “How can I help you?” said the vocal converter.
Let the ritual begin, thought Lorrie. She tried to sit up straight, but her sand blob chair fought her, so she settled for a refined slouch.
“We’re ready to adopt,” said Lorrie.
The projection tugged at its eyelids.
Lorrie wondered if the misinterpreted gesture was the equivalent of an eye roll.
The problem with projections was that they functioned as literal translators. If a member of the Antropod Taxon clicked its pinchers, its human projection snapped–and those actions had two very different meanings.
“Your Status IDs,” said the adoption agent.
Paulo took Lorrie’s ID and inserted it into the desk next to his. Lorrie caught a brief glimpse at their ID pictures, rows of medical records, security clearances, and credentials etched out in Human Pidgin before the adoption agent switched to its own native script. No matter how much Lorrie squinted, she couldn’t make sense of where one symbol ended and the other began. To her, it looked like an endless chain of crooked-armed starfish.
But it must have made sense to their adoption agent, because after a few moments of skimming the script, it spoke, “How long have you been together?”
“Twenty-two glorious years,” said Paulo, using that same worn joke.
“One Earth year prior to our departure,” said Lorrie, “and eighty-nine Earth days since.”
The agent paused, probably converting the time difference. “I see,” said the adoption agent. “And in that time, you’ve failed to adopt a hatchling?”
“That is correct,” said Lorrie. “On Earth, I ranked highest in my…”
“I understand what I read in your credentials,” said the agent.
“Then you must understand how anxious we are to adopt soon,” said Lorrie, “and you can imagine how perturbed we have beco…”
Paulo put a hand on Lorrie’s knee. “I’m sure there’s a perfectly good reason, perhaps a little glitch in the system’s records…”
“Yes, I’d just love a crack at what this place calls systems.”
The agent dipped its hand into the goo vat perched on its desk then plunged its arm through its sternum. The projection wavered and blurred as the arm disappeared from fingertip to elbow.
Lorrie wondered whether it was snacking or moisturizing. She couldn’t decide which was ruder. “I’m not leaving here until we are assigned a child,” said Lorrie.
The agent’s projection moved her dull, brown eyes that looked nothing like Roman’s despite the resemblance, focusing attention to Paulo.
“I’ll look for that glitch, Mr. Tambor,” said the agent. She pulled out her glistening arm and pulled up the Status ID which jumped from Human Pidgin to crooked-armed starfish runes.
“Ah, you’ve failed to complete the questionnaire,” said the adoption agent. It flipped the text back to Human Pidgin.
Lorrie leaned forward. A buzzing noise filled her head as she struggled to read the words in front of her. It couldn’t have been that simple, a clerical error, nothing more. How would he react, that little redheaded child stuck in the noodles, when the adoption agents brought him through the trap door and brought him to her? Would he run to her, arms wide, or stare shyly at his feet?
The seventy-fifth question of the questionnaire hung before her: Which species would you consider adopting?
The adoption agent was pointing. “See, here, you’ve left this one incomplete.”
Lorrie’s mouth felt dry. The redheaded boy was shrinking into the recesses of her mind. “That information is correct,” said Lorrie.
“Ah, so you’ve heard about the latest in-bound rocket from Earth with life support systems programmed to prioritize the lives of the juveniles at the expense of the adults?” said the agent.
“It is our intention to adopt a human child,” said Lorrie.
“You and most everyone else waiting in the reception area,” said the agent, “What makes you more qualified than all the others? What makes you more qualified than the Tetrapod whose careful implementation of his biological system analyses successfully brought six numbers of Cephalopod, sixteen Eutardigrada, and two Pantopoda into full maturation?”
“Now,” said the agent, pulling up images over Lorrie’s files. Lorrie swallowed the taste of bile that crept its way up her throat. Corrective lens were only useful in disguising the identities of living forms, not their photographic representations.
The images swam before Lorrie unfiltered. Squat, flabby, pustular bodies with uncertain appendages gaped back.
“These younglings are more suited for someone with your experience. Training will only take you so far when cultivating. Once you’ve proven you can cultivate a hatchling into maturation, well, then we can discuss organisms with more…delicate dispositions,” said the agent.
Her brown eyes flicked to Lorrie’s hair.
Lorrie fought the urge to pat it down. The journey had stripped her hair of its body and pigmentation in uneven swatches. With so few remaining human Rank Negotiators, their rocket was reprogrammed to prioritize Paulo’s health and survival, at her expense if necessary.
“Delicate?” asked Lorrie.
“It’s unknown what degrees of physical stress these children have endured during their journey. They’ve no regenerative abilities to speak of, meaning even the minutest of slip-ups in systems calculations can turn fatal. For Status sake, they’ll only have two sets of teeth, and those teeth are structured on hydroxyapatite!” said the agent, tittering.
“She’s got a point there, plum,” said Paulo, chuckling. Before Lorrie could stop him, he stuck his teeth out, prodding at a top canine and pulling out a section of partial dentures. “Lost these tripping up Lorrie’s front porch steps,” he said, the words whistling through the gap. “Probably wasn’t how she’d envisioned our first date,” he said, winking at Lorrie.
The agent nodded as if that settled matters. “Right, organisms of the mammalian persuasion are better left in the care of more practiced appendages.” She flipped through more images.
The creatures looked like they’d be more at home in deep sea trenches than in Lorrie’s living room.
“These available hatchlings will have matured three to ten times over in the time it takes the human brain to fully develop. Now, if these hatchlings aren’t to your liking, there’s a new arrival of…”
“In your smug self-importance, have you ever considered that humans may know more about raising humans than you do? You’re too busy handing out the future of my species to the highest bidder. And for what? To be paraded around as status symbols, peculiarities of the latest fad? What happens to those children when the pusba–”
“Lorrie!” said Paulo, “Now, really, that’s enough.” His hand was on her knee, restraining.
Lorrie didn’t bother to swat it away. “–grow tired of their trophies? What happens when the fad grows stale? I’ll tell you what’s going to happen, you’re going to come begging to me, begging to take them off your hands. And on that day, I’ll open the door with open arms, but you’ll never question my qualifications again.”
Lorrie stood, pulled her Status ID from the desk, and turned for the door. She could hear Paulo making hurried apologies in the agent’s native tongue. From the agent’s silence, Lorrie guessed the apologies went unheard.
“You still wear corrective lens,” said the agent.
Lorrie turned, met her stare.
“And you’ve petitioned for a permanent procedure,” said the agent.
“Yes, though I’m made to wait,” said Lorrie, “I’ve become quite used to it.”
“Perhaps you are viewing things from the wrong set of eyes. In my experience, it’s not the hatchlings who do most of the maturation.”
Lorrie wished the agent’s door had hinges. She would have slammed it.
“You want to talk about it?” asked Paulo. It was the first he had spoken, or rather, spoken to her since their conference with the adoption agent. He stood framed in the light of the bathroom doorway, sudsy toothbrush in hand.
Lorrie pulled her eyes away from the one piece of framed art she could afford to bring on the journey. A landscape she had never seen in person–a cottage with trimmed hedges, fountains, statues, flowers. She had trouble deciding what had endeared it to her in the first place. This reminder of Earth now seemed more alien than the Colony.
Lorrie made a noncommittal grunt, shifted the bed sheets around her body, and remembered that she had been holding her techpad.
Paulo had managed to hold his tongue during the long trip home. Lorrie had napped the whole ride, or rather, closed her eyes as she teetered at the boundary of consciousness. She knew she’d pay for it tonight as she did most nights’ fitful unrest. It hadn’t always been like that. On Earth, she approached sleep with the peaceful ignorance of a body unhampered by decades of semi-stasis.
On the trip, she had teetered on the boundary of consciousness and caught snatches of Paulo’s phone calls. His voice had jolted from Human Pidgin to gurgling hisses. She must have looked convincingly unconscious because he hadn’t lowered his voice. The calls were all made on her behalf.
Everything he did was for her, he reminded her daily. Calls made to restore her status scores for character, for agreeability, for tactfulness. There was near nothing she had done since arriving in this Colony, this crude stew of spineless pusbacks and their snotty excretions, that hadn’t been erased, amended, or annotated by Paulo.
His lean face stared at her now. Long thin marks like scratches covered the length of his throat where his vocal converter had clamped down. “We should talk about your outburst,” said Paulo. He set the toothbrush down, un-rinsed, next to his vocal converter. He filled a cup in the sink and dropped in a tablet. It sank to the bottom.
“It won’t happen again,” said Lorrie. She watched as Paulo made his way to her; she watched as his pajamas billowed around his thin legs. After the journey he’d folded over the elastic band and sewed up the excess fabric. The mattress barely yielded as he sat next to her.
“Here,” said Paulo, offering the cup. “You were sleeping on the trip home and you’ll need a full night’s sleep for tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” asked Lorrie.
“It’s been three months, plum,” said Paulo. “The others are starting to talk.”
Lorrie snorted, “Let them.”
“Plum,” said Paulo. He pulled the techpad from her hand and replaced it with the cup. “There are only so many more favors I can call in before your scores start to suffer. I know you’re scared.”
Lorrie wrapped her fingers around the cup. It was warm.
Paulo leaned toward Lorrie and pulled her in an embrace she couldn’t return. The liquid in the cup sloshed a few drops on her pajama top. “But I’m here,” said Paulo. His voice pushed the thin hairs near her ear, tickling.
He pulled away, hands gripping her shoulders, and peered into her eyes. “You’re going to start work at the rocket fuel refinery tomorrow, it’s all been arranged.”
Lorrie snorted. “That’s all they’ll trust us with here?”
“Lorrie, you minored in rocket fuel systems technology,” said Paulo, “We’ve all got to contribute. It’s the only way they’ll see us as anything other than underdeveloped.”
“Oh, so now it’s my fault?” said Lorrie. She plunked the cup down on the bedside table, spilling more in the process. “I’m the reason you bargained away one-tenth of our water allocation rights.”
“Now, Lorrie, let’s not say something you’ll regret come morning” said Paulo. Kneeling on the mattress, he reached over her body toward the cup, his stomach hovering inches above her own. Before the journey, they’d have touched.
“Do you fear regret that much?” asked Lorrie.
“On this colony I do,” said Paulo, “but what frightens me most is how little you fear it.” He handed the cup to Lorrie.
His eyes pleaded with her, his familiar bushy brows raised upright. This man knew her best out of anyone, no matter how poorly.
She took the cup, put it to her lips, and wondered if she’d ever provoke him into fighting back. On that day, the tension would snap and she’d finally be able to rest.
“I think you’ll start seeing things differently tomorrow,” said Paulo, his eyes following the liquid’s downward movement to her mouth. He winked.
Lorrie suspected he’d added in a little pick-me-up for the morning. Hell, she thought, as she felt the sleeping agent kick in, she’d need it.
Lorrie woke in a panic. Her head was covered; her arms, legs, and torso were covered. Too soon. She couldn’t move, and it would be days before they’d let her out. Days spent wondering if she was waiting for death or landing.
She pushed, and her hands touched fabric, tangled bed sheets. Paulo’s steady snore brought her back. She blinked and pushed back pain that shot behind her eyelids. She rubbed her eyes, wondering if she had forgotten to take out her corrective lenses. No, they were soaking on her night stand next to her techpad.
She fumbled for her techpad. A quick look at it told her that she had another three hours before the alarm would sound. So much for the pick-me-up, thought Lorrie. She sighed and placed her feet on the cold floor. She rubbed crust from her eyes.
Across the room, her lone Earth artifact hung. Ordered shrubberies and cherub-topped fountains stood in stark contrast with the pockmarked waves of wall that surrounded it. They had cleared the collected muck left by the previous owners. And bleached it weekly.
She ran her hand across the pockmarked wall, until her fingers tripped on the pocket doors. She slid out the handle and pulled. It creaked. Paulo’s rhythmic snoring broke. She looked back; his body lay still.
In the days after their journey, after her capsule, Lorrie would have done anything for more space. Now, she’d gladly downsize the bedroom to accommodate a crib.
Lorrie followed her restless feet outside. The thin air cut through her night shirt. She shivered, pulling the fabric in close and ambled to her tiny plot of garden.
The soil felt grainy against her bare toes, like countless pellets of styrofoam. Her rows of potato plants gave a feeble wave as she approached.
Lorrie rubbed a drooping leaf of a plant. “You thirsty?” she asked.
She unrolled her techpad and checked their bio systems figures. The input-output variables swam before her tired eyes. That can’t be right, she thought, squeezing her eyes shut. Crust had formed around the lids. She wiped them off and took another look.
The numbers were impossible, unless of course, someone had tampered with them.
The wind picked up, rustling the fuzzy foliage peeking from the neighboring lot over a fence, pockmarked like the walls of her house.
“That pusback…” said Lorrie.
They denied her enough water to plant Earth crops. Earth crops were too delicate.
She grabbed her shovel. The handle felt cool in her hands.
And from what little water she was allowed, they stole what they wanted.
She tested the shovel’s weight.
They were wilting, dying before they had a chance to bloom.
She tossed it like a javelin. It wasn’t high, not much higher than the fences she’d climbed as a child back on Earth. Only the fences back home weren’t pitted with impromptu handholds like this one was.
She heard a satisfying thwack as the shovel landed, head first.
They denied Lorrie her children.
She tested a pockmark with her knuckles and bare toes. She pushed up.
They stole what they wanted, stole children from their own kind.
The fence scratched her forearms, tore her night shirt, and bloodied her cheek.
And stole humanity from her children.
Scrambling up, she rested her elbow along the ledge of the fence, and with a heave, flopped over and landed with a thud in the neighboring yard.
Lorrie gasped for the breath that had left her body on impact. She sat up and stared. Tucked among the pus-covered tendrils, a small sapling swayed. Its exposed pulsing roots gave off a faint humming glow. A tree: alien, but no less water-thirsty than those of Earth.
She reached for a leaf with shaking fingers: springy, tender, and certainly not thirsty. This one sapling was more water-rich than Lorrie’s whole pitiful garden.
When the shovel met soil, it slid in. She took care to work slow, start wide. Even with a semi-exposed root system, it was difficult to gauge the full extent of the root ball.
The shovel and soil worked with her. And she wondered whether Roman was working the earthen soil of a farm she would never see. He’d be nearly sixty now. She tried to picture him older, wrinkled, but the images blurred before her like a faulty projection parameter. No, he was better left unaltered.
Her shovel tapped something, met some resistance. She kneeled, tossed aside the shovel, and scooped up handfuls of moist soil. The soil clung under her nails as she had forgotten it could do.
And then she felt it. Poked it. Undeniably flesh. Her digging became frantic, her palms caked with dirt. She looked behind her once, but the neighboring house was still. Even the wind had stilled, listening to her labored breath and the pawing of her hands.
“I’ll be damned,” said Lorrie, quiet. She looked around wildly, not from a fear of discovery; if nothing else, she wanted someone else to validate what she was seeing.
Babies, two of them, lay breathing under soil, the sapling growing from the doughy spots of their skulls. Two sets of tiny feet, five toes on each foot. Pudgy legs with knees. Arms with socket joints that ended with hands with opposable thumbs. A pair of ears each. Noses with nasal septums. Tiny puckered mouths.
Though Lorrie would never admit to it, Paulo was right. Their neighbor had been to the adoption center.
“Hush, my babies,” said Lorrie. “You’ll be home soon.” She pulled the sapling roots from their base within the skulls. Thin, webbed membrane floated on the breeze as it dangled torn from the root system.
They were free. They hadn’t fussed. They hadn’t struggled or called out. They lay still in her arms, in the arms of their mother. Lorrie hadn’t expected them to struggle. After all they were going home. She held them close, felt their fleshy limbs through a thick mucus layer. They’d need a bath.
What will I name you two?” asked Lorrie. She had no names prepared, barren and unlikely to receive an adoption child younger than his name, she hadn’t put much thought into it. She grinned wondering if they named one after Paulo he’d consent to naming the other Roman. Her babies had the same dimpled chin.