We have a treat for readers today — an excerpt from one of the books which is part of the Nerdist Space Opera Contest being hosted by InkShares, where you get to pick the next great space opera.
This excerpt comes from The Life Interstellar by Zack Jordan, which is described thusly:
The Life Interstellar is a rip-roaring, unapologetic space opera. It’s set in a crowded galaxy at some undetermined point in the future where the Humans, sadly, have been exterminated. No one seems to know what happened to them, a fact which only adds to their mystique. What kind of intelligence could wipe out four trillion beings in a single Galactic year and yet make each death look like an accident? From novas to starship crashes to an isolated escalator incident on Braka IV, what made the Humans so special–or so frightening–that they warranted such treatment?
This is how legends are born. Humans have been the boogeymen of the galaxy for hundreds of years now; these days it would be difficult to find someone who didn’t know a good Human horror story. Lately, though, a different sort of legend has arisen. Ships have returned from the less-traveled tradeways of the Rim, missing cargo and crew members but bearing tales of a new band of smugglers and pirates, headed by a captain who looks a lot like the galaxy’s worst nightmare: a real-live Human.
For fans of:
- Old Man’s War
- The Uplift Saga
- Galactic Football League
- Saga of the Skolian Empire
Shenya the Widow stands in a standard residential suite, outside a standard residential bedroom door, and signals her daughter a third time. She clicks in annoyance. “Sarya. Bondchild. Love,” she rasps, flexing a variety of bladed appendages. “Open this door or I will cut it out of the Station wall.”
The door stands implacable in the face of this threat. It is newer than the suite, thanks to Shenya’s temper on a previous occasion, and in better shape. It’s not soundproof, but even the heaviest blast doors on the Station would be hard-pressed to prevent Widow ears from picking up the angry storm of tears inside. This display of unregulated emotion is unusual in her daughter, so Shenya abandons threat in favor of logic. She calls up a mental connection and constructs a vehement message: [You’re behaving in a ridiculous fashion], it says. She adds a powerful emotional attachment–although she knows her daughter’s basic unit is not capable of receiving it, she feels better sending it–and pushes it to the network through the implant in the back of her head. She feels that slight change in her mind that indicates that it has been received, and follows it up with another: [I know you can hear me.]
[Error], says a new message in her mind. [Unit not receiving. Have a nice day.]
[Very clever], she replies. [I can see your read receipts. And if you sabotage that holo unit one more time–]
The door slides open mid-threat. The tempest has abated, leaving a waterlogged figure collapsed in the corner. It seems to be all knees and elbows, though not nearly as many as Shenya. The heavy clothing is disheveled. The boots are unfastened, the sleeves pulled down over the hands, and the collar is as high as it will go. The girl glares at her adopted mother through tears and a tangled mass of hair. “Just so you know,” she says, “I hate everything right now. Especially them,” she adds through a clenched jaw.
Shenya enters her daughter’s room, suspended in a web of limbs she synthesized just this morning. Her appendages set to work as she drifts toward the figure in the corner. Two begin folding clothes they find on the floor. Another, spotting disorder, heads to the shelf above the bed and straightens a slumping nearly-human doll. It was made at her daughter’s request years ago–because “mommy has four arms sometimes”–but has lately been banished from the bed. Two arms make the bed itself. Shenya still hasn’t gotten used to the somber black of the sheets; their former cartoon inhabitants were deported at the same time as the doll.
“Whatever this tragedy is,” Shenya says out loud, “it is not severe enough to justify a messy room.”
Her daughter sits up and wraps her arms around her knees. Shenya’s limbs abandon the room and regroup on the girl, stroking cheeks, straightening clothing, touching hands. “Tell me, bondchild.”
Sarya takes a deep breath, lifting her shoulders in that dramatic way that people with lungs tend to do. “They’re just… mean,” she says in an almost even voice, ignoring the flitting cloud of arms around her. She hiccups and wipes one eye with the back of a sleeve. “I mean, why do they have to be that way? And they’re not even smart. I mean, it’s one thing to be a jerk if you’re smart or something. Like if you’ve got something to back it up, you’ve got to respect that a little. But to be mean and dumb seems–,” she shrugs and sniffs again. “I don’t get it.”
Shenya notes with affection the noble attempt her daughter’s fingers are making to display simultaneous Widow expressions of pride and anger. With only four limbs and two of those spoken for, her body is not built for showing Widow emotions. Instead, like the examples in the few historical holos that Shenya has been able to find on the network, her daughter tends to communicate emotions through the front of her head. Her face, it is called. Someday, her mother believes, that face will be a fearsome thing indeed. Lost in reflection, Shenya realizes her daughter is waiting for input. “Who are we talking about, littlest?” she prompts in her gentlest voice.
“The kids!” says Sarya, spreading her hands in the direction of her door and all that lies beyond it. “They talk crap about me all the time and I don’t even know when it happens because you know why? Yeah, because I’m not networked. All I have is my stupid holo unit that doesn’t even tell me half the things they say. Although, you can’t even see half the virtual stuff around the station without a good unit so it’s not like I would know what they were talking about anyway. You know most of the shops don’t even have real signs? You probably wouldn’t know that because you can see all the virtual signs. Guess who can’t. Yeah. Also, I always have this big glowing thing in front of my face that everybody can see, so that’s great too. I hate it too, by the way. So yeah, I hate everything.” She slides into the net of her mother’s dark limbs with a bone-weary sigh.
Her mother strokes the knotted hairs and hums a Widow melody. It is Sarya’s bondsong, which she has sung over the girl every night since her adoption. She feels the knots under her daughter’s skin loosen under the influence of the song. These torrents of tears and emotions are more common than they used to be but still rare enough to remind Shenya of the first, that day her tiny squishy daughter asked why she couldn’t see and hear all the things that the other children could. That was a hard conversation, Shenya remembers, and its successors have not become easier. “Bondchild,” Shenya murmurs, her mandibles tickling her daughter’s forehead. “You don’t have to be networked to be important.”
“That’s stupid,” declares Sarya with certainty. “It sounds like a stupid educational holo.”
It was in fact the title of an educational holo, one of the several that Shenya had been scouring for ideas on how to reach her disabled child. Its subtitle was Communicating With the Non-Networked Individual and it focused on methods of physical communication. The first chapter, “Symbolic to Standard,” was an attempt to convince the viewer that Standard as a language is only deficient when compared to the mental elegance of Symbolic. Really, as the narrator pointed out, if one is forced to communicate via sound waves one can’t ask for a better method than Standard.
“I was not networked until my second cycle,” continues her mother, unperturbed. “That’s quite a bit older than you. Where we Widows are from, it is rare indeed. We value the privacy of our own minds.”
“I don’t care about privacy, Mother,” sighs Sarya in a world-weary voice. “Neither does anybody else. I just want to talk to people and see stuff without that stupid thing.” She kicks in the general direction of the offending device, a clunky torso-mounted model that is peeking from under the bed. An unoccupied limb, unable to bear any sign of disarray, departs the wilted figure of the girl to scoop it up by a strap and deposit it on the shelf next to the doll. Another lifts the girl’s chin, the dark blade soft and flexible.
Shenya’s faceted eyes gleam as she flicks her mandibles twice, an expression of love among Widows. Her daughter gazes into those faceted eyes and mimics the movement with the corners of her mouth, returning the gesture in a surprisingly Widow-like manner. “Bondchild,” Shenya says. “If I could find a surgeon who had ever seen someone like you before, I would trust them to network you. But you are unique. I cannot trust such a treasure to someone who specializes in a completely different species.”
Sarya sighs and folds her arms, easing further into her mother’s embrace. “I just… I really don’t think you can understand,” she explains in a reasonable voice. “You can’t know what it’s like. I get that you weren’t networked when you were little, but you were out there. Nobody else was either. Here though, on the Station? Everybody is networked. The only reason anyone talks out loud is if they feel sorry for me and the, like, six other non-networked people here. And if they’re talking over the network, maybe they use a channel my holo can get. Usually not. And say I can get it, right? Well, then it’s in Symbolic and it takes forever to figure out because I have to read it and not just think it. Yesterday–you know Jina ob Crevi, the Mayor’s daughter? Yeah, for future reference she’s the meanest one, probably. So anyway she told a joke and the whole class laughed, even the teacher, and my holo just said ’JOKE.’” She looks at her mother with a nearly perfect Widow challenge on her face and fingers. “Is that funny to you? The word ’JOKE’ on a holo out in front of your face? Yeah, me neither. But for the rest of the day, everybody was using whatever joke that was and laughing and I have no idea what it even was because all I got was one stupid word and obviously I wasn’t going to ask and guess what? Today it’s going to come up again and somebody else is going to say some other utterly hilarious thing and it could even be about me for all I know, if they even notice me enough to joke about me, and–”
At one time, this outpouring would have astonished Shenya, but she has come to expect these occasional torrents of words and emotions. As long as she doesn’t let them get out of hand, they seem therapeutic for her daughter. “Bondchild,” she interrupts, “I don’t know where we would find an implant to handle you! How do you find so much to say?” Sarya falls silent, eyes still awash in angry tears. This liquid communication is a phenomenon which her mother has long since learned means one of several possibilities, few of them good. Unless it was the good kind, which happens sometimes too. “You’re right, spiderling,” she says, stroking her daughter’s face. “There’s no way I can understand. But, what if–” she pauses, considering the logistics of the idea that has just occurred to her. “What if I gave up my implant for awhile, just to see what it was like?”
The girl wipes the back of an arm along her nose. “You mean like, turn it off?”
Shenya is regretting this already, but pushes on. “Yes, child. Just for awhile. If I could see the Station as you do, perhaps I would understand better how you feel.”
The tears haven’t disappeared, but Sarya has brightened. “How will you– Will you get a unit like mine?” she asks.
Shenya lifts the heavy device from the shelf. “We cannot afford that,” she says, lengthening the strap with another two limbs. “I will use yours.”
Sarya’s look of interest transforms into one of confusion. “But then what will I–”
“You will use this one,” says Shenya, drawing a sparkling something out from behind her back. When one has so many limbs, things are easy to conceal for the right moment. “I was going to wait for your bond-day to give it to you, but this seems an appropriate–”
She is interrupted by Sarya’s banshee shriek of joy. “Oh my Gor!” she breathes as she fingers the tiny locket and earbuds. Her customary reserve is forgotten. “This is… this is amazing. It’s perfect!”
“It wasn’t made for a–for someone like you, but I had it customized.” Shenya says with significant pride. “I understand it’s quite an upgrade. They say you’ll hardly know you’re missing an implant.”
Sarya stops playing with the device and leaps at her mother, who catches her in a tangle of limbs. These shows of affection are getting more and more rare, so Shenya is thankful when they come. “These are the good kind of tears, correct?” she asks, stroking the girl’s back.
“Yes,” Sarya whispers. “Thank you.”
The little girl lay curled up in bed, the covers pulled up halfway over her head. In the dim orange glow of the nightlight on the other side of the room, her pillow snuggled her and mewled until she stroked it. “I love you, Mickey,” she told it. It hummed softly but gave no answer. She sighed and flipped it over. She looked across the room at the nightlight. “Uncle?” she asked the darkness.
She heard a series of soft clinks as the metallic ropes that surrounded her bed shifted, two or three slipping onto the bed to adjust the blanket. One brushed the pillow, which growled. The nightlight moved closer until it was hovering over her bed, revealing the connections between it and the metal tentacles surrounding the bed. “Shhh, love,” he said. “You should be asleep.”
“I’m not tired yet.” She stifled a yawn.
The light pulsed softly.
“I’m not!” she said. “Don’t laugh at me.”
“I would never!” said Uncle in mock indignation.
She turned onto her back and pulled the covers down under her armpits. “Tell me a story!” she demanded.
The soft clinking resumed as the rough tip of a tentacle began stroking her hair. “Your mother doesn’t like it when you stay up late,” he said.
She crossed her arms and said nothing.
The light pulsed again. “One story.”
The little girl grinned in delight. “Not till I’m ready!” She wriggled further under the blanket, pulling it back up to her chin. She leaned forward for her pillow, which muttered and wedged itself under her head’s new position. “Ready!”
“Long ago, on a distant station, there was a girl named-”
“Sarya!” the little girl nearly shouted, startling her pillow.
“Hush, love,” said Uncle. “Yes, named Sarya. She lived in quarters near the Arboretum. One day-”
“Who else lived there?” asked the little girl.
“Well, I suppose her mother lived there-”
“And her Uncle?”
The light pulsed again. “Yes, my love. Her Uncle lived there too. Now may I continue the story?”
She pulled the blanket up a bit further and nodded.
“One day, Sarya decided to take some supplies to a friend who lived on the other side of the Arboretum. Her Uncle told her, ‘Be careful and stay on the path, because it’s very easy to get lost.”
The little girl frowned. “It’s not easy to get lost in our Arboretum. There are paths everywhere!”
The light rotated a few degrees. “Oh, but this was a different Arboretum. There was only one path, and everywhere else was dark and very scary indeed. And when the little girl-”
“-and when Sarya was halfway there, out sprang-”
“Let me tell this part!” the girl shouted.
“Hush, my love,” said Uncle. “You will wake the Station.”
“And when Sarya was halfway there, out came the Big… Bad… Human!”
The light pulsed. “Do you want to tell the rest of the story?”
“No,” said the little girl. “Just that part.”
Uncle continued, lowering and raising the pitch of his voice as he voiced the different characters. “‘Where are you going?’ asked the Big Bad Human. ‘I am taking supplies to my friend’s quarters!’ Sarya said. ‘And where does your friend live?’ asked the Big Bad Human. ‘She lives on the other side of the Arboretum!’ Sarya said. ‘Well don’t let me keep you waiting,’ said the Big Bad Human. And with that, he ran off through the Arboretum. And he did not follow the path. He ran straight to Sarya’s friend’s quarters-”
“What was the friend’s name?” asked the little girl, emerging from her blanketed cocoon.
“What do you think it was?” asked Uncle.
“It was… hm… it was Avl!” cried the little girl. “And she has a holo in her room. And she has three mommies! And-”
“Yes, my love. The Big Bad Human knocked on Avl’s door, and she said-”
“Who is it?” shouted the little girl.
“Hush!” The orange light moved closer to the bed. “The Big Bad Human said ‘It’s your friend Sarya!'”
“But it wasn’t!” said the little girl. “It wasn’t Sarya. It was the Big Bad Human!”
“Yes, it was! And when Avl opened the door-”
“The Big Bad Human ate her all up!”
“Yes, my love. And then the Big Bad Human put on her clothes and got into her bed. And no sooner had he done so than someone knocked on the door. ‘Who is it?’ sang the Big Bad Human.”
“It’s Sarya!” said the little girl, and then shrank into the covers.
“‘Come in!’ said the Big Bad Human. So Sarya came in. But something didn’t look quite right. ‘Why Avl,’ she said, ‘what big hands you have!’ ‘The better to touch you, my dear!’ said the Big Bad Human. ‘Why Avl,’ said Sarya, ‘what smooth skin you have!’ ‘The better to sense you with, my dear,’ said the Big Bad Human. ‘Why Avl,’ said Sarya, ‘what white teeth you have!’ ‘The better to EAT YOU!’ shouted the Big Bad Human, and leapt out of bed!”
“But she ran away!” cried the little girl. “She ran out the door!”
“That’s right,” said Uncle. “Sarya ran right out the door and back down the path into the Arboretum, with the Big Bad Human close behind. Even with Avl in his tummy, the Big Bad Human ran faster than Sarya. But right when he was about to catch her-”
“And eat her!”
“-out of the Arboretum came a Caretaker!”
“And it grabbed the Big Bad Human! And it took Avl out of his tummy!”
“That’s right, my love. And it sent the Big Bad Human straight to Discipline, where he couldn’t hurt anyone ever again. And Sarya and Avl-”
“And Sarya and Avl lived happily ever after!”
The orange light began withdrawing, as the metal tentacles released their hold on the bed. “The end,” said Uncle.
“Uncle?” said the little girl.
“Yes, my love?”
“I love you,” said the little girl.
“I love you too.”
“Are you going to leave?” asked the little girl.
“Of course not,” said Uncle. “I would never leave you.”
And the little girl slept. But in the morning, Uncle was gone.
[End of excerpt]