by James Patrick Kelly
Daya had been in no hurry to become a mother. In the two years since she’d reached childbearing age, she’d built a modular from parts she’d fabbed herself, thrown her boots into the volcano, and served as blood judge. The village elders all said she was one of the quickest girls they had ever seen — except when it came to choosing fathers for her firstborn. Maybe that was because she was too quick for a sleepy village like Third Landing. When her mother, Tajana, had come of age, she’d left for the blue city to find fathers for her baby. Everyone expected Tajana would stay in Halfway, but she had surprised them and returned home to raise Daya. So once Daya had grown up, everyone assumed that someday she would leave for the city like her mother, especially after Tajana had been killed in the avalanche last winter. What did Third Landing have to hold such a fierce and able woman? Daya could easily build a glittering new life in Halfway. Do great things for the colony.
But everything had changed after the scientists from space had landed on the old site across the river, and Daya had changed most of all. She kept her own counsel and was often hard to find. That spring she had told the elders that she didn’t need to travel to gather the right semen. Her village was happy and prosperous. The scientists had chosen it to study and they had attracted tourists from all over the colony. There were plenty of beautiful and convenient local fathers to take to bed. Daya had sampled the ones she considered best, but never opened herself to blend their sperm. Now she would, here in the place where she had been born.
She chose just three fathers for her baby. She wanted Ganth because he was her brother and because he loved her above all others. Latif because he was a leader and would say what was true when everyone else was afraid. And Bakti because he was a master of stories and because she wanted him to tell hers someday.
She informed each of her intentions to make a love feast, although she kept the identities of the other fathers a secret, as was her right. Ganth demanded to know, of course, but she refused him. She was not asking for a favor. It would be her baby, her responsibility. The three fathers, in turn, kept her request to themselves, as was custom, in case she changed her mind about any or all of them. A real possibility — when she contemplated what she was about to do, she felt separated from herself.
That morning she climbed into the pen and spoke a kindness to her pig Bobo. The glint of the knife made him grunt with pleasure and he rolled onto his back, exposing the tumors on his belly. She hadn’t harvested him in almost a week and so carved two fist-sized maroon swellings into the meat pail. She pressed strips of sponge root onto the wounds to stanch the bleeding and when it was done, she threw them into the pail as well. When she scratched under his jowls to dismiss him, Bobo squealed approval, rolled over and trotted off for a mud bath.
She sliced the tumors thin, dipped the pieces in egg and dragged them through a mix of
powdered opium, pepper, flour, and bread crumbs, then sautéed them until they were crisp. She arranged them on top of a casserole of snuro, parsnips and sweet flag, layered with garlic and three cheeses. She harvested some of the purple blooms from the petri dish on the windowsill and flicked them on top of her love feast. The aphrodisiacs produced by the bacteria would give an erection to a corpse. She slid the casserole into the oven to bake for an hour while she bathed and dressed for babymaking.
Daya had considered the order in which she would have sex with the fathers. Last was most important, followed by first. The genes of the middle father – or fathers, since some mothers made babies with six or seven for political reasons – were less reliably expressed. She thought starting with Ganth for his sunny nature and finishing with Latif for his looks and good judgment made sense. Even though Bakti was clever, he had bad posture.
Ganth sat in front of a fuzzy black and white screen with his back to her when she nudged the door to his house open with her hip. “It’s me. With a present.”
He did not glance away from his show – the colony’s daily news and gossip program about the scientists — but raised his forefinger in acknowledgment.
She carried the warming dish with oven mitts to the huge round table that served as his desk, kitchen counter and sometime closet. She pushed aside some books, a belt, an empty bottle of blueberry kefir, and a Fill Jumphigher action figure to set her love feast down. Like her own house, Ganth’s was a single room, but his was larger, shabbier, and built of some knotty softwood.
Her brother took a deep breath, his face pale in the light of the screen. “Smells delicious.” He pressed the off button; the screen winked and went dark.
“What’s the occasion?” He turned to her, smiling. “Oh.” His eyes went wide when he saw how she was dressed. “Tonight?”
“Tonight.” She grinned.
Trying to cover his surprise, he pulled out the pocket watch he’d had from their mother and then shook it as if it were broken. “Why, look at the time. I totally forgot that we were grown up.”
“You like?” She weaved her arms and her ribbon robe fluttered.
“I was wondering when you’d come. What if I had been out?”
She nodded at the screen in front of him. “You never miss that show.”
“Has anyone else seen you?” He sneaked to the window and peered out. A knot of gawkers had gathered in the street. “What, did you parade across Founders’ Square dressed like that? You’ll give every father in town a hard on.” He pulled the blinds and came back to her. He surprised her by going down on one knee. “So which am I?”
“What do you think?” She lifted the cover from the casserole to show that it was steaming and uncut.
“I’m honored.” He took her hand in his and kissed it. “Who else?” he said. “And you have to tell. Tomorrow everyone will know.”
“Bakti. Latif last.”
“Three is all a baby really needs.” He rubbed his thumb across the inside of her wrist. “Our mother would approve.”
Of course, Ganth had no idea of what their mother had really thought of him.
Tajana had once warned Daya that if she insisted on choosing Ganth to father her baby, she should dilute his semen with that of the best men in the village. A sweet manner is fine, she’d said, but babies need brains and a spine.
“So, dear sister, it’s a sacrifice …,” he said, standing. “… but I’m prepared to do my duty.” He caught her in his arms.
Daya squawked in mock outrage.
“You’re not surprising the others are you?” He nuzzled her neck.
“No, they expect me.”
“Then we’d better hurry. I hear that Eldest Latif goes to bed early.” His whisper filled her ear. “Carrying the weight of the world on his back tires him out.
“I’ll give him reason to wake up.”
He slid a hand through the layers of ribbons until he found her skin. “Bakti, on the other hand, stays up late, since his stories weigh nothing at all.” The flat of his hand against her belly made her shiver. “I didn’t realize you knew him that well.”
She tugged at the hair on the back of Ganth’s head to get his attention. “Feasting first,” she said, her voice husky. Daya hadn’t expected to be this emotional. She opened her pack, removed the bottle of chardonnay and poured two glasses. They saluted each other and drank, then she used the spatula she had brought – since she knew her brother wouldn’t have one – to cut a square of her love feast. He watched her scoop it onto a plate like a man uncertain of his luck. She forked a bite into her mouth. The cheese was still melty — maybe a bit too much sweet flag. She chewed once, twice and then leaned forward to kiss him. His lips parted and she let the contents of her mouth fall into his. He groaned and swallowed. “Again.” His voice was thick. “Again and again and again.”
Afterward they lay entangled on his mattress on the floor. “I’m glad you’re not leaving us, Daya.” He blew on the ribbons at her breast and they trembled. “I’ll stay home to watch your baby,” he said. “Whenever you need me. Make life so easy, you’ll never want to go.”
It was the worst thing he could have said; until that moment she had been able to keep from thinking that she might never see him again. He was her only family, except for the fathers her mother had kept from her. Had Tajana wanted to make it easy for her to leave Third Landing? “What if I get restless here?” Daya’s voice could have fit into a thimble. “You know me.”
“Okay, maybe someday you can leave.” He waved the idea away. “Someday.”
She glanced down his lean body at the hole in his sock and dust strings dangling from his bookshelf. He was a sweet boy and her brother, but he played harder than he worked. Ganth was content to let the future happen to him; Daya needed to make choices, no matter how hard. “It’s getting late.” She pressed her cheek to his. “Do me a favor and check on Bobo in the morning? Who knows when I’ll get home.”
By the time she kissed Ganth goodbye, it was evening. An entourage of at least twenty would-be spectators trailed her to Old Town; word had spread that the very eligible Daya was bringing a love feast to some lucky fathers. There were even a scatter of tourists, delighted to witness Third Landing’s quaint mating ritual. The locals told jokes, made ribald suggestions and called out names of potential fathers. She tried to ignore them; some people in this village were so nosy.
Bakti lived in one of the barn-like stone dormitories that the settlers had built two centuries ago across the river from their landing spot. Most of these buildings were now divided into shops and apartments. When Daya finally revealed her choice by stopping at Bakti’s door, the crowd buzzed. Winners of bets chirped, losers groaned. Bakti was slow to answer her knock, but when he saw the spectators, he seized her arm and drew her inside.
Ganth had been right: she and Bakti weren’t particularly close. She had never been to his house, although he had visited her mother on occasion when she was growing up. She could see that he was no better a housekeeper than her brother, but at least his mess was all of a kind. The bones of his apartment had not much changed from the time the founders had used it as a dormitory; Bakti had preserved the two walls of wide shelves that they had used as bunks. Now, however, instead of sleeping refugees from Genome Crusades, they were filled with books, row upon extravagant row. This was Bakti’s vice; not only did he buy cheap paper from the village stalls; he had purchased hundreds of hardcovers on his frequent trips to the blue city. They said he even owned a few print books that the founders had brought across space. There were books everywhere, open on chairs, chests, the couch, stacked in leaning towers on the floor.
“So you’ve come to rumple my bed?” He rearranged his worktable to make room for her love feast. “I must admit, I was surprised by your note. Have we been intimate before, Daya?”
“Just once.” She set the dish down. “Don’t pretend that you don’t remember.” When she unslung the pack from her back, the remaining bottles of wine clinked together.
“Don’t pretend?” He spread his hands. “I tell stories. That’s all I do.”
“Glasses?” She extracted the zinfandel from her pack.
He brought two that were works of art; crystal stems twisted like vines to flutes as delicate as a skim of ice. “I recall a girl with a pansy tattooed on her back,” he said.
“You’re thinking of Pandi.” Daya poured the wine.
“Do you sing to your lovers?”
She sniffed the bouquet. “Never.”
They saluted each other and drank.
“Don’t rush me now,” he said. “I’m enjoying this little game.” He lifted the lid of the dish and breathed in. “Your feast pleases the nose as much as you please the eye. But I see that I am not your first stop. Who else have you seen this night?”
“You chose a grasshopper to be a father of your child?”.
“He’s my brother.”
“Aha!” He snapped his fingers. “Now I have it. The garden at Tajana’s place? I recall a very pleasant evening.”
She had forgotten how big Bakti’s nose was. “As do I.” And his slouch was worse than ever. Probably from carrying too many books.
“I don’t mind being the middle, you know.” He took another drink of wine. “Prefer it actually — less responsibility that way. I will do my duty as a father, but I must tell you right now that I have no interest whatsoever in bringing up your baby. And her next father is?”
“Latif. Next and last.”
“A man who takes fathering seriously. Good, he’ll balance out poor Ganth. I will tell her stories, though. Your baby girl. That’s what you hope for, am I right? A girl?”
“Yes.” She hadn’t realized it until he said it. A girl would make things much easier.
He paused, as if he had just remembered something. “But you’re supposed to leave us, aren’t you? This village is too tight a fit for someone of your abilities. You’ll split seams, pop a button.”
Why did everyone keep saying these things to her? “You didn’t leave.”
“No.” He shook his head. “I wasn’t as big as I thought I was. Besides, the books keep me here. Do you know how much they weigh?”
“It’s an amazing collection.” She bent to the nearest shelf and ran a finger along the spines of the outermost row. “I’ve heard you have some from Earth.”
“Is this about looking at books or making babies, Daya?” Bakti looked crestfallen.
She straightened, embarrassed. “The baby, of course.”
“No, I get it.” He waved a finger at her. “I’m crooked and cranky and mothers shut their eyes tight when we kiss.” He reached for the wine bottle. “Those are novels.” He nodded at the shelf. “But no, nothing from Earth.”
They spent the better part of an hour browsing. Bakti said Daya could borrow some if she wanted. He said reading helped pregnant mothers settle. Then he told her the story from one of them. It was about a boy named Huckleberry Flynn, who left his village on Novy Praha to see his world but then came back again. “Just like your mother did,” he said. “Just like you could, if you wanted. Someday.”
“Then you could tell stories about me.”
“About this night,” he agreed, “if I remember.” His grin was seductive. “Will I?”
“Have you gotten any books from them?” She glanced out the dark window toward the river. “Maybe they’d want to trade with you?”
“Them?” he said. “You mean our visitors? Some, but digital only. They haven’t got time for nostalgia. To them, my books are as quaint as scrolls and clay tablets. They asked to scan the collection, but I think they were just being polite. Their interests seem to be more sociological than literary.” He smirked. “I understand you have been spending time across the river.”
She shrugged. “Do you think they are telling the truth?”
“About what? Their biology? Their politics?” He gestured at his library. “I own one thousand, two hundred and forty-three claims of truth. How would I know which is right?” He slid the book about the boy Huckleberry back onto the shelf. “But look at the time! If you don’t mind, I’ve been putting off dinner until you arrived. And then we can make a baby and a memory, yes?”
By the time Daya left him snoring on his rumpled bed, the spectators had all gone home for the night. There was still half of the love feast left but the warming dish was beginning to dry it out. She hurried down the Farview Hill to the river.
Many honors had come to Latif over the years and with them great wealth. He had first served as village eldest when he was still a young man, just thirty-two years old. In recent years, he mediated disputes for those who did not have the time or the money to submit to the magistrates of the blue city. The fees he charged had bought him this fine house of three rooms, one of which was the parlor where he received visitors. When she saw that all the windows were dark, she gave a cry of panic. It was nearly midnight and the house was nothing but a shadow against the silver waters.
On the shore beyond, the surreal bulk of the starship beckoned.
Daya didn’t even bother with front door. She went around to the bedroom and stood on tiptoes to knock on his window. Tap-tap.
“Latif.” Tap-tap-tap. “Wake up.”
She heard a clatter within. “Shit!” A light came on and she stepped away as the window banged open.”
“Who’s there? Go away.”
“It’s me, Daya.”
“Do you know what time it is? Go away.”
“But I have our love feast. You knew this was the night, I sent a message.”
“And I waited, but you took too damn long.” He growled in frustration. “Can’t you see I’m asleep? Go find some middle who’s awake.”
“No, Latif. You’re my last.”
He started with a shout. “You wake me in the middle of night …” Then he continued in a low rasp. “Where’s your sense, Daya, your manners? You expect me to be your last? You should have said something. I take fathering seriously.”
Daya’s throat closed. Her eyes seemed to throb.
“I told you to move to the city, didn’t I? Find fathers there.” Latif waited for her to answer. When she didn’t, he stuck his head out the window to see her better. “So instead of taking my best advice, now you want my semen?” He waited again for a reply; she couldn’t speak. “I suppose you’re crying.”
The only reply she could make was a sniffle.
“Come to the door then.”
She reached for his arm as she entered the darkened parlor but he waved her through to the center of the room. “You are rude and selfish. Daya.” He shut the door and leaned against it. “But that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”
He turned the lights on and for a moment they stood blinking at one another. Latif was barefoot, wearing pants but no shirt. He had a wrestler’s shoulders, long arms, hands big as dinner plates. Muscles bunched beneath his smooth, dark skin, as if he might spring at her. But if she read his eyes right, his anger was passing.
“I thought you’d be pleased.” She tried a grin. It bounced off him.
“Honored, yes. Pleased, not at all. You think you can just issue commands and we jump? You have the right to ask, and I have the right to refuse. Even at the last minute.”
At fifty-three, Latif was still one of the handsomest men in the village. Daya had often wondered if that was one reason why everyone trusted him. She looked for some place to put the the warming dish down.
“No,” he said, “don’t you dare make yourself comfortable unless I tell you to. Why me?”
She didn’t have to think. “Because you have always been kind to me and my mother. Because you will tell the truth, even when it’s hard to hear. And because, despite your years, you are still the most beautiful man I know.” This time she tried a smile on him. It stuck. “All the children you’ve fathered are beautiful, and if my son gets nothing but looks from you, that will still be to his lifelong advantage.” Daya knew that in the right circumstance, even men like Latif would succumb to flattery.
“You want me because I tell hard truths, but when I say you should move away, you ignore me. Does that make sense?”
“Not everything needs to make sense.” She extended her love feast to him. “Where should I put this?”
He glided across the parlor, kissed her forehead and accepted the dish from her. “Do you know how many have asked me to be last father?”
“No.” She followed him into the great room.
“Twenty-three,” he said. “Every one spoke to me ahead of time. And of those, how many I agreed to?”
“Four.” He set it on a round wooden table with a marble inset.
“They should’ve tried my ambush strategy.” She shrugged out of her pack. “I’ve got wine.” She handed him the bottle of Xino she had picked for him.
“Which you’ve been drinking all night, I’m sure. You know where the glasses are.” He pulled the stopper. “And who have you been drinking with?”
Latif tossed the stopper onto the table. “I’m one-fourth that boy’s father …,” He rapped on the tabletop. “… but I don’t see any part of me in him.”
“Oh, stop.” He poured each of them just a splash of the Xino and offered her a glass. She raised an eyebrow at his stinginess.
“It’s late and you’ve had enough,” he said. “It is affecting your judgment. Who else?”
“You surprise me.” They saluted each other with their glasses. “Does he really have Earth books?”
“He says not.”
“He makes too many stories up. But he’s sound — you should have started with him. Ganth is a middle father at best.”
Both of them ran out of things to say then. Latif was right. She had finished the first two bottles with the other fathers, and had shared an love feast with them and had made love. She was heavy with the weight of her decisions and her desires. She felt like she was falling toward Latif. She pulled the cover off the warming dish and cut a square of her love feast into bite-sized chunks.
“Just because I’m making a baby doesn’t mean I can’t go away,” she said.
“And leave the fathers behind?”
“That’s what my mother did.”
“And did that make her happy? Do you think she had an easy life?” He shook his head. “No, you are tying yourself to this village. This little, insignificant place. Why? Maybe you’re lazy. Or maybe you’re afraid. Here, you are a star. What would you be in the blue city?”
She wanted to tell him that he had it exactly wrong. That he was talking about himself, not her. But that would have been cruel. This beautiful foolish man was going to be the last father of her baby. “You’re right,” Daya said. “It’s late.” She piled bits of the feast onto a plate and came around to where he was sitting. She perched on the edge of the table and gazed down at him.
He tugged at one of the ribbons of her sleeve and she felt the robe slip off her shoulder. “What is this costume anyway?” he said. “You’re wrapped up like some kind of present.”
She didn’t reply. Instead she pushed a bit of the feast across her plate until it slid onto her fork. They watched each other as she brought it to her open mouth, placed it on her tongue. The room shrank. Clocks stopped.
He shuddered, “Feed me, then.”
Latif’s pants were still around his ankles when she rolled off him. The ribbon robe dangled off the headboard of his bed. Daya gazed up at the ceiling, thinking about the tangling sperm inside her. She concentrated as her mother had taught her, and she thought she felt her cervix close and her uterus contract, concentrating the semen. At least, she hoped she did. The sperm of the three fathers would smash together furiously, breaching cell walls, exchanging plasmids. The strongest conjugate would find her eggs and then …..
“What if I leave the baby behind?” she said.
“With who?” He propped himself up on an elbow. “Your mother is dead and no ….”
She laid a finger on his lips. “I know, Latif. But why not with a father? Ganth might do it, I think. Definitely not Bakti. Maybe even you.”
He went rigid. “This is an idea you get from the scientists? Is that the way they have sex in space?”
“They don’t live in space; they just travel through it.” She followed a crack in the plaster of his ceiling with her eyes. “Nobody lives in space.” A water stain in the corner looked like a face. A mouth. Sad eyes. “What should we do about them?”
“Do? There is nothing to be done.” He fell back onto his pillow. “They’re the ones the founders were trying to get away from.”
“Two hundred years ago. They say things are different.”
“Maybe. Maybe these particular scientists are more tolerant, but they’re still dangerous.”
“Why? Why are you so afraid of them?”
“Because they’re unnatural.” The hand at her side clenched into a fist. “We’re the true humans, maybe the last. But they’ve taken charge of evolution now, or what passes for it. We have no say in the future. All we know for sure is that they are large and still growing and we are very, very small. Maybe this lot won’t force us to change. Or maybe someday they’ll just make us want to become like them.”
She knew this was true, even though she had spent the last few months trying not to know it. The effort had made her weary. She rolled toward Latif. When she snuggled against him, he relaxed into her embrace.
It was almost dawn when she left his house. Instead of climbing back up Farview Hill, she turned toward the river. Moments later she stepped off Mogallo’s Wharf into the skiff she had built when she was a teenager.
She had been so busy pretending that this wasn’t going to happen that she was surprised to find herself gliding across the river. She could never have had sex with the fathers if she had acknowledged to herself that she was going to go through with it. Certainly not with Ganth. And Latif would have guessed that something was wrong. She had the odd feeling that there were two of her in the skiff, each facing in opposite directions. The one looking back at the village was screaming at the one watching the starship grow ever larger. But there is no other Daya, she reminded herself. There is only me.
Her lover, Roberts, was waiting on the spun-carbon dock that the scientists had fabbed for river traffic. Many of the magistrates from the blue city came by boat to negotiate with the offworlders. Roberts caught the rope that Daya threw her and took it expertly around one of the cleats. She extended a hand to hoist Daya up, caught her in an embrace and pressed her lips to Dayas’ cheek.
“This kissing that you do,” said Roberts. “I like it. Very direct.” She wasn’t very good at it but she was learning. Like all the scientists, she could be stiff at first. They didn’t seem all that comfortable in their replaceable bodies. Roberts was small as a child, but with a woman’s face. Her blonde hair was cropped short, her eyes were clear and faceted. They reminded Daya of her mother’s crystal.
“It’s done,” said Daya.
“Yes, but are you all right?
“I think so.” She forced a grin. “We’ll find out.”
“We will. Don’t worry, love, I am going to take good care of you. And your baby.”
“And I will take care of you.”
“Yes.” She looked puzzled. “Of course.”
Roberts was a cultural anthropologist. She had explained to Daya that all she wanted was to preserve a record of an ancient way of life. A culture in which there was still sexual reproduction.
“May I see that?”
Daya opened her pack and produced the leftover bit of the love feast. She had sealed it in a baggie that Roberts had given her. It had somehow frozen solid.
“Excellent. Now we should get you into the lab before it’s too late. Put you under the scanner, take some samples.” This time she kissed Daya on the mouth. Her lips parted briefly and Daya felt Robert’s tongue flick against her teeth. When Daya did not respond, she pulled back.
“I know this is hard now. You’re very brave to help us this way, Daya.” The scientist took her hand and squeezed. “But someday they’ll thank you for what you’re doing.” She nodded toward the sleepy village across the river. “Someday soon.”
About the Author
James Patrick Kelly has won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards; his fiction has been translated into eighteen languages. With John Kessel he is co-editor of Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology, Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, The Secret History Of Science Fiction, Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology and Rewired: The Post Cyberpunk Anthology. He writes a column on the internet for Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and is on the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.
About the Narrator
Raised by swordfighters and eastern European freedom fighters, Ibba Armancas is a writer-director currently based in Los Angeles. Her darkly comedic genre sensibilities are showcased in two webseries and a feature film forthcoming later this year. One day she will find time to make a website, but in the mean time you can follow her projects and adventures on Twitter or Instagram.