Few Words

“They don’t really learn to speak,” one said, leaning on the window post. “They don’t have brains like that.”

The other one shrugs, and throws some more food into the area. The largest one—Alpha, they call them—comes out cautiously from the overhang and carries it back into the shadows where Beta and Gamma are waiting. Beta seldom comes out; Gamma never does. “Does it matter?” the other says.

“They’re not thinking, they’ve just learned to associate certain sounds with things like food or water or cold.” One glares at the overhang, toward where the simple keyboard hangs. “Probably not even that; they’ve learned that hitting a certain trigger produces a—”

The speaker suspended over the enclosure blats tinnily: food! The other throws another handful of pellets into the area. “Isn’t that how language works in general? We associate this sound with that result, at first for concrete things like food or parent, then more complex things, more abstract results. But it’s the same mechanism. If language changes—” another food! from the overhang, and another handful of pellets rattling against the ground— “whether through passage of time, cultural drift, conquest, trade, or colonization—then we have to relearn the association, same as they would if we moved the mapping around.”

“It’s an illusion, though, a parlor trick. Time we spend trying to teach them to use our language, use our methods of communication, is time we aren’t learning theirs, time we aren’t spending in play, or training, or partnership. They have their own existence; this makes them just a worse version of us.”

“Maybe. But we spend so much time as it is giving them commands, adapting their bodies to our uses; it seems only fair we give them some way to command us in return.”

Beneath the overhang, the three huddle together in silence, straining to peer through the clouded glass of the enclosure. Gamma mutters, takes notes in charcoal ink on her tunic: one is distracted and pays little attention.

Brachypelma emilia

The doctor stares at his hands, at the bright line of new flesh peering through the slash a ragged edge on the console had torn in his palms. (The ship shakes, turbulence or fire or just miscalibration; it can be hard to tell.) Underneath, he is pale as a jelly, unlined, raw, throbbing against the limits of his old body. This is not new, in any sense, but still he is always taken unprepared, always startled and unhappy as a boy approaching puberty. This body is worn as comfortable as an old shoe, molded to him, friendly and familiar.

He locks the console and retreats to his room for privacy. Better they not see this, the young pyro in her leather jacket or the snobbish mathematician with his red star; they mean well, and they’ve grown used to his eccentricities, but it’s a delicate tension; he doesn’t want them to see him in his unfurling.

It takes days of patient, bloody work. He scrapes himself raw, runs a razor from ear to jaw, over collarbones and along the sternum, across the points on his hips and down the flat plane of his shins. He wedges fingers clumsy with new youth under his skin and pulls, a deep arachnid ache. The air hits his carapace at last and he shudders, an electric current of worry. He forces air into empty lungs, slaps his chest until his hearts stutter and start, twists and turns until his bones harden and his skin solidifies.

The face in the mirror is new but the eyes however are old.

Heat Dome

Stagnant air, still as an oven. Sick and dizzy, Russ pauses in the fields, glares up into a sky cloudless and white with heat, pauses to take a long drink at her canteen, water as warm as blood. It has been months, will be months, summer like a lid on a pot, and they bake. Tip’s been after her to pack it in and take the wobbly out to Holofernes or someplace cooler but hell she broke this ground, built the house, she ain’t gonna leave it because it got hot.

But.

The ground cracks and blows away, and no amount of skill will keep it when the wind blows through. They have done everything, loved the land like a sister, taken nothing from it that it didn’t gladly give, put nothing into it that wasn’t already there, took no more than they needed, honored it like any great-grandmother, but: sometimes things just die. She knows this, knows to accept it when it happens.

Still it stings.

She barely makes it home again, stumbles up the steps into the shade, into a house like an open throat, every door and window wide and panting after any trickle of a breeze. Tip is huddled against the icebox, washed out and miserable.

Russ sighs, deep down sighs. “Grab your things,” she tells Tip, wet-eyed, already mourning, already planning their return.

Nothing Serves to Further

Dry the hills and dry the lakes; bone dry.

The old ways work no longer: we have hung the statues of the saints facedown in the wells, but the wells are dry and still the rains do not come. We have prayed and fasted and beaten our children and still the rains do not come. We built fires in the high places, slaughter sheep and cows and goats and burn them there, fat and bones and organs all, and still the rains do not come.

Older methods and new: you cannot seed clouds that are not there, cannot pull moisture from a sky dry as an old bone. We have cast our strongest from the planes, our finest, straight of limb and sound of mind, loaded them down with letters, offerings, icons, charms, sent them tumbling from sky to earth to carry our message to the gods, and still the rains do not come.

The ferns have withered in the forests, the grass has bleached upon the hills. Our cities bake as the shoreline recedes. We turn to god with the carrot and the stick, praise in one hand, torment in the other, and still the rains do not come.

We topple the statues and the lords, set the rich to the sword and fire to the corporations, and still the rains do not come.

Delafield

Delafield tells herself she’s one of the good ones. By the book, keeps her nose clean, stays on the right side of the code. “It’s important to have a code,” she says. “I’ve seen what happens to cops who start to put their own beliefs, their own desires for justice, ahead of the sure working of the process. Trust to the process, I say.”

The murder suspect she’s currently knuckle deep inside of sighs happily, and clutches at her shoulders. “Oh, Kate,” she murmurs.

“It’s just—” Delafield starts at the suspect’s collarbone and works her way slowly down, over curve of breast and swoop of belly, enjoying the flex of muscle beneath her. “—once you step off that path, you’re lost, and it always always comes back to bite you.” She nibbles delicately at one soft thigh, and the suspect inhales sharply. “You understand. You’ve got your own code.”

The crowd had left the lecture hall twenty minutes ago, and the only sound in the vast cavern of the auditorium is the hum of the lights and the soft sound of their breathing. “Come home with me,” says the suspect, and Delafield draws back, affronted.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” she snaps. “I have a wife.