The aliens have arrived… they’ve landed their Embassy ship on a platform in New York Harbor, and will only speak with the United Nations. They say that their world is so different from Earth, in terms of gravity and atmosphere, that they cannot leave their ship. The population of Earth has erupted in fear and speculation.
One day Dr. Marianne Jenner, an obscure scientist working with the human genome, receives an invitation that she cannot refuse. The Secret Service arrives at her college to escort her to New York, for she has been invited, along with the Secretary General of the UN and a few other ambassadors, to visit the alien Embassy.
The truth is about to be revealed. Earth’s most elite scientists have ten months to prevent a disaster—and not everyone is willing to wait.
Tomorrow’s Kin is the first book in an all-new hard SF trilogy based on Nancy Kress’ Nebula Award-winning Yesterday’s Kin. Available July 11th from Tor Books. The following excerpt is from the second half of the novel, which picks up the story of Yesterday’s Kin and may contain spoilers…
S plus 2.6 years
Marianne stood in a small storage room somewhere in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame, waiting to go on stage and staring at eight mice.
They were, of course, dead. These eight, however, looked unnervingly lifelike, superb examples of the taxidermist’s art. Why were they here, meeting her gaze with their shiny lifeless eyes from behind the glass of a tiered display case? Had they been moved to this unlikely venue from another building, to sit among cardboard cartons and discouraged-looking mops, because someone could no longer bear to be reminded of what had been lost?
Sissy Tate, Marianne’s assistant, stuck her head into the room. “Ten minutes, Marianne. Are those mice? Wow, it’s stuffy in here.”
“No windows. What about the—”
“They should have put you in the green room! Or at least a dressing room!” Sissy shook her frizzy cherry-red curls, which leaped around her head as if electrified. Two weeks ago the curls had been the same rich brown as her skin. Today’s sweater, purple covered with tiny mirrors, glittered.
Marianne said, “There’s a concert setting up in the big hall. No space.”
“That’s not the reason and we both know it. But at least you don’t have to worry about the storm—this one is going to miss South Bend. No problem.” Sissy’s head disappeared, and Marianne went back to contemplating mice.
Eight representatives of what had been the world’s most common herbivore, now existing nowhere in the world except for a few sealed labs.
Mus musculus and Mus domesticus, their pointed snouts and scaly tails familiar to anyone who ever baited a mousetrap or worked in a laboratory.
A deer mouse and a white-footed mouse, almost twins, looking like refugees from a Disney cartoon.
On the second glass shelf, the shaggy, short-tailed meadow vole and its cousin, the woodland vole.
A bog lemming, its lips drawn back to show the grooves on its upper incisors.
And finally, a jumping mouse, looking lopsided with its huge hind feet and short forelimbs.
“Hey,” Marianne said to the jumping mouse, of which no specimens had been saved. “Sorry you’re extinct.”
“You talking to a mouse?” a deep voice said behind her.
Marianne turned to Tim. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Yeah, well, I came to say we might have a problem.”
“But Sissy just said—”
“No, not the storm. Your speech. But first—were you talking to those mice?”
At Tim’s grin, Marianne felt herself flush. He often had that effect on her; she knew it; she was profoundly grateful that Tim Saunders did not. He lived with Sissy, he was fifteen years her junior, and he was not all that bright. To be so affected on a visceral level by someone so inappropriate was deeply embarrassing to Marianne. The powerful lean body, mahogany hair, bright turquoise eyes that made her feel as if she stood in a blue spotlight—none of this should set her hormones on high alert, not at her age. She was a grandmother twice over, for chrissake. And she lived with Harrison Rice, contentedly.
Contentedly but not passionately, said the rebellious part of her that was still seventeen. Marianne, a long way from seventeen, was appalled at that part of herself. Surely by now all adolescent fogs of desire should have evaporated from her emotions, from her mind, from her—
“I was not talking to the mice,” she said with what she hoped was dignity.
“Sure looked like it.” Another too-masculine grin. Damn, damn, damn. If she had to still feel the fog, why for such an obvious, even clichéd, pretty boy? Not that Tim was only that.
She said, “What’s the problem with my speech?”
“The crowd for it. They look nasty.”
Marianne frowned. Notre Dame was not supposed to be one of the nasty crowds. A noted research center, the university was pro-science, and although still Catholic-conservative on a few issues, had a socially liberal faculty and, mostly, student body. The university had even reimbursed her travel expenses, which few of her speech venues did. “How nasty?”
“Can’t tell yet. But I’m on it.” Tim left.
In the last two and a half years, Marianne had given over five hundred speeches for the Star Brotherhood Foundation, which she and Harrison had founded almost as soon as the alien ship had lifted off, taking Noah and nine other Terrans with it. The foundation’s purpose was to convince the world that a spaceship should be built, using the plans that the aliens had gifted, to take to humanity to the stars.
At first, the foundation had gone well. The spore plague had been mild, with fewer Americans than expected getting sick, fewer still dying. The world’s physicists, engineers, visionaries had all agreed with her. Humanity was going to the stars! Public opinion had been sharply divided, but Marianne and Harrison had been hopeful.
Then two things happened. First, morbidity and mortality reports came from Central Asia. Some anomaly in a genome common to that part of the world caused far more deaths from R. sporii than anywhere else. Horrific deaths, gasping for air, drowning in fluids in their lungs. There was still neither vaccine nor gene therapy for R. sporii, and the spores were apparently going to be present on Earth forever, affecting each new generation. Harrison’s team had developed a postinfection treatment for the disease, but it was expensive and distribution in Russia and her neighbors was sporadic and spotty. Already beset by ethnic unrest, the countries of the former Soviet Union attacked each other with irrational blame. Hard-liners took leadership in half a dozen countries. Hatred of Denebs, skillfully fanned for political purposes, flourished in Russia, in Ukraine, in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Simultaneously, eight species of mice died.
Who knew that the loss of a bunch of rodents could collapse the world economy? Certainly Marianne hadn’t known, but like everyone else, she learned rapidly. An ecology, as Ryan had been telling her for over a decade, was a fragile construct. Alter one major element in it, and everything else was disturbed. Those common and ubiquitous mice were—had been—a major element.
Without the mice, predators from hawks to bears did not have enough to eat. Some died; some shifted to eating such alternate prey as snakes. The snake population shrank, and their prey, such as rats and lizards, flourished. Rat-borne diseases were now rampant. Arctic wolves starved.
Without the mice to eat their seeds, some wild plants went unchecked, growing completely out of control and choking off their less hardy neighbors, which further affected their ecosystems.
Without the mice to disperse their seeds, some flora began to disappear.
Without the mice to eat insects, some species flourished, including cockroaches, some caterpillars, some beetles.
Without the mice, which in some parts of the world had eaten huge amounts of cultivated grain, farmers suddenly had bumper crops. The supply glut caused prices to plummet. Whole economies tottered.
Every market on Earth had been affected. Conspiracy theories thrived like kudzu: The Denebs were a fiction and the spore plague spread by WHO to neutralize the Russians in world politics. No, the aliens were real and were agents of the anti-Christ—see Revelations if you don’t believe me! No, they were part of an interstellar cartel crushing Earth because we would be trade competition. Sometimes the Jews were part of this cartel, sometimes the Illuminati, sometimes the Russians or Chinese or Arabs. Accusations grew more bitter, small wars broke out, and the third world struggled, often unsuccessfully, to survive.
Marianne kept giving speeches. Harrison now worked with a research team at Columbia, desperately trying to genetically alter the few surviving mice into breeds that could survive in a world where R. sporii lay dormant in every meadow, every river, every rooftop. “But,” Marianne urged over and over, “the aliens did not cause the spore cloud! Denebs are indeed human, our genetic brothers. Their intentions during their year on Earth had been good and their mistakes accidental. A ship should be built using the plans that the aliens had gifted to humanity, taking us to the stars.”
But the Denebs and the spore cloud had arrived more or less together, and for a huge number of Americans, that was enough to “prove causation.” At a speech three months ago, in Memphis, she and Sissy had been pelted with eggs and tomatoes. One rock had been thrown. After the community organizer had hustled them to safety, Marianne had learned that some of the pelters had been armed with more than rocks, although no weapons had been fired.
“You need a bodyguard,” Sissy had said. “I know somebody. We can trust him.” The foundation had stretched its miniscule budget to hire Tim Saunders as her bodyguard. Ex–Special Forces, he owned a small arsenal and was licensed to use it. A week later, he moved in with Sissy.
Marianne said to the stuffed Mus musculus, “ ‘Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.’ ” It didn’t answer. Mus, she remembered, had once been nonnative to the United States. An invasive species.
Behind her, Sissy said, “You talking to those mice?”
“No,” Marianne said.
“Well, it’s time. Dr. Mendenhall’s here to escort you on stage.”
Marianne went to give her speech.
* * *
The Decio Mainstage Theatre held 350 seats, and all of them were filled. Marianne walked onto the stage, which featured a gorgeous proscenium arch, and stood quietly near the lectern while the dean of Sciences introduced her. The theater’s excellent acoustics carried Dr. Mendenhall’s words throughout the beautiful, high-ceilinged space with its polished, curving balustrades. Marianne, accustomed to much shabbier venues, wondered how the university could afford to maintain the theater so well. Their endowment must be enormous.
The students were too quiet. Many of them did not look like students.
The house lights had been left up. As she began to talk, the students neither stirred nor changed expression. She covered her three main points: The aliens were indeed human, our genetic brothers; all the scientific evidence confirmed that. Their intentions during their year on Earth had been good, their mistakes accidental, and they had not caused the spore cloud. The spaceship should be—
A girl’s voice, clear and ringing, called from the balcony. “You might not think it was such an accident if your uncle died of spore disease!”
A boy stood in the third row and said, “Isn’t it true the Denebs pay you to advertise this so-called spaceship?”
“Let her finish,” someone else called, and the boy sat down. Marianne hoped it would still be all right, but from the corner of her eye she saw Tim standing in the wings, tense and alert.
“Finish us, is what you mean,” someone shouted—an older voice, deep with maturity and disgust.
Dr. Mendenhall appeared beside Marianne and grasped the mic. “This university will treat its guests with courtesy. So whether you are a member of the student body or of the visiting public, you will let Dr. Jenner complete her remarks.”
They did, but Marianne could feel their anger, rising in the lovely space, a noxious gas. People murmured now, an almost infrasonic drone like a muted drill. Her words didn’t falter, but they sped up.
“In conclusion, let me just say that—”
Someone called, “How do you feel about your son Noah going with the aliens to World? Isn’t that the real reason you’re so desperate for us to go there, and why should the taxpayers fund your little family reunion?”
Mendenhall said, “Dr. Jenner has not—”
“No, I want to answer that,” Marianne said. But the background drone did not stop. She raised her voice.
“Yes, my son accompanied the Denebs to their home planet, along with nine other Terrans—as I’m sure you all already know. My family, too, has been affected by the aliens. But two points need to be made here—must be made here. First, had the Denebs not come to Earth, many more families would have been tragically stricken than actually were. Without the work that Worlders and Terrans did together aboard the Embassy, we would not have had the postinfection treatment for spore plague, a treatment that saved many. Second, we should fund the spaceship to go to World not because I want to see Noah— although of course I do—but because humanity can benefit tremendously from the kind of free exchange of ideas that have already enriched our scientific understanding of—”
“Enriched!” The voice in the balcony was almost a shriek. And yet it seemed to Marianne that it also held a forced note, like a mediocre actor. “You think the aliens left us enriched, lady? My family’s farm lost everything!”
“My father’s stocks are gone!” From a seat to her left.
“The economy’s in the toilet and none of us will get jobs when we graduate, because of your fucking aliens!”
“My apartment’s overrun with rats!”
“Did you yourself ever see anybody die of spore disease?”
People were on their feet now. Some looked bewildered, students and faculty taken by surprise. Others reached into purses and bags and backpacks, and eggs and rotten fruit began to rain onto the stage. Marianne stood her ground; this had happened before. She cried, “We cannot get—” at the same moment that an outraged Dr. Mendenhall shouted, “People! People!”
The lights went out.
A shocked, disoriented moment. Then it all happened at once. Marianne heard bodies shoving, steps running toward the stage, and the sound of gunfire. Screams. Tim was on her, covering her body with his own, pulling her relentlessly to one side. He knew where he was going, even in the dark; he’d have made sure earlier of the exits. In thirty seconds Marianne was in the wings, through a fire door, hustled down a set of steps.
She gasped, “I can’t just leave Dr.—”
“Forget him,” Tim said grimly, “it’s you they want. Come on, Marianne!”
She was out another door, she was outside, she was running across a parking lot, bent low and shielded by Tim’s arm. Then she was in the car and Sissy was driving away as the first of the police cars raced toward the arts center.
“You okay?” Tim said.
“Fucking amateurs.” He was smiling: adrenaline pumping, taut body alive. “Didn’t even block the exits. Not a clue how to organize a riot.”
“Good thing for us,” Sissy said tartly, her red curls bobbing in the rearview mirror. “Marianne, you want to go make a police report?”
“Yes,” she said. “That… that hasn’t happened before. Not so very… that hasn’t happened.”
“Folks are riled up,” Tim said, without rancor. He was still grinning.
Marianne turned away and stared at the darkness rushing past the car window.
She had never seen a person die of spore disease. Only mice.
* * *
One speech in Ohio and one in Pennsylvania, neither violent. The three of them took turns driving the Ford minivan back to New York. Somewhere near Harrisburg, Marianne was at the wheel, Sissy beside her, Tim folded up in the backseat, asleep even though it was only late afternoon. Thin April sunshine cast long shadows on empty fields beside the turnpike. One long stretch was littered with downed trees; a tornado had come through here a few weeks ago. April was the start of a robust tornado season in a state that, once, had seldom experienced them.
Sissy said quietly, “You don’t like this.”
“April? No. I never did.” Kyle had died in April, which every year brought grief not that her alcoholic husband was dead of cirrhosis, but that her main emotion had been relief. Surely a long marriage—any marriage—deserved more than that.
“Not April,” Sissy said. “You don’t like giving speeches. But you were a teacher.”
Marianne smiled, grimly. “I lectured mostly to graduate students who were eager to hear me. Or if not eager, at least resigned—not like these speeches. Nobody in Bio 572, Theories of Punctuated Evolution, was armed.”
“But you do it because you think it’s important. That’s really brave, Marianne.”
Tears blurred the road; immediately Marianne blinked them away. Why couldn’t Ryan or Elizabeth see it like that? Elizabeth, now transferred to Texas, blamed the Denebs for wrecking the economy. And Ryan… Marianne did not want to think about what Ryan said, or had done.
Sometimes she imagined that Sissy was her daughter. That brought more guilt; it seemed a slight to her actual daughter. But Sissy gave Marianne more understanding, more warmth, more support than anyone else.
They had met a year ago when Sissy had walked into the tiny office of the Star Brotherhood Foundation office and said, “You need me.”
Marianne had been having a bad day. She looked at the fantastic figure in front of her: a small black woman with purple curls that looked fresh from a Van der Graaf generator, tight jeans, and a tee sewn densely with beer-bottle caps. She snapped, “No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. I’ve been at your last three speeches. You were late for one because you packed in too many appointments—you told the audience that. You got hoarse at one because you didn’t bring a bottle of water and nobody supplied you. The PowerPoint didn’t work right at one because nobody checked it. And look at that pile of papers on your desk—your filing system must be shit, if you have one at all. My name is Sissy Tate and I’m a top-grade administrative assistant. Here’s my résumé and references. I don’t care if you can’t pay me much because I believe in what you’re doing.”
Marianne stared at Sissy. An infiltrator from one of the hate groups? It had been tried before. “Who do you work for?”
Sissy gave her a thousand-watt smile. “For you, Dr. Jenner. And brotherhood with Denebs. What’s wrong with people that they cain’t see how huge it is that we ain’t alone in the universe?” When Sissy got excited, her correct English slipped into something else. Her intelligence and idealism, however, were unwavering. Even before the exhaustive background check, Marianne knew she would hire her. This girl had something. This girl was something.
Sissy had proved as efficient as she claimed. Their friendship, however, crossing generational and racial and educational lines, had nothing to do with Sissy’s job.
In the backseat, Tim stirred. “We there yet?”
“No,” Sissy said. “Go back to sleep. You’re amazing, the way you sleep anywhere.”
“Wish I didn’t. Sleep’s a waste of time.”
“But how else will you dream of me?”
Tim laughed. “Pull over—my turn to drive.”
They all changed places. City lights shone by the time they reached New York. The Holland Tunnel was no longer safe; the city had limited money for infrastructure repair. The Lincoln Tunnel now closed at 10:00 pm. Tim drove over the George Washington Bridge and headed south to Columbia University.
“God, I’m tired,” Marianne said.
Sissy turned to smile at Tim. Neither of them looked at all tired. Sissy was thirty-two, Tim thirty-seven. Marianne caught Sissy’s half-lowered eyelids, her hand creeping toward his neck. “Marianne, we’ll drop you first and bring the car back in the morning, okay?”
“Sure,” Marianne said brightly. Jealousy of the night ahead of them was stupid, juvenile, contemptible. She felt old.
Harrison was awake, waiting for her in their apartment in the security-fortified area near Columbia. He sat sipping scotch and frowning at something on his tablet. “How did it go?”
“Fine. Some trouble at Notre Dame, but nothing Tim couldn’t handle.” She said it lightly; Harrison didn’t like Tim, although he had never said so. But Marianne knew, and knew why. Harrison was the most intelligent man Marianne had ever met, decent and kind. But he was fifty-nine, spent his days in a lab, and was losing his hair. Tim was thirty-seven, worked out two hours a day at the gym, and had hair that hung thickly to his shoulders.
Nobody was above jealousy.
Moved to affection, she sat on the arm of Harrison’s chair and hugged him. “I missed you. What happened here?”
“Some disturbing data.” He pulled away from her, and she removed herself to another chair.
“What data? On the mice?”
“No. This study in Nature. Karcher is the lead researcher.” He held out the tablet.
Marianne didn’t take it. Nature was one of the most respected multidisciplinary peer-reviewed journals in the world, and James Karcher was a Nobel Laureate in medicine. But she was tired, and Harrison’s tiny rejection hurt. There would be no sex tonight. Like most other nights.
More guilt. She only felt juiced up because of Tim’s disturbing, utterly forbidden presence. “Tell me what Karcher says.”
“It’s a statistical analysis, so I suspect his postdocs did it and his name is on it mostly so it will be noticed. Which it should be. It’s about a significant increase both in reported agitation and in hearing problems among children born since the spore cloud. We knew about the hearing issues, of course, but nobody has quantified the data and related it to infant agitation.”
“How is that related to R. sporii?”
“Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? We know hardly anything about its genetic effects on fetuses. It’s only been two and a half years, and very few infants have brain surgery or MRIs.”
“Why are you especially interested?”
Harrison put the tablet onto a side table and poured himself another scotch. Marianne was startled. Harrison seldom drank more than one, and never when alone. Was this his second, or more?
“Two reasons I’m interested,” he said. “First of all, Sarah is pregnant. Second, while you were gone, two more P. maniculatus were exposed.”
Sarah was Harrison’s daughter, as difficult a child as Elizabeth, and nearly forty. A dozen deer mice, Peromyscus maniculatus, were among the precious plague-free specimens salvaged by Columbia. In the years since, they had been bred in their negative-pressure pens; there were now plenty of mice for research. Not that it had helped much. If the mice were given spore disease, they died. If not, they lived. Nothing so far had altered that. But Harrison’s tone was serious. She said, “Go on.”
“It was tricky. We got two does pregnant, let them carry partway, and exposed them to R sporii. We let the pregnancies continue until the mice showed symptoms, then took the fetuses before the mothers died. So did all but three of the pups, and we only got a viable three because the gestation period is so short. We put them to nurse with another mouse. Communally living females will do that, you know. One of those died and we autopsied it. Really difficult, on such a small and incompletely developed brain.”
“So I should imagine.” Despite her tiredness, Marianne was fascinated. Between speeches she served as lab tech for Harrison, but as a theoretical geneticist, she had nothing like his polymath skill in biology. “What did the autopsy show?”
“Again, hard to be sure. But certain parts of the cortex seem enlarged. Sue is preparing slides. And the two surviving pups are just hanging on. They nurse, which is good, but they also seem agitated and edgy.”
“How does a tiny mouse seem agitated?”
Harrison smiled. “The same way Sissy does. Twitchy unfocused energy.”
This was unfair; Sissy’s great energy was very focused except when she didn’t have enough to do. Those times, she danced in place, snapped her fingers, sang off-key. Marianne had learned to keep her busy all the time. But she let Harrison’s remark go; he was genuinely upset.
She said gently, “Twitchy mice don’t mean that anything will be wrong with Sarah’s baby. Some kids are just born very reactive, like Connie’s youngest. How far along is Sarah? Has there been an ultrasound?”
“Four months, and yes. The ultrasound looks normal. I’m going to bed, Marianne. But I’m glad you’re back.” He drained his scotch and went into the bedroom.
“But I’m glad you’re back.” That “but” said it all: I’m glad you’re back, but I have too much on my mind for sex. Well, she already knew that.
She checked her e-mail, giving Harrison time to pretend to be asleep. Nothing interesting except the latest photo from Connie of Marianne’s two grandsons. They stood side by side in the backyard in their little red parkas, beside a bare-branched sapling no taller than Colin. Jason’s arm was around his little brother. Jason smiled; Colin looked ready to burst into tears. Only thirteen months apart—what had Connie been thinking? The boys didn’t look alike. Jason was slim and brown-eyed. Colin was a little Ryan, short and round, his two-year-old face pudgy around huge gray eyes.
Ryan pulling Noah on a sled, both of their faces red with cold and excitement: “Come on, let’s slide down again!” “Mommy, I love this so much!”
Marianne closed the e-mail and turned on the news. Tornados in Oklahoma and Kansas. Building of the US spaceship still halted; a conservative Congress had been arguing over funding for two years. The private firms trying to build spaceships did not give interviews, or release pictures, not since the NCWAK, No Contact with Alien Killers, had blown up Richard Branson’s effort. Starvation in Africa, war in northern China, dead zones in the ocean…
She turned off the wall screen, poured herself a glass of Harrison’s scotch, and picked up his tablet to read the article in Nature. She couldn’t concentrate. After a while she lay down on the sofa, put her hand between her legs, and tried to not think about Tim Saunders.
S plus 2.6 years
Some people had more smarts than sense. Not that Sissy Tate hadn’t known that before she went to work for Marianne.
Look at Marianne now, bent over her messy desk, reading yet again that printout about the kids that cried all the time. Sissy had tried to read it because her sister Jasmine had just had another kid. Not that Sissy wanted to ever see Jasmine again, but word about the baby had reached Sissy through Mama. The article had been full of statistics and equations and terms that Sissy didn’t understand—she’d only gone through a secretarial course—but she’d gotten the gist, which was that everybody was fucked all over again by the spore cloud. Babies cried, sure, but they only started crying all the time and never smiling if they’d been buns in the oven since the spore cloud hit.
Marianne understood the article, though. She typed some numbers from it into her computer, whose screen was already full of different numbers, and started running some program on them. The back of Marianne’s head showed gray hair along the roots—Sissy would need to nag her into another appointment at Subtle Beauty. Some people didn’t make the most of what they had without somebody else nagging at them all the time. Marianne was bat-shit lucky to have Sissy taking care of her.
Not that Sissy didn’t know that she herself was the lucky one. She had this job, which paid about as much as flipping burgers at McDonald’s but which actually accomplished something important in the world, something she could believe in. She had gotten out of the Bronx and got some education, even if (she knew this now, after visiting real colleges with Marianne) it wasn’t a very good education. She had sweet, sexy Tim. And she had Marianne, who’d turned out to feel more like family than her own family ever did. And fuck anybody who said different.
Sissy sat at her own desk, whose polished surface had on it one laptop and one piece of paper, and finished making the online travel arrangements for the next speech. They’d fly, and the sponsor was even paying for three round-trip airline tickets. Tim didn’t like the venue, a high-school football stadium, because it would be hard to keep Marianne safe. They expected a really big crowd. The sponsor wasn’t a college this time but a pro-spaceship lobbying organization, Going to the Stars. Sissy had investigated it online. It looked legit, and not too crazy.
Not that “crazy” would stop Marianne. She was going to give her speeches no matter what. She spent three days a week in this tiny office, writing and reading science. Ecology, mostly. Which was another thing that was fucked, pretty much everywhere, and not just because of the mice. Sissy’d been reading about all the droughts in the Midwest because everybody had mismanaged all the crops.
“Damn!” Marianne said.
“Here’s an article—an autopsy report, actually—on a two-year-old who died in a car crash. The father donated the brain to—”
“He let somebody cut out his kid’s brain?”
Marianne turned in her chair to look at Sissy and said gently, “The child was dead.”
“I don’t care! I wouldn’t let anybody cut up my dead kid!”
“Sissy, you’re a mass of contradictions. You admire science; this is how science advances. That father did a wonderful thing.”
Did he? Maybe. Sometimes Sissy couldn’t tell how the ideas from her old world and the ideas from her new world should line up in her mind. But the important thing was to learn all she could. Sometimes since she’d come to work for the Star Brotherhood Foundation, she felt like a flower opening up to the sun for the first time. Other days, new things felt like cold rain. She said belligerently, knowing that her belligerence was a cover for confusion, “What did the autopsy show?”
“Well, it’s more what it seems to show, which is either enlarged or deformed primary auditory cortex, with unusually dense neural connections to the midbrain and brain stem.”
Sissy seized on the part of this she could understand. “What do you mean, either that thing is enlarged or it’s deformed? Can’t they tell which?”
“Not really.” Marianne swiveled her computer chair to face Sissy. “We don’t know much about the parts of the brain that process sound. It’s really complex, and to make it more complex, no two human cortices are the same. This might mean nothing. But Harrison’s mice…”
“What about Harrison’s mice?”
“I don’t know yet. I just don’t—I need to do a lot more reading. What else is on my schedule for today?”
“Fund-raising dinner in Tribeca.”
“Damn. Can’t I—”
“No. You have to go. This lady has money and she’s willing to give us some.”
Marianne glanced at her computer screen, back at Sissy, back at the screen. “How much money?”
Sissy decided to be honest. Not that she wasn’t usually honest with Marianne. “Probably not that much, but—”
“Tell them I’m sick and reschedule.”
“But Tim says it’s important you show up so nobody thinks you’re scared off because of that attack at Notre Dame.”
“I am scared.”
“I said ‘scared off.’ Anyway, it’s too late to reschedule.”
“You’re a hard taskmaster, Sissy Tate.”
“Tim is going to pick you up in an hour at your place so you better go home and get ready. You aren’t going to wear that, are you?”
“No. I’m going to wear sackcloth and ashes and mourn my reading time.”
“Little lady, you’d look good even in that rig-out and that’s just the God honest truth,” said a voice behind them. Sissy whirled. How had anybody gotten in here and was he armed and— But Tim stood beside the intruder, and Tim was grinning.
Sissy felt her insides draw up and back, like a rat getting ready to fight. She knew who this was. She’d seen him just yesterday on the news.
Jonah Stubbins was even taller than Tim, and about 150 pounds heavier. He was dressed in what Marianne had once called Full Sunbelt: yellow shirt, khakis, white belt and shoes, bolo tie. He seized Marianne’s hand. “Dr. Jenner, I’m real glad to meet y’all!”
Sissy saw that Marianne was holding her breath. Stubbins saw it, too. He laughed. “Aw, I ain’t wearing none of my product, Doc. Y’all are perfectly safe from… whatever. Unless a’course you don’t wanna be!”
Marianne freed her hand and said icily, “I don’t understand why you are here, Mr. Stubbins. Tim—”
“Sure you understand. You and me, little lady—may I call you Marianne?”
“All right. But we got interests in common. You already knew that, din’t you?”
“Don’t say nothing till you hear me out. You Eastern types allus too quick to get to jawin’. I’m here to make y’all a donation. A real big one, that you don’t expect. That’s why your bodyguard showed me up here.”
A donation. From Jonah Stubbins. Sissy looked at Marianne, who said, “I don’t think so.”
“Then think again. Just hear me out, little lady, that’s all I ask. Right now, anyways!”
“I am not a ‘little lady.’ And you are not a viable donor to the foundation, however much you might think our interests align. Lastly, I’m not fooled, not amused, and not charmed by your folksy presentation. You have an MBA from Harvard, for God’s sake, which you have misused to criminal levels.”
Sissy caught her breath. She’d never heard Marianne be rude like that.
Stubbins did not leave. Instead he altered his body, somehow becoming less mountainous, less looming, less gaudy. He said, “That’s a great relief. I do get tired of my business persona, you know. But it’s even more of a relief to realize I wasn’t wrong about you. You have the backbone to perhaps succeed at your foundation’s mission, to sway public opinion by inches, until it reaches the tipping point. Because our interests do align, Dr. Jenner. We both want a starship built. However, I know the government can’t, or won’t, get the job done. No surprise there—I’m a Libertarian and we Libertarians know that government can seldom get anything right because responsibility is diffused and unaccountable. So I’m getting it done, even if it takes my entire fortune.”
He waved his hand like the fortune was right there in front of him, and somehow Sissy could see it: piles of gold and diamonds and rubies like in a storybook.
Stubbins continued, “Now, you don’t want to accept my donation because first, you don’t like my products. That’s irrelevant. Second, you’re afraid that I’ll want something from you, that there are strings attached to my donation. There aren’t. I only want you to go on doing what you’re doing. And third, you think that if you’re associated with me, your cause will suffer. Well, it won’t, because my donation will be completely anonymous. Not even the IRS can trace what I don’t want them to.
“You know and I know—the whole word knows—that if environmental conditions on Earth trend the way they are now, with ocean pollution and superstorms and desertification, in three or four generations this planet will be almost uninhabitable. Escape from Earth is humanity’s strongest hope for survival. I know you agree with me on that—your speeches quote Stephen Hawking and Freeman Dyson and Paul Davies on the subject. People like me are the only ones getting the job done. So take my anonymous donation and add your bit to a private lifeboat for humanity.”
Sissy felt dazed. Some of those words were straight from Marianne’s speeches. Marianne looked dazed, too. Was this devil using one of his products on them? Sissy wanted to move closer and sniff, but then the perfume might get her, too.
Marianne said, “How can I be sure your donation will really be anonymous?”
“Because I’ve made them before, to other groups working in my interests. You know some of the recipients.” He pulled a piece of paper from a pocket. “Ask them, privately and in a place you’re sure isn’t bugged. Here, take the list, it’s going to erase itself in a few minutes.”
Marianne took the paper. “I can’t give you an answer now, Mr. Stubbins. I need to consider.”
“Of course. My personal phone number is at the bottom of the list. It won’t erase. Only ten people in the world have that number. You’re the eleventh. Also, here is the figure I’m prepared to donate anonymously to your foundation. Call me. Good-bye, Dr. Jenner. A pleasure.”
He lumbered out and Tim locked the door. When he turned back to face Sissy and Marianne, his blue eyes shone like lighthouses. “It’s a lot of money. You gotta take it, Marianne.”
“No,” Sissy said, and it came out almost a shout. Not that she didn’t feel that strongly about it. But she lowered her voice. “I don’t trust him.”
Marianne gazed down at the list. Sissy, not good at reading upside down, saw only that it held six or seven names and some numbers before the names abruptly vanished and Marianne crumpled the paper in her fist.
Tim said, “Fuck me! How did it do that? Marianne, we gotta take his money.”
“No,” Sissy said. And again, “No.”
* * *
Jonah Stubbins was an unlikely multibillionaire in a high-tech electronic age, more like P. T. Barnum than Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, although Stubbins’s fortune now rivaled Gates’s. Stubbins had been born country-shucks poor, in the hills of Appalachia, which he’d hated enough to hike out of on the day he turned sixteen, bringing with him nothing but clothes, a rifle, and an untutored brain. Still, the meth labs of his violent kin had imbued him with three things: a hatred of poverty, a respect for chemistry, and a light regard for the law.
The next few years of his biography were murky, defying even journalists to discover where, how, and with what he had survived. But at twenty-two he enrolled in a third-rate college, tested out of most subjects, and emerged a year later with a degree in chemistry. By that time his good-ol’-boy façade was firmly in place, and he kept it through Harvard, which he attended on scholarship. He had already founded his fledgling company, and the applications committee was impressed. Nobody at Harvard liked Stubbins, not the legacy babies nor the brilliant nobodies nor the faculty. Nobody understood why he kept up his pose of illiteracy, despite stellar grades. In fact, nobody understood anything about him. But by the time he had his MBA, everybody knew who he was.
His company, like many start-ups, began in a garage. The garage belonged to the first of his many wives, who’d received it in the divorce from the first of her many husbands. The product was perfume.
“Perfume?” Carla Mae had scoffed. “What the fuck do you know about perfume?”
“Nothing a’tall,” Jonah had said. “But it ain’t regulated by the FDA, and the industry’s going about its job ass-fuck wrong. You don’t want to make people smell like flowers or fruit or beaches. You want to make ’em smell like sex. Or like what suggests sex.”
A year later he brought out, in tiny cheap bottles, a musky oil called Sleep With Me. The equally cheap advertising campaign promised that wearing it would induce desire in whoever smelled you. Unlike every other perfume ad that ever existed, this one told the truth. Developed from a secret formula that Stubbins’s genius for chemistry had based on human pheromones, Sleep With Me created desire as effectively as ecstasy combined with Viagra. The desire was not irresistible, of course, human beings still having enough free will to overcome lust if they really wanted to. Legions of smellers did not want to.
The second year, the company went public. The third year, it brought out a perfume that induced a desire to obey—very subtle, perhaps no more than the same effect created by an authoritative stance in a charismatic personality. But most people were not charismatic. I’m In Charge Here was just as big a success as Sleep With Me. The lawsuits began, and Stubbins hired the best lawyers he could find. So far, neither the government nor class-action suits had succeeded in getting any of his four products off the market.
Sleep With Me. I’m In Charge Here. Ain’t We Got Fun! Trust Me. All patented, all ravenously bought and used and then bought again because who wouldn’t want to be desired, obeyed, delighted, or trusted? Whether the “perfume” actually affected the person who smelled it or altered the natural body chemistry of the wearer was not conclusively proved, despite many attempts by scientists and many outraged articles by journalists. Perhaps the whole thing was a mass-hysteria placebo effect multiplied by a brilliant ad campaign. The public, even in a depressed economy, didn’t care. They bought the small, expensive, distinctively green bottles with the outrageous names.
Stubbins put his MBA to good use, shrewdly diversifying and investing. When the spore clouds wrecked the global economy and entire countries went bankrupt, his personal economy dipped only a small amount. That was due in part, persistent rumor said, to bought congressmen and illegal lobbying and ruthless dealing with would-be competitors. Jonah Stubbins merely grinned at the allegations, and shuffled his feet, and made yet more enemies. He was forty-six years old and he owned the world.
And this was the man who now wanted to donate to the Star Brotherhood Foundation! Marianne sat at that evening’s fund-raiser, which would net at most donations of a few thousand dollars, and made mechanical conversation with overdressed women and their mostly preoccupied husbands. She gave her brief after-dinner speech without really hearing her own words. Jonah Stubbins! His spaceship, constructed according to engineers’ interpretations of the plans left by the Denebs, was the furthest along since domestic terrorists had blown up Branson’s ship. Stubbins was serious about this. And the figure he had written on the erase-o-paper was staggering. The foundation could create TV and Internet spots, pay for ads, hire another speech-giver.…
She sat down to polite applause. Conversation resumed. That man at the next table, leaning in so eagerly toward that woman—was she wearing Sleep With Me? Were either of the two women at the end of her table, who appeared to be discussing a business deal, scented with Trust Me or I’m In Charge Here? Did any of that stuff actually work? Well, yes, Sleep With Me did, there was independent-lab verification for that, but sexual-arousal hormones had been researched and studied for decades. The others might just be smoke and mirrors.
But Stubbins’s money was real.
“Well,” she replied to whatever it was that her host had just said, “that is interesting. Tell me more.”
* * *
Marianne sat in the front seat of the rented minivan beside Tim, who drove too fast north on Route 87 from New York to Tannersville. The college where Marianne had taught was there, and so was Ryan’s home. Colin had turned two a month ago and, finally, there was to be a family celebration.
“I can drive myself,” Marianne had said. “Or take the train.”
“Amtrak isn’t reliable,” Sissy had said, “especially north of Albany. You know that, Marianne. Look what happened when you tried to get to Pittsburgh for that speech.”
“Pittsburgh isn’t north of Albany.”
“Tim’s driving you,” Sissy said. “That’s what a bodyguard does, he guards people. Am I right, Tim?”
“Always,” Tim said, not looking up from the videogame on his tablet.
Sissy snorted. “Yeah, right. But I’m right this time, Marianne. Tim should drive you. Why wouldn’t you want him to?”
Tim raised his blindingly blue gaze from his tablet. Sissy stared at Marianne. Danger, danger. She loved Sissy like a daughter. Tim’s long legs sprawled across Marianne’s office in black jeans and boots. He smelled of leather and masculinity.
Marianne had made herself shrug. “No reason. Okay, Tim, you drive.”
Now she sat beside him, hunched over her tablet as the slowly greening spring landscape slid past. She concentrated on Harrison’s research notes, and only on that.
If only mice weren’t so damn tiny! Adult Mus weighed on average half a pound. As far as Harrison could tell, and it wasn’t very far, the brains of sacrificed mice showed the same abnormal tissue growth as those of the deer mice. Which might or might not have been the same as the autopsied child, which in turn might or might not have anything to do with Karcher’s statistical analysis of increased agitation among children born since the spore cloud. Many, but not all, of these children were deaf, and deafness did not ordinarily increase infant agitation. The data simply did not yet yield enough correlations.
Marianne looked up from her tablet and rubbed her eyes. Elizabeth was flying up from Texas for the birthday party. It would be the first time they had all been together since the Denebs left.
No, not all together. Noah was gone. Every time Marianne thought that, it was as if for the first time. She would never see Noah again. Was he happy, out there on an alien planet, with an alien wife? Probably Marianne would never know.
Tim said abruptly, “You should take the money.”
The interruption was welcome. “Stubbins’s money?”
“Yeah. We can use it. And who cares if he makes perfume? Money is money.”
Curiosity overrode prudence. “Have you ever used any of his scents?”
“Once I tried I’m In Charge Here, when I was Special Forces. It didn’t work too good. My CO didn’t believe I was in charge.” He chuckled, a low lazy sound that went straight to Marianne’s primitive brain.
She said, “I’m going to take the money.”
“Good. Sissy won’t like it, though.”
“It’ll be okay.” He began whistling, and Marianne went back to Harrison’s notes.
Was Ryan and Connie’s youngest, Colin, among the children with hearing problems? That was one of the things she wanted to find out at this family gathering. The other thing she wanted to know from Ryan, she could never ask. Maybe Tim’s presence would be useful, after all. With an outsider present, her family could not get too personal with each other. They had never done well with personal.
* * *
“Grandma! I’m three!” Jason held up three fingers of a candy-smeared hand.
“What a big boy!”
“And Colin’s two!” Two little fingers.
It would be okay. Ryan, Connie, Jason, Elizabeth—they all met her, smiling, on the porch of the little house. This was just a normal family gathering, and everything would be okay.
Within the hour, none of it was okay.
Colin, the birthday boy, cried constantly, a high thin wail. Marianne walked him; Connie fed him; Jason brought him toys. Only food quieted him, and then only briefly. He looked underweight. Elizabeth, who did not like children, asked Jason to show her his sandbox, just to get out of the house. Ryan, looking strained, dressed Jason in his jacket and sent him outside with his aunt.
“She shouldn’t have come,” Ryan said to Marianne as they stood in the hall. In the living room, Colin cried. “Already Elizabeth’s started that old drumbeat about law and order. Connie isn’t up to this.”
Marianne said carefully, “Connie looks really tired.” The hallway rug was stained, the walls bore crayon marks, a houseplant looked dusty and parched. Connie had always been a meticulous housekeeper.
“Of course she looks tired,” Ryan said. “She doesn’t ever get uninterrupted sleep. Colin just cries and cries. Jason wasn’t like this.”
“Every child is different,” Marianne said, and immediately regretted the fatuous truth. It was no help.
“Did any of us cry like this?”
“No. I guess I was lucky. Ryan, Connie looks like she’s lost a lot of weight. Has she seen a doctor?”
“She has an appointment next week. Colin, too, although the doctor appointments never seem to help.” He ran his hand though his hair, already going thin on top.
“If you need money for a night nurse or other household help.…”
“No. We don’t. And I know you don’t have any to spare. But thanks, Mom.”
He had always been like that, reluctant to accept help. “Me do it,” he’d said as a little child, never belligerently but as a statement of fact. Self-contained, self-reliant. And always, always secretive.
Ryan, did you do it?
Did you aid the organization that tried to blow up the Embassy? She could never ask him. If he had done it, he wouldn’t tell her. If he hadn’t done it and she accused him, the fraying tie between them might snap for good. Instead she said, “Jason is so excited about Colin’s birthday.”
He smiled faintly. “Well, three—an excitable age.”
“He seems to love being a big brother.”
“Yes. We haven’t seen any sibling rivalry at all. Jason constantly tries to console Colin.”
Something small to be grateful for. Sibling rivalry with Elizabeth and Ryan had made Noah feel he could never measure up, had set him adrift. Maybe Ryan and Connie were better parents than she and Kyle had been. Well—not a very high bar.
Everyone kept conversation focused on the children. Jason ate cake and helped Colin to open his presents. Colin cried. During one of his rare exhausted periods, Marianne held him on her lap. Tears stained his tired little face. She played a game of snapping her fingers to the right, to the left, above his head. Colin tried to grab them, until he again began to cry. Whatever his upset was, the baby didn’t have hearing problems.
During dinner, Colin blessedly slept. The adults, plus Jason in his booster seat, sat around the table, eating too fast, trying to get through the meal before Colin woke up. Tim had spent much of the afternoon prowling around the outside of the house, in the woods, and below the windows. Ryan and Connie were polite to him but basically uninterested. Elizabeth, however, kept glancing from Tim to Marianne. Marianne had made a big point of saying that Tim was her administrative assistant’s boyfriend. It did not stop Elizabeth’s glances. Conversation did not flow well.
Into a lull, Tim said, “I saw a wolf in your woods. Do you have a pack?”
“Yes,” Ryan said, “down from Canada. Just this winter.”
Connie said, “I worry about Jason every minute he’s outside.”
Jason, his mouth rosy with beets, mumbled, “Don’t worry, Mama.”
Tim smiled. “If there’s an adult with Jason, ma’am, then wolves won’t attack.”
Elizabeth said, “Are you a woodsman, then?”
“And you’re licensed to carry all three weapons you have with you.”
Tim’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, ma’am. But I’m curious how you know there’s three.”
Marianne hastened to blur the battle lines before they could harden. “Elizabeth’s with Border Patrol in Texas. And Tim’s ex–Special Forces.”
Elizabeth and Tim regarded each other even more closely, but with grudging respect. Ryan, however, frowned. Connie was still fixated on the wolves.
“Are you sure a wolf wouldn’t attack an adult? I saw ours, just last week, and it looked skinny and hungry enough to eat anything.”
Ryan said, “That’s because there are no mice for them to eat. In fact, I’m surprised wolves have survived at all.”
Tim said, “Wolves are survivors. They can make it no matter what happens.”
“Well, no,” Ryan said. “They almost didn’t survive humans. By 1940 there were only a handful of wolves left in the entire United States.”
“Don’t matter,” Tim said. “Like you said, they just retreated to Canada, ready to invade whenever the time was right. Biding their time. I hear other species do that, too. Can’t stamp ’em out, so you got to live with ’em.”
Ryan put down his fork and said evenly, “You’re talking about purple loosestrife.”
Tim said, “About what?”
Elizabeth said, “No, he’s not, Ryan—not every conversation is about purple loosestrife. He’s talking about Mom’s aliens.”
Tim said, “What’s purple loosestrife?”
Marianne said, “They’re not my aliens.”
“Sure they are,” Elizabeth said. “You helped make them welcome and now you want the ship built to go visiting.”
Ryan, for once his sister’s ally, said quietly, “She’s right, Mom. The Denebs were an invasive species, and now we’re reaping the consequences of having them here. You know that as well as anyone.”
Jason looked from his father to his grandmother. Marianne pressed her lips together and said nothing. Let the discussion die here. Connie, uncomfortable with friction of any kind, said brightly, “Who’d like more cake?”
But Tim said to Ryan, “Your mom’s right, you know. We should go to the stars. I mean—wow!”
Elizabeth said tightly, “No matter what the cost.”
“We already paid the cost,” Tim said. “So why not at least get what we paid for?”
“A great philosophy,” Elizabeth said. “The Children’s Crusade is already slaughtered, so why not have tea with the Saracens.”
“Who?” Tim said.
Ryan said, calmly but with a little too much emphasis, “An invasive species always disrupts an ecology. In this case, the ecology is the entire globe. It may end life as we know it. What, in your opinion, Tim, is worth that?”
Tim’s blue eyes glittered. “I didn’t say it was worth it. I said it was done. Take an even strain, man.”
Ryan said, “I’d rather you didn’t tell me how to behave in my own house.”
“Or more coffee!” Connie said desperately.
Elizabeth said, “The Deneb visit was a disaster. The follow-up is a disaster. Any return contact will be a disaster. That’s just the fucking truth, and you, Mom, won’t face it.”
Jason said, “Aunt Lizzie said a bad word!”
“Yes, darling, she did,” Connie said. “Elizabeth—”
“All right! I apologize for the word but not for the sentiments! Tim, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Come down to Texas and see what the Denebs’ ecological interference has done there. If you were anything but an urban New Yorker, you’d realize the full devastation.”
“I’m from Oklahoma,” Tim said. “Don’t patronize me.”
Marianne said, “The starship—”
“Will never be built,” Elizabeth said. “The plans are too different, too alien. Don’t you read about the difficulties human engineers are having in interpreting them?”
“Of course I do. Don’t patronize me, Elizabeth. Difficulties are not permanent impasses. Along with the advanced physics the Denebs gave us, we—”
“We what?” Ryan said. “Are farther ahead? The entire global ecology is becoming untenable. Invasive species—”
“We are the same species as the Denebs!” Marianne said. “The same species as Noah!”
She hadn’t meant to say it. It just burst out, driven by… everything. They all looked at her, even Jason, from wide eyes. The silence stretched and stretched, like taut cable. Before it could snap, Elizabeth murmured, “Let’s not discuss Noah. Connie, I will have more cake, thank you.”
Everybody reached for food, or resumed eating, or pretended to eat. Connie said to Jason, “You ate all your beets! Good boy!”
“I like beets,” Jason announced. “They’re red.”
“So they are,” Ryan said.
“Carrots are orange.”
“Clever boy!” Elizabeth said.
“Oranges are orange, too.” This struck Jason as funny; he giggled.
The adults exchanged strained smiles. Marianne avoided Ryan’s gaze. Did you? Did you?
In the next room, Colin began to wail.
* * *
All the way back to New York, after a night when Tim slept on Ryan’s sofa and Marianne barely slept at all, neither of them said a word.
Grateful for this uncharacteristic tact, Marianne dozed, or gazed out the window, or turned on the radio to a station of classical music, without words. She’d had enough words. Fields and towns and boarded-up malls flew by.
One good thing: between exhaustion and worry and disappointment, Tim’s nearness did not disturb her at all. Sometimes you had to be grateful for what you could get.
Excerpted from Tomorrow’s Kin © Nancy Kress, 2017