“The Wet Nurse” by Rob Francis

The desert is immeasurable and we are so small, the baby and I. But perhaps there is not far to go after all. One way or another.

I talk to thon as I walk, because I know somehow that this will help us both.

“I don’t know what to call you, little one. But I am Hanoi.” The words feel strange after all this time, and I regret not speaking aloud more often. “I want you to hear my voice because I don’t know how long we’ll have together.” The baby’s face is shaded by the cotton sling but the resemblance to me is clear. Thon is quiet now but will be hungry soon, for milk that I don’t have.

The sandstone plain we cross is as beautiful as ever. Rain has fallen on only a half-dozen occasions in all the time I have been here; with limited weathering, there is little sand and dust to sculpt the land, but it is all the more wondrous for that. Once it would have been a great coastal shelf covering almost a sixth of the planet. Now the only things that break the horizon, apart from the mining complex we leave behind, are the few xerophytic trees and succulents that can live here. Yet there must be subterranean aquifers that come close to the surface: a handful of the desert plants are phreatophytes, and need a high water table. I have found no record of the hydrological surveys the planetary engineers must have performed, but am confident in my assessment.

I am staking our lives on it.

The long sunset is still far off but at least the zenith has passed. My skin has already darkened in preparation for the journey. The baby could probably do the same, if only thon knew how; thon’s biological construction looks the same as mine. As it must be.

This is the first time I have been abroad in over a year, and only the third time since the accident. I go as fast as I can, still exhausted and sore from the birth. I travel light, my linen backpack holding only the essentials: jars of synthetic gruel, cans of water, a long ceramic knife. I wonder if this is how all parents feel, the world transformed, a new life taking precedence over all concerns of the old. I expect so: it would make evolutionary sense. Any sacrifice would be worthwhile, if it offers a chance of life for the child.

A mild dose of endorphins helps to ease the pain.

I recall that humans usually sing to their children but I have no comparison for a human childhood and know no songs or stories. So instead I talk as the sun touches the horizon and the long twilight comes to smother us.

The accident happens soon after we make landfall, as we are being debriefed in the skimmer en route to the mine. Custodian is cheerful, eyes bright like she knows all the secrets of the universe. We bocs are excited too, to be given purpose again after months of working on pleasure ships or as servitors. I am still in my harness because I’m studying the data slate, reading up on the legacy of ecological engineering Helios Minor underwent when it was first colonized centuries before.

This saves my life.

Whatever happens—and I still don’t truly know—it is catastrophic. The hyperinteraction link between Primus A.I. and the skimmer is severed instantaneously, the pan-sensory equivalent of a broken spine. The skimmer becomes a flying slab of metal that impacts hard on the sandstone plateau, tearing itself to pieces. Custodian dies instantly. Some of the constructs—Paris, Milan, Beijing—are also annihilated in seconds, while others—Chicago, I think, and London—survive the impact but die of their injuries within minutes.

I alone survive. My collarbone is broken and most of my upper body muscles are torn, but they repair over the next few hours as I hang in the harness amongst the wreckage. Through the rents in the skimmer I can see the pallid desert and a few green succulents clinging to the surface. A viridescent beetle lands on the harness and I brush my fingertips along it, assimilating its DNA momentarily. It is a descendent of the Tenebrionidae family, originally harvested on Earth and now a species of its own, new and unrecorded. The slate—now destroyed—listed almost two million species introduced. I wonder how many survived, and how many there are now.

When I’m strong enough I leave the debris and begin the long walk to the yttrium mine complex. Fire is streaking through the sky and I conclude that Primus A.I. has died violently, though how and why I have no way of knowing.

The loss of Custodian and my colleagues is hard but I am invigorated by the novel ecosystem around me, and thrilled at the pleasure of experiencing it alone. Bocs are rarely left in solitude.

There are reasons for that.

The baby is crying now, aware only that thon’s stomach is empty. I stop at a large branching succulent, crimson needles peppering its fleshy stems—a descendent of the Cactaceae, my fingertips tell me—and slice into it with the blade, cutting a segment that I place at the baby’s lips and squeeze so that the juice runs into thon’s mouth. Thon chokes a little the first time, but after that swallows some down. It will help, but not much.

The shadows are growing, the heat more tolerable. Animals will be emerging soon. The engineers cultivated over three hundred species of mammal that could survive in the desert. From the mine’s observation deck I have observed only one, but that’s what I am looking for: some descendent of the Manidae, a giant offshoot of the pangolin family.

I eat some of the fleshy pulp of the succulent as I walk. After years of synthesized gruel, it tastes delicious.

Something moves in the distance. It is low to the ground and winding from side to side but large; much larger than I would have expected. A reptile of some kind, scales of blue and black. Serpentine. And it is fast, coming straight for us. It can smell us, or has sensed the vibration of my footfall.

I can’t run. I can’t put the baby down. I don’t know how to fight. I wrap one arm around the sling and the baby and hold the blade in my other hand. It looks inadequate.

The snake rears as it approaches so that it is above me, jaw open, yellow tongue scenting the air. Our odor will be strange to it but it is hungry. I judge that it is some kind of viperid and will kill with venom and not constriction.

I shout, shocking the baby into alarmed wailing, but the serpent just watches us and weaves back and forth, edging closer. I back away but there can only be one outcome. When it strikes I twist to shield the baby and the snake’s mouth latches on my thigh, fangs puncturing flesh and scraping on bone.

I ram the blade into the back of its head and it withdraws preternaturally fast, lashing its way back across the stone, the handle of the knife protruding from its skull. In moments it is gone. I have no idea if the blow is fatal. I hope not: the creature does not need to die, if it leaves us alone.

With trembling hands I lift the sling from my neck and place the baby on the ground, then lie down next to thon. Already my legs are burning and I’m trembling, my hearts racing, temperature rising. I close my eyes and concentrate on speeding up my metabolism to neutralize or contain the venom as best I can.

I dream. The baby’s crying is a beacon I hold during the voyage of sickness and memory, so that I do not succumb to the blue-black waves that try to drag me under.

The mining complex is a vast pit, about which sits a collection of buildings constructed of steel, glass, and sandstone. Above all tower the living quarters and observation deck, which I recognize from the plans Custodian shared with us back on Primus A.I.

The mine is easily accessed. Decommissioned a century before, it was not fully secured because it held little of value, and it is never clear when such facilities will reopen or who will need entry, and under what circumstances. So the entrance is open and I walk down the vast tunnel to the quarantine bay, where a scanner recognizes my basic humanoid handprint and lets me in.

The base powers up, banks of quantum batteries that have been hibernating for so long reactivating and recharging from the solar sheets that cover the buildings and some of the surrounding land. I wait in quarantine for a long time while the deep-tissue scanners go to work to identify me. I’m a standard construct but only around four decades old, so certainly newer than the templates the complex holds in its core. Eventually it lets me in.

The first thing I do is find the food lab and set the synthesizers to work. With no ration stores everything must be made from scratch from its chemical constituents, with the only thing currently possible being a vitamin and mineral-rich paste that can be mixed with water to make a thin gruel. While I am waiting for this, I visit the med bay for a body scan. There is bound to be some residual trauma from the accident that needs assessment.

The ACT scanner and filament probes check my organs. Brain and hearts are fine, as are liver and pancreas. Some kidney dysfunction, but this can be treated. Womb and ovaries intact. Testicles bruised but functional. Gastro-intestinal tract healthy. I am lucky.

For now.

I settle down in the living quarters to wait. The mine is too large and complex for a single person to run alone, so I have little choice. Someone will come: the sandstone layers in this area are rich in monazite, to be mined and processed to extract the yttrium that the Company needs for ship engines, especially the new class five warships they are building. The mine won’t be abandoned. But there is no communication from Primus A.I., which makes me certain that it is dead; and that further contact from anyone at the Company, or in the sector, may take some time.

I’m right about that.

The baby is sleeping when I wake and I am grateful for the silence. My limbs ache and the slightest movement rattles through my head but I push myself to my knees and wait for the quivering world to right itself. The venom has damaged me inside, perhaps beyond my capacity for self-repair. But that is a problem for later. For now, I must continue.

I release more endorphins.

The twilight is advanced and full dark is not far away. I scoop some of the gruel into my mouth and take a sip of water, which I immediately regurgitate. But the second mouthful stays down, and after a few more measured moments of deep breathing I am able to pick up the baby and start walking. My legs shake and I can only move slowly into the night.

I am almost in a trance, shuffling forwards, eyes half-closed. But it must be close now. I have come a long way, and am sure of the direction.

Hope presents itself as a fissure in the ground, only just visible now that the desert night has fallen. I approach carefully, not knowing how the manid will respond, if indeed this is the right place. The crevice angles down into the sandstone and there is a pungent smell like human sweat. I slide down into the opening of a cave system, the walls covered with mats of fungi and bacteria that I drag my fingers across—Gallionellaceae, Comamonadaceae, Aspergillus. Ahead are tunnels and darkness. The air holds a trace of moisture: there must be water down here. I wait for my eyes to adjust before continuing.

The largest tunnel opens into a chamber that has been carved millennia ago by flowing water. In the middle lies the manid I observed through the observation deck telescope. It rests on its side, its baby sleeping atop it.

The manid watches me with still, bright eyes but does not react. Perhaps it does not understand what I am, or see me as a threat. But I like to think that it is more than that; that perhaps it recognizes another parent and child in need, a bond that transcends species.

Slowly I kneel before it. It shifts slightly but does not seem alarmed, and the child on its back does not wake. The creature’s two teats are exposed. I place my baby’s mouth against one; the nipple is perhaps a little oversized but within seconds thon is taking the milk. The mother manid seems unconcerned.

As the baby feeds I admire the creature. I’ve never seen one so close before, the overlapping scales like a body suit, long face in which must sit a wormlike tongue for extracting insects from cracks and crevices above and below ground. Its hooked claws are fearsome, and I wonder if there are any insect mounds in this new ecosystem for it to break apart. Its offspring looks just the same, though I can see that it is a male. Mother and son, the father absent. A scene that would once have been common on Earth.

Once the baby is full I pat thon’s back until thon belches, then hold thon quietly as thon sleeps to make sure thon can digest the manid’s milk. After some time I am confident thon can: thon is a boc after all, and more versatile than a human child.

For the first time in many days I sleep easy.

I am alone for years. I study the mining records, the information held in the digital libraries; get to know the geography, history, ecology of Helios Minor. I venture outside a couple of times but I don’t have the right equipment to take samples or go far, so I content myself with assimilating the DNA of a handful of plants and insects that can be found near the mine, to see how far genomes have changed since the species were introduced. Evolutionary progress has been swift, as it often is when the environment changes rapidly — or instantly, in the case of these species brought from other worlds. So many new niches and interactions to be exploited.

I’m not doing nearly so well.

Humans think of bocs as emotionless and stilted. But this does not mean uncomplicated. I don’t know how to cope with being alone. I don’t return to the skimmer as there is no point and it is a long way, though I think about it often. There is no response to my repeated signals for help. I spend days at a time on the observation deck, watching the super-manids and any other animals I can see through the telescopes. The world becomes tiny, unbearably constrained.

I fall into a half-life, sensory stimuli muted and dull, sleep the primary escape. I try to create—painting, writing, cultivating a new offshoot of Rebutia cacti that grows near the mine. But it all pales to nothing. Despair starts to set in, an insidious rot that I do not know how to counter.

Custodian once warned me that bocs need occupation and company. That humans can cope with loneliness and indolence far better than we can. I wish I could talk to her again. Or anyone. The solitude is unbearable.

We stay in the manid cave.

At first I explore the cave complex, following tunnels farther into the earth to find flowing water rushing through the lower caverns in a torrent; a subterranean freshwater ecosystem that must flow for thousands of kilometers from the more mountainous parts of the planet, and down towards the lower pole.

There are things in the aquatic darkness—pale, blind fish and crustaceans that I can catch and eat. I eke out the synthetic gruel and supplement it with fish and crab, though I find the meat unpleasant. But I need the nutrition: my body remains weak from the snake’s poison and I am not sure if I will ever fully recover.

The baby spends a lot of time suckling with the manid. When the baby soils thonself I wash thon in the stream, and when it is not too hot outside the cave I walk a little in the sun, the child in my arms. I hold thon when we sleep, head on my shoulder, body in the crook of my arm.

The baby grows fast as the long days come and go. Surprisingly fast. After seven days thon can crawl, albeit unsteadily.

There are other changes too.

Ten days after our arrival much of thon’s skin sprouts a dense fluff, which metamorphoses into vermillion scales like those of the manid. Thon’s shoulders broaden and the fingers of thon’s hands turn clawlike. The process is fascinating. The child is a boc and thon’s ability to assimilate DNA seems to progress beyond mine. Thon is becoming more.

Thon gambols with the male manid, the two of them play-fighting and rolling around, huffing at each other. I worry that thon will get hurt but thon seems strong and can throw the male around with ease. They are like siblings now. Some nights the child snuggles up to the manids rather than sleeping beside me.

One evening, while we walk outside the caves, I decide to give thon a name. I sit on the warm sandstone and hold thon on my knee, peering into thon’s scaled face, at once both strange and familiar.

“The Company names constructs after ancient Earth cities. I suppose that is something akin to tradition, so I should do the same for you. I will call you Kinshasa.”

Kinshasa smiles at me and I am bathed in contentment.

I am in the early stages of development and Chirurgeon is teaching me about my biology. I’m intrigued by the possibility of reproduction.

“Don’t be.” Chirurgeon is old and sometimes uncaring but today he is in a gentler mood that I suspect may be because he will soon stop working for the Company and retire to a pleasure ship.

“But bocs have both sets of reproductive organs. What for, if not to use them?”

He scrubs at the bristles on his chin thoughtfully, weighing how best to deliver uncomfortable truths. I have seen humans prepare like this many times.

“Do you ever have the desire to use them? The male or female apparatus?”

“No. Not really.”

He nods in satisfaction. “Bocs don’t have the same desires and drives as humans. This is intentional. You ask why you have sets of reproductive organs: the simple answer is that you have many purposes.”

“Purposes?”

“Some of these we’ve discussed. Some we haven’t. You may find yourself working on a pleasure ship, or owned by someone with specific needs. The organs are for use then. But you should note: you’re not human, and no human can reproduce with you. Nor can you reproduce with each other, though even an attempt would be highly unlikely given your engineering.”

“So why have the womb, the ovaries?”

“In some ways it’s easier to engineer a full, functional set of organs rather than an incomplete selection. But sometimes bocs are used as surrogates. If human parents can’t conceive, a fertilized egg is implanted in a boc and brought to term. Because you’re so advanced and have some capacity to self-repair, this can be done many times.”

I reflect on this silently, which eventually makes Chirurgeon uncomfortable.

“Anyway,” he continues, “don’t concern yourself with it. Bocs are made, not born. Keep your mind and efforts on higher things. The Company will commend you for it.”

Now, in the silence of the mine, I can think of nothing else. After two years alone, I make my decision.

It is a simple enough process to inseminate myself. All bocs masturbate to release sperm, though it is a quick, functional act. Once the sperm is obtained, all I need is a long syringe. I assume it will not work, and after a dozen attempts it seems I am right.

I consider terminating myself, walking out into the desert to die. I make a log of what has happened here for when they send the next team. I walk the complex aimlessly, trying to decide what to do and when to do it.

And then I am pregnant.

Kinshasa is big, ready for solid food. I feed thon some of the fish I caught earlier in the day and thon chews it happily. But it will not be enough; we need other foods, clothing, medicine, safety. And Kinshasa is becoming more of a manid each day. We can’t stay here much longer. It is time to return to the mine and start our life anew.

I wait until the evening approaches. Kinshasa is scampering on all fours with Brother, the two playing some game that I don’t understand. The mother manid is sleeping, waiting for the desert to cool a little more before foraging. I gather my few things and heave Kinshasa into my arms.

“Come now, little one.” I plant a kiss on the top of thon’s head. “It’s time to leave.”

Brother is watching me in confusion, and Mother has woken. I incline my head to them in thanks, though I know they will not understand. “We will never forget you.”

But as I carry Kinshasa to the cave entrance thon struggles, thrashing wildly and scratching my face with thon’s claws. Both manids huff in distress and Kinshasa wails, until I drop thon to the floor.

Kinshasa runs to the manid; to thon’s mother. And it is clear.

I must return alone.

The gestation passes swiftly. I have few symptoms—no sickness, no cravings, no mood swings. I am intrigued by the process and follow the baby’s progress with the scanners. All seems right and proper.

Yet I am anxious. Not just because I don’t know what will happen once it is born, but because, as the time approaches, I can see that my body is not ready. My breasts are unchanged, and there is no milk. My mammary glands are not working, and I can intuit no way of changing this. It seems I have failed before I have already begun. The child will need milk to survive.

One evening I take the lift to the observation deck and watch the desert in the twilight, knowing that if the baby cannot survive then neither can I. Now we are together, we are one and the same.

And then I see the manid, the mother, roaming with a tiny version of itself clinging to its tail. A newborn.

My heart lifts at the possibilities.

My biology is not human, but I am sure the baby is nearly ready. I decide to induce the birth.

The desert is dark and cool outside the burrow and so Mother has gone hunting for insects. I have put it off long enough and must leave too. I am wary of holding Kinshasa to say goodbye, though I long to. I approach carefully, thinking to place my hand on thon’s forehead and speak a few words but as I near Brother rears up, longue lashing in an odd hiss that I have not heard him make before. I hang my head and decide to leave without a final touch but then Kinshasa swipes at Brother and before I realize what is happening the two are fighting, scrabbling at each other with claws and rolling across the burrow floor.

I step forward to do something but am not sure what. I try to grab them but my hands slip from their flashing scales and one of them—I can’t tell which—scrapes a claw across my leg to draw blood.

“Kinshasa, stop! Kinshasa!”

Neither of them responds, my voice dead beneath the earth.

Then Kinshasa rolls away. There is blood all over thon’s face and chest and fear and confusion in thon’s eyes. Brother is still. I approach the bloodied tangle of scales and flesh and crouch carefully down. He’s gone.

Kinshasa runs at me and I raise my arms in protection but thon does not strike. Instead thon throws thon’s limbs around me and holds tight, keening pitifully. My cheeks are wet with tears for Kinshasa, for Brother, for myself. And for Mother, who will return to this. She has given everything and lost all.

I lift Kinshasa and climb slowly into the night. There is no sign of Mother, or of anything beyond a few insects trembling on the air.

I walk, carrying Kinshasa at first and then letting thon walk beside me when I tire, which is sooner than I would like. We make slow progress but Kinshasa stays with me throughout.

Sometimes we have to stop, just for a few moments. The final time I lower myself to the stone, limbs trembling, I notice something lying long and sinuous in the distance. I approach cautiously, but it is still. Dead: the stripped bones of the serpent that bit me. By its side lies the ceramic knife. I reach to pick it up but I can’t. I don’t want to. I leave it and collect Kinshasa. It is not far now.

We are close to the mining complex when I see them: lights, many lights, shining from the windows. As I stare, another flashes on in the observation deck and I instinctively crouch in case we are seen, though I doubt anyone will be searching the desert in the dark.

A new team has arrived.

I sit on the still-warm stone and Kinshasa climbs into my lap so that I loop my arms around thon and rest my chin on thon’s head. Soon thon is snoring gently.

What I have done will not be tolerated by the Company. I do not know what they will do with Kinshasa, though my suspicions chill me. But how long could we live in the desert, the two of us?

Something moves behind me. I turn to see Mother approach and stop a short distance from us, breathing heavily. Her eyes are full of pain and it is clear what she has come for, and what must happen. She has lost one child and must not lose another.

Perhaps it is not just the two of us. Perhaps there are other possibilities. Kinshasa is a wonder, after all. Perhaps thon could adapt, even if I cannot.

I sense that I am standing on a blade’s edge, and to move at all is to invite disaster. Yet I cannot stay still.

Weak as I am, I stand, Kinshasa in my arms. I turn my back on the Company and the complex, on my existence. Mother huffs and turns, too. She is ready.

Kinshasa sleeps soundly as we pass once more into the immeasurable desert.


Rob Francis is an academic and writer based in London. His stories have appeared in magazines such as The Arcanist, Apparition Lit, Metaphorosis, and Tales to Terrify. Rob has also contributed stories to several anthologies, including DeadSteam by Grimmer & Grimmer books, Under the Full Moon’s Light by Owl Hollow Press, and Scare Me by Esskaye Books. He lurks on Twitter @RAFurbaneco.