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Passed Down

Over the past thirty-odd years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and YA novels and more than 300 short stories. Her works have been finalists for many major awards, and she has won a Stoker and a Nebula Award.
I grew up on Kata Skip Station. Seven skip nodes lead here.
My parent and I run SpiceFire, a restaurant catering to the Four Known Races. We have four separate kitchens and four special chefs who set the menus; we have four species-specific dining rooms, and one big common area where all can eat together.
Station Administrator Kravs told my parent and me she was coopting all restaurants that could seat sixty for a special Peace Through Understanding event.
These mixers meant everyone switched tables every interval to speak with someone new. My parent, Oom (Origin of Me), supervised the chefs. I was in charge of setting up the common room so all Four Known Races could be seated and comfortable at all tables. Our waitstaff worked with me. Each table in the common room was set with two chairs and a small arrangement of flowers that were known not to trigger allergies in anyone. We put flatware on cloth napkins at each place, chopsticks, knife, fork, spoon, pincers the Hallen used, the long-handled fork/pincer combo used by the Shurixit, and a set of tiny bowls the Oerian dipped pollen from.
On the night of the event, Oom cleansed the air of any smells that might offend any species. She greeted the Peace people as they arrived and seated them at random tables. The only rule was that one had to face another of a different species for the initial encounter.
I stood at the back of the room with the waitstaff. Oom took guest orders and sent them to the screens in the kitchens so the chefs could get started. We had a lot of things already made, those that didn't need heat to prepare and wouldn't spoil right away. I went with the waitstaff to the pickup window and we started delivering orders to tables.
"Svilka," said Oom to me when all the guests had arrived, "we're shy one partner."
I looked at the last table. A Hallen sat alone there, gloriously iridescent peacock blue and jade green scaled-skin, with golden streaks in patterns along his side, eight-legged, his lizard head twice the size of my nominally human one. He smiled at me, showing triple rows of incisors. Hallen could bite through metal.
"I see that," I said to Oom.
"You will be seated."
"That's not in our remit," I said. "We are here to host and serve."
Oom gripped my chin and forced me to stare into her face. Our face. Hers was older, of course; I was a young copy of her. I knew she had other clones awaiting decanting at Cryolite; I'd replaced one of me who had disappointed her.
"Put this in your ear and sit," she said. She handed me a universal translator.
I closed my eyes, then opened them and put the translator in. "I hate it when you do this," I said.
"I know." She kissed my cheek, stroked my hair, and gave me a pat on the bottom.
"Greetings," I said as I took a seat across the table from the Hallen. "I am Svilka Svilkasdottir."
"Greetings," he said. His voice sounded like the sizzles hot oil made when one dropped vegetables or meats into a skillet. Filtered through the translator, it sounded male and young. "I am K-Kitari Ssissam."
"How should I address you to be polite?"
He hissed a laugh. "Call me Master," he said.
"That would not be polite to me."
He laughed again. "Could you call me lover?"
All Hallen who ever went out in public were male. All Hallen propositioned anything they identified as other than male. Their totipotent sperm could combine with the germ plasm of every known species to create strange new combination creatures. I usually avoided them, letting K-Kar, our Hallen staff, deal with them. K-Kar had been neutered for some crime and was considered a nonperson by the Hallen. He could be a nonperson and serve them food.
"I would rather not," I said. Why did Oom insist I sit with him? I glanced at the chrono on the back of my hand. Each encounter was to last fifteen minutes. When had we started encountering each other?
"You may call me Lord Ssissam," he said.
"Lord Sissam. Have you been on Kata Station long?"
"I was born here." He leaned toward me and blinked, a Hallen sign of affection and intrigue. "You?"
"I, too." I glanced at Oom, who stood by the kitchen door, watching everything.
"Is she your sister?"
"Mother," I said. I thought about the other me she had sent to recycling. Was that the first of us she had disposed of?
Usually I got along well with Oom; we shared tastes in music, food, art. She had corrected in me things she found difficult to deal with in herself. I did not suffer the insomnia she did.
But I knew I was at risk.
Oom had never had a child of the body.
"You smell better than she does," said Lord Sissam.
I turned back and studied him. If I were with child, Oom would not be able to dispose of me. Lord Sissam and I would share a responsibility to the unborn, and we would have legal rights.
A new being always had the right to be born, if the mother willed it so.
I laid my hand on his.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, August 14th, 2019
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