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What Remains

Over the past thirty-five years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and young adult novels and more than 300 short stories. Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her fiction has won a Stoker and a Nebula Award.

Nina does production work for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which recently published two of her short stories, with another to come. Her short fiction has also appeared in Lightspeed, Weird Tales, Asimov's, Hitchcock's, Analog, Cicada, Daily Science Fiction, and many other magazines--in lots of anthologies as well. Permeable Borders, a collection of Hoffman's short fiction, was published by Fairwood Press. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

I was the only one alive when the Picti found our shipwrecked shuttle pod.
Sang, Tadala, and I had jumped through the wrong skip node on our way back to the mother ship. We landed on a planet we found on the other side of the uncharted node. Our rescue beacon probably couldn't reach anyone we knew. The pod had supplies and air for only five days.
All of us offered our bodies to each other as we lay dying, and none of us accepted the sacrifice. We were all vegetarians, and the air would run out soon anyway. We lay together, holding hands, staring at the mandala on the ceiling as life left us. Our only comfort lay in knowing we were with the ones we loved. Perhaps in the next life we would find each other again.
The Picti arrived in a rush of bad planetary air as they opened the pod door. I had hardly any awareness left, but coughing and choking woke me enough to see, with weeping eyes, that we were surrounded by silver, pulsing mounds that moved. A cool pseudopod touched my face, then covered it. My skin sizzled, and then I could breathe again.
I lost my last rags of consciousness then.
When I woke, I was surrounded by me. Three me's looked down at me. None of us wore clothing.
I lay on something soft that was also the floor of a very small chamber. The room was roundish, coated with a rough, moist, red-pink substance that felt under my hands and bare back like the surface of a tongue. The ceiling was very low. I felt like I was inside a giant, toothless mouth. Its breath smelled like lemons and curry. Soft yellow light shone from small bumps here and there in the red stuff.
The three faces above me, all mine, looked worried, though to different degrees. They were all too close to me.
"What?" I said, and reached up to touch a face. It leaned closer to let me pat it. I fingered its lips, its nose, its mustache, so familiar, though I'd never seen myself from the outside like this before. It blinked its dark eyes.
"Have I died? How are there more of me?"
"Milumili," it said, its voice my very pitch and timbre, its words nonsense.
I fumbled for my utility belt, where I had a universal translator, though why I couldn't understand myself was a mystery.
My utility belt was gone, like everything else I owned. I looked at the nearest me's chest and found differences: the slash of scar from a misfired laser near my left nipple was missing. None of the white scratch scars from my childhood tiger playmate shone in the brown skin of his shoulders.
Someone else pushed into the chamber, crowding us all even closer, close enough to taste each other's breaths. This one had the face of my beloved, Sang. I held out my arms to her, and she squeezed past the me's and held her arms out to me. But she did not come all the way into my embrace. I struggled up and pulled her into a hug, wondering if this was a strange afterlife.
Her arms came around my torso after a brief hesitation, and then, somehow, skin to skin with my beloved, I knew this was not my beloved. Though she breathed and felt and smelled like my beloved, the one I loved was not there. We had no ease in our embrace. It was the touch of strangers.
I sagged against the stubby red floor. It squirmed beneath me. I closed my eyes and lay with the mystery. I realized I no longer felt hunger or thirst, nor hot, nor cold. I must be dead.
The second time I woke, Tadala was beside me in the small red room. His beloved dark face wore no expression. He studied my face as though he knew me not.
"Tadala?" I said, though I knew this was not my beloved.
He touched my chest, then my face. He looked closely at me, then held up his hand with its lovely long fingers, and nodded toward it. I studied it. It had none of the small scars Tadala had acquired while welding, and all its fingernails were intact. As I watched, the hand melted into a silver blob.
I gasped and reached up to touch it. Surface tension held it in a shape, but it gave beneath my fingers, not quite as liquid as quicksilver, nor as hard as bread dough. Tadala's serious face studied me as I grasped the silver bulb and squeezed it. It bulged out between my fingers. When I opened my hand, it coalesced again into an orb. The silver traveled up Tadala's arm to his shoulder, then started across his chest, until only his head remained, surrounded by silver.
Then I knew my true beloveds were dead, and I was still alive, with people who could look like us.
"Who are you?" I asked as loss opened a dark chasm in my chest, and hope fell into it.
The silver sent a pseudopod toward me. It held my utility belt. I took the belt and opened the pouch where I kept the universal translator. This was an undocumented species, one I'd never seen in the galactic cooperative. Its language profile would not be in the translator yet, but the translator worked partly in the future, looking ahead to when we would understand each other, if understanding was possible. I held the translator out, and the silver being with Tadala's face touched it as I touched it. I tapped the translator on and said, "Who are you, please?"
The translator vibrated, then vibrated again, and a voice came out of it, the null voice the translator supplied to those who used nonvocal speech. "We are Picti," it said. "We wish to encounter more of your species. How do we get where your others are?"
"How is it you take the shapes of me and my friends?" I asked.
"We have tasted you. It is how we learn new species. We had to adjust you to live in our atmosphere. We understand some solids dislike any shift. We apologize for altering you, but it was necessary to sustain life."
I closed my eyes and opened my mind. Before our shuttle pod limped to a landing on that planet, we had used its faltering equipment to scan stars, and located some we knew. They were half a galaxy away, an impossible distance by straight-line travel, and our access to the node webs had died.
I could tell the Picti the direction in which to find humans, but I knew nothing about their mode of travel or their intentions toward us.
I abandoned all hope that I would ever see another of my own kind.
When I opened my eyes, I looked up into the face of Sang, framed by her long black hair. Her eyes held the gentle kindness that defined her.
"We are too far from home ever to return," I told the Picti who wore the form of my beloved. "You will have to learn only from me."
She touched my face with cool fingertips. "It is a start," she said.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 15th, 2018

Author Comments

In the Eugene, Oregon, sf/f writers workshop the Wordos, we spend two or three of our weekly meetings a year reading short-short stories aloud to each other, the theme (usually holiday-related) agreed on beforehand. For our 2017 Halloween reading, we had four themes. "What Remains" was a response to two of them--"Shapeshifters" and "Haunted Spaceship." (The other themes were "City-Stomping Monsters" and "The First Halloween.")

- Nina Kiriki Hoffman
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