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art by Cheryl L Owen-Wilson

Baby Feet

Rene Sears is a lifelong word nerd and avid reader. She writes fiction for fun (and with the publication of this story, for profit!) from Birmingham, Alabama, where she resides with her husband and two children. In addition to reading, writing, and child-wrangling, she can be found arranging flowers, painting intermittently, and wielding a mighty embroidery needle. This is her first published story.

The vitamins stick in my throat worse than the old pre-natals, but I force myself to swallow. The babies need the nutrients, and they'll suck them right out of my body whether there's enough for all three of us or not.
I make sure to switch them every time so each child nurses on a different side in case one breast produces more milk. The invaders don't care if Christophe gets as much as the other one--he's only human, after all--but I do.
The regulator is hardly noticeable: a series of small raised circles on my abdomen, like subcutaneous watch batteries. It would show if I wore a bikini, but it's not like anyone's going to the pool since the invasion. My husband hasn't touched me since they put it in. The regulator alters my body chemistry so my milk will feed the other one. The invaders assured us it won't hurt Christophe, but do they really know? Does it matter to them? Every time he nurses, I wonder what it's doing to my baby.
The invaders have five different forms, although they've told us they're all the same species. The one they force me to nurse is a Priu. I thought that was its name at first, but it doesn't have one. They identify each other by a complex mix of pheromones. The papers call them stinkers, but the human nose can't actually pick up much of it. Christophe smells of milk and baby lotion. Our Priu smells of milk, too, but green and astringent like pine, and something that makes me think of the dirt of another planet, though it was born here. I feel I'll never get the smell out of my clothes.
Their heads bob at my breasts, one brown with a shock of black hair, the other the pale silver-green of lichen. Their toes intertwine across the nursing pillow, Christophe's with tiny, perfectly formed nails, and the Priu's nailless and faintly shiny. How can that tug of suckling mouths feel the same when they look so different? My husband watches and his hands flex. I glare at him. He knows to harm the Priu is to kill Christophe.
The nights are as lonely as the empty days when my husband is at the reclamation plant; he's too tired to help with the babies. It's different than how we dreamed it would be, before. Everything is. I was an attorney, my husband a professor. My bad luck to be pregnant during the invasion. All our degrees are useless now.
I wish mine had been in biology. Maybe then I'd understand what they hope to gain by changing my milk and sending their own young to suck with ours. It's too large a coincidence that they should be mammals, too, even with the regulator to make us compatible. I wish there was a support group where I could talk to other--wet nurses, I guess you'd call us. The only person I see beside my husband is our liaison.
Out liaison comes to check on the Priu once a week. It's not a Priu--I haven't seen an adult Priu--but the type they call Tilip. It's brilliant sea-green and nearly seven feet tall with four arms and four legs. My arms tighten around the babies. At least the Priu are bipedal and humanoid. The Tilip look like predators. This one taps a note into its wristscreen with a clawed fingertip.
It weighs both babies, measures them, draws blood, runs a scanner over them. They are nearly the same size--at three months, slightly above the fiftieth percentile for a human of that age--and it's pleased. Its mandibles clatter happily, and I wonder how my Priu has lips.
"Are they sleeping through the night yet?" the Tilip asks.
"No." I wonder if the bags under my eyes mean anything to it. "But they seem to be waking up less often."
"Excellent." It taps its wristscreen. "You are doing a good job, Celeste Marceau." For some reason, this praise brings tears to my eyes.
While I was pregnant, I had visions of pushing Christophe around the park while I was on maternity leave, or visiting the market with him tucked into a sling. People would tell me how strong he looked, how alert.
I've hardly left the flat in three months, and never with the babies. The tabloids are full of lurid stories about the wet nurses. That's not what they call us. "ALIEN LOVE SLAVES!" is the kindest headline I've seen, although I could point out that I didn't bear the Priu, and doubt that sex with an invader is even possible. I was seven months pregnant during the invasion; when it was over and they were tagging us all with ident chips, I was pulled aside like every other pregnant woman on the planet. Everyone got a chip. I got the regulator as well, and when my stay at the hospital was over, a Priu pulled from its pod the same day Christophe was born.
I was not prepared for twins, even if both had been human. They are always hungry, the Priu and my baby, and they almost never sleep at the same time. When they do, it's a rare opportunity for a shower. I let the water scald me clean and pretend my fingers can't find the lumps of the regulator down my side.
The babies are only five months old when they sit up for the first time. Christophe does it first, and later that day, little Pree. I laugh out loud, the sound startling in the quiet of the flat, and both babies turn and give me shiny toothless smiles.
I show them off to my husband as soon as he comes home. "Look what they can do." I hover behind them, hands out in case they should tip back again.
Instead of smiling he frowns. "You're treating it like it was ours."
"He's just a baby. He didn't have anything to do with the invasion."
"Listen to yourself, Celeste! You don't understand how it is out there. The Miwal that run the reclamation center--they're monsters. The things they do--" He shudders. "You don't understand."
"If I don't understand it's because I've been cooped up in here." This is the most we've spoken in months. "I know what they did to me--what they did to us. But they did it to the Priu too. It's not his fault."
He yanks down the collar of his shirt. His shoulders and chest are riddled with marks--raw red burns over slick white scars. "This is what they do! They call it a reclamation plant, but they're experimenting on people. And if you protest you get the shock stick."
"That's horrible." I reach out to him, but he flinches away.
"That's what you're protecting. That's what you're proud of." He tugs his shirt back into place.
"That's not fair. Don't act like I'm on their side."
He opens his mouth, but then he shakes his head and stomps into the kitchen. My hands are shaking, and I still them by pulling the babies close. I hear the hiss of a beer can opening and the television clicks on. The newswoman tells us there are riots in Paris and New York, but the benevolent Tilip have dispersed them humanely. She doesn't say by what means.
Pree starts to cry. I'm holding him too hard. I pick the babies up and take them into the nursery.
Christophe wakes after midnight. I stumble out of bed and scoop him out of the crib without waking Pree. We both fall asleep in the rocking chair as he nurses. I wake at the bump of the uneven door against the frame. My husband is backlit against the light from the living room. I watch him through barely-lifted lids; he never comes in here if he can help it.
He glances at me and Christophe, then at the crib. Light glints along something in his hand, and the blood thumping in my ears almost deafens me. It's the chef's knife from the butcher's block. He watches Pree from the doorway for a long time. Then he steps forward. I shift loudly in the rocking chair and murmur his name as I sit up.
"Shh, Celeste. It's nothing. Come to bed." He turns so his body is between the knife and me.
"As soon as I get Christophe settled." I rock our son and bare my teeth at him, hoping it looks like a smile in the dark.
I sit in the rocker all night, watching the door.
The Tilip that's my liaison isn't supposed to come for another three days, but there's a contact number I've never used. The Tilip is at our flat in under an hour.
"What happened?"
I try to set my jumbled thoughts in order. I don't want to condemn my husband, (and I can't forget the months of injuries ringing his torso,) but the babies are in danger. I spent last night shaking in fear and anger, the thought of either of my sons hurt or dead sufficient to wreck me. "My husband...he's under a lot of stress at the reclamation plant. I'm worried about him."
"You believe he is a threat to your Priu?" Its eyes are shiny, hard to read, and its mandibles clack in a pattern I can't identify. Not happy, not sad or angry: some unknowable combination of emotions. Its claw brushes its wristscreen.
"I'm sure he would never hurt the children on purpose." The flash of light along metal in the dark. I can't protect them if I'm protecting him. "I'm almost sure."
"You wish to return your Priu?" Pree wails as if he understood it. Maybe he did. My heart contracts.
"Return him?" If that had been an option at first...but not now. "No. I want him safe."
This time I can read the dance of mandibles and the lift of the two upper arms. The Tilip is pleased. "We will protect you and your children. You will be called mother of nations, Celeste Marceau, you and the others who nurtured your young."
It's been a long night. "What are you talking about?"
"Your people call us invaders, but we are colonists."
"You're establishing a...an outpost here?"
"No. We are establishing it, your people and mine. There are five forms of us, yes? One for each world we have colonized. Each one was something else, but then we came and blended together to make something new. You might say hybrid."
"Pree is nursing because it makes him more human? He's the first of a new subspecies like the Tilip or Miwal?"
"Not just the Priu. Your Christophe, too." The regulator. It wasn't just making my milk palatable to Pree. It was changing Christophe. I look at the babies, lying together on the play mat. Their feet tangle together, and I can see it. Christophe's skin is still brown next to Pree's, but when I really look, there's an undertone of lichen green. Christophe turns his head to his brother and his nostrils flare, taking in Pree's scent, an intimate experience of naming that I will never share with either of them.
"What will happen to the rest of us?"
The Tilip' lower forelimbs perform a graceful shrug. "Those of you who don't make trouble will be allowed to live out your days. We aren't cruel. Your children will make you obsolete, but there's no reason to hasten your deaths."
My heart aches for my husband, but it's too late now. The babies need me.
Mother of nations.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Author Comments

The genesis of "Baby Feet" was in the exhaustion of late-night nursing my second son. I started thinking about the occasionally-grinding commitment of feeding someone so helplessly dependent--and who needs to eat every few hours--and how the intimacy of nourishing that someone would affect the caregiver if she hadn't chosen to do so. My initial thoughts were of earlier periods in history, with wet nurses forced to feed the children of invaders next to their own, but the story didn't cohere until I projected the scenario into a science fictional rather than fantastic or historic setting.

Why would beings technologically developed enough to cross galaxies to invade Earth want to rely on such a basic means of nourishing their young, and why would they entrust their children to a conquered people who would naturally resent them (at the very least)? Once I had these questions, the setting and the characters came together.

- Rene Sears
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