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art by Melissa Mead

Cradle Song

By all rights Brenda Kalt should be writing Southern gothic--stories about decayed gentility in which lives twine around each other like vines in a thicket, a la Tennessee Williams. She doesn't. She left her upbringing in the Deep South and went north to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There she met many remarkable people, married a Yankee, and commenced to grow into a wider world. She's had a lot of fun in the wider world and has made her living in the software field--first as a technical writer, later as a programmer and tester. She's still having fun. In her thirties Brenda realized she might be able to write fiction. Science fiction. Hard science fiction. Somewhat later she realized she might have a knack for flash. She does, but the same amount of angst is required for flash fiction as for longer works. The angst per word goes up, so to speak. With much sweat and toil (no blood or tears yet) Brenda produced "Cradle Song." She hopes you enjoy it.

Alone in the ballroom, Evaline Jacobsen wrestled the sprayer from her arms onto the housekeeping cart. Although the governor's palace had absorbed the old baby hospital decades before, every renovation seemed to leave a crack around some tall window. Sealing the edges of the windows meant that none of the sulfur-laden Pallarene atmosphere would spoil the governor's last evening in office.
Behind her a door opened and closed. "A few more minutes. Eight o'clock," she called. Footsteps sounded through the ballroom, and she turned to see the intruder. And stared.
The guest of honor, Governor Paul D'Avanzi himself, was striding toward Evaline. "I'm leaving now. I'll call a shuttle." He dumped a black robe into her arms and held up a cylinder the size of two fingers. "Say your name."
Evaline blinked. "I'm Evaline Jacobsen."
He pressed a spot on the cylinder and handed it to Evaline. "This is a video of my speech. Give it to the emcee yourself. Your voice just authenticated it." He turned away.
As she slid the recorder in among the bottles, Evaline realized that the man was abandoning his own farewell party. She hurried after him. "Governor. Governor, you can't leave now. I cleaned everything." She shoved the robe at him, and it fell to the floor.
"I'm sorry." She stooped to retrieve it and saw that the governor's left hand and wrist were purple. "What happened to your hand? Can I call a doctor?"
"No. It's a prosthesis."
Evaline looked up at him.
"It's artificial. When the motor shorted out this afternoon, the pigment sank to the lowest place." He pushed up his sleeve to reveal the line where purple met dead white. "I've kept quiet about it for the last three years, and I don't intend to tell the people of Pallarus the night before I go."
"Nobody wants to lose an arm or a leg," Evaline said. She folded the robe over her arm. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."
He laughed harshly. "I didn't lose it, I know exactly where it is. It's in a trash pit beside Lake Yana on Novy Norilsk."
"I never heard of that."
"It's where stupid rich boys go to race iceboats. I crashed during a race and broke my arm in four places. I told the medic to amputate, and I'd get it fixed when I got home." He put a sneer into the word.
Evaline frowned. After a second she asked, "Why didn't you?"
D'Avanzi glared at her. "Because I'm allergic to regenerants. Because the doctors stuffed my host mother with immunosuppressants. Because my host mother and I were a bad match. Because my parents went on the black market because no D'Avanzi would admit to fertility problems." He shook his head. "Because my parents didn't tell me any of this."
"Oh." Evaline stood still. "Governor, how did they know about the bad match?"
He sighed. "The host mother got four of my parents' embryos before me. They implanted and vanished. Or they never implanted. But I was the last one, and if the hospital wanted to get paid, they had to produce a baby. Whatever it took."
"Cara was okay, then. She was the only embryo they gave me."
He looked at her. "You were a host mother?"
Evaline nodded. "I was. Right here in the baby hospital."
He frowned. "But host mothers forget about their babies. They get all kinds of injections."
"I didn't. The parents didn't show up when I delivered, and the police kept questioning me about whether the baby was hosted or mine. Finally it was too late to start the shots, and there was still no one to take the baby. So I kept her." She wrapped her arms around herself and pressed her hand to her mouth for a moment. "I named her Cara. My dear one. We lived in my flat, and I bought her lots of little dresses and things. I was going to take her home to Innerhaven." Her voice constricted to a whisper. "Three weeks before the year was up the parents came."
"Good God." He stared at Evaline. "Where had they been?"
"They had separated, on different planets, and then they got back together."
"Why didn't you fight?"
"I went to see a lawyer, but he said all I could do was delay and hope. I didn't have that kind of money."
D'Avanzi was silent.
Evaline wiped her nose and stuck the tissue in the trash bag on the cart. She looked far away. "Cara had been so good that day. She'd been happy and giggling and trying to walk." She shook her head. "I couldn't have Cara feel my misery and then lose me. I called the parents from the lawyer's office, and half an hour later they were downstairs." She took a deep breath. "Cara was asleep, so I just kissed her. I went out before they came in. I didn't want to see them with her."
The clock struck the first chime. Evaline jumped and looked down at the robe in her arms. She shook it out. "Governor, it's time. Put your left hand in your pocket and no one will see it." She pulled the sleeve over his limp arm and stretched the robe around his shoulders.
D'Avanzi did not move.
Evaline said, "Your host mother would have done anything to fix your immune system, if she could."
He smiled slightly and looked down at Evaline. "So host mothers love their children? For a little while, anyway?"
Evaline tucked the cold hand into the pocket and draped the sleeve over it. "I do, Governor. I love her every day."
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Author Comments

The nucleus of "Cradle Song" has been in my mind for years. The malfunctioning artificial arm I saw in a letter to Ann Landers, and D'Avanzi was originally a doctor. Evaline came from someone I worked with. What has varied most is the setting; I've tried many. The ballroom is new, and I have no idea where it came from. Looking back, my stories seem to be exercises in problem solving. Q. If a society can build starships, why do people still use artificial limbs? A. They're rare, but D'Avanzi has one. Q. Why? A. He's allergic to something used in regenerating limbs. Q. Why is he allergic? And so on. On the other side of the story is Evaline. Q. How could Evaline become emotionally stuck? A. She gave up a child. Q. How could she give up a child? A. She was a host mother. Q. How could she bond with a child she knew she would give up? And so on. Last but not least, the conventions for writing short stories generally assume that one protagonist will solve problems to achieve a goal. I have always wanted to tell a story in which two people solve each other's problem, and "Cradle Song" comes close. I hope you enjoyed it.

- Brenda Cannon Kalt
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