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Social Gaffe

Lindsey Duncan is a chef/pastry chef (CPC CSW), professional Celtic harp performer and life-long writer, with short fiction and poetry in numerous speculative fiction publications. Her science fiction novel, Scylla and Charybdis, is available from Grimbold Books. She feels that music and language are inextricably linked. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and can be found on the web at lindseyduncan.com. ON THE STORY: I wrote Social Gaffe as part of a self-designed "boot camp." I was stuck in a rut with my longer projects, so I decided to set myself a task: two weeks, a flash fiction or poem a day, with a bank of prompts to choose from. The prompt for this story could have been the inciting incident for a Regency novel; instead, it led here.

The beautiful young women and men who whirled about the Haslett estate were worth more than a million credits each, even before their jewels and expensive silks. Genetic engineering had given them the best advantages in appearance and intellect; their parents' wealth provided opportunities to capitalize on those gifts.
Henry drifted on the fringes, smiling vaguely. He took their measure, trying to spot potential allies.
He didn't belong here, even though he had pedigree documents. Born to a common family, without engineered enhancement, luck had thrown him peak aptitudes, making him what these people called a Fluke. It wasn't a compliment.
A final growth spurt had shed baby fat and left him unexpectedly handsome, apple-cheeked with a patrician nose. Suddenly he could blend in with the elite. With the help of a hacker friend, he hatched a plan. Forged credentials, an unverifiable backstory, and far too much hair product, and he was here to play their game.
Henry drew back against the fireplace as Lord Haslett and his daughter passed, the latter bubbling with gaiety. "Marry into a family, Henry," his friend had said. "Even if they find you out, they can't get rid of you."
Henry refused to use a girl like that. He stared down into his empty glass, afraid they would see through him. Servants slipped through the crowd, ubiquitous, invisible, offering delicacies and removing remnants. A petite redheaded server paused next to him, tray held expectantly.
He fumbled with the glass, reluctant to surrender its protection. To cover for the tremor, he flashed a smile. "Thank you."
Hazel eyes stared back, wide. He had committed a gaffe, he realized: to acknowledge her presence was to break the fantasy. No true elite would have done so. He caught recognition in the downward sweep of her gaze; she knew he had acted out of character. She hurried away with the tray.
Henry darted after, keeping his pace measured so as not to attract attention. He caught her in the hall.
"Miss--" he began.
She whirled to face him, somehow keeping the tray in balance. "You need not fear me," she said, "we are on the same side. I did not realize there was another at the Haslett estate."
Henry blinked. A foolish smile took over. "Thank you," he said. "I'm here... scouting, you could say. I'm surprised you're pretending to be a servant." Those few service jobs not delegated to robots were good work, but it wasn't something a Fluke chose. And she was, he realized now, almost too pretty to hide, with a dazzling smile that answered his. It charmed him to the core.
"It's the best way to see without being seen," she said. "It has been useful in picking targets."
So she was doing what he would not: hunting for a match who would make her birth status irrelevant. Henry reined in his disappointment. Her choices were none of his business, and he didn't know enough about her to indulge in attraction.
"I'm Henry," he said.
"Liona is my assigned name," she said.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Liona." He tried to keep politeness from spilling over into enthusiasm. "If there's anything I can do, let me know. We're in a position to cover for each other." That would mean seeing more of her, which he already knew he wanted.
"Of course," she said. "What collective do you come from?"
Though Flukes supported each other when the opportunity arose, Henry had never heard of any formal organization. "I don't. I'm on my own."
She studied him, frowning. "What could you possibly do on your own?"
He flushed, embarrassed. "I have a lot of resources...."
Liona shook her head, but did not press. "Is there a specimen you have your eye on?"
He almost echoed the word--specimen?--but the realization caught up with his brain before his tongue could. Her choice of words, her reaction to him... she wasn't a Fluke. She was something else.
"I'm still observing," he said. "What about you?"
"I believe Miss Haslett might be advantageous to my Hive's research," Liona said.
"And why would that be?" he asked, playing for information. Could a Hive be a scientific research center?
"Her father," she said, "purchased the best enhancements crude human bioscience can provide... then brought her here, to a desolate and unfriendly planet. She has adapted further to this environment."
With each part of the explanation, her words punched deeper into his stomach. He forced his expression to remain level. If he asked anything else, he would reveal he had no idea what she was talking about.
"Good luck," he said, clasping her arm. The flesh undulated under his touch like water, not the firmness of human muscle or robot synthskin.
Alien. His mind rebelled. All the stars, the planets discovered and colonized, and humanity was alone... or so he had thought.
"I should get back," he continued, turning, "before I'm missed."
He took one step, two, his mind on fire. Were there others of her kind, hiding in other estates? They didn't seem to know about Flukes, which meant they couldn't have explored human society too deeply.
Her hand grabbed his, hard enough to shoot fire up his arm. He winced, instinctively tried to shake free, but she was too strong.
He spun to face her again. Her eyes were cold, no longer the gaze of a confederate or even the same species.
"Don't worry," she said, "you won't be."
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, August 17th, 2022

Author Comments

I wrote Social Gaffe as part of a self-designed "boot camp." I was stuck in a rut with my longer projects, so I decided to set myself a task: two weeks, a flash fiction or poem a day, with a bank of prompts to choose from. The prompt for this story could have been the inciting incident for a Regency novel; instead, it led here.

- Lindsey Duncan
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