Antumbra18 min read
I woke in the afternoon gloom to the sound of my 20–year–old stepsister Lily dragging something heavy and wet up the back patio steps through the kitchen door. The smell of blood and brine smothered me the moment I sat up.
I swore to myself and called down to her, “What did you do?”
“You’ll see,” she sing–songed.
“Pleasant mother pheasant plucker.” I lay back on the sweat–stained sheets for a moment to gather my focus. Four hours of sleep wasn’t enough to keep my head from spinning, but it was all I could seem to get these days. The cells in my body kept waiting for the moon to move, despite all my meditating to try to tell them that the big rock blotting the sun wasn’t going anywhere.
I kept having nightmares from everything I saw in the months after the Coronado Event. In the worst dream, I was sitting in my bedroom when an earthquake hit. The walls would crack, revealing not drywall and wood but rotten meat, and cold blood would pour in, flooding everything. The red tide would sweep me off my bed and press me up against the ceiling. My stuffed toys turned into real animal carcasses floating by my head. I’d be struggling to breathe in the two inches of air between the gore and the plaster when I felt something grab my ankle. And then I’d wake up.
I was a high school senior when it all happened. Back then I was so focused on prom and graduation and other such bullshit that I didn’t notice the first reports on CNN that an astronomer named Gabriel Coronado had spotted a large, dark object hurtling toward the earth at barely sublight speeds. But the science geeks at my school started talking about it, so the rest of us finally paid attention. Some of the religious kids said it was going to be the end of the world. But everyone else figured it would be like one of those big–budget movies where they send a heroic team of astronauts up with good old American nukes to blow the comet/asteroid/spaceship to smithereens before it reaches the Earth.
I think NASA and the Pentagon tried to pull some kind of mission together. Or at least that’s what they told the media to try to calm people down. Their astrophysicists told them the big black object out there was going to pass by, so they probably figured they just had to keep people from looting and committing mass suicide.
And it did miss us by half a million miles. But it was so huge and moving so fast it jerked the Earth and moon in its gravitational wake like a couple of hobos spun around in the wind from a speeding semi. When the storms and earthquakes and wildfires from meteor strikes passed, the Earth and moon were locked in a new static orbit.
Our city was in permanent lunar eclipse, which was far better than the relentless daylight some parts of the world suffered if you didn’t consider the massive flooding we got from being stuck at high tide. The ocean invaded our city, and Cat 5 hurricanes blasted us every spring because of all the hot air blowing in from the lightside. But at least we weren’t broiling.
After ten years of living in the antumbra, my body still hadn’t adjusted to the new normal. All my cycles were screwed up. Sometimes I’d bleed twice in a month, and then half a year would pass before I kicked another egg. At least I had my life, which was more than about four billion people could say. And I mostly had my health, even if I was turning into a bona fide lunatic.
Lily, on the other hand, was thriving like apocalypse was that special vitamin she’d been missing as a kid.
“Are you sleeping, are you sleeping, sister June? Sister June?” she sang off–key from the kitchen. “I got something for you, I got something for you, yum yum food! Yum yum food!”
“Okay, okay, I’m coming.” I crawled off the bed, pulled on a tee shirt, and stumbled downstairs.
Lily stood peacock–proud in gore–soaked clothes beside a massive hunk of something that she’d dragged in on a sled of black trash bags and flattened cardboard. The coppery smell of blood and the bay stink made my eyes water. It was cylindrical, maybe four feet long and two feet in diameter. I didn’t see any bones in the ruby–red flesh. The black skin of the thing was covered in fur, like that of a seal or otter, except for where it had a double row of naked purple suckers as big as saucers.
“Where did you get this?” I asked her, frowning down at the massive hunk of tentacle.
“It didn’t come from a people!” Lily exclaimed, as if that was the alpha and omega of all my possible questions. “Will you cook it? It’s all bitter raw.”
“I’m glad it wasn’t a person.” We’d had a long talk when she was nine about how it was wrong to eat people. I’d mostly done it to convince her to stop biting neighborhood kids she didn’t like. Later, she saw a TV show about dolphins and decided that anything that could communicate was a person. Cats and dogs became people to her, and that was just as well. She got hungry for meat and bones a whole lot during her growth spurts and I couldn’t watch her all the time. “But where did you get it?”
“It came up from the sea.” She shrugged. “Hungry. Tried to eat people. I helped the Robichaud guys kill it.”
I frowned at her. “And what were you doing with the Robichaud brothers?”
Lily crossed her sinewy arms behind her and rocked side to side like a guilty preschooler. She licked her lips with her impossibly long tongue, running it briefly over her chin. “Just helping.”
“Helping” my ass. Christ. Well, at least I’d gotten Doc Freeman to give her an IUD. I stared down at the tentacle. The doctor would give us good trade for organs from a creature like this. I didn’t know what the hell she did with them, but apparently monster parts were useful to someone’s research somewhere.
“It’s a shame you only got this,” I said. “Doc Freeman would have liked more.”
“I got more!” Lily smiled, her sharp teeth gleaming in the fluorescent light, and pointed behind me. “In there. An eye and a brain–thing. In ice, like she said.”
I followed her point to the dining room table, and saw a stained Styrofoam picnic cooler that had been duct–taped shut. “Oh. Sick. Good job, sis.”
The tentacle passed muster with the food safety scanner; it was a little radioactive, but so was every damn thing since the Coronado Event. The planet got hit with about a billion space rocks following in the big black’s wake, and they were loaded with uranium and God knew what. Maybe some of the rocks came from planets the big black smashed, worlds that had their own strange forms of life. That would explain a whole lot about what was happening to the Earth.
Doc Freeman had given us the scanner in exchange for a crate of scotch we salvaged from a drowned mansion. It had saved us from being poisoned probably a dozen times. Well, saved me, anyhow; nothing ever seemed to make Lily sick these days.
She helped me cut the tentacle into thick steaks. I wrapped half and put them in the freezer, threw two on our electric grill, and put the rest in the fridge. Thanks to good loot trades we were pretty well fixed for hydrogen fuel cells, so we didn’t have to be too stingy with electricity. I could deal with all the humidity and mildew that came with giving up our air conditioning for the sake of the grow lights for our indoor herb garden, but the thought of drinking warm beer was just too much to bear.
The mystery meat grilled up nice and tender with some wine, soy sauce, and what was left of our scallions; if I closed my eyes I could pretend it was a filet mignon. But my memory of what beef really tasted like was hazy. The light from the corona around the moon screwed up my sleep, but it wasn’t enough to grow grass for cattle. We had to get corn and wheat from penumbra states like Nebraska, if we could get them at all.
“Watermelon.” Lily was gazing mournfully at her clean–licked plate. “I want watermelon.”
“Maybe soon,” I said. “Doc said the caravan should be back in a month or two.”
She stared down at her blood–crusted nails. “Dirty. I should wash?”
“Yes, you should.”
Lily gazed at me with her big orchid–purple eyes, looking every bit the changeling my stepfather claimed she was the day he walked out our door and stole my Mustang. I’d worked three summers straight to save up for that car. I borrowed a boyfriend’s van and ran after the bastard to get my property back, make him take responsibility for his daughter for just once in his lousy life. But he got himself killed trying to steal fuel before I could catch up to him.
My mom had already died in the epidemic after the meteorite storm; before her throat closed up she’d made me promise to look after Lily. She probably knew Lily’s dad would bail on us sooner or later. I was fifteen when they met, and I knew right away what she saw in him. Dude needed an inseam zipper. They married before anyone knew about the big black, of course; otherwise she’d have found a guy with survival skills. Mom was never dumb on purpose. But she was making good money selling real estate, so what else did she need a man for back then?
Lily was eight when I met her, and already full of bad habits from her dad’s mix of spoiling and neglect. He was vague about who her mother was. I guess she must have been a hot mess for anyone to award custody to a slackerjack like him.
My stepsister never seemed exactly normal brain–wise, but she looked human enough when she was young. That all changed after her dad was gone. She got the same fever that killed my mom, but the worst it did was make her teeth fall out. A new set grew in, almost reptilian, and needle–sharp. Her eyes changed, and she started getting muscles that made some people mistake her for a boy.
We met Doc Freeman when I took my sister to the city’s free clinic to make sure she was okay. The doc took a real interest in Lily, and by extension me, and got us medicines and such when we needed them. I once asked the doc why she was fascinated with Lily, and she went off on this long lecture about virally induced mutations and epigenetics and evolution. I only understood some of what she was telling me, but the take–home was that Lily’s blood might be useful for making vaccines or serums that the labs on the darkside were creating. The darksiders were making all the best stuff these days; they had to, or else they’d have nothing to trade with the countries that could still grow food.
“I need a shower.” Lily licked her lips again, staring at me like I was something she wanted on her plate. “Shower with me.”
Dread and anticipation coiled inside me. I knew what she wanted. And I knew I should say no. Touching her was wicked, but I’d been doing it for years. It started after we left my hometown to try to find a better place. For months it was just the two of us and miles of dark and cold and wet wreckage. We were both going crazy from fear and hormones, and when she crawled into my sleeping bag and kissed me that first time, it seemed like the best way to take care of her. That’s what I told myself, anyhow.
We weren’t alone in the world anymore… but it wasn’t like the Robichaud boys ever wanted to spend any time with me. They and everybody else just had eyes for Lily. Sure, a couple of the other guys in the neighborhood regularly inquired after my swallowing abilities and generously offered me the use of their boners. But all that hot romance aside, they seemingly thought soap was just something you stuck in a sock to use as a weapon.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s take a shower.”
Ten minutes later, I had two fingers knuckle–deep inside her as the warm water beat down on us.
“Ah! There. Yes,” she said, digging her nails into my shoulders.
I stroked her inside the way she liked… and realized something was missing. “I can’t feel your cord.”
“Pulled it,” she gasped.
“What?” I took my hand away, horrified.
“Pulled it out.” She frowned up at me, clearly annoyed that I was interrupting sexytimes with something so boring.
“Don’t like it.” She was starting to look as pissed off as I felt.
“You’ll get pregnant without it!”
“So?” She crossed her arms over her breasts.
Rage surfing on thirteen years of frustration crested inside me. It felt like I was having to explain one of the basics to her all over again: don’t bite people, don’t run with scissors, don’t eat rotten meat.
“So we can’t have a fucking baby, are you stupid?” I yelled.
Lily snarled and chomped me on the shoulder, hard. I hollered and shoved her off me. She hit her head on the moldy tile wall, cursed me and punched me in the stomach. I tumbled out of the tub, tearing the old vinyl shower curtain down with me, and landed in a heap on the hairy floor beside the toilet. Blood was spilling out of the bite wounds on my shoulder.
My stepsister stared down at me, looking scared and confused.
“Jesus.” I sat up, shook off the dirty curtain and touched the skin around the bite to try to see how deep it went. It was the worst one she’d given me yet, and my flesh was already swelling up and turning purple. “You and your fucking spit venom. You really get on my last nerve sometimes, you know that?”
I got myself bandaged up with some tape and gauze pads. Lily hovered around asking if she could help, but I was too angry to do anything but tell her to sit on the couch downstairs and stay out of my way. I got dressed, grabbed the Styrofoam cooler, and hauled it over to Doc Freeman’s office. Stabbing pains were shooting down my whole right arm by the time I got there and blood had soaked through the gauze into my tee shirt.
“Oh! That doesn’t look good,” the doctor said as she came out of the exam room. She was wearing a crisp white lab coat and freshly shined boots, as usual; I never could figure out how she always managed to look so put together and professional considering all the nasty stuff she had to handle. I was lucky to make it through a day of scavenging without getting a new hole in my clothes.
I could hear a faint motor whine as her artificial eye focused on me. The whole upper left of her face was cybernetic; the rumor was that she’d been hit with a pea–sized meteorite, a cosmic bullet to the skull, but her family was rich and got her to a reconstructive neuroengineer right away.
“It doesn’t feel so good.” I set the cooler down on the receptionist’s desk.
“Lily?” Doc Freeman asked.
“Lily.” I nodded.
“Well, let’s take a look.” She helped me take my shirt off and the sodden bandages nearly came with it. “Oh, she got you good, didn’t she? What happened?”
“I found out she pulled out her IUD. I told her she can’t have a baby. We can’t.”
“Oh, my.” The doctor began to clean my wound with betadine. “You realize she can, though, right? She’s allowed. She’s an adult; it’s her choice.”
I craned my neck to stare back at her incredulously. “I cannot believe you’re saying that. She’s a fucking child. A dangerous child. You know that. She’s got no business having a baby.”
“You’re worried you’d end up with child care duties?” Doc Freeman injected me with antibiotics then followed it with a shot of the antivenin she’d made after the first time I reacted badly to one of Lily’s bites. Making venom in her saliva glands was a fairly new trick; lucky for me the doc figured out what was going on right away.
“Of course I’m worried!” I replied. “Even assuming the baby took after the dad and not Lily, I couldn’t handle her and her kid.”
“Still. She’s an adult. As are you. You can always leave her to fend for herself.”
“No.” I squeezed my hands into fists on my lap. “That’s what her father did. I won’t do that to her.”
The doctor silently wrapped my shoulder in fresh gauze.
“Can you honestly look at me and tell me that you think that having a baby is in Lily’s best interest?” I asked. “Medically, psychologically? Can you say that? And would it be any good for the baby? C’mon, look at me — this is how she deals with being told ‘no.’ ”
The doctor sighed. “Much as it would be interesting to see the result of her pregnancy… no, I can’t say it would be in her best interests.”
“Can you help me out here?”
“What do you want me to do?” The doctor looked angry. “Sterilize her against her will?”
“No. I just… I just want to keep her out of trouble. Is that so wrong? I just want a little control here.”
The doctor’s expression was unreadable. “I can give you all the control you can take. But that, my dear, will cost you.”
I gingerly slipped my bloody shirt back on. “I’ve got something in the cooler over there that might be worth it to you.”
The doctor went to the Styrofoam container and cut the tape off with a pair of surgical scissors. I hopped off the exam table and followed her over, curious. She lifted the lid off and exposed a multi–pupilled gray eye the size of a cantaloupe and a brain that was twisted like a giant cruller.
Something dark passed over her features for just a fraction of a second, but then she smiled. “Very interesting. And where did these come from?”
“Something that crawled out of the sea today.”
“Ah. I heard about that. I went to investigate but the carcass had already been thoroughly butchered.”
She replaced the lid and went to the safe where she kept her most valuable bits of biotechnology. “Bear in mind that what I’m about to give you is not a medical device. It was developed for the military, and was not perfected. Do you understand?”
“As in, it might not work?”
“So what are the side effects?” I didn’t ever worry that she was giving me something dangerous; my gut told me there was no way she would do anything that might hurt Lily. My stepsister was too important to her. But I didn’t want to get sick if it wasn’t even going to work.
“Not well documented, I’m afraid. Headaches, vertigo, confusion, and nausea are reported to be the big ones.”
“What is it, this device?”
“Here.” She handed me an unlabeled blister pack containing two gel capsules, one red and one clear. Each was filled with some kind of glittery fluid.
“These both contain synchronous cerebronanobots,” she said. “The clear is for the controller, and red is for the target. Both the controller and the target take the capsules orally. Then, once the nanobots have entered the bloodstream and successfully crossed the blood–brain barrier, they take up residence in the frontal and temporal lobes. Once they’ve synched, the controller should begin to have empathic access to the target’s mind and can, at least in theory, exercise some control. You replace your target’s superego with your own, if you succeed.”
“Wow.” I uncertainly took the blister pack from her hand. “That’s pretty heavy stuff.”
“It is. But I expect she’d pull another IUD or cut out a subdermal implant. The only other option would be for you to bring her here for hormone shots every three months. I doubt she’d be very cooperative. The nanobots are all I have to offer you.”
“You gave me some kind of new infection,” I told Lily when I got back to the house.
“I sorry.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. She always got extremely remorseful for a few days after she bit me.
“Doc Freeman gave us pills to take.” I held up the blister pack.
She made a face. “Don’t like pills.”
“Well, I don’t like them either. But we both have to take them.”
I poured us two glasses of water and broke the capsules out of their blisters.
“Down the hatch.” I handed her the red one.
“Why mine diff’rent?”
“Because the infection didn’t make you sick.” I’d thought my lies out carefully on the walk back to our house. “Because you’re a carrier, and I’m not.”
“Oh. Okay.” She took the capsule from my hand and swallowed it down with a gulp of water.
After a quick, silent prayer to a god I no longer believed in, I swallowed mine down as well.
We settled down on the couch to watch her favorite cartoons, and she laid her head on my good shoulder. I waited to see what would happen. For the first hour, nothing was different. But then came a faint buzzy feeling in my head, an electric warmth, a melting sensation. I realized that I could feel how my own shoulder felt against her cheek.
Before I fully realized what was happening, she was in my lap, kissing me, pulling my jeans off. I couldn’t even summon the clarity to wonder where my will had gone. We fucked for hours in the blue light of the television; in the morning, we ate bitterly raw steaks straight from the refrigerator and stumbled out, hand–in–hand, to go see the Robichaud boys.
Hours melted into days melted into weeks. It was all dreamtime for me, an erotic nightmare from which there was no waking.
I came back to myself, briefly, in a room in a flooded mansion. I was alone, sitting on a rotting red velvet couch beneath a chandelier dripping with algae, but I could hear Lily moaning in the room above me. I could feel the webbed claws clutching her, the strange appendages slithering into her as she writhed, and I tried to stand, to stop what was happening, but the orgasm took her and my mind went with it, down, down into the murky water.
I didn’t surface again until months later in a flooded laboratory. I found myself blinking in a fluorescent glare, holding Adam Robichaud’s blond head under the water; I’d already drowned him. Lily was up on what looked like a dentist’s chair, naked, panting hard, her distended abdomen rippling. I realized my mind was no longer bound to hers, and the sudden absence filled me with cold loneliness. Doctor Freeman stood behind her, smoothing her hair away from her face, whispering encouragements to breathe.
Lily wailed as the baby began to squeeze through. First the head, then an arm that was jointed in too many places…
“Oh god,” I whispered when I got a good look at the infant.
“Oh, June, excellent, you’re back with us.” Doc Freeman caught the baby as it slithered out, deftly keeping her hands clear of the snapping mouth. “I am afraid I told you to take the wrong capsule. I just couldn’t have you interfering in my work any longer. But as you can see, everything has turned out well in your absence.”
“What…?” I began.
“I made a people!” Lily grinned at me, glowing with maternal pride. She looked happier than I had ever seen her.
“Yes you did!” Doc Freeman smiled back at her. “And this little fellow is quite hungry. Keep breathing, my dear!”
The doctor sloshed past me and set the newborn down on Adam’s floating corpse. The little creature latched onto his naked back with its sucker mouth and began to devour his flesh.
“Welcome to Homo freeman,” the doctor said. “The first of his kind, and certainly not the last.”
“Oh!” Lily gasped. Her belly rippled again.
“Three more to go!” the doctor called. “Keep breathing and pushing!”
I took a step toward them, and felt a sharp cramp and heavy pressure in my own belly. It was not a sympathy pain. Terror filled me as I looked down and saw my nine–month bump.
“Once your nephews are all born, I expect it’ll be time to induce you, dear June. Your child will not be as exotic, I’m sure, but she’ll come in handy just the same.”
I turned and tried to flee, but my nephews’ alien father rose up out of the water, looking like a cross between a frog god and the worst fever hallucination I’d ever had, and clutched me to its clammy torso.
“Save your strength,” Doctor Freeman called. “Believe me, you’ll be needing it soon enough…”