|Art by Christopher Enterline|
"Home Birth" by Jessica McHugh (31000 words)
This story opens on Eibal in a bit of trouble. In a ruined part of Chicago, a giant alien menace newly killed nearby and a stone in Eibal's stomach that's heavy with meaning and implication. From there the story retreats back, revealing a narrative layered in time, space, and inescapable sorrow. The main branch of the story follows Eibal and we learn that she's part of an alien race, the vella, who are shapeshifters and who revel in being able to help other species usher in new life where it seems impossible. They are surrogates, and in that roll the entire story can be nicely encapsulated. It's a piece about surrogacy and about damage, about loss and about making a bad call in an attempt to spare other people from harm and sorrow. The story is full of these sorts of negotiations, characters excusing their actions, excusing the seemingly small betrayals, in hopes of reaching some greater good on the other side. For now of the characters does this work out very well, though some could say that they get exactly what they bargained for. Just not what they hoped for. And there's a universe's worth of pain in between those two things.
The story moves between Earth where Eibal agrees to be the surrogate for an human couple, and to a distant world where Eibal's partner agrees to surrogate for a dangerous species known as the darkog, which are sort of like insectoid-worm-monsters who tend to arrive on Earth from time to time to eat important politicians. And here's where the kaiju of this story come in, with these aliens who are huge and who regard humans somewhere between sport and pets. The darkog, however, are regarded by the galaxy at large as only slightly less reasonable than humans, and to Eibal both are pretty awful. More reason for the vella to have a way to isolate themselves, something that the money from these surrogacies will be able to buy. This means, however, being stuck in human form for Eibal, and in darkog form for her partner Naka. Theirs is the relationship that tethers most of the story, or at least the vella portion of it. And it's a relationship built on love and respect but also on small betrayals, on putting their home and the potential safety of their people first. Big risks, big rewards is the name of the game, as the story reminds us frequently.
This is also true for Penny, a human who has spent time as a darkog slave and who is asked to go back in part to help her twin brother, Dash, and the human military, which is planning on taking the fight to the darkog by giving t hem a disease to weaken them and then swooping in to finish them off. It's a brutal plan and one that Penny wants no part of, but here again the idea of surrogacy is revisited and complicated. With both Eibal and Penny, they are asked to carry the hope of their peoples. For safety and security. And they are asked to carry this because it concentrates the risk and the violence. Instead of everyone working together, instead of trying to talk things through, they end up making decisions they know to be dangerous, they know to be wrong. But they make them to help the people they love, and in so doing kind of doom themselves. Because, again, big risks, big rewards. The implication of that statement is always that a person might not have to pay. That maybe it will all work out and you'll just get what you want without consequence. That it's a gamble that might pay off. And in many stories that's how it would go. But not this one.
Because this story carries its darkness like a stone. The sorrow that creates the landscape of the piece, where everyone is running toward safety and don't see that the path goes right over a minefield. And they think that they're making the call on their own to run the path anyway, not realizing that they aren't alone, that their decision influences those around them, influences those they care about. And that maybe they will make it to the other side and get everything they wanted, except for the part that came with them but died along the way. And fuck is this a difficult story in that respect. About the stillbirth of hope, the damage that comes from violence and from ignorance. There are no pure villains here and no pure heroes, just a complex web of victims. Which the story pull off beautifully, if painfully. And I love the setting and the characters, even if that love means that the story hurts in all the best and worst ways. It's wrenching, draining, and just not the happiest of reads. It is masterfully crafted, though, and definitely worth checking out!