Mary, Mary Quite Contrary, by SJ Higbee

SFReader 2008 Story Contest
Second Place Winner

The heart and starting point of the story was the tale that Esta tells Mary about the love affair between Bernice and Zentxs, which I’d written as an entry for a local St. Valentine’s Day short story competition.  But it was very two dimensional – and I got to wondering just how humanity would evolve after Zentxs’ DNA hit the human genepool.  As for the relationship between Esta and Mary – that just sneaked into the story when I wasn’t looking…

“What jer think?  Will I do?”  Mary clattered into my workspace without knocking.

Has she properly forgiven me, at last?

I snapped off the data-sink with a quick movement of my tongue.  While my heart folded into pain-shapes of love and worry as I watched my sixteen year old granddaughter twirl.  Her full skirts fluttered away from her two legs, making her slim figure look impossibly frail and beautiful.

Will you do – what kind of question is that? You make butterflies look drab…

Her face, for once, was laughing and open as she watched for my reaction.

A dozen possible replies shuttled through my head and I hesitated a nanosec too long, trying to pick the best of them, “Do?  Hm.  Better instruct House Security to expect a spike in junkmail as a bunch of lovesick boys start burbling poetry and indecent proposals into our talkslot.”

She rolled her eyes.  However, the giggle and self conscious head-toss told me that she was pleased.

Limp with relief that I’d so far got it right, I pushed my luck further.  “Your Bernice-box is over there.  James wanted to add some embellishments.  But I beat him off with a stick.”

Darting across the room she scooped it up, as protective as a mother with a newborn,

“Oh, thank you…  If he’d messed with it, I’d be zilched from the competition.  It’s

s’posed to be all our own work.  They scan for mechie input, you know.”

I know.  But how you’re s’posed to compete with aug-dexterous fingers, the Maker alone knows.  Because I don’t.  And that’s all that James was trying to do.  Even up the odds.  Make it fairer for you…

“What’s the time?”  The fact she was even asking, hurt.  The fact that she wasn’t pre-progged with something so basic as Time-sense…

“Nineteen sixteen.”  I clamped my mouth shut.  Telling her the seconds passing always annoyed her.  And besides, with my mouth zipped, I could resist the temptation to remind her that I’d told her that she was far too early in getting ready for the Ball.

She started pacing – a habit that always grated with me.  It always seemed such a waste of time and energy.  But while data-diving, I’d discovered it was a common stress habit among our unimproved ancestors.  Like Mary.

“Why don’t you go through your dance routine, again?” Anything to stop this pointless marching up and down the room…

Stopping, she glanced at me sideways.  As if trying to figure what I was really saying.  As if she didn’t trust me.

And why would she?  I betrayed her…

Keeping my face calm, I regulated my heartbeat and blood pressure.  But nothing eased the hurt knifing my soul.

Favoring me with a tight grin, she shrugged, “Nah.  I’ll only get sweaty and muss up my dress.”

Another lack.  She didn’t have the smallest control over her endocrine system – not even the sweat glands…

Carefully fluffing out her accordion-pleated skirts, she lowered herself onto the floor, which rose to meet her, gently cushioning around her.  While I mentally blessed James, whose concern for her almost equalled mine.

And they say mechies don’t have souls…

“Why don’t you tell me the story of the Ball?”  Then – in one of those mercurial mood changes of hers that always caught me off-guard, she suddenly seemed angry, “After all, you know all that kind of stuff – you being an expert data-diver.”

Stay calm…  “If you want the story, I’ll certainly tell it…”

Just like I used to tell your mother. 

Clearing my throat, I began, “Bernice Starseer was one of the best astro-navigators of her generation.  Born and raised at the Hawking-Penrose Academy, she graduated a full four years early-”

“Academy – what’s that about?”  Her tone was sharply aggressive.

So much for our managing to pass the time in a civilized manner.  She’s not going to forgive me – and I’m a wet-brain for hoping she had.

On the verge of pleading tiredness and cutting short this hurtful dialogue, some instinct made me pause and answer patiently, “Academy just means a learning establishment.”  I paused a beat, waiting for her to jump in.  But she didn’t.

“The Hawking-Penrose Academy was where all the brightest and best of that era were intensively trained.”  Resuming the tale, my voice rose and fell in familiar, practiced cadences.

This was one of Debra’s favorite stories.  I shut down the memory of another time, with another bright-eyed youngster listening to my words.  I was hurting enough, right now…

“But it was tough, back in those days.  Post-Diasporan humanity was hanging on by its fingers – those who had fingers, anyway.”

I inwardly winced that I’d let slip that weak joke.  Never a rib-cracker, Mary certainly wouldn’t find it remotely humorous.

I hurried on, “Once we’d established a few colonies, the early unified push for survival melted away.  It didn’t help that mutants were being persecuted, as in those days most humans were born along the Terran format…” I faltered at the rising color in her cheeks.

What am I doing, telling her this tale?  It’s only going to end in another emotional outburst – and I’ve had enough of those to last a long light year.  James assures me that she isn’t taking any chemical stimulants – and my research indicates that unimproved teenagers often presented with temperamental disturbances during this phase of their development – but surely, they weren’t this touchy?

“Terran format?  What’s that?” She leaned towards me.

I blinked.  This wasn’t anger – she was excited.

“The Terran format is the basic homo sapiens model that all augmented humans were based on.  Two arms… legs… ten fingers… toes…”  I didn’t look at her.  I couldn’t.

“That’s me,” she breathed, her eyes shining, “So, I’m not some kind of freak, after all.”

My nictitating membranes fluttered in shock, “No!  Whatever gave you that idea?  You are the original template of what humankind came from.  All of us.”

I could sense their hot dampness as her frail fingers twined together.

“So… how come I am as I am?”  Her voice dropped to a whisper, “Why aren’t I like everyone else?”

The question I’ve been waiting for, since she was old enough to talk. 

I didn’t bother trying to modulate my heart rate as it battered my ribcage.

You were an experiment by a stupid, unthinking group of people too wrapped up in their own wet-brained ideas to properly consider what they were doing.  I can’t say that, can I?  Even if it’s the truth…

I liked my lips with a sand-dry tongue, “Your mother – she was very young…”

Also the truth.  Only a couple of years older than you are, now

“She found herself pregnant with you,”  Somehow my hand was stroking hers, while one of my tentacles curled around her waist.

I tensed.  These days, Mary hated my tentacles near her.  But as I started to withdraw, she stopped me.  For which I was numbly grateful.  Because right now, I needed the comfort of her touch as much as I needed the air in my lungs.

I continued, “Your father…  He was older and Debra – your mother – was very much in love with him.”

It seems odd.  Saying her name aloud.  I haven’t spoken of her for years.

“He believed that our current form was a betrayal of our human heritage and he persuaded a number of people to his way of thinking.  So, when the time came for your augments…”

My voice trailed away.  Debra refused to have them.  Not a single upgrade for her poor little foetus.  We argued, her and me.  Screamed hateful things at each other.  Things mothers and daughters don’t have any business saying.  And when she wouldn’t see reason, I Reported her.

But he was ready for me.  Within the hour, he’d whisked her off-planet to some hiding place he’d previously arranged.  And I lost my bright, beautiful girl…


She hasn’t called me Granny for months. Didn’t realize how much I’ve missed it…

Mary’s voice was shaken, “You don’t have to do this, if it-”

“Of course, I do, child.  This is your story.  You have a right to know…”  Words were falling out of my mouth with the same distressing frequency as the tears escaping from my eyes.  I seemed to have lost control of both functions.

“You were born in some primitive hovel, without any medical help.  Other than her own inbuilt augments, your mother had no pain relief – and that sack of dog-dirt wanted her to override that, so that ‘the experience would be more like that of our ancient mothers’!”

When Debra had told me these horrible facts, she wasn’t even angry.  Too exhausted, too drained…

“Granny!” Mary put her hand over her mouth, half laughing, half horrified, “Never heard you curse, before.”

Of course, I should have been ashamed at using such unacceptable language to the girl – especially about her own father.  But I’m afraid to say that my overriding feeling was one of relief.  And still the words poured out of me.  I couldn’t have stopped now, even if she’d asked me to.  Not that she did.

Her eyes burned like lamps, fixing me with that fierce, pleading look that always tore at my heart.

“For three days and nights, your mother struggled to birth you.”

She said she’d screamed till she had no voice left…

“Till one of your father’s followers insisted on using a mechie to deliver you.  Probably saved your life.”

I was sobbing, now.  Disgraceful lack of control.  “And I m-met you just over two weeks’ later.”

Debra turned up, looking like something sicked up from a black hole.  Holding a puce-faced bundle of fury.

She’d shoved you into my arms.  “Here.  I can’t do this anymore.  It cries and cries.  Fouls and wets itself.  Can’t tell us what it wants.  So it screams.  Crade said I had to leave – that the baby was upsetting the others…” she’d started weeping.

“You were such an angry little thing…”  Small wonder.  No speech augment, or bowel and bladder control – your tiny life was just a series of helpless humiliations.

My nose was running for the first time in ten years, “You had colic, you see…”

Such an innocent little word ‘colic’.  I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.  Well – your rotted father, maybe. 

“Which meant that food gave you stomach ache,” I shook my head at the memory.  “I’d walk up and down cuddling you.  And when I got too tired, James would take over.  I sang to you till my voice cracked…”

Her small hand was now gripping mine.  “What about my mother?”

A good question.  I mopped my streaming nose, “I don’t know.  She wouldn’t stay.  We’d… said some things to each other.  Before you were born.”

The memory of them still flickered in her eyes.  And although she left her child here, she couldn’t forgive me. 

The words still bubbled out of my lips, “There were times when I was so tired, I fell asleep standing up.  Because you’d developed in the womb without any augments at all, the specialists felt that adding them post-natally was too dangerous.”

They all said that the two to three years it would take you to naturally learn to speak would leave you trailing your contemporaries so far behind, you’d never catch up.  Suggested you should be admitted to a suitable research establishment, where you could be studied…

“I data-dived as much as I could about our basic ancestors.  Discovered how they developed as children and between us, James and me arranged the high-input learning Program…”

She flinched, face hardening as her lips tightened.

That’s it.  I’ve done it, now.  Shouldn’t have mentioned the Program.

But I couldn’t stop talking.  “I know you hate it.  Feel that I’ve been too hard on you.  But, I didn’t know what else to do.  I won’t be around forever…”

Not a whole lot longer, actually.  There’s a price to pay for all our wonderful augments.  A pharmacy of expensive drugs and downtime in a rejuv tank.  But I had other priorities.  Access to sealed files on the distant past doesn’t come cheap – and as for the rejuv…  There was this poor, disadvantaged baby to tend.  And protect.  And teach.

“…and you needed to learn so many things, so fast.  They wanted to take you away!  I had to prove that you were capable of leading a normal life.  That you weren’t terminally retarded.”

Her eyes widened, “So that’s why you kept pushing and pushing me.  And gave me that stuff.  Not to mess with my head.  Or keep control over me.  You were trying to keep me safe.”

My head was spinning.

James advised me to tell her the true situation.  Maybe he was right.  But how could I when she hadn’t even asked about her mother?  She had to want to know, first…

She came closer, “You alright, Gran?  You don’t look well.”

“Me?  Tougher than grav-buffers.  Anyway… we’ve gotten off-track, somehow.”  I wiped my eyes, shakily grateful that at least the crying had stopped, “I was going to tell you all about Bernice Starseer, seeing as it’s Bernicenight and you’re shortly off to the Ball with James.”

She sank onto the floor at my feet, snuggling into the nest I’d made of my tentacles.  Like she used to do, when she was little.

“Anyway, humanity was reduced to a sprinkling of scattered tribes, squabbling among themselves.  The United Starcolonies Association managed to keep most wormholes and star-routes open, but their application to join the Sentient Species Coalition was foundering.  Destroying our home planet was a black mark

against us, for one thing.  The general view was that we were a barbarian species who’d survived by luck, rather than because we deserved it.”

Looking up at me, her brow wrinkled, “So, these survivors – they all looked like me?”

I nodded down at her, “You could have jet-sledded down any trafway in those days without getting a second glance.”

Wouldn’t bet on it, though.  Beauty has always been prized by humans – no matter their shape.  And you are so very lovely to look at…

I continued, “Bernice Starseer – only nineteen – was the astro-navigator on the brand new USA flagship, Nirvana.  She was beautiful.  Over six foot tall, with milk-white, translucent skin, her bright blue eye was a riveting contrast to her multicolored cybernetic vision enhancer.  And if that description sounds a bit OTT, remember it comes from the captain’s private log-”

“Just a nanosec.  You said that I was an ancestral human, like Bernice.  But I haven’t got any cyber-prosthetics.”

Are you upset, again?  No… just trying to make sense of this tangled mess.

I tried for a smile, “She was an astro-navigator, remember, and the basic human eye was designed for Earth-type conditions.  Not to pick up star signatures dozens of light years away.  Anyway, you have one thing in common with Bernice – she was also beautiful.”

“Oh, Gran!” Her grin pummeled my heart into fluttering happiness.

All the gritted worry of the last miserable months splintered under the sudden belief that – somehow – it would be alright.  She would cope.  Even with me gone.

It would soon be time for James to bring the hovertram round to the front.  And it seemed important that I finish the tale before they left.  “The commander of the Nirvana was a Captain Smethers.  He inspired loyalty in his crews and charmed his wealthy, capricious passengers.  An ideal starliner captain.  And he liked the ladies, who mostly liked him back.  But he fell so hard for Bernice, it all but shattered him.

“Painfully shy, she found the nightly onboard entertainment excruciating.  However, it was important that the passengers could meet the ship’s astro-navigator – she was a major reason their tickets were so expensive.”

Mary jumped up, “They were s’posed to have some kind of special star-sense, weren’t they?  There got to be so many legends and stories about them bringing ships back that in addition to the on-board AI, cruisers and warships always traveled with an astro-nav on board – like a backup.”

My nictitating membranes quivered.  Where did you pick up that info-nugget?  I never told you…

She lifted her chin, “You know I’ve been hanging out with Riva…”

“Mm,” Treasuring this precious unity between us, I didn’t repeat my opinion about that flighty piece of mischief.

“…what you don’t know is that her uncle is a Grade II Data Guardian – and he reckons that I’m a natural.  He’s been giving me lessons.  Thinks I could get onto the Beginners Course.”

And why would a high ranking Data Guardian bother with a young know-nothing like you? Because of your old-time human form.  You are so very beautiful – and although we augmented beings have more advantages, we are no longer the sleek, neat creatures we used to be.

“That’s wonderful, Mary.” I didn’t ask how she could possibly get onto any course without an Educational Merit qualification.  This wasn’t the time to bring up such issues.

She gave me a sideways look, “That all?”

What else should I have said?   

Her grin was wry, “Because this is where you normally start pointing out all the problems.  How I couldn’t attend because it was too far away and my frail frame couldn’t withstand the stress of traveling…” she shrugged, “You know.”

Ouch!  Am I really so negative?  No wonder you’ve been pulling away from me.  Debra used to call me an old worry-wart.  Was that how I lost her, too?

“Don’t think we’ve got time for the end of the story.  James will be here to collect you in five minutes and-” I stopped.

She clapped her hands together like she used to as a small child.  “Oh, please, Granny!  Doesn’t matter if I’m a bit late, does it?”

Not when it means you want to spend a bit of extra time with me – instead of inventing excuses to rush out of a room the minute I enter it.

Smiling, I resumed the story, “Bernice wasn’t a talker.  Even Smethers admitted that.  Like all astro-navigators, she had… foibles.  There’s always a price to pay for brilliance.  Bernice didn’t enjoy human company, other than her own.  But she loved zero-grav dancing, and was superb at it.  Smethers described it as soul-ballet.  She used to practice in the gym during the dog watch, when the passengers were in bed.  Crewmembers would sneak into the viewing gallery to watch her, but they had to be quiet.  If she heard the slightest noise, she’d stop.

“And, of course, there was her chocolate box.  She’d decorated it with beads and sequins and lined the interior with salt crystals.”

“Like mine!”  Mary darted across the room, her skirts flowing around those lithe little legs of hers.  “That’s what I’ve done.  Exactly the same.”

I looked again, realizing I hadn’t seen past the knobbly, slightly uneven finish caused by the beads.  Bernice-boxes these days were usually decorated with complicated representations of fractal patterns or fibonacci sequences – built by beings with more digits and manual dexterity than Bernice could ever have managed.  But Mary’s box was far closer to the original.

“Even got the salt crystals lining the interior – although that was a mega-fiddle, I can tell you.”  Carefully opening the box, she was intent on sharing her achievement with me.  Just like she used to.  Before our quarrel.

I am completely, utterly happy.

“That’s amazing, Mary.  Bernice would have loved this.”

She looked up at me, glowing, “You really think so?”

“I really think so.”  And I’m not just saying it.

“Whenever Bernice was stressed, she’d stare at fractal patterns within those crystals, using her cybernetic eye at max magnification.  If Bernicenight hadn’t happened, there’s a good chance she’d have ended up like her mother, institutionalized in her thirties and obsessed with calculating how many fungal spores grew in a pound of Stilton cheese.”

She giggled, “Bet that was mega-smelly!”

I joined in the laughter, before continuing, “Many passengers vied for Bernice’s attention, but she seemed most at ease with Zentxs, the Quartropus ambassador for the Sentient Species Coalition, on holiday from his onerous duties.  In those days, humans didn’t study chromatic linguistics.  But, Bernice seemed to find Zentxs’ strobing color changes agreeable.  I like to think that she was already well on the way to understanding Zentxs during those long cruise dinners Smethers made her sit through.

“Then came the St Valentine’s Ball-”

“Hm.  You sure about that?”  She was frowning.

“About what?”  What’ve I said, now?

“When Guardian Javar and me were data-diving, we found allusions to Valentino’s Ball.”

“Valentino?  Who was he?”

“A romantic actor from the Earth, early-movie era.  Guardian Javar thinks that this link is more likely.  Because when he dove after info-nuggets about this St Valentine, he discovered that he was a religious man who was killed over doctrinal disagreements.”  She rolled her eyes, “Doesn’t sound very likely to become some sort of love icon, does he?”

And Mister Grade-Two is trying to teach this Granny how to untangle her tentacles.  I’ve got a slew of Grade One artifacts that definitely nail St Valentine as the love icon for this Ball.  Mary needs to learn that logic doesn’t feature much when studying human history…

“That is certainly an interesting theory,” I lied.  “Maybe tomorrow you and me could go data-diving into some of my material and see if we can come up with an answer.”

Her eyes widened, “You’d let me loose on your data-sink?”

“It sounds like you’ve had enough practice.”  And if you haven’t – what’s a data-sink in comparison to a morning spent with my granddaughter?  Especially as there aren’t too many mornings left to us…

“Oh, thank you, Granny!”  And she rushed up and threw her arms around my neck, whispering in my ear, “I love you, you know.”  And fluttered away, looking exotically fragile as her long skirt floated around her.

“I know, child.  And I love you, too.”  If only she could get her Educational Merit before I go, I can die happy.

“Well, as I was saying, the Valentino or St Valentine’s Ball on Nirvana was a night for celebrating romance – which was when Smethers decided to make his move.

“He’d sent Bernice a ballgown in billowing layers of red and pink, and ordered her to wear it at the Ball.  As he’d hoped, she looked stunning sitting between himself and Zentxs at the Captain’s table, where he plied her with pink champagne throughout the meal.  Under the drink’s influence, the normally shy girl was transformed-”

“Is there going to be pink champagne, tonight?”

“There normally is.  Mind you stop drinking the stuff when James says.  It’s gotten more than one girl into trouble.  And without a doubt, Zentxs wouldn’t have done what he did if it hadn’t been for the champagne.”

She huffed, “Well, of course.  I’m not that much of a wet-brain.”

James rolled into the room and cleared his throat.

Mary looked across at him, “Thank you, James.  But Granny is telling me the story of Bernice Starseer and I want to hear all of it before we leave.”

As she turned back to me, James gave me the OK sig.

He’s always said that I shouldn’t worry so.  Looks like he’s right…

I carried on with the tale, “Bernice held the table spellbound with a story of a lost starliner found by an astro-navigator using the glimmering light of newborn nebulae a million light years away.

“Stroking Zentxs’ muscled tentacle absent-mindedly, she even agreed to partner Captain Smethers for the first dance, asking Zentxs to look after her precious box.  After a questioning pulse of green-blue color from him, she lifted the lid and held it up before one of his large eyes.  Opening his nictitating membrane a crack, a flood of purple, pink and red flickered over his skin at the stimulating sight of the fractals.”

“Granny…” she sounded worried.

I tensed.  “Yes, child.  What is it?”

“Would you mind if I tried to find mother?”

Oh Debra, you’d be so proud if you could see what that tiny bundle of fury has turned into…  “Of course not.  I think it’s a wonderful notion.”

“She might not want to see me.”

“Mm.  She might not.  But, if she is pleased to see you, think of what you will have gained.  And besides,”  I paused, “at the least she’ll be glad to know that you’re solid.  She probably thinks about you every day.  That’s how often I think about her.”

“You do?” Her eyes widened, “I thought you didn’t care.  You never talk about her.”

“There’s nothing much to say.  She’s gone.  I miss her.”  I changed the subject, before I started leaking tears, again.  “Anyway, you should have arrived at the Ball two minutes and thirty-six secs ago.  Let’s get this story finished and then you can go and have a good time.”

I dropped into my story-telling voice, finding comfort in reciting this tale to Debra’s daughter, “This was the moment when Captain Smethers chose to sweep Bernice off to the dance space, finally holding her in his arms.  However, she had other ideas.  Slipping out of his grasp, she skimmed across the open space, flicking the layers of her dress in quickening patterns of red and pink.

“Suddenly, Zentxs launched himself alongside her, mirroring the color changes of her gown, swooping through the air with her, every bit as graceful as the slender girl.  Turning to the Quartropus, she opened her arms and Zentxs came to her.  Tenderly cradling her in his powerful tentacles, he claimed her for his own.

“Amid enthusiastic cheering from the passengers, Smethers slunk back to his seat.  The rest is history.  With Zentxs as a champion and spokesman for the human race, we were accepted into the Sentient Species Coalition with all the attendant trading and technological benefits.  Humanity was safe.

“As for Bernice and Zentxs, they had a long, happy partnership – and even named their first-hatched child, Smethers.”

I sank back into my narc-cush, relieved that this current crop of pain meds was doing such a solid job.  “There.  We’ve finally come to the end of the story.  Bernice and Zentxs’ children were all heavily augmented.  And when Terran humans saw their advantages, many started having their offspring pre-natally changed.  That’s how it all started.”

James rolled forward and gently collected Mary’s Bernice-box from the table, preparing to leave.

“Have a wonderful time, sweet.” I drew breath to remind her to listen to James.  And stopped.  She already knew.  And my nagging wouldn’t make it more likely that she’d obey.

She hugged me, then turned to go.  Before swinging around, again.  “Granny.  I’ve something…” her voice was small and she wouldn’t look at me, “I should’ve told you, sooner.  But, I didn’t.  I was so mad after – you – you know…”

After I secretly  dosed you with Memex to enhance your learning abilities in the run-up to your Educational Merit exam.  And you found out…

Fear hit the back of my throat.  She’s been secretive since that last awful quarrel.  When we screamed things at each other than grandmothers and granddaughters have no business saying.  She must’ve gone elsewhere for comfort and kindness, like her mother.

I prayed to a Maker I no longer believed in.  Don’t let her be pregnant.  Please…

“Whatever it is, we’ll manage.  We always have.” I forced my voice to stay steady.

Her head jerked up, surprised.  “Oh no, it’s nothing like that.  You see – I got my results.  My Educational Merit…”

Light-headed with relief, I waved both a tentacle and a hand, “Oh that.  Yes, I knew the results had come in.  Don’t worry, luvvie.  You can always have another go, next year.”

She crossed the room and put an arm around my shoulders.  “No.  It’s not that.  After I found out about the Memex stuff…  I thought you were twisting me into something I wasn’t.  Instead’ve trying to look out for me.”  She rolled her eyes, “Riva will call me an unaug’d mossbrain when I tell her.  She always reckoned that you were solidly stellar.  Especially after the results came through.”

Mary’s hand tightened as she added.  “You see, I passed my Education Merit.  With Distinction.”

Sarah Higbee lives on the south coast of England with her husband.  Her stories have appeared in Abandoned Towers, Every Day Fiction and Everyday Weirdness.  She is currently half-way through writing her science fiction novel Dying for Space, the second book in The Sunblinded Trilogy.  The first novel, Running Out of Space, is due to be published in early 2010 by Cyberwizard Publications.

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