Fift and Shria

by Benjamin Rosenbaum

Author's note: when originally published, this story used traditional English-language gender pronouns to signify the "genders" (i.e. the dimorphic social class-moeity) in Fift and Shria's world. In this archived version, however, I have replaced them with "ze" for Staids and "ve" for Vails, the convention used in the novel The Unraveling.

Fift could tell that the new kid, Shria, was yearning for the other Bails to get involved, to say something. Perjes and Tomlest were across the clearing, pulling sticks out of the underbrush, but they'd stopped to watch.

"Did you hear me?" Umlish said to Shria. "I said, 'so you're latterborn again, I guess we should congratulate you'.'"

Umlish was all gray — hair, eyes, skin, all the same matching tone. Zir parents must have decided to match them like that. Show-offy, in a Staidish way. Ze was ten years old, a year older than Fift and Shria and most of the other kids. Ze was here singlebodied — ze'd only brought one body along on the field trip to the surface, unlike everyone else — and she wasn't carrying any wood, either. Zir sidekicks, Kimi and Puson, were carrying it for zir.

"Of course being middleborn has its advantages," Umlish said, "but really, who wants a Younger Sibling cluttering up the place? Not Shria, I imagine."

One of the Bails — Perjes or Tomlest — snickered, and Shria turned sharply, in both bodies, baring zir teeth. But ve must not have been watching them over the feed, so ve couldn't be sure which one had snickered. Ve stood there, glaring, clearly willing them to say something out loud. Ve could fight them, and ve would — ve was always getting in unauthorized fights with the other Bailkids.

What could ve do against Umlish and her Staid crew?

Fift wasn't there. Ze was a little way down the trail in one body, and farther off in the forest with the other. But ze was watching over the feed. The whole class must be watching. How could you not? Everyone had been wondering about it, about what had happened to the new kid and vir family, and no one had been talking about it... until now.

Shria: lavender skin and fiery red hair, orange eyebrows that curled like flames. Bony bare knees and elbows poked between the red and blue strips of cloth of vir suit. Vir clothes were a bit too big — a little too skimpy for the surface — as if whoever had cooked them up had been distracted. It was already misting, up here — tiny droplets of water sparkling in the air, the strange wild atmosphere hesitating between fog and rain. Shria crouched down, doublebodied, one body's arms already loaded up with sticks. Ve turned away sharply from the Bails in the clearing, and pulled a silver-barked stick from a tangle of them. It was furry with greenish lichen.

Vir eyes were red from crying already.

"That's not going to burn," Puson said. Ze was doing zir best to look Staidish, emotionless, austere, but she sounded a little too excited. "Lichen means it's too wet. Especially in this weather."

Umlish smiled primly. "You do have an environmental context agent, don't you?"

Fift's own arms were full of sticks, some of which had lichen on them, or small fungi.

Ze shouldn't have split up after arriving in the forest. Ze was here in one body gathering sticks; in another body, ze was over past the ridge, dragging a large log back to the campsite. Dumb. Ze would have to drop all the sticks, if she was going to sort through them. Ze didn't like being together in the same place. Zir somatic integration was poor. Zir parents sent zir to experts about it.

Umlish had found out about the experts, at one point. Umlish had written a poem about it.

Umlish could be merciless.

Fift shouldn't have damped all zir automated agents; they would have told her about the lichen. But the agents distracted zir. From the the tall trunks of trees — some of them thick around as elevator shafts, others thin as a child's wrist. From the crunch and crackle of moss and leaves underfoot. From the roiling pale-green clouds in the roofless empty above zir.

"Your parents should make sure you have the appropriate agents, for a trip to the surface," Umlish said. "They do seem very distracted, don't they?"

{Why did the Midwives take Shria's younger sibling away?} Fift asked zir agents.

Shria dropped the stick and stood up, in both bodies, one of them clutching the pile of kindling. Ve was quivering, vir faces pale. Ve looked around.

{Before a family can have a child, there needs to be consensus, among neighbors and reactants}, Fift's social context agent explained. {If there isn't enough approval, and the family goes ahead and has the child anyway, the Midwives require the birthing cohort to yield custody. Otherwise they won't gender the child.}

{But they didn't take vir sibling away the first day}, Fift sent. {It was like three weeks.}

{You are correct}, the social context agent said. {There was a period of negotiation regarding the child's status.}

At home, in her third body, Fift rolled over. Ze hadn't really been sleeping anyway, just wallowing under the blankets, zir eyes closed, her attention on the surface. The house feed showed Fathers Frill and Grobbard and Smistria in the breakfast room. Ze rolled out of bed, scratched zir feet, and went downstairs.

Zir Fathers looked up as ze came into the breakfast room.

"Hello, dear," Frill said. Ve raised vir head, causing a swarm of small bright cosmetic midges to launch themselves from vir gilded eyebrows and dance in the air. "How is it going with your — ah yes," vir eyes shone. "Out in the wilds! Looks damp." Ve grinned, goldenly.

"I never go to the surface," Smistria said, leaning back — vir other body leaned forward, messily chewing a crusty broibel, which flaked into vir braided beard — "if I can avoid it. We had this nonsense when I was your age too. It's perverse up there. The sky can just dump water on you or electrify you any time it takes the notion. Horrible place."

Under that dangerous sky, Umlish took a step closer to Shria. "I wonder if they might still be a bit overburdened? Your parents."

Across the clearing, Perjes turned to Tomlest. You could tell they were sending messages. Tomlest's eyes screwed up in amusement, and ve laughed.

Shria's bodies both twitched, vir empty pair of hands came up, almost to a guard position. But Tomlest didn't look over.

"Oh you," Frill said, swatting Smistria. "You have no sense of romance! The wild sky, our ancient origins!"

"Our ancient origins, for that matter, were under an entirely different —"

"Oh, don't be such a pedant! I know as well as you —"

"Um," Fift interrupted., "uUm, I have a question."

Perjes and Tomlest ran off into the woods. Shria exhaled a shaky breath. Ve turned abruptly, and started to walk away. Not to run; ve moved slowly, like an animal preserving its energy. Ve kept vir eyes focussed on vir feet. Umlish, Puson, and Kimi trailed after vem.

"Yes, little stalwart?" Frill said. "What is it?"

"There's this Vail in my class, Shria —" in the forest, still watching Shria, she checked lookup — "Um, Shria Qualia Fnax, of name-registry Digger Chameleon 2?"

Smistria looked at Frill, and bared vir teeth. "Oh yes. That one."

"What, what happened? They took away vir sibling, but why — why did they take so long? And why did vir parents have the baby, if they didn't —"

"Because they're idiots," Smistria said.

Fift frowned.

Grobbard spread her hands. Grobbard was Fift's only Staid Father. Zir face was smooth and calm. "It was a kind of gamble, Fift. Fnax cohort thought that once the baby was here, opinions would change."

Shria trudged through the underbrush. The trail was a ragged strip of bare dirt, traced by surface animals. Ve was heading down the trail, heading towards Fift.

"An idiotic gamble," Smistria said. "If people didn't trust you to raise another child in the first place, why would they trust you after that behavior? Provoking a standoff with the Midwives? Letting your child just — hang about for three weeks —"

"Ungendered," Frill added, shaking vir head. "Not entered into lookup, not entered into a name registry, like — like a surface animal, or —"

"Like someone who doesn't exist at all!" Smistria cried.

Grobbard sighed. "Yes. As if lingering still unborn, outside its Mother's body."

"But why would they do that?" Fift asked.

"Because," Smistria snapped, "they thought they could coerce the rest of Slow-as-Molasses — and the family reactants of all of Fullbelly!" Ve drew virself up in vir seating harness, still chewing vigorously with vir other mouth. "They were so arrogant, they didn't even invite adjudication!" Smistria was, virself, a well-rated adjudication reactant.

"They would have lost adjudication," Frill said.

"Exactly!" Smistria said — forgetting virself, through a mouthful of broibel.

Umlish, Kimi, and Puson trailed behind Shria, like a parade. Their eyes darted back and forth — you could tell they were amused by the messages they were sending to each other. They had small prim grins. Kimi giggled — Kimi was only eight — until Umlish frowned, then ze composed zir face more sedately.

"And think of the poor older siblings," Frill said. "Especially your classmate. From latterborn to middleborn to latterborn again, in three weeks —!"

"Well," said Grobbard quietly, "at least ve was briefly middleborn." Grobbard was an Only Child, just like Fift. It wasn't something she talked about, but you could see it right there in lookup: Grobbard Erevulios Panaxis of name registry Amenable Perambulation 2, four-bodied Staid, 230 years old, Only Child.

Being an Only Child wasn't a great thing. It kind of meant you were less of a person. Maybe Grobbard had always dreamed about being middleborn, too.

"Yes, but come on, Grobby," Frill (who was latterborn) said. "Not like that."

Umlish looked up the trail, and saw Fift standing there, as if frozen. Umlish's eyes narrowed. {Oh, hello Fift}, ze sent. {Are you finding what you need? Don't you think you have enough sticks? Oh my —} her eyes flicked to the left, feed-searching; {— look at you dragging that thing.} Ze had found Fift's other body, hauling the log. Zir eyes shifted back to Fift's. {That's so... robust of you. "Mighty was Threnis in her time", eh?}

Fift flushed. Umlish was farther with the Long Conversation than ze was — already learning the sixth mode. Was Threnis mentioned in the third corpus? Ze couldn't remember — and Pip and Grobbard never let her use search agents for the Conversation. ("It's a corrupting habit, Fift," Grobbard had said, with starker disapproval than Fift had ever seen on her solemn face. "Once you begin using them, you'll never stop. You must know the Conversation yourself — unaided — with your own mind. The Conversation is the essence of our lives as Staids, Fift.")

Umlish's eyes widened in triumph; she could tell that Fift had no idea who Threnis was.

Shria looked up nervously, saw Fift, and frowned. The tips of vir ears were bluish with cold. Vir mouth was trembling, but vir jaw was clamped tight, almost as if ve was trying not to cry — like Fift when ze was six or seven, when she'd begun doing her horrible somatic integration exercises, and had to do them in front of the experts and her whole family. It had taken all her strength not to humiliate zirself by bursting into tears.

But of course no one would mind if Shria cried. If anything, it was strange — even slightly ridiculous — for a Vail to be so rigid with the effort not to.

Fift cleared her throat. It was thick somehow, and the morning dew was clammy on the back of her neck.

"Shria," ze said, "can you, um, help me?" Ze hefted her pile of sticks. "Some of these aren't going to burn, they've got lichen on them."

Shria stopped, in both bodies, and glared at Fift. Ve hunched vir shoulders in a little further. Ve thought she was making fun of vem, too, and so did Kimi and Puson, whose grins escaped their prim confinement. Umlish wasn't so sure; ze raised an eyebrow.

"I guess I should have checked with my agents," Fift said, her voice a little unsteady, "but I turned them off. Who wants to have agents chattering at you up here? It's sort of missing the point, isn't it?"

Puson's face froze; Kimi looked back and forth from Puson to Umlish. Shria blinked.

Umlish's mouth soured. "You like it up here?" she snarled.

Fift didn't, exactly; it was cold and strange and mostly pretty boring, though there was also something fascinating about being under this strange sky which, as Father Smistria said, could do anything it decided to. Ze didn't like it, but ze wanted to experience it. But she wasn't about to explain that to Umlish.

"Oh, Umlish... Are you having trouble with this?" Fift said. "I guess it can be a little scary if you've never been on the surface before. But don't worry —"

Umlish recoiled. "I'm not scared, you sluiceblocking toadclown. It's just disgusting —" Ze waved a hand at the forest.

A small grin crept across one of Shria's faces.

Fift swallowed. Ze wasn't sure what else to say.

Father Grobbard's eyes had been closed. Ze often meditated at the breakfast table. Now ze opened them and glanced at Fift. {Threnis}, she sent Fift, {appears in the sixth and seventh odes of the first additional corpus. Would you like to study them this afternoon?}

Fift gulped. It was easy to forget that her parents could read the logs of her private messages: they didn't often bother to. At least, ze didn't think they did. Grobbard didn't seem angry, though. Ze placed her hands together, resting them on the table. Peaceful as a stone worn smooth by a river.

"Well, if you like it so much," Umlish snarled, "why don't you live up here? Maybe you could get permission to build a little hut out of sticks and the two of you could play cohort."

"Okay," Shria said, coming forward up the trail. "Yeah, I'll help." Ve stopped in front of Fift, wiped a streak of snot from vir nose with the back of vir wrist, and then reached in, holding the good sticks back with one hand, and pulling the mossy ones out with the other. Ve kept those eyes on the task, but the other two — in the body ve was holding vir pile of sticks with — searched her face, sizing her up.

Fift swallowed. Ze kept her face still, expressionless, but she could feel the blood rising into her ears.

"Will they take any of the other children, do you think?" Father Frill asked.

"What?" Fift asked. "What other children?"

"Of Fnax cohort," Smistria said.

The cold dug into Fift's chests, and not just on the surface. "Like Shria? Why?"

Frill shrugged, and smoothed the bright blue-and-orange braids of vir hair with vir hands, releasing another swarm of midges into the air. "It can happen. If their ratings fall enough — if people think they're doing an inadequate job. That your friend would be better off elsewhere."

"Ve's not..." Fift began. Ze didn't really have any Vail friends. It had gotten become hard to tell who her friends were.

Two years ago ze would have said Umlish was her friend; they'd played together when they were little. But Umlish was the kind of person who was your friend as long as you did exactly what she said. Fift had tried to laugh along with the poem thing. But after today... Ze'd never forgive Fift now.

"They're starting the campfire, Umlish," Kimi said. "Should we go back?"

"Or are you playing siblings?" Umlish snapped, ignoring Kimi. "How exciting for you, Fift! A sibling of your own!"

Father Frill cocked vir head to one side, and narrowed vir eyes, searching the feed. "Hmm. Ve's been fighting — your friend. Ve's a little old for that. At your age Bails should be learning to keep their fights on the mats." Ve shook vir head. "That's not good for ratings."

The hairs on the backs of Fift's necks stood up. "What would happen, if they take Shria away? Away to where?"

Frill shrugged. "Ve's not too old to be trained as a Midwife. They live at the pole —" ve gestured vaguely southwards. "It's a great honor."

Fift could see her own faces over the feed. Ze looked horrified: one day ze'd come to class and Shria would be gone, taken from vir cohort, forbidden to talk to vir parents, off to the pole to become a Midwife forever. How many more fights would it take? Could Umlish cause this all by zirself, with her words? Fift struggled to compose her expressions into mildness, like Grobbard's.

The closed and skeptical look on Shria's face softened, as ve stared at Fift. Ve yanked the last of the mossy sticks from the pile (in her other body, Fift yanked the log free from a knot of underbrush; there, she could hear the sounds of the campsite through the trees. They were building the bonfire). Ve raised one of vir thick, curling eyebrows.

"You'd better plan on being the Older Sibling, though," Umlish said, "because Shria doesn't want any Younger Siblings. Ve was glad to get rid of that little baby — weren't you, Shria?"

Shria blinked. Vir nostrils flared, a long indrawn breath, vir eyes still locked on Fift's — drawing strength? Then ve turned to Umlish. "Don't spit all your poison today, Umlish," ve said. "You might run out, and then what are you going to do tomorrow?"

Umlish drew zirself up, scowling. "You sluiceblocking —"

"You used 'sluiceblocking' already," Shria said. "See? You're running out."

"Let's go back, Umlish," Kimi said. "We don't want to miss when they light it the fire —"

Fift cleared her throat. Zir hearts were pulsing, unstaidishly fast.

"Don't tell me what —" Umlish snapped.

"You could try 'flowblocking'," Fift said.

Shria's eyes lit. "That's kind of the same thing, though," ve said, chewing vir lip.

"Corpsemunching?" Fift said.

Shria giggled. "That's good! What's that from? Yes, call me a 'corpsemunching sisterloser', Umlish —"

"'Sisterloser'!" Fift's eyes widened. "Wow!"

Shria grinned, showing white teeth in vir pale lavender face. "You like that one?"

Fift dragged her log into the clearing, and Perjes and Tomlest ran up to take it from her, and toss it onto the pile.

Umlish's face was a mask of anger.

Puson cleared her throat.

"See there, Umlish?" Shria said, clapping her on the shoulder. "You don't need to worry. If you run out, we'll help you."

"Get your hands away from me!" Umlish snapped. "You're disgusting!" Ze turned and swept up the path, followed by Puson. Kimi, released from the agony of waiting, darted ahead towards the campsite, her bodies caroming off each other, running a few bodylengths before remembering to slow down to a more sedate and proper pace.

Fathers Frill and Smistria had finished breakfast and wandered off. Father Grobbard was waiting, still, watching Fift with her immovable serenity. It seemed like as if ze was waiting for something.

It was turning colder. When Umlish, Puson, and Kimi were gone, Shria exhaled, a brief exhausted sigh: it came out as a plume of white fog. Vir shoulders slumped.

They were lighting the fire; brushing bits of bark from her hands, Fift found a place on a rock, not too far and not too near, and settled onto it. The expedition director, a fussy 200-year-old middleborn Staid, was anxiously directing the two Bails holding the lighted torch. Kimi rushed up the path, walking just slower than a run, eyes wide with expectation.

Alone on the path with Shria, Fift was at a loss. Were people watching them? There was a way to check audience numbers on the feed, they'd had it once in interface class — after a moment, she found it. No one saw them where they stood in the forest; no one at all. Not even Grobbard.

Grobbard raised an eyebrow. As if waiting for Fift to answer a question.

"Oh," Fift said. "Yes, I —" Ze switched to sending, rather than speak aloud about the Long Conversation, there in the kitchen where her Vail Fathers might hear and get annoyed. {Yes, Father Grobbard, I would be interested in studying the sixth and seventh odes of the first additional corpus. Thank you.}

Fift's arms were getting tired from holding the pile bundle of sticks. Ze took a step up the path, and Shria matched it. They headed back towards the campsite.

Shria watched the darkening sky, sunk in vir own thoughts. At the edge of the circle of firelight — red shadows dancing on the trunks, every body wreathed in a streamer of exhaled cloud as the children began to sing — ve looked at her once, and sent: {Thanks.}

They dumped their kindling in the pile, and Shria went off somewhere. Fift sat down with zirself, body against body, huddled up against the cold.


Copyright © 2014 Benjamin Rosenbaum

Originally published in Solaris Rising 3, August 26th, 2014.
Reprinted in
The Year's Best Fantasy and Science Fiction 2015, ed. Rich Horton, June 11, 2015

Forms a part of The Unraveling, published in German by Piper Verlag as Die Auflösung, May 2, 2018.

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