Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a prolific Nebula winner, who has also won the Bram Stoker award and has been nominated for the Philip K. Dick, the World Fantasy Award, and other Nebulas. This is her second appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.
I hated when Mrs. Rasp, the boss at Preternatural Youngster Care, assigned me to the hatcherium. Eggs were fragile and boring. I would rather take care of a whole roomful of infant imps than sit around in the sweltering, smelly, dark heat of the hatcherium with the eggs.
Sure, the eggs were pretty colors and different sizes. Some were smooth, some spiky, and some just—well, weird didn’t cover it; some had shapes I’d only seen in dreams, and some shapes made you wonder how the mother survived laying them—if she did. The eggs wiggled and rocked as things inside them formed, and they made sounds, and some gave off strange or disgusting smells. But for the most part, once you learned the eggs and their behaviors, not much changed until hatching time.
Some of the nests were made of grass, some of sticks, some of found-art junk, and some of things you didn’t see anywhere on Earth except here. Cool, but they didn’t change.
My powers ran toward turning invisible, melting through walls, and eavesdropping. I wasn’t sure Mrs. Rasp knew this about me, even though I had been in daycare at PYC when I was six, fifteen years ago. Most staff here didn’t remember me as a kid; PYC had a high staff turnover, and not because everybody quit after they’d been here a few days. Sometimes people got eaten, transformed, or killed, but the admins always hushed that stuff up.
I’d worked here six months so far. My skills helped me survive.
My father was a ghost, and my mother was a witch. Usually that kind of relationship didn’t create viable spawn, but Mom had a powerful desire for a child. She did spells, and she ended up with me.
Sometimes I wasn’t all here. Usually I could keep it together when I was at work.
I was on egg-watch Friday, thinking ahead to my two days off—I had plans with my best friend Valeria, who was also a half-blood—her mom was a succubus, and I wasn’t sure what her father was. What was different about her could be hidden with clothes.
We were going to the coast. She had a mermaid caller we bought at a second-hand magic store, and we’d been wanting to try it for a couple of months.
There were five eggs in the hatcherium: two pale blue gryphon eggs, in a feathered nest big enough to hold two curled-up human toddlers; one gritty-shelled dragon egg the size of a basketball in a hearth of rocks, with a layer of opals and jasper under it, and under all that, a heater; a green, speckled egg the size and shape of a watermelon floating in a misty green energy cocoon; and a thin-shelled egg in a nest of woven-together driftwood. That one was a flattened, brownish-gold tube with spirally ribbons of wiry black stuff at either end. It had a smooth, flexible surface like a shark egg-case, and it was big enough to hold a full-grown human. Nobody had told me what it was supposed to hatch into. Things moved under its translucent surface.
I heard a crackling pop, then dripping.
I put down my Kindle and checked the eggs. Most creatures will imprint on whoever they first see when they hatch. We usually have instructions about whom to summon for them to imprint on.
It was the brown-gold egg that had cracked, on one of the pressed ends. Thin, clear fluid dripped from it. I looked for case notes in the clipboard pocket by its nest, and didn’t find any. I pressed the intercom button. “Mrs. Rasp?” I said.
“She’s out on an emergency,” said her assistant, Candy. “One of the djinn babies granted its own wish and got big enough to swallow a baby dragon, and —”
“The brown egg is hatching. How am I supposed to prepare for it?”
“The brown egg?” Candy said, her voice a shriek.
“Yeah. Are there notes about it?”
“Are you kidding? There’s a big brown book with gold edging, and jewels inset in the cover! You didn’t read that? Everybody who gets egg watch is supposed to read that!”
“I’ve been on egg watch three different shifts this week, and I’ve never seen a book like that,” I said.
Candy screamed. I had to turn off the intercom; the scream was agitating the eggs. So not helpful!
More jagged cracking noises, and the rhythmic thump of something rocking back and forth. I hadn’t seen many hatchings, actually. They always happened on someone else’s watch. It had been a while since I’d taken the refresher course on hatching emergencies. All I remembered was, “Imprinting is forever, and sometimes that means longer than life itself, depending on what’s hatching.”
What if the egg hatched into a carnivore and ate me?
Maybe I should stand far away from it.
On the other hand, if it didn’t have something to imprint on, it could be ruined for life.
On the third hand, anybody who could afford to place an egg with PYC had to have big plans for the hatchling. The place wasn’t cheap. Nobody wanted a hatchling imprinted on a half-ghost twenty year old with minimal job skills.
I turned the intercom back on to see if Candy had stopped screaming. “Lucy? Lucy? Lucy!!!” she was saying.
“Here. Sorry. Your screaming was making the eggs rock. What am I supposed to do?”
“I’ve called the number on file for that egg, and I’ve sent the Imp Brigade to search for the book of instructions. I’m now sending Shrike up to be imprinted on if necessary. Stay back.”
“Okay,” I said, and then there was this giant ripping sound, and this big slimy thing emerged from the brown egg-case and stared at me. It had two bulging golden eyes, a brown-spotted, squid-like mantle over a translucent bulbous body, and lots of tentacles, and it was bigger than I was. And slimy. I guessed things were usually kind of wet when they hatch, but I didn’t think they were covered in slime and dripping like this thing.
A thick tentacle snaked out and wrapped around my waist and pulled me right up to its eyes. It blinked—it had an extra set of pale eyelids under its regular ones—and its horizontally slitted pupils flared until they ate up the pretty, gold-squiggle designs on its irises. I stared into my own stretched expression reflected in those huge, domed eyes. Scrawny, human, blond hair limp because the atmosphere in here was so sweat-intensive, and wearing a look more apprehensive than welcoming. I tried for a smile. Not that this thing would know what a smile meant.
The arm around me had suckers on it, but they hadn’t attached to my skin or clothes. The grip was firm but not painful. Still, I wondered if I was going to be the being’s first snack. I prepared to go ghostly and melt away if I saw a mouth or a beak open anywhere on the creature.
A slender tentacle rose and touched my forehead above my nose. The suction cup on its tip fastened to my skin. —Mama?— the creature said in my mind.
—Hey, kid,— I thought back. I didn’t know what else to think. I didn’t want to tell it I wasn’t its mama, in case that gave it permission to eat me.
—Mama,— it said again, and wrapped a lot more tentacles around me. They were pretty slimy, but warm. It had me totally immobilized in seconds. Still, I could ghost if I needed to. I was pretty sure, anyway. Some bonds weren’t visible.
The hatcherium door whooshed open and Shrike strode in. He was the chief of the guards on staff at PYC—we needed lots of guards, with lots of special skills, and he had tons of good ones. He was also tall, buff, and imposing in his black guard uniform with the yellow spider on the front, and right now his dark-skinned face was scowling up a storm. Daggers of lightning flashed in his eyes. I closed mine so he couldn’t burn out my retinas.
—Mama,— thought my baby thing again, cocooning me in more tentacles, wrapping my whole head in one soft, squishy arm, and hiding me from Shrike. —Will protect!— I got the impression of more tentacles rising to attack. How many arms did Baby have?
—No, Baby,— I thought, —no. It’s all right. Leave the man alone. He won’t hurt us…yet.—
The tentacle around my head uncurled, leaving only the slim, mind-meld tentacle in contact with my forehead. I was glad. I hadn’t been sure whether I could breathe with it around me, and I wanted to be able to breathe, see, hear, and speak.
“Lucy!” Shrike said, his voice deep and rumbly.
“I’m sorry,” I said aloud. “I didn’t mean to do anything! But Baby grabbed me!”
He huffed a big breath through his nose, then said, “Stand down. I understand.”
“Baby, we’re safe.” I spoke aloud this time. “Don’t hurt the nasty man.”
Baby loosened a few more tentacles and lowered me enough so my feet touched the floor. I still felt half-mummified and thoroughly slimy. At least the slime was warm. —Baby?— I thought. —Do you need to hold me so tight?—
—Yes,— thought my new baby.
—Okay,— I thought. I wondered if Baby was hungry. Some things hatched hungry, and some didn’t. What did Baby eat?
Baby got excited, hearing my thoughts. Ravenous hunger not my own roared through me, and what it craved was meat, raw, red, and dripping. Tentacles rose around us, and some reached toward the other eggs.
“No, Baby!” I yelled. “Shrike! We need meat!”
“Got it,” he said. He palmed a supply cupboard in the wall, and the lowest drawer popped open. It had big hunks of raw meat in it, still warm from the kill, kept in stasis until needed. He grabbed the tongs, lifted up a big chunk of meat, releasing it from the field. He brought it within tentacle reach of Baby.
Baby kept one tentacle around my waist and one on my forehead. All the rest reached for the meat, snatched it, whipped it up against Baby’s—Baby’s what? Suddenly there was a large, round, red maw with three circles of sharp fangs rimming it, and a long, three-pronged tongue. The tentacles shoved the meat hunk into it. The tongue prongs gripped the meat and pulled it inside. The maw irised shut. Chomping and slavering sounds ensued, accompanied by drool.
Shrike went back to the meat locker and fished out three more chunks of meat. He brought them close enough for Baby to grab. Grab Baby did.
Baby’s hunger quieted after five hunks of meat that probably doubled her body mass. She settled into a deeply satisfied state, glowing comfortable warmth into my brain that made me happy and sleepy. She stretched a couple of tentacles out into a curved ring and laid me down on it and strapped me in: a weird hammock. She drew me close and curled up into herself, and we took a nap together.
My dreams were full of blood. Happy blood, floods of blood, warm and comfy, seas of blood I floated in, tasty blood I drank that nourished me better than any food I’d ever had in waking life, and tasted better than cocoa—smoky, spicy, with that extra flavor of something still alive that added a special power to it.
Something poked my thigh. I blinked awake, sweaty, slimy, and supported by something rubbery and soft, in the dim light of the hatcherium.
“Well, quite a fine mess you’ve landed us in, young lady,” said my boss, Mrs. Rasp. She stood about eight feet from me and Baby, and she had used a telescoping cane to wake me. As always, she looked like she had a stick up her ass and she enjoyed it. She was slender. She had silver-framed oval glasses that magnified her green eyes, and an unlined, porcelain-pale face surrounded by a frizzy explosion of tight white curly hair. Her blouse and skirt were dark gray trimmed with pale blue, and she wore black stockings and sensible black shoes.
I rubbed my hand over my face, then curled my hands into fists and rubbed my eyes. “There was no instruction book.”
“I put a tracker on the book. Brandywine, who was on duty here Monday, stole it and left town. I told He-Who-Looms he shouldn’t have put that jeweled cover on it. Brandywine has been retrieved and disciplined, but of course, it’s too late for this cephalopod-ogre. And it takes a hundred years to grow another.”
“What do we do?” I struggled to sit up. Baby made a snorting sound and came awake. The tentacle still touching my forehead sent her mind into mine. It felt different this time, like she was now a shadow presence behind my eyes, somehow a part of me instead of just communicating with me. I glanced at her. She had grown while I slept. Her head, or bulb, or main body? rose halfway to the ceiling now. She filled most of the pathway egg-tenders used to walk around the nests on this side, and a few lax tentacles lay on the edges of nearby nests. All the other eggs were still in the nests, uneaten. I thought love at Baby for her restraint.
Mrs. Rasp said, “First, we need to move you out of here. I don’t want the other eggs endangered, and I’m sure your—nurseling would be happier elsewhere. We’ve prepared a room for you in the infant section.”
“Okay,” I said. “Need food,” said Baby, her demand coming out of my mouth in a voice slightly rougher than mine.
Mrs. Rasp leaned forward and peered into Baby’s eyes. “Already?” she muttered, but not to me/us.
I tried to get to my feet. Baby lifted me and set me on her—head? Her bulbous main mass, above her tentacles. —Stay here,— she thought at me. She laced a few tentacles around me.
“Food!” I said again, being Baby’s mouthpiece.
“Very well,” said Mrs. Rasp. She opened the meat locker, and Baby’s tentacles whipped in and snatched all the meat out of the stasis field and shoved it into her mouth, which opened below her eyes, and looked bigger than it had before.
“Manners!” said Mrs. Rasp.
“Sorry,” I said. “She was really hungry.”
“That’s its name?”
“That will have to change. He-Who-Looms wants an unpronounceable name. It can’t be anything silly.” Mrs. Rasp frowned. “A female? Are you sure?”
“Baby girl,” said Baby, using my mouth.
“Unprecedented,” said Mrs. Rasp. “Lucy, what are your family connections? Have you parents, siblings, grandparents?”
“Why do you want to know?” I asked.
“The current situation will mean a change of life for you. Regrettable, perhaps, or not, depending on how contented you were with your previous life.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Supposing you live with your parents. You can’t walk home with this creature ambling behind you and say, ‘Look what followed me home! Can we keep it?'”
She had a point. “I live alone, but my mother lives in the same apartment building. My apartment’s kinda small. If Baby keeps eating the way she does, I don’t think she’ll fit pretty soon.” Mom and I had dinners in each other’s apartments several times a week, and we watched talk shows together most nights. I wondered what Mom would think of Baby.
“Your apartment is a thing of the past. You and Baby will live with He-Who-Looms.”
That didn’t sound good. I’d seen some preternatural parents from the dark end of the spectrum, and I usually ended up ghosting before they noticed me. It was an involuntary response. I could handle evil kids before they hit puberty; I scared them into compliance by pushing my hand right through them, maybe grabbing something behind them and pulling it back through them. Always creeped them out. Once they turned into teenagers, they grew into their own gifts and powers, and I couldn’t control them with simple tricks anymore. Hence, egg watch and toddler supervision.
“Any other choices?” I asked. Technically I was a free being, with all the rights granted me under the Constitution of the United States. The reality, though, was that Preternatural Youngster Care was its own sovereign nation, with its own laws. If I broke rules here, I could be punished in ways unlawful outside of the building.
“Sorry,” said Mrs. Rasp. “No. Baby is He-Who-Looms’s offspring, at least legally, and you are now attached to Baby.”
Despair swamped me. Not that I had been doing a whole heck of a lot with my life, but I had things that made me happy, such as the freedom to walk around, especially at night, and explore. I could slip through walls and snoop to my heart’s content after I finished work, late, when everything was closed. Sometimes I went in clothes stores and tried things on. Sometimes I went inside the Danish bakery and snuck a pastry or two from the day-old section. Sometimes I slipped into movie theaters, and sometimes into Best Buy after hours to watch their giant TVs and play with their devices, though I had to stay ghostly there because they had a lot of security cameras. And I had my little apartment to go home to, a nest I could curl up in. I had my books and my journals and a few favorite dolls and stuffed animals from my childhood.
I had my mother, and my best friend, Valeria. I thought about our planned trip to the coast. Baby would like the coast. What would she think of the ocean? She seemed made for swimming. What if we swam together? What if she went in the water and never came out again?
What would Valeria and Mom make of Baby?
They might never know what had happened to me if Mrs. Rasp had her way.
As Baby’s mama, would I lose my freedom? Maybe I could still sneak away, but I didn’t want to test it with Mrs. Rasp right here. Would Baby be all right if I left her alone?
—Mama?— Baby’s thought was plaintive.
I had forgotten Baby was wrapped up in my brain and able to feel what I felt, read what I thought. I closed my eyes and tried to let go of my despair.
—Sorry, Baby.— I thought warmth at her as best I could, but I felt her feelings too, sadness, fear, loneliness, rejection. —No, Baby. It’s not you.— I sent her love. Acceptance. I tried to drink down my fears and get them out of my head. Baby was not the problem here. She was fine. She was wonderful. She was—she wasn’t quite buying this, but she seemed to feel better.
“You’ll be well compensated,” Mrs. Rasp said. “He-Who-Looms is quite wealthy. I’m sure your accommodations will be first class.”
I decided not to tell her how little that meant to me. First class had a lot of definitions. First class in Hell? First class in a world of darkness?
“For now, I’d like you to follow me.” She turned and strolled around the nests to the exit.
Shrike was still in the room. I hadn’t even noticed; he was against the wall near the floating egg.
Baby lifted herself off the egg-case she had come from and traveled after Mrs. Rasp. We seemed to be flowing smoothly across the floor. —How are you doing that?— I wondered. Her tentacles writhed below us.
—This,— she thought, and pulled me into her brain. I could not endure it: She was using many limbs, senses, and abilities I had never experienced and couldn’t understand.
I blacked out.
“Lucy?” Something tapped my shoulder. “Lucy? Drat the girl. Her record doesn’t say she’s fragile.”
Baby flooded me with sorrow and regret that she had hurt me.
“Stop,” I whimpered.
The flood slowed, then shut off. —Sorry,— she thought. —Sorrysorry.—
—I got it. Not your fault. This is complicated.—
I looked around. I was still perched on top of Baby’s head, anchored there by tentacles. We were in a large room with a whole wall of window. The room had a dry side that sloped down into a pool of water against the window. The window looked out over the central courtyard of Preternatural Youngster Care from above—it looked like we were on the third story. Below, a variety of play habitats existed, fenced from each other in various ways that would keep the right youngsters in and the wrong ones separate. A grove of trees grew in the fae hab, and a pool of lava undulated in the hab for hellfolk. Baby stared down, drinking in all the sights of beings she had not before encountered. She thumbed through my brain to find out more, which kinda hurt.
When she realized that, she stopped.
—How can I be your mama when you’re so much stronger than I am?— I wondered.
She bowled me over with a wave of love.
“Waste management for both you and the infant is here,” Mrs. Rasp said. She gestured to an alcove with a curtain over it. “Here’s a trough for the infant’s food. We’ll keep it well stocked.” There was a long metal tub against the wall. It had a square door above it, and a faucet at one end. “Your intercom is here.” Mrs. Rasp pointed to some a device on the wall next to the door. “Let us know if there’s anything, anything at all, you need. We’ll do our best to get it for you. He-Who-Looms should arrive by tonight. Any questions, either of you?”
“What do I eat?” I asked. My stomach growled. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been unconscious, but Baby had hatched just before my lunch break.
“I’ll send up a tray,” she said. “Good luck, my dear. I wish things had turned out better for you.”
The door closed behind her. There was an extra click.
I pulled a tentacle off me, and Baby lifted the rest of them off, even the communication one on my forehead. I slid down and went to the door, tried the handle.
Not that it mattered, except it let me know Baby and I were supposed to be prisoners.
Baby held out the long, slender tentacle she had used to connect to my mind. I sighed, stepped closer, grasped it, and touched it to my forehead again.
—A thing you do,— she thought.
—Where things aren’t hard.—
My ghosting. She knew. How could she not know, when she’d had time to plunder my mind while I was awake and asleep?
—How?— she wondered.
—I don’t know how it works. I just do it.—
—Mama do it?— She slid closer, looming above me now, her head-body a bulb the size of a weather balloon, with a pattern of brown spots on a field of translucent, slime-slicked skin that showed, dimly, organs working inside her, her gold-threaded eyes with their sideways slot pupils the size of oranges, her mass of tentacles, different lengths, sizes, and forms, a nest below her.
I glanced around the room. There would be cameras in here, or other means of observing us—clairvoyant watchers, maybe, if He-Who-Looms was so wealthy.
Maybe if I was stealthy enough, they wouldn’t know what they were seeing.
—Come with me.— I walked toward the wall, holding my hand over Baby’s mind-meld tentacle so it wouldn’t slip off. She followed so close behind me fresh slime dripped onto my back, joining all the other slime there. I wondered if I should tell her about personal space, then thought, no, I need her to be close.
When we reached the wall, I thought, —Come around me so nobody can see me.—
She surged up against the wall, leaving me enough room to breathe, enclosing me in a cave of herself. Blue rings of phosphorescence glowed in her skin, shedding just a little light.
—Okay.— I bit my lower lip. I hadn’t done this in front of anybody in years.
I reached out to the wall and let my hand learn its feel: hard, smooth, reinforced with an extra-thick coating of waterproof something. Then I pushed partway into the wall, mingling with its molecules, feeling its vibrations and somehow being part of it.
—Oh! Oh! Oh!— Baby thought.
I didn’t want to push all the way out into the hallway, not without checking to see if anybody was there first. I only went far enough to be in the wall, not through it. But I took Baby’s mind-meld tentacle with me, and that was staggering. I’d never pulled another living being through anything. Could all of her follow me through the wall?
—Yesyesyes,— she thought.
I backed into our new room again, and just in time. Shrike walked in without knocking, carrying a tray with a sandwich, grapes, carrots, celery, and a milkshake on it. “Hello,” he said, glancing around. “What? They didn’t give you any furniture? Where am I supposed to put this?”
Baby sent out a tentacle and tugged the tray from his hand. He straightened and then relaxed as she brought it over to me and formed a bench for me to sit on with one of her arms. She held the tray in front of me.
—Thank you, Baby.—
She thought love.
I bit the sandwich. It was chicken salad. It was okay. The milkshake was chocolate, which was better. I usually brought a bag lunch from home. PYC had a decent cafeteria, but I couldn’t afford to eat there.
I guess I could now.
“Thanks, Shrike,” I said after I finished the first half of the sandwich.
“Yeah, sure. You okay?”
I shrugged. “No.”
“But, yes, I guess.” I had Baby, after all. Someone to love who loved me back. Someone who could do all kinds of things. I had caught an edge of an inkling of some of her powers. No matter what else happened, I was pretty sure she could save me from anything that came at us.
—We go out,— she thought. —Later. When others sleep.—
I had Baby, and she had a world to explore.
Copyright © 2019 by Nina Kiriki Hoffman