Motherlands by Susan Jane Bigelow
A short story set in the Extrahuman Union universe, taking place after The Spark (book 3) and before the start of Extrahumans (book 4) by Susan Jane Bigelow.
She looked so small and fragile there in the bed. Her breathing was ragged and shallow, and she barely moved. Machines beeped and hummed softly all around; displays showed numbers and charts. Nurses peered in at her from time to time, noting no change, and then withdrew.
One nurse found a tall, somewhat heavyset woman sitting in a chair next to the bed, holding the old woman’s hand as she struggled to breathe.
“Excuse me,” she said, her English drawn out by the light accents of the deserts that stretched away to the south. “And you are?”
“Her daughter,” the woman said.
“I don’t see any daughters listed here,” the nurse said, tapping through the record. “Let me see your ID.”
The tall woman sighed, closing her eyes in pain. “Could you just take my word for it?”
The nurse frowned. “I’ll call the authorities, then.”
“No. Here. Here’s my ID. And I can explain.”
The nurse took her ID and examined it. Her eyebrows flew up.
“Oh, you belong to the Party! I’m sorry, ma’am, you can remain as long as you like.” She handed the ID back and withdrew, saying, “Let us know if you need anything, Mrs. Ramon.”
The old woman in the bed stirred. Her lips formed a word. Ramon.
Renna Fernandez Silva retrieved the ID with the false name, Renna Ramon, the name she used for business and other official interactions. “Thanks. We’ll be fine.”
Once the nurse had gone, Renna turned back to the tiny, frail form on the hospital bed.
“R… Ramon,” the old woman whispered. “Ramon.”
“I… yes. I’m here, Ma,” Renna said.
Her ancient eyes swept over Renna’s features. “Is it you? I don’t believe it.”
“It’s me,” Renna assured her. “And it’s Renna now. That’s my name.”
The old woman scowled, then mumbled something about sin in Spanish.
“You never change, do you,” Renna replied softly in the same language, the syllables rusty and strange on her tongue.
Maria Alicar Fernandez turned her head away. “You should go. I don’t want you here.”
“I knew you wouldn’t. But here I am anyway,” said Renna.
She waited. But all she could hear was the sound of her mother’s breathing, and the beeps and fans of the machines. After a while, it became clear her mother was pretending to sleep, to be rid of her.
Renna stayed. She was stubborn, too.
The news had come at a bad time. Her interstellar trade business was slowing down, and the tentative acceptance she’d managed to claw from the Reform Party was turning sour. They didn’t trust her. She was involved in too many things she couldn’t quite explain to them, and if they did any more research into her past… well. That would be that.
She’d willingly stuck her head in the lion’s mouth, all for a shot at being a legitimate, respected businesswoman. In retrospect, it wasn’t her best decision, but she was in it now and she had to see it through. What other choice was there?
And then, when she’d thought things couldn’t get any worse, a message arrived from her brother after decades of silence. Come home. Come quickly.
She’d wrapped up what she could on Valen, recalled her worthless pilot from the bar where he’d been all but living, and sped through space toward the heart of the Terran Confederation.
“You came,” a rich, deep man’s voice said behind her.
She looked up. He was as tall as she, but was rail-thin and had a bristly mustache. She could see in him the path she’d abandoned at the age of fifteen. “Rafé,” she breathed.
“Ramon,” he said, and swept her into a bear hug. “I’m sorry,” he said, pulling away for a moment. “Renna. It’s Renna now, isn’t it?”
She nodded, grateful.
“It’s good to see you again! I’m so glad you came.” He hugged her again. She thought she might burst into tears.
Another nurse stuck her head in. “Oh, Mr. Silva,” she said. “And…?”
“Don’t worry,” Rafael Fernandez Silva said, indicating Renna. “This one’s with me.”
They sat in the hospital cafeteria, munching on the worst sandwiches Renna had ever eaten. She sneaked looks at her older brother. He was getting mayonnaise smeared in his mustache, but he always wiped it off again diligently. She could see only the barest traces of the boy he’d been, so long ago.
What must he see when he looked at her? It was impossible to know.
“So I didn’t know if I’d be able to reach you at all,” he said at last. “I’m amazed the message went through. I found the address in Mama’s things.”
Renna’s eyes brightened. “I used to send her updates, a long time ago. I kept that old address around, just in case she wanted to get back in touch. She never did.”
“She had a hard time with it,” Rafé said. “You know how she is. Stubborn.”
“I know it,” Renna agreed. But she’d kept the address. That had to count for something.
“And you were her baby. Her little boy! She couldn’t accept what… well, this.” He gestured at Renna, taking in thirty years of history and change with a single gesture. “She was angry with you for a long time. Maybe if you’d come home before now…”
“She wouldn’t have wanted to see me,” Renna said. “And I had to leave Earth anyway.” She glanced around, feeling that old familiar dread return. “You remember how bad it was in the beginning. Even now… it’s still not exactly legal to be me.”
“No,” Rafé said sadly. “She might have called the police. That would have been very like her, to do that. She would have thought she was saving you. Still. I wish you’d have come home before now.”
Renna shook her head. “I couldn’t, Rafé. I just couldn’t. I’m sorry.”
“I would have liked to see you,” Rafé said.
Was this truly her brother? She glanced up at him, and saw nothing she recognized in his eyes. “You used to beat me up,” she said bitterly.
He stiffened. “That was a long time ago. You stayed away because of that?”
She shook her head quickly. “No! No. I stayed away because I had to. I… you don’t know about my life. I left Earth on a refugee ship. I’ve had to hide who I am from everyone.”
“Because of this?” he said, again gesturing to Renna’s body.
“No,” she grumbled, frustrated. “I did a lot of other things. You—you probably don’t want to know.”
“Like what?” he asked. “I won’t tell.”
“Well,” she began, but stopped short. How could she possibly tell him any of it?
How could she be sure of him?
Renna shook her head and sipped her coffee. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”
He shrugged. “Well, you’re here, and that’s the important thing. I am glad you came. Maybe you two can make a little peace before the end.”
Renna didn’t like the sound of that. “How bad is she?”
“Very bad,” Rafé said. “Very bad.”
Rafé had gone home to his wife, promising to return when he could get free. He had three teenage daughters. How was that possible?
Renna had nowhere else to go, so she stayed at her mother’s bedside.
The old woman stirred again, and looked blankly over at Renna.
“Hi, Mama,” said Renna. She tried to pitch her voice lower to be a little more recognizable, but the surgeries and treatments had done their jobs too well. Her voice was still a woman’s.
Her mother turned away again. “I’ll call the nurse,” she muttered.
“Do that,” Renna said, trying and failing to contain her anger. “I’m a Reform Party member, and Rafé vouched for me. They won’t kick me out. I’ll say you’re raving.”
She stood, rounded the bed, and stared into her mother’s eyes.
“I’ll say you’re the crazy one,” she whispered. “Not me, this time.”
Her mother’s eyes widened.
“Do you remember that?” Renna pressed. “You remember what you called me? Do you remember what you had your boyfriends do to me, to try and straighten me out? Do you remember?”
At last her mother said, “I remember.”
“It was cruel,” Renna said, voice quivering. “And you haven’t changed at all! I don’t know why I came here. I came all the way from Valen for you! Maybe that was a mistake.”
Her mother closed her eyes, not responding. Her breath rattled in her chest.
Renna stood, fury ebbing away. “I shouldn’t have come. But I’m here, aren’t I? I’ll… I’ll be back. Okay? I’ll be back.”
She squeezed her mother’s hand gently. For a wonder, her mother squeezed hers back, just a little pressure. Renna withdrew her hand, and quickly left before her emotions carried her away again.
Someone was nudging her. She started awake, grabbing under her head for her pistol before realizing she wasn’t aboard her ship. She’d fallen asleep in a chair somewhere in the hospital’s lounge. Her back creaked and groaned as she turned. Getting old was a terrible thing.
Rafé stood there, a young girl next to him. His expression was dour. “It’s time,” he said.
“She didn’t have any boyfriend at the end,” Rafé explained as they waited. The family group was pitifully small: just her, Rafé, and his daughter Elena. Her niece. “And her cousins live so far away. They’re busy with their own lives in any case. What do they care? So it’s been me.” He sounded frustrated. Renna couldn’t blame him.
Elena couldn’t take her eyes off Renna, but glanced away whenever Renna tried to smile at her. She was gawky in that painful teenage way, but her eyes were expressive and intelligent, her features sharp, and her dark hair long and straight. Renna saw something of her own face in Elena’s.
How strange, she thought, to have family.
Rafé led the girl towards the bed. “The others were at a school function,” he explained to Renna. “Katya went with them. I called, but they won’t be here for a few hours.”
“Ah,” said Renna.
Elena knelt by the bed and said something softly to her grandmother. The old woman smiled a broad, genuine smile through her pain, and gingerly patted her granddaughter’s hand. Renna crossed her arms over her chest, not knowing what to feel.
Then Rafé nodded at Renna. She gathered herself and took her place by the bed as Elena withdrew.
“Hey, Mama,” she said. The old woman’s eyes were distant now, lost in pain. She probably didn’t recognize Renna.
“I’m sorry about what I said earlier,” Renna whispered. “You… you tried. You really did. I was a hard kid to raise.” She took her mother’s hand, tears streaming down her face. “I love you, Mama.”
Her mother’s lips moved. Renna read the words there without hearing them.
God forgive you.
Rafé politely shooed them out of the room so he could have some time with his mother. Renna was glad to give it to him. He was the one who had been here, after all, not her.
She sat in the hallway next to Elena, who tapped idly on a tiny pocket pad. Renna thought about the light, fast, and efficient holographic tech that only Party members had access to. Pocket pads seemed so old-fashioned compared to that.
The girl seemed a little lost. Renna studied her, trying to figure out what to say.
“I’m your Aunt Renna,” Renna finally said. “We’ve never met.”
“I know,” Elena said. “Dad talks about you sometimes.”
“He tell you… all of it?” Renna asked, not sure why she wanted to know.
Elena shrugged. “Sure.”
“So…” Renna stumbled, trying to come up with something to say to her niece. “Uh. How’s your life? What do you do in school?”
Elena smiled, her features momentarily bright. “We march around and memorize stuff. What else do you do in school?”
“I don’t remember,” Renna admitted. “School was a blur for me. But I don’t think we did a lot of marching.”
Elena tapped at her pocket pad again. Clearly she had friends—a life, beyond this hospital. Renna lapsed into silence. The gulf between them was just too large.
“Your… your dad’s a good man,” she said after a long while.
Elena shrugged again, not looking up from her pad. “I guess.”
“He called me back,” she said. “I wouldn’t have come otherwise.”
“How come you stayed away?” Elena asked, sounding annoyed.
Renna sighed. “Lots of reasons. History. The law. I don’t know.”
“So why did you come now?”
“I… I had to,” Renna said, fumbling to explain. But she found she didn’t have a good answer.
Rafé emerged a few minutes later, looking like someone had dropped a truck on him.
“That’s it,” was all he said.
They buried her in a graveyard on a hill near the city two days later. Rafé had hesitantly invited Renna to come to his house to stay, and looked relieved when she demurred. He had enough to worry about, she thought.
She did go with him to their mother’s old house, to find what things of hers they could take away as tokens of her life. It wasn’t the same house they’d grown up in, but Renna thought she might find some traces of herself there. But in hours of searching, she found nothing at all. No pictures, no old papers, no toys or books with her old name in them. It was as if she hadn’t existed in her mother’s life at all.
In the end, she took a little necklace with the image of a saint on it. Her mother had obsessed over the Church. This would be a fitting reminder. Rafé took what he wanted for himself or his daughters. The rest would be sold at the estate sale.
The funeral was long, and poorly attended. Her mother didn’t have many friends who were still alive, Rafé explained. A number of old ladies from her church attended, and one of them kept giving Renna dirty looks. She ignored them.
Rafé’s other daughters and wife were there. She exchanged pleasantries with them, but there was no connection there. They were strangers to one another.
How strange, family.
After the burial, she told Rafé that she had to be going. He tried to invite her back to the house, but again she said no.
She’d done her duty, and now she desperately wanted to be gone.
The streets of downtown Tucson were hot, dirty, and mostly empty, just like she remembered. The only difference was the calm, and the clusters of police watching everything closely. There had been little order here when she was young. People had been desperate for the crime to stop. She had to admit, the Reformists had given Tucson what it wanted.
They’d given everyone what they thought they wanted. Even her.
She waited for the tram back to the shuttleport, flicking absently through her messages. She’d have to go back soon. Her life on Valen beckoned.
Renna closed her eyes. The Party wouldn’t ever really accept her. They’d want to know why she’d come back to Earth. More inquires would follow, more problems, and some very difficult explanations. At the end of it, what waited for her? Kicked off the Party rolls, maybe. Fines. Prison. Trouble, trouble, and more trouble. And what for, in the end?
The tram pulled up, waited, and then sped off. She remained on the platform, thinking about what to do next.
“God forgive me,” she murmured as the tram clacked and rattled off into the desert beyond the city. Soon she could hear only the wind. “God forgive us all.”
The story continues later this month in The Spark, the third novel in the Extrahuman Union series.
About the Novel
Deirdre Burns White is an Extrahuman who can make fire with her mind. Once imprisoned and tortured by the ruthless Confederation Military Police, now all Dee wants is to bury the past and blend in. Her new life in First Landing is all about becoming normal: a regular job, a steady boyfriend, a nice apartment.
But just as Dee settles in the groove of her perfectly ordinary life, an old friend shows up bearing a letter from the future, and a plea for help. The first cracks in the Confederation’s oppressive regime begin to show–revolution is on the horizon.
With First Landing in a state of violent revolt, Dee has to make a choice: to hide herself away in a prison of her own guilt and regret, or embrace her past and her dangerous powers to help save the people and the city she loves.
The Spark is a novel of revolution and freedom, and the stunning third entry in The Extrahuman Union series.
“Come for the superheroes, stay for the characters and world-building.” — A Fantastical Librarian
How to Get the Book
The Spark will be published officially on August 30, 2016. We will have print copies available soon and you can also buy the ebook directly from us this August. The print book contains the novel, two illustrations from Kirbi Fagan, and a sneak peek of Extrahumans, the fourth and final book in the series (published this October). The ebook edition will also contain this prequel short story (“Motherlands”), as well as an essay from the author and a Q&A with the artist.