Monday, July 4, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #10: "Kin" by Bruce McAllister (Part 1 of 2)

If you are new to this blog and are wondering what's up with this Alien Contact anthology (forthcoming from Night Shade Books in November) and this "Story #10" -- you may want to begin here. Or not....

"Kin" by Bruce McAllister

This story was originally published as the cover story in the February 2006 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, and is approximately 3,800 words in length. And in only 3,800 words, this story packs one helluva punch. (For those wondering, artist Dominic Harman did the cover art for that February issue.)

In February 2006, just as "Kin" was seeing print (yes, I know, the February issue would have been distributed much earlier, but allow me some poetic license here, okay?...), I sent a query email to Bruce McAllister introducing myself, and expressing interest in acquiring a collection of his short stories for Golden Gryphon Press. One of my all-time favorite stories is Bruce's novelette "Dream Baby" (1987), a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and, later, expanded into the novel of the same name. There were other stories, too: "The Ark," "Assassin," "The Girl Who Loved Animals," and "Little Boy Blue" in issues of Omni [I had a subscription at the time]; "Captain China" in Ellen Datlow's anthology Off Limits; and novelette "Hero, the Movie" in F&SF; to name just a few. All of these powerful, intelligent, thought-provoking stories. In fact, had I the available word count, I would have included "Hero" in my Alien Contact anthology as well -- not as a replacement for "Kin," but in addition to "Kin"!

To make a long story short, the collection did move forward -- but not with the stories that Bruce and his agent (at that time) Russell Galen had originally planned (hey, I had to earn my meager pay as an acquiring editor some how!) -- and The Girl Who Loved Animals and Other Stories was published in October 2007. And with John Picacio cover art, too. "Kin," of course, was included in the collection. And I include it once again in Alien Contact. The story is one that every reader and fan of science fiction needs to read, and I'm doing my best to spread the word.

With less than 3,800 words, an author can't do too much world building, but there is just enough in this story to allow the reader to fill in the blanks, to use one's imagination -- and isn't that what science fiction is really all about? In this world there are the "haves" and the "have nots".... hmm... doesn't sound like science fiction to me, but I digress.... In this world, on this Earth, aliens walk among us. We meet an Antalou, but we learn through him of other worlds, of other wars on those worlds, and this implies, too, that others, besides the Antalou, walk among us. If only....

Bruce wrote a lengthy afterword to "Kin" in The Girl Who Loved Animals and Other Stories, and with his most kind permission I'm including some of those words here [Note: There's a bit of a spoiler here, so you may want to skip this quoted text for now and scroll a bit farther down]:
I'd always been attracted, even as a young writer, to the question of what it would REALLY be like to be a human being in the universe of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and it was through Harry Harrison's Deathworld trilogy that I first got a glimpse. Harry's trilogy had its heroes, sure, but its heroes also had their human flaws; and common sense and character-as-destiny ran through them and to such a degree that I was surprised that John Campbell had seen fit to publish them in Astounding. But John Campbell was always surprising me.

"Kin" was, then, an attempt to evoke the Golden Age in fable-form but to do it as Harry Harrison had done in his trilogy: show that survival is simply that―human beings reaching into themselves to survive even if what they find that allows them to do so isn't necessarily the most noble traits of human nature. In other words, the boy in this story, though he loved his family, will indeed become an assassin―because it is in him to become one.

In addition to allowing me to excerpt part of his afterword, Bruce has also given me permission to post the contents of "Kin" in its entirety here on More Red Ink. So I'll stop my typing and allow you to read this very fine story, which was a finalist for both the Hugo Award and the Locus Award in the short story category.

by Bruce McAllister
(© 2006 by Bruce McAllister.
Reprinted with permission of the author.)

The alien and the boy, who was twelve, sat in the windowless room high above the city that afternoon. The boy talked and the alien listened.

The boy was ordinary -- the genes of three continents in his features, his clothes cut in the style of all boys in the vast housing project called LAX. The alien was something else, awful to behold; and though the boy knew it was rude, he did not look up as he talked.

He wanted the alien to kill a man, he said. It was that simple.

As the boy spoke, the alien sat upright and still on the one piece of furniture that could hold him. Eyes averted, the boy sat on the stool, the one by the terminal where he did his schoolwork each day. It made him uneasy that the alien was on his bed, though he understood why. It made him uneasy that the creature's strange knee was so near his in the tiny room, and he was glad when the creature, as if aware, too, shifted its leg away.

He did not have to look up to see the Antalou's features. That one glance in the doorway had been enough, and it came back to him whether he wanted it to or not. It was not that he was scared, the boy told himself. It was just the idea -- that such a thing could stand in a doorway built for humans, in a human housing project where generations had been born and died, and probably would forever. It did not seem possible.

He wondered how it seemed to the Antalou.

Closing his eyes, the boy could see the black synthetic skin the alien wore as protection against alien atmospheres. Under that suit, ropes of muscles and tendons coiled and uncoiled, rippling even when the alien was still. In the doorway the long neck had not been extended, but he knew what it could do. When it telescoped forward -- as it could instantly -- the head tipped up in reflex and the jaws opened.

Nor had the long talons -- which the boy knew sat in the claws and even along the elbows and toes -- been unsheathed. But he imagined them sheathing and unsheathing as he explained what he wanted, his eyes on the floor.

When the alien finally spoke, the voice was inhuman -- filtered through the translating mesh that covered half its face. The face came back: The tremendous skull, the immense eyes that could see so many kinds of light and make their way in nearly every kind of darkness. The heavy welts -- the auxiliary gills -- inside the breathing globe. The dripping ducts below them, ready to release their jets of acid.

"Who is it...that you wish to have killed?" the voice asked, and the boy almost looked up. It was only a voice -- mechanical, snakelike, halting -- he reminded himself. By itself it could not kill him.

"A man named James Ortega-Mambay," the boy answered.

"Why?" The word hissed in the stale apartment air.

"He is going to kill my sister."

"You know"

"I just do."

The alien said nothing, and the boy heard the long whispering pull of its lungs.

"Why," it said at last, "did you think...I would agree to it?"

The boy was slow to answer.

"Because you're a killer."

The alien was again silent.

"So all Antalou," the voice grated, "are professional killers?"

"Oh, no," the boy said, looking up and trying not to look away. "I mean...."

"If not...then how...did you choose me?"

The boy had walked up to the creature at the great fountain by the Cliffs of Monica -- a landmark any visitor to Earth would take in, if only because it appeared on the sanctioned itineraries -- and had handed him a written message in crude Antalouan. I know what you are and what you do, the message read. I need your services. LAX cell 873-2345-2657 at 1100 tomorrow morning. I am Kim.

"Antalou are well known for their skills, Sir," the boy said respectfully. "We've read about the Noh campaign, and what happened on Hoggun II when your people were betrayed, and what one company of your mercenaries were able to do against the Gar-Betties." The boy paused. "I had to give out ninety-eight notes, Sir, before I found you. You were the only one who answered...."

The hideous head tilted while the long arms remained perfectly still, and the boy found he could not take his eyes from them.

"I see," the alien said.

It was translator's idiom only. "Seeing" was not the same as "understanding." The young human had done what the military and civilian intelligence services of five worlds had been unable to do -- identify him as a professional -- and it made the alien reflect: Why had he answered the message? Why had he taken it seriously? A human child had delivered it, after all. Was it that he had sensed no danger and simply followed professional reflex, or something else? Somehow the boy had known he would. How?

"How much..." the alien said, curious, "are you able to pay?"

"I've got two hundred dollars, Sir."

"How...did you acquire them?"

"I sold things," the boy said quickly.

The rooms here were bare. Clearly the boy had nothing to sell. He had stolen the money, the alien was sure.

"I can get more. I can --"

The alien made a sound that did not translate. The boy jumped.

The alien was thinking of the 200,000 inters for the vengeance assassination on Hoggun's third moon, the one hundred kilobucks for the renegade contract on the asteroid called Wolfe, and the mineral shares, pharmaceuticals, and spacelock craft -- worth twice that -- which he had in the end received for the three corporate kills on Alama Poy. What could two hundred dollars buy? Could it even buy a city rail ticket?

"That is not enough," the alien said. "Of course," it added, one arm twitching, then still again, "you may have thought to record...our discussion...and you may threaten to release the Earth authorities...if I do not do what you ask of me...."

The boy's pupils dilated then -- like those of the human province official on Diedor, the one he had removed for the Gray Infra there.

"Oh, no --" the boy stammered. "I wouldn't do that --" The skin of his face had turned red, the alien saw. "I didn't even think of it."

" should have," the alien said. The arm twitched again, and the boy saw that it was smaller than the others, crooked but strong.

The boy nodded. Yes, he should have thought of that. "Why..." the alien asked then, "does a man named...James Ortega-Mambay...wish to kill your sister?"

When the boy was finished explaining, the alien stared at him again and the boy grew uncomfortable. Then the creature rose, joints falling into place with popping and sucking sounds, legs locking to lift the heavy torso and head, the long arms snaking out as if with a life of their own.

The boy was up and stepping back.

"Two not enough for a kill," the alien said, and was gone, taking the same subterranean path out of the building which the boy had worked out for him.

* * *

When the man named Ortega-Mambay stepped from the bullet elevator to the roof of the federal building, it was sunset and the end of another long but productive day at BuPopCon. In the sun's final rays the helipad glowed like a perfect little pond -- not the chaos of the Pacific Ocean in the distance -- and even the mugginess couldn't ruin the scene. It was the kind of weather one conventionally took one's jacket off in; but there was only one place to remove one's jacket with at least a modicum of dignity, and that was, of course, in the privacy of one's own FabHome-by-the-Sea. To thwart convention, he was wearing his new triple-weave "gauze" jacket in the pattern called "Summer Shimmer" -- handsome, odorless, waterproof, and cool. He would not remove it until he wished to.

He was the last, as always, to leave the Bureau, and as always he felt the pride. There was nothing sweeter than being the last -- than lifting off from the empty pad with the rotor blades singing over him and the setting sun below as he made his way in his earned solitude away from the city up the coast to another, smaller helipad and his FabHome near Oxnard. He had worked hard for such sweetness, he reminded himself.

His heli sat glowing in the sun's last light -- part of the perfect scene -- and he took his time walking to it. It was worth a paintbrush painting, or a digital one, or a multimedia poem. Perhaps he would make something to memorialize it this weekend, after the other members of his triad visited for their intimacy session.

As he reached the pilot's side and the little door there, a shadow separated itself from the greater shadow cast by the craft, and he nearly screamed.

The figure was tall and at first he thought it was a costume, a joke played by a colleague, nothing worse.

But as the figure stepped into the fading light, he saw what it was and nearly screamed again. He had seen such creatures in newscasts, of course, and even at a distance at the shuttleport or at major tourist landmarks in the city, but never like this. So close.

When it spoke, the voice was low and mechanical -- the work of an Ipoor mesh.

"You are," the alien said, "James Ortega-Mambay...Seventh District Supervisor...BuPopCon?"

Ortega-Mambay considered denying it, but did not. He knew the reputation of the Antalou as well as anyone did. He knew the uses to which his own race, not to mention the other four races mankind had met among the stars, had put them. The Antalou did not strike him as creatures one lied to without risk.

"Yes.... I am. I am Ortega-Mambay."

"My own name," the Antalou said, "does not matter, Ortega-Mambay. You know what I am.... What that you have decreed...the pregnancy of Linda Tuckey-Yatsen illegal.... You have ordered the unborn female sibling...of the boy Kim Tuckey-Yatsen...aborted. Is this true?"

The alien waited.

"It may be," the man said, fumbling. "I certainly do not have all of our cases memorized. We do not process them by family name --"

He stopped as he saw the absurdity of it. It was outrageous.

"I really do not see what business this is of yours," he began. "This is a Terran city, and an overpopulated one -- in an overpopulated nation on an overpopulated planet that cannot afford to pay to move its burden offworld. We are faced with a problem and one we are quite happy solving by ourselves. None of this can possibly be any of your affair, Visitor. Do you have standing with your delegation in this city?"

"I do not," the mesh answered, "and it is affair if...the unborn female child of Family Tuckey-Yatsen dies."

"I do not know what you mean."

"She is to live, Ortega-Mambay... Her brother wishes a sibling.... He lives and three small rooms while his parents work...somewhere in the city.... To him...the female child his mother already born. He has great feeling for the way of your kind, Ortega-Mambay."

This could not be happening, Ortega-Mambay told himself. It was insane, and he could feel rising within him a rage he hadn't felt since his first job with the government. "How dare you!" he heard himself say. "You are standing on the home planet of another race and ordering me, a federal official, to obey not only a child's wishes, but your own -- you, a Visitor and one without official standing among your own kind --"

"The child," the alien broke in, "will not die. If she dies, I what I have been...retained to do."

The alien stepped then to the heli and the man's side, so close they were almost touching. The man did not back up. He would not be intimidated. He would not.

The alien raised two of its four arms, and the man heard a snickering sound, then a pop, then another, and something caught in his throat as he watched talons longer and straighter than anything he had ever dreamed of slip one by one through the creature's black syntheskin.

Then, using these talons, the creature removed the door from his heli.

One moment the alloy door was on its hinges; the next it was impaled on the talons, which were, Ortega-Mambay saw now, so much stronger than any nail, bone, or other integument of Terran fauna. Giddily he wondered what the creature possibly ate to make them so strong.

"Get into your vehicle, Ortega-Mambay," the alien said. "Proceed home. Sleep and think...about what you must keep the female sibling alive."

Ortega-Mambay could barely work his legs. He was trying to get into the heli, but couldn't, and for a terrible moment it occurred to him that the alien might try to help him in. But then he was in at last, hands flailing at the dashboard as he tried to do what he'd been asked to do: Think.

* * *

[Continued in Part 2]


  1. Thanks for the post! Came here after I read the story. Great story, but I didn't fully understand the story: why did the Alien help the boy? Is it because he was moved by the boy's will to help his family? What does boy's thankful gesture mean other than he did extensive research on the alien species?

    1. Thanks for the question. Marty has asked me for obvious reasons to answer in his stead. The boy in his research discovered that, regardless of how alien the Antalou might be to human beings, in their evolutionary make-up the Antalou share with us a focus on family and "kinship." The alien responded to the boy not only out of this common value, but for two other reasons: (l) The alien respected the boy for having the wits and perseverance to discover it and for caring enough about his own "tribe"family/kin to seek help from another species. (2) Most human beings are horrified by the Antalou and assume they're completely inhuman creatures. The boy did not. He placed family, the notion of "kin" and a shared value across species differences over appearance; and the alien, as sentient as we are and from a species exploited and abused and isolated, could not but respond to this. The boy, of course, being a boy, probably didn't see this level of the response. All he saw was his family's need--or rather what he wanted for his family--and a shared "kinship" value that might be used to get the alien to do what he wanted. In the end the alien leaves the boy the weapons because he has spotted something else in the boy: that the boy may have what is necessary in him to be an assassin, too. "A willingness to do what is necessary," as the saying goes. (The thankful gesture was simply a grace note; the boy makes it so the alien will understand that the boy understands....) You won't find surprising, I'm sure, that I'm the son of an underdog-championing anthropologist....

  2. "Why,” it said at last, “did you think...I would agree to it? "

    What does it mean when the Antalou asks that question to the boy, there must be more to it than the Antalou being a "professional killer"

    1. The money is an absurdly small amount, so the Antalou, who isn't just a killer but a tactician )(he has to be in his line of work), wonders if there isn't another reason, and there is of course. Not sure that answer your question. If not, let me know. And thanks for posting! Bruce McAllister