“Safe Surrender”

A new short story from the author of the award-winning The Book of the Unnamed Midwife.

Ambiguous semi-human contemplating the moment it was abandoned by its mother.
Lisa Larson-Walker

Each month in 2018, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—will publish a story on a theme. The theme for April–June 2018: Memory.

The laws are so old that they were written with fully human children in mind. Before first contact, two humans might make a fully Terran baby and still abandon it, because they didn’t have enough money or because one of their ancient tribal honor codes forbid them from breeding. It still happens, but nobody talks about it. Humans like to forget what they used to be. Now, safe surrender sites are known as places where hemis get dumped. Hemis like me.

I wasn’t interested in finding out anything about my birth parents for a long time. I figured it would be the same story that every other hemi shares: My parents were one human and one Pinner. We were the first generation of hybrids, and nobody knew what would become of us. A lot of us were put up for adoption and ended up in special schools while the governments of both planets sorted us out. Most of what we know about ourselves was supplied by other people, who were really just offering their best guess. A new race has no memory.

I didn’t want to know any more than that until I had my first taste of Pinner coffee (its real name is onging, which has a specific Pinner meaning that doesn’t translate to anything human well, so most people just say coffee), and with it, my first shaky steps into memories that didn’t belong to me. Once those thoughts started, I couldn’t stop.

First, my own identity document file. It includes the location: a hospital in Old San Jose, California. It tells me the approximate time that I was abandoned: between 2300 and 0400, within three days of my birth. But that date. That date. I was relinquished to the state the night the Pinner ambassador to Earth was shot and killed in San Francisco. Everything I needed to know was going to be wrapped up in the gauzy layers of people’s memories of that night. An abandoned hemi was nothing compared to that. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a connection—had the shooting helped them make their decision? Or had it just provided cover, a day when everyone was looking the other way?

I began with the hospital.

“The documents are perfectly in order.” The clerk’s disinterest practically staled the air, their voice over the speaker the droning whine of a giant, bored nose. “That case number is a safe surrender, logged on Aug. 1, 2096. Birth certificate was issued within 90 days, and if you’ve got the case file you can see that. Medical scans detected no infections or injuries. Good Apgar scores. The record is a little scant, but perfectly up to the legal standard. Of course.”

Of course.

Of course I had to press the nose just a little more. “So all surrenders are entered into the DNA database. How can I get access to that information?”

“You can’t. DNA is logged for the ongoing interbreeding genome project. The individual doesn’t have the right to access the results, under California law.”

“Why not? It’s my DNA.”

“Because it’s protected,” the nose shot back. “Some of your DNA is available to you, under the law. It used to be that you could view the entirety of your own code, but that was back before we really understood how that data worked. Now we know that most of it isn’t specific to you, because it belongs to other individuals. It’s a complex legal issue—if you had total access to your own genes, you might be invading the privacy of people who share your bloodline.” Their voice softened. “Look, I know it’s frustrating. But your DNA rights end where someone else’s begin. Besides, there are just things you’re better off not knowing.”

I got nowhere at all with them obviously. But the easiest part of the system to manipulate is people, and I wasn’t about to give up. What I needed was someone who was actually there on the night that I was surrendered. Of course, nobody stays in the same job for 25 years; finding a name took some digging on old social media sites that nobody uses anymore, and a good deal of cajoling a union rep. And then I had to wait.

It would be different, I think, if I at least knew one of my parents. Plenty of my friends only have one. That’s the joke, right? Hemis are always eyeballing every Pinner that walks by like, “Are you my mother?”

I’ve been lurking on one of the hemi forums again, reading about onging. Some hemis swear that when they take onging they see their parents, their whole bloodline, that it activates genetic memory or something. I didn’t believe it at all. Not at first. I thought nothing could do that. Certainly not any of the questionable substitutes available in the online markets. I’ve had the watered-down stuff, the half coffee–half Pinner hemibrews, and the straight-up knockoff junk. It doesn’t compare.

But when I get myself an unadulterated 12-credit cup of the real stuff, I can’t explain what happens. It’s like I’m outside myself, seeing someone else’s memories. It’s hazy, a blur through glass, but once I think I saw the journey to Earth. Just the blank blackness of space with a smear of stars, a tremulous feeling of heading into the unknown. I wonder if the memory belongs to my mother.

I queued up a movie while I waited for a ping back from the system. One of those uplifting orphan tales. I have a soft spot for stories about human orphans. They’re always thieving and discovering they’re secretly very privileged, which makes abandonment feel better, I bet. This one was so old it was in the feed for free. Why are these kids always singing? Watching the kid learn how to steal, because that’s all orphans can do, apparently, I started thinking about how easy it’d be to get caught doing that now. Every eye on the street is programmed to notice that sort of thing.

I coded the query myself: date and time and coordinates. Since it’s a public intersection in front of the hospital, I should have been able to get the footage. But after about an hour, I got a strange message from the city A.I.

Re: Query 587HK901

Sorry! I’ve been in service for over 20 years, and my memory access isn’t what it used to be. I need more specific data to find the information you are looking for. Please narrow your search parameters and try again. Thank you for your patience.

I love the older A.Is. They all talk like grandmothers to keep us from losing our tempers with them. It worked, though. I adjusted my tone, speaking the way I would to someone who doesn’t hear very well, and can’t always be trusted to call their grandson by his own name and not his father’s.

“OK. Try this. I’m trying to figure out who surrendered a child on that corner, at those coordinates, on that date and at that time. Narrow search to individuals carrying something.” The computer translated what I was saying into a string the old lady could use. I should have started this search a long time ago. I could have. My adoptive parents had never tried to hide my past from me. I remember the fragile smile on my mother’s face when they sat me down and asked me if I wanted to know more. But I didn’t know what was possible, or why I should want to find out.

She and my dad couldn’t have biological children. They had both been part of early delegations to the Pinner homeworld, before we knew that exposure could sterilize humans. It seems fitting after that trip took their future children from them that they’d adopt a couple of hemi kids. Adoption stories always have a little poetic justice to them.

The little-old-lady A.I. came back again, carrying enriched video files like cookies on a plate.

Re: Query 587HK901

Thank you again for your patience! There is video information that matches your search parameters. Have I fulfilled my task?

I should have confirmed, deference to your elders and all that, but I was too eager to see.

There were seven overlapping bits of footage, shot from multiple vantage points. Most of the eyes were mounted on the rooftops of nearby buildings, so there was no clear look at anyone’s face. Still, I could turn the view around in any direction, follow any individual I wanted. I told the lights to turn themselves off and hunched over my projector, rotating the uneven collection of cubes over my desk, peering into the beginning of my life.

The A.I. highlighted the people who walked alone and seemed to be carrying something. I could immediately eliminate the ones that I could tell were carrying pizzas or bags, an umbrella or a potted basil plant. There were two or three figures who might have been carrying a baby. I pulled them closer, examining, desperate to pry their arms apart and get a better look.

Was that a child? Could it be me? Nothing looked right. One turned out to be a puppy. I collapsed the footage back to its original size and spun it like a toy, sighing.

The highlighted figures glowed as they spun, like comets with long tails across the darker expanse of the night around them. I put my hand out and it stopped.

The A.I. had only highlighted the Pinners in the crowd.

I remember when I learned that not everyone could tell. In school, there was this period of innocence between kindergarten and the first year of bimodal/bilingual instruction when nobody knew anybody was different. We were practically a commercial for racial harmony, all of us holding hands and sharing toys, pushing one another on the gravity swings.

I knew I was a hemi. All hemis can tell the difference. We just know. But the percentage of humans who can tell is really small, like less than 10 percent of the population. My first-grade teacher was one.

On the first day of bi/bi school, we learned that she was one of the special ones. “It’s probably related to some vestigial ability from early hominids,” she said primly, enlarging the projection of the smiling hemi kid next to the human (who didn’t look quite as happy to be there.) “Perhaps developed back when the human genus was more diverse. Some humans like me have the ability to tell humans from hemis just by looking. Although humans and hemis appear the same on the outside, there are many things that make us different. And that’s great!”

There were five hemis in that class. The teacher didn’t point us out, but she didn’t have to. I didn’t understand until years later that she had announced her ability to us so that we’d understand exactly why she treated us the way she did. She wanted us to know that it wasn’t an accident. Her tone was different with us, her body language. We got in trouble more easily, and served harsher punishments. Everyone knew within that first week. Grosvenor, the infamous assassin, must have been one of those too. I wonder if the ability to tell is always accompanied by the certainty that one is better than the other.

People claim that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your DNA looks like, because we’re all equal. But even the A.I. is biased.

I pulled apart the cubes of night from the hospital and looked again, picking out the shadowed humans. I told the A.I. to stop highlighting its suggestions and the Pinners stopped glowing, flattening the scene into a homogenous sea of unremarkable silhouettes. There. Two humans seemed to be carrying babies. One was headed toward the hospital and one seemed to be walking away. I pulled and pulled, trying to enlarge their faces. I couldn’t make out anything that could tell me anything I wanted to know. Nothing that turned that blur of features into a story.

I called up my caseworker, Mx. Evelyn, who did not remember me. She had to dig through her files for my name before exclaiming in mumsy cheer, “It’s been forever! How are you doing? Last record I have here is that you went into coding for medical scanners.”

“That’s right,” I confirmed, trying to sound casual. “You know what they say: It’s a living. I was wondering if I could come to your office and talk over some of the details of my entry into the system if you have time?”

She blew out a rough sigh. “Oh, man. I’m pretty swamped right now. It seems there are just so many hemis in need of placement these days.”

“I’ll be quick,” I promised. “I’ll bring you coffee.”

Her voice was hesitant, but acquisitive. “Pinner coffee?”

Pinner coffee is not coffee, obviously. But it is a powerful stimulant, even when diluted with water the way humans like it. It can’t be cultivated on Earth, so it’s fiercely expensive. It doesn’t work on human physiology the way it does for Pinners or hemis, but plenty of people still claim it works as a memory booster. Lately, I’ve been drinking too much of it, trying to stay awake and get to the bottom of myself. Why bother with DNA and hazy recollections if I can just drink it in? But it’s an imperfect and inexact thing. When I do sleep, I sometimes have dreams I can’t articulate or fully recall, though I wake up with my face wet like I’ve been crying through the night. I never pushed it this far before; it gives me the shakes to have more than two. My weak human half. Full humans just say it helps them find lost things, recall funny stories, and make them all misty when they’re midsip.

And it tastes pretty good with cream and sugar.

“Pinner coffee,” I agreed. “A big one. My treat.”

I showed up in the morning with one hot cup and one on ice. “I’ll drink whichever one you don’t,” I told her.

Mx. Evelyn reached out with grabby hands for the hot one. Good, I prefer it cold.

“So,” she said between lip-smacking sips. “What brings you back to me?”

“Mx. Evelyn, I’m trying to find out more about the people who surrendered me.”

“Your parents.”

“My parents,” I agreed.

Mx. Evelyn was already nodding, leafing through the antiquated holofile system piled up on her desk. The image glitched and lagged as she tried to pull up the right year.

“Here we go, here we go. Hm. Hemi. Abandoned within three days of birth—I think I’m the one who decided your legal birthdate. Tough to recall. Adopted by human parents. Evidence of thriving at every appointment … ” She was moving quickly through the years of my life, refamiliarizing herself with the highlights.

“Right, yes. I’m actually more interested in any specific information you might have about the night I was surrendered. I know that the parent has the opportunity to share any information they might have that—”

Her finger froze on the display. “Oh, you were surrendered on the night of the assassination.”

“Yes,” I nodded. “I was. I know it was a long time ago, but a lot of people remember vividly where they were that night. They’re always telling the story. I’m hoping someone might remember something else about their experience. Something to do with my surrender.”

Mx. Evelyn’s mouth pulled down at the corners, and she stared off into the distance, following the thread of memory into the fog. “Yes, I remember. I was in a bar when the news broke.” She caught my eye with a self-conscious chuckle. “That was back in my wilder days. I remember the sound of all of those phones around me suddenly pinging at the same time, like church bells, when everyone got the alert. You always know that’s going to be something bad.”

“It was the first Pinner death on Earth. A violent crime. A high-profile assassination, right? You all must have been worried.”

Mx. Evelyn sipped her coffee. “Very tense atmosphere. You know, we didn’t know much of your people back then. We thought there might be some kind of reprisal. I mean, it soon became clear that Grosvenor was a terrorist, a radical acting alone, but of course we worried that the Pinner homeworld might hold us all responsible for the death.”

I nodded, bringing my own cup to my lips. There is a kind of weight to a history that defines you but did not happen to you. I’ve been hearing this story my whole life. It was time to write my own.

“Mx. Evelyn, I’ve been reviewing the outdoor security footage from that night. There aren’t any Pinners on the street carrying babies. Just a couple of humans.”

She fingered her files nervously, sending them glitching and fizzling as the computer tried to figure out what she wanted. “I mean, it is technically possible your human parent surrendered you. Just very unlikely. Statistically. I’m not saying that humans never do it, but—”

“But the laws that govern how babies can be surrendered are much older than first contact. So humans must have done it to their own children, their own fully human children, well before the Pinners ever arrived. Enough to necessitate a law.” I was staring her down but she wouldn’t look at me.

“Grosvenor was opposed to Pinner-human hybridity, did you know that?” I tried to make my voice sound casual.

She fiddled with her holofile again. “I did know that. There was a lot written about his motivations, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. Everybody wants to understand why, in cases like that. But of course we don’t ever really know.”

I knew she was talking about the assassination and not why my parents abandoned me. But the two were so tangled up that I was beginning to see them as one event. One night a human claims a Pinner life, and miles away another human releases their claim on their half-Pinner child. It looks like balance, but life and death both keep sloppy books. And we don’t ever really know why.

“Is there anything in the file that might help me make sense of the video I’ve got? Anything at all?”

She leafed through the pages. “It looks like the duty nurse was away from the station quite a bit that evening. Probably glued to the news. There’s nothing here, really. Just bare bones.”

I thanked her and stood to leave. I turned back when she said my name.

“Humans aren’t what we used to be, you know. When we needed those laws. Or when Grosvenor shot Lngren. We’ve come so far, mostly thanks to our contact with Pinners. You kids are kind of our peace bridge. You know?”

Her eyes were shining and I could tell she was looking for me to absolve her, of Lngren’s death 20 years ago, of her own gentle bigotry. Had anything really changed since that night?

I smiled at her. “Sure, Mx. Evelyn.”

It’s enough. The door whispered as it closed between us. The coffee was weak. I caught snatches of something in my peripheral vision, something that looked like twin moons, but would not come clear. I threw the empty cup in the trash and walked away.

From the Bi/Bi Reader, copyright 2104:

Humans are regarded as one of the most adaptable species in the known galaxy. Their unique physiology advantages them to endure extreme heat and cold, to survive the loss of limbs and infectious disease, and to travel to different worlds. When examined in this context, the human history of violent conflict is very understandable.

In contrast, Pinners cannot live away from their homeworld for extended periods of time without risking their lives. Their physiology does not allow them endurance for extreme temperature, and they are considerably more fragile than their human counterparts. As a result, their explorations into the space surrounding them are considerably more limited, and there are no off-world Pinner settlements equivalent to the Mars colonies like Musk or New Nairobi, or even the International Space Station. Nonviolent by both nature and cultural heritage, Pinners have no tradition of war and their delicate physiology renders them incapable of surviving wounds sustained in violent conflict.  

Pinner-Human hybrids commonly inherit the best traits from both species. They’re highly adaptable like humans, with the sensitivity and precision that are special to Pinners.

Our diversity makes us stronger! The future of Pinner-human relations is uniquely enhanced by the existence of our shared descendants.

The truth is there hasn’t been that much research. We first-generation hybrids were the first of our kind, something entirely new. Nobody knows how to tell you that science doesn’t know who you are yet. We were born without a history, and innocent of a collective memory. The first generation. They weren’t even sure if we’d be able to breed, until one of us did it. A lot of folks thought we were a mistake that shouldn’t exist—for hemis to be another sterile Earth hybrid like mules or ligers would have suited people like Grosvenor just fine.

When I looked back, I could see how my parents had gently talked around it when Rainey and I were young. They never brought up the possibility of grandchildren, or delivered the traditional solemn lectures about birth control in our teens. Mom talked a lot about how her career had always been her first priority.

“So when I found out I couldn’t have children, I wasn’t even that upset. I hadn’t met your dad yet, and I wasn’t really planning for kids. I just loved my work so much. I did exactly what I wanted to do. You guys were just a bonus to that.”

Dad was gruffer, but still avoided saying it outright. “Kids are expensive,” he’d say, looking over the peculiar medical expenses incurred by bodies that aren’t in the books yet. “You have a lot more fun traveling without them. You get to be free!”

I used to think he was just protecting himself against his own disappointment. I didn’t understand until much later that my parents were trying to keep our hopes in check.

Mx. Evelyn hadn’t been the key I’d been hoping for. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Human memory is an even more unreliable narrator than the A.I. it gave birth to. But later that same night, my comm lit up again. It was the union rep. They’d found me someone who would talk.

The nurse’s name was Darryl Stanner, and he was one of the oldest humans I had ever seen. His face loomed elephantine in the display, my comm still zoomed in on the old A.I.
footage. I quickly pinched the picture in, looking away from his dilated pores and the pooling skin that hung below his eyes. When I looked back, he was manageable. Human scale. Fine.

“Hello? Are you there? I can see you, but I can’t hear anything.”

“Hello! Hello, Mx. Stanner. Hi. I don’t know if your rep told you, but I’m trying to find out any information you might have about a safe surrender. Um, my safe surrender. Is that OK with you?”

He blinked a few times, slowly. “I have the file here, it came through my old rep. I know what you’re after, but I’m afraid my memory’s not what it used to be. I don’t know if I’ll be able to help you.”

“I’m just asking if you’ll try,” I said, smiling. “I’ll be happy to leave you alone if you don’t remember anything at all. But I’m hoping you might recall some details of that evening, because I was left on the night that Ambassador Lngren was shot.”

“Oh,” he said, his enormous caterpillar eyebrows rolling up over the ridge in his skull. “Of course I remember that night. Terrible thing, just terrible.”

“So you remember the shooting?”

“Like it was yesterday,” he breathed, his glacial speech speeding to a furious crawl. “It was all anybody could talk about. It was like this big secret was out. The Pinners knew what we were. What we are. What a world. What a shock.”

“Do you remember the child who was left at the hospital that night?”

“Oh yeah, of course.”

“Really?” I tried not to sound too eager, but I’m sure he could see my lean forward, pressing toward the past. “Can you tell me what you remember?”

He sighed, sounding as tired as time itself. “That night was total chaos. Everyone thought we were going to war. But that was back before we knew how weak Pinners are. How fragile. The woman who dropped you off was afraid she’d break you. I never saw someone carry a baby so carefully. Like you were an eggshell.”

I nodded, more soberly than I felt. “Anything you can tell me about her would be very much appreciated.”

He looked down at his lap. “I mean, she was scared. Like we were all scared. Big eyes. I think she was wearing a sweater that belonged to someone else. Just so vulnerable, like she’d break in two if I was mean to her.”

“But she was human,” I said, almost more to myself than to him. “Not vulnerable like a Pinner, but human?”

“Sure,” he said. “Sure, she was as human as I am.”

“Did she say something about what had happened? Did you two talk about the news at all?”

Stanner’s huge floating head shook slowly, the edges disappearing when he got out of scanner range. “She didn’t have anything to say. Just that real scared way about her. She was real young. Pretty. But I just felt so bad for her. Pinners dropped off hemi kids all the time. But her? I could tell it was breaking her heart to do it. It’s just not the same with humans, you know.”

I wanted him to tell me she was remarkable—that her eyes were a color he had never seen before. That she wore half a broken necklace. That she promised she’d come back for me. That she’d said, “Someday,” with a hopeful and faraway look.

“Was she alone? Did someone drop her off, or pick her up, that you saw?”

Stanner shrugged. “Not that I saw. I was pretty distracted. You know, with everything going on.”

I imagined the halls and waiting rooms of the hospital, doctors and nurses and patients clustered around different screens and feeds, whispering, wondering. Me, the eggshell future of two races tucked against Stanner’s chest. Was I sleeping? Did I cry for my human mother? This piece of my life did not belong to me; only someone else could hold it. And what he held, instead, was the moment in history that overshadowed me.

“Thank you for trying, Mx. Stanner. I really appreciate it.” My voice was trembling.

“Don’t take it too hard, kid. You know you’re better off not remembering any of that. She wanted to be forgotten. Let it go.”

A quick swipe of my trembling fingers ended the call. His face vanished, leaving only reflection in the dark glass. I did not say goodbye.

Whatever gift of memory Pinner coffee has been trying to give me, it can’t be hers. My mother was human, and she wanted me to have nothing that was hers. I’ve lost her, but my father is out there somewhere. He’s in the black recess of space, or the last few drips of darkness in my cup.

I tried to go back to the beginning. I tried to do what the human orphans in stories do: go on a quest. I tried to follow the roads of memory and go back. Other orphans find out that they’re secretly royalty. They find out that their parents loved them but gave them up because of dire circumstance. They realize that their real family is the one who chose them. They ask for more.

All I have are fragments of memory, and none of them my own. I have the story of the night my mother abandoned me, the same night when a Pinner was first killed by a human. I have a forgetful old nurse and a buggy old A.I., both of whom were there and both of whom were too distracted by programming of one kind or another to bear witness for me. I have a father who can’t live on this world and must have returned to one I’ve never seen. There is no more.

I arrived on the Pinner homeworld two days ago. The people are not at all what I expected. They welcomed me like I’d been missed. They told me my chances of being sterilized by the radiation here are 50-50. They also told me that there is a registry here for hemis to find their Pinner parents, but that’s just a place to start. What we’re looking for can’t be found in a list of names. Instead, most of us have started taking fresh onging at full strength and connecting to the reservoir of collective memory that it unlocks. Drinking it has helped me remember a place and a people that belong to me, though I’ve never known them.

Memory, like DNA, is made up mostly of pieces that belong to other people. I sent a message back to Earth, to every other hemi I know.

I told them I’m halfway home.

Read a response essay by an expert on technology, the law, and bias.

Previously in Future Tense Fiction:

• “Mika Model,” by Paolo Bacigalupi
• “Mr. Thursday,” by Emily St. John Mandel
• “The Minnesota Diet,” by Charlie Jane Anders
• “Mother of Invention,” by Nnedi Okorafor
• “Domestic Violence,” by Madeline Ashby
• “No Me Dejas,” by Mark Oshiro