This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “Crossing the Camp.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook from Amazon or Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
This story was first published at Strange Horizons in January 2001, and was named an Honorable Mention story in the Year’s Best Science Fiction vol. 19. It was reprinted in my SF novel The Wannoshay Cycle.
I thought the writing was powerful, the men and aliens sympathetic as they wrestle with their own emotions, and examine grim moral dilemmas while trying to do good work. A fine story. — SF Site
Crossing the Camp
At the west entrance to the detainment camp, government workers string another layer of wire against the wall. It uncoils through human hands like a metal snake without a head. I tell Jaime Mundo, my new trainee, that the fence will be electrified by the time we leave tonight. He nods, fingers twitching for rosary beads that aren’t there, and I force a smile his way. We pass the guard house and enter the camp. He’s going to have to learn quickly.
The people have been in camps for almost two years now. After the brewery accident in Milwaukee, followed almost immediately by the explosion in North Dakota, they have been under constant supervision in camps like this one. The people had just begun to adjust to North America when the accidents happened. The Department of Defense insists the accidents were sabotage. I try not to let what happened in the past affect my work, yet the facts are always there, like a dull ache or a dry mouth.
I have to force myself, on this gray March morning, not to dwell on the squalor around me. It reminds me of the worst sections of Chicago’s south side: the discarded ration boxes in mud puddles, the broken bottles on dead grass, the clothing limp on the line. All that’s missing are high-rise tenements. Instead, here we have government-issued Quonset huts and a landscape scraped clean of all trees.
The cold air has numbed my ears already, and our breath forms a cloud in front of our faces. I catch myself starting to believe the few remaining priests left at the Minneapolis rectory who claim that the camps were built to remove the burden of guilt from the people. Many of them are convinced that the people, working as unskilled labor as part of the government’s hastily-constructed integration plan, somehow caused the explosions at the brewery and the grain elevator. They tell me again and again that the camps are a way of ensuring safety for us and atonement for the people. Penance through imprisonment.
The sun pushes out from behind some clouds, warming me slightly through my black coat. Jaime slows down next to me, his dark eyes scanning the road and the shadowy entrances to the huts on either side of us. He has barely spoken all morning.
In front of us, young alien voices approach, growing louder. Jaime pauses in mid-step, then sets his foot down.
“When a child comes close to you, don’t jerk away,” I whisper in his ear. “Just relax.”
A band of five children slide out from behind a hut and gallop toward us, using their long, thick arms like front legs. Fat hair-tentacles bounce on the children’s narrow heads. They’d look almost human if it weren’t for the tentacles and the third eye, sitting sideways in the middle of their foreheads. And if they didn’t run towards us like small horses, on all fours. The clump of their hands and feet on the dirt road is loud in the morning stillness.
“Favvyer Yotchooa, Favvyer Yotchooa!” they call to me in bird-like voices as they stand, wobbling. Next to me, Jaime inhales suddenly.
“Good morning, children,” I say slowly. The alien smell of rich dirt and salty sweat is strong, but with the children it is easy to overlook. Our greatest hopes lie with the young. We need to reach them before they see the labor farms, the Blur dealers, the violence and hatred outside. “This is my new friend, Father Jaime. He’ll be working here, too.”
They step back to examine him. Most of them are already taller than me, almost as tall as Jaime. The adults, when they walk upright like humans, are nearly seven feet high. “Favvyer Yaimye,” a boy in the back whispers, and the rest of the children giggle with chittering voices. Their gray skin, flushed bright pink in spots from running, is covered in a light sheen of sweat despite the cool air. Ezra’s fore-eye opens and closes, giving Jaime a crooked wink.
Jaime rubs his hands together, touches the square of white on his collar, but to his credit, he meets their gazes and smiles. Bless you, Jaime.
When I look back at the children, Lucas, one of the bigger boys, has dropped to all fours and started hitting the child next to him. Lucas’s open hands pummel the smaller child mercilessly until the other runs off on all fours, howling. When I touch him, Lucas screams and sprints after the first child. The people, especially the young, are prone to outbursts like this, senseless and violent. Nobody knew about the outbursts until the people began working in the factories and grain elevators and breweries. By then it was already too late. Annina, the camp doctor—and the only other human in the camp—claims it is a combination of a chemical imbalance and a hypersensitivity to the emotions of others. Next to me, I hear Jaime’s sharp intake of breath once again.
The rest of the children scuttle away as well, hands and feet barely making a sound on the dusty road. They leave an almost-sweet scent of mud and salt behind them. We walk past the Quonsets and the grassless front lawns. Everything is quiet, since most of the healthy men and women have already left for the labor farms. They can do the work of three humans, and the farm owners no longer have to worry about migrant workers and green cards.
I don’t say anything about Lucas. Some things Jaime will simply have to learn on his own, without me.
Off to the right, old Noah balances an armload of garbage, and a newsletter slips from his grasp when he waves. I can barely make out the slash marks and jagged scribbles on the paper. When the sun moves behind the clouds again, the camp gradually comes alive with the young and old. Blankets used as doors are folded open and fastened with wire, letting in the cool air that the people love so much. The cool air that reminds them of their home. It had been only three short years ago, during one of the coldest winters ever, when the first reports of the ships began flooding the news channels and Netstreams. Across the empty fields of southern Canada and Minnesota and Wisconsin, over thirty of their dainty, tired-looking ships crash-landed. Their arrival turned the world inside out, sparking protests and mass paranoia.
I turn to Jaime. “See how pale their skin is? Sunlight can burn their skin to a horrible orangish-red color. And overexposure can kill them.”
Jaime shivers, as if suddenly aware of the chill in the air. The lack of warmth barely fazes me anymore, even though I still feel the congestion in my head from the night I spent outside the church doors almost two weeks ago.
“The people place great importance in their sense of touch,” I say, continuing my lesson. “It took me half a year before anyone would get close enough to touch me, much less give me a hug. Hopefully,” I gesture at Jaime’s white collar, black shirt and black pants that mirror my own clothes, “they’ll trust you sooner.”
I swallow and stop in mid-lecture. They may have no choice if I agree to Father Miller’s offer.
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Check out my SF novel The Wannoshay Cycle, in hardcover, trade paperback, or ebook for more of the “Wantas” and the humans who come to meet them after this story takes place…