Inertia by Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is the author of 14 science fiction or fantasy novels, and more than 80 short stories, which have been collected in Trinity and Other Stories, The Aliens of Earth, and Beaker’s Dozen. Her novella, “Beggars in Spain,” which was later expanded into a novel, won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. She received the Nebula Award twice more, once for her story “Out of All Them Bright Stars,” and again for “The Flowers of Aulit Prison,” which also won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. In 2003, Kress won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for her novel Probability Space.

In 2007 and 2008, Kress will have three new books out: a new story collection from Golden Gryphon Press, a new SF novel, Steal Across the Sky, and an SF thriller, Dogs, which, like the story included here, involves a highly communicable plague.

“Inertia” tells the story of the victims of a disfiguring epidemic who are interned in the modern equivalent of leper colonies. Kress says that identity–who you are, why you’re here, why you are who you are (and what you are supposed to be doing about it)–is a central idea in her work, and this story is no exception.

This excerpt appears here courtesy of the author.

 

Inertia
by Nancy Kress

At dusk the back of the bedroom falls off. One minute it’s a wall, exposed studs and cracked blue drywall, and the next it’s snapped-off two-by-fours and an irregular fence as high as my waist, the edges both jagged and furry, as if they were covered with powder. Through the hole a sickly tree pokes upward in the narrow space between the back of our barracks and the back of a barracks in E Block. I try to get out of bed for a closer look, but today my arthritis is too bad, which is why I’m in bed in the first place. Rachel rushes into the bedroom.

“What happened, Gram? Are you all right?”

I nod and point. Rachel bends into the hole, her hair haloed by California twilight. The bedroom is hers, too; her mattress lies stored under my scarred four-poster.

“Termites! Damn. I didn’t know we had them. You sure you’ re all right?”

“I’m fine. I was all the way across the room, honey. I’m fine.”

“Well–we’ll have to get Mom to get somebody to fix it.”

I say nothing. Rachel straightens, throws me a quick glance, looks away. Still I say nothing about Mamie, but in a sudden flicker from my oil lamp I look directly at Rachel, just because she is so good to look at. Not pretty, not even here Inside, although so far the disease has affected only the left side of her face. The ridge of thickened, ropy skin, coarse as old hemp, isn’t visible at all when she stands in right profile. But her nose is large, her eyebrows heavy and low, her chin a bony knob. An honest nose, expressive brows, direct gray eyes, chin that juts forward when she tilts her head in intelligent listening–to a grandmother’s eye, Rachel is good to look at. They wouldn’t think so, Outside. But they would be wrong.

Rachel says, “Maybe I could trade a lottery card for more drywall and nails, and patch it myself.”

“The termites will still be there.”

“Well, yes, but we have to do something.” I don’t contradict her. She is sixteen years old. “Feel that air coming in–you’ll freeze at night this time of year. It’ll be terrible for your arthritis. Come in the kitchen now, Gram–I’ve built up the fire.”

She helps me into the kitchen, where the metal wood-burning stove throws a rosy warmth that feels good on my joints. The stove was donated to the colony a year ago by who-knows-what charity or special interest group for, I suppose, whatever tax breaks still hold for that sort of thing. If any do. Rachel tells me that we still get newspapers, and once or twice I’ve wrapped vegetables from our patch in some fairly new-looking ones. She even says that the young Stevenson boy works a donated computer news net in the Block J community hall, but I no longer follow Outside tax regulations. Nor do I ask why Mamie was the one to get the wood-burning stove when it wasn’t a lottery month.

The light from the stove is stronger than the oil flame in the bedroom; I see that beneath her concern for our dead bedroom wall, Rachel’s face is flushed with excitement. Her young skin glows right from intelligent chin to the ropy ridge of disease, which of course never changes color. I smile at her. Sixteen is so easy to excite. A new hair ribbon from the donations repository, a glance from a boy, a secret with her cousin Jennie.

“Gram,” she says, kneeling beside my chair, her hands restless on the battered wooden arm, “Gram–there’s a visitor. From Outside. Jennie saw him.”

I go on smiling. Rachel–nor Jennie, either–can’t remember when disease colonies had lots of visitors. First bulky figures in contamination suits, then a few years later, sleeker figures in the sani-suits that took their place. People were still being interred from Outside, and for years the checkpoints at the Rim had traffic flowing both ways. But of course Rachel doesn’t remember all that; she wasn’t born. Mamie was only twelve when we were interred here. To Rachel, a visitor might well be a great event. I put out one hand and stroke her hair.

“Jennie said he wants to talk to the oldest people in the colony, the ones who were brought here with the disease. Hal Stevenson told her.”

“Did he, sweetheart?” Her hair is soft and silky. Mamie’s hair had been the same at Rachel’s age.

“He might want to talk to you!”

“Well , here I am.”

“But aren’t you excited? What do you suppose he wants?”

I’m saved from answering her because Mamie comes in, her boyfriend Peter Malone following with a string-bag of groceries from the repository.

At the first sound of the doorknob turning, Rachel gets up from beside my chair and pokes at the fire. Her face goes completely blank, although I know that part is only temporary. Mamie cries, “Here we are!” in her high, doll-baby voice, cold air from the hall swirling around her like bright water. “Mama darling–how are you feeling? And Rachel! You’ll never guess–Pete had extra depository cards and he got us some chicken! I’m going to make a stew!”

“The back wall fell off the bedroom,” Rachel says flatly. She doesn’t look at Peter with his string-crossed chicken, but I do. He grins his patient, wolfish grin. I guess that he won the depository cards at poker. His fingernails are dirty. The part of the newspaper I can see says ESIDENT CONFISCATES C.

Mamie says, “What do you mean, ‘fell off?’”

Rachel shrugs. “Just fell off. Termites.”

Mamie looks helplessly at Peter, whose grin widens. I can see how it will be: They will have a scene later, not completely for our benefit, although it will take place in the kitchen for us to watch. Mamie will beg prettily for Peter to fix the wall. He will demur, grinning. She will offer various smirking hints about barter, each hint becoming more explicit. He will agree to fix the wall. Rachel and I, having no other warm room to go to, will watch the fire or the floor or our shoes until Mamie and Peter retire ostentatiously to her room. It’s the ostentation that embarrasses us. Mamie has always needed witnesses to her desirability.

But Peter is watching Rachel, not Mamie. “The chicken isn’t from Outside, Rachel. It’s from that chicken-yard in Block B. I heard you say how clean they are.”

“Yeah,” Rachel says shortly, gracelessly.

Mamie rolls her eyes. “Say ‘thank you.’ darling. Pete went to a lot of trouble to get this chicken.”

“Thanks.”

“Can’t you say it like you mean it?” Mamie’s voice goes shrill.

“Thanks,” Rachel says. She heads towards our three-walled bedroom. Peter, still watching her closely, shifts the chicken from one hand to the other. The pressure of the string bag cuts lines across the chicken’s yellowish skin.

“Rachel Anne Wilson–”

“Let her go,” Peter says softly.

“No,” Mamie says. Between the five crisscrossing lines of disease, her face sets in unlovely lines. “She can at least learn some manners. And I want her to hear our announcement! Rachel, you just come right back out here this minute!”

Rachel returns from the bedroom; I’ve never known her to disobey her mother. She pauses by the open bedroom door, waiting. Two empty candle scones, both blackened by old smoke, frame her head. It has been since at least last winter that we’ve had candles for them. Mamie, her forehead creased in irritation, smiles brightly.

“This is a special dinner, all of you. Pete and I have an announcement. We’re going to get married.”

“That’s right,” Peter says. “Congratulate us.”

Rachel, already motionless, somehow goes even stiller. Peter watches her carefully. Mamie casts down her eyes, blushing, and I feet a stab of impatient pity for my daughter, propping up mid-thirties girlishness on such a slender reed as Peter Malone. I stare at him hard. If he ever touches Rachel…but I don’t really think he would. Things like that don’t happen anymore. Not Inside.

“Congratulations,” Rachel mumbles. She crosses the room and embraces her mother, who hugs her back with theatrical fervor. In another minute, Mamie will start to cry. Over her shoulder I glimpse Rachel’s face, momentarily sorrowing and loving, and I drop my eyes.

“Well! This calls for a toast!” Mamie cries gaily. She winks, makes a clumsy pirouette, and pulls a bottle from the back shelf of the cupboard Rachel got at the last donations lottery. The cupboard looks strange in our kitchen: gleaming white lacquer, vaguely Oriental-looking, amid the wobbly chairs and scarred table with the broken drawer no one has ever gotten around to mending. Mamie flourishes the bottle, which I didn’t know was there. It’s champagne.

What had they been thinking, the Outsiders who donated champagne to a disease colony? Poor devils, even if they never have anything to celebrate…Or Here’s something they won’t know what to do with…Or Better them than me–as long as the sickies stay Inside…It doesn’t really matter.

“I just love champagne!” Mamie cries feverishly; I think she has drunk it once. “And oh look–here’s someone else to help us celebrate! Come in, Jennie–come in and have some champagne!”

Jennie comes in, smiling. I see the same eager excitement that animated Rachel before her mother’s announcement. It glows on Jennie’s face, which is beautiful. She has no disease on her hands or her face. She must have it somewhere, she was born Inside, but one doesn’t ask that. Probably Rachel knows. The two girls are inseparable. Jennie, the daughter of Mamie’s dead husband’s brother, is Rachel’s cousin, and technically Mamie is her guardian. But no one pays attention to such things anymore, and Jennie lives with some people in a barracks in the next Block, although Rachel and I asked her to live here. She shook her head, the beautiful hair so blonde it’s almost white bouncing on her shoulders, and blushed in embarrassment, painfully not looking at Mamie.

“I’m getting married, Jennie,” Mamie says, again casting down her eyes bashfully. I wonder what she did, and with whom, to get the champagne.

“Congratulations!” Jennie says warmly. “You, too, Peter.”

“Call me Pete,” he says, as he has said before. I catch his hungry look at Jennie. She doesn’t, but some sixth sense –even here, even Inside–makes her step slightly backwards. I know she will go on calling him ‘Peter.’

Mamie says to Jennie, “Have some more champagne. Stay for dinner.”

With her eyes Jennie measures the amount of champagne in the bottle, the size of the chicken bleeding slightly on the table. She measures unobtrusively, and then of course she lies. “I’m sorry, I can’t–we ate our meal at noon today. I just wanted to ask if I could bring someone over to see you later, Gram. A visitor.” Her voice drops to a hush, and the glow is back. “From Outside.”

I look at her sparkling blue eyes, at Rachel’s face, and I don’t have the heart to refuse. Even though I can guess, as the two girls can not, how the visit will be. I am not Jennie’s grandmother, but she has called me that since she was three. “All right.”

“Oh, thank you!” Jennie cries, and she and Rachel look at each other with delight. “I’m so glad you said yes, or else we might never get to talk to a visitor up close at all!”

“You’re welcome,” I say. They are so young. Mamie looks petulant; her announcement has been upstaged. Peter watches Jennie as she impulsively hugs Rachel. Suddenly I know that he too is wondering where Jennie’s body is diseased, and how much. He catches my eye and looked at the floor, his dark eyes lidded, half ashamed. But only half. A log cackles in the wooden stove, and for a brief moment the fire flares.

#

The next afternoon Jennie brings the visitor. He surprises me immediately: he isn’t wearing a sani-suit, and he isn’t a sociologist.

In the years following the internments, the disease colonies had a lot of visitors. Doctors still hopeful of a cure for the thick gray ridges of skin that spread slowly over a human body–or didn’t, nobody knew why. Disfiguring. Ugly. Maybe eventually fatal. And communicable. That was the biggie: communicable. So doctors in sani-suits came looking for causes or cures. Journalists in sani-suits came looking for stories with four-color photo spreads. Legislative fact-finding committees in sani-suits came looking for facts, at least until Congress took away the power of colonies to vote, pressured by taxpayers who, increasingly pressured themselves, resented our dollar-dependent status. And the sociologists came in droves, minicams in hand, ready to record the collapse of the ill-organized and ill colonies into street-gang, dog-eat-dog anarchy.

Later, when this did not happen, different sociologists came in later-model sani-suits to record the reasons why the colonies were not collapsing on schedule. All these groups went away dissatisfied. There was no cure, no cause, no story, no collapse, no reasons.

[END EXCERPT]