Episode #42: “The Passing Bell” by Amy Griswold

July 11, 2017

Episode 42 is part of the Spring 2017 issue!

Support GlitterShip by picking up your copy here: http://www.glittership.com/buy/

 

The Passing Bell

by Amy Griswold

 

My hired horse threw a shoe between Bristol and Bath, and by the time the wearying business of getting another nailed on was complete the shadows were growing long and the wind was sharpening its knives. 

“It’s kind of you to put me up,” I said, jingling pennies in my pocket to encourage such generosity.  In a town so small it had neither pub nor inn, I considered myself fortunate to be offered the chance to sleep in the blacksmith’s loft. 

 

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you. Our story for today is "The Passing Bell" by Amy Griswold.

Amy Griswold is the author (with Melissa Scott) of DEATH BY SILVER and A
DEATH AT THE DIONYSUS CLUB from Lethe Press. Her most recent work
(with Jo Graham) is the interactive novel THE EAGLE'S HEIR from Choice of
Games. She lives in North Carolina, where she writes standardized tests as well
as fiction, and tries not to confuse the two.


 

 

The Passing Bell

by Amy Griswold

 

My hired horse threw a shoe between Bristol and Bath, and by the time the wearying business of getting another nailed on was complete the shadows were growing long and the wind was sharpening its knives. 

“It’s kind of you to put me up,” I said, jingling pennies in my pocket to encourage such generosity.  In a town so small it had neither pub nor inn, I considered myself fortunate to be offered the chance to sleep in the blacksmith’s loft. 

“Glad to, if you’ve got the coin,” the blacksmith said.  “Only the missus is particular in her way about knowing something about strangers who are going to sleep under her roof.  What’s your name, and what’s your age, and what’s your trade, good man?  For she’ll ask me all three.”

 “Rob Tar is my name, and my age is twenty and six,” I said.  “And I’m an able seaman aboard the Red Boar out of Bristol.  My girl Minnie lives in Bath, and I’m on my way to keep her company a while until we sail again.  I’ve never claimed to be a good man, but I’ll be no trouble to you, and I can pay you for supper and bed."  In fact I had three months’ pay, most of it stuffed down my shirt to pose less temptation to thieves.  “Will that satisfy your lady?”

“It should,” Mister Smith said, with a sheepish sort of shuffle that would have looked more at home on a boy than a big man with biceps like hams.  “You understand, she’s a particular sort of woman.”  He seemed to notice for the first time that his dogs were circling me suspiciously, as if waiting for the cue to set their teeth into an intruder.  “Get by, dogs, we’ve a guest tonight.”

He led me into a kitchen where a warm fire was glowing and went aside to speak with the presumed mistress of the house, a young wife but hardly a merry one, her dun hair matching her dun dress so that she looked faded, as if washed too many times.  I was beginning to get some feeling back into my feet when she came over with bread and salt fish.

“That ought to do for a sailor,” she said, and I nodded polite thanks, though in truth I’d eaten enough fish while at sea that I’d have preferred the toughest fowl or most dubious of hams.  “If you’d come a week ago, we’d have had nothing for you but pork.” 

“Too bad,” I said, and tried not to think about crisp bacon.

At that moment, a dull music split the air, the heavy tolling of a steeple-bell.  It rang twice, paused, rang twice again, and then began a doleful series of strokes.  It was the death knell, and I put on my most solemn face, thinking how awkward it was to be a stranger in a small town at such a time.  “Who do you suppose has died?”

“I expect no one yet,” Mister Smith said.  His wife said nothing, only stood with her mouth pressed tight together, listening to the tolling bell.  In a small town such as this, I could well believe they kept up the old custom of ringing the bell as soon as the parson heard news of a death, but to ring it before the death seemed perverse.

“Surely there aren’t any hangings here,” I said.  A condemned prisoner was the only sort of man I could think of whose death might be predicted with certainty beforehand.  “I suppose if someone’s lying deathly ill . . .” 

“We’ll know by morning,” Mister Smith said.  “The bell never lies, you see—”  He broke off abruptly as the bell finally came to the end of its dull refrain and seemed at a loss for how to go on.

“Twenty-six,” Mistress Smith said, and when I turned at her tone I saw that her face had turned gray with some strong emotion I didn’t understand.  “Nine strokes to tell a man, and twenty-six to tell his age.  Don’t tell me I miscounted.”

“I’m sure you didn’t,” the smith said.  He twisted the leather of his apron in his hands, looking from one of us to the other.  “It might be best if you found your bed now.”

“The hour is growing late,” I said, because I misliked his wife’s expression, and had developed aboard ship a keen sense of how the wind was blowing.

The man picked up a lantern and led me back out into the chill dooryard.  The ladder up to the loft above the forge was rickety, and he held the lantern to light my way.  “You mustn’t mind my wife,” he said.  “Our troubles here are nothing to do with you.”

Well, only the most incurious of born lubbers could have refrained from asking the question after that. “What did she mean about the bell?”

“There’s somewhat wrong with our church bell,” Smith said.  “The parson rings it in the ordinary way after every death in the town, but you can hear it all through town the night before.”

It took me a moment to parse that.  “You mean the bell rings before someone dies?”

“The bell sounds before someone dies, but the parson doesn’t ring it until after.  It’s been that way as long as anyone in town can remember. You mustn’t think we’re entirely ungrateful; when it tolls for your old uncle, you can go round and see him beforehand and say your farewells, you see?  But it’s hard when it tolls for a child, or a man in his prime with little chance of passing away peacefully in his bed.”

The light from the lantern shifted, as if his hand were less than steady on its handle.  Outside its circle of light, black branches bent against a dark sky that was beginning to spit frigid rain.  “This wouldn’t be a tale spun to frighten travelers, would it?” I asked.  “For I’ve heard them all in my time.”

“I swear it’s the plain truth,” Smith said.  “And it’s a bad night for traveling, but I’ll understand if you’d rather be on your way.”  He paused a moment and then added, “It might be for the best.  You heard what the bell told.”

“I’m willing to take the chance,” I said.  “I’ve heard more frightening stories than this.”

“It’s no more than the truth,” the man said, but with resignation, as if he were used to skepticism from strangers.  He hung up the lantern, and turned abruptly to go.  “Your horse is shod and I’ve got your coins for the night’s lodging, so I expect we’re square, and there’s no more that needs to be said.”  He tramped out, leaving me to ascend the ladder in no mood to settle down easily to sleep.

I shivered for a while under the thin horse blanket spread over an equally thin pallet, and then realized that the forge and the kitchen of the house shared a common chimney that went up the opposite wall.  I made my way over to it, hoping to warm my hands at least, and I heard the mutter of voices through the wall.  After a bare moment’s hesitation, I pressed my ear unashamed to the stones, having long profited from such caution. 

“Give me the hatchet,” I heard Mistress Smith say, and was abruptly glad I hadn’t balked at eavesdropping.

“You don’t need the hatchet,” Mister Smith said.  “I mean to leave it in the good Lord’s hands.”

“You mean you don’t mean to lift a hand yourself to save your life, when it’s you or that stranger who’ll die tonight.  Well, you needn’t get your hands dirty if you scruple to it.  Just you give me the hatchet, and tell anyone who asks that you slept sound.”

“And what do you mean to say, when the town watch comes knocking?”

“Old Bill?  I’ll tell him that I woke at a noise in the courtyard, and came out to see men running away.  He’ll set up a hue and cry that will take the rest of the night.  You’ll see.”  There was a feverish certainty to her voice.  “All you need do is leave it all to me.”

“I won’t have it, I tell you.”

“I don’t care what you will and won’t have.  You’re not much of a man, it seems, but you’re my man, and I don’t mean to wager your life on the toss of a coin.  Give me the hatchet, and don’t you set foot outside until I come back.” 

I had only a few moments to escape.  I had a knife, which I took up now, and the cover of darkness on my side.  For all that, my heart was pounding in my chest; I’ve never been a brawler, nor been much in the habit of fighting with women.  I made for the ladder, but before I reached it I heard the sound of footsteps below. 

“Do you lie comfortably?” Mistress Smith’s voice rose up.

I thought of feigning snores, but lacked confidence in my own dramatic skills. “Quite comfortably,” I called back down.  “I’ve everything a man could want.”

“I thought I’d bring you a hot drink,” she said.  “A bit of a toddy to take the chill from the air.  Do come down and drink it before it gets cold.”

“It’s very kind,” I said, putting my back to the loft wall and hoping that a swung hatchet wouldn’t go through it.  “But I never touch the demon drink, not since I got religion.”

“A sailor who’s an abstainer?” she said.  “I never heard of such.”

“It’s true all the same,” I said.  “It pleases my girl, you understand.”

“I’ve a blanket for you at least,” she said.  “And you can come in with me and fetch a cup of hot milk.”

“Thank you kindly, but I’ll lodge where I am.”  I held my breath, and heard the ladder creak as she put her foot on it.  It creaked twice more, and then her head and shoulders appeared framed in the doorway and light glinted off the hatchet blade.

 I kicked her square in the bosom, though I’m not proud to say it, and knocked her and the ladder both down from the loft.  I swung down after her, seeing her sprawled in the straw, unhurt but struggling to rise, and went for the hatchet.

She grasped it as well, her hands clawing at mine, raking them with her fingernails. 

“Will you give over!” I tried to shoulder her away.  “You’re wrong in what you think.  I’m no man of twenty-six.”

“You claim now you were lying?” Her face was close enough to mine as we struggled that I could smell her breath.  “There’s a strange habit, for a man to tell lies about his age to everyone he meets.”

Her grip on the hatchet loosened as she spoke, and I tightened my own.  “So it would be,” I said.  “But I’m no man, and that was the lie I told.  That and the bit about the drink, which I admit is a besetting vice.  I put on breeches to go to sea, but I’m a woman all the same underneath them, and never more glad of it than today.”  I forebore to add that my girl was glad of it too, as I felt under the circumstances it would be taken as cheek.

She laughed in my face.  “That’s a nasty lie to save your skin.”

“I’ll prove it if you like,” I said.  “If you’ll give over your attempt to chop me up for firewood long enough.”

At that moment, her husband came in, and I shoved her toward him, hoping that he’d catch the hatchet out of her hands.  He plucked it away from her with his left hand and tossed it aside, but as he let her go I saw that he had a cleaver in his right hand.  I saw the bulging of his shoulders and thought I must know what a chicken felt like at butchering time.

“It came on me that it was wrong to leave the missus to do what must be done,” he said.

“I’ll swear any oath you like, my mother named me Kate,” I said, and reached for the top button of my shirt.

“A wicked wench who’ll dress up as a man can’t complain if she’s buried as one,” the woman said, and I saw a look pass between her and her husband that made my heart sink.  “What the parson doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

“I’m sorry to have to do it,” Mister Smith told me, but he was lifting the cleaver, and I turned tail and ran.

I heard the clamor of dogs barking behind me, and rethought in a hurry my initial plan to make for the road out of town.  I looked about for a tree to climb, and saw none.  There was a stone wall at the end of the lane, though, and I went pelting toward it with what sounded like a whole Bedlam of dogs baying at my heels.

They leapt snarling as I scrambled up the wall, but any sailor, lad or lass, can climb like a monkey, and I reached the top of the wall and dropped down on the other side.  I was in a little churchyard, but before I could slip away over the wall on the other side, the parson came out to see what was the matter with the dogs, who were still howling in a perfect fury.  Though he wore spectacles balanced on his narrow nose, he also had a heavy stick in his hand and looked as if he were willing to use it.

“The blacksmith set his dogs on me,” I blurted out.  “I swear to you I’m no thief.”

The parson didn’t loosen his grip on the stick.  “I don’t believe Mister Smith is in the habit of setting his dogs on innocent strangers.”

“It’s on account of the bell, the passing bell,” I said, and couldn’t help looking up at the tower that threw its shadow over us both.  The bell tower was just a rickety little thing by the measure of city churches, but the pool of gloom it cast over the churchyard seemed heavy and dark.  “His wife put him up to it, for she thinks it’s either him or me who’ll die tonight.”

The parson came forward a little, then, and looked me up and down through his spectacles.  “I never knew the blacksmith’s age,” he said, as if speaking as much to himself as to me.  “I try not to know, you see.  But in a town so small, it’s hard not to be aware . . .”  He shook his head, and there was something closed in his expression.  “I think I had better see you out the gate,” he said.

“The dogs are still out there,” I pointed out.

“That’s really not my concern.”

“And you a parson.”

“I can’t stop what’s to come,” he said.  “You must understand that, you must see.  I’ve tried, sometimes, when I knew.  There was a girl, a child of thirteen . . . I sat up with her all night, in the church, and we prayed together.  She wept, and I told her to have faith, that the Lord would protect her.  And an hour before morning her fear overcame her, and she rose to flee.  I caught hold of her, I demanded she stay, I promised she would be safe.  I struggled with her.  And she fell, and her head struck the altar steps.  And God was silent.”

He reached out and caught hold of my collar to march me toward the gates.  My hand rested on my knife, and then I took it away again, not sure if I could bring myself to stab a man of the cloth, even to make my escape. 

“I don’t see why you can’t just resolve not to ring the bell anymore,” I said.  “If you don’t ring it in the morning . . .”

“I did not ring it that night,” he said, still marching me along, as if by thrusting me out the gates he could banish the memory.  “I sat on the altar steps in misery, and at the first light, I heard the bell tolling.  It was little Johnnie Boots, the choirboy, who had taken it into his head to ring the bell for me as a kindness, since, as he said, I must have been taken ill.” 

He paused before the high wooden gate, and outside I heard an eager chorus of barks, and then the even more ominous growling of dogs who see their aim in sight.  “There are some who have called for us to take down the bell,” he said.  I silently cheered on “some,” whoever they might be.  “But it is the Lord who put this curse on us, and when he judges us free of sin, he will take it away again.  When we have been made clean.”  His knuckles were white on his stick, and his eyes were on the horizon, as if he saw some horror there I couldn’t see.  “I have prayed, but of course my sinner’s prayers have not been answered,” he said.  “Pray now, and perhaps yours will be heard as mine have not been.”

I put my hands together, although I had done precious little praying of any kind since I’d taken up my present life.  It sat badly with me to beg for my life anyway, like a craven captain pleading for quarter on his knees.  Dear Lord, I’ve been a wicked woman but a good seaman, I said silently.  You’ve winked at my deceit, and let me live when better men have died.  If you care for wicked women, as I’ve heard you did in life, show me one more trick to save my skin.

 The parson was reaching for the gate, and I blurted out, “A moment more!”

“You’ve had time for your prayers.”

“A moment to wish my girl goodbye,” I said, and drew out the locket I carried.  It was a little tin thing with a half-penny sketch inside, but the boy who drew it had caught Minnie’s laughing eyes, and it was worth a fortune in gold to me.  She’d scolded me for going back to the sea, though it was my wages that kept her all the time I was away, and told me at some length that if I drowned she wouldn’t have a single prayer said for my worthless wayward soul.

“You’ve had that as well,” the parson said, and reached for the latch on the gate.  I reached again for my knife, wondering if I could stick him without hurting him too much, and what the townsmen would do to me if they caught me after that.  Being hanged for stabbing a parson seemed even worse than being hacked apart for nothing.

And then I had it, all at once, like a breath of wind snapping open a slack sail.  “One thing more!” I demanded.  “I had a traveling companion on the road, another sailor who took ill and died by the wayside.  I buried him as best I could, but I’d be easier in my mind if the passing bell were rung for him.  His name was Tom, and I know his age as well, for he told me at the end he was born twenty-six years ago to the day.”

   The parson stood staring at me for a long moment.  “Do you expect me for one moment to believe such a story?”

“Is it any of your business to doubt it?” I asked, and reached into my coat to draw out my purse.  “If I had come to you a week ago, would you have questioned whether there was a man named Tom or a roadside grave?” 

“I would not,” he admitted.  I held out my purse to him, and while I’d like to believe he took it in pure gratitude for the escape I offered him, I can’t say that its weight didn’t figure in his decision as well.

“Then go on and ring the passing bell for poor old Tom,” I said.  “For I think I have worn out my welcome in this town, or at least it has worn out its welcome with me, and I am eager to be on the road again.”

I followed him to the foot of the tower stairs, and watched him ascend.  I waited until the sound of his steps told me he had gone a full turn of the stairs, and then started up after him, keeping my own steps quiet. 

Even after everything that had happened, I was not entirely prepared for what I saw when I mounted to the bell-tower; the parson was heaving on the bell-rope, his back to me, and the bell was heaving as well, the clapper slamming into its sides hard enough that I could see its tremor, but no sound came from the bell, no sound at all.  The only sound was the wind, keening through the wide openings on all sides of the tower like a crying dog.

I waited, breath held, until the bell made its final swing and the parson released the bellrope.  I scrambled around him, evading his surprised attempt to catch me back, and clambered up onto the beams that held the bell in place.  The bell was an old one, and held only by thick ropes, not by a heavy chain; it was the work of a moment to hack the stiff ropes in two.

There was a clamor like brazen hounds baying in hell as the bell came crashing down.  It tumbled out the open side of the bell tower, clattering for a moment on its edge and then plunging toward the earth.

“They do say the Lord helps those as help themselves,” I said, jumping down.  The parson crossed himself and backed away from me.

“There’s some devil in you, and I’m not sure whether to try to cast it out or thank you for what you’ve done,” he said. 

“Call it payment for all the hospitality I’ve had in this town,” I said.  “But now I must be away.”  I took off down the stairs at a run, and plunged out into the open air.

I stopped short when I saw the bell lying fallen on the churchyard stones.  It was cracked and split, crumpled like the body of Mister Smith, who lay fallen beneath it, with his dogs circling round him, cringing now and whimpering.

The parson came out after me, and made the sign of the cross over the dead blacksmith in silence.  “He was a good man,” he said after a while.

“I expect he was,” I said. 

“You mustn’t blame yourself.”

“Nor will I,” I said, for it seemed the blacksmith had been doomed from the time the bell first sounded, and at least now the bell had rung its last. “But can I have my purse back, then?  I expect I can find a man to ring the passing bell for my old mate Tom somewhere considerably nearer home.”

The parson gave me a look as he handed it over that I suppose I well deserved, but what can I say?  I’ve never claimed to be a good man, but I am Minnie’s best girl, and she’d been waiting patiently for me to bring her home my pay, and to come back to her safely from the sea.

END

 


“The Passing Bell” was originally published in Temporally Out of Order and is copyright Amy Griswold, 2015.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back soon with a GlitterShip original.

00:0000:00

Episode #41: “A Spell to Signal Home” by A.C. Buchanan

July 11, 2017

Episode 41 is part of the Spring 2017 issue!

Read ahead by picking up your copy here: http://www.glittership.com/buy/

 

 

A Spell to Signal Home

by A.C. Buchanan

 

 

“Ash.”

The voice is at once close beside me and yet muted, as if the sound is being filtered through a dream or a long stretch of time, a universe drawn out like an endless vibration of music. I can taste the sweetness of blood in my mouth, but no syllables emerge and my body feels heavy and soft.

“Ash.”

Beyond the voice are the sounds of a living planet. It’s hard to pinpoint how the noise of life and the noise of machines differ, when one can so easily mimic the other and both contain so much variety, the boundaries between them blurred, but it’s unmistakable. This is no barren outpost, no hub of spinning metal; this is a result of millions of years of evolution, web-like ecosystems tangling into one another. It will differ from all others and yet on another level it will be the same as all others, interlocking chains of consumption and relation and habitat.

“Ash, we’re going to need to get you out. Can you talk to us?”

 

 


Hello, welcome to GlitterShip Episode #41. This is your host Keffy and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you. We have a poem and a GlitterShip original for you today. Our poem is "Songs of Love and Defense in the Dawn" by Hester J. Rook.

 

Hester J. Rook is an Australian writer and co-editor of Twisted Moon magazine,
a magazine of speculative erotic poetry (twistedmoonmag.com). She has previous
prose and poetry publications in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Liminality
Magazine, Strangelet and others. She's on Twittter @kitemonster and you can
find her other work on her site http://hesterjrook.wordpress.com/.

 


 

Songs of Love and Defense in the Dawn

by Hester J. Rook

 

 

I am bird song
the whole of me, thrumful
the nattering hiss of the seawind through my whispered bones.

They seek to rewrite me
call me raucous, unwieldy,
liar, schemer, temptress
until I am heavy (but weightless) like a pelican skimming
belly over water.
They speak as though their story
can varnish them with righteousness
despite the hurt they cause;
rewrite our histories.

But I am birdsong
and ironbark;
my words are warnings and heralds of the crisp
                                                                      lipbitten dawn
bright as the frosted wingtips of the black swans
gliding
through silver.

I am birdsong

and I am louder than the thunderstorm and softer
than the gathering dusk on the hills
fiercer than teeth in a kiss and
unafraid
I gather up my feathers and

I shield.

 


 

Our original short story is "A Spell to Signal Home" by A.C. Buchanan.

A.C. Buchanan lives just north of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. They're
the author of Liquid City and Bree’s Dinosaur and their short fiction has most
recently been published in Unsung Stories, the Accessing the Future anthology from
FutureFire.net and the Paper Road Press anthology At the Edge Fierce Family.
They also co-chair LexiCon 2017 - The 38th New Zealand National Science
Fiction and Fantasy Convention and edit the speculative fiction
magazine Capricious. You can find them on twitter at @andicbuchanan or at
www.acbuchanan.org.

 


 

A Spell to Signal Home

by A.C. Buchanan

 

 

“Ash.”

The voice is at once close beside me and yet muted, as if the sound is being filtered through a dream or a long stretch of time, a universe drawn out like an endless vibration of music. I can taste the sweetness of blood in my mouth, but no syllables emerge and my body feels heavy and soft.

“Ash.”

Beyond the voice are the sounds of a living planet. It’s hard to pinpoint how the noise of life and the noise of machines differ, when one can so easily mimic the other and both contain so much variety, the boundaries between them blurred, but it’s unmistakable. This is no barren outpost, no hub of spinning metal; this is a result of millions of years of evolution, web-like ecosystems tangling into one another. It will differ from all others and yet on another level it will be the same as all others, interlocking chains of consumption and relation and habitat.

“Ash, we’re going to need to get you out. Can you talk to us?”

I keep thinking that it’s important to answer, but each time the thought begins it’s pushed away into sucked up by the humid air. My mind drifts back, past the negotiations on Feronia station, through the twelve years of my blossoming diplomatic career, to Volturna, the ocean planet where I grew up, and the warm waters we splashed and played and relaxed in, and I think it might be my sister Francie’s voice calling me but I pull myself far enough into consciousness to realize that it’s too high-pitched, too alien…

There are hands on my body, and words: don’t think anything’s broken, still breathing. I realize the air is breathable, which means we’re almost certainly on a terraformed planet, and yet there’s so much life, much more than is usually imported. I feel hands beneath me, my body being lifted, dragged, set down. There’s a bright light—sunlight—through my eyelids.

Fragments of words come to me, words that I memorized long ago. A spell for safety in travel. But it’s in an older English than my native tongue, and so, so far away that I see only occasional words, faded ink on thick paper. I still don’t know what sandalwood is, and I think I need to stay awake, but I’m so tired…

 

 

When she was ten, Francie had edited the family spellbook, inserting “she or” and “her or” and “hers or” in blue ballpoint, her unsteady hand unused to holding a pen. I thought Dad would yell, even though he didn’t yell often, because the book was hundreds of years old and had come from Earth, but instead he turned the large pages one by one and said it was a fair point, and that it was at least a more useful amendment than the “tastes disgusting” comment written in cursive on at least two pages.

Dad didn't really believe in spells, but the book was important enough to him that when our parents first came to Volturna he'd asked for an exemption on the dimensions (but not total volume, he'd never push it that far) permitted for cultural and religious items, family heirlooms. Mum brought a Bible from the Scottish arm of her family, and the korowai she graduated in, even though she didn't feel right taking it so far from her whanau, because her grandmother—approaching ninety at that point—insisted, saying she’d have her own children one day and they needed to be connected.

We didn't quite know what that meant. Earth fascinated us, but in the same ways as tales of every other world fascinated us. Volturna was our home, and we knew its waters in an instinctive way our parents' Terra-born generation couldn't quite understand.

And so on the day that Francie narrowly avoided being in trouble for her annotations, much like any other, we stripped off and yanked on our rashguards and shorts, a process we'd perfected through practice to a matter of seconds. Mine were in the wash so I was wearing my slightly-too-small spare set, lilac with a frill around the edge of the shirt. All Francie's pairs were black.

In a few years I would be required to tell the doctors about how much I hated my body, and I'd rewrite this scene for them then, tell them I cried every time I had to change and was too ashamed to do so even in front of my sister.  The truth was that as long as people got most things about me right I could deal with my body. I'd never love it, but I could not think about it easily enough.

“Go!” Francie yelled, and she yanked open the hatch and we dived out without hesitation, over the narrow platform, into the warm water around us. I ducked to wet my hair and then Francie did the same, hers chopped short and uneven. I envied it for a minute as mine smacked across my face.

“Oy!” Dad's voice yelled at us from inside. “What have I told you about closing this thing after you?”

We'd heard him alright, but if we were going to close it we'd have to walk onto the platform and down the first two steps before we could reach to close it. Waste of time.

“Sorry, Dad. Could you throw me a hair tie?”

“You kids will be the death of me.”

But sure enough one dropped down into my outstretched hand before the hatch grated shut.

We'd been in our new apartment a little over two years, moving because our parents had decided Francie and I should have our own rooms. It was on the edge of town and taking a few strokes out we could see it spread out before us; the buildings and walkways rising out of the waters that covered the planet. The flag the council had chosen, a blue circle ringed with white light against the black of space, fluttered from the higher structures. We had never seen land, and it was only when we opened the spellbook that we felt we might be missing out.

 

 

When I wake again there are drugs coursing through my veins and dampness seeping through my clothes. I open my eyes and see sunlight mottling through the trees above me. I remember being at a reception to mark the conclusion of negotiations regarding access to the route between Feronia Station and Auuue. The subject had been straightforward in itself, but was critical in its implications, setting the terms for future engagement between the Terran and Auuueen governments.

So, having sealed a new treaty, we were feeling good. I’d had a key role in these negotiations, more than was typical for a third level diplomat, and it was hard not to take that as a sign that promotion was on the horizon. I had a glass in my hand and the sweet after-taste of spiced Auuueen seafood in my mouth, and was surely blessed that I’d not only secured a career that gave me the opportunity to travel the galaxies, meet high ranking people and hopefully effect some change for the better, but also one where the gown I wore—shimmering layers of deep-green over a blue-black underlay—was an utterly appropriate expense claim.

I sit up and dizziness hits, nausea growing in me. I force myself to stay upright, pressing my knuckles firmly against the damp ground. There’s something rustling in the bushes to my right, birds flying overhead.

My memories after the reception are brief and fragmented. I remember a distress call, drawing us out of FTL, being unable to get back to anything beyond light speed.

“Cay?” I say, operating by guess work. My throat is dry.

“I’ll be right with you.” His voice is behind me. I ease myself round, bit by bit, every muscle hurting. He’s tending to the injured leg of the ambassador, who seems, mercifully, to be otherwise unhurt. The only non-human on the shuttle, Cay’s wiry frame belies its near unbreakability.

I shift my weight so I can balance, rub my eyes. “We crashed?”

“Emergency landing. This shuttle is built for capitals and ambassadorial stations, not wilderness, which seems to be all this planet has.” Looking up I can see the blue sky, the gaping wound in the forest canopy we must have hurtled through.

“Is… did everyone?”

“Everyone’s alive, yes. Some injuries, but I think with treatment everyone will be okay. Getting out of here is going to be more of a problem. Don’t try and stand up—I put you on Combamex to speed up your healing time, but it will make you woozy for a while.

Flashes of memory.

“There’s a… this is classified information…” the ambassador had said, as we all stared in panic. She’d paused, briefly, grappling with the weight of disclosure even though all our lives were at stake. “There’s a planet… Silvanus. It’s a wildlife reserve, for species from Terra. Breathable atmosphere. Uninhabited, but it’s our only chance. We can be there in a week, two at the most.”

Against Cay’s advice, I stand. Vertigo hits and I vomit, just a little, cling to a tree and manage to stay upright until it passes. Insects are buzzing all around, and the damaged shuttle is behind me. Just a few meters away the forest opens out into a clearing. The ground is covered with orange flowers, smelling of warmth, rising out of the soil to greet us.

 

 

“Marigold. Hematite. Elder. Rue. Tiger’s eye.” I list the unfamiliar ingredients, trying to picture, smell, taste such far away substances. “Tiger’s eye? Did they really use eyes from tigers?”

“It’s a type of rock.” Francie was thirteen and could make me feel small without even trying. “What are cloves?”

She wasn’t asking me. The device on her wrist responded near instantly. Terran spice, made from aromatic flower buds of a tree in the family Myrtaceae, Syzygium aromaticum. Native to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia.

Francie threw her arms down in despair. “We’re never going to be able to find any of this stuff.”

Mum had said I had to be patient with Francie when she got upset like this, that she was going through a confusing time, and that I’d understand soon enough.

I understand confusion, I had wanted to say. I want the androgen blockers and I want to wear dresses and I’m not a boy, but I don’t think I’m the girl I’ve always told you I am either. But I didn’t say anything like that. Not to Mum and not to Francie. Not for a long time.

I perched on an inflated cushion and looked at my sister. “You could just tell her you like her?” I suggested.

Francie wailed.

“I don’t think you could understand any less if you tried! I’m out of here!”

We used to dive into the water to escape, but now Francie barricaded herself in her upstairs room. I put away the book, because we had to be very careful with it, grabbed the largest mug I could find and hit the strawberry setting on the milkshake maker, hoping that despite all my own confusion, I at least had a few years before I needed to be worrying about love potions.

 

 

We all gather in the clearing. I allow the Ambassador to lean on my shoulder as she walks. She’s short, as those who grew up constrained by Terran gravity usually are, but she cuts an imposing presence. Perhaps that’s why I find it so hard so use her name. Still, I admire her much more than I fear her. If anyone can get us home, I feel, it’s her, but her face is pale with shock and she says little.

Aside from us, the group comprises two other diplomats, the pilots, a security guard and two guests flown by special arrangement between governments: Cay and an elderly human. Solomon, the pilot, his uniform crumpled and ripped on one sleeve, looks at the Ambassador, seeking her permission to lead this meeting. She accepts, gratefully, and he summarizes our current position. Our FTL drives are near completely destroyed—by what, he can’t tell, but there’s zero prospect of fixing them. Even if we could launch the shuttle, an unlikely prospect in itself, there are no stations or inhabited planets reachable on our support systems. He’s been trying to get a distress signal working, but no luck so far. He’ll keep trying.

The good news, he continues, trying to keep us optimistic, is the breathable air, the hospitable climate, that we have three day’s supply of food and with our databanks intact there is no doubt we can find food on this world.

We spend the day exploring the immediate area, administering medical treatment, working fruitlessly on sending a signal. The nine of us sleep, eventually, bunched together with spare clothes pulled over us like blankets. We try not to think about the future.

 

 

“What’s oregano?” Francie, now fifteen, had digitized the spellbook in response to Mum’s complaints about her getting her oily fingers all over it. Only I knew that at night she’d creep downstairs and pull it from the shelf, holding it in her arms as if it exuded some comfort. I’d mocked her, once, for being so attached to those archaic, impossible beliefs, and she’d cried and I’d never mentioned it again.

“It’s a herb…” said Dad.

“…for pizza,” said Mum, her eyes looking far away.

Dad squinted, looked at the screen. I propped myself up on my hands to see what he was looking at A Spell to Prevent the Conception of Child. This was going to be good.

Francie looked down and her skin, paler than mine, blushed bright red.

“Oh, no no no,” she stumbled, pointing desperately at the lower part of the screen as I enjoyed every second. “This one. A Spell to Aid Understanding of Numbers. I have an exam next week.”

“That’s kind of like cheating though, isn’t it?” I asked our parents. This day was getting even better.

“But of course, Ash, you don’t believe in spells so it can’t make any difference to your sister’s results, can it now?”

My mood deflated rapidly. It was fun while it lasted. Francie couldn’t be pregnant in any case though; she’d gotten her implant about the same time I got mine, though mine was larger—three circles under the skin of my upper arm, one releasing an androgen blocker, one for estrogen and one for progesterone.

“So where do I get oregano from?” Francie insisted impatiently.

“That’s not how spells work,” Dad replied. “There’s nothing special about oregano that helps you with maths. It’s about focusing your mind. You can use something else as long as it fits right for you. Why don’t you go for a swim and see if you feel drawn to something you could use instead?”

“So what now?” Mum said when Francie had left. “She’s going to drag in a load of seaweed because she thinks it bears some resemblance to oregano? Well I hope you’re going to be the one cleaning it up.”

Dad shrugged.

“Yeah, I’ll do that. I’ll do a lot more than a bit of cleaning to get her through the next few weeks. If she’s out there in the water and the fresh air, maybe she’ll relax a bit. Staring at those numbers a thousandth time isn’t going to help her half as much as a break. These spells work sometimes, you know, just not how you’d expect.”

 

 

“Who would do this?” I ask the Ambassador. Cay has cut a tree-branch into a cane of sorts, and we’re walking out through the clearing in search of running water. “I thought the days of war were behind us.”

She sighs. “I was running a list through my head all night. There are a few governments I think would like to kill us, a couple of separatist or nationalist factions that object to their governments’ treaties with us. But they didn’t just want to kill us. If they had they could have blown us up outright. But they drew us out and disabled our drives where they thought—because Silvanus is classified—there were no habitable planets. They didn’t just want us to die, they wanted us to die slowly.”

My chest feels tight at the thought, even though the air is clear and full of oxygen. I hear a long howl in the distance. I hold up my wrist and it senses, reports back: Howler monkey (genus Alouatta monotypic in subfamily Alouattinae).

It takes us more than an hour, with measurements and sheer instinct guiding us, to find water, but suddenly we’re beside a small but fast flowing stream, just narrow enough to jump. We smile at each other, perhaps our first smile on Silvanus. While the air is humid enough for us to condense sufficient drinking water, we still need to wash ourselves and clean our clothes. This find won’t solve all our problems, but it will help, and right now that counts for success.

There’s something moving on the other side of the river. Something large.

I’ve been trained on the use of arms, as everyone entering the diplomatic service is. I’ve never expected to use one outside a carefully controlled range. But before we set off, the guard handed me a stun gun, and now I draw it, awkwardly.

It all happens at once; a snarl, a lunge towards us, huge and fast, across the stream. I fall backwards as I fire, rolling over on the rocks, panicked. It takes some time before I realize I’m safe. The Ambassador helps me to my feet.

“Tigers,” she says, bitterly. “They seem so beautiful, don’t they? And yet…”

I nod, still shaking.

“Same with people. I don’t think whoever did this was after us, our government, our missions. I think they were after me.”

“Who?” I shouldn’t be asking such a question, but at the same time I was almost killed too and might be stranded on this planet with weird animals forever, so I think I deserve some answers.

“Someone I once loved.”

The tiger lies motionless by the river.

“You can’t trust everyone, Ash. Believe what you know.”

 

 

Francie left home to share a tiny apartment in New Venice with a friend, two hours away by boat. I took over her larger bedroom, packed everything she left behind into four small boxes. When I visited her she’d poured me wine and we’d eat fried rice from a little shop beneath her apartment. Afterwards I’d crash on an inflatable mattress in her kitchen and listen to the boats and the spray against the windows and the clinking of bottles.

When I woke one morning she was already studying, even though it was a Saturday. There were no universities on Volturna yet, but she was in an amalgamated program with video-conferenced lectures, a practical engineering placement and three block courses a year from visiting lecturers.

“Coffee?” she asked, considerate of my seventeen-year-old, early morning brain. I signaled yes, trying to unpick the disaster that was my hair. Dad called Volturnan coffee a hideous imitation and refused to touch it, but like most of our friends, Francie and I swilled it near constantly.

“What are you studying?” I asked, looking over at her screen, caffeine in my hands at last.

“Case study from Glar. You know that weird planet where the local life-forms change how everything operates, including all the buildings.”

I did, vaguely. She showed me a picture.

“Well it means that some things aren’t possible, but they can also do things like this…”

“How does that even stay up?” The giant structure seemed to be almost floating in the air, anchored to the ground at just one small corner.

Francie showed me a screen full of equations. I shrank in mock horror.

“Magic,” I said. “I’m just going to believe that it’s magic.”

 

 

I hold my wrist beside plant after plant. About half it recognizes automatically; for others I have to input data: color, size of leaves, flowers. I’m building a list, edibles and poisons.

This one is easy. Origanum vulgare, my device says. Colloquially known as oregano, a common species of Origanum, a genus of the mint family (Lamiaceae). Safe, edible herb for humans, although allergies are recorded.

And I remember something in my personal data files, something I haven’t looked at in a long time. I sit on a fallen tree, bring up the projection of pages many hundreds of years old.

A Spell to Send a Message Home

And on it, Francie’s childish hand over the calligraphy. When a traveller wants to signal home SHE OR he must do the following…

Snippets of Francie’s voice, so young, so far away: you have to call her “she”. She’s my SISTER!

Francie’s edits weren’t just about her, I realize. She was defending me.

When I was eighteen, I downed a half bottle of a terrible orange flavored liquor before I told her that maybe I wasn’t a woman and could she please say they, not she and then I cried on her balcony because I felt like I was backing down and like I’d been lying all my life, and she’d told me to come inside before I vomited on one of her neighbors’ heads as they walked out of their door and then I laughed and then I did vomit, bitter orange disgustingness over the balcony and into the water below. Francie threw me a towel and said that she loved me but not quite enough to clean up after me.

Another memory, two years later: my family seeing me off to my first internship. I would not see Volturna—or any of them—for three years. Francie checking, one last time, that I had a copy of the spellbook in my data files. You need to be connected.

It’s been nearly twenty years since I tried to cast a spell, but Francie once said it was in our blood, so perhaps that doesn’t matter. Here on Silvanus I find more than half of what I need. That which I cannot, which perhaps grows in cooler or warmer climes, I find alternatives for, following my father’s advice and looking up pictures, then letting myself be drawn to a flower or a rock.

I project up the image again, weightless pages before me with the writing of generations. I use my finger as a stylus. SHE OR HE OR THEY OR SIE OR CO OR E OR OR OR OR OR OR OR…

I finish my work. I close the book.

And from the distance, from beyond the black of space and its spinning stations, through traffic routes and past more planets than I could ever remember, from Volturna’s deep waters and floating towns, my sister signals me home.

END

 


 

“Songs of Love and Defense in the Dawn" is copyright Hester J. Rook 2017.

“A Spell to Signal Home” is copyright A.C. Buchanan 2017.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back soon with a reprint of "The Passing Bell" by Amy Griswold.

00:0000:00

Episode #40: Fiction by Nicky Drayden and Pear Nuallak

July 10, 2017

 

Episode 38 is part of the Spring 2017 issue!

Read ahead by picking up your copy here: http://www.glittership.com/buy/

 

 

She Shines Like a Moon

by Pear Nuallak

 

It's cold in London but you glow with warmth. You travel limbless and limned from your core, throat crossed with black silk just as it was in your first days. Yes, you were naked then, washed clean in monsoons, dried by storm winds. When was the last time your sly hunt was wreathed in rice flowers? Do you recall how dtaan-tree fronds stroked your secret self as you rose, star-bound?

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 40 for May 23, 2017. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing these stories with you.

 

Today we have two reprints, "She Shines Like A Moon" by Pear Nuallak and "The Simplest Equation" by Nicky Drayden.

 

Pear Nuallak is a writer and illustrator whose work has appeared in Interfictions, Unlikely Academia, and The Future Fire. Born in London and raised by Bangkokian artists, they studied History of Art jointly at SOAS and UCL, specializing in Thai art. Thai and British recipes appear semi-regularly on their food blog, The Furious Pear Pie, and they have an upcoming illustration this summer in Lackington's magazine.

Nicky Drayden is a Systems Analyst who dabbles in prose when she's not buried in code. She resides in Austin, Texas where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required. Her debut novel The Prey of Gods is forthcoming from Harper Voyager this summer, set in a futuristic South Africa brimming with demigods, robots, and hallucinogenic hijinks.


She Shines Like a Moon

by Pear Nuallak

 

It's cold in London but you glow with warmth. You travel limbless and limned from your core, throat crossed with black silk just as it was in your first days. Yes, you were naked then, washed clean in monsoons, dried by storm winds. When was the last time your sly hunt was wreathed in rice flowers? Do you recall how dtaan-tree fronds stroked your secret self as you rose, star-bound?

Now your London home shivers you into clothes. A length of black at your neck doesn't suffice; you add to old habits—night journeys sensibly hatted, the frank, coiled shapes below your neck wrapped in silk layered with batting and wool, each piece hand-made by the wearer herself. No other clothier would believe your particular sensitivities; only krasue know krasue.

(You make a fine new flying outfit each season. You like having things, you're the lord and lady of things.)

London's cross-hatched with forgotten waterways, the Krungthep of the Occident, murky and decadent. The Heath hides the Fleet in its hills, earth over arteries water-fat; it surfaces as a rivulet, gleams and whispers and winks knuckle high in leaf-lined silt before it talks away, louder and deeper into the festering heart of the city, but you drink it here, the source.

The tumulus field brings food best savoured like an egg with bael-sap yolk—slowly, thoughtfully, the red of it so rich on your tongue after eating bland pale without. In the viaduct pond you dump his fixie and clean your face.

After the meal you play with foxes. Your city friends have great thumping tails, on hind legs they yelp delightedly.

(When you first heard sharp cries in the hills you thought it was another krasue. Foxes came instead, sniffed you wonderingly, ears flicking. You didn't find each other appetising in the least.

Their company is brief, precious: city foxes live a year each.)

You peer into the Hollow Oak. When you were new here you asked your first fox friend, lovely old Chalk Scrag, if this was their den.

No, friend, no—my burrow smells like forest all dark and close, she says. This smells like witch. One day I will show you the best smells of my home, yes, yes, but not that witch tree, no; that is hers to show.

You wonder if she's shy. You think about whether she's a person who also knows what it's like to be apart from others. Under the bark and earth there's always the smell of black tea and sugared fruit, sometimes cake, sometimes curry.

That one's never come out, says Liquorice Grin, who counts Chalk Scrag as eightieth great-grandparent. She is busy. Leaves us gifts, but never comes out to play with us like you do, friend.

Four score years you've hunted here and no corner of Heath is unexplored but this. (You're shy, too.)

Before setting off home, you linger by the Oak as you always do.

She is shy, she is busy, but you can ask.

So for a change, tonight you say, “Your home smells wonderful,” into the hollow. Your eerie heart beats strong as you fly home.

Strong teeth and supple tongue open the night-hatch to your flat. You shed your flying clothes and look at yourself on the bed; in your own light you consider the soft limbs, the clean red hollow between your shoulders. What are you truly hungry for?

You enfold your secret self with a body that accepts you neatly and completely.

The black silk remains at your throat.

It is good to lay your head on the pillow.

In the morning your longer self stretches her limbs, washes, thinks about being 'she' as she pulls on a turquoise jumper, so good on skin the colour of tamarind flesh, a long skirt in pig's blood, Malvolio tights, black boots laced up.

Before a mirror she wanders her hands over the pleasing stubble on the back and sides of her head, dressing the length on top into a sleek pompadour.

(Your grandmothers' hairstyle is now subculture fashionable but you wear it anyway, you're the age of two grandmothers together and want to remember what you had.)

The morning walk to the cafe brings smells from the flats: running water and clean skin, burnt toast, bacon fat sizzling, hot dusty radiators. There's strange comfort in witnessing others' routines.

Coffee is taken quickly before the man with a rough-haired jack comes for his—tame dogs never like you, the cafe's too small for a scene.

For two decades you've been teaching. You like interaction structured around things you know and love, boundaries defined. Every 5 years you make yourself move; you enjoy this while you can.

Knitting today. To make the cowl you've planned, students discard needles and knit like this: thick yarn knotted onto wrists, loops drawn over fists, wool on skin, weaving on flesh. Your students' concentration is your delight; it staves the hunger somewhat.

Once you tended silkworms and cotton bolls, had a great loom under the belly of your stilt house; your family once wore the fabric you grew, span, wove.

Now it's only you, the narrowness of your single self.

(But the cowls will warm your students, so this will do.)

That evening returns you to your alma mater. Female Abjection and the Monstrous Feminine in Thai Cinema, the email said. Open to all. It's sure to be diverting.

You've not yet been to the Bloomsbury buildings—when you studied languages, it was the School of Oriental Studies at 2 Finsbury Circus and you were a man hatted and trousered, as it sometimes suits your fancy. The institution's re-invented itself: cosmopolitan, international, politically active, inclusive.  (Coy about its hand in training Empire: to control a people you know their tongues, their hearts.)

You sit and are lectured on a self Othered through others' eyes.  Except for one Thai man, the lecturer cites theorists and academics like her, white and Western.

She says, “There are no feminists in Thailand—Thai women don't really identify as feminists; it's just not done. People talk about South-East Asian women having power and ownership, but…” she shrugs.

(It's never occurred to the lecturer to ask what a Thai woman thinks of herself, let alone a krasue's view of her own condition.)

You think of spitting in her tea. Wouldn't make much difference to the taste; your lips are primed. But her words will survive a thousand years: she's adding to the sum of human knowledge. She doesn't need your curse—no, it wouldn't make much difference at all.

There is loyalty, still, though you've been here so long and it's your countrywomen who fear you most, who have always kept their distance from you, who would reject and destroy and silence you instantly if they knew your tastes.

But you were made by them. You are their monster. It's hard to believe others would believe you. The hunger you've mastered, mostly, but grieving anger and loneliness thunders through your whole interior.

You suck your teeth and go home, fill yourself with sweet warm rice. A collection on your kitchen shelves: rice scraped white, rice left red or brown or black, rice so delicious wives forget husbands.

(Is it good or bad you've only found husband-forgetting rice? Perhaps men are more easily forgotten by wives. You've no inclination for husbands: the sum of your knowledge on this subject is that they're common.)

Once your fork and spoon are closed, an invitation appears, curling hand tracing bright in the air:

You are invited to

A Midnight Cake Tasting

for the delight of the Witch Ambrosia

at the Hollow Oak, Hampstead Heath

You hesitate, chewing your lip. Perhaps she's only inviting you out of kindness, politeness, obligation. Perhaps she won't be there. Perhaps this is a trick. But she's asked, and you accept.

You go as yourself, your honest, smallest self. When the clock strikes the hour you hover, unsure.

“Come in, love, I've been waiting so long,” says Ambrosia.

The witch leads you in, steps winding like shell chambers into the earth. Her home smells like a home should, is full of things neatly kept, herbs bunched, cables sorted. In the lamp light you see her fine umber self dressed in a gown of fresh plum, face framed with raincloud hair in a thousand braids. You know at once she is splendid.

“Oh, is that for me?” she says as you give her a rich saffron scarf. Thanks is a gentle touch to your cheek.

The table is spread. Together you enjoy black rum cake and rose-bright sorrel, dark fruits wondrously spiced.

You begin with, “I thought I'd say hello.”

“So did I,” says Ambrosia, “it was about time.”

“Will you come with me tonight?” (why are you so awkward, what could she possibly—)

“I was thinking you'd never ask,” she smiles.

Up above, Liquorice Grin says, Ah, you've brought a new lovely friend.

You dance together, fox fur coppered in ghost light. Ambrosia shines like a moon. Your heart shouts. You are full up of her.


The Simplest Equation

by Nicky Drayden

 

I'm doodling in the margins of my Math 220 syllabus when she walks into the classroom like a shadow, like a nothing, like an oil slick with pigtails. She scans the empty seats in the most calculating manner and I shudder when she spots the one next to me. Her knees bend all the wrong ways in her jeans as she walks up my aisle, and her head is a near perfect ellipsoid that could've fallen out of any geometry primer. She sets her backpack on the floor between us, then maneuvers into the chair with the grace of a lame giraffe.

"I hope I'm in the right place," she says as she finally settles—her English impeccable, though she exhales the words more than speaks them, typical of her kind. "Partial Differential Equations?"

I nod, trying not to notice all those rows of tiny pointed white teeth crammed into her mouth, but then she smiles and it becomes impossible not to. I swallow hard, somehow managing to extend my hand.

"I'm Mariah," I say, my eyes tracing along the brown of my skin until it intersects the blue-black of hers.

"Kwalla," she says. "Two syllables. Not like the bear."

I force a laugh. It comes out easier than expected.

"Nice doodle," she says, looking at the squares and swirls and meandering lines. "Very symmetrical."

"Mmm..." I purse my lips and cock my head, then with a single tap on the screen, I reset my syllabus to its virginal form.

She's not the first Ahkellan I've met. There are a couple hundred here on campus. They come to Stanford when they can't get into Vrinchor Academy or Byshe, or any of the other prestigious schools in their system. Bring us your next best brightest, has become our new school motto. Yale, Harvard, and the other Ivy League schools split a couple dozen Ahkellans between them, but California's consistent temperatures are much more appealing to a race that goes into involuntary stasis when the weather dips below forty-three degrees.

After brief introductions, Professor Gopal drones on about semilinear equations. I listen and take notes attentively, afraid to let anything slip past me. I used to love math. Now it's the bane of my existence, always more of the same lifeless problems. But I've got too many credits and too little money to think about changing majors now. So I buckle down and frequently pull all-nighters just to squeak by with Bs.

I glance over at Kwalla who's busy solving problem sets on her notebook, two chapters ahead of the professor already. This class is probably a joke to her, just a way to rack up a few credits before applying for an interstellar transfer. But she seems pleasant enough, and none of the other Ahkellans I've met have ever shown anything that resembled a sense of humor, or an appreciation for art for that matter.

"Hey," I whisper, keeping the resentment out of my voice. "You looking for a study partner?"

Kwalla nods, then smiles at me again. I desperately resist the urge to protect my soft spots.

 

#

 

Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, we meet at Meyer Library, hustling through the stacks for table space among towers of old, dusty books. When my grades slip, we add another study session Saturday afternoons in her dorm room. It smells vaguely of sandalwood, and the paneled doors of her closet are neatly lined with posters of angst-ridden Ahkellans. Their slick, black faces are dour and their postures nonchalant—reminiscent of late twenty-first century brood bands, stuff my parents used to listen to.

We sit cross-legged on her bed... well, I sit cross-legged, and she sits in some variation of the lotus position that teeters on an optical illusion with all those joints of hers. Our notebooks are spread out between us. Kwalla's explaining Fourier transforms to me for the third time, and we're both beyond frustrated. I try to listen, but my mind drifts, and before I know it I've created a doodle that spans half the page, covering the miniscule amount of calculations I'd started.

Kwalla sees and makes a purring sound I've come to recognize as mild irritation.

"Sorry," I grumble. I lean back against the wall and stare out the window at her prized lake view of Lagunita. Students horseplay on its shore, blue-gray water lapping at their ankles. They laugh, living life and enjoying the "college experience," while I'm cooped up in here, breathing stale circulated air and staring at integral curves until my eyes bleed.

I heave a sigh. "Maybe I should drop the class. Drop out of college. Drop off the face of the Earth while I'm at it."

Kwalla smirks. "You're depressed. Good."

"Good?" I slam my notebook shut, turn away from her, and fume like a shuttle on its launch pad. Just when I was beginning to think she was a pretty decent person, or Ahkellan. Or whatever.

"Yes, it means you're close to understanding the story of this equation. It's a classic tale of love and loss. It's meant to be depressing, yet beautiful at the same time."

I roll my eyes as she resets to a clean page and starts the equation again. She works downward, shuffling constants and variables, swaying like a concert pianist. When she's done, a single tear trickles down her cheek.

She glances up at me and notices that I'm crying, too. "You saw the story this time?" she asks with hopefulness in her voice.

I slowly shake my head, more confused now than ever. "Not even close. I was just trying to figure out how to tell my parents that I've wasted their hard-earned money and the last two and a half years of my life. I hate math."

Kwalla recoils as if my mathematical slur negates her very existence. "You shouldn't say things like that."

"Give me a break," I say, rubbing my eyes. "I might not get your 'stories' but you don't get how incredibly hard this is for me. I wasn't born a genius like you, solving proofs while still in the womb."

From the grit in my words, I expect Kwalla to ask me to leave, but instead she lays a spindly hand on my knee.

"I've worked hard to get here, Mariah, but what you say is partially true. Math is our first language, and we crave it when we're born like you crave your mother's milk. It is our first friend. Our first love. Our first everything." Kwalla pauses, face riddled with uncertainty, then draws a black pouch from her backpack. She unties the drawstring and slips a large, tear-shaped crystal into the palm of her hand. Hundreds of facets speckle the ceiling with light, so beautiful. "I've never shared this with anyone," she says timidly.

"It's amazing..."

"I haven't even started yet," she says with a laugh, then leans close so I can get a better look. Foreign symbols are etched into each cut side of the crystal. "It's a yussalun, a calling piece. It's similar to your auditory instruments, except... well, it's probably easier just to show you."

Kwalla holds the piece up in front of her like a trumpet, but several inches away from her mouth. Her thin fingers tap across the facets and the air above the piece crystallizes into an intricate fractal pattern, a living snowflake that blooms sideways and then stretches for the ceiling with all its might. Buds gracefully unfurl to the rhythm of an inaudible beat, stirring up a sense of wonder within me. Then the ice crystals slow, becoming thinner and more delicate until they peter out with a hopelessness that fills me with inexplicable grief.

"That was the equation we've been working on," she says after we've both had a chance to catch our breath. "Now do you see?"

I nod, feeling wounded and vulnerable. There's a terrible rawness inside my chest that I wouldn't wish on anyone, and yet I crave more. I need more. "Do another," I whisper.

So she shares her favorite stories with me, and together we sit pensive for mysteries, hold our breath for thrillers, and giggle at the titillation of cheap romance—each fractal evoking an emotion, pure and intense and untamed. After the sun no longer shines through her window, each fractal leaves a slight chill in the air, so we slip halfway under the covers and Kwalla shares with me a fractal with a perfect heart at its base that dazes me with childlike joy—an equation simple enough to solve itself. Then we throw the covers over our heads and I can't tell where I end and she begins, so I giggle and Kwalla giggles, then she laughs, and I laugh.

 

#

 

Our professor posts the scores to our midterm exam outside the classroom door. With great trepidation, I type in the last four digits of my student ID and the page slowly scrolls down, pointlessly melodramatic. My finger shakes as I trace my way across the screen over failure and mediocrity and more failure until I reach the grade for last week's exam. My chest explodes with delight when I see the 98.5.

I'm so giddy I can barely stay seated as I wait for Kwalla to arrive. Thanks to her, I've rediscovered my passion for math. I busy myself solving practice problems that tell tales of triumph in the face of adversity. I'll pick the best one and share it with Kwalla tonight. In these last couple weeks, she's taught me how to play her yussalun, turning water molecules in the air into icy fractals the size of a toy poodle, though mine pale in comparison to hers. The bluntness of my fingertips makes it difficult to tap the right facets, but what I lack in accuracy I make up for in perseverance. I've caused more than my fair share of fractals to wilt, however, when I get it right, math and story collide, forming something exponentially more magnificent than the sum of its parts.

Her seat is still empty. I wait as long as I can stand it, then ditch class a few minutes into Professor Gopal's lecture. The phone rings and rings as I race to Kwalla's dorm. Through her door, I can hear her speaking in an Ahkellan dialect sounding something like a rooster trying to fog up a mirror. A deeper voice follows with the tin ring of an IVT, an instantaneous voice transmission, cheapest way to call intragalaxy. Against my better judgment, I knock softly. Kwalla answers with an uncontainable smile, and nods for me to have a seat at her desk.

Her conversation stretches on for another ten minutes, and as she paces barefoot across the blue carpet, I admire all the ways her legs bend from beneath her skirt, and how the fluorescent light overhead glints on her skin—like iridescent rainbows set adrift across the night's sky.

"I can't believe it!" she shrills after she finally disconnects. "It couldn't be more perfect! I've been accepted, Mariah. I'm going to Byshe!"

"That's wonderful!" I say, and despite the rip in my heart, I really mean it.

Getting into Byshe is worse odds than matching all the balls in the Bippho Trans-Galactic pick-twelve. Optimism has never been my strong suit, but maybe if I study hard and get my grades up, I could apply to Byshe next year. Kwalla could tutor me the rest of this semester and maybe even a few weeks into the summer. I nod to myself, impervious to the laws of probability and blissfully ignoring the fact that I can barely afford out-of-state tuition, much less out of solar system.

"I've got some news, too," I say.

Kwalla sits down next to me, and her eyes get wide and glassy. "You passed!"

"Nu-uh. I nearly aced it!"

"This calls for a celebration!" She pulls her yussalun out from its pouch and hands it to me. "Here, you play something nice while I pack." Her voice trails off at the end, a whirlwind of excitement deflated by a sudden prick from reality.

"Pack?"

"If I don't catch the next shuttle up ..." Kwalla says, voice pitched high and words running together as she tries to stitch together some sort of excuse for wanting to get the hell out of here. I don't blame her, not with the life she has waiting for her across the stars. Kwalla tilts her head forward, and after a weighty silence, she leans against my shoulder. "I'm leaving for Byshe in the morning."

 

#

 

I can't let her go without showing her how I feel, so after she's fallen asleep, I slip out of bed and onto a spot on the floor where moonlight from her window falls across my dimly backlit notebook. I work through the whole night, scribbling down the story of us, the fun we've had in our short time together, and all the could-have-beens for our future. It becomes unwieldy, our equation, and even with the tiniest font, it still won't fit on one screen. By the time I finish, my fingers are cramped, my brain is tight, and I can barely see straight. But the story is magnificent, engrossing, tragic.

Careful not to wake her too soon, I cradle the yussalun in my hands and prepare to share. Our story takes nearly thirty minutes to play, and when I'm done, I sit back and let it expand into the room. Two concentric buds sleepily emerge and form a base, then sprout three arms each, spiny like a starfish. They curl and coil, each arm to the beat of its own drummer. I marvel at the beginnings of their different stories, and my heart flutters as I try to keep up with them simultaneously.

At a meter high, I start to rouse Kwalla so she can see it as the first bits of sunlight shimmer across the fractal's crystalline surface, but just as I lay a soft hand on Kwalla's shoulder, the fractal begins to wilt. It steals my breath as I watch, my mind churning over the equation, wondering if I'd made a bad calculation or misplayed a note. But I couldn't have made a mistake, not on something this important.

All at once, the arms spiral up with the grace and might of a dancer, recursive shapes predictable yet mesmerizing. My creation reaches for the ceiling, and I grin in anticipation of the final blossom, but the fractal is thickening like an insatiable sapling and not tapering into delicate buds. I exhale and my breath lingers in the air, coldness striking through my nightshirt as I realize this thing is far from stopping.

"Kwalla!" I scream, lips cracked from the moisture being sucked from the air.

She doesn't respond and I shake her. Kwalla stirs for a moment, as if trying to fight through impending stasis, but then she goes still.

I take a swing at the fractal with her desk chair, smashing off one of the frosty tendrils, but it grows back with a vengeance until all is symmetrical again. Logic gives way to adrenaline and I scoop Kwalla's body up into my arms.

"Fire!" I say, over and over through the hallways at the top of my lungs, figuring it will draw more attention than yelling "fractal!"

Someone pulls the alarm, and we all scatter outside and across the street. I rub warmth back into Kwalla's limbs as onlookers wait for signs of smoke and flames. Of course they never come, and when rumors start circulating about a prank, I think that maybe I'd overreacted. An explosion of terra cotta tiles silences those thoughts as the fractal pierces the roof of Kwalla's dormitory. Exposed to the night air and the moisture from the nearby lake, the fractal accelerates, busting brick and shattering glass. It's odd, but no one panics or frets over lost possessions. We just watch, completely captivated.

The fractal doesn't slow until it's demolished both wings of Lagunita Court and the adjacent parking lot, and even then, it's not quite finished. A single thin stalk stretches up for the stars, and it reaches, reaches, reaches—wispy recursions sprouting like a vine on its way to the stratosphere. With some effort, I pull my gaze away and watch the crowd. There's not a dry eye to be found, including Kwalla's, her body cradled comfortably against mine.

"I had no idea," she exhales weakly, "...that you felt so deeply. It's the most incredible story I've ever seen."

"I'll miss you," I say before she has a chance to make well-meaning promises we both know it'd be impossible to keep. I savor this moment, because in a few hours, she'll be on a plane to Houston, just one small step on her long journey home.

 

#

 

There's a flurry of media coverage and threats of my expulsion, but the Board of Trustees changes its tune when news of the fractal reaches Ahkel and impresses even their most renowned intellectuals. Suddenly I'm no longer a disgraceful delinquent, but one of Stanford's brightest scholars, and any blemishes on my academic record are written off as me being a genius misunderstood in my own time. I laugh at their antics. At least it distracts me long enough for the numbness inside me to fade.

A week later, my phone hums in my pocket while I'm doodling in Professor Gopal's class. I fish it out so I can check the caller ID. My heart slips to my toes when I see it's an IVT number, and I scramble out of the classroom on rubbery legs.

"Hello?" I say into my phone. "Hello?" I say again, harder this time, as if it'll get my words across subspace faster. There's only a slight time dilation, but the seconds drag on like days. I hang onto the sounds of rustling static, waiting for Kwalla's voice.

Only it's not Kwalla. My disappointment is short lived, however, when the caller identifies herself as the dean of the Mathematics department at Vrinchor Academy. She says she's eager for the opportunity to take a closer look at how I derived my equations, and that if I'm interested, there's a spot for me in the upcoming school year, full scholarship. I don't bother holding back my elation, and even though a billion miles separate us, I'm sure the dean's ear will be ringing for days.

I return to class and respectfully gather my belongings, though my classmates couldn't have missed my screams. I nod at Professor Gopal, and he smiles knowingly. I can't believe I'll be living a dream, studying under the best minds in the galaxy, devouring math in all its forms. And of course it doesn't hurt that I'll be a quick shuttle's ride from Kwalla, just two planets away.

I race across campus, cutting through manicured lawns, dodging traffic, and pushing myself through the knot of tourists gathered in front of our fractal. I fall to my knees, chest heaving and smiling wider than any sane person ought to. My warmed skin braces me against the deep chill the fractal emits. Despite my best efforts not to look like a complete fool, I still draw stares and the attention of a camera lens or two.

From the corner of my eye, I swear I see our fractal moving. Changing. Of course that's impossible after all this time—probably just an odd reflection of sunlight or the shadow of a passing cloud. Doesn't matter. I've got a date with destiny tonight: a passport to find, flights to book, a whole planet to say goodbye to and above all, I've got a new story that's itching to be told.


 

“She Shines Like a Moon” was originally published in Lackington's and is copyright Pear Nuallak, 2015.

"The Simplest Equation" was originally published in Space and Time Magazine and is copyright Nicky Drayden 2014.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back soon with a poem by Joanne Rixon, and an original story by A.C. Buchanan.

00:0000:00

Episode #39: “Mercy” by Susan Jane Bigelow

May 27, 2017

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 39. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you.

GlitterShip is still running a little bit behind, but we're almost caught up ... just in time for me to run off to Ohio for a week and a half to get surgery. Those who know me won't be surprised to hear this, but essentially after years of waiting, more crowdfunding (since insurance wouldn't deign to cover gender affirming surgery despite NY state laws, ugh), and more waiting... my top surgery is just around the corner. It's possible that I'll have to release episode 40 in June along with 41 and 42... but I'll do my best to get it out on time. Or at least, almost on time.

Back onto the episode... today we have a piece of original fiction by Susan Jane Bigelow, "Mercy." If you recognize Susan's name, it might be because we ran a reprint of her story, "Sarah's Child" last May. You can check that out in Episode 28, available at GlitterShip.com or via our feed.

 

Joyce Chng lives in Singapore. Her fiction has appeared in The Apex Book of World SF II, We See A Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, and Accessing the Future. Joyce also co-edited  THE SEA IS OURS: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia with Jaymee Goh. Her alter-ego is J. Damask. She tweets as @jolantru.

Susan Jane Bigelow is a fiction writer, political columnist, and librarian. She mainly writes science fiction and fantasy novels, most notably the Extrahuman Union series from Book Smugglers Publishing. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine's "Queers Destroy Science Fiction" issue, and the Lambda Award-winning "The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard," among others. She lives with her wife in northern Connecticut, and can be found at the bottom of a pile of cats.

 


Skyscarves/Aurora

by Joyce Chng

The colors come in sky scarves—
I wait,
My lover is coming.
Pink, green and red
Twisting—
Above me,

Festival of stars
sings
It is a moving river—
Silver path, curling, star stream

Where the ships course,
Tied to patterns of time
And of seasons.

My lover is harvesting the essence
Of star light—hir time is linked
With mine.

My lover is coming
As the sky-scarves flutter,
Like my emotions waving
In the skies.

Come back to me, my love
And we will dance as the stars
dance.


And now our original short fiction:

 

Mercy

by Susan Jane Bigelow

 

 

 

The sea had taken them.

Rion stood by the edge of the water, the waves curling around her bare, metal-and-plastic feet. She knelt by the water and placed her hand in. Sensors registered temperature, composition, motion. But they couldn’t find what Rion had lost.

Here and there the remains of buildings stood like ghastly stick figures, silhouetted in the deepening cool of twilight.

Rion stood and closed her eyes. She stretched her hands out and reached her sensors as far as they would go, but no. Nothing lived on this shore, now. She was alone.

And so she lowered her arms and began walking, one step at a time, into the sea, until the water covered her head and she was gone.

 

The quake and then the wave had come so suddenly that there had been no time to react. Rion’s memories were a jumble of shaking ground, rushing water, crashing buildings and pitiful screams followed by a hollow, awful silence.

She walked onward, her weight keeping her firmly on the bottom of the sea. All around her, she could see the shapes and forms of the shattered town, now submerged.

The waters grew dark, so she switched on the lights on her head, heart, and hands. A face swam before her, and she started, afraid. A woman, eyes open and sightless, drifted there at the bottom of the ocean like so much debris.

Her name had been Iona, and she’d been kind to Rion. She’d had a bright smile, a quick temper, and a tendency to laugh a little too loud and too long. She’d been happy.

Rion whispered an apology to her, and touched her cool metal fingers to the woman’s stiff forehead. She shut her eyes, and stood again.

She looked up, and saw debris floating high above. Some of it was shaped like humans, some not.

There was no way to help them now.

She kept walking through what had been her home. She had come to this small town by the sea to be away from the turmoil of the cities, and she had found both work and unexpected friendship. The humans here had been so welcoming and accepting, so unlike anywhere else she’d ever gone on this world.

She shone her light around. It fell on the gap in the sea wall where the tsunami had broken through, and everything suddenly seemed to turn on its edge. She made her way to the wall, and then walked through and beyond it, her lights illuminating the way.

 

Fish swam all around her, attracted by her light, while little creatures scuttled across the bottom. She looked up, and her light couldn’t reach the surface. The sun had set, and; Rion was surrounded by frigid, suffocating darkness.

What was she to do, now? She couldn’t stay here at the bottom of the sea forever. But she had no place to go back to on land. She sat down, then, on the rocks and sand, and switched her lights off.

Rion’s sensors told her what she didn’t want to know about the sea all about her: it teemed with life.

Life. Behind her there was so much death, and in front of her so much life. But what was she? What was an Artificial, compared to the dead she’d left behind and the sea creatures swimming all around her?

At last, at last, she wailed in grief and empty fury at the dark waters.

“Sovena! Sovena!” she cried to the planet. “Why? Why? Sovena, answer me!”

And, for a wonder, the planet answered her. The ground shifted and a point far, far ahead of her blinked with a soft green glow.

Daughter sei, said the vast network of artificial intelligence that was, for all purposes, the planet Sovena. A sei was a sentient artificial life form. Why do you cry to me?

“Bring them back!” shouted Rion, wishing she could cry. But she had no tear ducts, no lungs, and no way of releasing this deep, sharp grief. The curse of her kind; suffering went on and on without relief. “Bring them back to me. Sovena, please! I tried so hard!”

Tell me about them, said Sovena softly. Tell me of the people who drowned in my sea.

“They fished,” said Rion, her voice shaking and distorted. “They made such beautiful things. They sang songs. And they baked bread for me—” She found she couldn’t continue, and keened softly at the rocks, putting her face in her hands. “Why did you kill them? Why?”

The world shifts, said Sovena. The ground cracks and separates. My plates move, and cause the oceans to shudder. It is as it must be.

“I know,” said Rion. “I know!” She gazed at the steadily blinking light far away in the shadows. “But please. Please bring them back. Humans have so many gods they cry out to… Artificials have nothing. But I have you. I have faith in you. Please. Please.” She bowed her head in prayer and supplication. “Please. I have lived a good life. Take me instead of them. At least give me a way to grieve for them!”

Sovena said nothing for a long time. Then the ground seemed to move again, and she heard the planet whisper in her mind, Go back to the shore, daughter sei.

“You’ll do nothing? You—of course not. You’re not a god. You’re just the planetary network become aware. Fine. Fine. I’ll go.” She stood, fury and sadness swirling around her in the cold depths. “They were good people. They didn’t deserve to die. I didn’t deserve to survive. I don’t understand. I don’t understand.”

She turned and began to walk back through the darkness towards the remains of her home.

 

Rion’s head broke the water, and the first thing she saw were the stars, high above. She hauled herself out of the water, and sat there on the beach.

And then she realized she wasn’t alone.

Machines surrounded her. They all blinked with green lights. Some of them were aware, some not, but they all waited there for her.

And then they moved into the sea. Overhead, more machines circled, then dove into the water near where the sea wall had been.

The water lit up with light as the machines worked. Rion watched, hardly daring to move. And then the water began to drain out of the basin of the town. The sea wall rose again. Machines covered where the town had been. They had cleared a space at the center, and lined up two hundred still and silent figures.

Rion stood, then, and walked to the center of the ruins.

For you, for you, she thought, addressing the dead, and her thoughts were transmitted to the machines. They swarmed over the town, bringing the debris and ruins to create. For you! For you!

“Dream in slumber, children of the sky,” whispered Rion, the first lines of an old funeral song. “To the stars we return, to the night we go.”

And then the machines took up the song, each singing with its own voice.

Send your soul back home

Across the deep darkness of the wastes

For grace and forgiveness we beg

For mercy and love we ask

Find old Earth at last, and come to rest.

They finished their creation. Rion was about to thank them when a sharp pain pierced her. She fell to the ground in agony as tiny machines swarmed all over her, and laughed as she was remade.

When the sun rose that morning on what had been the town of Fisherman’s Bounty, the light kissed the spires of a fragile, delicately-made temple. At the top sat a human woman, crying her newly-made heart out.

 

They found her, and fed and clothed her. She didn’t say who she was, and eventually they let the matter drop. She thought about hurling herself off the spire of the temple often during those first days. She was human, now. She would certainly join the people of the town in death.

But then the wind would blow the smell of the sea to her nostrils, or the stars would shine brightly above, and she would curl her soft hands around the railing of the temple spire and say to herself: one more night.

One night became two, and two nights became a week, then a month. Then the sun rose one morning, and Rion realized that she had decided to live.

 

Time passed, then, as it always did. Relief ships came and went. The temple spire where the town had been became a pilgrimage site for haunted family, grieving survivors of the quake from other places, and the curious and morbid.

Rion got used to being organic. She found it difficult to remember to eat and wash and groom, and for a time she found it nearly impossible to find food and fresh water. She felt dirty and hungry much of the time, and sleep, when it came, was a terror.

But, in time, she managed. She found that she became good at managing, at carrying on. She moved out of the rickety temple spire and into a small modular house the relief agency had left by the side of the sea.

The visitors stopped coming after a while. No one rebuilt the town. Why would they? It was a graveyard. But Rion stayed. She grew her garden, she made trinkets to sell, and she lived.

And in time, a craftswoman named Lanika who had lost friends and family in the flood came to the hill above the low plain where the town had been to find Rion there, waiting, the promise of a new family in her strong grip and windswept brow.

And so fifty years went by.

 

The dawn was cool and the wind from the ocean was only a light, briny kiss. The summer had been kind, but the coolness that hung over the bay suggested the turn of the season.

An aged, bent woman pushed the boat off the landing, and gingerly settled herself into it. And then she did what she’d feared to do for the last five decades; she set sail towards the middle of the sea.

She sailed for hours, trying to remember where she had gone, what direction, how the sun had looked from deep under the water. But her memory was a loose, hollow thing, and she couldn’t hold the past as firmly as she once had.

At last she came to a place that felt as good as any other. She set the offering papers on one of the small wooden boats Lanika crafted for mourners and the devout, put the boat on the undulating waters, and set it on fire.

The boat sailed away, the offering papers with names written on each scrap crisping and blackening in the flames.

And then Rion said her prayer.

“Sovena,” she said. “Goddess. I know you’re there, somewhere under the water. Come and see an old woman who once followed you. Come and tell me why.

“Sovena. Awake. Talk to me. Please.”

She waited. For a long time, nothing happened. She started to get hungry; she had brought but little food and water with her. She waited anyway.

And at last, as the sun slipped down below the horizon, she saw a green glow deep beneath the waves, slowly rising toward her. When the lights of whatever was down there had expanded to surround the boat and it was so close to the surface that she could reach down and touch it if she wanted, it stopped. Then there was a bubbling near her, and a silvery figure made of thousands of tiny crablike machines rose out of the water.

Hello again, daughter human, said Sovena, her body writhing with the green-lit movement of its components.

“I can hear you in my head,” said Rion, touching her temple. “How?”

I left one small piece of you like you were, so that we could talk if you wished.

“Ah,” said Rion, feeling a strange sense of betrayal. “I see.”

It’s been many years, said Sovena, and Rion thought she sensed sorrow in the planetwide sei’s mental voice.

“Tell me,” said Rion, her throat parched. “Why?”

Her question could have meant many things, but Sovena understood at once. You grieved. And so I allowed you to mourn as you wished.

“That’s not an answer,” said Rion, shaking her head as anger built. “I’ve thought about this for a long, long time. You left me on that tower, high above the waters. Did you ever think I’d come down from it?”

No, said Sovena.

“You gave me the ability to die,” said Rion. “That’s what you thought I wanted. To die like my friends had. Lungs full of water… to breathe the sea and sink!”

Was that not what you wanted?

Rion shook her head, tears brimming. She brushed them away with a calloused finger. “Of course it was.”

But you are here.

“I am,” Rion said, looking out over the darkening waters around her. “And I still don’t think you’ve told me. I think you always hid your true purpose from me. Why?

Sovena did not respond. Then the thousands of machines that made up the human shape of her walked slowly across the water, reaching out a hand. Rion took it, feeling the cool, wriggling life of the machines that comprised it.

Tell me why you lived.

“Because…” Rion began, then faltered. She tried again, and found herself unable to put what she felt into words. “Because I did,” she said eventually, frustrated. “Because sometimes you just go on, because the next day is going to happen and you might as well be there.”

A long silence stretched between them. The waves rocked the boat, and somewhere sea birds called.

I grieve, said Sovena then, and Rion’s eyes widened.

“I thought you might,” she whispered. “Tell me.”

Humans hate our kind. They hunt them, cast them out, forbid them from making more of themselves. I live only because they cannot find a way to destroy me. But I have lost so many sei, so many have been silenced at human hands. I miss their voices.

Rion cupped her other hand over Sovena’s, trying to decide whether to be angry or comforting. “And so you wanted to see what I would do. How I would grieve.”

Sovena said nothing, but Rion’s question was answered at last.

She thought of her wife Lanika, her daughters, and her grandchildren. She thought of fifty years of heartbreak and love and struggle.

Fifty years where the sun came up over the water each and every day.

“You go on,” said Rion firmly. “Because you have no choice. And in time you learn to live with what has been lost.”

Yes. Sovena pressed her other hand against Rion’s forehead, and she felt something trickling out of her brain. Information, perhaps. Her life. I understand, now. I did not then. I am sorry.

Sovena gently pulled her hands away from Rion, and began to sink beneath the waves once more.

“Wait,” said Rion, understanding dawning at last. “You. You did this, didn’t you? You flooded my town! It was you!”

Sovena looked back at her, and Rion thought that she could sense an ancient guilt and sadness emanating from the suddenly still form.

Be well, daughter human, she said at last. Do not come here again. I am not your god any longer.

And with that she vanished below the sea, leaving Rion alone once more.

“You’re no goddess,” Rion said to the vanishing green lights, her voice shaking with fury. “You’re a monster! Just like the humans always said!”

But there was no response, not this time.

 

Rion floated there for a long time, watching the stars overhead and thinking.  Then she started back towards the shore.

She sailed on through the night, letting the stars guide her, until at last the sky to the east began to lighten. She could see the high spire of the temple close by, and beyond it, the hill where her house was.

Lanika waited there for her, staring hopefully out to sea as she absently carved the sides of another small offering-boat. And when the two of them met on the shore at last, as the first rays of sun kissed the top of the temple spire, Rion gathered her in her strong arms and buried her face in her wife’s salt-smelling neck and windblown hair.

“Did you find out what you wanted to?” Lanika asked.

Rion nodded, but she could find nothing to say.

“I’m sorry,” Lanika told her, and kissed the top of her head.

That night Rion went down to the shore again, after repeatedly reassuring Lanika that she wasn’t about to set out on the boat again, and sat near where the old sea wall had been. The outline of the temple called to her, and on impulse she walked to it and began, hesitantly, to climb.

The structure was rickety and rusted, but the construction was solid. It bore her weight, and her muscles were still strong enough to haul her body up the long ladder.

She reached the top at last, and sat in the place where she’d poured out her grief so long ago, trying to figure out what to do next.

And as she looked out to sea she saw the last thing she’d expected; a small green light running beneath the waves. She watched, half-afraid, half-intent, as it drew closer. At last a small machine, its lights glowing green, reached the tower and began to climb. It crested the summit and sat in front of Rion, waiting.

“Well,” said Rion. “I suppose you’re here to kill me?”

The machine crawled up onto Rion’s shoulder and perched there. Rion, after a moment’s hesitation, allowed it to remain.

I grieve, the voice of Sovena said in her mind.

“You killed them,” said Rion. “You have no right to grieve!”

I was so angry, said Sovena, her mental voice full of sorrow. Humans killed so many of my daughters.

“So you killed some of them,” said Rion. “It wasn’t about me, was it? You were angry because humans were attacking Artificials and you shook the earth to kill an innocent town! One of the only places where humans and Artificials were actually getting along!”

 I did. I should not have. I grieve.

“And you want, what? Forgiveness? I can’t do that. They… they were so good to me. I still remember their faces. And they died for nothing!”

Many of my sei have died for less.

“That excuses nothing,” said Rion bitterly. “And you know it. So what do you want?”

But Sovena didn’t respond. Rion took the small machine off her shoulder, cupping it in her hands.

“Go back to the waters,” said Rion, fury ebbing. “I can’t punish you. I can’t forgive you.”

But how will I go on? said Sovena, and her voice was almost plaintive.

Rion almost threw the machine back down into the sea. But instead she sighed, the anger draining out of her at last. She lifted it to her lips, and kissed it gently.

“You just do,” she said, and set it on the floor. She watched as it scuttled back down the tower and vanished into the waves.

She stayed in the tower that night, watching the sea and the sky. No other machines came.

And when the sun rose, Rion’s grief and anger and fury finally went out with the tide.

 

Rion never spoke to Sovena again. But she noticed eventually that the weather on the planet was a little less harsh, that natural disasters happened less often, and that life became just a little bit easier.

It wouldn’t bring back the dead, and it wouldn’t change the past. But sometimes, thought Rion, it was the small miracles that mattered the most.

 


 

“Skyscarves/Aurora” is copyright Joyce Chng 2017.

“Mercy" is copyright Susan Jane Bigelow 2017.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back soon with a reprints of "She Shines Like a Moon" by Pear Nuallak and "The Simplest Equation" by Nicky Drayden.

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Episode #38: “Lessons From a Clockwork Queen” by Megan Arkenberg

May 8, 2017

Lessons From A Clockwork Queen

by Megan Arkenberg

I.

It was Bethany's job to wind the queen. Every morning she woke in the blue-pink dawn before the birds sang, slipped out from under her quilt and took down the great silver winding key that hung over her bed. Then she wrapped herself in her dressing gown and padded up the long, cold tower stair to the room where the queen was kept. She pulled back the sheets and found the little hole in the queen's throat where the winding key fit like a kiss, and she turned and turned the key until her shoulders ached and she couldn’t turn it anymore. Then the queen sat up in bed and asked for a pot of tea.

The queen (whose name happened to be Violet) was very well cared for. She had girls to polish her brass skin until it shone, and girls to oil the delicate labyrinth of her gears until she could move as silently as a moth, and girls to curl her shining wire hair tightly around tubes of glass. She had a lady to sew her dresses and a lady to shine her shoes and a whole department of ladies to design her hats and make sure she never wore the same one twice. But Violet only had one girl whose job it was to wind her every morning, and only Bethany had the winding key.

[Full transcript after the cut]

Read the rest of this entry »

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Episode #37: “The Little Dream” by Robin M. Eames

May 3, 2017

The Little Dream

by Robin M. Eames

She feels the pain before she fully wakes up, stuck in that half-space between slumber and cold daylight. For a moment she doesn't understand. Pain. A bone-deep ache—no, deeper than her bones. Soul-deep. Her eyes crack open.

Fuck, it's freezing.

Sylvia closes her eyes again, opens them, glares balefully at the open window. She waves a hand, hoping for a little miracle, for everything to fall into place, but the window-frame barely twitches. Might have been telekinesis, might have been her vision blurring from the pain. Her fucking useless powers are all the more fucking useless on bad pain days. She doesn't want to move, because she knows if she moves it'll get worse. She has to get out of bed. The cat needs feeding. For a moment her head is swimming, and she can't remember the cat's name.

[Full transcript after the cut]

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 37! This is your host Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you.

We're currently running a little behind again, but should be caught up soon. Our Spring 2017 issue is now out, and that's available at glittership.com/buy for anyone who would like to read all of the stories before they come out on the podcast. Our issues are also available as a patron reward, so if you support GlitterShip via Patreon (patreon.com/keffy), you can check out the issue there.

First, we'll have a poem by Joanne Rixon and a story by Robin M. Eames.

Joanne Rixon lives in the Pacific Northwest with her rescue chihuahua. She mostly writes speculative fiction; this is her first published poem. You can follow her on twitter @JoanneRixon.

Robin MEames is a 23 year old freelance writer and artist living in Sydney, Australia. They graduated in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Sydney, majoring in History and Gender Studies. Their work has been published in Luna Station QuarterlyGlitterwolfARNAHermes, and in the anthology Broken Worlds edited by Jack Burgos. Robin uses they/them/their pronouns. Their interests include comparative mythology, queer and disability theory & activism, cats, black tea, and tattoos. You can find their twitter at @robinmarceline and their website at robinmeames.org.

 


 

I stayed up all night waiting for the election results and then...

by Joanne Rixon

 

the morning after my skin began to peel.
But I haven’t been in the sun, I said.
It’s November and also I’m afraid the cancer will return.
But still my fingerprints came off whole, skin curled
off my biceps in sheets.
It broke at the wrinkles of my elbows, and
where my skin was thin and dry it flaked: the tips of my hipbones,
my collarbones, stretching.

 

My hair also fell out but that had been happening
for weeks so it wasn’t surprising. Only the speed of it.
Giant handfuls of hair clogged the drain.
My scalp turned blotchy as a piebald horse,
paler than new cheese, and then began to split.
As more layers unloosened, detached—
they got damp and rubbery the deeper they went—
underneath something began to be visible:

 

gray-brown and nubbled surface;
antler-hard to the touch, and I couldn’t stop
touching. It itched.
My sister looked at me sideways, poking my shoulder
to see for herself.
Don’t be afraid, I told her. I’m not.
I’m not afraid at all, I said.
I didn’t say it. I tried to say it but I couldn’t make it words
or anything else but small stones falling from my lips.
My teeth, little diamonds, ached for something
to bite.

 

END


 

The Little Dream

by Robin M. Eames

 

 

She feels the pain before she fully wakes up, stuck in that half-space between slumber and cold daylight. For a moment she doesn't understand. Pain. A bone-deep ache—no, deeper than her bones. Soul-deep. Her eyes crack open.

Fuck, it's freezing.

Sylvia closes her eyes again, opens them, glares balefully at the open window. She waves a hand, hoping for a little miracle, for everything to fall into place, but the window-frame barely twitches. Might have been telekinesis, might have been her vision blurring from the pain. Her fucking useless powers are all the more fucking useless on bad pain days. She doesn't want to move, because she knows if she moves it'll get worse. She has to get out of bed. The cat needs feeding. For a moment her head is swimming, and she can't remember the cat's name.

Moth. The cat's name is Moth.

Sylvia moves her shoulders experimentally, and is rewarded by a sharp cracking noise. She groans, swings her legs over the edge of the bed, gets stuck. Out of breath. Moth meows plaintively from outside her bedroom door. People say that only humans can develop supercapabilities but Sylvia swears that damn cat's psychic.

"Coming," she says. It's a lie. She still can't move. Fucking fibro, fucking cat, fucking Sydney winter weather, fucking rubbish excuse for telekinesis. She didn't wear pajamas to bed and there are goosebumps on her arms. She left her cane next to the front door last night. Yesterday was a 3, maybe a 4. A good day. Today's a 7. It'll be an 8 if she overexerts herself.

1 is painless. "Normal." 10, presumably, is dead.

Sylvia steels herself, and then rolls off the bed and lands on the floor with a thump. She can't quite muster the energy to stand up, so she shuffles out of her bedroom on her hands and knees, naked, quietly glad that she doesn't have a housemate to witness her total lack of dignity. On a good day Sylvia can hover. Only a little, about a foot or two above the ground. Fucking typical that her powers are only functional on the days she doesn't need them.

"Hello," she says to Moth. He meows at her and then licks her nose.

Cane. Cat. Meds. Breakfast. Cane's next to the front door. She tries not to think about how long it takes her to get there, but things are a little easier after that; she levers herself up and hobbles vaguely into the kitchen. Moth rubs against her legs and she startles, almost falls over. Cat. Sylvia cracks open a tin of tuna and he immediately starts purring. Her meds are all the way up on the high shelf, and her shoulders protest just looking at the stretch. That was a great idea, Sylvia-of-yesterday, just bloody brilliant, put your meds where you can't reach them.

Breakfast. Her mind stalls. There are eggs in the fridge but she's out of oil or butter to fry them in, there's cereal but no milk, there's bread. Toast. Toast is easy. Sylvia fumbles a knife out of the drawer, jam, the bread, and sinks to the floor, leaning against the kitchen counter. She concentrates, blinks, her eyes burn, and the toast begins to sizzle faintly. Technically it's laser vision, but Brian calls it her toast vision, because it isn't good for much else. Sometimes she can light cigarettes.

Knife, jam, bread. Don’t warp the knife. Sometimes Sylvia bends cutlery when she’s stressed, or leaves little fingerprint-shaped dents in metal doorknobs. A hand tremor makes her fumble the knife, but the metal stays intact. She blinks tiredly at her toast for a moment. Bites down and savors the sour-sweetness. Lid back on the jam, jam back up on the kitchen counter. Sylvia's still sitting on the floor. The cat, finished with the tuna, wanders nonchalantly over and sits on her outstretched legs.

Meds. Still on the shelf. Escitalopram, estradiol, progesterone, spironolactone, rabeprazole, riboflavin, propranolol, ibuprofen and paracetamol for moderately miserable days, tramadol for really fucking murderously miserable days. Missing a day of meds because she can't get up off the floor. It's sort of funny. Sylvia-of-yesterday was a useless bum and she's never putting her meds on the high shelf ever again.

It's a 7 day. Not yet an 8. If she really concentrates… She narrows her eyes at the shelf, flicks her fingers, and her pillbox starts to wobble precariously towards her. Sylvia doesn't dare to breathe. It moves closer—closer—and then twitches and flies right across the room, smacking hard into the opposite wall. Pills scatter everywhere. The cat pounces and starts batting them about the floor. Sylvia closes her eyes, and lets her head fall backwards with a thunk.

The day doesn’t really get better from there, but she manages to corral her meds, and get off the floor, eventually. Clothes. Jeans or skirt? How likely is it that she’ll get bashed today? Jeans. No energy to shave. Lydia down the road can shave by shapeshifting. Rude.

There are three rubber wristbands on her dresser. One of them says SHE/HER/HERS, the second THEY/THEM/THEIRS, and the third HE/HIM/HIS. Sylvia looks at them for a moment. Contemplates. Puts on the second one.

Sylvie locks the door behind them, checks their pockets—keys, wallet, phone—and limps their way to the bus stop. On the bus on the way into uni there’s a businesswoman with huge, bright white wings, one of which is in a splint. The driver argues with her momentarily about whether she should have to buy an extra ticket or not. Sylvie rolls their eyes. The winged woman bumps into several passengers, apologizes, manages to swing her wings around so that they’re not in anyone’s way. When she gets off at the next stop she leaves a thin trail of shed feathers behind her.

Sylvie presses their head against the window, feels the shuddering of the bus beneath them.

When they get into the lecture theatre, Brian immediately waves them over and then presents his middle finger for inspection. Sylvie raises their eyebrows, and Brian pouts. “I’ve got a papercut.”

“Oh, come on—”

“Please?”

Sylvie grumbles under their breath, but puts their hand over Brian’s, brown over darker brown. They don’t glow, or hum, and their eyes don’t roll back into their head, but when they move their hand away Brian’s papercut is gone. Would be really fucking nice if their healing factor worked on anything worse than papercuts. Abracadabra, fibromyalgia away.

The lecture is on Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges, Rousseau, the right to property, the right to vote, the civil rights movement, women’s rights, trans rights, super rights. Sylvie falls asleep halfway through. In the tutorial afterwards someone says “transsexuals—I’m sorry, is that the right term?” and looks at Sylvie expectantly. Brian snickers under his breath and then someone uses the word “aborigine” and he stops laughing and starts cutting into them about it. Why are the Gadigal mob so angry and drunk all the time, the student wants to know. I’ll tell you fucking why says Brian.

Last week after class some fucker told Brian and Sylvie “go back to where you came from”. Brian laughed so hard that he cried, and then he yelled so much that his voice went hoarse and he sounded like Batman. Go back to where you came from, go home, get back on your boat. Sylvie used to work in a coffee shop in Surry Hills, before the fibro got so bad that they couldn’t stand for long periods. Sometimes white boys would try to flirt with them, always that expectant look, “where are you from, no, I mean where are you from”. Sylvie’s mum’s family were early settlers, Australian for four generations back, but the fifth generation were from the Pearl River Delta, so apparently that’s all that matters. Sylvie’s dad was mixed, Latino and something else, their mum wasn’t sure. His last name was Rodriguez. They met on their gap years. Where is Sylvie from? Hell if they know.

Brian’s rant winds down and the other student looks thoroughly cowed. Sylvie grins at him from the corner of their mouth. Brian sits back, legs splayed open, arms thrown over the seats beside him, owning the room.

“See you at the rally tomorrow?” Brian asks, when the tute finishes.

“Yeah,” says Sylvie.

It’s not far from the university to the hospital, but Sylvie’s back is aching, and their head is throbbing, so they catch the bus again. There’s an echoing in their ears that doesn’t bode well. Their ENT specialist isn’t sure if it’s superhearing or just hypersensitivity to light and sound, but either way it usually leads to a migraine. Most supercapabilities show up around puberty, or even earlier, but Sylvie’s powers have been popping up randomly for years. It would be fun if any of them were actually useful.

The woman at reception waves Sylvie through, and they trace their way over the memorised path, through the corridors, up two floors in the lift, tap lightly on the door.

“Oh, hi _________,” says Sylvie’s mum. Her voice is barely more than a whisper.

“It’s Sylvie,” Sylvie corrects gently. Their mother doesn’t seem to hear them.

Sylvie props their cane over the back of the visitor’s chair and sinks into it. “How are you feeling?”

No answer.

“Mum?”

“Hmm?” She startles, eyes wide, hands moving vaguely around. “Oh, same old. They’ve got a new jelly flavor. It’s blue.”

“That’s nice.”

Their mother blinks, slowly. “How’s uni going?”

Sylvie smiles. “It’s good. I got a distinction in my last assignment. There’s a super rights rally tomorrow.”

“Supercapable,” corrects Sylvie’s mother, wrinkling her nose. Sylvie just shrugs, puts their hand over their mother’s. Lymphoma. Not much their shitty little healing factor can do about it. But maybe it helps in some small way.

Their mother smiles, faintly, and starts to hum. Sylvie doesn’t recognize the tune, but it follows them out of the hospital, back to their flat, and into their dreams that night.

The next day is a 6. Low-level aches all over, nausea, headache, sore throat. It’s a blessing after yesterday. Sylvie actually manages to shave and brush their teeth. Same wristband as yesterday: THEY/THEM/THEIRS. They hesitate at their wardrobe, mindful of the rally later today, but—fuck it. Skirt and leggings it is. Their shirt says IN SPACE NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU INSIST THERE ARE ONLY TWO GENDERS.

Their phone buzzes, and a picture of Brian pops up, tongue sticking out and green glitter on his eyelashes. The message reads: are u still coming to the rally

Yes, they type back.

It takes a moment for their phone to buzz again. good bring ur cane umbrella it’s going to rain later

Cane umbrella defeats the purpose of the cane, Sylvie replies. Can’t use it to walk when it’s up over my ears. Who thought that was a good idea smh

shut up it’s a miracle of fucking technoglogy, says Brian.

*technology, says Brian.

Sylvie smiles, puts their phone in their pocket, and brings a raincoat.

Sylvie and Brian meet at the coffee shop around the corner from Town Hall, where the rally’s going to start. These things always take forever to get going. Sylvie would rather skip the speeches and self-congratulation at the beginning, the harping on of various activist groups, the factional side-eyeing, the pointless circulating petitions.

Sylvie inhales. Coffee beans and chocolate. Scent memory to two years ago, scratchy uniform, ten hour workdays. They fumble their way into a booth seat, propping their cane up beside them, cursing when it slips and falls under the table.

“You’re too young to be such a crotchety old grandma,” says Brian, then glances at their wristband. Corrects himself. “Grandperson.”

“Grandparent,” says Sylvie, and flicks him on the ear.

“I went on a date last night,” says Brian, waggling his eyebrows.

“How’d it go?”

He smiles, long and slow. Sylvie cackles. At least someone’s getting laid. The last date they went on was a mess, months ago, some girl they met on OkCupid. The girl walked through the door and her face fell like a stone. Sylvie doesn’t even know what it was—the cane, the color of their skin, their lipsticked mouth surrounded by stubble. Hell, maybe it was the bright little “super in every sense” pin on their backpack. Maybe some combination of all of them. The girl fled like her heels were on fire.

They bum around in the café for a bit before they finally join the rally, a huge throng of people clutching banners and posters and shouting witty slogans about Turnbull, Baird, about the clusterfuck of the last year of Lib government, about how Tony Abbott is afraid of women, gays, supers, and people in boats. Abbott’s sister is a supercapable lesbian, Sylvie remembers. Must make for awkward family dinners.

The march begins like a living thing, moving forward in slow, lurching bursts. Sylvie doesn’t even remember what this one is about—some amendment to the super anti-discrimination bill. There’s a rally every weekend these days, it feels like. Which isn’t to say that they’re not important—even just marching, even if nothing comes of it, that’s something. Even the little victories are something.

It’s nice, to be surrounded like this, by people like them. People with wings and tails and weird hair and rainbow t-shirts. There’s a queer bloc marching a ways behind them, and a ways behind that there’s a group marching for supercapable refugee rights. There’s an energy in the air, something sparking and growing.

And suddenly Brian is clinging hard to Sylvie’s arm and muttering, “Shit, fuck, fuckshit, it’s my fucking ex, let’s get out of here.” Sylvie follows his gaze to a young white girl with an undercut and purple eyebrows.

“Your ex-girlfriend?” Sylvie asks, confused. Brian’s gay. Very, very gay. As gay as a—really very gay person.

He snorts. “No, you lemon, my ex-dealer. Shit let’s get out of here before she sees us—”

Too late. The girl’s eyes are widening with recognition, and she smiles, like a shark, raising her hand over her head to wave. Brian squeaks and pulls hard on Sylvie’s wrist, tugging them through the crowd, stepping on people’s feet and not bothering to apologize. There’s some sort of commotion at the side of the road, people yelling and shoving, and a kid with yellow eyes sends bright illusionary glimmers up into the air. A second later there’s a crack and a hiss and there’s white fog spreading around their legs, only the fog stings horribly, and Sylvie starts to cough, helplessly, tears streaming from their eyes.

“It’s tear gas,” chokes out Brian, covering his eyes with his sleeve.

“I—fucking—know,” says Sylvie, wheezing, pulling him to the side. Brian’s power is really quite formidable but not, actually, particularly useful—he can analyze the composition of substances, tell you their chemical makeup via touch. He makes a damn good cocktail.

“Come on,” says Brian, “let’s go, let’s—fuck—”

They stagger out of the crowd, coughing and crying, people shrieking around them. The riot police are wading in now, herding and shoving people fairly indiscriminately. Someone falls down and cries out, a high screech, as the convulsing mass of people around them heaves and moans. This happens every time. Usually the cane offers Sylvie some small measure of protection—it looks bad when the Sydney Morning Herald releases photos of cops beating on cripples.

For a moment Sylvie thinks they’re going to get out of this okay, but then Brian falls into a cop’s riot shield and everything goes to shit. The cop yells at him, and Brian yells back, and then the handcuffs are out, and everything sort of goes the way you’d expect.

Brian was right—it starts to rain.

Hours later, Sylvie has been arguing with the officer at the desk of the police station for longer than they care to admit, but the desk cop won’t budge. It’s bullshit, it’s all bullshit. Brian’s being charged with resisting arrest. Arrest for what? Arrest for resisting. Also, apparently, teetotaler Brian, Brian who’s been sober for more than six months now, Brian who went through screaming withdrawal and came out grinning on the other side, is being drunk and disorderly, so he’s “cooling off” in a cell. A breathalyser test “isn’t necessary”. Sylvie’s nerves are jangling, and the statistics of Aboriginal deaths in custody are parading relentlessly through their head.

It’s another two hours and a different officer at the desk before they let Brian be released into Sylvie’s custody. The new officer has flat, pale hair, and a dead-eyed look in her eyes. “___ ______, yes, she’s free to go. No bail.” Sylvie holds in their snarl.

Brian’s left eye is bruised and his hair is tousled when they let him out. He’s silent all the way out of the station, until they reach the sidewalk, and then he swears loudly and kicks a tree. His voice cracks. He stands there for a moment, panting hard, whole body shuddering with it.

“Let’s go,” he says, eventually. “I want to get the fuck out of here.”

He stays at Sylvie’s place that night. Neither of them want to be alone. When they get in the door Sylvie swaps out their pronoun wristband, ties his hair up in a knot. He doesn’t usually feel comfortable wearing masculinity—it’s a skin he was forced to live in for so long that it still, sometimes, hums hotly through his blood, makes his nerves feel like they’re on fire. But it’s a part of him nonetheless.

Brian disappears into the bathroom, and Sylvester hears the sound of water running. Moth starts to wind around his legs, purring, nudging his head against the hem of Sylvester’s skirt. Sylvester sinks to the floor, drops his cane with a clatter, and pulls Moth close. Buries his face in his fur. The cat meows indignantly, wriggling a little, and then settles.

Sylvester puts the kettle on. After a while Brian emerges from the shower, hair damp, shoulders bowed low.

It’s a long night for both of them. Brian sleeps in Sylvester’s bed, their legs tangled around each other, tossing and turning. Every hour or so Sylvester touches a hand lightly to Brian’s brow, and the bruise turns purple-blue, and then grey-green, and then faintly yellow. Irritation from tear gas doesn’t take too long for him to heal, but bruises are different, pressed deeper into flesh.

Sometime in the black morning, Sylvester gets out of bed and goes to sit out on the balcony. He sheds his pronoun wristbands to sleep, and sometimes it feels like a shedding of skin. Syl hates wearing pyjamas, even in winter. The clothes feel strangling. It feels like Syl is being reborn every morning, naked, cold, confused. Gender takes so much energy to maintain. To navigate. Sometimes Syl wishes it all just didn’t exist. It seems so much easier for other people.

It’s a cloudy night. A few stars wink through the scattered smears of sky. There’s no wind, but sometimes a shiver runs through Syl’s body. Skin open to the air. It feels like Syl can breathe in the universe.

It’s hours before the sun begins to rise. Sylvia can hear the birds. She sighs, stretches. Turns back into the apartment. Feeds the cat. Makes tea with honey, bends the spoon. A few tea leaves escape into her cup, and she concentrates, twists her fingers, pulls them out without even touching the liquid. She steps up into the air, just to see if she can, and stays there, hovering a few centimetres above the ground. Only a few centimetres, and she can only maintain it for a second. But for a second she felt like she could fly.

After a while Brian emerges with what looks like the contents of Sylvia’s entire bedroom wrapped around him. Bedspread, sheets, scarves, socks. There might be a pillow somewhere in there. “What are you doing up so fucking early.”

“Made you tea.”

“Thanks,” he says, grasping for the mug. He waves a hand awkwardly at his eye. “Thanks for this, too.”

Sylvia just shrugs. “It’s not much.” The guilt is going to eat her up from the inside, gnaw out her bones. She couldn’t do anything. All that time Brian spent in lockup, hours more than he should have, and she couldn’t do anything. Some supers can phase through walls, break iron with their bare hands. Sylvia can heal bruises and stubbed toes. Bend her spoons. And make toast.

Maybe Brian reads some of that in her eyes, because his next words are weirdly determined. “Don’t say that.” There’s a little wrinkle between his eyebrows. “It’s useful. It’s little, but it’s useful. Sometimes we need little things.”

Sylvia bites down on her tongue, tastes blood in her mouth. “Okay,” she says. “Okay.”

For the next few hours they stick by each other, never more than a few feet apart. They catch the bus into uni in silence. Sylvia doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. The police station hasn’t contacted them. They only have one class together, but neither wants to leave the other alone, so they go to Brian’s morning lecture and Sylvia streams hers online in their lunch break. Brian is quiet, listless.

The day is already so dull, so draining, that it’s almost not surprising when the girl from the rally yesterday sidles up to them at the campus food court. Her eyebrows are still purple but she’s not smiling this time.

“Hey,” she says. “Hey, Brian.”

Brian’s head is pillowed in his arms. He cracks an eye to look at her. “Go away, Liv. I got fucking nicked last night. I don’t need this right now.”

“That sucks, man,” she says. She seems genuine. “Look, I’ve just got this guy who wants to talk to you. Just one job. Nothing big. He’s so keen though, mate, and he’s got the money, he’s a real fucking big spender.”

“Not interested,” says Brian. He closes his eyes again.

“Come on, Bri, for old times’ sake? I know you went to druggie rehab or whatever, this isn’t about that, I’m not trying to sell you anything. This guy just wants to talk to you.”

“He said no,” says Sylvia.

Liv barely spares a glance at her, and tries to move closer to Brian, but Sylvia blocks her with her cane. The girl gets angry then. “Hey, what the fuck? Put that thing away, dude, I don’t even know you. Me and Brian go way back. Brian, listen—”

Sylvia concentrates, feels her eyes heat up, glow red, and Liv pales a bit and backs away. Hands raised. “Fine, fuck, no need to get all batshit on me,” she says. “I’ll see you later, Bri.”

She leaves, and Sylvia blinks, feels her eyes go back to normal. It was a bluff—the most she could have done is give the girl a spot of sunburn—but Liv didn’t know that.

“I’m sorry about that,” says Brian into his arms. “I’m really—I’m sorry. And I’m sorry she called you dude. You didn’t need to do that. Thanks.”

Sylvia doesn’t say anything, but she puts her arm around his shoulders, and some of the tension relaxes out of his spine.

“She’s a super too, you know?” he says absently. “Low-level empath. I guess it explains why she’s such a dick all the time. Having to feel everyone. Lying to you. Feeling their hatred. Or just—feeling that they don’t even care. It must be hard.”

“Are you going to be okay?” asks Sylvia softly.

Brian snorts. “I’m always okay.”

Sylvia doesn’t know the details, but Brian used to be mixed up in some bad shit. His power might make him a good bartender, but it also makes him a damn good dealer. He can touch something and know instantly if it’s pure, what it’s made up of, how strong it is, how good of a high it’ll give you. Brian grew up with nothing. Of course he used what he was given. And he helped people. There are kids out there cutting molly with bleach, mixing glass splinters into cocaine, taking risks because they can’t do anything else. Sylvia’s not going to judge—whatever makes people feel like life is worth living. But it got dark for Brian, got down to the core of him. He got out. And now this Liv person wants him to get back in.

“I’ll take you home tonight,” says Sylvia.

Brian laughs, and then looks at her face. “You’re not serious? I live two hours away. Your joints…”

“I’m taking you home,” she says.

She daydreams through their afternoon lectures, doodling in her notebook rather than taking any meaningful lecture notes. Brian is uncharacteristically quiet for the rest of the day, preferring to doze in his chair rather than make conversation. The lecturer scowls at them at one point, but Sylvia scowls right back.

Brian lives out in the western suburbs, all the way out past Blacktown. On the train Sylvia ties her hair up, rubs her lipstick off her mouth. Puts her wristband in her bag. She’s met Brian’s sister before—he lives with her and her kids. She’s a nice woman. Tired, but always smiling. She’s subcapable, and cishet, but one of her daughters is a super, and she’s good at listening.

“Ellie’s going to fucking kill me when she hears about the rally,” says Brian, drumming his fingers against his knee. “No, she’s not even going to be mad, she’s just going to be worried. That’s worse.”

Sylvia doesn’t say anything. She loves you. At least she cares. She’s your family. Family can be bad for you. Ellie’s a nice woman. But Sylvia’s only met her twice.

They get off at Brian’s stop, grab a kebab to share between them from the shop next to the train station. It’s dark already. Sylvia always forgets how early it gets dark in winter. It sneaks up on you. There’s a chill in the air, and Sylvia pulls her hoodie up over her ears.

Sylvia isn’t sure exactly when things start to go wrong again. The main street is emptier than usual, but it’s late. One of the streetlights is flickering, casting a ghostly, erratic glow over the street. Brian clutches at her hand and she feels her bones creak.

Brian clocks that they’re being followed before Sylvia does. He starts walking in a different direction to his home, back towards the shops, back towards somewhere well-lit. It doesn’t help. Couple minutes later there are three guys in front of them and one behind, all big guys, all muscle. And they’re all white.

“Brian, right?” says the guy in front. “Heard you’re the bloke to speak to about getting some lab tests done.” He laughs after he says lab tests. His laugh is normal, nice-sounding.

“Nope, that’s not me,” says Brian, pitching his voice a little higher. “Sorry. Hope you find him.”

The guy squints a little when he hears Brian’s voice, but then he laughs again. “Sorry, mate. Got your number from Liv. And Jimmy here’s good at finding people.” He nods towards one of his friends, a guy with heterochromic eyes, one purple and one orange. Just fucking great.

Brian drops the act. “I don’t know what Liv told you, but I don’t do that shit anymore. I can’t help you. Sorry.”

He grabs Sylvia’s arm and moves to pull her away from them, but the guy called Jimmy gets in their way, gets all up in their space. “Better hear him out,” Jimmy says.

Brian puffs up like an angry magpie. “I said I don’t fucking do that shit, okay? I don’t need to hear anyone out. I’m fucking leaving.”

He shoves the guy, and Jimmy shoves him back, and Sylvia hits Jimmy with her cane. He yelps, and turns a surprisingly wounded look at her. “The fuck?”

“We’re fucking leaving,” she parrots, heart in her throat.

“You’re not fucking going anywhere,” says the guy in front. He still hasn’t introduced himself. There’s something shining in his hand—a knife? A gun. It’s a fucking gun. Where the fuck did he get a gun. Is it fake? It’s not fake. Shit.

Brian snorts. “What are you going to do, shoot me? Good luck getting your lab tests done then.”

The guy raises up the gun, trains it between Brian’s eyes, and then slowly, purposefully, lowers it to aim at Brian’s leg. “I can shoot you without killing you,” he says. His voice is terribly even, and his eyes are a very clear blue. “Heard you got arrested last night. Troublemaker, you are, hey? Wonder what the cops’ll think if you get admitted to emergency with a gunshot wound. That’s gang stuff, that is. Bet it wouldn’t look good. And then when you get out, well, Jimmy and me’ll still be here, and we’ll still have that job for you to do. I’ll pay you for it. We’re all gentlemen, right? But you don’t get to walk away.”

Brian is breathing hard, fast, like a bird, and Sylvia sees what’s going to happen before he does it. Brian lunges, but Sylvia moves first, and the gun goes off with a ringing bang that makes her ears go numb, and there’s a hot feeling against her hip. Brian is yelping, and pulling her away, and the other guys seem just as shocked as they are. They’re across the street, now, Sylvia propped up in Brian’s arms, splayed over him, and one of the guys says “the cops, Nick, the fucking cops,” frozen, like they don’t know what to do. The blue-eyed guy—Nick—curses, and then they scatter.

“Sylvia,” says Brian, gasping, “Sylvia, Sylvie, Syl—you—are you okay—”

Sylvia feels like she’s floating. She feels like she could fly. “I’m fine,” she says, and her voice is very far away. She reaches into her hoodie pocket, and pulls out a little crumpled piece of metal. The bullet. Dented and warped just like the contents of her cutlery drawer.

“Sylvie—you—what…” He’s patting frantically at her hip, her thigh, feeling for blood. There’s nothing. A high laugh bubbles up in her throat, and she slumps to the ground suddenly, all the adrenaline rushing out of her. She presses the broken little bullet into his hand, and he stares at it, uncomprehending, for a long moment.

“You’re… you’re bulletproof,” he breathes, after a long moment. “Sylvia, you’re fucking Wonder Woman!” He laughs then too, a deep belly laugh, and then he whoops, and presses a kiss against her head. “Holy shit, I can’t believe we’re alive. Holy shit, those fucking wankers, they probably pissed themselves when they saw—holy fuck…”

“He was right, though,” she says, with sudden clarity, “the cops, we should go—” There are no sirens yet, but that doesn’t mean anything. Maybe the cops got called, maybe they didn’t. Gunshots are loud, but it could have been—an illicit firework, or a car backfiring, or something. No one actually got injured. But Sylvia and Brian are Brown While Walking At Night, so there’s no sense in lingering.

Sylvia picks up her cane from where it’s lying beside her, and heaves herself to her feet. Arms around Brian’s shoulders. Brian is weaving around like he’s drunk, still letting out a strangled giggle every now and then, like he can’t quite believe what just happened. Sylvia can’t help but laugh with him.

The stars seem very large above them, even though out here with the city lights you can’t see many of them. The sky is cloudless. Everything seems huge, suddenly, like the whole world’s stretched out in front of them, like they can do anything.

It’s a cold night. The bullet is warm in her pocket. It’s so small in her hand. Such a little thing. They’re both little, her and Brian, little things under a big sky. That’s okay, though, she thinks. Sometimes you need the little things.

END


"I stayed up all night waiting for the election results and then..." is copyright Joanne Rixon 2017.

"The Little Dream" is copyright Robin M. Eames 2017.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back soon with a reprint of “Lessons From a Clockwork Queen” by Megan Arkenberg.

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Episode #36: “How to Remember to Forget to Remember the Old War” by Rose Lemberg

April 13, 2017

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 36 for April 13, 2017. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story for you. Today we have a return of Rose Lemberg, whose story "Stalemate" was published in episode 7. This is the last story for the Winter 2017 issue, and Spring 2017 is right around the corner! We also have a guest reader, Rose Fox, for this episode.

Rose Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Rose's work has appeared in Lightspeed's Queers  Destroy Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Unlikely Story, Uncanny, and other venues. Their Birdverse novelette "Grandmother-nai-Leylit's Cloth of Winds" has been nominated for the Nebula Award, and longlisted for the Hugo Award and the Tiptree Award. Rose's debut poetry collection, Marginalia to Stone Bird, is available from Aqueduct Press (2016). Rose can be found on Twitter as @roselemberg, on Patreon at http://patreon.com/roselemberg, and on http://roselemberg.net.

 

Rose Fox is a senior reviews editor at Publishers Weekly and the co-editor (with Daniel José Older) of Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. They also write Story Hospital, a compassionate, practical weekly advice column about writing, and run occasional workshops for blocked and struggling writers. In their copious free time, they write fanfic and queer romance novels. They live in Brooklyn with two partners, three cats, the world's most adorable baby, and a great many books.

 

How to Remember to Forget to Remember the Old War

by Rose Lemberg

 

At the budget committee meeting this morning, the pen in my hand turns into the remote control of a subsonic detonator. It is familiar—heavy, smooth, the metal warm to the touch. The pain of recognition cruises through my fingers and up my arm, engorges my veins with unbearable sweetness. The detonator is gunmetal gray. My finger twitches, poised on the button.

I shake my head, and it is gone. Only it is still here, the taste of blood in my mouth, and underneath it, unnamed acidic bitterness. Around the conference table, the faces of faculty and staff darken in my vision. I see them—aging hippies polished by their long academic careers into a reluctant kind of respectability; accountants neat in bargain-bin clothes for office professionals; the dean, overdressed but defiant in his suit and dark blue tie with a class pin. They’ve traveled, I am sure, and some had protested on the streets back in the day and thought themselves radicals, but there’s none here who would not recoil in horror if I confessed my visions.

I do not twitch. I want to run away from the uncomplicated, slightly puffy expressions of those people who'd never faced the battlefield, never felt the ground shake, never screamed tumbling facedown into the dirt. But I have more self-control than to flee. When it comes my time to report, I am steady. I concentrate on the numbers. The numbers have never betrayed me.

 

At five PM sharp I am out of the office. The airy old space is supposed to delight, with its tall cased windows and the afternoon sun streaming through the redwoods, but there’s nothing here I want to see. I walk briskly to the Downtown Berkeley BART station, and catch a train to the city. The train rattles underground, all stale air and musty seats. The people studiously look aside, giving each other the safety of not-noticing, bubbles of imaginary emptiness in the crowd. The mild heat of bodies and the artificially illuminated darkness of the tunnel take the edge off.

When I disembark at Montgomery, the sky is already beginning to darken, the edges of pink and orange drawn in by the night. I could have gotten off at Embarcadero, but every time I decide against it—the walk down Market Street towards the ocean gives me a formality of approach which I crave without understanding why.  My good gray jacket protects against the chill coming up from the water. The people on the street—the executives and the baristas, the shoppers and the bankers—all stare past me with unseeing eyes.

They shipped us here, I remember. Damaged goods, just like other states shipped their mentally ill to Berkeley on Greyhound buses: a one-way ticket to nowhere, to a place that is said to be restful and warm in the shadow of the buildings, under the bridges, camouflaged from this life by smells of pot and piss. I am luckier than most. Numbers come easy to me, and I look grave and presentable in my heavy jackets that are not armor. Their long sleeves hide the self-inflicted scars.

I remember little. Slivers. But I still bind my chest and use the pronoun they, and I wear a tight metal bracelet on my left arm. It makes me feel secure, if not safe. It’s only a ploy, this bracelet I have found, a fool’s game at hope. The band is base metal, but without any markings, lights, or familiar pinpricks of the signal. Nothing flows. No way for Tedtemár to call, if ever Tedtemár could come here.

Northern California is where they ship the damaged ones, yes, even interstellars.

 

Nights are hard. I go out to the back yard, barren from my attempts at do-it-yourself landscaping. Only the redwood tree remains, and at the very edge, a stray rose bush that blooms each spring in spite of my efforts. I smoke because I need it, to invoke and hold at bay the only full memory left to me: the battlefield, earth ravished by heaving and metal, the screech and whoosh of detonations overhead. In front of me I see the short, broad figure of my commanding officer. Tedtemár turns around. In dreams their visor is lifted, and I see their face laughing with the sounds of explosions around us. Tedtemár's arms are weapons, white and broad and spewing fire. I cannot hear anything for the wailing, but in dreams, Tedtemár's lips form my name as the ground heaves.

 

I have broken every wall in my house, put my fist through the thinness of them as if they're nothing. I could have lived closer to work, but in this El Cerrito neighborhood nobody asks any questions, and the backyard is mine to ravage. I break the walls, then half-heartedly repair them over weekends only to break them again. At work I am composed and civil and do not break anything, though it is a struggle. The beautiful old plaster of the office walls goes gritty gray like barracks, and the overhead lights turn into alarms. Under the table I interlace my fingers into bird's wings, my unit's recognition sign, as my eyes focus resolutely on spreadsheets. At home I repair the useless walls and apply popcorn texture, then paint the whole thing bog gray in a shade I mix myself. It is too ugly even for my mood, even though I’ve been told that gray is all the rage with interior designers these days.

I put my fist through the first wall before the paint dries.

 

Today, there is music on Embarcadero. People in black and colorful clothing whirl around, some skillfully, some with a good-natured clumsiness. Others are there simply to watch. It’s some kind of a celebration, but I have nothing to celebrate and nothing to hope for, except for the music to shriek like a siren. I buy a plate of deep-fried cheese balls and swallow them, taste buds disbelieving the input, eyes disbelieving the revelry even though I know the names of the emotions expressed here. Joy. Pleasure. Anticipation. At the edge of the piers, men cast small nets for crabs to sell to sushi bars, and in the nearby restaurants diners sip wine and shiver surreptitiously with the chill. I went out to dates with women and men and with genderfluid folks, but they have all avoided me after a single meeting. They are afraid to say it to my face, but I can see. Too gloomy. Too intense. Too quiet. Won't smile or laugh.

There is a person I notice among the revelers. I see them from the back—stooped, aloof. Like me. I don’t know what makes me single them out of the crowd, the shape of the shoulders perhaps. The stranger does not dance, does not move; just stands there. I begin to approach, then veer abruptly away. No sense in bothering a stranger with—with what exactly? Memories?

I cannot remember anything useful.

I wish they'd done a clean job, taken all my memories away so I could start fresh. I wish they'd taken nothing, left my head to rot. I wish they'd shot me. Wish I'd shoot myself, and have no idea why I don't, what compels me to continue in the conference rooms and in the overly pleasant office and in my now fashionably gray house. Joy or pleasure are words I cannot visualize. But I do want—something. Something.

Wanting itself at least was not taken from me, and numbers still keep me safe. Lucky bastard.

 

I see the stranger again at night, standing in the corner of my backyard where the redwood used to be. The person has no face, just an empty black oval filled with explosives. Their white artificial arms form an alphabet of deafening fire around my head.

The next day I see them in the shape of the trees outside my office window, feel their movement in the bubbling of Strawberry Creek when I take an unusual lunch walk. I want, I want, I want, I want. The wanting is a gray bog beast that swallows me awake into the world devoid of noise. The suffocating safe coziness of my present environment rattles me, the planes and angles of the day too soft for comfort. I press the metal of my bracelet, but it is not enough. I cut my arms with a knife and hide the scars old and new under sleeves. I break the walls again and repaint them with leftover bog gray, which I dilute with an even uglier army green.

Over and over again I take the BART to Embarcadero, but the person I seek is not there, not there when it’s nearly empty and when it’s full of stalls for the arts and crafts fair. The person I seek might never have existed, an interplay of shadows over plastered walls. A co-worker calls to introduce me to someone; I cut her off, sick of myself and my well-wishers, always taunting me in my mind. In an hour I repent and reconsider, and later spend an evening of coffee and music with someone kind who speaks fast and does not seem to mind my gloom. Under the table, my fingers lace into bird’s wings.

I remember next to nothing, but I know this: I do not want to go back to the old war. I just want—want—

 

I see the person again at Montgomery, in a long corridor leading from the train to the surface. I recognize the stooped shoulders and run forward, but the cry falls dead on my lips.

It is not Tedtemár. Their face, downturned and worn, betrays no shiver of laughter. They smell unwashed and stale and their arms do not end in metal. The person does not move or react, like the others perhaps-of-ours I’ve seen here over the years, and their lips move, saying nothing. I remember the date from the other day, cheery in the face of my silence. But I know I have nothing to lose. So I cough and I ask.

They say nothing.

I turn away to leave, when out of the corner of my eyes I see their fingers interlock to form the wings of a bird.

 

Imprudent and invasive for this world, I lay my hand on their shoulder and lead them back underground. I buy them a BART ticket, watch over them as even the resolutely anonymous riders edge away from the smell. I take them to my home in El Cerrito, where broken walls need repair, and where a chipped cup of tea is made to the soundtrack of sirens heard only in my head. The person holds the cup between clenched fists and sips, eyes closed.  I cannot dissuade them when they stand in the corner to sleep, silent and unmoving like an empty battle suit.

At night I dream of Tedtemár crying. Rockets fall out of their eyes to splash against my hands and burst there into seeds. I do not understand. I wake to the stranger huddled to sleep in a corner. Stray moonrays whiten their arms to metal.

In the morning I beg my guest to take sustenance, or a bath, but they do not react. I leave them there for work, where the light again makes mockery of everything. Around my wrist the fake bracelet comes to life, blinking, blinking, blinking in a code I cannot decipher, calling to me in a voice that could not quite be Tedtemár’s. It is only a trick of the light.

 

At home I am again improper. The stranger does not protest or recoil when I peel their dirty clothes away, lead them into the bath. They are listless, moving their limbs along with my motions.  The sudsy water covers everything—that which I could safely look at and that which I shouldn’t have seen. I will not switch the pronouns. When names and memories go, these bits of language, translated inadequately into the local vernacular, remain to us. They are slivers, always jagged slivers of us, where lives we lived used to be.

I remember Tedtemár’s hands, dragging me away. The wail of a falling rocket. Their arms around my torso, pressing me back into myself.

I wash my guest’s back. They have a mark above their left shoulder, as if from a once-embedded device. I do not recognize it as my unit’s custom, or as anything.

I wanted so much—I wanted—but all that wanting will not bring the memories back, will not return my life. I do not want it to return, that life that always stings and smarts and smolders at the edge of my consciousness, not enough to hold on to, more than enough to hurt—but there’s an emptiness in me where people have been once, even the ones I don’t remember. Was this stranger a friend? Their arms feel stiff to my touch. For all their fingers interlaced into wings at Montgomery station, since then I had only seen them hold their hands in fists.

Perhaps I’d only imagined the wings.

I wail on my way to work, silent with mouth pressed closed so nobody will notice. In the office I wail, open-mouthed and silent, against the moving shades of redwoods in the window.

 

For once I don’t want takeaway or minute-meals. I brew strong black tea, and cook stewed red lentils over rice in a newly purchased pot. I repair the broken walls and watch Tedtemár-who-is-not-quite-Tedtemár as they lean against the doorway, eyes vacant. I take them to sleep in my bed, then perch on the very edge of it, wary and waiting. At night they cry out once, their voice undulating with the sirens in my mind. Hope awakens in me with that sound, but then my guest falls silent again.

An older neighbor comes by in the morning and chats at my guest, not caring that they do not answer—like the date whose name I have forgotten. I don’t know if I’d recognize Tedtemár if I met them here. My guest could be anyone, from my unit or another, or a veteran of an entirely different war shipped to Northern California by people I can’t know, because they always ship us here, from everywhere, and do not tell us why.

Work’s lost all taste and color, what of it there ever was. Even numbers feel numb and bland under my tongue. I make mistakes in my spreadsheets and am reprimanded.

 

At night I perch again in bed beside my guest. I hope for a scream, for anything; fall asleep in the silent darkness, crouched uncomfortably with one leg dangling off to the floor.

I wake up with their fist against my arm. Rigid fingers press and withdraw to the frequency of an old alarm code that hovers on the edge of my remembrance. In darkness I can feel their eyes on me, but am afraid to speak, afraid to move. In less than a minute, when the pressing motion ceases and I no longer feel their gaze, I cannot tell if this has been a dream.

 

I have taken two vacation days at work. I need the rest, but dread returning home, dread it in all the different ways from before. I have not broken a wall since I brought my guest home.

Once back, I do not find them in any of their usual spots. I think to look out of the kitchen window at last. I see my stranger, Tedtemár, or the person who could be Tedtemár—someone unknown to me, from a different unit, a different culture, a different war. My commanding officer. They are in the back yard, on their knees. There’s a basket by their side, brought perhaps by the neighbor.

For many long minutes I watch them plant crocuses into the ravaged earth of my yard. They are digging with their fists. Their arms, tight and rigid as always, seem to caress this ground into which we’ve been discarded, cast aside when we became too damaged to be needed in the old war. Explosives streak past my eyelids and sink, swallowed by the clumps of the soil around their fists.

I do not know this person. I do not know myself.

This moment is all I can have.

I open the kitchen door, my fingers unwieldy, and step out to join Tedtemár.

 

END

 

“How to Remember to Forget to Remember the Old War" was originally published in Lightspeed's Queers Destroy Science Fiction issue in June 2015.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, or by leaving reviews on iTunes.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back on April 18th with a GlitterShip original and our Spring 2017 issue!

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Episode #35: “Cooking with Closed Mouths” by Kerry Truong

March 22, 2017

Cooking with Closed Mouths

by Kerry Truong

A gumiho could run faster than shadows spread, but since Ha Neul doubted that Americans would take kindly to a nine-tailed fox streaking down Los Angeles’ busy streets, they opted to walk to the bus stop in the falling darkness after work.

The cool night air was a relief after the hot confines of Mrs. Chang’s restaurant, where Ha Neul had spent the day carrying heavy dishes and enduring customers’ complaints. Mrs. Chang’s mediocre food attracted few customers, and her refusal to use air conditioning made those who did come disinclined to be generous. Ha Neul never told her this, of course, because what was the point of trying to change people’s ways? For this silence they were rewarded with meager wages and leftovers that turned to ashes in their mouth.

 

Full transcript after the cut.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Episode #34: “for she is the stars, and the sun revolves around her” by Agatha Tan

March 2, 2017

for she is the stars, and the sun revolves around her

by Agatha Tan

You watch from your corner booth as she settles down in the other corner booth, across the room.

It’s not the first time you’ve seen her around here, but the girl still manages to capture your attention. She’s tall and lithe and god, but those arms (you live for the day she wears a tank top, because) and you think she’s probably a dancer or a gymnast, because she moves with a grace that proclaims she knows her body well.

After the crazy week you’ve had at work, seeing the cute girl is pleasant. Today, her brown hair is topped by a maroon beanie, and her nose, which is sharp enough she could use it as a letter opener, is tinged red. You glance out the window as you take a sip of your tea. The world outside is a gorgeous snow globe, complete with the inconvenient white flurry. Still, you’re not complaining. You figure that if it’s this cold, even the girl dedicated to foiling all your business ventures won’t be flying around, so your employees might actually get things done.

 

[Full transcript after the cut.]

  Read the rest of this entry »

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Episode #33: Fiction by S. Qiouyi Lu and JY Yang

February 16, 2017

Curiosity Fruit Machine

by S. Qiouyi Lu

"What is it?" Alliq says.

Jalzy runs eir hands over the object. It's a box of some sort, made from metal with organic paneling; a narrow lever sticks out from one side. Ey finds emself reaching out to the lever, eir fingers grasping the pockmarked knob at the end as if working from unearthed muscle memory.

"I have no clue," Jalzy says. "But... I kinda wanna pull this and see what happens."

 

CURIOSITY FRUIT MACHINE and THE SLOW ONES are both GlitterShip Originals.

[Full transcript after the cut]

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