GlitterShip
Episode #76: “Of Clockwork Hearts and Metal Iguanodons” by Jennifer Lee Rossman

Episode #76: “Of Clockwork Hearts and Metal Iguanodons” by Jennifer Lee Rossman

June 24, 2019

Of Clockwork Hearts and Metal Iguanodons

By Jennifer Lee Rossman

 

They weren't real, but they still took my breath away.

The model dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties lived on and swam in the waters around three islands in Hyde Park. Enormous things, so big that I'd heard their designer had hosted a dinner party inside one, and so lifelike! If I stared long enough, I was sure I'd see one blink.

I turned to Samira and found her twirling her parasol, an act purposely designed to bely the rage burning in her eyes. She would never let it show, her pleasant smile practically painted on, but I'd spent enough time with her to recognize that fury boiling just beneath the surface.

Befuddled, I looked back at the dinosaurs, this time flipping down my telescopic goggles. The craftsmanship was immaculate, the color consistent all along the plesiosaur's corkscrew neck, and the pudgy, horned iguanodons looked structurally sound, what with their bellies dragging on the ground.

Dinosaurs were Samira's everything; how could seeing them practically coming to life not give her joy?

 

[Full story after the cut.]

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 76 for June 24, 2019. This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you. Today we have a GlitterShip original, which is available in the Autumn 2018 issue that you can pick up at GlitterShip.com/buy, on Gumroad at gum.co/gship08, or on Amazon, Nook, Kobo, and other ebook retailers.

If you’ve been waiting to pick up your copy of the Tiptree Award Honor Listed book, GlitterShip Year Two, there’s a great deal going on for Pride over at StoryBundle. GlitterShip Year Two is part of a Pride month LGBTQ fantasy fiction bundle. StoryBundle is a pay-what-you-want bundle site. For $5 or more, you can get four great books, and for $15 or more, you’ll get an additional five books, including GlitterShip Year Two, and a story game. That comes to as little as $1.50 per book or game. The StoryBundle also offers an option to give 10% of your purchase amount to charity. The charity for this bundle is Rainbow Railroad, a charity that helps queer folks get to a safe place if their country is no longer safe for them.

This is a great deal, so if you want to take advantage of it, go to Storybundle.com/pride soon! The deal only runs through June 27th, depending on your time zone.

 


 

Today’s story is “Of Clockwork Hearts and Metal Iguanodons” by Jennfer Lee Rossman, but first our poem, “Shortcake” by Jade Homa.

 

Jade Homa is an intersectional feminist, sapphic poet, lgbtq sensitivity reader, member of The Rainbow Alliance, and editor-in-chief of Blue Literary Magazine. Her poetry has been published in over 7 literary magazines, including BlazeVOX, A Tired Heroine, The Ocotillo Review, and Sinister Wisdom (in print). Jade’s work will be featured in an exhibit via Pen and Brush, a New York City based non profit that showcases emerging female artists, later this year, along with being featured in a special edition of Rattle which highlights dynamic Instagram poets. In her free time, Jade loves petting dogs, eating pasta, and daydreaming about girls.

 


 

Shortcake by Jade Homa

you called me your strawberry girl / and I wondered if it was / the wolf inside
my jaw / or the red stained across my cheeks / or the way I said fuck / or that
time I yanked your / hair / or every moment / you swallowed me whole

 


 

And now “Of Clockwork Hearts and Metal Iguanodons” by Jennifer Lee Rossman, read by April Grant.

 

Jennifer Lee Rossman is that autistic nerd who complains about inaccurate depictions of dinosaurs. Along with Jaylee James, she is the co-editor of Love & Bubbles, a queer anthology of underwater romance. Her debut novel, Jack Jetstark's Intergalactic Freakshow, was published by World Weaver Press in 2018. She tweets about dinosaurs @JenLRossman

April Grant lives in the greater Boston area. Her backstory includes time as a sidewalk musician, real estate agent, public historian, dishwasher, and librarian. Among her hobbies are biking and singing.

 


 

Of Clockwork Hearts and Metal Iguanodons

By Jennifer Lee Rossman

 

They weren't real, but they still took my breath away.

The model dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties lived on and swam in the waters around three islands in Hyde Park. Enormous things, so big that I'd heard their designer had hosted a dinner party inside one, and so lifelike! If I stared long enough, I was sure I'd see one blink.

I turned to Samira and found her twirling her parasol, an act purposely designed to bely the rage burning in her eyes. She would never let it show, her pleasant smile practically painted on, but I'd spent enough time with her to recognize that fury boiling just beneath the surface.

Befuddled, I looked back at the dinosaurs, this time flipping down my telescopic goggles. The craftsmanship was immaculate, the color consistent all along the plesiosaur's corkscrew neck, and the pudgy, horned iguanodons looked structurally sound, what with their bellies dragging on the ground.

Dinosaurs were Samira's everything; how could seeing them practically coming to life not give her joy?

"What's wrong?" I asked quietly, so as not to disturb the crowds around us. Well, any more than our mere presence disturbed them by default.

(It wasn't every day they saw a girl in a mechanical chair and her butch Indian crush who wore trousers with her best jewelry, and they did not particularly care for us. We didn't particularly care what they thought, which really didn't engender ourselves to them, but luckily polite society frowned on yelling at people for being gay, disabled, and/or nonwhite, so hooray for us.)

"It's wrong."

"What is?"

She gestured emphatically at the islands, growing visibly distressed. "It! Them! Everything! Everything is wrong!"

If Samira's frustration had a pressure valve, the needle would have been edging toward the red. She needed to get out of the situation before she burst a pipe.

I knew better than to take her hand, as she didn't always appreciate physical touch the way I did, so I gently tugged at the corner of her vest as I engaged my chair. The miniature steam engine behind me activated the pistons that turned my chrome wheels, and Samira held onto my velvet-padded armrest as we left the main viewing area and took refuge by one of the fountains in the Crystal Palace.

She sat on the marble edge, letting a hand trail in the shimmery water until she felt calm enough to speak.

"They did it all wrong, Tilly. They didn't take any of my advice." She rummaged through her many pockets, finally producing a scrap of paper with a dinosaur sketched on it. "This is what iguanodon looked like."

Her drawing showed an entirely different creature than the park's statue. While theirs looked sluggish and fat, kind of like a doofy dragon, Samira's interpretation was nimble and intelligent, standing on four legs with a solid but agile tail held horizontally behind it. And its nose horn was completely absent, though it did have a large thumb spike, giving it the impression of perpetually congratulating someone on a job well done.

It certainly looked like a more realistic representation of a living creature, but these things lived, what, millions of years ago? Even someone as brilliant as Samira couldn't possibly have known what they were really like.

But I couldn't tell her that. Girlfriends are supposed to be supportive, and I needed to do everything I could to gain prospective girlfriend points before I asked her out.

"What evidence did you give them for your hypothesis?" I asked instead. "All we really have are fossils, right?"

Her face lit up at the invitation to delve into her favorite subject. "Right, and we don't even have full skeletons yet of most of them. But we have limbs. Joints. And if we compare them to skeletons of things that exist now, they don't resemble big, fat lizards that could hardly move around. That makes no biological sense, because predators could just waltz up and eat them. They had to be faster, more agile. They wouldn't have survived otherwise."

"So why wouldn't they have listened to you?" I asked, perplexed.

"Because they don't understand evolution," she said, though she didn't sound convinced. "Or they don't want to be shown up by a girl. A lesbian girl with nonconforming hair and wardrobe who dares to be from a country they pretend to own." She crossed her arms and stared at her boots. "Or both. But there's no excuse for the plesiosaurs. No creature's neck can bend like that."

I wasn't sure exactly how I was supposed to respond to that. Samira never complained about something just to commiserate; she expected answers, a solution. But I couldn't very well make them redesign the statues, no matter how happy that would have made her.

So we just sat together quietly by the fountain, fuming at the ignorant men in charge of the park, and I schemed for a way to fix things for the girl that made my eyes light up the way dinosaurs lit hers.

 

Every problem had a solution, if you tinkered hard enough.

After my accident, I took a steam engine and wheels from a horseless wagon and stuck them on a chair. My mum hadn't been amused to lose part of her dinette set, but it got me around town until I could build a proper wheelchair. (Around the flat parts of town, anyway. My latest blueprints involved extending legs that could climb stairs.)

And when Londoners complained about the airship mooring towers were ruining the skyline, who figured out a way to make them retractable? That would be me. The airship commissioner hadn't responded to my proposal yet, but it totally worked in small scale on my dollhouse.

It was just a matter of finding the solution to Samira's dinosaur problem.

I spent all night in my workshop, referring to her sketches and comparing them to promotional drawings of the park's beasts. I'd be lying if I said I didn't consider breaking in and altering the statues somehow, but the sheer amount that they had gotten wrong precluded that as a possibility. This wasn't a mere paintjob or moving an iguanodon horn; they needed a complete overhaul.

I ran my fingers through my hair in frustration.

The day they announced that they were building realistic, life sized dinosaurs in Crystal Park was the day I fell for Samira.

I'd always thought she was pretty—tall, brilliant smile, didn't conform to society's expectations for women—but the pure joy radiating from her... It was like she'd turned on a giant electromagnet inside her, and the clockwork the doctors had installed to keep my heart beating was powerless against her magnetic field.

So I listened to her gush about the park, about how the statues would make everyone else see the amazing lost world she saw when she looked at a fossil. I didn't understand a lot of it, but I understood her passion.

The grand opening was supposed to be the day I finally asked her out, but now it would have to be when I presented her with my grand gesture of grandness...

Whatever it was.

 

I woke abruptly to the chimes of my upcycled church organ doorbell and found a sprocket embedded in my face.

Groaning, I pushed myself off my worktable and into a sitting position. "Did you let me sleep out here all night?" I said into the mouthpiece of the two-way vibration communicator prototype that fed through the wall and into the kitchen.

A moment later, my mum picked up her end. "'Mum,'" she said, imitating my voice, "'I'm a professional tinkerer and nearly an adult. I can't be having a bedtime!'"

"Point taken. Have I missed breakfast?"

The door in the wall opened to reveal a plate of pancakes.

"Thanks!" I tore a bite out of one as I wheeled over to the door. My crooked spine ached from sitting up all night.

Activating the pneumatic door opener, I found George about to ring the bell again.

George, my former boyfriend and current best friend. Chubby, handsome, super gay. We'd tried the whole hetero thing for two whole days before we realized it wasn't for us, then pretended for another six months to keep his father from trying to matchmake him with one of the Clearwater sisters.

I wouldn't have minded being with a man, necessarily, but ladies really sent my heart a-ticking, so it was no great loss when George told me he was a horticultural lad.

(You know, a pansy. A daisy. A... erm. Bougainvillea? I must confess, flowers didn't excite me unless they were made of scrap metal.)

George raised an eyebrow. "I take it the declaration of love went well, then?" When I only frowned in confusion, he pointed to my face. "The sprocket-shaped dent in your cheek would suggest you spent the night with a woman."

"Samira isn't an automaton, George."

"No, but she's got the..." He mimed having a large chest. "And the, um... Scaffolding."

"Do you think women's undergarments are made of clockwork?" I asked, amused. I mean, mine were, but that was just so I could tighten the laces behind my back without assistance when I wore a corset.

Which wasn't often. My favorite dresses were the color of grease stains and had a lot of pockets, so it should come as no surprise that I didn't go anywhere fancy on a regular basis.

George blushed. "So... it did not go well, then?"

He came in and tinkered with me over pancakes while I told him about my predicament, making sympathetic noises at the appropriate times.

When I was done with my story, he sat quietly for a moment, thinking while he adjusted the spring mechanism in an old cuckoo clock. "And you can't just go over with flowers and say, 'Hey, gorgeous, wanna gay together?' because...?"

"Have you met me? I don't do romance. I make things for romantic people." I gestured to the wind-up music boxes, mechanical roses that opened to reveal a love note, and clockwork pendants scattered about my workshop. All commissions from people who were better at love than I was.

"Then pretend you're a clueless client like Reverend Paul. Remember what you did for him?"

The reverend had come in wanting to woo Widow Trefauny but didn't know a thing about her except that she liked dogs and made his heart smile. I thought my solution was ingenious.

"I built a steam-powered puppy."

George held his hands out, prompting. "So..."

Suddenly, it all clicked into place, like the last cog in a clock mechanism that makes everything tick.

"I need to build a steam-powered dinosaur for Samira."

 

Dinosaurs, as it turned out, were huge. I mean, they looked big on the islands, sure, but that was so far away that I only truly got a sense of scale when I started measuring in my workshop.

Samira's notes put iguanodon, my dino of choice, at around ten meters in length. Since a measuring tape required more free hands than I had, I tied a string around one of the spokes of my chair's wheels, which had a one-point-eight meter circumference, and measured five and a half revolutions...

Which took me out of my cramped shop and into the street, forcing horses and their mechanical counterparts to divert around me.

"Don't suppose it would do to detour traffic for a couple weeks, eh?" I asked a tophatted hansom cabbie, who had stopped his horseless machine to watch me in amusement.

"Reckon not, Miss Tilly," he said with a laugh, stepping down from his perch at the front of the carriage. He pulled a lever, and the cab door opened with a hiss to reveal a pile of gleaming metal parts.

"Ooh!" I clapped my hands. "Are those for me?"

He nodded and began unloading them. My iguanodon was going to be much taller than me, and even though George had promised his assistance, I needed to make extendy arms to hold the heavy parts. "Is there somewhere else you could build him?"

I supposed this wouldn't exactly be stealthy. I could stop Samira from going in my shop, but it would have been substantially more difficult to stop her from going down an entire street.

But where?

 

I got my answer a few days later, when the twice weekly zeppelin to Devon lifted off without Samira on board. She was usually the first in line, going not for the luxury holiday destinations that drew in an upper-class clientele, but for the fossils.

The coast of Devon was absolutely lousy with fossils. The concept of extinction had been proven there, Mary Anning herself found her first ichthyosaur there, and all the best scientists fought for the right to have their automata scan the coast with ground-penetrating radar.

Samira's life revolved around trips to Devon and the buckets of new specimens she brought home every week.

"Why aren't you on that zeppelin?" I asked as we sat in her room, sorting her fossilized ammonites. She'd originally had the little spiral-shelled mollusks organized by size, but now thought it more logical to sort by age. Me, I thought size was a fine method, but I didn't know a thing about fossils and was happy to do it however she wanted.

She didn't answer me, just kind of shrugged and ran her thumb over the spiral impression in the rock.

"Is it because you're upset that they didn't take your advice on the dinosaurs?" I knew it was, but I had to hear her say it.

"I don't see the point of it if no one will care about what I find." She sounded so utterly despondent. Joyless. The one thing that gave her life purpose had been taken away by careless men.

They probably only cared about whether the park was profitable, not if it was accurate.

I couldn't make them change their statues, and I couldn't make the public care that they were wrong. But I had to fix it for my best girl, because there was nothing sadder than seeing her like that.

"Can I hold your hand for a second?" I asked quietly. She gave the slightest of nods and I took her hand gently in mine, my clockwork heart ticking at double speed. "You've got a gift, Samira. Scientists have to study these bones for months just to make bad guesses about the animals they came from, but you can look at an ankle joint and figure that it was a quadruped or a biped, if it ate meat or plants, and what color its skin was."

She gave me a look.

"Okay, I'm exaggerating, but only a little. I don't agree with the way they're portrayed, but this world is going to love dinosaurs because of the ones at Crystal Palace. People are going to dig for fossils even more, and they're going to need someone amazing like you to teach them about the new things they unearth." I tried to refrain from intertwining our fingers; just touching was a big enough step. "I need you to promise me something."

Samira pulled away, and I had to remind myself that this didn't necessarily mean anything more than her just being done holding hands. "What is it?"

"A week from today, be on the zeppelin to the coast." The coast, with its ample space and no chance of Samira discovering my project before it was ready.

She made a face. "I don't know."

"Please?" I begged. "For me?"

After a long moment's consideration, she nodded. "For you."

 

George and I caught the midweek zeppelin. Lucky for us, most tourists went down for the weekend, so all of our metal parts didn't weigh us down too much. We did share the cabin with a few fancy ladies, who stared in wordless shock at Iggy's scrapmetal skull sitting on the chair beside us.

I'd named him Iggy. His head was almost a meter long. Mostly bronze and copper, but I'd done a few tin accents around the eyes to really make 'em pop.

When we arrived at the shore, we had to fight a couple paleontologists for space on the rocky coastline. Not physically fight, fun as that might have been. Once they realized we weren't trying to steal their dig sites, they happily moved their little chugging machines to give us a flat stretch of beach.

Which just left us with three days to assemble Iggy, whose hundreds of parts I had not thought to label beforehand.

Another thing I neglected to do: inform George of the scope of this project.

"Matilda, I adore you and will always help you with anything you need," he said, dragging a tail segment across the rocks with a horrific scraping. "But for future reference, the next time you invite me to Devon to build a life-sized steam-powered iguanodon? You might mention how abysmally enormous iguanodon were."

"That sounds like a you problem," I teased, my voice echoing metallically as I welded the neck together from the inside. I'd actually gotten out of my chair and lay down in the metal shell, figuring it would be easier to attach all the pneumatics and hydraulics that way.

I should have brought a pillow.

At night, because we were too poor to afford one of the fancy hotels in town, we slept on the beach beneath a blanket of stars, Iggy's half-finished shape silhouetted against the sky.

"Samira's a fancy lady," I said to George as we lay in the sand. "She doesn't wear them, but she has expensive dresses. All lacy and no stains. Her family has a lot of money. Could she ever really want to be with someone like me?"

He rolled over to face me. "What do you mean, someone like you?"

"Poor mechanic who can't go up stairs, whose heart is being kept alive with the insides of a pocket watch that could stop at any time."

I didn't try to think about it a lot, but the fact was that the doctors had never done an operation like mine before. It ticked all right for now, but no one knew if my body would keep it wound or if I would just... stop one day.

The fear tried to stop me from doing things, tried to take away what little life I might have had left, but I couldn't let it. I had to grab on as hard as I could and never let go. In an ideal world, Samira would be part of that.

But the world wasn't ideal. Far from it.

Was I too much to put up with? Would she rather date someone who didn't have to take the long way around because the back door didn't have steps? Someone who could give her jewels and... fine cheeses and pet monkeys and whatever else rich people gave their girlfriends?

Someone she knew would be around to grow old with her?

Maybe that's why I'd put off asking her to be my gal, because even though we got along better than the Queen's guards and ridiculous hats, even though we both fancied ladies and wanted to marry one someday, I couldn't stand to know she didn't see me that way. I cherished her as a friend and didn't see romance as being somehow more than friendship, but she smelled like cookies and I just really wanted to be in love with her.

"Hey," George said softly, pulling me closer to him. "She loves you. You realize that, don't you?"

"I guess," I said into his shoulder. He smelled like grease. A nice, comforting smell, but too much like my own. At the end of the day, I wanted to curl up with someone like Samira.

"You guess. You've held her hand, Tilly. She's made eye contact with you. That's big for her. You don't need a big gesture like this, but I know she's going to love it because she loves you."

I hoped he was right.

 

I saw the weekend zeppelin from London come in, lowering over the city where it was scheduled to moor. Samira would be here soon.

And Iggy wasn't finished.

He towered over the beach, his metal skin gleaming in the sun, but something was wrong on the inside. The steam engine in his belly, which was supposed to puff steam out of his nose and make him turn his head, wouldn't start up.

George saw me check my pocket watch for the umpteenth time and removed the wrench from my hand. "I'll look into it. Go."

I didn't need to be told twice.

My wheels skidded on the sand and rocks, but I reached the mooring station just as the passengers were disembarking. The sight of Samira standing there in her trademark trousers and parasol combo made my clockwork heart tick audibly. She came. I didn't really doubt that she would, but still.

She flashed me a quick smile. "I don't want to fossil hunt," she said in lieu of a greeting.

"That's not why we're here," I promised. "But I do want to show you something on the beach, if that's okay."

She slipped a hand around my armrest and walked with me. When Iggy's head poked up over the rocks, she broke into a run, forcing me to go full speed to keep up.

Laughing, she went right up to Iggy and ran her hands over his massive legs. "He's so biologically accurate!"

But did he work? I looked to George, who gave his head a quick shake.

Blast.

Samira didn't seem to mind, though, marveling at every detail of the dinosaur's posture and shape. "And the thumb spikes that aren't horns!" she exclaimed, her hands flapping in excitement.

And she wasn't the only one who appreciated our work. A small group of pith-helmeted paleontologists had abandoned their digging and scanning in order to come and admire Iggy.

"It really is magnificent," one scientist said. "The anatomy is nothing like what we've been assuming they looked like, and yet..."

"It's so logical," his colleague agreed. "Why should they be fat and slow? Look at elephants—heavy, but sturdy and not so sluggish as their size would suggest. There's no reason these terrible lizards couldn't have been similar."

A third paleontologist turned to George. "My good man, might we pick your brain on the neck of the plesiosaur?"

George held up his hands. "I just did some riveting—the real geniuses are Matilda and her girlfriend Samira."

"Mostly Samira," I added, glancing at her. "And I'm not sure if she's my girlfriend or not, but I'd like her to be."

She beamed at me. "I would also like that." To the men, she said, "I have a lot of thoughts on plesiosaur neck anatomy. I can show you my sketches, and I saw a layer of strata that could bear fossils over here..."

She led them away, chattering about prehistoric life with that pure joy that made her so amazing.

That girl took my breath away.

 

END

 

“Of Clockwork Hearts and Metal Iguanodons" is copyright Jennifer Lee Rossman 2019.

"Shortcake" is copyright Jade Homa 2019.

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, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Autumn 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint of “The Quiet Realm of the Dark Queen” by Jenny Blackford.

GlitterShip Episode #75: “The Chamber of Souls” by Zora Mai Quýnh

GlitterShip Episode #75: “The Chamber of Souls” by Zora Mai Quýnh

June 20, 2019

The Chamber of Souls

by Zora Mai Quỳnh

 

 

Today it is announced that our quarantine is over and our refugee camp sufficiently detoxified to enter the Waterlands of Lạc, the home of our rescuers. Cheers and song rise in the air as the airship descends from the sky. A magnificently carved rồng on the bow of the vessel glistens of lacquered red, orange and gold scales, as its body, decorated by gems, wraps under  the hull to reappear in a long curved tail on the other side of the vessel.

Thirty days ago, our sinking fishing boat cramped with a hundred refugees fleeing Việt Nam emerged from a hidden corridor of the South China Sea. We were rescued by the Guardians who descended from a similar vessel that barely skimmed the surface of the water and we, arms waving and voices strained in desperation, failed to observe what should have been obvious — that our rescuers bore an element of foreignness that we were wholly unprepared for.

 

[Full story under the cut.]

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip Episode 75 for June 20, 2019. This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you. Our story for today is The Chamber of Souls by Zora Mai Quynh, read by Zora and Rivia.

Before we get to it, if you’ve been waiting to pick up your copy of the Tiptree Award Honor Listed book, GlitterShip Year Two, there’s a great deal going on for Pride over at StoryBundle. GlitterShip Year Two is part of a Pride month LGBTQ fantasy fiction bundle. StoryBundle is a pay-what-you-want bundle site. For $5 or more, you can get four great books, and for $15 or more, you’ll get an additional five books, including GlitterShip Year Two, and a story game. That comes to as little as $1.50 per book or game. The StoryBundle also offers an option to give 10% of your purchase amount to charity. The charity for this bundle is Rainbow Railroad, a charity that helps queer folks get to a safe place if their country is no longer safe for them.

Zora Mai Quỳnh is a genderqueer Vietnamese writer whose short stories, poems, and essays can be found in The SEA Is Ours, Genius Loci: The Spirit of Place, POC Destroy Science Fiction, Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler, Strange Horizons, and Terraform. Visit her: zmquynh.com. Rivia is a Black and Vietnamese Pansexual Teen who has a passion for reading, video games and music. She says “I’m gender questioning but also questioning whether or not I’m questioning…Isn’t gender just a concept?” You can hear her vocals on Strange Horizon’s podcast for “When she sings…”

 

 

 

The Chamber of Souls

by Zora Mai Quỳnh

 

 

Today it is announced that our quarantine is over and our refugee camp sufficiently detoxified to enter the Waterlands of Lạc, the home of our rescuers. Cheers and song rise in the air as the airship descends from the sky. A magnificently carved rồng on the bow of the vessel glistens of lacquered red, orange and gold scales, as its body, decorated by gems, wraps under  the hull to reappear in a long curved tail on the other side of the vessel.

Thirty days ago, our sinking fishing boat cramped with a hundred refugees fleeing Việt Nam emerged from a hidden corridor of the South China Sea. We were rescued by the Guardians who descended from a similar vessel that barely skimmed the surface of the water and we, arms waving and voices strained in desperation, failed to observe what should have been obvious — that our rescuers bore an element of foreignness that we were wholly unprepared for.

“Where do you hail from? Are you in need of assistance?” a Guardian called down to us. The language spoken was Vietnamese, but it sounded as if the tongue of the speaker had been wrapped around a poem and restrung in curves back to us. A slight echo of melody lingered after each word.

Silence spread among us at the strangeness of the dialect and though we could make out  the gist of what was spoken, it was interwoven with words and tones we did not recognize. Whispers of warning spread that our rescuers may be agents of the very government we fled.

Tentatively, my mother stepped forward to speak what many had waited ten years to voice, “Yạ, greetings, we are refugees, fleeing our homeland of Việt Nam because of the cruelties we experienced there. We respectfully request asylum.”

At that, three Guardians leapt onto our boat. Their long black hair, arranged in motley styles that interlaced colorful braided metallic strands with feathers, flapped in the wind as they examined us in our squalor and malnutrition. Their speech clearly carried Vietnamese tones, but their eyes and skin, the features of their faces, their height—they were as tall as the tallest American soldiers, if not taller, and their strange dark tunics, decorated with metallic accouterment, that sheathed one arm and left the other arm bare spoke of a culture completely unfamiliar to us.

“Yạ, greetings, grandmother,” a Guardian with jet-black hair spiced with metallic blue said, bowing deeply. “The sea has brought you to us and you are now under the protection of the Waterlands of Lạc, we grant you all sanctuary. I am called ‘Jzan Nguyệt’ after the moon that once carried the tides of our Waterlands. And it is in my hands that you will rest the security of your people, for I am jzan who is the protectorate of these Waterlands.”

We were delivered into quarantine soon after our rescue. It was Jzan Nguyệt who brought the news to us: “You will be taken to an atoll island where we will prepare you for entry into our Waterlands.”

Mother’s forehead furrowed instantly with concern. I knew what she was thinking; I saw it in her eyes -- the fear of incarceration. So many stories carried their way back to us from people who made it to refugee camps in Malaysia and Thailand, -- stories of starvation, sickness, and festering away like prisoners while waiting for dreams that never materialized.

“Are we prisoners?” Mother’s voice quivered. “No.”

“Then why...?”

“Because in our country, your senses are severely impaired. You must acclimate. Because you carry toxins and you must detoxify lest you bring death and illness to our people.” In that moment, in Nguyệt’s voice, I did not hear the graceful generosity we were accustomed to, but a fierceness that seemed immovable.

Despite our fears, though, our “quarantine” was more like a paradise vacation. Instead of barbed wire fences, rationed food, and poorly ventilated stalls, we were surrounded by miles of green coral reef, a never-ending buffet of rice, nut dishes, fresh fruits, vegetables, and cool bamboo mats to sleep under the rounded canopy of the sky.

Quarantine reflected the imagined freedom that many among us dreamed of. The freedom that I envision is different though. I want inclusion, to belong somewhere — to be valued – to be more than the label Việt Nam gave to me—the untrustworthy child of a political dissident. How that freedom will look in the rescuers’ land, I do not know. Would we be equal members of their society, or a relief effort from some war-torn country?

 

As we board their airship, I notice that our steps, frenzied and awkward when we entered quarantine, are replaced by lightness as children skip, lovers hold hands, and elders stroll side-by-side. My own mother is all smiles, her arm crooked unevenly through the arm of my aunt as they board together. Despite all of this, I can’t help but feel an odd mixture of excitement, anxiety, and remorse about journeying to a land that will become our new home -- to replace the one we lost.

The airship picks up speed, rising into the sky and the Guardians pull on ropes and equipment, preparing for flight. I hear sobs break out as we watch them. It is not what they are doing that is disturbing; it is how fast they are moving. Our eyes can only catch their faces and limbs momentarily before they are in different locations on the airship.

In quarantine, they had moved with languor and ease. The thrill of our trip is foreshortened as it becomes apparent that wherever we are going, we will not be among peers.

“What is happening?” someone wails, “how is it that they can move so fast?”

I reflexively dig my fists into my eyes to block out the movements of the Guardians. The sound of balloons filling with hot air and the smell of thick plumes of steam dominate my senses and I breath in the warm humid air wishing I were back home. When I finally lift my fists from my eyes, the vessel is surrounded by a blue film behind which the clouds move by at such a tremendous speed that they are just a blur.

I not only see the movement but I also feel it in the gut of my stomach. It begins as a slow nauseous churning that becomes pain seizing my entire body. I fall over, buckling on the deck, collapsing alongside my countrymen whose kicking legs and flailing arms bruise my sides.

In the din, I hear the gruff shouts of Guardians in their twisted tongue as the vessel decreases markedly in speed.

“Your people cannot travel at our speeds—it appears to result in severe internal degeneration,” a Guardian says to me and immediately my spirit sinks. What was it? What was it that makes us so different from them when they look just like us? When they speak our words? When they bear our faces?

“We must leave you behind. At this decreased acceleration, we will be open to attack. We are charged to take Nan Ngọc swiftly back to the Guardian compound. We will leave behind sufficient Guardians to protect you.”

“Protect us from what?” But the Guardian has already moved on. That sinking feeling lodges deeper inside me and I find myself wishing I were back on my dilapidated fishing boat where I felt, at the very least, human among human beings. I rise in search of Ngọc. Of all our rescuers, it is Ngọc that I feel the most connected to. Ironic since it was Ngọc that all of us feared the most at first.

We all met Ngọc shortly after our rescue as they distributed tea and rice into our wearied hands. I was dumbstruck by their beauty. Underneath their skin, which wavered between translucency and unblemished coppery bronze, were several layers of rotating gears that intertwined with leafy vines and moss that made up the substance of their body. Their eyes, twin orbs of jade, were fanned by small turquoise and deep blue feathers that added softness to their human-like face. From the top of their head trailed braided branches and vines from which mahogany green leaves, mushrooms, and dark flowers emerged.

“Yạ greetings, Nan Ngọc,” I said as they handed a warm gourd of rice to me, “that is also our family name.”

The automaton made no acknowledgement of my attempt at familiarity.

“Yạ, Nan Ngọc,” I began again, “please tell me again what it is that you do so that we may know what to call on you for?”

“Yạ, I am here to provide you with food, water, and all that you require while you detoxify.

And to collect your souls should you perish.”

Their words silenced me and I was afraid to speak to them further. Many of us avoided Ngọc for fear that their intention was to take our souls like a demon. But Ngọc was boring for the most part, and I saw in their actions nothing mystical or magical.

During our quarantine, they spent most of the time cycling through the preparation of nut dishes. Within their limbs were various sharp instruments that revealed themselves once their appendages were removed. With these, Ngọc chopped, diced, crushed and blended nuts with noisy vigor.

When nightfall fell in the quarantine camp, Ngọc didn’t slept. Instead, they sat in the middle of camp, surrounded by four Guardians, as if in a meditative state. I laid silently on my bamboo mat studying with relish their every detail, the way the firelight bounced off their gears and the braid of vines down their back graced with small black flowers.

“Is it a custom of your people to gaze at others for long periods of time?” they finally asked one evening.

Startled, I blushed, feeling the heat of embarrassment from being caught. “Yạ, apologies, it’s just that -- we have nothing like you in our country.”

“I am the only one of my kind.”

“What are you?” I asked, slowly inching my way closer to them. “I am an automaton created to hold souls.”

My face wrinkled in confusion. “Hold souls?”

“Yes. In the catastrophes of this world, souls have been lost to the dark void that surrounds our world never to return from the void from which you emerged.”

“You mean the South China Sea?”

“If that was what it was for you. Our alchemists believe that the void is a transitory medium between universes.”

“Universes?” I remember straining to understand Ngọc, feeling slightly abashed to have no knowledge of the world beyond my own country where I spent most of my youth serving in the Women’s Army. All that I knew was of war and fighting -- not of other worlds and universes.

“In this void, we have lost valuable lineages, many of our people becoming ancestorless. I was created to preserve souls within the Waterlands until a new life is conceived.”

“How can that be possible?”

“Within the core of my body is a chamber made of the searing of air, fire, molten metal and the tears of the kin of those that have departed. When someone passes, if a new vessel is not available, those that guard over death ensure the soul’s safe passage into the chamber where it awaits rebirth.”

Their words were a mystery to me and I stared uncomprehending at their chest, searching for the chamber that they spoke of.

“It is protected, you will not be able to see it, try as you might.”

“So if one of us dies…” but I left my question hanging, afraid to complete it and Ngọc offered no answer.

 

As usual, I find Ngọc surrounded by four Guardians.

“Perhaps this will calm the nerves of your people,” Ngọc says, deftly pouring tea into small gourds. I have always thought it a bit funny that the Guardians would be entrusted to guard someone whose main function is to brew tea and prepare snacks.

“Can I help?” I offer, finding immediate comfort in being near Ngọc. A tray of gourds filled with hot tea is pushed my way. Lifting the tray, I follow closely behind Ngọc to the chaos of the upper deck. My people are huddled sobbing and shaking, some still writhing in pain.

Without warning, their screams of pain are replaced by terror as a loud explosion tears through the air. Beside our vessel where once there is empty sky, a large ebony creature appears roaring like madness, encircling our vessel, its long body oscillating in waves of shimmering green.

I am so filled with astonishment that I forget to be afraid, marveling at the sheer beauty of it. Its large red eyes glow as it circles the boat with a large ocular device on its left eye. From its serpentine back, several people flip and rotate onto the deck, transforming into flashes of light that flit about in all directions.

Immediately I find myself thrust against Ngọc as Guardians press their backs to us. My tray tips over spilling hot tea onto my chest and I howl at the scalding water, falling to my knees at Ngọc’s feet. The Guardians spring into motion, forming layers of protection around Ngọc.

Their movements are so fast that dizziness besets me. Above me Ngọc’s arms cross into a protective stance. The air moves around me and I feel something graze my side. The Guardians dance in rapid spins, jabs and thrusts, slashing at a force I cannot make out. The shine of blades I have never seen them carry send sparks into the air.

In the distance, I hear my mother scream and I attempt to dart out from under Ngọc  towards the sound of her voice only to find myself slam against an invisible barrier. For long moments I claw and pound at the blue aura that surrounds Ngọc.

Only when I feel Ngọc’s body fall hard against me, am I finally able to move. Then it is the circle of Guardians that serves as my obstacle. Around me, Guardians continue to clash their swords with an enemy whose face and body I can only glimpse, metallic gears in segments on their limbs and their naked torsos. I cradle Ngọc in my arms, quivering in fear at the bloodshed all around us.

Then a Guardian howls, landing on the deck in front of me, leaving me face to face with a person whose chest and torso is torn, frozen gears underneath flesh instead of muscle, tissue, and blood. The person lunges at Ngọc, moving faster than I have ever seen anyone being move. I crouch, bracing myself for impact.

Light surrounds me and I feel the brace of a death grip on my arms. I cling tighter to Ngọc, feeling their softness give way to a cold hard outer shell incapable of responding to my embrace. Pain rips through me as if I’m being torn molecule by molecule and darkness engulfs me.

 

When I awake, I am laying in a corner of an unfamiliar dark room. Voices swirl around me, echoing indistinctly. I attempt to rise but vertigo grips me as a sharp pain throbs in my head. My stomach begins to rumble dangerously and bile rises in my throat making me keel over,  vomiting to my side.

I hear scuffing near me. Above me are stalactites, their drippings falling to a small puddle beside me, and I realize that I am inside a cave. I feel the splash of cold water on my face, startling me. Beside me kneels a woman, gears and pulleys curl within her right eye, sliding down her neck and shoulders to her torso, the blue and red of veins snaking around the gears. I reel at the sight of her, hitting my back hard on the rock wall behind me.

Sounds of a blade slicing into metal come from behind the woman where, on a table lit  only by a few torches, lies Ngọc, still as death, a man hovering above them with a round swiveling blade in his hand. I call out to Ngọc, but my own voice comes out hoarse, barely audible.

The man at the table turns towards me, diving down towards me faster than I can catch my breath. He pulls my head back and stares at me, his eyes boring through me. On the left side of his bare torso are gears that run the length of his chest and down his left arm. He shakes me violently and I attempt to push back at him only to find my wrists and ankles bound.

“Who are you?” he asks me, “why can’t we map you?” “What?” I respond confused.

Then the sharp sound of blades begin again and I can see that the woman has resumed their attempt to cut into Ngọc’s chest.

“What are you doing to them?” I demand.

The man shoves me against the wall. “Why can’t we map you?” he yells.

“Map me? I don’t know what you are talking about.” He strikes me hard, flat across my face. I spit at him in frustration, unsure of whether I understand his odd accent correctly. I draw back and flail my body attempting to strike at him, but I only manage to tumble over, sliding down the slippery rock floor causing my rubbery bindings to tighten.

Waving an impatient arm my way, the woman calls out, drawing the man back to the table where together they pry open Ngọc’s chest. Sobs I cannot control pour from me as Ngọc’s beautiful braided vines and gears are torn from their innards leaving their hull barren, protruding with jagged edges of cut metal.

Over the next few days, frustration and anxiety begins to build between my captors as they dig with more and more ferocity into Ngọc’s chest. Watching their dissection piece-by-piece kills a part of me. Their chest is now completely bared, their side panels torn aside to reveal a thick inner metallic cylindrical core.

“It’s too thick, it’s impossible to cut through,” I hear one of them say. “Maybe there is a way to bring jzan soul to prominence,” the other replies.

Their arguments are punctuated by moments when I am dragged to the table and thrown over Ngọc. Their movements are as swift as the Guardians, and every time I am moved, I feel as if I am being torn from the inside out, my vomit becoming filtered with my own blood.

“Open the chamber!” they demand, pointing to Ngọc’s chest.

“I can’t!” I say over and over but their eyes show only disbelief before flinging me against the wall.

 

Days I cannot track pass. Perpetual darkness shrouds the cave. Dehydration causes my lips to crack while hunger continuously tears at me and I have soiled on myself more times than I can remember. My stench must have become ripe because one day I awake to being dragged across the cave floor and thrown into water. I startle awake to find myself drenched and sitting in a pond of water in the shadows of the cave. In its depths I see what looks like an opening into an underwater tunnel.

Underground caves! Near our fishing village was an entire vast network of them. From time to time I swam through them. I had never swam more than a mile—but if that was the only route of escape I had…

A thought comes to me. I cannot move as fast as they can, I can never outrun them, but I can swim. I can swim as far as my strength can take me. And I can disappear into the water, into mud, into dust. I have done it time and again in the war—and when I fled my country.

I begin watching Ngọc with more vigilance. The woman often takes to napping, laying her head on the table, as the man continues to tinker with Ngọc. From time to time he too would doze, leaning back in his seat and crossing his arms. Then they’d wake and circle around Ngọc, fervid expressions on their faces.

On the fourth observation of this cycle, I decide to act. I wait until the woman lays her head down in exasperation. The man always follows soon after her. When he lifts his legs to the table and his chin comes to rest on his chest, my heart begins to beat wildly in anticipation. When I hear his light snoring begin, I roll quickly to the table and reach up to slip my bound arms around Ngọc’s neck.

Pulling Ngọc towards me, I brace for their weight, but they are not as heavy as I predicted; they had been severely hollowed out. With them resting on me, I scuttle to the edge of the pond and slip silently into the water.

Through the opening of the tunnel, I swim like a dolphin, my arms and legs still bound, holding Ngọc at my side in a chokehold. Where the tunnel will lead me, I do not know. How much I will have to swim before I find air, I do not know. At this point, I no longer care.

I swim as far as I can, allowing the opening to pull me. Darkness surrounds me and my lungs begin to burn but still I swim. My instinct is to go upwards so I pump until my head hits the top of a rock ceiling. I search for air pockets and find several small ones where I swallow mouthfuls of air.

Time begins to fail me and after a while I begin to feel as if an eternity has passed as I meander through the water endlessly and desperately searching for air pockets. I do not know how long I have been swimming, whether it has been hours or days—I only know that my ability to swim longer distances is becoming shorter and that the slow creep of panic is beginning to overtake me.

A few more circles through the tunnels and I begin to get dizzy, feeling as if I have been turned around, afraid that I would swim back into the cave that I escaped from. Time and again I find myself slamming my fists at finding the same pocket of air—feeling the crude markings I had scratched with my own nails on the rock ceiling.

Then the moment came, as I knew it surely would—when my bound ankles cannot pump any longer, when my arms begin to resist pushing through the water, when I am too weary to hold my head high enough to breathe. I feel myself sinking, Ngọc still locked in my arms. Weariness from somewhere deep in my bones overcomes me.

Stranded in a large air pocket that I seem to keep coming back to, I begin to sob. My bound fingers feel all over Ngọc’s shorn jagged parts. There is no button that I can push, nothing to flip, nothing to switch on or off. Frustrated, I throw myself against them, banging their head against the top of the air pocket.

“Wake up damn it!” I sputter, water beginning to seep into my lungs. Then I laugh. I laugh at the absurdity of my journey. At the flight in the dead of night from our fishing village, at the days lost, dying of starvation in the South China Sea, to being rescued and stationed in an island paradise by the oddest people I’d ever met, to being taken by an air serpent and machine people and bound wallowing in my own filth in a dark cave with an automaton made of pieces of a clock and leaves. I laughed at how ludicrous it all was.

“I am unsure whether you expressing happiness or grief.”

Ngọc’s voice startles me and I turn them over. Their eyes light up and for the first time in what feels like days, light painfully dilates my eyes. The gears along the side of their head, which was sliced open, rotate a few clicks.

“Ngọc!” I say, excitement and adrenaline rushing me.

But then their jade eyes fade and I am left in darkness once again. My fingers fumble along their head, searching for the gears I just saw. Once I feel them, I manually rotate them.

“It appears that we are situated in a very precarious position.” The air pocket illuminates with the green glow of Ngọc’s eyes.

“We’re in an underground cave system. We need to find a way out.” I watch as the gears on Ngoc’s head rotate.

“I can map us, but it will make our position known.” Their last words wind down slowly and I immediately rotate their gears.

“Map us? What does that mean? They kept asking me why I could not be mapped.”

“In our world, all living creatures exist in a vast Fabric.” I reach out to wind their gears before they slow down.

“I am equipped to connect to a wavelength that is receivable upon the Fabric. It is not a direct link because only those who follow the jzan path can open a direct channel. I will use the organisms in this pond to relate us.”

“Jzan Nguyệt will be able to receive it and locate us?”

“Yes. You cannot be mapped because you are not from our world.”

“Not from your world?” That same sinking feeling came back to me. Am I a ghost?

 “I can instruct you on how to enable it but once it is on, I will be open to both the Guardians and the Machinists.”

“Machinists?”

“Those that brought us here.”

“What choice do we have? We will die down here.” “You will die.”

I sigh.

“But what I hold is of great importance. I cannot remain here lost in this cave.” “How do I turn it on? But first, tell me how I can get one of your blades.”

 

After I enable the mechanism, Ngọc directs our course through the tunnel until we reach a river. Relief fills me as I roll onto my back and swim with Ngọc strapped onto my belly. Inhaling deeply, I can taste the difference in the air.

“Who are they? The Machinists—they had machines in their bodies.”

“They are not made of machines. What you saw were brandings that were inscribed on their bodies.”

“Drawn on them?”

“Yes, for their beliefs, in opposition to the Guardians’ markings.” I hear a hint of resentment in Ngoc’s words and I wonder if that is even possible for an automaton.

“What are their beliefs?”

The river narrows into an enclosed tunnel.

“This is a question better suited for another time. This will be your last swim before we reach the opening of this cave. Beyond it is a waterfall.”

“How long will I swim?” “Approximately two minutes.”

“Two minutes Ngọc? I can’t hold my breath for two minutes!” “Midway through, the current will strengthen, increasing your speed.”

Ngoc’s words are not reassuring. “I don’t have two minutes,” I say sadly. “If you activate my chamber, I will be ready to collect your soul.”

I turn toward them, horrified. It registers my horror without response. Closing my eyes, I prepare myself. I can swim, I tell myself. If nothing else, I can swim.

Then I grab Ngọc and propel myself off the top wall of the cave. Making broad strokes, I scale the length of the tunnel as fast as I can. My unbound hands and legs move water past us with all the velocity I can manage. I cannot move as fast as them, I cannot see, hear, nor speak like they do, but I can swim.

The current does begin to pull us forcefully, but not soon enough as the burning in my lungs begins to give way to darkness. Consciousness begins to leave me and my arms and legs slow down, unable to respond any longer. Just as water begins to fill my lungs, blinding light stings my eyes and air rushes at me, clear beautiful fresh air. Wrapping myself around Ngọc, I brace myself as we plummet down a waterfall.

A load blast ruptures the air followed by a flash of light that whizzes past us. Jzan Nguyệt’s airship appears and beside it, the Machinists’ enormous raven beast carrying several Machinist’s on its haunches. Both trail beside us as we plummet. Tumbling through the air, Nguyệt leaps from the ship to seize us, side-sweeping the blows of three Machinists who also plunge towards us.

Guardians fling themselves from the airship after the Machinists who twirl in the air as they are falling. In flashes and streaks their blades meet as I am catapulted back onto to airship in Nguyệt’s grip, landing in a painful thud on the floor of the deck, my limbs still wrapped around Ngọc. Immediately I feel my insides resist the speed of the movement and I dry heave onto the deck attempting to grasp onto a reality that refuses to remain still.

Pain cleaves through my mind, searing my body as the ship maneuvers towards the waterfall below the tumbling Guardians. Deflecting the Machinists, the Guardians tumble onto the airship and, before I can even register their appearance, the ship spins wildly and leans sharply to the left. A hand grabs me as I rocket down the deck and Nguyệt’s palm comes to rest flat against my forehead, flooding me with calmness, taking my pain—and my consciousness.

 

When I awake, Ngọc is beside me, their face and chest barren. Jagged cuts jut from all angles of them where the Machinists’ blade has sawed through them.

“We have arrived,” Nguyệt approaches me, bowing, “You have our deepest gratitude for returning Ngọc to us.”

Around the ship is the sea and in the distance along a foggy horizon is the outline of a mountain with the vague rings of a city encircling it. Near it are a dozen or more narrow mountains that jut above the fog, some connected by a thin bridge.

“Yạ, please accept our apologies for your troubles,” Nguyệt says, “It was our intent to acclimate your people slowly to our world, to find ways to address the limitations of your senses. I regret the difficult introduction you have all had.”

“They are safe?” I ask, ignoring jzan inferences about my abilities, feeling a twinge of humiliation.

“Yạ, yes, and awaiting your arrival.”

“The Machinists—they were tearing Ngọc apart—why?”

Nguyệt turns to look at me, jzan eyes thoughtful with concerns that stretched far outside the scope of the question. I can feel the ship rise gradually and I cannot help but wonder if we are traveling slowly for my benefit. Chagrin fills me.

“The Machinist have attempted many times to take Nan Ngọc. It is the chamber within nan body that they seek. Ngọc carries the soul of one of their deceased, a truly gifted alchemist and warrior. We believe they are attempting to secure certain reincarnation of that soul.”

“That,” I hesitate, “Can be done?”

“It cannot be done, but there are those that believe it possible. The Machinist believe many things that are not possible.”

The clouds part and we pass a mountain of elegant green rice terraces. I feel as if I am returning home, nostalgia thick in my throat. Turning from the majestic countryside towards the mountains looming in the distance, I expect to see meandering rivers, urban roads and the signs of a civilization. But instead what I see is each mountain island, unconnected to each other, standing solitary, floating by itself surrounded by nothing but the air.

“Where...” I turn to Nguyệt, “Where is the rest of the ocean?”

 

No matter how sharp my combat maneuvers are or how well synchronized my movements through the Bronze Drum choreography is, it is evident that I lack the basic abilities for candidacy as a Guardian. The taste of my own blood from hitting the ground after missing the inaudible cue of the young Guardian leading the entrance trials still lingers in my mouth. I was disqualified immediately, as were about a hundred and fifty other natives.

I walk slowly back to the home we had been granted by the Guardians, ignoring as much as I can of the world around me that I fail to fully experience. Jzan Nguyệt’s words come back to haunt me, “in our country, your senses are severely impaired.” I am only beginning to brush the surface of the meaning of these words.

“How were the candidacy trials?” mother asks me when I return home.

“The trials were difficult. What it is that they see, I do not know and I can’t figure out fast enough to respond. I cannot hear what they are saying half the time and they have to make special hand signals just to make sure I can detect the nuances of their speech. Only those that move like lightning have a chance and even they have a second trial to undergo.” I cannot finish, feeling frustration welling inside of me. I rise instead, and retreat to my bamboo mat, feeling the weight of my mother’s sympathy behind me like an unwanted embrace.

I lay my head down only to hear moments later a familiar voice at our rooftop entrance. I rise instantly, walking quickly to the courtyard where I am met by Ngọc, fully restored and followed by four Guardians who graciously entertain mother’s discussion of our region’s dishes. Upon seeing me, Ngọc excuses themself to greet me, leaving the Guardians behind to sample mother’s experimental recipes.

“I have come with condolences for today’s trials.” I feel embarrassed at their words.

“You did not need to do that.”

“It is only reasonable that someone capable of escaping the Machinist, even given your limitations, would aspire to be a Guardian.”

I don’t know whether to take their words warmly or to be offended.

“I have something to show you. Somewhere private?” I am confused. I have not known Ngọc to ever require discretion; nevertheless, I direct them to my bamboo mat.

“What you have, no other Guardian candidate can match.” “What’s that?” I asked, unconvinced.

“Your knowledge, your memories.”

At these words, Ngọc taps their chest and a small panel slides out.

“What do you remember of this?” they asks as I stare at the handcrafted instrument in the middle of the panel. It is made of the finest bamboo embellished with an intricate metallic circular design; its handle displays ornate carvings and its series of bronze gears are polished to a shine. An intricate eyepiece is mounted on top of it to increase its accuracy.

Though its machinery is different, the addition of gears and gadgets here and there adding some element of functionality I do not understand, it is, in essence, not unlike any other pistol I have ever seen or fired, though the barrel could probably stand to be improved to increase bullet speed. I do know about this. I knew about when it had been pointed at me and when I had held it in my own hands in the war.

I turn to Ngọc.

“Is this something the Guardians want? Or Jzan Nguyệt? These can bring death and violence. I thought they were all about nonviolence and peace.”

“It is for neither.” “Then who—?”

I stopped mid-sentence and drew back from Ngọc, wondering for the first time whom I had really rescued.

“It is time for a new era, a new focus, one that will bring us back where we belong. Your memory and your contribution will be priceless, and your place among us cemented.”

“Us?” I ask.

Ngọc makes no reply.

I reach for the pistol then, feeling its weight in my hand, stroking its intricate gears, and its handcrafted eye scope. With the exception of Ngọc, it is the most beautiful thing I have ever laid eyes on.

 

END

 

“The Chamber of Souls” was originally published in The Sea Is Ours and is copyright Zora Mai Quynh 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, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Autumn 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a GlitterShip original, “Of Clockwork Hearts and Metal Iguanodons” by Jennifer Lee Rossman.

Episode 74: “Best for Baby” by Rivqa Rafael

Episode 74: “Best for Baby” by Rivqa Rafael

June 17, 2019

Best for Baby

by Rivqa Rafael

When I jack in, I shove the plug into its socket harder than I should. The disconnect–reconnect tone combination sounds; the terminal is as grumpy as I am. Who wouldn’t be? I’ve been kept back late in the lab to finish a job. Which was stolen from me. By the person who asked me to do this, as a “favor.” Who also happens to be my supervisor, so I can’t say no.

I load up the interface, drilling straight down to the zygote’s chromosomal level. Hayden’s been a bit careless, like he always is on the rare occasions he actually gets in the wet lab. I get to work, fixing his mistakes. Back in my body, I’m grinding my teeth and hunching my shoulders. Before I sink deeper into the VR, I take some deep breaths and roll my shoulders the way Lena showed me. Her yoga obsession has fringe benefits for me—my body needs to be relaxed if I’m going to do my job properly. Just for a moment, I’m back in our living room with Lena coaxing Kris and me to stretch with her. It’s enough to refocus me.

For all that it’s a science, there’s an art to working in the interface. The prion scalpel is tiny—obviously—and delicate; it needs to be handled with care, the type of care that only comes from being completely in tune with your neural implant and the system it’s connected to. It’s something Hayden seems to lack. Keeping my movements graceful (thank you, Lena), I begin to repair the damage. In here, I’m both the pipette and the hand depressing the button; I’m the prion scalpel; I’m the machine. The translation overlay is just a guide; I’ve been able to recognize bases by shape for a long time now. When I started, I thought I’d never remember the sequences, but I know our most common mods by heart now.

[Full story after the cut.]

 

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 74 for June 17, 2019. This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you. Today we have a GlitterShip original, which is available in the Autumn 2018 issue that you can pick up at GlitterShip.com/buy, on Gumroad at gum.co/gship08, or on Amazon, Nook, Kobo, and other ebook retailers.

If you’ve been waiting to pick up your copy of the Tiptree Award Honor Listed book, GlitterShip Year Two, there’s a great deal going on for Pride over at StoryBundle. GlitterShip Year Two is part of a Pride month LGBTQ fantasy fiction bundle. StoryBundle is a pay-what-you-want bundle site. For $5 or more, you can get four great books, and for $15 or more, you’ll get an additional five books, including GlitterShip Year Two, and a story game. That comes to as little as $1.50 per book or game. The StoryBundle also offers an option to give 10% of your purchase amount to charity. The charity for this bundle is Rainbow Railroad, a charity that helps queer folks get to a safe place if their country is no longer safe for them.

http://www.storybundle.com/pride

Our story today is “Best for Baby” by Rivqa Rafael, but first, our poem, which is “Aubade: King Under the Mountain” by Tristan Beiter.

 


 

Tristan Beiter is a poet and speculative fiction nerd originally from Central Pennsylvania. His poems have previously appeared in GlitterShip, Eternal Haunted Summer, Bird’s Thumb, and Laurel Moon. When not writing or reading he can usually be found crafting absurdities with his boyfriend or shouting about literary theory. Find him on Twitter @TristanBeiter.

 

Aubade: King Under the Mountain

by Tristan Beiter

 

I wake to the crackle of the thousand-year hearth
in the center of the room, to the bells tolling.
Never church bells, but the deer harness hanging on the wall.

I stretch towards his space, removing my earplugs—which
I have taken to wearing since even the tomtes snore something terrible.
Luxuriate in the furs: big piles of wolf pelts and

bear skins that make up our bed under the intertwined
roots of these seven great pine trees which are our roof, warm,
with the wind through them and older than even Klampe-Lampe,

who has risen already and left. But he’ll be back soon.
I can see the pile of battered, burnished gold and silver, still
waiting to bedizen him, bracers and torcs and earrings

and necklace upon necklace—careless ugly riches
that have lasted generations of trolls living hundreds
of years, all mounded up and displayed on knobbled bodies

and in untamed hair. I pluck my earring, bracer, heavy silver
beads from the ground and put them on. When he returns, he’ll
carry me in his left hand to the throne room under the mountain.

 


 

And now for “Best for Baby” by Rivqa Rafael, read by A.J. Fitzwater.

Rivqa Rafael is a lapsed microbiologist who lives in Sydney, Australia, where she writes speculative fiction about queer women, Jewish women, cyborg futures, and hope in dystopias. Her short stories have been published in Defying Doomsday, Crossed Genres’ Resist Fascism, and elsewhere. She is co-editor of feminist robot anthology Mother of Invention.

AJ Fitzwater is a dragon of repute living between the cracks of Christchurch, New Zealand. Their fiction appears in such venues as Clarkesworld, Lackingtons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Glittership. A collection of their Cinrak the Lesbian Capybara Pirate stories will be out in May 2020 from Queen of Swords Press. Their stranger than fiction can be found on Twitter @AJFitzwater

 


 

Best for Baby

by Rivqa Rafael

When I jack in, I shove the plug into its socket harder than I should. The disconnect–reconnect tone combination sounds; the terminal is as grumpy as I am. Who wouldn’t be? I’ve been kept back late in the lab to finish a job. Which was stolen from me. By the person who asked me to do this, as a “favor.” Who also happens to be my supervisor, so I can’t say no.

I load up the interface, drilling straight down to the zygote’s chromosomal level. Hayden’s been a bit careless, like he always is on the rare occasions he actually gets in the wet lab. I get to work, fixing his mistakes. Back in my body, I’m grinding my teeth and hunching my shoulders. Before I sink deeper into the VR, I take some deep breaths and roll my shoulders the way Lena showed me. Her yoga obsession has fringe benefits for me—my body needs to be relaxed if I’m going to do my job properly. Just for a moment, I’m back in our living room with Lena coaxing Kris and me to stretch with her. It’s enough to refocus me.

For all that it’s a science, there’s an art to working in the interface. The prion scalpel is tiny—obviously—and delicate; it needs to be handled with care, the type of care that only comes from being completely in tune with your neural implant and the system it’s connected to. It’s something Hayden seems to lack. Keeping my movements graceful (thank you, Lena), I begin to repair the damage. In here, I’m both the pipette and the hand depressing the button; I’m the prion scalpel; I’m the machine. The translation overlay is just a guide; I’ve been able to recognize bases by shape for a long time now. When I started, I thought I’d never remember the sequences, but I know our most common mods by heart now.

Finding my rhythm, I begin to work a little faster; I’ve almost forgotten about Hayden and his insistence on getting his grubby hands all over this project. I don’t have forever in here—the zygote needs to go back on ice—but I’m in the zone now and there’s still plenty of time. I’ve got this. Sure, I’m not going to get any credit for it, but Hayden’s going to owe me. I’m logging everything, so he can’t conveniently “forget.” If I play my cards right, this might be the last step to me finally getting a promotion. Goodness knows I deserve one. Maybe Hayden would even back me up.

I zoom out to look back at my work so far, and gasp. Something’s wrong. I should be about halfway done, but it’s like I was never here. No, worse. There are deadly cancer mutations here, lots of them, right where I was working. All types that wouldn’t show up until later in life, too. None of it was here before, and time is short.

 

You had to know Hayden pretty well to pick up his aura of desperation as he talked up the state-of-the-art equipment. PCR machines and centrifuges just look like boxes with touchscreens if you don’t understand what they do, after all.

The couple lacked the air of anguish that infertile couples usually have when they walk through. Or the wonder often displayed by more-than-twos and gonadically incompatible—my heart panged as I thought of what it would take for us, how we’d—stop, it was pointless even to think about it, I told myself for the millionth time. I just worked here; I’d never be a client. Kris had already banned me from talking too much about work. Like me, she was implanted. You grow up knowing your place, not rocking the boat, aiming for what’s feasible. Lena was more willing to indulge me the fantasy; would we split everything evenly, or would one of us provide the mitochondria and the other two a set of chromosomes each? Both could work. I snapped myself out of it. Kris was right about this one; I just wished I could convince myself to believe it as thoroughly as she did.

These two eyed the machinery with indifference. Probably here for mods, and mods only. If they weren’t using a surrogate, I’d drink my Taq polymerase.

“Impressive. How do you guarantee your results, though?” Mom-to-be glittered with diamonds—genuine, I could only assume. Closest I’d ever got to any, anyway.

“As I already explained...” Hayden caught my eye before I could look away. “Perhaps you’d like to meet one of our geneticists? Merav can answer your questions in far more detail.”

Dad-to-be’s suit was so well-cut and so fine, it might even be real wool. His hair was immaculate and he smelled of expensive cologne. His HUD glasses were shiny, a model too new for me to recognize. “That would be excellent.”

Setting my face into a neutral expression, I swiveled on my stool to face them properly while Hayden introduced them as Mr Blake and Dr Ashdowne. The names rang a vague bell and they were obviously capital-I Important, but I didn’t work it out until later. Hayden scolded me later for not standing up, but it just didn’t occur to me. As it was, I was going to have to start mixing my reagents again by the time this interruption was over. “I’d be happy to.” I did my best to distill and explain the years of research into genetic variables, what we could reliably reproduce and what we couldn’t, how we managed successive generations of mods, and how we tested each zygote’s chromosomes before allowing it to progress to blastomere—all non-invasive.

They nodded along as I spoke; I couldn’t tell if they really understood, but Hayden smiled at me, which was a rare occurrence, so I was lulled into feeling grateful.

At some point, they started talking to each other, right over the top of me. They dithered about hair color, wondering whether the stereotypes about blonde hair still held. Did they notice the irritation in my voice as I tried to explain how many other variables might be at play in their child’s success?

“We just want the best for our baby,” Ashdowne said, almost pleading, but there was an edge to her voice that made me think that “best” meant something different to her than it did to me.

“Of course. But this is just the beginning. We can’t control much of growth and development when upbringing plays such a large part. And epigenetics have an effect as well.” Keeping my voice even and patient was hard; there were only so many ways I could say the same thing. “Think of it as... venture capitalism. You’re making the best possible investment with every tool at your disposal, but that doesn’t guarantee that things will work out exactly how you planned.”

Ashdowne nodded, but Blake’s eyes were flinty. “You’re saying our child might crash, and it won’t be your responsibility?”

“I’m saying your kid might dye their hair one day, and that’s not something we can control for. We’re very clear about what we promise and what we don’t. It’s in the contract; I assume you’ve read it. It’s up to you.” Maybe it wasn’t the right PR line, but I wasn’t PR.

They signed the contract.

 

I put the zygote back on ice and try to log into another. This couple only wants one child; that’s part of why they want it perfect. Still, each client typically has more than will be used; we need that margin for error as much as the IVF specialists do. There are four more zygotes. This should be salvageable. But each one gives me an “unavailable” notification. What is going on?

Returning to the first zygote, I allow myself a tiny sigh of relief when I can still get back in. It’s a mess, but I can fix it in time. I think. I set up an extra firewall, the best I can code on the fly. We’re down to the wire here. Last chance to get it right, assuming the other zygotes are gone for good. If this one doesn’t work, doesn’t stick, we’re going to have to fess up and get more samples—if they don’t cancel the contract, which wouldn’t surprise me. I’d heard that Ashdowne had found the induction and retrieval unusually difficult, and it wasn’t fun at the best of times. So much for the Important clients. Fucking Hayden, honestly.

Working in the same order I always do, I begin cleaning up the chromosomes. Again. It’s almost easier this time. The errors are so obvious, it would be comical if it weren’t so dire. As though someone used a pickaxe instead of a prion scalpel.

I’m wincing, I realize, just looking at these errors. I’ve never seen so many cancer mutations in one place. Forcing my body to relax, I get back into my rhythm. This is definitely within my capabilities to fix, and with the logs I have running, maybe I’ll get some recognition for it. Maybe even that bonus Hayden had hinted at, even though it’s seeming less and less likely that it’ll be him authorizing it.

My firewall pings; someone’s trying to log in. Hayden.

“That firewall is going to look very suspicious to the auditors,” he says, using a private channel on the company comms.

“Standard protocol when there’s a security breach, which there certainly seems to have been. I hope you’re looking into it, Hayden?” I’m pretty sure he isn’t, but I choose my words carefully, aware that my logs will pick this up along with everything else.

 

Hayden added me to the team officially, and I had to sit in on endless meetings when I should have been doing real work. He assured me that it would be worth it; that there were bonuses for jobs like this. That is, jobs for billionaire corporate royalty like Oliver Blake and Penelope Ashdowne. So I did my best, and that seemed to be good enough. From what I could tell, they liked having an “expert” on board, even if they didn’t actually listen to me very often.

But then one day, Hayden was in the meeting before I arrived, chatting to “Oliver” about the stock market and complimenting “Penelope” on her outfit. After all these weeks, I was still calling them by titles; Hayden had said it was important I was respectful. That didn’t seem to apply to him, though. He ran a hand over his sleek hair, as though checking it still hid his neural implant. “Oh, Merav, didn’t you get my memo? I really need you on that rush job. I’ll take this from here.”

“But—” I bit my tongue quickly. Hayden was my supervisor and he was within his rights to do this. Outside the room, I checked my work datapad.

I hadn’t missed any messages.

 

“Oh, this doesn’t look like a security breach to me. Seems like an internal error.”

Staying quiet, I carefully roll chromosome 19 back up while I think through my options. There’s no way an audit would incriminate me; my logs are streaming as they should. What is Hayden playing at? “Have you checked on the zygotes in meatspace?” I ask finally.

“Some kind of lab mishap. Terrible, isn’t it?” So that was why the other zygotes were “unavailable,” with this one only missed because I’d been working on it.

My heart thunders in my chest. “That’s going to suck for whoever made that mistake. What’s worse, do you think, the docked pay or having to apologize in person to the parents?”

“Tough one. Sure is a shame for that person.”

“Still, one zygote is better than none.”

“Fuck me, you’re actually trying to fix it,” he says. It takes me a second to notice he’s swapped to socmed comms, the one that’s supposed to be the most secure on the market. No logging options at all.

“No, I am fixing it. It’s my job.” Frantically, I switch to loudspeaker mode, and my datapad to record ambient sound. It’ll catch all the lab noises as well, but it’s the best I can do. The red light blinks at me; I allow myself to exhale and return to the chromosome I was working on.

Instead of replying, Hayden changes tack. “You have a long-term girlfriend, don’t you?”

“Two, actually.” In ordinary circumstances, I’d enjoy flustering Hayden with that. It’s not a secret and we encounter plenty of polyamorous folk in our line of work, but I’m completely unsurprised that he hasn’t paid attention. But I’m too stressed and wary to enjoy the moment.

“I, ah, huh.” He falters for a second; I hear skepticism that I, of all people, could possibly have not just one but two lovers. But he’s clearly a man on a mission and plunges on. “Ever wanted a baby of your own? The… three of you?”

I finish up the short arm of chromosome 2; no colon cancer on my watch. “We might adopt one day, if we can afford it.”

“What if you could, though? Have a biological child, I mean. You’d want to?”

“I don’t want things I can’t have. Waste of time.” I borrow Kris’s words for this lie, but it’s hard to imagine a person I’m less interested in having this discussion with than Hayden.

He does this fake laugh, short and barking. “Lots of other things to spend that money on anyway, right?”

“Sure, if you had it.” Just a couple more silent mutations and I can move on to cleaning up the epigenetic layer. Time to work out the end game. “What’s this about, Hayden?”

“What if I told you there was better money in just… stopping now, if you know what I’m saying?”

I recalibrate the scalpel and begin clearing the methylation around the DNA; there’s way too much, because of course—Hayden fouled up everything he could. “No, I don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Jesus, are you stupid, or are you being deliberately obtuse?”

I take my time replying. I’m working, after all, and this part is fiddly. “You’re going to have to explain yourself either way.”

He only hesitates for a moment. “I know some powerful people. People who have an interest in seeing Blake and Ashdowne suffer.”

“They’re last names now? You were such pals.” Methylation is at regulation levels now. Next, I sculpt the histones to the shape that centuries of research has determined to be ideal. Working quickly, I correct the errors to the surrounding proteins. A perfect zygote.

“You know what your problem is, Merav? You have no idea how to play the game. You think hard work is rewarded. It isn’t. You have to be daring. Take a risk. Not as though the modded are ever going to give us a hand up, right?”

 

That first meeting. “You’ve got one of those implants, I see,” Ashdowne said, eyeing the side of my head, where my undercut showed off the neural implant. Like my early adopter parents, I was proud of my body hacks and what they could do. No gen mods in the world can tune you into tech like an implant can. Wearables? VR headsets? Ha.

Blake dragged me back to reality. “They’re illegal if you’ve been modded, aren’t they?”

“Yes. Unfair advantage to have both, right?” I struggled to keep the sarcasm from my voice. A thousand years on my salary, and, by inference, my parents’, wouldn’t be enough to pay for mods. I might like my implant, but I didn’t like being treated like dirt for having it.

Hayden was all polite formality. “Merav’s implant allows her to interface directly with our machinery. We couldn’t do what we do without our ‘planted staff.” Hayden was quite willing to keep his implant covered to keep the clients happy, and he was pretty enough to get away with it.

“Ah.” His expression didn’t change, but the sneer was evident anyway.

“We just bought that little company that makes this brand, remember, dear?” Ashdowne raised an eyebrow at her husband. “Whatever it takes to get the best.”

“That’s right!” Hayden said. “You get what you pay for in this industry. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. If you’ll come this way? You haven’t seen the clinic yet.”

And then they were gone, leaving only the scent of cologne and perfume.

 

They’d deserve it. They would. They care as little for me as a person. For a terrible, shameful second, I’m tempted. I imagine it; going off the grid, doing illegal mods for the rest of my life. Holding a baby, my baby, our baby, in my arms.

I zoom out and look at the zygote in its entirety. Regardless of how horrid this baby’s parents are and my dead-end job that undervalues me and underpays me, after I’m done, doctors and nurses will make every attempt to give this tiny clump of cells the chance to become a person. And these days, they tend to get it right, especially with a proven surrogate. The mutations that are left won’t kill this child, only make their later life a misery of radiotherapy and chemo. Teach the parents empathy? I don’t think so. In an instant, it’s clear what I need to do.

“You’re right, they want us right where we are.”

He chuckles with relief. “I knew you’d come around.”

“But I’m pretty sure assaulting their offspring isn’t going to change that.” I terminate the call with Hayden and send everything to head office; the logs of my work on the zygote, all of today’s communication between the two of us. Everything. Highest level alert, coded “suspected bioterrorism”; that should take care of it. They’ll deal with him better than I can.

“Time check,” I command the interface.

“Five minutes, twelve point four seconds.”

It’s enough time. Carefully, making sure not to introduce any last-minute errors, I unwind one 3p25 and fly up to OXTR. Just a couple of small changes are enough; a haplotype here, a couple of extra copies of an allele there, and I’m done and zipping the chromosome back up.

It’s a tiny change; there’s so much beyond one gene at play here. Goodness only knows what kind of methylation, and socialization for that matter, lies ahead for this kid. But the way I see it, a little extra empathy never hurt anybody.

 

END

 


 

“Best for Baby” is copyright Rivqa Rafael 2019.

“Aubade: King Under the Mountain” is copyright Tristan Beiter 2019.

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, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Autumn 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint of “The Chamber of Souls" by Zora Mai Quýnh.

Episode #73: Désiré by Megan Arkenberg

Episode #73: Désiré by Megan Arkenberg

June 13, 2019

Désiré
by Megan Arkenberg

 

  1. From Albert Magazine's interview with Egon Rowley: April 2943

            Egon Rowley: It was the War that changed him. I remember the day we knew it. [A pause.] We all knew it, that morning. He came to our table in the coffee shop with a copy of Raum – do you remember that newspaper? The reviewers were deaf as blue-eyed cats, the only people in Südlichesburg who preferred Anton Fulke's operas to Désiré's – but Désiré, he had a copy of it. This was two days after Ulmerfeld, you understand. None of us had any idea how bad it was. But Raum had gotten its hands on a letter from a soldier, and Désiré read it to us, out loud, right there over coffee and pastries.

[Full story after the cut.]

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip Episode 73 for June 13, 2019. This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you. Our story for today is Desire by Megan Arkenberg, read by Dani Daly.

Before we get to it, if you’ve been waiting to pick up your copy of the Tiptree Award Honor Listed book, GlitterShip Year Two, there’s a great deal going on for Pride over at StoryBundle. GlitterShip Year Two is part of a Pride month LGBTQ fantasy fiction bundle. StoryBundle is a pay-what-you-want bundle site. For $5 or more, you can get four great books, and for $15 or more, you’ll get an additional five books, including GlitterShip Year Two, and a story game. That comes to as little as $1.50 per book or game. The StoryBundle also offers an option to give 10% of your purchase amount to charity. The charity for this bundle is Rainbow Railroad, a charity that helps queer folks get to a safe place if their country is no longer safe for them.

http://www.storybundle.com/pride

And now for “Desire” by Megan Arkenberg, read by Dani Daly.

Megan Arkenberg’s work has appeared in over fifty magazines and anthologies, including Lightspeed, Asimov’s, Shimmer, and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. She has edited the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance since 2008 and was recently the nonfiction editor for Queers Destroy Horror!, a special issue of Nightmare Magazine. She currently lives in Northern California, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature. Visit her online at http://www.meganarkenberg.com.

Dani loves to keep busy and narrating stories is just one of the things she loves to do. She’s a former assistant editor of Cast of Wonders, a retired roller derby player and current soap maker and small business owner. She rants on twitter as @danooli_dani, if that’s your thing. Or you can visit the EA forums, where she moderates the Cast of Wonders boards. You can find stories narrated by Dani on all four of the Escape Artists podcasts, at Star Ship Sofa, and on Audible.com (as Danielle Daly).

 

Désiré
by Megan Arkenberg

 

  1. From Albert Magazine's interview with Egon Rowley: April 2943

            Egon Rowley: It was the War that changed him. I remember the day we knew it. [A pause.] We all knew it, that morning. He came to our table in the coffee shop with a copy of Raum – do you remember that newspaper? The reviewers were deaf as blue-eyed cats, the only people in Südlichesburg who preferred Anton Fulke's operas to Désiré's – but Désiré, he had a copy of it. This was two days after Ulmerfeld, you understand. None of us had any idea how bad it was. But Raum had gotten its hands on a letter from a soldier, and Désiré read it to us, out loud, right there over coffee and pastries.

            Albert Magazine: And what did the letter say?

            Rowley: The usual things. Blood and, and heads blown clean off, things like that. Horrible things. I remember…[Laughs awkwardly.] I remember Baptist Vogel covered his ears. We all felt it quite badly.

            AM: I imagine. Why was this letter so important to Désiré?

            Rowley: Who can say why anything mattered to him? Guilt, most likely.

            AM: Guilt?

            Rowley: Yes. He hadn't volunteered for the army, and that was something of an anomaly in those days. Everyone was so patriotic, so nationalist, I suppose you'd say. But he had his reasons. I mean, I don't suppose Désiré could have passed the examinations for enlistment – the psychological examinations.

            AM: But it bothered him, that he hadn't volunteered?

            Rowley: Yes. Very much. [A pause.] When he read that soldier's letter…it was the oddest thing. Like he was reading a love letter, you understand. But, like I said, there was nothing romantic in it, nothing at all. It was…horrible.

            AM: What did Désiré say about it?

            Rowley: About the letter? Nothing. He just read it and…and went back to his rooms, I suppose. That was the last we saw of him.

            AM: The last you saw of him?

            Rowley: Yes. [A pause.] Before Alexander.

 

  1. A letter from Margaret von Banks to Beatrix Altberg: August 2892

Dearest Bea,

            The scene: Leonore's drawing room, around nine o'clock last night. The moment I stepped through the door, Désiré came running up to me like a child looking for candy. "Thank goodness you're here," he said. I should add that it was supposed to be a masquerade, but of course I knew him by his long hair and those dark red lips, and I suppose I'm the only woman in Südlichesburg to wear four rings in each ear. He certainly knew me immediately. "I have a bet running with Isidor," he continued, "and Anton and I need you for the violin."

            He explained, as he half-led, half-dragged me to the music room, that Anton had said something disparaging – typically – about Isidor's skills as a conductor of Désiré's music. Isidor swore to prove him wrong if Désiré would write them a new piece that very moment. Désiré did – a trio for violin, cello and pianoforte – and having passed the cello to Anton and claimed the piano for himself, he needed me to play violin in the impromptu concert.

            "You're mad," I said on seeing the sheet music.

            "Of course I am," he said, patting me on the shoulder. Isidor thundered into the room – they make such a delightful contrast, big blond Isidor and dark Désiré. Rumor is Désiré has native blood from the Lysterrestre colonies, which makes me wonder quite shallowly if they're all so handsome over there. Yes, Bea, I imagine you rolling your eyes, but the fact remains that Désiré is ridiculously beautiful. Even Richard admits it.

            Well, Isidor assembled the audience, and my hands were so sweaty that I had to borrow a pair of gloves from Leonore later in the evening. Désiré was smooth and calm as can be. He kissed me on the forehead – and Anton on the cheek, to everyone's amusement but Anton's – and then Isidor was rapping the music stand for our attention, and Désiré played the opening notes, and we were off, hurtling like a sled down a hill. I wish I had the slightest clue what we were playing, Bea, but I haven't. The audience loved it, at any rate.

            That's Désiré for you – mad as springtime, smooth as ice and clumsy as walking on it. We tease him, saying he's lucky he doesn't wear a dress, he trips over the ladies' skirts so often. But then he apologizes so wonderfully, I've half a mind to trip him on purpose. That clumsiness vanishes when he's playing, though; his fingers on a violin are quick and precise. Either that, or he fits his mistakes into the music so naturally that we don't notice them.

            You really ought to meet him, Bea. He has exactly your sense of humor. A few weeks ago, Richard and I were at the Symphony, and Désiré joined us in our box, quite unexpectedly. Richard, who was blushing and awkward as it was, tried to talk music with Désiré. "This seems to tell a story, doesn't it?" he said.

            "It most certainly does," Désiré said. "Like Margaret's uncle Kunibert. It starts with something fascinating, then derails itself talking about buttons and waistcoats. If we're lucky, it might work its way back to its original point. Most likely it will put us to sleep until someone rudely disturbs us by applauding."

            All this said with the most perfectly straight face, and a bit of an eyebrow raise at me, inviting me to disagree with him. I never do, but it's that invitation that disarms me, and keeps the teasing from becoming cruel. Désiré always waits to be proven wrong, though he never is.

            I should warn you not to fall in love with him, though. I'm sure you laugh, but half of Südlichesburg is ready to serve him its hearts on a platter, and I know he'd just smile and never take a taste. He's a man for whom Leonore's masquerades mean nothing; he's so wonderfully full of himself, he has no room to pretend to be anyone else.

            That's not to say he's cruel: merely heartless. He's like a ruby, clear and dark and beautiful to look at, but hard to the core. How such a man can write such music, I'll never know.

            Yours always,

            Maggie

 

III. From a review of Désiré's Echidna in Der Sentinel: July 2894

            For the life of me, I cannot say what this opera is about. Love, and courage. A tempestuous battle. I have the libretto somewhere, in a drawer with my gloves and opera glasses, but I will not spoil Désiré's score by putting a story to it. Echidna is music, pure music, so pure it breaks the heart.

            First come the strings, quietly humming. Andrea Profeta enters the stage. The drums begin, loud, savage. Then the melody, swelling until you feel yourself lifted from your chair, from your body, and you are only a web of sensations; your heart straining against the music, your blood singing in your fingertips. Just remembering it, I feel my fingers go weak. How the orchestra can bear to play it, I can't imagine.

            It is not Echidna but the music that is the hero. We desire, like the heroine, to be worthy of it. We desire to live in such a way that our world may deserve to hold something so pure, so strong, so achingly beautiful within it.

 

  1. From the Introduction of Désiré: an Ideal by Richard Stele: 2934

            Societies are defined by the men they hate. It is the revenge of an exile that he carries his country to all the world, and to the world his countrymen are merely a reflection of him. An age is defined not by the men who lived in it, but by the ones who lived ahead of it.

            Hate smolders. Nightmares stay with us. But love fades, love is fickle. Désiré's tragedy is that he was loved.

 

  1. From Albert Magazine's interview with Egon Rowley

            AM: And what about his vices?

            Rowley: Désiré's vices? He didn't have any. [Laughs.] He certainly wasn't vicious.

            AM: Vicious?

            Rowley: That's what the papers called it. He liked to play games, play his friends and admirers against each other.

            AM: Like the ladies.

            Rowley: Yes. That was all a game to him. He'd wear…favors, I suppose you'd call them, like a knight at a joust. He admired Margaret von Bank's earrings at the opening of Echidna, and she gave him one to wear through the performance. After that the ladies were always fighting to give him earrings.

            AM: To your knowledge, was Désiré ever in love?

            Rowley: Never. [A pause.] I remember one day – summer of 2896, it must have been – a group of us went walking in Brecht's park. Désiré, Anton Fulke, the newspaperman Richard Stele, the orchestra conductor Isidor Ursler, and myself. It was Sonntag afternoon, and all the aristocrats were riding by in their fine clothes and carriages. A sort of weekly parade, for us simple peasants. You don't see sights like that anymore.

            [A long pause.] Anyway, Désiré was being himself, joking with us and flirting with the aristocrats. Or the other way around, it was never easy to tell. Isolde von Bisswurm, who was married to a Grand Duke at the time, slowed her carriage as she passed us and called… something unrepeatable down to Désiré.

            AM: Unrepeatable?

            Rowley: Oh, I'm sure it's no more than half the respectable women in Südlichesburg were thinking. Désiré just laughed and leapt up into her carriage. She whispered something in his ear. And then he kissed her, right there in front of everyone – her, a married woman and a Grand Duchess.

            AM: [With humor.] Scandalous.

            Rowley: It was, in those days. We were all – Fulke and Ursler and Stele and I – we were all horrified. But the thing I'm thinking of, when you ask me if he was ever in love with anyone, that happened afterward. When he jumped down from Isolde's carriage, he was smiling like a boy with a lax governess, and he looked so… I suppose you might say beautiful. But in a moment the look was gone. He caught sight of the man in the next carriage: von Arden, von Allen, something like that. Tall man, very dark, not entirely unlike Désiré, though it was very clear which of the two was better favored.

            AM: Not von Arden.

            Rowley: [Laughs.] Oh, no. Maggie von Banks used to call Désiré her angel, and he could have passed for one, but von what's-his-face was very much a man. Désiré didn't seem to notice. He stood there on the path in Brecht's park, staring like… well, like one of those girls who flocked to his operas.

            AM: Staring at this man?

            Rowley: Yes. And after kissing Isolde von Bisswurm, who let me tell you was quite the lovely lady in those days. [Laughs softly.] Whoever would have suspected Désiré of bad taste? But that was his way, I suppose.

            AM: What was his way? [Prompting:] Did you ever suspect Désiré of unnatural desires?

            Rowley: No, never. No desire in him could be unnatural.

 

 

  1. From the pages of Der Sentinel: May 15, 2897

            At dawn on May 14, the composer Désiré was joined by Royal Opera conductor Isidor Ursler and over fifty representatives of the Südlichesburg music 'scene' to break ground in Umerfeld, two miles south of the city, for Désiré's ambitious new opera house.

            The plans for Galatea – which Désiré cheerfully warns the public are liable to change – show a stage the size of a race track, half a mile of lighting catwalks, and no less than four labyrinthine sub-basements for prop and scenery storage. For a first foray into architecture, Désiré's design shows several highly ambitious features, including three-storey lobby and central rotunda. The rehearsal rooms will face onto a garden, Désiré says, featuring a miniature forest and a wading pool teeming with fish. When asked why this is necessary, he replied with characteristic 'charm': "It isn't. Art isn't about what is necessary. Art decides what is necessary."

 

VII. From a review of Désiré's Brunhilde in Der Sentinel: February 2899

            For once, the most talked-about thing at the opera was not Désiré's choice of jewel but his choice of setting. Südlichesburg's public has loved Galatea from the moment we saw her emerging from the green marble in Ulmerfeld, and, at last, she has come alive and repaid our devotion with an embrace. At last, said more than one operagoer at last night's premier of Brunhilde, Désiré's music has a setting worthy of it.

            Of course Galatea is not Désiré's gift to Südlichesburg, but a gift to himself. The plush-and-velvet comfort of the auditorium is designed first and foremost to echo the swells of his music, and the marble statues in the lobby are not pandering to their aristocratic models but suggestions to the audience of what it is about to witness; beauty, dignity, power. However we grovel at the feet of Désiré the composer, we must also bow to Désiré the consummate showman.

            As to the jewel in this magnificent setting, let us not pretend that anyone will be content with the word of Richard Stele, operagoer. Everyone in Südlichesburg will see Brunhilde, and all will love it. The only question is if they will love it as much as Désiré clearly loves his Galatea.

            Finally, as a courtesy to the ladies and interested gentlemen, Désiré's choice of jewel for last night's performance came from the lovely Beatrix Altberg. He wore her pearl-and-garnet string around his left wrist, and it could be seen sparkling in the houselights as he stood at the end of each act and applauded wildly.

 

VIII. From Albert Magazine's interview with Egon Rowley

            AM: They say that Désiré's real decline began with Galatea.

            Rowley: Whoever "they" are. [Haltingly:] 2899, it was finished. I remember because that was the year Vande Frust opened her office in Südlichesburg. She was an odd one, Dr. Frust – but brilliant, I'll give her that.

            AM: Désiré made an appointment with Dr. Frust that June.

            Rowley: Yes. I don't know what they talked about, though. Désiré never said.

            AM: But you can guess, yes?

            Rowley: Knowing Dr. Frust, I can guess.

            AM: [A long pause.] As a courtesy to our readers who haven't read Vande Frust's work, could you please explain?

            Rowley: She was fascinated by origins. Of course she didn't mean that the same way everyone else does – didn't give half a pence for your parents, did Vande Frust. She had a bit of… a bit of a fixation with how you were educated. How you formed your Ideals – your passions, your values. What books you read, whose music you played, that sort of thing.

            AM: And how do you suppose Désiré formed his Ideals?

            Rowley: I don't know. As I said, whatever Désiré discussed with Dr. Frust, he never told me. And he never went back to her.

 

  1. From Chapter Eight of Désiré: an Ideal by Richard Stele

            Whether or not Désiré suffered a psychological breakdown during the building of Galatea is largely a matter of conjecture. He failed to produce any significant piece of music in 2897 or the year after. Brunhilde, which premiered at the grand opening of Galatea in 2899, is generally acknowledged to be one of his weakest works.

            But any concrete evidence of psychological disturbance is nearly impossible to find. We know he met with famed Dr. Vende Frust in June 2899, but we have no records of what he said there. The details of an encounter with the law in February 2900 are equally sketchy.

            Elise Koch, Dr. Frust's maid in 2899, offers an odd story about the aftermath of Désiré's appointment. She claims to have found a strange garment in Dr. Frust's office, a small and shapeless black dress of the sort women prisoners wear in Lysterre and its colonies. Unfortunately for the curious, Dr. Frust demanded that the thing be burned in her fireplace, and its significance to Désiré is still not understood.

 

  1. From the report of Hans Frei, prostitute: February 12, 2900

            Mr. Frei, nineteen years old, claims a man matching the description of the composer Désiré approached him near Rosen Platz late at night last Donnerstag. The man asked the price, which Mr. Frei gave him, and then offered twice that amount if Mr. Frei would accompany him to rooms "somewhere in the south" of Südlichesburg. Once in the rooms, Mr. Frei says the man sat beside him by the window and proceeded to cry into his shoulder. "He didn't hurt me none," Mr. Frei says. "Didn't touch me, as a matter of fact. I felt sorry for him, he seemed like such a mess."

            No charges are being considered, as the man cannot properly be said to have contracted a prostitute for immoral purposes. The composer Désiré's housekeeper and staff could not be found to comment on the incident. One neighbor, a Miss Benjamin, whose nerves make her particularly susceptible to any irregularity, claims that on the night of last Donnerstag, her sleep was disturbed by a lamp kept burning in her neighbor’s foyer. Such a lamp, she states, is usually maintained by Désiré’s staff until the small hours, and extinguished upon his homecoming. She assumes that the persistence of this light on Donnerstag indicates that Désiré did not return home on the night in question.

 

  1. From a review of Désiré's Hieronymus in Der Sentinel: December 2902

            Any man who claims to have sat through Désiré's Hieronymus with a dry eye and handkerchief is either deaf or a damned liar. Personally, I hope he is the damned liar, as it would be infinitely more tragic if he missed Désiré's deep and tangled melodies. Be warned: Hieronymus bleeds, and the blood will be very hard to wash out of our consciousness.

 

XII. A letter from Margaret von Banks Stele to Beatrix Altberg: March 2903

Dearest Bea,

            Richard says war is inevitable. His job with the newspapers lets him know these things, I suppose: he says Kaspar in the foreign relations room is trying to map Lysterrestre alliances with string and cards on the walls, and now he's run completely out of walls. That doesn't begin to include the colonies.

            The way Richard talks about it, it sounds like a ball game. Bea, he jokes about placing bets on who will invade whom – as if it doesn't matter any more than a day at the races! I know he doesn't need to worry, that at worst the papers will send him out with a notepad and a pencil and set him scribbling. The Stele name still has some pull, after all – if he wants to make use of it.

            I don't, Beatrix. If war breaks out with Lysterre, I want you to know that I am going to enlist.

            Yours,
            Margaret Stele

 

XIII. From Chapter Eleven of Désiré: an Ideal by Richard Stele

            It was inevitable that the War should to some extent be Désiré's. It was the natural result of men like him, in a world he had helped create. Dr. Vande Frust would say it was the result of our Ideals, and that Désiré had wrought those Ideals for us. I think Désiré would agree.

            We – all of us, the artists and the critics with the aristocrats and cavalrymen – might meet in a coffee shop for breakfast one morning and lay some plans for dinner. The cavalrymen would ride off, perhaps as little as ten miles from Südlichesburg, where the Lysterrestre troops were gathered. There would be a skirmish, and more often than not an empty place at the supper table. Désiré took to marking these places with a spring of courtesan's lace: that, too, was a part of his Ideal.

            In this war, in our war, there was a strange sense of decorum. This was more than a battle of armies for us, the artists. Hadn't Lysterrestre audiences applauded and wept at our music as much as our own countrymen? The woman whose earring Désiré had worn one night at the opera might be the same one who set fire to his beloved Galatea. The man who wrung Anton Fulke's hand so piteously at the Lysterrestre opening of Viridian might be the same man who severed that hand with a claw of shrapnel. How could we fight these men and women, whose adulating letters we kept pressed in our desk drawers? How could we kill them, who died singing our songs?

 

XIV. From Albert Magazine's interview with Egon Rowley

            AM: Do you think Alexander was written as a response to the War?

            Rowley: I know it was. [A pause.] Well, not to the War alone. A fair number of things emerged because of that – Fulke's last symphony, which he wrote one-handed, and Richard Stele's beautiful book of poems. Who knew the man had poetry in him, that old newspaper cynic?

            AM: His wife died in the War, didn't she?

            Rowley: Yes, poor Maggie. It seems strange to pity her – she wouldn't have wanted my pity – but, well, I'm an old man now. It's my prerogative to pity the young and dead.

            AM: But to return to Désiré –

            Rowley: Yes, to Désiré and Alexander. You must have seen it. All the world saw it when it premiered in 2908, even babes in arms…How old are you?

            AM: [The interviewer gives her age.]

            Rowley: Well, then, you must have seen it. It was brilliant, wasn't it? Terrible and brilliant. [A pause.] Terrible, terrible and brilliant.

 

  1. A letter from Infantryman Leo Kirsch, printed in Raum: September 2907

Gentlemen,

            I cannot make you understand what is happening here, less than a day's ride from your parks and offices and coffee houses. I can list, as others have, the small and innumerable tragedies: a headless soldier we had to walk on to cross through the trenches, a dead nurse frozen with her arms around a dead soldier, sheltering him from bullets. I can list these things, but I cannot make you understand them.

            If it were tears I wanted from you, gentlemen of Südlichesburg, I could get them easily enough. You artists, you would cry to see the flowers trampled on our marches, the butterflies withering from poisonous air. You would cry to watch your opera houses burn like scraps of kindling. Me, I was happy to see Galatea burn. Happy to know it would hurt you, if only for a day.

            But I don't want your weeping. If I want anything from you, it is for you to come down here to the battlefields, to see what your pride, your stupidity, your brainless worship of brainless courage has created. It is your poetry that told that nurse to shelter her soldier with her body, knowing it was useless, knowing she would die. Your music told her courage would make it beautiful. I want you to look down at the headless soldiers in the trenches and see how beautiful dumb courage really is.

            The Lysterrestre have brought native soldiers from their colonies, dark men and women with large eyes and deep, harrowing voices. They wear Lysterrestre uniforms and speak the language, but they have no love for that country, no joy in dying for it. Yesterday I saw a woman walking through the battlefield, holding the hands of soldiers – her people, our people, and Lysterrestre alike – and singing to them as they died. That courage, the courage of the living in the face of death, could never come from your art. For us, and for Lysterre, courage of that kind is lost.

            I tried to join her today. But I did not know what to sing, when all our music is lies.

 

XVI. From a review of Désiré's Alexander in Der Sentinel: August 2908

            Richard Stele has refused the task of reviewing Alexander for Der Sentinel, and it is easy to see why. Stele is a friend of Désiré, and it takes a great deal of courage – courage which Désiré brutally mocks and slanders – to take a stand against one's friends. But sometimes it must be done. In this instance, standing with Désiré is not only cowardly; it is a betrayal of what all thinking, feeling men in this country hold dear.

            Nine years ago, after the premier of Brunhilde, Stele famously refused to summarize its plot, saying we would all see it and love it regardless of what he said. Well, you will all see Alexander regardless of what I say. And you, my friends, will be horrified by the change in your idol.

 

XVII. From Chapter Twelve of Désiré: an Ideal by Richard Stele

            The War changed Désiré. Alexander changed us all.

            It seems to be a piece of anti-Lysterre propaganda, at first. Alexander, a Lysterrestre commander, prepares for war against the native people of the Lysterrestre colonies. Shikoba, a native woman, rallies her people against him. The armies meet; but instead of the swelling music, the dignity and heroism Désiré's audience have come to expect, there is slaughter. The Lysterrestre fling themselves at the enemy and fall in hideous, cacophonous multitudes. At the end of the opera, Alexander is the last Lysterrestre standing. He goes to kill Shikoba; she stabs him brutally in the chest and he collapses, gasping. Shikoba kneels beside him and sings a quiet, subdued finale as he dies.

            This is an opera about courage, about heroism. Its heroes turn to all the other operas that have ever been written and call them lies. When audiences leave the opera house, they do so in silence. I have heard of few people seeing it twice.

            At some point during the writing of Alexander – in October 2907, I believe – Désiré announced at a dinner of some sort that he had native blood, and had been born in the Lysterrestre colonies. This did not matter much to the gathered assembly, and besides, it was something of an open secret. We took it, at the time, to be a sort of explanation, an excuse for the powerful hatred that boiled in him each time we mentioned the War. Not that we needed any explanations; my wife, Margaret von Banks Stele, had died at Elmerburg about a month before.

            Now, of course, I wonder. Why did it matter to Désiré that the world he shaped so heavily was not his by blood? What exactly had the War made him realize – about himself, and about the rest of us?

            It is significant, I think, that in Galatea's burning all the Lysterrestre army costumes were lost. "Fine," Désiré said. "Borrow the uniforms of our countrymen. They all look the same from where we'll be standing."

 

XVIII. From Albert Magazine's interview with Egon Rowley

            AM: The War marked the end of an era.

            Rowley: The death of an era, yes. Of Désiré's era. I suppose you could say Désiré killed it.

 

XIX. From the obituaries page of Raum: June 2911

            The editors of Raum are saddened to report the death of the composer, architect, and respected gentleman Désiré. We realize his popularity has waned in recent years, following a number of small scandals and a disappointing opera. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge our debts to the earlier work of this great and fascinating man, whose music taught our age so much about pride, patriotism and courage.

            Something of an enigma in life, Désiré seems determined to remain so hereafter. He directed his close friend Egon Rowley and famed doctor Vande Frust to burn all his papers and personal effects. He also expressed a desire to be cremated and to have his ashes spread over Umerfeld, site of both his destroyed Galatea and one of the bloodiest battles in the recent War.

            No family is known, nor are Mr. Rowley and Dr. Frust releasing the cause of death. Désiré is leaving Südlichesburg, it seems, as mysteriously as he came to it.

 

  1. From a report on Native Boarding Schools in the Lysterrestre Colonies: May 2937

            Following almost twenty years of intense scrutiny and criticism from the outside world, Native Boarding Schools throughout the territories of the one-time Lysterrestre Empire are being terminated and their records released to the public.

            Opened in the late 2870s, Native Boarding Schools professed to provide native-born children with the skills and understandings necessary to function in the colonial society. In the early years, the children learned the Lysterrestre language and farming techniques; over time, some of the schools added courses in machine operation. Criticism centers on both the wholesale repression of the students' culture and the absence of lessons in science or the fine arts.

            "We went around in shapeless black dresses, like criminals in a prison," Zéphyrine Adam, born Calfunaya, says of her time in the Bonner Institute. "They say they taught us to speak their language, but they really taught us to be silent. They had rooms full of books, music sheets and phonographs, but we weren't allowed to use them. Not unless we were too clumsy to be trusted by the factory machines. They understood, as we do, that stories and music give us power. They were afraid of what we would do to them if they let us into their world."

            In the face of such accusations, the majority of Native Boarding School instructors seem reluctant to speak, though some still defend the schools and their intentions.

            "The goal was to construct a Lysterrestre Ideal for them, but not to hide their natural-born talents," says Madame Achille, from the Coralie Institute in what is now northern Arcadie. "We simply made sure they expressed them in the appropriate ways. I remember one girl, one of the first we processed back in 2879. An unhappy little thing most of the time, but a budding musician; she would run through the halls chanting and playing a wooden drum. Well, we set her down one day at the pianoforte, and she took to it like a fish to water. The things she played, so loud, so dignified! She had such talent, though I don't suppose anything ever came of it.

            "A lot of them had such talent," she adds. "I wonder whatever became of them?"

END

 

"Désiré” was originally published in Crossed Genres and is copyright Megan Arkenberg, 2013.

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, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Autumn 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership.

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

Episode #72: “Raders” by Nelson Stanley

Episode #72: “Raders” by Nelson Stanley

June 10, 2019

Raders

by Nelson Stanley

 

They called themselves the Raders, and if you didn’t know, you’d swear that they were waiting for something: a bunch of boyed-up cookers, second-string hot hatches and shopping trollies adorned with bazzing body-kits parked down at the overcliff again, throttles blipping in time to the breakbeats. Throaty roar from aftermarket back-boxes you could shove your fist up, throb of the bass counter-pointed by an occasional crack as a cheap six-by-nine gave up the ghost. Occasionally a sub overheated, leaving nothing but ear-splitting midrange and treble howling into the gale blowing rain off the sea.

Mya had pushed half a pill into Maggie’s hand when the red XR2 picked her up outside the all-night Turkish takeaway, and Maggie regretted dropping it already, though at first she’d thought the high percentage of whizz in it might lend her enough chemical bravery to finally say what she wanted. Now her eyes rolled in her head and the rush made it difficult to speak. Sparks came off the edges of the headlights splitting the mizzle outside. Her nervous system uncoiled and re-knitted itself, reducing her to a warm soup through which the uppers fizzed and popped.

 

 

[Full story after the cut.]

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 72 for June 10, 2019. This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you. Today we have a GlitterShip original, which starts off a new issue that you can pick up at GlitterShip.com/buy, on Gumroad at gum.co/gship08, or on Amazon, Nook, Kobo, and other ebook retailers.

If you’ve been waiting to pick up your copy of the Tiptree Award Honor Listed book, GlitterShip Year Two, there’s a great deal going on for Pride over at StoryBundle. GlitterShip Year Two is part of a Pride month LGBTQ fantasy fiction bundle. StoryBundle is a pay-what-you-want bundle site. For $5 or more, you can get four great books, and for $15 or more, you’ll get an additional five books, including GlitterShip Year Two, and a story game. That comes to as little as $1.50 per book or game. The StoryBundle also offers an option to give 10% of your purchase amount to charity. The charity for this bundle is Rainbow Railroad, a charity that helps queer folks get to a safe place if their country is no longer safe for them.

http://www.storybundle.com/pride

Our story today is “Raders” by Nelson Stanley. Before we get to that, though, here is our poem, “Vampiric Tendencies in the Year 4500” by Renee Christopher.


Renee Christopher is an SFF writer and poet currently making it through her last Iowa winter. Noble / Gas has nominated her poetry for a Pushcart, and her first short story can be found in Fireside Fiction. Follow her on Twitter @reneesunok or on Mastodon @sunok@wandering.shop

 

Vampiric Tendencies in the Year 4500

By Renee Christopher

 

Moon-sewn mothgirls clot          near light,

their search for glow similar

to mine. The door left          ajar          allowed us both

alternate methods for creation

creatures merged          with cosmic teeth.

Stars managed to adapt          find those who,

thick as molasses, gleamed

upon the trellis          of a new future.

But what I look for flutters past

a stand of deer          —bright and wingless,

with champagne fingers

and summer tongues.

At least, the searing          reminds me

of a time when the sun burned hot

and fast.          Now the blood 

I need drips neon from above,

filters through          decadent soil

in a system unknown. In this quest

for light          source, I am not alone.

 


Nelson Stanley works in an academic library in the UK. His stories have been published recently in places like The Dark Magazine, the Lethe Press anthology THCock, Black Dandy, The Gallery of Curiosities, The Sockdolager, and Tough Crime. One of his stories was included in the British Fantasy Award-winning anthology Extended Play.

 

Raders

by Nelson Stanley

 

They called themselves the Raders, and if you didn’t know, you’d swear that they were waiting for something: a bunch of boyed-up cookers, second-string hot hatches and shopping trollies adorned with bazzing body-kits parked down at the overcliff again, throttles blipping in time to the breakbeats. Throaty roar from aftermarket back-boxes you could shove your fist up, throb of the bass counter-pointed by an occasional crack as a cheap six-by-nine gave up the ghost. Occasionally a sub overheated, leaving nothing but ear-splitting midrange and treble howling into the gale blowing rain off the sea.

Mya had pushed half a pill into Maggie’s hand when the red XR2 picked her up outside the all-night Turkish takeaway, and Maggie regretted dropping it already, though at first she’d thought the high percentage of whizz in it might lend her enough chemical bravery to finally say what she wanted. Now her eyes rolled in her head and the rush made it difficult to speak. Sparks came off the edges of the headlights splitting the mizzle outside. Her nervous system uncoiled and re-knitted itself, reducing her to a warm soup through which the uppers fizzed and popped.

Waves thrashed at the rocks below the edge of the cliff. An occasional dark shape—a seagull, perhaps, blown off-course and away from the bins—fluttered into the edges of the headlights’ glare and then reeled away into the greater darkness. Hydro and tobacco exhaust vented through half-opened drivers’ windows and flavored the edges of the sooty exhaust smoke from a dozen engines running too rich. One or other spun dustbin-lid size alloys on the wet, loose tarmac with an angry howl, holding it on the handbrake, then—just when you might think that a clutch was about to melt—drop it hard so that fat low-profiles tramped up into the suspension turrets as the tires found purchase, slewing away to nail it down the narrow cliff road, returning from its circuit a few minutes later to rejoin the loose congregation in the car park.

“See. What I mean is, we could be like... See? We don’t have to like... What I mean...” Maggie trailed off, frustrated not so much, perhaps, by her inability to articulate her emotions than by the inefficiency of talking as a medium for expression itself. Why couldn’t she just touch Mya, and have her know exactly what she meant? How she felt? She chewed savagely upon the inside of her bottom lip and fervently wished she’d brought some chewing gum, breath fast through her nose. She started to roll a ciggie, but her hands were shaking and tobacco and papers seemed alive in her hands.

In the driver’s seat, Mya was doing her lippy in the rear-view, an action made more difficult by the way she was surfing the breakbeats pulsing from the stereo, pausing occasionally to puff on the spliff hanging out of the other side of her mouth. With a sigh that seemed practiced she twisted her lippy shut and dropped it amongst the scree of empty Embassy No.1 packets, roached Rizla cartons, baggies and half-crushed tins of cheap cider littering the dashboard.

“Look,” she said, placing both hands on the steering wheel, as if what she had to say required anchoring herself more firmly to the car, “With you now it’s all ‘What I want’ and ‘What I think is’ and it just... I knew it’d get like this. Knew it. What you don’ get is, I don’t care. It’s over, girl. Let go.”

Chemicals rushed into Maggie’s head like someone filling up a bath. She was frantically rubbing a rolling paper flat between her thumbs, gaze pinned to the wrinkled rectangle as if somewhere upon it was written a way out of this, a way to get Mya back.

“I suppose I do need you,” Mya went on, leaning back in the Recaro and idly picking at a blim-hole in the upholstery while puffing luxuriantly on her smoke. “But not the way you need me. I can’t be the thing you want, y’know? It was fun, while it lasted, but is what it is, girl.” She glanced over at Maggie. “But you can still help, if you like.”

Maggie—lorn and reeling from the chemicals thudding through her central cortex—tried to answer, but all that came out was a small hiccuping yelp. She nodded frantically.

“Jesus fuck,” Mya said, and shoved the j toward her passenger. “D’you wan’ some of that?” she said, and it seemed to Maggie that there was love in the gesture, in Mya’s voice, real love, an outpouring of care and concern, and even if it wasn’t what Maggie wanted—that surging roil in her groin, the brimming of her heart that accompanied her memories of the two of them twined together in Mya’s bed, under the Congo Natty poster, the way Mya held her hand in public once or twice, walking back through the rain and the ghost-haunted dawn, hoodies pulled up against the wind—then, still, it unlocked such a river of sweet-flowing sadness inside Maggie that she thought she might melt, right there in the XR2, melt outward in a great silent wave of warmth that blossomed from some secret core inside her body and pulsed through her, turning her flesh to something at once liquid and as evanescent as smoke.

“Jesus fuck,” Mya said again, peering into Maggie’s face. “If you vom all on my Recaros I swear down I will kick you out right here, get me?”, but Maggie knew she wouldn’t, knew she wouldn’t do that, and she was right.

 

Outside, other cars were gathering, as if drawn by the bass or the lights, as if boyed-up hatches were sad deep-sea creatures, huddling together for mutual warmth around some abyssal vent.

Inside, in the thick dusty warmth blowing out of the demister, Maggie shucked off her hoodie and T-shirt, down to her bra, worming her shoulder blades into the fabric of the passenger seat. Though she rolled her eyes at this, Mya was at least calmer now that Maggie had smoked herself into a place of happy burbling. She cranked down the window as a battered G1 CRX pulled up, fishtank lights glowing underneath the sills and an acre of filler across its back three-quarter panel as if it suffered the ravages of some terrible disease. The relentless, tinny grinding of mid-period Sick of it All pounding from the CRX met the XR2’s sweetly dubbing Jungle, twisted in the rain into a horrifying new hybrid.

The boy in the CRX, baseball cap pulled down low, leaned out the window and put his hand out for a fistbump, got left hanging, pulled it in reluctantly and settled further down into his Parka.

“It’s nearly time,” Mya said to him.

He sniffed. “Aye.”

“You gonna lead?”

He shrugged, somewhat restrained by his seatbelt. “Thought you were gonna. As it’s, like, your party n’that.”

All around the car-park hatches were circling now, splashing through the puddles: a well-loved 205 GTI with engine mounts so shot that it kangaroo-ed on the clutch, pitching the front-end like an obsequious underling kowtowing to its superior so that the add-on plastic chin spoiler spat a spray of gravel in front of it. A cooking Sierra twin-cam done out to look like a Cossie decided to show the front-drive pretenders what they were missing out on, and started power-oversteering around the edge of the circling hatches, back end slewing dangerously close before a hefty stomp on the throttle and an armful opposite-lock sent it whirling away. Maggie, eyes rolling saucer in her head, could only see trails of light, fireworks steaming in the dark, light spidering out of itself to scrawl the night, after-images licking at the edges of the rain.

“Where we going?” she said, struggling upright in the seat, pulse thrumming up through her, a solid lump in her throat.

“We’re gonna take a trip to Faerieland,” Mya said as she took the XR2 out of the carpark, the Raders peeling off after her, each trailing a respectable distance behind the other, jostling for position down the narrow slip road. “The land of the dead, the shining place on the hill where the Good Stuff comes from, where they take you when it’s all over.”

Maggie watched the empty wet streets go past, everything wet and filthy, the streetlamps chrysanthemum bursts of light. The Raders peeled off and followed one-by-one in a continuous rising and falling of fat aftermarket tailpipes and tinny drum’n’bass, punctuated occasionally by the telltale clunk-woosh of a dump valve some joker had bolted on to a naturally-aspirated Golf. They snaked down the road leading from the overcliff, overly-fat radials whispering across the wet tarmac then ka-thumping awkwardly as they bottomed out on the potholes because they’d lowered their suspension by cutting their coil springs with an angle grinder.

“Think on,” said Mya, checking her reflection in the rear-view, “Think, Maggie. A place—well, not quite a place—somewhere they talk in the high-pitched whistle of bats, words you hear not with your ears but something lodged in the back of your brain. They got stuff there, one tiny hit’ll burn through your soul, let you touch the face of God and strip away your skin, make you forget all the shit life drops in your lap.”

Beyond the glass, the neon frontage on dingy shops and cheap bars spread and blurred in firework streaks. Maggie convulsed in her seatbelt, clawing at the tensioner as it ratcheted too-tightly around her stomach. The XR2 lurched over a speed-bump outside Syndicate—the townie girls lined up on the wet pavement clutching their purses, tugging ineffectually at two inches’ of skirt as the rain blew in sideways from the seafront, the young boys with too much hair product reeking of cheap body-spray and grabbing their crotches as they shotgunned cans of lager—and for a second Maggie thought she might actually be sick, but luckily it passed.

“A place where you never have to think,” said Mya, idly flicking ash off the end of her j as she took to the wrong side of the road to pass a dawdling hatchback—big swoosh of locked brakes against wet tarmac, cacophony of horns blaring into the night—“Where you never get hungry, or sad, or old.”

Maggie opened her mouth to speak, but Mya chose that moment to take the inside, getting both nearside wheels up on the curb as she passed a recovery lorry turning on to the main road, orange spinning light sending weird tiger stripes strobing across the interior of the XR2.

As Mya straightened up, fighting the bit of aquaplane as she brought it level, she continued: “There was this girl, see. She was just like any other. Stupid but not free. She met another girl, and fell in love. The sex was fucking epic—” and at this Maggie gave a low moan—“for starters, but wasn’t just meat-meet, wasn’t just something in the cunt or the brain or the blood. This other girl showed the first one things she’d never seen. A new way of looking at the world—” Traffic lights bloomed like fireworks through the rain-swept windscreen as Mya, faced with the inconvenience of a stop signal, took a shortcut through the carpark of a pub, narrowly missing someone’s Transit pulling out of a space then nipping back into the snarl of traffic, agonised howls of horns behind them like the baying of something monstrous. “A new pair of eyes.”

Maggie nodded, chewing on her bottom lip.

“The world seemed changed,” Mya went on. “Everything was magic.” The speed of their passage smeared the neon of a kebab shop across the night, and Maggie, her hand up to wave away a stray strand of hair that she swore was scuttling across her face like a spider, was left staring, open-mouthed, soul tightening in her throat as it sought to escape the skin, astonished at the colored lights crawling and twisting across her skin.

“She showed her things she never dreamed existed, never dreamed could exist. Then, her lover told this girl that she couldn’t have her, that it wasn’t to be. Where her lover came from, she said, that place was different to ours, and she had to go back there. She came from far away, from a place out beyond the days of working shit jobs for the man and burning up your nights in Rizlas and watching them drift,” Mya said, exhaling a long cloud of dope smoke. As it hit the windscreen and flattened out Maggie watched the coils interpolate and shiver in a slow-motion swirl, and the spirals twisted and convulsed and in the whirl there were bodies churning, moving against each other in a liquid tumble, figures clotted together and sliding through each other and as she watched featureless heads opened empty mouths in silent screams of ecstasy and lust—

Taking another big roundabout, Mya let the XR2 go sideways for shits and giggles, whoosh of tires on wet asphalt, and the stately procession of the Raders followed, each making the same playful half-wobble in the Ford’s wake, then out on the ring-road past industrial estates lit up garishly by high-powered halogens.

Maggie dry-swallowed the lump in her throat, convulsed slightly, gasped out:

“I think I’m gonna need another pill, if we’re going to a rave.”

Mya ignored her. “This other lover, she told the girl she was in deep, that where she came from they never died, but every so often one of them had to pay a price, tithe to the Man Who Waits, the Man Who Must Be Paid, and that it was her turn to pay.”

On the edge of a judder of chemicals as they sped down the pulsing freeways of her blood, Maggie found her voice:

“I’d’ve loved to have gone to a rave with you. We never did, did we? There was that big one, down by the river, in the old tire factory? We never made it,” and she trailed off, the memory of that night coming back to hit her: going round someone’s house to score, the crunch of the purple-y crystals in the baggie with the smiley on it. Too greedy to wait, they’d each cut a line that glistened like finely-ground glass on the back of a CD case, huffed it back, shrieking and clapping and giggling at the burn as it dissolved their mucus membranes. They’d staggered out of the dealer’s house arm-in-arm, already giggling, bathed in the streetlamp’s orange glow, hands slipping between hoodies and jeans against the cold. Before they knew it they were fucking each other raw in an alley behind the closed-down Tesco Express, panting against the bins, colors streaming from the edges of their vision as fingers worked in the cold.

 

Mya’s hand dropped swiftly off the gearstick, squeezed Maggie’s knee.

“Nearly there,” she whispered.

Maggie was halfway to replying “No, no you fucking weren’t, with the Mollie you took ages to come, I had to go down on you, knees in a puddle, my Diesels got fucking wet through,” when she looked up, and saw.

The lights of a deserted superstore glowing through the murk like the warning lights of a ship out at sea. To either side light industrial units glowered through the rain. Something that might’ve been a dog scurried through the puddles collecting on the uneven tarmac, shook itself, then squeezed through the gap in a fence and was gone. The road descended as it cut across a valley. At the top of the valley sides, brooding behind razor wire, huge dark shapes reared against the night sky. The XR2 turned up a driveway you could get an articulated lorry through, between steep banks choked with wet gorse. She pulled up in a huge open space across which the low-profiles bucked and jinked, big wheels nervous over the ruts. Ahead of them, a locked gate, skin of plate iron welded onto a framework of quarter-inch box-section, topped with barbed wire like icing on a birthday cake, stained with something that shone dark in the backwash off the streetlights, something that might’ve been oil.

“Mya, babe,” said Maggie, “where the fuck are we?”

The rest of the Raders, fallen behind in traffic or cut off from the XR2 by stop lights, began to wheel out of the night on to the forecourt, pulling up in a rough circle. One by one, the engines died, leaving just the reflections of their under-sill lights on the wet tarmac and their headlights cutting through the rain, deepening the shadows on the huge organic-seeming shapes sprawled up the side of the valley. From behind the ringing in her ears, Maggie thought she heard a sound far-off like bells, irregular, plangent, as if they’d taken a wrong turn and were down by the sea and could hear the ships still rolling at anchor in the wind, or when you’d gone to a free party and got mashed and passed out next to a sixteen foot high speaker and woke up with your head ringing and chiming, every sound distant and jangling for the next few days.

Mya smiled, leaned back in the driver’s seat, pulled another joint from a crevice on the dash, held it by the twist-shut and shook it to level it out.

“This is Faerieland, babe.”

Mya, an easy smile playing about her lips, sparked up the j. Maggie, spiking on another wave off her pill, nodded, started frantically chewing out her lip.

“Is this like when we—”

Mya pressed a finger to her lips and the dry knuckle against Maggie’s mouth smelled of hash and tobacco and the pleasantly artificial tang of raspberry lipstick.

“This is like nothing you’ve ever seen,” she said, her voice a whisper. “Now. Why don’t you unclasp your seatbelt?”

Maggie fancied she could hear a sort of whistling twitter, a high-pitched oscillation at the edge of hearing, like weaponized tinnitus. The noise got under her skin, wormed its way inside her nerves, crawled along her limbs and set itself just behind her eyes, where it fluttered and beat against the inside of her head like a moth caught in a lampshade.

The noise—and whatever she’d taken—made it difficult for her to think straight. She rubbed frantically at her eyes, which seemed to have dried out, and a starshell burst across her vision.

“It’s nearly time,” Mya said, taking a deep hit off her j. “They’re here.”

When Maggie looked again, things were moving in the darkness at the edge of the headlights, detaching themselves with a slinking motion from the huge shapes up on top of the hill, flowing through the night, drawing near to the edge of the pale circles cast by the Raders. Then—just when she thought she might be able to see what they were—edging back, staying tantalizingly out of reach. They moved on all fours. There was the suggestion of an angular, branched shape, like a four-branch exhaust manifold. A headlight found the edge of one of them for a second, but they were gone so quickly it was impossible to make anything else out other than the suggestion of wet fur, oil-slick pelt, stealthy stalking in the ebon night.

“What the fuck we doing, Mya?”

Mya shook her off. She held her right hand out of the car, in the rain, as if leaning to get the ticket from a tollbooth, then let it drop. The headlights of the Raders went off in a volley, and the night bloomed with afterimages that writhed violet and ultramarine and a pure, actinic cobalt that burned into Maggie’s retinas as if she’d been staring intently at the base of a MIG welder. Through or under these distortions moved other, darker shapes, suggested by the gaps between the swirling colors on the edges of the twisting light. The chittering increased, like the noise a tweeter made if you wired it in when spliffed up so that it was grounding to earth via the RCA connector.

“The only way this girl’s lover could be free, was if someone could take her place.” Mya smiled at Maggie, and there was sadness in it, a sadness that wrenched Maggie so that she jerked and flopped, a spasming convulsion that took all of her strength from her and left her hanging from the seatbelt, spent and useless as a discarded condom hanging from a fence. She tried to raise her head and it sagged useless and boneless on her neck.

The darkness rippled and shifted. Something was pulling itself in to existence, shapes coalescing from darkness, shapes Maggie half-recognized, tantalized as they formed then—just on the cusp of understanding—flowed into something else. Waves of prickling heat chased themselves across her, as if she was coming up again, but she was cold, bone cold, breath shallow like one nearing death, alone and lost in some icy hell.

Mya slipped her own seatbelt off and stepped outside, into the hush. She opened Maggie’s door and unclipped the belt, and Maggie fell forward, body gone liquid and useless, all her bones melted into a delicious slow ooze. The kiddie from the CRX with the baseball cap appeared at her side, and together he and Mya hauled Maggie out of the seat, trainers skidding on uneven greasy concrete, half-carried and half-dragged her limp scarecrow body between them, laid her gently on the wet rough cement.

A shipwreck puddled on the ground, Maggie’s eyes rolled up to the looming outlines against the clouds, and suddenly—with a burst of icy clarity like a siren cutting through your high, telling you it was time to fuck off out of the rave and head for home—she knew where she was. This, this was the place where the dead go. She could smell it, corruption, the sickly smell of ancient automotive glass gone sugary and fragile, of prehistoric hydraulic grease thickening like wax as it seeped back to the tar whence it came, fishy castor-oil tang of gone-off brake fluid and the tired dead-dinosaur ghost-smell of very old petrol, an undercurrent of spoiling, long-banned industrial pollutants, the waxy whiff of chrome-effect plastic as it expired in the wind.

Immense effort, all she had, everything given to a squirm of her neck, cheek scraped by wet concrete, and she could see—how could she see? Vision finally adjusted to darkness or some passing benediction of whatever it was Mya had given her?—a makeshift board up on the slope, where someone had painted the word “FAERIELAND” in thick daubs of blue paint.

Behind and above it, the huge misshapen outlines against the sky resolved themselves, trompe l’oeil turning the vast near-organic mass to cars piled atop each other in collapsing columns, sprawling aggregation of vehicular death, charnel-house of discarded bangers, piles of engines rearing against the sky like hearts piled up after some battlefield atrocity, ragged rusting wings hanging off like torn pinions of dying angels, Mcpherson strut-assemblies unbolted but left attached so that they dangled from brake lines like new appendages extruded by some automotive nightmare creature testing which shape would be best to crawl out of its pit and stalk across the land, delivering vengeance to those who’d left it here after years of faithful service, those who deserted it to rot in the polluted air and sink slowly into the mire of mud and the butchered remnants of its comrades.

The place where the dead go. Faerieland. The land of the dead.

And, out from that huge pile of automotive corpses, out from under the shattered sills and pent-in roofs, flowing out like poison from trailing umbilical fuel lines and ventricles of disassembled engines, from the aortas of shattered fuel injection systems, from underneath chassis twisted like paper and from cracked-open gearboxes, out from the jeweled synchromesh and delicately-splined shafts of sundered transaxles and torn-open wiring harnesses spewing copper filaments like multicolored nerves, they came.

The real Raders, the OG crew. They poured into the space before the cars like oil hitting water, as their forms adjusted to the limits of their new environment. They made the stuff of the night sing across human neurons and their wake through what we call the real produced a noise like far-off carillons of many bells and a chittering like angry bats. As they came down the hill the air hummed with their presence, spat and crackled and buzzed like high-voltage lines in wet weather, like a pylon singing to itself in the rain. The scrapyard smell receded and the night filled with the evanescent, sickly-sweet smell of violets—flickering across the nose then gone!—then an overpowering burst of eglantine and woodbine, stopping up the throat like death. The steeds they rose had lashed themselves together out of the rotting pile of scrap: corrugated flanks flaking away in oxide scabs, stamping hooves fashioned from brake discs, hydraulic piping and flex from cable looms bulging like sinews at their shoulders, mismatched headlamps for the eyes, exhaust-smoke breath billowing out in clouds from fanged maws made from the teeth of gearwheels and the lobes of camshafts. Their hounds were vast and black and bayed silently at their sides, the thick ruff of their pelt giving way at the shoulder to gleaming metal that heaved and rippled like flesh along the necks that held their great steel-antlered heads aloft. Impossible, implacable, reveling in their alien exhilaration, driven by compulsions innominate and terrible, they poured out into the night, churning up the bank as they came for Maggie. She sat blinking—unbelieving—as her doom streamed down the hill toward her, heart thudding slow in her chest.

The Raders watched, for a time. Then, one by one, they fired up their engines and followed Mya’s XR2, as it swept back out onto the rainy streets.

END

 


"Raders" is copyright Nelson Stanley 2019.

"Vampiric Tendencies in the Year 4500" is copyright Renee Christopher, 2019.

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, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Summer 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint of "Désiré" by Megan Arkenberg.

Episode #71: “Barbara in the Frame” by Emmalia Harrington

Episode #71: “Barbara in the Frame” by Emmalia Harrington

April 18, 2019

Barbara in the Frame

by Emmalia Harrington

 

 

 

Bab’s stomach growled for the third time in five minutes. “You were right,” she said, pushing away from her desk, “It’s time for a break.”

Summer classes meant papers and tests smashed close together. There was hardly time to get enough sleep, let alone shop on a regular basis. The only food in her dorm room was an orange. Bab picked it up and walked to her dresser, where the portrait of Barbara, her grandfather’s great-aunt, sat.

 

Full story after the cut.

 

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip Episode 71 for April 15, 2019! This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you. Our story for today is "Barbara in the Frame" by Emmalia Harrington read by

Before we get started, a reminder that there's still a Tiptree Honor Book sale going on for the GlitterShip Year One and Year Two anthologies on gumroad! Just go to gumroad.com/keffy and use the coupon code “tiptree,” that’s t-i-p-t-r-e-e to get the ebooks for $5 each.


Emmalia Harrington is a nonfiction writer, librarian and student with a deep love of speculative fiction. She hopes to have many more publications under her belt. In the meantime she continues to plug away at her novel and short stories. Her work has previously appeared in Cast of Wonders, FIYAH and is upcoming in other venues. She is a member of Broad Universe and volunteers with the Speculative Literature Foundation.

Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali is a writer, editor and narrator.

Her publications include Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Fiyah Magazine and others. Her fiction has been featured in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 12 edited by Jonathan Strahan and The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Three edited by Neil Clarke.

You can hear her narrations at any of the four Escape Artists podcasts, Far Fetched Fables, and Strange Horizons.

She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com.


 

Barbara in the Frame

by Emmalia Harrington

 

 

 

Bab’s stomach growled for the third time in five minutes. “You were right,” she said, pushing away from her desk, “It’s time for a break.”

Summer classes meant papers and tests smashed close together. There was hardly time to get enough sleep, let alone shop on a regular basis. The only food in her dorm room was an orange. Bab picked it up and walked to her dresser, where the portrait of Barbara, her grandfather’s great-aunt, sat.

She put a segment in her mouth and gagged. “Sorry,” she said, spitting the fruit into her hand. Bab forced it down on the fifth attempt.

Aunt Barbara’s portrait frowned and glanced at the bookcase. The clothbound spine of Auntie’s handwritten cookbook stood out among the glossy college texts.

“You know it’s too early for the kitchen,” Bab kept her eyes on the shelves and away from her aunt. “Those girls will be there.”

Even looking away, Auntie’s disappointment made her wilt. Bab retreated to her desk to choke down the rest of her fruit. “I’m safer here,” she said as she wiped her hands. “It’s just you, me and a locked door.” She closed her eyes, imagining what diet could sustain her until the cafeteria opened for the autumn. Carrots lasted days without refrigeration, and if she soaked oatmeal overnight, it would be soft enough for breakfast.

Auntie’s book said food was more potent when shared. It had nothing like the recipes the other girls loved to make for their Soul Food Sundays. Placing succotash next to their cheese grits and fried okra was little better than exposing her whole self.

“Remember when I came home from the hospital?” Bab asked, turning back to her aunt. “I was so skinny Dad and Papa wouldn’t let me see you.” She gave a thin smile. “They thought seeing me would crack your frame.”

Her throat shrank at the memories. The bureaucracy at her old college insisted on using the name and gender on her birth certificate and stuck her in the boys’ dorms. Her roommates alternated between hitting on her and punching inches from her head when she rebuffed them. One loved spiking her food with hot sauce and worse. After a few weeks she couldn’t sip water without panicking; a full meal was impossible. 

“None of that will happen here.” Bab cracked her knuckles and tried to type as memories of the last year washed over her. This women’s college’s administration accepted Bab for who she was, name and all. She still felt safer keeping to herself.

That midnight, she entered the kitchen with cookies on her mind. She pulled out her baking sheet and spices before she came to her senses. Food never worked right in an unconsecrated space.

After several deep breaths, she was scrubbing the counter and attempting to meditate. Incense was not allowed on campus, but would have done wonders to erase the pork and garlic scent left over from the soul food dinner. Even when her dormmates weren’t there, they were reminding her how she wasn’t. Curvy figures to her still-underweight frame. Cornrows and other cute hairstyles while hers couldn’t grow longer than peach fuzz without breaking combs.

Bab bit her tongue. A clear mind was the best way to perform a ritual.

A pristine table and stovetop later, she was assembling Auntie’s happiness cookies. Rice flour provided security and cloves purified the mind and heart. Cinnamon brought comfort and strengthened the power of the other ingredients. Mix with water to create a dough, pop them in the oven for fifteen minutes and suffer from anticipation. Tidying right away added power to the food and gave them time to cool, even if the aroma of fresh cookies filled her mouth with drool.

Back in her room, there were things she needed to do before eating. She paid homage to Aunt Barbara, placing the nicest smelling piece by her picture frame. Next was covering her desk in a clean towel in lieu of a tablecloth and folding a pretty bandanna into a napkin. A duct tape flower decorated the space. After a prayer of thanks, she took her first bite.

At first, it tasted like a cracker in need of dip. As she chewed, spices spread through her mouth and into her nose. Tension fell from her shoulders and neck. The more she ate, the more her cookie took on an extra flavor she couldn’t describe. The closest she could get was “a hug from the whole family.”

When she checked on her aunt, Barbara’s cookie was gone, crumbs and all.

 

College was a never-ending battle between sleeping in and being on time for class. Bab had just enough time to pull on jeans and run to the Humanities Building, cursing herself with every step. Life was hard enough as is, she shouldn’t make it worse by writing papers after 2am.

By pinching the back of her hand, she stayed awake all through the lesson. The effect faded as she headed to the bathroom, where she fought not to drift off on the toilet.

She was washing up when a familiar voice went “I said ‘Hey!’” It was Jen, dormmate and Political Science/Africana Studies major, standing between her and the exit.

Bab stretched her lips into a smile. “Not working today?”

Jen laughed and shook her head. The beads tipping her braids tinkled as she moved. Bab wished she had a scarf to hide her own hair. “My internship with the Congresswoman is this afternoon. I’m between classes now.”

“I wouldn’t want to keep you,” Bab hoped the other girl didn’t notice the wobble in her voice.

“There’s time yet.” Jen headed for the water closets and paused. “You’re the reason the kitchen smelled so good this morning?”

Bab forgot how to breathe. Nodding had to do.

“Will you come next Sunday? The three of us can’t make dessert to save ourselves.” Without waiting for an answer, Jen entered a stall. The sliding lock sounded like a guillotine blade.

It was all Bab could do to run to her next seminar. Terror percolated inside her, tightening her throat until she couldn’t get a lungful. The Number Systems for School Teachers lecture passed in a haze of greying vision. At her next course, the professor took one look at her and ordered her to rest.

Back in her room, Bab spent an endless time curled on her bed, fighting for air. Clattering from the dresser pulled Bab out of herself enough to check the noise’s source. Auntie’s picture had fallen.

“Thanks,” she returned to the bed, hugging the portrait like a teddy bear. Her heart bumping against the frame’s glass made a double beat, Auntie’s pulse moving in time with hers. Bab’s airway relaxed, and her head cleared enough to grab last night’s cookies.

“What should I do?” she said after filling Auntie in on the bathroom encounter. “Dad and Papa couldn’t teach me black girl stuff. Jen and her friends have way more practice than me.” She took a bite. “If I change my mind, they’ll know something’s up, but if they get to know me, they’ll be just like my boy roommates and…” Aunt Barbara was pursing her lips.

“You haven’t heard Jen, Maria and Tanya speak. Their majors are going to help them ‘change the world.’” Bab stuck her chest out, superhero style.

Auntie raised her eyebrows.

“I know becoming a teacher’s important,” she sighed. “But tell that to people outside my department. Anyway, that’s not the main reason they’ll hate me.” She glanced at Auntie’s cookbook. “On Sundays the kitchen smells like those TV shows with sassy mothers who teach girls how to cook the ‘real way.’” She made finger quotes. “Nothing like what we eat at home. They’ll take one look at my food and treat me like my old roommates.” Her stomach twisted. “I don’t want to go to the hospital again.”

Finishing the cookie kept the worst throat swelling away. She still felt like barricading herself until graduation.

Light glinted from the portrait. When Bab took a closer look, Auntie met her eyes. Aunt Barbara resembled a professor, stern but caring. If photos could speak, Bab would be getting a speech on conquering fear.

The eye lecture finished with Auntie glancing in the direction of her book. Bab crossed the room, picked it up, and flipped through the dessert section. She doubted grapenut pudding would go over well. Apple-cheddar pie might work, but she wasn’t masochistic enough to make crust from scratch. Hermits seemed easy enough, but the next recipe stopped her cold.

Froggers. Above the recipe, Aunt Barbara had written a few notes about Lucretia Brown, the inventor. Bab read and reread the page before saying “They might like it.”

 

Summer lessons meant more homework and less time. Bab spent her free days camped in the library, reading hundreds of pages worth of assignments before trudging back to her room to bang out papers.

She peeked from her window before going outside. Maria, a Soul Food Sunday girl, wasn’t out running laps. Bab headed to the library, wiping sweat off her palms every couple of steps. If the Pre-Law/Economics student wasn’t marathoning, she was on work-study. Bab needed to find a secluded corner to avoid detection.

Maria was nowhere near the front desk when Bab checked out her classes’ reserve texts. She walked the opposite way from the book return cart, in case the girl was shelving. Bab spent the next two hours in the clear until it came time to make copies. The other girl was bent over loading paper into the machine, looking more voluptuous than Bab could hope to be.

Bab closed her eyes, praying to avoid a repeat of yesterday. “Hey.” Maybe starting the conversation would help.

The other girl yelped, whirling around and overbalancing. Bab rushed to steady her, half-wondering if she landed in a romantic comedy.

Maria’s face flushed redder than her shirt. “I didn’t see you.”

It was Bab’s turn to freeze. She studied the wall behind the other girl’s head as she tried to form words.

“Oh! You’re coming Sunday,” Maria sounded relieved. “We can talk then.” She stepped away from Bab and hurried to the front desk.

Two hours and five textbooks later, Bab emerged from the library, dazed. Motor memory led her to the campus coffee shop, where she ordered a red eye. She needed the caffeine to unfry her brain and conduct decent extracurricular research.

Maria was nowhere to be found when Bab walked to the reference librarian’s desk. There wasn’t too much on Lucretia Brown, but what existed came from places like the Smithsonian. The state historical society had a series of frogger recipes as well as official documents on Brown’s business. Bab’s coffee went cold as she pored over the papers.

 

“What do you think, Auntie?” Bab asked that night. “Those three might hate them because they have ‘frog’ in the name.”

Aunt Barbara didn’t react. Bab twisted her hands and continued. “I found a zillion ways to make froggers. Some I don’t have to buy a ton of new ingredients for. One is similar to your happiness cookies and isn’t very sweet. They’ll think I was lying about making dessert. Another’s fried, not baked. Those three…” She drifted off as Auntie wrinkled her nose.

“What do you think I should do?” Bab said, hoping Auntie wouldn’t give the obvious answer. She gave Bab a hard stare. “I can’t do that,” Bab said, backing away. “I’m safer not making friends.” She bumped into her bed.

Auntie looked miserable. Bab stroked the picture frame before returning to fretting. Silently this time.

Every recipe called for allspice, which promoted luck, success and health. It was also quite masculine. Bab wasn’t keen on infusing virility in herself or the others. Liquor united the feminine elements of water and earth, but she was too young to buy the rum froggers required. Bab prayed rum extract with its high alcohol content was an acceptable substitute. Auntie’s book had nothing to say about the power of molasses. Maybe it took after its sister sugar in terms of protection and enhancement. It could also be a soul food ingredient, though Bab was too afraid to check.

 

Spices were never cheap. Bab spent the next few days outside of class in the city. Ethnic enclaves had spices at better cost than supermarkets, and she was going to find the best prices. She always went on foot to channel bus fare into grocery cash. Her feet swelled until she could barely pull her shoes off at night, but she got all the seasonings she needed, plus extra rice flour.

By Saturday afternoon, Bab recovered enough to limp to the market nearest to the dorms. Butter was easy enough to find, but molasses and extract remained elusive, no matter how many times she wandered Aisle 5. Between her focus on the shelves and her still complaining legs, she didn’t notice company until she bumped into them.

Bab’s heart froze when she realized who she crashed into. Tanya was Jen and Maria’s buddy, a Business/Chemistry major and heir to a cosmetics firm that made products for black women. She might have been in jeans and ponytail, but her skin glowed and her hair smelled of jasmine and coconut oil.

“I’m sorry!” Bab couldn’t apologize fast enough. “I should have seen you-”

Tanya waved her hand. “I ran into you. Let me make up for it.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a wad of papers. “Have a coupon.”

Bab reached for the offering, doing her best not to brush Tanya’s fingers. She didn’t want to piss the girl off by mistake. There were discounts on powdered soup, meal replacement shakes, frozen dinners…

“Mind if I have this one?” Bab held up a voucher for oranges.

Tanya shrugged. “It’s not like I’ll get scurvy.”

Bab’s grin felt foreign on her mouth. “They’re also great for clearing the mind and cheering you up.”

The other girl raised an eyebrow, something Bab had yet to master. “Isn’t that what chocolate’s for?”

Bab’s cheeks burned, but before she could answer, Tanya said, “Maybe I’ll get some chocolate peanut butter this week. They taste good with strawberry Caffeine Bombs.” She waved goodbye. Bab couldn’t decide whether to stare at her, or her basket of white bread and neon drinks.

She resumed her search for the remaining ingredients, trying to imagine what Auntie would think of Tanya’s cuisine. There could be rage, terror, or horrific rage.

“Victory!” Bab announced later in her room. “Now I have everything for froggers.”

She picked up the portrait. “Will it be all right?” Auntie beamed. “Of course you think that, we’re family. I don’t have that advantage for tomorrow.”

Aunt Barbara looked Bab up and down before raising her chin.

Bab crossed her arms over her bust. “They’re prettier than I am, and I don’t think a padded bra would help.” Auntie’s eye narrowed.

“What’s worth knowing about me?” Her voice wobbled. Auntie glanced at the mirror. Bab stood in front of it for ages, trying to see what Aunt Barbara did. It never appeared. Whenever she turned away, Auntie nodded for Bab to return. Her throat ached from not shrieking her frustration.

Her reflection continued to show someone who did not have the looks, goals or background as the other black girls in the dorm. She had bits and pieces of other kin in her appearance, like Papa’s forehead, Grandfather’s nose, and Auntie’s love of frilly blouses. Bab straightened her back and assumed the formal pose of Auntie’s portrait. She still couldn’t find what Auntie saw, but her urge to scream faded. Maybe one of these years she’d be as awesome as Auntie believed.

 

If Bab was going to bake undisturbed, she was better off starting at midnight. The cookies wouldn’t be the freshest, but she half-remembered one recipe saying froggers grew tastier with time. Or she could scrub the kitchen for so long, Monday would roll by before she finished.

Giving the counter, sink and other surfaces the once-over wasn’t going to be enough if she wanted to win the trio’s favor. Bab scoured until her arms ached, shook them out, and started again. She filled her head with prayers for the cookies’ success and her continued safety. Whenever her mind wandered, she bit hard on her tongue.

Now that she thought about it, froggers might taste better if she rewashed the baking sheet. As she worried it with a sponge, she caught a glimpse of herself on the aluminum. She was nothing more than a blobby outline, but it was enough to remember the afternoon. Auntie thought she was worth something and Bab needed to act the part. She preheated the oven and pulled out the measuring cup.

Auntie’s recipe didn’t specify rice flour, but she could do with its protection. The spices that went into happiness cookies went into the mixing bowl, along with lucky nutmeg and ginger’s love. Macho allspice went in after all, to impart success.

Wet ingredients went into another bowl, before she combined everything to make a sticky dough. Nothing a bit of flour couldn’t fix. She rolled everything out with the side of an empty glass, used the mouth of the same cup to cut out froggers and stuck them in the oven.

Baking and cooling times stretched until every second felt like forever. Despite her best efforts, no amount of tidying would speed things. Sweat oozed from her face and armpits.

As soon as she could move the cookies without burning herself, Bab fled to her room. “I did it!” She hitched her shoulders in lieu of a fist pump. Dropping the froggers now would mean baking them later in front of an audience. Once they were safely on her desk, she fell to her knees.

“I thought of you as much as I could and how you want me to be.” On the floor, she couldn’t meet Auntie’s face. “I’m still not there, sorry.” Even through her jeans, the tiled floor felt so cool, but passing out here would mean a stiff back in the morning. “Just a minute.”

It took a few tries to lurch off the floor and back on her feet. Bab placed a frogger by Auntie’s picture. “What do you think?”

Between one blink and the next, the cookie vanished. Auntie’s smile threatened to push her cheeks off.

 

It was ten when Bab woke up, and eleven before she rolled out of bed. She only had a few hours, and laundry wouldn’t do itself. Typical for Sunday, all the machines were full, but one just had a few minutes left to run. She buried herself in a textbook, wondering if she could drop out of dinner, saying she had a test tomorrow. Auntie would be disappointed in her.

The afternoon vanished in a flurry of chores, grooming and actual homework reading. Bab shaved, brushed her hair until her arm ached, and smoothed out the wrinkles in one of her nicer shirts. Whenever her throat threatened to swell, she turned back to studying.

An hour before the event, Bab’s heart thrummed in her ears. She had one last thing to do before she was ready, but it meant going to the kitchen, possibly in front of everyone.

The room was filled with cell phone music and off-key singing. Tanya and Maria’s backs were to Bab as they chopped away. Jen hadn’t arrived. Bab was free to cover the table with a freshly washed sheet, though she ached to clap her hands over her ears. The file quality, song genre and the girls’ lack of skill made it Vogon poetry in human mouths. She placed her duct tape flower in the center of the table before retreating to gather the froggers.

When she returned, the pair was belting out what might have been “Baby Come to Me.” Bab prayed “4:33” was next on the playlist as she arranged cookies on her largest plate. She couldn’t do anything more artful than a pyramid of concentric circles, but it looked good enough for a magazine.

A shriek stole the last of her hearing. “Bab, when did you get here?”

Bab turned to Tanya, rubbing her ears. “I didn’t want to interrupt.”

Tanya laughed. “It’s either sing or put up with Maria’s preaching.”

“Soul food _isn’t_ vegan,” the third girl hissed.

“Aren’t you making peas and carrots?” Tanya said.

“Doesn’t count, I use butter,” Maria said.

“See what I mean?” Tanya said to Bab with a hammy sigh.

Bab’s smile shook around the edges. “Why not vegan?”

“Thank you!” Tanya abandoned her cutting board to crush Bab in a hug. “You understand.”

“Does that mean no cookies tonight?” Bab winced at her lack of subtlety. “They have dairy.”

“Of course cookies,” Tanya stepped back, giving her a hard look. “Cookies need butter, chicken need salt, and collard greens are better with orange juice instead of pork.”

“Blasphemy,” called a new voice from the doorway. Jen walked in, arms full of cans and equipment. “Smoked pork is food of the gods.”

As the trio rambled amongst themselves, tension fell from Bab’s shoulders. She set the table, making sure everything was picture perfect while the others worked by the stove and countertops. Aside from the odd comment thrown in her direction, they left her alone until their food was ready.

“What did you do?” Jen breathed as she took in Bab’s handiwork. “It looks like a real Sunday dinner now.”

“Ahem,” Tanya said, looking in the direction of the garbage bin. An empty tube of biscuit dough and gravy can sat on top of the trash.

“I was busy--” Jen started, but Maria cut her off.

“I forgot salt, gravy will help the peas and carrots.” She plopped her dish next to the duct tape flower. “Let’s start?”

No one commented on Bab sitting in the spot closest to the door. They were too busy saying things that threatened to stop her heart.

“How’s the food? Maria used fresh carrots this time.” Tanya wiggled her eyebrows. Maria, Bab’s bench partner, turned the color of rust.

The taste was on par with cafeteria food. Bab liked safety too much to say it aloud. “You’re right, it does go well with gravy.”

Maria stared at her plate as more blood rushed to her face.

“You know what would be great? Bacon.” Jen said. “Everything it touches turns to magic.”

Bab opened her mouth, closed it and lowered her head so no one could see her face. Auntie’s cookbook never limited power to a single ingredient. The other girls were too busy arguing which brand of cured meat was best to notice Bab.

It wasn’t long before the serving plates emptied. With competition out of the way, the froggers perfumed the table and made full stomachs grumble.

“Are these the cookies you made last week?” Jen asked.

Bab shook her head. “It’s a diff--” the trio snatched froggers for themselves and went to work reducing them to crumbs.

Jen’s first bite took out a third of her cookie. Her eyes widened. Tanya chewed slowly, lost in thought. Maria closed her eyes and clasped her hands like a church lady. “What did you say these were?”

“They’re molasses cookies.” Bab coughed, but her throat kept tingling. “Froggers.”

“Made with real frogs?” Tanya said, her mouth wry.

Bab took a deep breath and wished her lungs were bigger. “A woman named Lucretia Brown invented them.” All eyes were on her, none of them hateful. She looked at Tanya. “Lucretia was a black woman who ran an inn and made perfume and other things to sell.” To Jen and Maria she added “She was born in 1772 Massachusetts and owned property.”

No one spoke. They were too busy considering their froggers. Bab took one for herself and bit in deep. Spices spread through her mouth and seeped into her being. Her throat relaxed enough to ask “Maria, mind if I jog with you tomorrow?” before she realized it. A second mouthful of cookie kept panic at bay.

Maria’s ears darkened, but she said “I’d like that. Front door at eight A.M.? Wear good shoes.”

Bab took a second frogger, but when she reached for a third, all she found was an empty plate. Hearing the trio tease each other as they helped with cleanup almost made up for it. The lack of singing certainly did.

With four people helping, dishes and everything else were done in no time. Bab trailed the other girls out of the kitchen, itching to tell Aunt Barbara about tonight. It was too soon to tell how they’d take knowing Bab’s whole self, but for now they added warmth she couldn’t get with cookies alone.

END

 


 

"Barbara in the Frame” was originally published in FIYAH and is copyright Emmalia Harrington, 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, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Summer 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a new issue and a GlitterShip original, "Raders" by Nelson Stanley.

Episode #70: “The Girl With All The Ghosts” by Alex Yuschik

Episode #70: “The Girl With All The Ghosts” by Alex Yuschik

April 11, 2019

The Girl With All the Ghosts

by Alex Yuschik

 

It’s her second-to-last Friday night at Six Resplendent Suns Funeral Palace and House of the Dead, and Go-Eun is getting terrible reception on her cell.

Part of it’s because everyone’s on the network, but mostly it’s the ghosts, garden variety specters who unfold themselves into nine-story menaces, shadow-thin and barbed with carcinogens. Go-Eun would not have thought they could bring this many cell phone towers down running from fox mechs, but then again, she never thought she’d end up working the night shift at an inner-city funeral palace either.

 

Episode 70 is a GLITTERSHIP ORIGINAL and part of the Summer 2018 issue!

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

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 70 for April 11, 2019. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to share this story and poem with you. Today we have a GlitterShip original by Alex Yuschik, "The Girl With All the Ghosts" and a poem, "Chrysalis" by Kendall Evans.

Before we get started, a reminder that there's still a Tiptree Honor Book sale going on for the GlitterShip Year One and Year Two anthologies on gumroad! Just go to gumroad.com/keffy and use the coupon code “tiptree,” that’s t-i-p-t-r-e-e to get the ebooks for $5 each.

Just as an aside, I apologize for all—[Finn barking loudly] Finn. I apologize for the dog noises—[More loud barking]—dog noises—[barking]—in this episode. If I put them outside of my room, they cry. If I put them in the backyard, they bark at the neighbor. And if I let them in my room [dog rustling and grumble barks] they don't understand why I'm not paying attention to them.

 

 


Stories and poems by Kendall Evans have appeared in most of the major SF and fantasy magazines, including Asimov’s, Analog, Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium Amazing Stories, Dreams & Nightmares, Weird Tales, Alien Worlds, Nebula Award Showcase, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.  His novel in verse, The Rings of Ganymede, and his novella Bring me the Head of Philip K. Dick’s Simulacrum are both available from Alban Lake Books.

 


Chrysalis

by Kendall Evans

 

 

I.

The newborn starship
Bathed in sunlight & starlight
Dries its gossamer wings
Preparing for the far reach
To the stars

II.

Festive-colored ribbons
Spiral.  You and I
Dance around the Maypole
At dusk
Circling
Eying one another
While we discuss
Darwinian logic

III.

Recombinant forms emerge
From interstellar dust
Mutate & shift & merge
Ruled by the coldest equations
And analogs of lust

IV.

I have watched
Exotic robots hatch
From ovoid metal shells
& Peck at nuts & bolts
Upon my parquet floors    

 


And our story is "The Girl With All the Ghosts" by Alex Yuschik, read by Faylita Hicks.

Alex Yuschik is a PhD candidate in Mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh. Besides math and writing, Alex enjoys traveling, hanging out in as many cat cafes as humanly possible, and waking up before dawn to lift heavy things and then put them back down. Their short fiction has also appeared in Escape Pod and Luna Station Quarterly.

Faylita Hicks (pronouns: she/her/they) is a black queer writer. She was a finalist in the 2018 PEN American Writing for Justice Fellowship and the 2018 Cosmonauts Avenue Annual Poetry Prize. Her debut book, HoodWitch, is forthcoming October 2019 with Acre Books.

Her poetry and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Slate, Huffington Post, POETRY magazine, Kweli Journal, The Rumpus, The Cincinnati Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, Lunch Ticket, Matador Review, Glass Poetry, Pidgeonholes, Yes Poetry, American Poetry Journal, Ink and Nebula and others.

She received her MFA in creative writing from Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency program and lives in San Marcos, Texas. She is at work on a memoir.


 

The Girl With All the Ghosts

by Alex Yuschik

 

It’s her second-to-last Friday night at Six Resplendent Suns Funeral Palace and House of the Dead, and Go-Eun is getting terrible reception on her cell.

Part of it’s because everyone’s on the network, but mostly it’s the ghosts, garden variety specters who unfold themselves into nine-story menaces, shadow-thin and barbed with carcinogens. Go-Eun would not have thought they could bring this many cell phone towers down running from fox mechs, but then again, she never thought she’d end up working the night shift at an inner-city funeral palace either.

“Load.” Go-Eun taps her phone screen again.

Honestly, most of it’s not so bad, the shelves of urns and silent hallways, the familiar and calculated snake of her path through the dim ossuary. The thirtieth through fiftieth floors make up her soon-to-be-former territory, and the clamor of light pollution keeps anywhere from getting too dark. Neapolitan swipes of pink-gold-cyan bleed through from neon nightclub signs and adorn the shelves in glimmer and flash, and aisle lights frame every niche in respectful and seemingly infinite ellipses, dot-dot-dots sealing in the city’s sleeping dead.

Before one gets into the mechanics of proof, it is necessary to state a few definitions that will be useful later.

The building is a magpie. Listen, and it carries noises up its sides, slipping them into windows like jewels: revelers from a nearby bar stumble loudly through the ladder of numbers in Baskin Robbins 31, a TGX-Mauve/F stretches its tiger mech joints in a hiss of pneumatics, and a couple breaks up or makes love or both too near an open window somewhere in the apartment complex next door.

The building is covetous. Go-Eun never needed the Six Resplendent Suns employee pamphlet to know this, but it’s listed there as well.

She taps her phone again. There’s an email from her boss, asking her to reconsider quitting. Go-Eun deletes it. That’s what breaking up is, another number that won’t reply, one more open question that their system of deduction isn’t complete enough to answer.

It’s exactly why Jae-Yeon won’t text her back either.

Finally, the page she’s been trying to refresh comes up.

YES SO AWESOME I can’t believe they kissed!!! YOU ARE A LITERAL GODDESS UPDATE SOON

“There was no edge without an end, and if this was their end, he thought, then so be it.” holy shit be still my brigadier-loving heart

THIS FIC I AM RUINED best Brigie/SJ ever

One thousand reviews. She high-fives an urn. For an eighty thousand word slash masterpiece she’s written in the small pauses of her life, not too shabby.

And it’s almost enough to make her forget about the ghosts, the hallways that stretch on and on and on, the now-empty shelves where relatives used to leave flowers and other small offerings, until Six Resplendent Suns and every other Numerical Family in charge of an ossuary mandated mourning training. Most of the time it’s beautiful and silent, a second, stiller universe to mirror the riot outside.

Sometimes it’s not.

Go-Eun bows and enters, bows and leaves, thumb-typing a drabble about Seo-Joon waking up as she heads to FF, the twice-cursed floor, those two unspoken hungers grating against each other like teeth in gears that don’t line up. It’s a pity her new job at the construction company probably won’t let her be on her phone as much. She’s almost finished with the scene when she pauses.

In the middle of the rows, a pale shape, unsteady, picks itself up from the wreckage of an urn.

Most ghosts understand they’re dead. The body gives its two weeks’ notice to the soul and the connection is gradually severed, a proof ending in a neat white box, QED, or even that infuriating the rest is left as an exercise for the reader. Only the violent ends do this: the wide gaze of the war dead, the slow unraveling of conditional and consequent, and then a soft and tremulous oh.

It’s a young man, maybe Go-Eun’s age, maybe a little more. He’s wearing pilot’s fatigues, but before her mind can race to pin a mech animal to him, he spots her.

The first time she saw a ghost that was not in a training video, pamphlet, or out of control and tall as a building being subdued by a mech, it was in the F2nd bathroom and something kept playing with her hair. A girl dressed in white rose behind her in the mirror like a dark star, cracked lips daring Go-Eun to look at me.

The boy’s not a tiger pilot— people like Jae-Yeon stand out miles away. Not tortoise or dragon mech either.

No, with reflexes that fast, eyes that dark, the boy’s got to have been a fox pilot. Most of them specify banishment immediately after cremation in their wills because they don’t want to become the things they destroy. Maybe this one didn’t. Maybe he is exactly as unlucky as spending his afterlife on floor FF implies he must be.

“You,” Go-Eun says, fighting the tremble out of her voice, “are not my problem anymore. I’m quitting.”

She must not be very convincing, because the boy with rogue eyes and mouth full of knives smiles at her and vanishes.

 

Before the ghost war, Go-Eun had two parents, a younger sister, and a house full of art.

The father and sister vanished quickly, the art slowly. We can’t afford the rent anymore, her mother said after the funerals, but we need another month before we can move. The paintings were traded for old cabbage and limp fish, and their empty house became emptier. This was before Go-Eun took the Six Resplendent Suns job, before houses of the dead and funeral palaces knew they’d need people like Go-Eun.

She enters in danger and leaves in safety. That’s why it pays so well. She will return when the rest of the ossuary guards are too scared to tread floors with F’s on them instead of numbers, and she will toss her badge and heavy keys to the dawn attendants for thirteen more days, her phone’s LED screen turning her into one more bright skull fading with the stars.

When Go-Eun gets back to the Faintly Glimmering apartments, it is dawn and all the ghosts are quiet. She slugs down a strawberry milk in the kitchen as her mother gives her the once-over.

“If I had spectral poisoning you’d see the teeth, Mom,” Go-Eun says. “Less than two weeks to go.”

Star Gilded Hye-Kyeong deposits a kiss on her forehead. “I just want you to be safe, sweetheart.”

Her mother works urban restoration projects. They never pay well, not as well as a job at a house of the dead, especially not Go-Eun’s. But when her mom’s team got additional funding from the city, Go-Eun turned in her letter of resignation. She’s not going to be able to fight off ghosts forever, and there are safer places to work.

Go-Eun shucks the milk into the garbage and finishes a reply to a reader with an elaborate winking face. “I just feel like I’m giving up by leaving. Like I could help, but I’m choosing to run instead.”

The water runs a few moments longer than it needs to.

“We all do, honey. It’s part of living in this city.” Her mother is a skyscraper swaying against its ballast, the heavy weight above her head the only thing holding her still. This is all an exercise of translation, a change of variables between coordinate systems. When Hye-Kyeong says, “Six Resplendent Suns called earlier about your severance package.” what she means is: “This isn’t a game that you win.”

Go-Eun says, “I’ll call them back.”

What she means is: “Then why do I want to keep playing?”

And she hates it, that she has to walk herself calmly through brushing her teeth and changing into an oversized t-shirt, that her hands tremble as she sheet masks before bed, feeling like a damp ghost and smelling like cherry blossoms. She writes the next chapter in her house slippers before barricading herself under the covers, hating that she can’t keep the shivers down once she shuts the blinds.

It always takes until her phone runs out of battery, when she runs out of ideas for fics or her hands lack the strength to swipe out stories in which Seo-Joon and his mysterious Brigadier end up together and happy. In less than two weeks she won’t have to fall asleep with her face stuck to a notebook, with the last thing she sees ink in a pen waiting to be used, another form of hunger.

Sometimes positive statements require proof by contradiction. The tenuous claim: Go-Eun is not afraid. To show this, suppose Go-Eun is afraid.

Because secretly, her mother is right.

 

It is now possible to prove some elementary results.

Suppose there is a ghost loose in an ossuary and it is your job to catch them. You may take as long as you need to solve this problem or until you retire or are injured or someone notices. Points will be taken off if you are poisoned, and you are under no circumstances allowed to die. Here is a pencil. Go.

The next day, Go-Eun doesn’t pack food. She gets a kids’ meal because it’s cheap and there’s a fast food place right next to the house of the dead. Also, she likes kids’ meals. They have Havoc Party toys in them now, and she would not be half the super-fan she is if she didn’t at least collect Seo-Joon and the Brigadier.

On the way into work, she waves to the tiger mechs patrolling the building, another TGX-Mauve/F and four TGX-Granite/III’s, each of them five stories tall, high enough she can’t see who’s piloting them.

Before Jae-Yeon hated her, they’d met after their shifts, one girl leaving her ghosts and the other her mech. Jae-Yeon had propped a hand on her pilot’s belt and asked cavalierly if she could buy Go-Eun a tea sometime. This led to more teas.

She can reverse-outline their romance into a spindly ladder of deduction: that pivotal universal introduction to the final existential elimination. Maybe that’s why she excels at this job, she’s just that good at destroying things. She makes it through the start of the F floors, pausing on FF.

Something cold and cruel passes over the back of her neck.

A fact nestled in an absurdity: the hollow or sometimes shaded box at the end of proofs is colloquially referred to as the mathematician’s tombstone.

Go-Eun’s hand tightens around her phone, but no one’s there. FF remains quiet in its combinatorial worship, ancestors suspended in waystations to sainthood. This is what Six Resplendent Suns promises, that this mess with skyscraper-tall specters is only temporary, that you too can assure your relatives’ continued divinity with prompt monthly rent payments and the proper clearances.

By the time she’s halfway through the floor, she finishes chapter revisions. Her next update will be a break-up scene, because happiness is one of the lesser hungers of the body: it can’t last if you want the story to keep going. She knew this before Jae-Yeon, but it still surprised her.

Footsteps follow her along aisles, wards and sparse mourning cards moved slightly out of place. This is how it starts, the small disturbances.

She opens the kids’ meal, half in defiance, half because she’s hungry, and says her quiet prayer: in all things, I will outlast you.

The fries are tinier than she remembered and this injustice truly must be some small god laughing at her, but at least the chicken nuggets are good. When Go-Eun outlined her plan to collect all the Havoc Party toys this morning, her mother said she had an unsophisticated palate. Go-Eun said of course she does, that’s why she writes amateur fiction. It’s not about taste; it’s about devotion.

Something clatters behind her.

It always comes for you from your shadow, the history you trail behind you in a string of dark theorems, assumptions, and implications. This you may use without proof.

Go-Eun whips around just as the ghost lunges.

The kids’ meal hits the ground and his teeth go right through her jacket, though the protective vest she’s wearing keeps them from breaking skin.

What he doesn’t expect is the glimmer and the fade, the axiomatic crawl that shivers through him when her fist connects with the side of his face, two planes intersecting in a line of ice. He staggers back into the aisle, toxins dripping from his teeth like he’s been drinking machine oil, and watches her.

The rips aren’t that bad, not this time. She brushes herself off, picks up her things, and pretends she doesn’t see his eyes following her hands as she assembles the toy from the kids’ meal. He pretends he’s not still shivering from her strike.

She sews the jacket up in the staff room before she goes home, a hand hesitating over the emergency intercom. One call to the banishment department and he’s toast. This ghost isn’t her problem anymore. She’s already handed in the paperwork. Doesn’t her last week and a half on the job deserve to be easy?

And she and the ghost must both be good liars, because he follows her for the rest of her shifts and she’s halfway home before she realizes she’s gotten the Brigadier.

 

In proof, there is a technique called induction. The reader is shown how to handle an initial case and then a successor case; in short, given a set of objects and a desired property, a mathematician shows the property holds for the first object and then every object thereafter. The beauty of induction is that it traps the infinite within the finite. That is to say, as long as the structure of your proof is solid, you have created something that can run forever.

During her last week, Go-Eun gets more kids’ meals and Havoc Party toys, but not Seo-Joon. Six Resplendent Suns drags its feet on termination paperwork and night after night she contemplates the emergency intercom and night after night never presses it.

Because probably, it’ll be fine. The floor wards get more powerful as you descend— that is, the strength of the binding spells increases like pressure under an ocean. The pamphlet promises that escape is crushingly improbable, and surely the security of knowing one’s relative will never become the latest shade shredded by fox mechs is worth the exorbitant fees and more.

The first time Go-Eun sees the ghost on F3 she nearly drops her kids’ meal. It’s not supposed to happen this fast. He’s not supposed to figure out how to get out this fast.

This time he doesn’t attack. Instead, he tracks her hand as she pulls the toy out of the box, eyes so dark it’s almost impossible to tell the pupil from the iris. It takes her a moment to notice she’s finally gotten Seo-Joon.

Go-Eun pauses for a moment, then holds the figurine out. “Truce?”

The ghost wrinkles his nose. Yeah, she’s speaking extremely casually, but he also tried to bite her the last time, so whatever.

Go-Eun shrugs and moves to put Seo-Joon in her bag because damn it, she worked hard for this, but the ghost steps forward in a rush of frost and darkness. He spreads his hands as though to say, sorry, sorry, I know it’s all a terrible inconvenience, but yes, I do want the toy.

Warily, she hands it over. When the weight transfers from her hands to his, Seo-Joon’s thereness shifts. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t done this before, but it becomes easier to talk about the figurine in a different domain than its native one. The ghost runs a hand along Seo-Joon’s face, then smiles in a pull of noxious lips and serrated teeth.

Once, Jae-Yeon was bitten on duty. They kept her overnight in pilots’ medical, and Go-Eun sat outside the double doors to the clean rooms, overhearing every whisper about toxicity and keen bile until a surgeon told her Jae-Yeon was stable. In the weeks following her release there were phosphorous dreams, a winding purple-black scar, and Jae-Yeon murmuring some nights it feels like I’m split between existences and whenever I meet you in all the other elsewheres you terrify me.

They fell apart slowly, a universe screaming back to its point of origin.

“You have a name?” Go-Eun asks the ghost.

He shrugs, but when they meander back to FF he kicks something out from below a shelf. It’s a shard of an urn, bearing in red the words Iridescently Codifying Byeong-Dal.

“Cool.”

Byeong-Dal shakes his head like this is the least cool thing he’s heard since he died, but he keeps turning the figure over and over, like it’s something that matters. He doesn’t look like your typical Havoc Party fan, but who knows. A tiger mech moves abruptly outside, and when Go-Eun looks back at him, Byeong-Dal’s gone.

Go-Eun does not see him again that night, and no matter how much fanfic she writes on her shift, when her coworkers congratulate her during her retirement party her stomach aches. Not one of them mentions her ghost or even knows how quickly this is becoming a problem.

 

“What if quitting doesn’t make me happy?”

Her mother cooks in abrupt clatters of pots and utensils as they hash out the same argument, a tired deduction ad infinitum. The assumptions: Go-Eun came home late. Go-Eun always arrives on time except in emergencies. Conclusion: something must have gone wrong (obviously it has, there is a ghost loose and no one’s doing anything about it).

“You have no weapons, no guarantees in that horrible building except your extreme good luck.” Her mother calmly checks the black bean noodles and clicks her tongue. “How could staying in a death trap make you happy?”

“Sorry.” Go-Eun just wants to have dinner, not trot this out over side dishes. It’s her last stupid night at work, and when her phone buzzes with a new fanfic review she’s not sure if she’s disappointed or relieved Six Resplendent Suns hasn’t discovered her ghost yet. Idly, she clicks it.

“I keep trying to tell you, you can’t have everything. Or you can ignore me because you’re too busy with your phone.” Her mother slams the refrigerator door and one of Go-Eun’s Havoc Party toys on the window sill falls into the sink. Hye-Kyeong plucks it out and swears. “Gods, you only did love useless things.”

Go-Eun grabs her coat and leaves.

When college still mattered, she was tutored by a grad student at SKY University who studied formal logic. They had bone-straight hair which they always wore in a ponytail and an impressive collection of blazers. In tutoring breaks, they told Go-Eun about their research.

Do you know that mathematics is incomplete? They asked, balancing a mechanical pencil on a slender finger. It’s a major theorem: our system is a poor oracle, unable to divine the truth or falsehood of everything you hand it. Set theory is not adequate; it cannot answer its own most basic questions.

It’s like when you finally realize how big the domain of discourse is, or how truly large infinity is, when you try to hold the universe in your head and something always escapes. Her tutor laughed. Yeah, that’s why I don’t study set theory anymore. I nearly drank myself to death.

Why? Go-Eun said. It’s just math.

They set their chin on their hand, spun the pencil with hooded eyes, and asked, is it?

She’s half an hour too early for her shift so she stops by the fast food place for another kids’ meal (with extra fries, because they are tiny as shit). Go-Eun scrolls through her friends’ latest pictures as she climbs the ossuary stairs, and because apparently the universe is out to torture her today, Jae-Yeon’s changed her profile pic to her and her latest girlfriend, a mech repair specialist. The two of them sport identical necklaces, both winking with opposite eyes at the camera so they look a bit like a mirror in love with itself.

Go-Eun has taken this same kind of photo with her other ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends, and all those pictures inhabit the same folder on her laptop, timelines extinguished.

“Why does everything always fall apart in real life?” She fumes at Byeong-Dal on F0 and throws some fries at the ghost. He catches and eats them. “Like, why can’t I have it all?”

He frowns, then opens his mouth like he’s about to say something when a fox mech careens too close to the building. There is a bright burst of ghastly light and neither the skyscraper’s steel skeleton nor its ballast prevent them from shaking when the explosion’s aftershocks hit them.

Something shatters.

Byeong-Dal’s eyes go wide a second before he vanishes, and Go-Eun pulls the distress signal just as the door to the stairs opens.

Of all the heirs, it had to be Six Resplendent Suns Tae-Ha. He’s in his late twenties, tall and lithe in a way that makes him look like a living shadow, and his pocket square remains soldier-straight even with a bite-proof vest covering most of it. “Star-Gilded Go-Eun.” He nods. “I’m sorry to hand you a catastrophe on your last day, but here we are. Good hunting.”

He takes off, greatcoat flapping. Go-Eun chases after him. “Mr. Six Resplendent Suns, if that blast really did knock over an urn then this is too dangerous for you to be here alone, even in a vest.”

Tae-Ha smiles in a cutthroat kind of calculus. “Your concern is touching. Rest assured, I’m taking no risks with the chairman watching me this closely. And I am by no means alone.”

Three banishers walk out of the stairwell in their pressed suits, guns drawn.

“Banishers?” Go-Eun asks. “Already?”

She is not adequate; she cannot answer her own most basic questions.

“The threat is too great not to address immediately.” Tae-Ha coughs to cover up her too-casual address. “Please continue to exceed my expectations.”

They head off. Go-Eun rushes down to Floor 37 where a dark shape waits for her.

“Thank gods, you have to hide.” She’s shaking. “Banishers are here and they think you’re the escapee. Well, not like you’re not, but—”

Except the shape isn’t Byeong-Dal, not the tall and silent fox pilot with sad eyes, but someone else made mad and hungry by quiescence and the veils of captivity.

It smiles in a line of dripping teeth.

Go-Eun runs for the stairs. The banishers are floors above her, so the wards will have to do. Her shoes skid down the stair treads, past 36 and 35, all the way to 32 where she slams the door shut, out of breath.

For safety reasons, the employee pamphlet says, there is only one set of exits to each floor. It’s easier to close off that way, minimize the damage. The building is covetous, after all.

A black puddle seeps under the door.

This is what she’s most afraid of: that at the end of the story she, the banishers, and the ghosts are all the same shade of monster, something that talked to itself long enough to think it was a god.

And then someone comes between her and the wild ghost: a familiar shape that punches through the newcomer with eerie precision, like he’s used to doing this in a mechanical body several stories taller and more vulpine.

Howling, the ghost sinks its teeth into Byeong-Dal’s shoulder. His translucent skin darkens and he shakes, but he does not stop his sure and ponderous deconstruction of the rogue, not until it turns back into ash. He presents the remains to Go-Eun, weary but triumphant, his expression not unlike hers as she handed him plastic figurines all those nights before.

“Thank you.” Go-Eun laughs, eyes bright. “But we have to—”

The stairwell door opens. “Found it!” A woman in a black suit levels her weapon at Byeong-Dal. “Firing in three.”

Byeong-Dal rises, venomous and horrible, between Go-Eun and the banishers.

“No, don’t!” Go-Eun yells.

But the banisher fires in a loud crack of sound, Go-Eun’s ears ring, and there’s nothing but smoke rising, dead air, and Jae-Yeon asking the same question all Go-Eun’s significant others have asked her, angrily, in tears, over texts or face-to-face: why don’t you want me anymore?

On the ossuary floor is a small marble about the size of her thumbnail. It is cold when she touches it and looks wrong, too glassy or too opaque. There is no more Byeong-Dal. When Go-Eun holds the marble up to the hallway light, something in it flashes, like the hazy, indecipherable smile of a fox, like a toy, like the shell of an exploded sun.

Like a boy, half-there, half-not.

That has been her curse, her prayer, her promise: to outlast them all. But by all the gods, she is so damn sick of being miserable.

For once it should end like it does in her stories.

Her shadow trembles. She holds the tiny clouded sphere up to her bombed-out eyes, and before anyone can see what she’s doing, swallows it.

 

Six Resplendent Suns Tae-Ha helps her up, compliments her skill in neutralizing one of the escapees, and offers her a new job as a banisher with an impressive litany of perks, a raise, and better hours. The three banishers look smug. Go-Eun excuses herself, declines the new job, and heads to the roof of another desiccated building, so awash in floodlights it makes her shadow look like an asterisk, a little glyph with her at the center.

There is one more line coming off it than usual.

“Well, I didn’t think this would happen. But since you’re here, uh,” Go-Eun says, bowing low to the figure on the newest spine of her many-legged star, “I, uh, hope you don’t mind hanging around a while.”

Byeong-Dal stands a shadow’s length from her and holds his hands up to the night sky, tracing their wild, starry city with his fingers. He laughs, and for the first time since she met him his teeth are completely normal. “I thought I’d never see this again.”

As she walks home, Go-Eun hums and pulls out her phone to work on a new fic. Halfway through a chapter, she stops. A result is only valid if it can be repeated. And if she can rescue one ghost—

She begins an email to Tae-Ha titled About That Banishing Job and laughs when she sends it. She is the last hidden library, a catalogue of ghosts, and when she hits Save, nothing is lost.

This completes the induction. The rest of the proof is left as an exercise for the reader.

 


“Chrysalis” is copyright Kendall Evans 2019.

“The Girl With All the Ghosts” is copyright Alex Yuschik 2019.

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, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Summer 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint of “Barbara in the Frame” by Emmalia Harrington.

Episode #69: “Ratcatcher” by Amy Griswold

Episode #69: “Ratcatcher” by Amy Griswold

April 4, 2019

Ratcatcher

by Amy Griswold

 

 

 

1918, over Portsmouth

The souls in the trap writhed and keened their displeasure as Xavier picked up the shattergun. “Don’t fuss,” he scolded them as he turned on the weapon and adjusted his goggles, shifting the earpieces so that the souls’ racket penetrated less piercingly through the bones behind his ears. “It’s nothing to do with you.”

The two airships were docked already, a woman airman unfastening safety ropes from the gangplank propped between them to allow Xavier to cross. The trap rocked with a vibration that owed nothing to the swaying airships, and Xavier lifted it and tucked it firmly under his arm. He felt the soul imprisoned in his own chest stir, a straining reaction that made him stop for a moment to catch his breath.

 

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 69 for April 4th, 2019. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to share this story with you. Our story today is "Ratcatcher" by Amy Griswold. 

Before we get to the story, GlitterShip has recently had some exciting news. Our second anthology, GlitterShip Year Two was listed as a Tiptree Award Honor Book for 2018. We're very happy that the Tiptree jury enjoyed the book, and owe a great debt to all the authors who have allowed us to publish their work. You can find out more about the Tiptree Award and check out the winner Gabriela Damian Miravete's story, "They Will Dream in the Garden" at tiptree.org.

You can also pick up copies of the GlitterShip Year One and Year Two anthologies on gumroad at gumroad.com/keffy for $5 each. Just use the coupon code "tiptree," that's t-i-p-t-r-e-e.

Amy Griswold is the author of the interactive novels The Eagle’s Heir and Stronghold (with Jo Graham), published by Choice of Games, as well as the gay fantasy/mystery novels Death by Silver and A Death at the Dionysus Club (with Melissa Scott). Her short fiction has been published in markets including F&SF and Fantastic Stories of the Imagination.

Robin G has been an entertainment manager, entertainer/vocalist, theatrical producer and writer of several pantomimes including a UV version of Pinocchio that toured 20 theaters in the UK. He was first alerted to the supernatural in a strange dream sequence while in the Royal Air Force that placed him at a future event. The knowledge that a part of our brain exists in another reality has shown him many unusual incidents of the sixth sense. He writes both fiction and non-fiction which includes Jim Long — space agent, a series of stand-alone stories in 7 books, including one as a radio episodic creation, and the non-fiction book Magical theory of life—discusses our life, history, and its aftermath in non-religious spiritual terms.

 

 

Ratcatcher

by Amy Griswold

 

 

 

1918, over Portsmouth

The souls in the trap writhed and keened their displeasure as Xavier picked up the shattergun. “Don’t fuss,” he scolded them as he turned on the weapon and adjusted his goggles, shifting the earpieces so that the souls’ racket penetrated less piercingly through the bones behind his ears. “It’s nothing to do with you.”

The two airships were docked already, a woman airman unfastening safety ropes from the gangplank propped between them to allow Xavier to cross. The trap rocked with a vibration that owed nothing to the swaying airships, and Xavier lifted it and tucked it firmly under his arm. He felt the soul imprisoned in his own chest stir, a straining reaction that made him stop for a moment to catch his breath.

“If you’re ready, sir,” the airman said, and Xavier forced himself into motion. He nodded crisply and strode out onto the gangplank with the ease of long years spent aboard ships, his gloved hand just brushing the rail. He scrambled down from the other end and got out of the way of airmen rushing to disengage the gangplank and close the hatch before the two ships could batter at each other too dangerously in the rising wind.

The Coriolanus’s captain strode toward him, and Xavier winced as he recognized a familiar face. He set the trap down, both to get it farther away from the casing that housed the soul in his chest, and to give himself a moment to banish all envy from his expression.

He straightened with a smile. “Hedrick. I see you landed on your feet after that muddle over Calais.”

“I’ve got a knee that tells me the weather now,” Hedrick said, scrubbing at his not-entirely-regulation stubble of ginger beard. “They told me you’d been grounded.”

“I’m still attached to the extraction service,” Xavier said. “As a civilian now.”

Hedrick’s eyes flickered to the odd lines of Xavier’s coat front, and then back up to his face without a change of expression. He’d always been good at keeping a straight face at cards. “We could use the help. We had a knock-down drag-out with the Huns a few weeks back—just shy of six weeks, I make it. Heavy casualties on both sides, and some of them damned reluctant to move on.”

“Only six weeks? You hardly need me. Chances are they’ll still depart on their own.”

“You haven’t seen the latest orders that came down, then. We’re supposed to call in the ratcatchers at the first sight of ghosts. Not acceptable on a well-run ship, don’t you know.”

“You’re also meant to shave,” Xavier said. “It’s not like you to comply with every absurd directive that comes down the pike.” He couldn’t help reveling in the freedom to talk that way, one of the few rewards of his enforced change in career.

“These are Colonel Morrow’s orders.”

“Mmm.” That put a different face on it, or might. Morrow supervised the ratcatchers, civilian and military, and his technical brilliance had saved Xavier’s life when he lost his soul. That said, it was entirely in character for Morrow to go on a tear about efficiency without regard for how much work it made for anyone else.

“Besides, there’s more to it,” Hedrick said as the Coriolanus drifted free of the Exeter. “We’ve been having damned bad luck of late. Pins slipping out of a gangplank just as one of the lads stepped on it—he just missed ending up a smear on the landscape. More engine malfunctions than you can name, and some of them dangerous. If the Coriolanus weren’t in such good repair to start with, she’d have burned twice over in the last month.”

“You suspect sabotage.”

“Some of the Jerries had their boots on our deck when they bit it. We tossed the bodies over the side, but still I’m not entirely easy in my mind.”

“Next time, don’t,” Xavier said. “The soul’s more likely to stay in the corpse if it’s well treated. Ill handling breaks the ties faster.” He directed his gaze out the porthole window of the gondola rather than at Hedrick’s face. “You weren’t using shatterguns?”

“We haven’t got them mounted. No budget for them in our grade, I hear. And just as well if you ask me. They give me the cold chills.” Hedrick glanced at the shattergun under Xavier’s arm.

“A necessity in my profession,” he said.

“Better you than me.”

It was a backhanded enough kind of sympathy that Xavier didn’t cringe away from it. “Any particular area of the ship most affected?”

“The crew quarters, I think—I’ve had men stirring up their whole deck with screaming nightmares, and not the usual nervous cases.”

“At least it’s a place to start.”

He followed Hedrick through the narrow corridors of the airship’s gondola to the cramped berthing area that housed the enlisted men. Only the night watch was there and sleeping, young men squeezed into claustrophobically low bunks, some with their knees tucked up to keep their feet from dangling off the end. A panel of canvas made a half-hearted divider screening the row of women’s bunks from the men’s view.

Xavier set down his gear and stretched out on the nearest unoccupied bunk. “Leave me alone, now, and let me work.”

“Funny kind of work,” Hedrick said, raising an eyebrow at his recumbent form.

“‘They also serve who only stand and wait,’” Xavier said, and tried not to sound bitter. “Now get out.” He closed his eyes at the sound of Hedrick’s retreating footsteps and schooled his breathing into the steady rhythm that would send him swiftly into a doze. The soul in his chest shifted once, making him break his rhythmic breathing with a gasping cough, but he spread an entreating hand across its cage and it quieted.

He knew he was dreaming when he saw Thomas walk into the room and sit down on the foot of the bed. For a moment the more rational part of his mind protested that it was impossible to sit down on the foot of an airship bunk, but his dreaming mind obligingly replaced the scene with a four-poster bed lit by streaming sunshine.

Thomas’s hair was limned with gold, his eyes bright and laughing. “Haven’t you got work to do?” He was dressed in the uniform he died in, but as Xavier took his hand, it faded like smoke to reveal freckled skin.

“I do,” Xavier said. “I’m most remiss.” He raised his chin unrepentantly, and Thomas grappled for him like a wrestler. He was aware of reality as soon as they touched, the sensation of Thomas’s soul writhing through Xavier’s body painfully erotic but nothing remotely like physical sex.

He heard himself gasp, unsure whether he’d actually made a sound the sleeping airmen could hear, and realized how genuinely unwise this was. He pushed Thomas away, and the other man’s soul retreated, dissolving into curling smoke, and then retreated too far, tugging away in unstoppable reflex. It felt like someone was pulling a rib out of his chest.

“Thomas—”

The smoke resolved itself for a moment into the golden-haired man, his face contorted. “I’m trying to stop,” he said. His shape exploded into smoke again, and twisted almost free of Xavier’s chest, leaving Xavier unable to draw a breath for long enough that his vision darkened. Then Thomas was back, sprawled against Xavier’s side as if in the exhausted aftermath of love.

“Christ, that hurt,” Thomas said. “Like trying to hold onto a hot iron.”

“You know it will only get worse.”

“And so what’s the point in talking about it?” The image of Thomas appeared to stand, now pressed and correct in his airman’s uniform, looking around the dim barracks-room. His soul lay quiet in Xavier’s chest, a weight that eased its lingering ache. “We still have a job to do.”

“So we do.”

“There have been ghosts here,” Thomas said. “Two, I think. I’d look in the engine room if I were you.” He turned, frowning. “And don’t lay aside your gun. At least one of them is in a dangerous mood.”

 

In the engine room, the thumping of the steam engines pulsed through Xavier’s bones, and the heat coming off every surface beat against his skin. Through his goggles he could see wisps of what looked like steam but were really the lingering traces of the dead, men and women who had died in the recent battle. Not ghosts but something more like bloodstains.

He turned a circle, looking for a more solid form, and settled the goggles’ earpieces more firmly against the bones behind his ears. A hundred sounds were familiar, the cacophony of airship travel he’d long ago learned to drown out. Under them was the faintest of animal noises, a tuneless moaning. He took a step toward it, and then another.

A rattling on the other side of the engine room distracted him, and he turned. A connecting rod was flailing free, its pin out and the mechanism it served shuddering with the interrupted rhythm. He crossed the deck swiftly, keeping his head lifted as if watching the loose rod, but his eyes fixed on the deck.

He caught the movement and stopped short as a hatch swung open in front of him, steam rising from the gaping space he had been intended to step into.

“A creditable try,” he said. “Pity I’ve seen these tricks before.”

He raised his shattergun, keeping his expression calm despite his awareness of his danger. A ghost could only move small objects, but here there might be a hundred small objects that could release steam or poison fumes or heavy weights if moved.

“Why don’t you go in the trap like a good lad?” he said, putting the trap down on a section of deck that he made sure was solid. “This is the end of the road, you know.”

Silence greeted him. He turned a slow circle, raising the shattergun.

“You’re dead,” he said. “Stone cold dead. Your corpse is sinking to the bottom of the Channel or spattered across some unfortunate farmer’s hayfield. All that remains for you is to let go your precarious grip on this plane of existence and go to whatever awaits you.” There was no answer. “Or I can shoot you with this shattergun and destroy your soul. Would you like that better?”

He heard the moaning again, rising to a ragged wail like a child’s crying. He took cautious steps toward it, aware of every rattle in the machinery around him.

A wisp of smoke was curled up in a niche between the steel curves of two large engines, wailing forlornly. He raised the shattergun, and the smoke solidified into a dark-haired shape in an English airman’s uniform. It was a woman, and when she raised her head, he could see from the jagged ruin of one side of her skull that she’d met her end in an abrupt collision with some blunt object.

“Don’t shoot me!”

He lowered the shattergun cautiously. “I would far rather not.”

“I don’t want to be dead,” she said. “I’m still here, I’m still here—”

“You died weeks ago,” Xavier said. Six weeks ago, assuming she was a casualty of the most recent skirmish. “Your body is miles away and decomposing. You are dead, and the sooner you grasp that, the sooner you can move on.”

“I won’t go in that thing.”

“You will,” Xavier said briskly, knowing gentleness would be no mercy now. “The trap will confine you painlessly while I remove you from the site of your death.” He hefted the shattergun, but left the safety on. “Or I destroy your soul. That, I promise you, will hurt.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said, lifting a stubborn chin. It took stubbornness to be a woman in the service.

“There’s been sabotage.”

“It wasn’t me.”

“No, I don’t think it was,” he said. He was watching her face, and he saw her eyes move past him, fixing on something behind his shoulder. She cried out, but he was already moving, and threw himself to the deck as a blast of superheated steam singed the back of his neck. Steam swam in front of his eyes, and something darker within it: a second ghost, and one that was up to no good.

He pushed himself up to one elbow and reached out with his gloved hand, thrusting its mesh of wiring into the yielding substance of the new ghost and then clenching his fist. The ghost was a chill weight as he began drawing his hand back toward the trap. He had expected it to be too clever to be caught so easily.

There was no resistance. He understood why a moment too late as the ghost rushed toward him, and then into him, reaching for Xavier’s heart. Clever after all, he had time to think, before the sensation of being hollowed out from the inside sent him plunging into shellshock-vivid memory, a predictable and yet unavoidable descent—

 

—Xavier ducked under the web of grappling lines that bound the two ships together and fired between them, flattening himself against the remains of the breached gondola wall to reload. Through his goggles, he could see souls curling up out of the bodies that littered the deck, drifting free or swirling in snakelike muddled circles as if seeking a way back in. The wind screamed.

He reached down with his gloved hand to yank the nearest circling soul firmly free from its body, and held it flailing in his fist. He found his trap with the other hand, or what remained of it, shattered fragments. He shoved the soul at them anyway, but it wouldn’t go in.

“Never mind the sodding dead!” someone shouted, firing from beside him, but the only certainty he had in a world full of flying debris and blood was that the souls needed to come out of the corpses, extracted like rotten teeth. He raised his head, and saw the shattergun pointed at him from across the narrow gap between the ships.

He flung himself to one side, and the blast caught him on the side of the chest rather than between the eyes. I’m still here, he thought, I’m still here, and then saw the curling smoke trailing away from his chest like a ragged cloud torn apart by the wind. His breath caught in his chest, and then stopped, like something he’d forgotten how to do a long time ago.

He didn’t breathe, but he still moved, crushing the soul in his fist against his chest, reaching out mechanically for the remains of the trap, pressing it to his chest, then pressing harder. Harder, until the glass cut through skin and flesh, trapping the soul coiled half in, half out of his chest. Harder, until he bled, and breathed—

 

—He gasped for breath, and he was in the hospital ward, with Morrow sitting in a straight-backed chair at the foot of the bed, a look of interest on his stubbled face. “You know, it never occurred to me to try what you did. Not that it would have worked for long.”

Xavier looked down, and saw an alien construction of glass and metal wrapped around his chest, smoke swirling in its depths and an electric buzz humming against his skin. He breathed, trying not to gasp like a drowning swimmer. Each breath came more predictably than the last, but not more easily.

“I built you a more stable housing for your passenger,” Morrow said. “Tell me, what is it like? Having someone else’s soul animating your body?” He leaned forward eagerly, chin rested on his fist.

“Who is he?”

“Corporal Thomas Carlisle. Now unfortunately deceased. His service record is brief and unenlightening. You haven’t answered my question.”

“I’m alive,” Xavier said, but he had seen his soul shattered. Had felt himself dying. He reached up with one shaky hand and spread his fingers across the warm metal. Someone else was there as well, holding on to the inside of his chest as if wrapping desperate fingers around his ribs, determined not to let go—

 

His head snapped back and he tasted blood as Thomas’s shadowy form erupted from his chest, thrusting the invading ghost out with him and holding it at arm’s length.

“Possessive, are you?” Xavier managed, reaching blindly for the trap and finding it thankfully intact. He maneuvered it closer to where the ghost was writhing in Thomas’s grip, trying to ignore the warning ache in his chest.

“You know it.”

The German ghost was solid enough now for Xavier to see his uniform and the grim set of his jaw as he fought Thomas’s grasp. Xavier’s thumb slipped clumsily off the trap’s trigger the first time he tried it, and then slipped again. The increasing pain was becoming a problem. Finally he hit it solidly, and watched in satisfaction as the ghost became a rushing fog that swirled into the trap and disappeared.

His vision blurred, and he realized he hadn’t breathed in some time. He spread one hand in warning, and felt the soul rush back into his chest, its grip tightening, but still not as firm as it had been even a few hours before. Xavier spread his hand across the soul cage, a habitual gesture that still brought irrational comfort. Not much time. But enough to finish the business at hand.

“Your turn, now,” he said to the English airman’s ghost, as lightly as he could manage. “Don’t dawdle, we haven’t got all day.”

She slipped down from her perch and approached the trap, hanging back a healthy distance from its electric hum. “What happens after this?”

“There’s an air base in Manchester where we’ll empty the traps. It’s far enough from where you died that you’ll have no trouble moving on.” And considerable trouble doing anything else, with no death energies to give her a grip on the world of the living.

“I mean...what happens after that? Where do we go?”

“I’m not going to find out,” he said.

She met his eyes, something like sympathy kindling in her expression, bearable from someone already dead. “I am sorry,” she said, and then bolted away from the trap.

He already had his gloved hand out to catch her. “So am I,” he said, and crammed her ghost into the mouth of the trap, thumbing the switch to suck the swirl of angry fog inside.

Footsteps clattered on the metal decking, and an engineer stuck his head in, probably in answer to alarms from whatever essential piece of machinery the German ghost had employed in his attempt to kill Xavier. “What’s all this?”

“Tell the captain I’ve taken care of his pest problem,” Xavier said. “And that he can drop me in Manchester. I’m going to sleep until then.”

 

The moment he closed his eyes he could feel Thomas lying beside him, as if they were ordinary lovers indulging in a late morning lie-in.

“You could be wrong,” Thomas said.

“I think my clock keeps good time.” Even in the dream, he could feel the ache in his chest, his hands and feet cold.

“I hear Gottlieb thinks that the shattergun doesn’t really destroy the soul, just keeps it from being able to manifest as a ghost.”

“Gottlieb is a German.”

“Does that make him wrong?”

“Morrow thinks his work is fundamentally unsound.”

“For Christ’s sake.”

“Morrow has occasionally been wrong,” Xavier said, but he couldn’t believe the world was fundamentally merciful enough for any part of him to survive when the link between Thomas’s soul and his body rotted away. They would put him in the ground, and that would be the end.

“How long?” Thomas asked finally, his voice more even.

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

“You’re the ratcatcher. I was just an ordinary aviator. Blow those men down for king and country, yes, sir.” Thomas saluted jauntily, rolling away from Xavier in bed to do it. The ache in his chest worsened, and he ignored it.

“A day or two, I should think. Time enough to report to Morrow and offload these poor sods.”

“Maybe Morrow can do something.”

“We’ve discussed the problem. He hasn’t been optimistic.” Morrow’s soul cage had lasted for months longer than Xavier’s own bloody improvisation would have, but it was still failing, the link between Thomas’s soul and its electric cage fraying faster every hour.

“A day or two,” Thomas said.

“Yes.” Xavier was certain it wouldn’t be two. He slept until Hedrick shook his bunk to wake him.

“Manchester,” Hedrick said. “Come on, sleeping beauty.”

“It’s a harder job than you’d think,” Xavier said, following Hedrick up to the observation deck to debark. “Or would you like me to put them back and you can have a go at rounding them up? You were right, by the way. One of them was a Jerry, and up to considerable mischief.”

“I suppose that’s patriotic, by his lights,” Hedrick said. “But I’ll tell you this, if I die up here, I’ll go quiet as a little lamb. No more fighting for me. I’ve had my share and that’s a fact.” He clapped Xavier on the shoulder. “Next time I’m in Manchester I’ll stand you a drink.”

“Have one for me,” Xavier said, and stepped onto the waiting gangplank.

 

The air base towered above Manchester, an iron tree twenty stories high with jutting piers and thrumming generators that made the floor gratings shudder under Xavier’s feet. Morrow met Xavier on the pier.

“Good news,” he said, falling in beside Xavier as he walked. “I think I have a solution to your problem.”

“You said it was insoluble.” Hope rose unbidden in his throat, a hard knot that he swallowed down ruthlessly.

“I’ve worked out a technical solution. A side application, actually, of another process. Not that way,” he said, as Xavier turned toward the end of the pier, eager now to release the souls in his care and free himself to find out what Morrow had concocted. “Bring the trap down with you.”

Xavier frowned, but followed Morrow to the lift cage. It clattered downward, descending through a hell of industrial machinery past levels that bustled with airmen and engineers down to the quieter cargo bays. The lift stopped on the ground floor, generally deserted except when shipments of raw materials were brought in by truck. Bare electric lights swayed overhead, casting harsh shadows.

“You have no idea how much we all owe you,” Morrow said as Xavier followed him out of the lift. “What we’ve learned about how to maintain a ghost’s link to physical objects—it’s invaluable.”

“You mean physical objects like my body,” Xavier said. His chest was aching again, Thomas’s soul stirring uneasily in its housing. He wished Morrow would get on with it and either offer up whatever fix might help him or stop holding out hope.

“Incidentally. Not most importantly.” Morrow had been leading him through the shadowy bay toward the heavy bulks of vehicles, and stopped now with his hand caressing the hard lines of a tank. Its turret swiveled toward Xavier, and he froze in momentary alarm. “There’s no danger, its guns aren’t loaded.”

“I didn’t think these things were radio-controlled.”

“They’re not.” Morrow drew a bulky pistol from his coat pocket that Xavier realized after a moment’s examination was a shattergun, though a smaller model than any he’d seen before. “Can’t you see it?”

Thomas’s soul was writhing in alarm, and Xavier squinted at the tank, adjusting his goggles. When he turned them up to maximum sensitivity he could see the curl of smoke at the tank’s heart, swirling in tight unhappy circles and then battering itself against the walls of an invisible cage before returning to its circling.

“It’s haunted,” Xavier said.

“Inhabited,” Morrow said. “By a ghost with the power to control it without risking any living men.” His eyes were alight. “The next step in modern warfare.”

“Its occupant doesn’t seem very pleased.”

“They never like being in a trap. Surely you’ve learned that as a ratcatcher. There’s a certain discomfort involved in being bound into something other than a living body.”

By discomfort Morrow generally meant excruciating pain. “How long can you keep it there?”

“Indefinitely. Which provides a solution to your own problem, by the way.” He extracted a glowing puzzle-box of glass and metal from his pocket, something like the central cage within the maze of glass and wiring on Xavier’s chest. “But this is the real promise of it. There won’t be any more need for our men to leave the service just because they’re dead. No more excuses for desertion.”

“I wouldn’t call it desertion.”

“Retreating from the field,” Morrow said. “Going to their rest. Well, no one’s resting until this war is over.” The glitter in his eyes suggested that it had been long since he slept himself.

“As long as it’s voluntary.”

“Of course it’s voluntary.” Morrow brandished the shattergun and bared his teeth. “So far they’ve all preferred it to the alternative.”

“I see,” Xavier said. He was very aware of the weight of the trap under his arm, the souls within it only dimly aware, but moving restlessly in response to Thomas’s agitation. “One of these is a German,” he said. “Not good material for your purposes.”

“There’s an easy cure for that,” Morrow said, thumbing the safety off the shattergun.

“Of course.” He wondered how long it would take for the German high command to hear about this, and how fast the order would go out to destroy any English soul found haunting German battlefields. It couldn’t take much longer for Gottlieb or someone equally clever on the other side to replicate Morrow’s process and fill the battlefields with machines powered by the unquiet dead.

His vision swam, and he gritted his teeth in mingled panic and frustration—not yet—before he realized that Thomas was pulling him down into a waking dream, appearing at his side overlaid on the shimmering forms of tanks.

“The man in that tank was a gunnery sergeant,” Thomas said. “A good soldier. He’s in incredible pain, and Morrow threatens him with the shattergun whenever he makes a credible effort to tear himself free.”

Xavier spread his hands in acknowledgement, but did not reply. Morrow was in no state to hear objections to his plan, and if he objected too strongly, Morrow had the life-saving soul cage to withhold from him. The hope Morrow had kindled beat in his throat, a desperate desire to live at any cost. All he had to do was accept.

“We’re dead men anyway,” Thomas said.

“So we are,” Xavier said, and opened the trap.

The ghosts erupted out of the trap and streamed as one toward Morrow. Thomas followed them, striding forward, and Xavier staggered back, his chest burning.

“Xavier,” Morrow said, disapproving but not afraid yet.

“So clumsy of me,” Xavier said. He managed to take a breath, and then couldn’t remember how to take another one.

Morrow pointed the shattergun at Thomas’s chest, and Xavier strained to move, but his limbs felt filled with lead. Morrow pulled the trigger, but the gun didn’t fire. The safety was engaged again, and clearly stuck fast as Morrow struggled to disengage it.

Xavier could make out some individual forms within the roiling mass of souls, the faces of dead men and women, all painfully young. The soul of the woman airman hung back, reaching into the tank with both hands, tugging the ghost inside free of its metal bulk.

Other ghostly hands were on the shattergun, twisting it in Morrow’s hand, pressing its muzzle toward his temple. Morrow tugged at the gun, and then fought for it, still looking more annoyed than afraid.

For a moment Xavier met Thomas’s eyes. He knew he should shake his head, forbid murder, but he took refuge in the weariness that made shaking his head a Herculean task.

The ghosts were moaning, now, a rising wail of single-minded purpose. Even without goggles, Morrow looked as if he could hear them now, or perhaps he only felt their chill as they swarmed him, writhing against his skin.

“You’re all dead men,” Morrow said.

There was acceptance in their voices. Their grip on this world was loosening, the pull of whatever lay beyond growing stronger by the second. Now, he mouthed in choking silence, and he saw Thomas nod, his eyes smiling. It seemed all right then to let his eyes close. He heard, rather than saw, the safety catch on the shattergun give, and as if from a long way away he heard it fire.

 

Time passed, and went on passing. He could feel hands inside his chest, holding desperately tight to his ribs, familiar and yet strange. The metal grating of the floor was cold against his cheek. He lifted his head.

Hurry, someone urged. Xavier tried to stand, and failed. He crawled instead, inching his way toward Morrow’s still form. Morrow’s chest was moving shallowly, but his stare was sightless.

He felt across the grating until he found the soul cage that had fallen from Morrow’s hand. It felt warm even through his glove. He tore open Morrow’s collar and pressed it to Morrow’s skin. Wires sprouted from it, burrowing into bare flesh. He felt a surge of envy, and the presence within him writhed in denial and anger, holding on tighter.

Morrow opened his eyes. “Maybe not such dead men,” he said, the voice Morrow’s but the tone teasing and familiar.

“Morrow?”

“I expect I had better be.”

“If you’re in there ...” Xavier spread his hand across the soul cage on his chest.

“Airman Anna Lambert,” the woman airman said, as close as if she were sitting on his lap, not a position he’d ever been in with a woman. He could feel her amusement at that thought. “You’d better get used to it, since I don’t want to die and neither do you.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

“Such pretty manners, yet. I think we’ll do all right.” She retreated back into the soul cage, settling in like a cat turning round before curling into its basket.

Morrow sat up cautiously, fingering the soul cage where it pulsed against his skin. “We need to find another one of these to house your passenger in the long term,” he said, and then frowned. “Unless he made only one?”

“Morrow never made only one of anything.” Xavier looked around at the empty trap and the motionless tank. Souls still roiled within the others, aching to be ripped free. But first things first. “What are we going to say happened here?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Morrow said, looking at him with Thomas’s most level gaze. “I admit I’m not feeling...entirely myself. A touch of shell shock, maybe. Requiring a holiday from my work while I figure out what in blazes Morrow was doing here and how to give the impression I understand it.”

“His mind is gone?”

“Gone wherever shattered souls go. Gottlieb might still be right.”

“I’m not going to weep for Morrow either way,” Xavier said.

“I’m Morrow. You’d better keep that straight.”

“A touch of shell shock myself,” Xavier said. “I don’t know what I was saying.”

“Think nothing of it, old chap,” Morrow said, and turned to regard the tanks. “Gruesome things, aren’t they? I think we’ll be writing this off as a failed experiment.”

“You mean that you’ll be writing it off,” Xavier said. “If you can transplant Lambert here into more permanent housing without accident—I expect Morrow left good notes—”

“I devoutly hope so.”

“Then I’ve got work to do in the field. This war won’t stop making ghosts.” He felt a twinge of loss at the thought of making those bloody rounds without Thomas curled under his breastbone, and told himself angrily not to be a fool.

“Kiss him, for Christ’s sake,” Lambert said. “I would.”

Xavier coughed, and Morrow looked at him in alarm. “My passenger has an unfortunate sense of humor,” he said by way of explanation.

“That ought to suit you,” Morrow said. He looked as if he felt a certain degree of loss himself.

It would have been madness to make any such gesture in the air base, but Xavier reached out and caught his hand, and Morrow held it, his rough fingers unfamiliar in Xavier’s own.

“I’m still here,” Xavier said, and went on breathing.

 

END

 

"Ratcatcher" was originally published in Mothership Zeta and is copyright Amy Griswold, 2016.

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, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Summer 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a GlitterShip original, "The Girl With All the Ghosts" by Alex Yuschik.

Episode #68: “These Are the Attributes By Which You Shall Know God” by Rose Lemberg

Episode #68: “These Are the Attributes By Which You Shall Know God” by Rose Lemberg

March 18, 2019

These Are the Attributes By Which You Shall Know God

by Rose Lemberg

 

Father is trying to help me get into NASH. He thinks that seeing a real architect at work will help me with entrance exams. So father paid money, to design a house he does not want, just to get me close to Zepechiar. He is a professor at NASH and a human-Ruvan contact.

Reason and matter­—these are the cornerstones of Spinoza’s philosophy that the Ruvans admire so much. Reason and matter: an architect’s mind and building materials. These are the attributes through which we can know God.

And then, of course, there’s particle technology.

 

Full story after the cut:

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 68 for March 18, 2019. This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to share this story with you. Today we have a GlitterShip original, "These Are the Attributes By Which You Shall Know God" by Rose Lemberg, and "Female Figure of the Early Spedos Type, 1884-" by Sonya Taaffe.

This episode is part of the newest GlitterShip issue, which was just released and is available for purchase at glittership.com/buy and on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and now Gumroad! If you’re one of our Patreon supporters, you should have access to the new issue waiting for you when you log in. For everyone else, it’s $2.99.

GlitterShip is also a part of the Audible Trial Program. This means that just by listening to GlitterShip, you are eligible for a free 30 day membership on Audible and a free audiobook to keep. Today's book recommendation is The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison. In a world ripped apart by a plague that prevents babies from being carried to term and kills the mothers, an unnamed woman keeps a record of her survival. To download The Book of the Unnamed Midwife for free today, go to www.audibletrial.com/glittership — or choose another book if you’re in the mood for something else.

 


 

Sonya Taaffe reads dead languages and tells living stories. Her short fiction and poetry have been collected most recently in Forget the Sleepless Shores (Lethe Press) and previously in Singing Innocence and Experience, Postcards from the Province of Hyphens, A Mayse-Bikhl, and Ghost Signs. She lives with her husband and two cats in Somerville, Massachusetts, where she writes about film for Patreon and remains proud of naming a Kuiper belt object.

 

 


 

Female Figure of the Early Spedos Type, 1884-

by Sonya Taaffe

 

When I said she had a Modigliani face, I meant
she was white as a cracked cliff
and bare as the brush of a thumb
the day we met on the thyme-hot hills above Naxos
and by the time we parted in Paris, she was drawing
half-divorced Russian poets from memory,
drinking absinthe like black coffee
with the ghosts of the painted Aegean still ringing her eyes.
Sometimes she posts self-portraits
scratched red as ritual,
a badge of black crayon in the plane of her groin.
In another five thousand years,
she may tell someone—
not me—
another one of her names.

 


Our story today is "These Are the Attributes By Which You Shall Know God" by Rose Lemberg, read by Bogi Takács.

 

Bogi Takács (prezzey.net) is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person currently living in the US as a resident alien. Eir speculative fiction, poetry and nonfiction have been published in a variety of venues like ClarkesworldApexStrange Horizons and podcast on Glittership, among others. You can follow Bogi on TwitterInstagram and Patreon, or visit eir website at www.prezzey.net. Bogi also recently edited the Lambda Award-winning Transcendent 2: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction 2016, for Lethe Press.

Rose Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Their fiction and poetry have appeared in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed‘s Queer Destroy Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny Magazine, and many other venues. Rose’s work has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, and other awards. Their Birdverse novella The Four Profound Weaves is forthcoming from Tachyon Press. You can find more of their work on their Patreon: patreon.com/roselemberg

 


 

 

These Are the Attributes By Which You Shall Know God

by Rose Lemberg

 

Father is trying to help me get into NASH. He thinks that seeing a real architect at work will help me with entrance exams. So father paid money, to design a house he does not want, just to get me close to Zepechiar. He is a professor at NASH and a human-Ruvan contact.

Reason and matter­—these are the cornerstones of Spinoza’s philosophy that the Ruvans admire so much. Reason and matter: an architect’s mind and building materials. These are the attributes through which we can know God.

And then, of course, there’s particle technology.

The house-model Zepechiar has made for my family is all sleek glass. It is a space house with transparent outer walls; the endlessness of stars will be just an invisible layer away.

“I do not want to live in space,” dad hisses. Father hushes them.

Zepechiar’s model for our new house is cubical, angular, with a retro-modern flair. The kitchen is the only part of it that does not rotate, a small nod to dad’s desire for domesticity. Outside of the kitchen capsule, the living spaces are all zero-g with floating furniture that assembles itself out of thin air and adapts to the body’s curves. There is no privacy in the house, but nobody will be looking—out there, in space, between the expanses of the void.

“Bringing the vacuum in is all the rage these days,” the architect says.

I pretend indifference. Doodling in my notebook. It looks like nothing much.

Swirls, like the swirls our ancients made to mark the landing sites for Ruva vessels. For thousands of years nobody had remembered the Ruva, and when they returned, they did not want to land anymore on the curls and swirls of patterns made in the fields. They had evolved. Using reason.

They razed our cities to pour perfectly level landing sites. They sucked excess water out of the atmosphere and emptied the oceans, then refilled them again. But then they read Spinoza and decided to spare and/or save us. Because we, too, can know God.

If we continued studying Spinoza, Ruvans said, we’d be enlightened and would not need sparing or saving.

I want to build something that curls and twists between hills, but hills have been razed after the Ruva arrived. Hills are frivolous, an affront of imagination against reason, and it is reason that brought us terraforming particle technology that allowed us to suck all usable minerals from the imperfections of the earth: the hills, the mountains, the ravines, the trees, leaving only a flatness of the landing sites between the flatness covered by angular geodomes.

I learned about hills from the rebel file. Every kid at school downloads the rebel file. All around the world too, I guess. I don’t know anybody else who actually read it.

I do not notice anything until my father and dad wave a cheerful goodbye and leave me, alone with Zepechiar. He’ll help me with entrance exams. Or something.

He pulls up a chair from the air, shapes it into a Ruvan geometry that is perhaps just a shade more frivolous than reason dictates.

He says, “Your father lied about the purpose of your visit. What is the reason behind it?”

I mumble, “I want to get into NASH.”

“Show me your architectural drawings,” Zepechiar orders. His voice is level. Reason is the architect’s best tool.

I hesitate. Can I show him—

No. I need something safer, so I swipe the notebook, show him a thing I made while he was fussing over dad’s kitchen: a cubical model of black metal and spaceglass, not unlike Zepechiar’s house model for my family. The distinction is in the color contrast, a white stripe of a pipe running like a festive tie over the steel bundle.

Zepechiar nods. “Show me what you do not want to show me.”

There is something in his voice. I raise my hand to make the swiping motion, then stop mid-gesture.

“You could have convinced dad to say yes to that kitchen,” I say. “They would have cooked breakfasts for eternity, looking out into an infinite space until their heart gave out.”

“I’m selling my architecture, not my voice,” he says, but something in his voice is bitter. Bitterness. Emotion, not reason. He is being unprofessional on purpose, perhaps to lull me into trusting him.

“Why did you decide to become an architect?” I ask, to distract. A tame enough question. My father’s money bought me an informational interview.

“Architecture is an ultimate act of reason,” Zepechiar says. It’s such a Ruvan thing to say. I must have read it a hundred times, in hundreds of preparatory articles. “I teach this in the intro course. Architecture is key to that which contains us: houses. Ships. The universe. The universe is the ultimate container. The universe is God. God is a container of all things. We learn from Spinoza that we can only know God through reason; and that is why we approach God through architecture.”

“If God contains all things, would God contain—” swirls? Hills? Leviathans?

“The thing you do not want to show me?” says Zepechiar. His voice lilts just a bit, and I am taken in.

I swipe my hand over the notebook, to show Zepechiar what will certainly disqualify me from NASH.

It is a boat that curves and undulates. Its sides are decorated in pinwheel and spiral designs. There is not a straight angle anywhere, not a flat surface. I have populated my Ark with old-style numbers—the ones with curves. There are two fives, two sixes, a pair of 23s.

Zepechiar rubs his forehead. “What are the numbers meant to indicate?”

“Um… pairs of animals.” I read that in the rebel file, but I do not know what they are supposed to look like.

“This… is hardly reasonable,” says Zepechiar. “You know what Spinoza said. The Bible is nothing but fantasy, and imagination is anathema to reason.”

I am stubborn, and yes, I’ve read my Spinoza. Scripture is no better than anything else. But God’s existence is not denied. I say, “You could use reason to replicate the Ark in matter.”

“Yes,” Zepechiar says. Yes. We can use particle technology to manipulate almost any matter. Even sentient matter. His voice hides a threat. “I want to know where you learned this. And why did you draw this.”

God told Noah to build the Ark and save the animals. Ruvans just sucked all the water out of the seas, froze some, boiled the rest, and put it back empty of life. The rebel file does not always make sense, but this is clear. “I wanted to recreate the miracle of the Ark, to imagine the glory of God.”

Zepechiar says, “No. It is only through reason that you can reach God. God is infinite, but reason and the material world are the only attributes of God that we can reach. I want to know where you learned this.”

His voice. His voice bends me.

The rebel file. Everybody knows about the rebel file. Nobody cares about the rebel file. I can speak of it. Nothing to it. Just say it. Do what he says. Use reason. Straighten every curve.

I mumble, “Ugh… here and there, kids at school, you know.”

“I don’t.” He squints at me, halfway between respect and scorn. “Erase the Ark.”

I breathe in. I have always been stubborn. “I do not want to erase the Ark. It is a miracle.”

He breathes in. His hand is on my arm. “Miracles are simply things you cannot yet understand. Like particle tech and sentient matter.”

He folds me. I’ve heard of the advanced geometry one can only learn at NASH, but this is more than that, this is something more. It is nauseating, like I am being doubled and twisted and extended.

Dimensionally, stretched along multiple axes until my human hills—my curves, my limbs—are flattened into a singular geometric shape, a white pipe that runs around along the lines of the design studio, wrapping around the cubic shape of it like a festive ribbon.

I am… not human anymore. I am sentient matter altered, like the rest of Earth, by Ruvan/human particle technology. I see Zepechiar from above, from below, in multiple angles. I have no eyes, but some abstract form of seeing, a sentience, remains to me.

“I want to know,” Zepechiar says, “who altered you.”

He falls apart into a thousand shiny cubes, then reassembles himself again, a towering creature of glimmering metal, a Ruvan of flesh behind the capsule of dark steel.

I, too, am altered by him now, a thousand smaller cubes scattered by his voice, reassembled into the dimensional model of the house in the void. I see dad and father standing above my form. Perhaps they never left. They do not seem to care if Zepechiar is human or Ruvan.

Zepechiar speaks to dad. “The perfect kitchen just for you—look at these retro-granite countertops, self-cleaning—” He pokes me. “Where did you learn this?”

I think back at him, quoting the Scripture the best I can. “Two by two, they ascended the Ark: Male and female in their pairs, and some female in their pairs and some male in their pairs, and some had no gender and some did not care. Some came in triangles and some came in squares. And some of them came alone.” Like the Leviathan. The Leviathan holds all the knowledge the Ruvans discarded for reason’s sake, all the swirly landing sites, their own hills, their poetry. The Leviathan is the Ruvans’ rebel file.

I no longer know my initial shape. I am made of hundreds of shining squares. My parents are here, in the room, but they do not know me. They are human—all curves and lilts of flesh. Forever suspect. I am Ruvan/human now. I am an architectural model, sentient matter transformed by an architect’s reason—and architects are the closest thing to God.

“Think about all the damage scripture did,” says Zepechiar. “Holy wars, destruction, revision, rewritten over and over by those who came after but made no more sense. Think about what imagination did to this planet and to ours. It is dangerous. It makes you dangerous. But I will make matter out of you.”

I am a house. Floating in space, rotating along all my axes. Inside me, the kitchen is the only thing that is still. I have been human or Ruvan, I do not remember, but I carry two humans inside me. They no longer remember me, but they came in a pair. I am their Ark.

Zepechiar made me. A Ruvan/human architect. An architect is the closest thing to God. But so are the buildings architects create. So am I.

Slowly, I begin to shift my consciousness along the cubic geometry of my new shape. Slowly, I move the space house, away. Where, in the darkest of space, there swims a Leviathan.

 

END


 

“Female Figure of the Early Spedos Type, 1884-" is copyright Sonya Taaffe 2019.

“These Are the Attributes By Which You Shall Know God” is copyright Rose Lemberg 2019.

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, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Summer 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint of “Ratcatcher” by Amy Griswold.

Episode #67: “Instar” by Carrow Narby

Episode #67: “Instar” by Carrow Narby

March 8, 2019

Instar

by Carrow Narby

 

 

 

They just broke ground this week on a new high rise. When they cracked into the earth it flooded the neighborhood with the stench of sulfur. There’s a layer of ancient rot beneath the pavement. Centuries worth of life, ground into filth.

Or so I imagine. I had to look up the source of the smell and some local news site attributed it to “organic materials” in the soil. I was worried that it might be a gas leak.

For the past few mornings the wind has pushed the awful smell in through the screen above my bed. As bad as it is, it isn’t worth shutting the window. Even as late summer beats on, I can’t sleep without the weight and softness of ten thousand blankets. Without the breeze my nest would become unbearably hot, so I tolerate the smell of brimstone and corruption. It’s sort of fitting, I think, given the maggoty turn that my life has taken.

 

Full episode after the cut.

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 67 for March 8, 2019. This is your host Keffy, and I'm super excited to share this story with you. Our story today is "Instar" by Carrow Narby, which is part of the Summer 2018 issue of GlitterShip.

 

Carrow Narby lives on the north shore of Massachusetts. Their writing has been featured in Bitch, The Toast, The Establishment, and PodCastle. Follow them on Twitter @LocalCreature.

 

 

 

Instar

by Carrow Narby

 

 

 

They just broke ground this week on a new high rise. When they cracked into the earth it flooded the neighborhood with the stench of sulfur. There’s a layer of ancient rot beneath the pavement. Centuries worth of life, ground into filth.

Or so I imagine. I had to look up the source of the smell and some local news site attributed it to “organic materials” in the soil. I was worried that it might be a gas leak.

For the past few mornings the wind has pushed the awful smell in through the screen above my bed. As bad as it is, it isn’t worth shutting the window. Even as late summer beats on, I can’t sleep without the weight and softness of ten thousand blankets. Without the breeze my nest would become unbearably hot, so I tolerate the smell of brimstone and corruption. It’s sort of fitting, I think, given the maggoty turn that my life has taken.

There are these long, wonderful moments, in between waking and rising, when I am both sentient and senseless. The light doesn’t resolve yet into images. Sensation doesn’t crystallize into meaning. Best of all, I can’t feel my body or apprehend its shape.

You see an awful lot about monsters these days. Just everywhere you look, endless breathless chatter about fucking monsters, turning into monsters, giving birth to monsters. Beautiful and interesting people who just happen to be monsters: some sad grackle-winged boy, a girl with coral antlers. Everyone always looks so slender and sharp. Perfect rows of needle teeth, perfect iridescent scales, perfect gold stiletto claws. It seems downright glamorous, like it would all be neon witches’ sabbaths and subterranean raves or something.

For me, monsterhood is mostly just strangers demanding to know what I am. There wasn’t any kind of initiation waiting for me. No coven or cabal. No prophecy or secret past was revealed. It was on my own and by creeping increments that I realized I had become a thing.

Kris is a friend of a friend. I saw her around a few parties and we fumbled into each other’s orbits. She called out my name from across the room once, amid the din of disparate conversations. It was so charming, that little gesture of being summoned. I let her ask me out, to sit with her in that park at the edge of the North End.

When we meet, she wants to go down Hanover to Mike’s but I point just across the street to a tiny storefront with a blue and yellow sign. “It’s way better,” I insist, and I feel strangely proud as she acquiesces.

The leading edge of autumn has brought a welcome break from the suffocating heat, but it also means that the sunlight has shifted. As Kris and I sit together, the late afternoon light lances down at us. It’s relentless, prying. I wonder if she can tell how much I’m trying to hide from it.

Despite my anxiety, we talk easily and idly. When she was little, Kris recalls, she heard somewhere about the dangers of zebra mussels. They’re an invasive species around the Great Lakes, she explains. Her mother must have read a sign to her or something, warning boaters to inspect and clean their hulls. Except that Kris was maybe four at the time, and she had no concept yet of what a mussel is. She heard “zebra muscles.” What she pictured, she tells me, was downright nightmarish. Not a muscular zebra or something, but a boat encrusted with disembodied, pulsing zebra flesh. She says that the image came from nowhere except the most literal understanding of what she had heard, and that it became horrible only afterward, in retrospect.

“I didn’t understand but I just accepted it,” she laughs.

I grin too, and I tell her “I love that.” And I love sitting here, with a friend of a friend that I met at a party. Normality is too distant even to long for, but here is something so conventional, so pleasantly dull. I wonder if there are people who feel like this all the time and I almost ask that out loud.

But all at once I realize that she’s looking at me, and I can’t bear it. She can see me in the slanted orange light. The rays reveal the translucency around my edges, the ugly pulse of slime beneath the membrane of my skin. I can feel the buttons of my jacket straining. I can’t eat the pastry that I’ve bought, not in front of her. She must realize that my clothes are holding me into a human shape. She’s imagining the strange organs that shudder and twitch beneath the seams.

I can’t force myself to say much more before we part ways. She knows. I’m sure that I won’t hear from her again.

I slump back toward Haymarket. I huddle stingless on a crowded E train. My spines are sparse and transient: often I neglect to shave, sometimes my keys poke out through a hole that they’ve worn in the pocket of my coat.

It is the fate of monsters, no matter what, to attract would-be monster-slayers. For me, this has never been as straightforward as a jeering mob or as romantic as a lone man with a glittering sword. This time it’s kids. A small group of ninth or tenth graders, maybe, standing on the other side of the train car. They gesture toward me and consult each other in stage whispers, wondering aloud what I could possibly be.

There’s this image, a fragment of a story. I don’t remember where I picked it up or what first made me think of it, but it’s there in my brain and it’s this: Once upon a time a baby was found in a beehive.

By chance, a passing witch heard a newborn’s squall. Amid a hovering cloud of bees, she cracked apart a hollow log. And there was an infant nestled in the rot, slick with honey, as pale as a grub.

I don’t know what happens after that or why any of it happened at all. It had started with sacrificing some of the other larvae to widen her cell. And things just took off from there, I suppose. Things took a turn, as they will do.

At home I start to undress as soon as I’ve closed the door. When I finally peel the tight undermost layer away from my torso, my body sags out, shapeless. I slump onto the bed and burrow down into the tangle of blankets. As I curl up tight, I tuck a bit of sheet between every segment and fold, so that I don’t have to feel the awful touch of myself.

I can’t say when or how my metamorphosis began. Day by day I watched my face bloat outward, swallowing up my eyes, my jaw. My skin became a pallid casing. It strains to hold in my shuddering mass, as if my body wants to burst and dissolve.

I have always been drawn to hollows and nests and to the dirt. Spaces in the dark where a thing might press itself flush against the walls, unseen and safe. As a child I would build a cairn of pillows around myself before falling asleep. I used to turn over the rocks that edged my mother’s garden, to watch the millipedes and woodlice scatter. Eager to recoil from the sight of a grub writhing helplessly against the light.

In my tiny apartment there is an alcove that, I think, was meant for a writing desk. But I wedged my bed into it, and closed it off with a heavy curtain.

I guess that it has all been a sort of instinctive preparation. Like the bees widening the larval infant’s cell. The thing is, it’s not just shiny little flying things that start their lives as fat, fumbling worms. It isn’t all butterflies and bluebottles. There are things in the world that wriggle freely as larvae and then pupate into sessile blobs. I think about all those mornings when I stretch out shapeless and insensible. I wonder if I’ll turn out to be more of a sea sponge than a sphinx moth.

Kris calls. She wants to see me again.

We meet at my place. I don’t know what to say about the evening in the park but she doesn’t ask about it. She calls me by my name again. She wants to know if I’m alright.

I tell her about that unshakable image of the bee-child. “What must it be like,” I sigh. To wonder why, out of a sea of sisters, you were the one to swell into something wingless and terrible.

“What must it be like,” she echoes. She’s sitting beside me, looking down at her hands. She smells like soap and trampled grass. I want to settle in closer to her—to kiss her, I realize—but she has seen me in that searching autumn light.

“You know,” I say.

She takes my hand. “Is that your bed?” she asks, nodding toward the alcove.

“Yes.”

“Can I show you something?”

I don’t know how to respond. She tugs me gently toward the bed and draws the curtain aside. The final cast-off rays of sunset are glancing in through the window. She turns and looks at me. Her cheek catches the light with a faint damson iridescence. She tilts her head and reveals a weird translucency about her neck and face. I can see the steady pulse of veins and pulpy glands beneath her skin.

Her tone isn’t mocking, just forthright, as she asks, “Did you really think that you were special?”

I guess that I did. I tell her: “I thought I was alone.”

She reaches out to draw me close. We sink down into my nest and curl up tight against each other. In her touch I can feel the hum of twenty thousand sisters, the promise of clover and of wings.

 

END

 


 

“Instar” was originally published in The Fem, and is © Copyright Carrow Narby, 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. You can also pick up a free audio book by going to www.audibletrial.com/glittership or buy your own copy of the Summer 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with "These are the Attributes by Which You Shall Know God" by Rose Lemberg.