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

February 16, 2017

Curiosity Fruit Machine

by S. Qiouyi Lu

"What is it?" Alliq says.

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

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

 

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

[Full transcript after the cut]

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip, episode 33 for February 14, 2017. This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing these stories with you.

We have two stories this week, "Curiosity Fruit Machine" by S. Qiouyi Lu and "The Slow Ones" by JY Yang. Even better, S. narrated both stories for us!

S. Qiouyi Lu is a writer, artist, narrator, and translator; their stories have appeared in Strange Horizons and Daily Science Fiction, and their poetry has appeared in Liminality and Uncanny. They are a 2016 graduate of the Clarion West writers workshop and a dread member of the Queer Asian SFFH Illuminati. Find them online at s.qiouyi.lu or follow them on Twitter at @sqiouyilu.

JY Yang is a queer, non-binary writer and editor who has short fiction published or forthcoming in places like UncannyLightspeedStrange Horizons and Tor.com. Their debut novellas, THE RED THREADS OF FORTUNE and THE BLACK TIDES OF HEAVEN, will be out from Tor.com Publishing in Fall 2017. They live in Singapore, edit fiction at Epigram Books, and swan about Twitter as @halleluyang.

 

 

Curiosity Fruit Machine

by S. Qiouyi Lu

 

"What is it?" Alliq says.

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

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

Alliq frowns. "Don't. For all we know, that thing could be some sort of weapon. We should probably wait for the others to catch up so we can get the engineering team to take a proper look."

Alliq's voice fades into a mumble. Jalzy presses eir nose to the glass front of the object and brushes a tight curl of hair out of eir face. Ey can just barely make out some lettering—PAY. Eir grasp of 21st-century English is weak, but this seems to be a money machine of some sort. Surely, ey thinks, bringing eir arm down, a money machine can't hurt em...

"Don't—!"

The object whirs to life, three wheels inside the glass case spinning; a few of the bulbs lining the edge buzz and spark. Jalzy jumps back. Oh crap. Ccccccclackkkclackkclackkk—didn't old-timey explosives make that sound? Or were explosives more of a tick-tock sound? One of the wheels clicks as it stops—Jalzy grabs Alliq by the wrist, drags xem to a safe spot behind a wall of heavy crates—then another click—they brace themselves—and—click!

Alliq flinches. Jalzy waits a moment—a dud, perhaps?—before peeking past the edge of the crates. The object's face shows one symbol, then two of the same symbol. The first is an oblong, yellow shape, and the next two are round, red orbs connected by an inverted green V.

"I think we're safe," Jalzy whispers. Alliq comes up from xyr braced position.

"Goddammit, don't do this to me," Alliq hisses. Xe's sweating a little, xyr forehead shining, and Jalzy has to suppress a giggle.

"Hey, we're fine, right?" Ey steps out from behind the crates and goes back to the object. Ey crouches down. There's a metal trough underneath the symbols, but it's empty. Do they need to put something in there?

"Jalzy," Alliq says from over eir shoulder, "those are—those are pictures of fruit."

"What's a fruit?"

"Seriously?" Alliq says, voice laden with exasperation. When Jalzy gives xem a blank stare, Alliq points at the oblong symbol and says, "Look, the first one is a lemon. Those two on the right, those are cherries."

Jalzy squints. "I thought 'cherry' and 'lemon' were just colors. You know, like how we also have orange nutriblocks in our sustenance packs."

Alliq snorts. "You know there used to be a fruit called 'orange', right? It wasn't just a color. Those are actually flavors. They came from these."

Jalzy straightens up and paces around the object. "So what is this, a fruit-making machine?"

"Did you never take terrabiology?" Alliq says. "History of Earth? Anything?"

"Look, I took astrophysics so I wouldn't have to deal with so much reading, okay," Jalzy says, flipping eir crown of curls over eir shoulder. "So just educate me already, O All-Knowing Alliq."

Alliq crosses xyr arms over xyr chest in a huff. "Fruit comes from seeds, not machines. I mean, we perfected the science to duplicate the flavors all the way back in the 21st century, but we never really got down how to duplicate the organic material. So the best we've got now is our nutriblocks." Xe unfolds xyr arms and circles around the object. "This—this is something else entirely. I don't think it actually has anything to do with food."

"So, if it doesn't seem to be a weapon, and it doesn't produce anything... wanna pull the lever again and see what happens?" Jalzy grins slyly at Alliq, who raises xyr hands in surrender.

"I'm going to check out the other room. If I were you, I'd just keep doing inventory until engineering gets here and can confirm what kind of object that is."

Jalzy sticks out eir tongue.

"Good thing you're not me," ey says.

And ey pulls the lever again.

 

END

 

 

 

The Slow Ones

by JY Yang

 

"The grass is dying."

Kira looked up from squeezing a sachet of turkey-flavored sludge into the cat's bowl. Thom was standing by the living room window in his bathrobe still, holding a chipped mug of coffee and gazing out.

"What?" she asked.

"The grass. In the garden. It's gone all brown."

She dumped the sachet in the trash and almost rinsed her sticky fingers under the kitchen faucet. But she remembered in time, and instead wiped them on the dishtowel she'd hung up.

She hurried into the living room.

"There," Thom said, "see?"

In the small rectangle of dirt they called a garden the sparse tufts of grass had shriveled and turned colorless like the hair on an old man's head. A flap of crisp packet gleamed in the far corner, silver-underside-up, chicken bones scattered around it. The neighborhood kids. Kira wondered how long they had been there. Maybe forever. Everything seemed stuck in stasis these days.

The grass had been in decline for a long time, months before the invasion began. Once upon a time Kira had plans for that patch. She had imagined cultivating flowers: Tulips, daffodils, rosebushes. Climbing ivies for the trellis. Maybe even one of those outdoor water features. But there hadn't been any time, had there?

"Hasn't rained in weeks," Thom said. "Might never rain again."

Kira exhaled and stormed back to the kitchen. The clock said five to three and she wished it didn't. She took a box of porkloin out of the freezer and popped it into the fridge.

"Might as well dig it all up," Thom said from the living room.

"Yeah, why don't you do it?" she said, louder than she'd intended.

The cat had cleaned out her bowl and now stood staring at Kira, tail stiff in expectation. Kira snatched the water dish off the floor, then gingerly ran a centimeter of water into it. "Don't waste it," she told the cat as she sat it down again.

In the living room Thom had settled into the armchair, knees apart, eyes blank. "What would be the point?"

"What?"

He turned to look at her, framed in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, and shrugged. "There's no point."

"Whatever," she said, and went to put her boots on.

The cat had followed her out of the kitchen. "Come here, girl," she heard Thom say, his voice soft and charming, like it always used to be.

Kira shoved her feet into the narrow confines of her boots. "I've left pork chops in the fridge to defrost," she said. "If you have time, you could make dinner." She knew he wouldn't.

The cat settled on the windowsill to watch her as she stepped outside and locked the front door.

Kira pulled her coat around herself, and then, because she had to, like pulling a plaster off, to get it over with; because she couldn't just ignore it, she looked up at the sky.

From horizon to horizon, the sky above their street was filled with aliens. A thick layer of massive silver bodies, like cumulus rolls made of mercury, slid by over the tops of the streetlamps, the roofs, the twisted fingers of bare trees. Sunlight sometimes leaked through their bulk, but not often; the world had been in a state of weak thunderstorm dusk for weeks.

The president of the United States had called them the Slow Ones, and the name stuck. Their enormous smooth bodies slipped against one another in a never-ending parade. There were scales and faint markings on each one whose purpose was impossible to discern. Concentric discs in alternating light and dark colors, larger across than a commercial jetliner, were assumed by observers to be eyes. But the gaping maw in front of each one, leading into unfathomable darkness: That one everyone could agree on. It was a mouth. A permanently open mouth.

They were sucking up all the water vapor in the atmosphere. That was what the scientists on the proper news channels—BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera—were all saying. But even the so-called experts knew so little about what was going on that people were no worse off reading crackpot theories on the Internet. Those had sprung up like mushrooms in the wake of rain, or perhaps, in the absence of it. They offered up all kinds of explanations as to what was happening: Act of God, benign migration, hostile invasion, collective hallucination.

The first few days after the Slow Ones arrived, pouring into the sky above Alaska like reflective pancake batter until they blanketed the Earth, Thom had spent hours scrolling through theory after theory after theory, the most promising of which he served up to Kira over dinner, or texted to her while he was at work.

That was when he still had work.

The Slow Ones were aliens. This was something almost everyone—the scientist, the conspiracy theorist, the person on the street—agreed on. They were not of this world.

The prevailing theory was that these were migratory creatures and they would leave for unknown pastures in good time. And then sunlight and blue skies and rain would return to the world. Wind and weather and water evaporation, all those good things.

It was unlikely a theory as anything, but it allowed people to hold on to hope.

Kira put her hood up and hurried down the street. If she walked fast enough, she might catch the three-fifteen bus to the city center.

She missed the bus.

When Kira finally arrived at the city center, the air under the Slow Ones was still. Not a wing stirred in it, not a guttural call rang out. Gulls were a year-round phenomenon in Norwich, sailing from spire to spire and filling public spaces with their noises regardless of the season. But their numbers in the market square had been dwindling since the Slow Ones arrived, and today was the day, it seemed, they passed the point of no return.

Kira noted this with an odd trill in her belly. She, like everyone else, had grown numb to the clipped tones of a Dr. Somebody explaining to a presenter, in clinical terms, how the disruption to the Earth's water cycle was killing all the fish in the ocean. But it was another thing entirely to watch all the seabirds vanish before her eyes, relegated to an unknown fate.

She hurried through the semi-sparse mid-afternoon crowd. When Thom's agency had moved him here a few years ago, she had been struck by how many retirees she saw on the streets. It felt like a different kind of fabric had been sewn in place compared to London which she had just gotten used to, and Kuala Lumpur where she had grown up. It was a good move for them, Thom being promoted to Norfolk branch manager, but Kira had wondered about all the people here, aging in place. It put in her mind an image of people sinking to the bottom of a lake, like sediment.

Of course, at that time tourism was still a booming industry, and Thom had glowing images in his sights, futures full of holiday cottages and ski trips to the Alps. Neither of them knew what lay on the horizon: the shrinkings and the layoffs and the final collapse that awaited them. The arrival of the Slow Ones had only been a final straw.

As she walked past the market square Charles, who ran one of the fruit stalls, waved at her. "All right?" he asked.

An impulse seized her then, a screaming impulse, one which wanted to ask him how could he be so calm, couldn't he see what was happening? She wanted to grab him and shake him, point him to the sky and the shuttered fish stall next to him and the sad twisted things that were left of his wares, she wanted to do that and ask, Can't you see? Can't you see? She wanted to run at all the white-haired folk shuffling down the street getting on with their business as usual and shout it at them, shout it into their hairy wrinkled ears.

She smiled at Charles. "Yeah, I'm alright."

By the time she had gone down all the little streets that led her to the Pushcart she was half an hour late for work. As she came through the eatery's glass-paneled wooden door she caught a glimpse of Melanie's splendid silhouette at the till and her heart did that weird flutter it always did when Melanie was around. She shoved that sensation deep inside herself, where it belonged, and put on her shop-girl smile.

In the afternoons the Pushcart sold tea and scones and crepes with bacon and maple syrup. Come evenings and the menu switched to alcohol and deep-fried things served in small silver buckets. Today the sign said no tea, they were under rations, bottled drinks only please. The warm brown interior of the cafe held a handful of lethargic patrons in various states of apathy, chewing fitfully or reading the news. Some of them were watching the TV nailed to the far wall, framed by old ship ropes and seashells. They usually kept it off unless there was footy going on, but since the Slow Ones came it had been permanently fixed to BBC News. The prevailing graphic, set to an indistinct voiceover, said WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR.

(Nothing. They knew nothing. When governments and scientists sent drones and instruments up to the Slow Ones they stopped working, some kind of electromagnetic interference, they said. NASA was stumped. Everybody was stumped, grasping at straws.)

Melanie didn't turn around as Kira stashed her things under the counter. That was an anomaly: For the past six months Kira's work routine had always begun with her warm and buttery smile. She studied her coworker's broad back, hunched over the till, noting the crooked way the apron was fastened around her waist. "You alright?"

Melanie straightened up with a speed that suggested she hadn't heard Kira come in. "Hey. How's it going?"

She looked tired, a collection of messy lines and dark smudges, as though the weekend had worn her face thin somehow. "You alright?" she repeated.

"Yeah, I suppose. The sky hasn't fallen in, has it?" She gave Kira a laugh, and it was the kind that spoke less of mirth than it did of defeat. "How's life at home?"

Kira's fingers fumbled with her apron strings. Melanie noticed her struggling and said, "Let me get that."

With her back turned Kira said, "Life goes on. Thom's still moping."

A firm tug at her waist. "He'll recover. Have faith."

"I'm an atheist for a reason." She turned around. "How's Angie?"

"Ha. Funny you should ask." Melanie sucked in a breath. "She's gone back to Sheffield."

"What, you mean—"

"Yeah. Permanently. She spent the weekend packing." Melanie was staring at her knuckles, which she kept lightly punching against the counter.

"I'm sorry. What happened?"

"Can't quite say, really. Just th— I don't know. She'd been planning it for a while, I think. She got back with her ex without telling me." She looked at Kira suddenly, eyes bright and shining. "Might as well, eh? End of the world and all that."

"I'm sorry." She reached out and touched Melanie's forearm for a brief, hot moment. "I'm surprised, honestly."

"Are you."

"I mean, I—" She wanted to say, I always thought you two had the perfect relationship. "You two seemed so happy."

"We did, didn't we?" She laughed again, and one corner of her mouth quirked upwards. In the slant of those lips Kira suddenly saw the cracking of facade and glimpsed familiar shores: the simmering irritations, the long silent nights, the cold stretches of not-arguments that thawed slowly into not-forgiveness.

"Come help me with this till," Melanie said. "Something's wrong."

They fought with the till. It was an old-fashioned one, just buttons and a drawer that popped out. It was jammed. They figured out the problem—a coin had gotten stuck, down the side of the drawer, and they fished it out with a flat screwdriver.

"There you are, you little bastard," Melanie said, shaking the coin like a misbehaving puppy. She put it on top of the till, a tiny victory.

At six a man barged into the Pushcart and slammed into the counter as Kira was ringing up an old lady's tea. "Turn your TV on," he rasped.

"It's on," Kira said, pointing. The President of the United States, looking like he had aged ten years in as many days, was speaking inaudibly. In one corner a red block declared “LIVE.”

The man was youngish, clean-shaven, dressed in clothes that were well looked-after. "Turn it up. Turn it up."

Kira looked around, but she had no idea where Melanie was. The woman by the TV stepped up and reached for the volume dial. The voice of the US president, clipped and nasal, rose up and filled the room.

"... THAT I AUTHORIZE THE USE OF THERMONUCLEAR WEAPONS AGAINST THE PHENOMENON KNOWN AS THE SLOW ONES..."

"He's going to nuke them," the man who'd burst in said. "It's mental."

Titters of conversation filled the room. What could that mean? Kira felt like the ground under her was vanishing, but she couldn't tell if it was her or the planet that was evaporating.

The US president said: The missiles would be released over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, far from any centers of civilization.

The US president said: America could no longer wait for world powers to deliberate on a unified course of action.

The US president said: America must take steps necessary to safeguard our future.

A young man near the front of house was telling his girlfriend, in loud tones, how the radiation was going to get seeded in the atmosphere and kill them all. He was a physicist, he knew. The hawks running America, drunk on their Hollywood apocalypse dreams, were going to destroy life on the planet as we knew it.

"It's war, you know," the old lady at the till said to Kira. "The Russians aren't going to like it. They're going to do something, you'll see." She declared it matter-of-factly, with utter conviction, and Kira saw the young girl she had been, bent over the radio, listening for news from the frontlines.

On impulse she said, "It's on the house," and closed the till. "Go on, everything's free today."

The man who had run in said, "Could I get—"

"No, no, we're closing." Kira walked out from behind the counter, her legs shaky but still functional, and went to the glass-paneled door. The US president was still talking. She refused to look at the sky as she flipped the “OPEN” sign over. "I'm sorry. Please, everyone, could you just leave. We're closed. Everything's on the house."

The scattered handfuls looked at her and each other, uncertain.

"Go home," Kira said. "Call your mother, hug your children. Go home."

She watched them file out onto the dark streets. When it was just her in the Pushcart she abandoned the unwashed, undressed tables and turned the lights out. Craig, the owner, only came in on Thursdays and weekends. She'd sort it out later.

She found Melanie behind the storeroom door, chest still slowly heaving in the wake of a long fit of crying. She stood up, looking embarrassed, as Kira came in. "Sorry. I—still a bit of a mess—did something happen?"

Kira ghosted towards her, fixed on her red-rimmed eyes, her lips. "The world's going to end."

"What?"

"The Americans are going to nuke the Slow Ones. They're doing it tomorrow."

Melanie exhaled. "Madness."

Madness, chaos, centers not holding. Just what was she clinging on to, anyway?

Kira reached up and kissed her.

Melanie's body reacted with surprise at first, then hunger. She had strong arms that could lift a double carton of coffee beans over her head, and they trembled around Kira's waist. As Kira sublimed into liquid Melanie closed the door behind them, so that nobody would hear.

Later, as they sat together on the floor, sticky skin to sticky skin, Melanie asked, "Why?" No modifiers, no clauses. Just ”why.”

Kira remained quiet for a while, pinching her toes inside the lingering damp heat of her boots. "Thom once told me about a theory he read. You know how they said the Slow Ones might be like migratory birds?"

"I've heard that one. Sounds like tosh. But pretty much everything does these days."

"Well, migratory birds come back every year. So why haven't we seen the Slow Ones before? Why has no-one, out of all of human history, ever mentioned them?"

"So they're not migratory."

Kira could still picture Thom's face as he had grilled her over this theory at the dinner table. How his freckled face had lit up with schoolboy excitement at the prospect of humanity's destruction, something interesting happening at last. "Well, the universe operates on a different scale, doesn't it? Billions and billions. What if the Slow Ones do come back, but so long that they only appear once every geologic age?"

Melanie made a grunting noise. Kira settled her soft hip against Melanie's bony one. "It's the extinction events," she said.

"What are those?"

"Big die-offs." She curled her fingers around one of Melanie's nipples. "Like the dinosaurs. The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction. That's the one everyone knows, but it wasn't the only one. The fossil record is full of mass extinctions. Late Devonian, Permian-Triassic, Triassic-Jurassic... Once every thirty million years, like clockwork. Scientists don't know why."

Melanie turned her head, her attention caught. "The Slow Ones?"

"The oceans are already all dead. That's how it usually starts."

"So we're going extinct."

"Probably. I don't know. It's just a theory, anyway."

Melanie blew air through wet lips. "It's not like we can get off this planet, is it?"

Kira laid her head against Melanie's shoulder and listened to the sound of her breathing for a while. "You know," she said, "some scientists think extinction events are like planetary do-overs. Evolution speeds up after each extinction event. New forms of life start to flourish."

"Like when you get left for a younger woman."

Kira snorted. Melanie caught the edge of her hand and caressed the tip of her little finger, gently feeling around the shape of knuckle. How small our bones are, Kira thought, how fragile. What if whoever comes after us never finds them? It would be as if we never existed. A blank in the fossil record.

"Are you going to tell Thom?" Melanie asked.

Kira thought of what Thom's reaction might be. The things he would say, and the things he wouldn't. The look on his face, both accusatory and triumphant. She felt tired.

"No," she said finally. "He's got enough on his mind."

She could see him now, in his bathrobe still, standing at the window, watching grass die in their garden as the sky grew darker and darker. In the fridge, untouched, a pair of pork chops slowly defrosted, waiting and waiting and waiting.

END

 

 

“Curiosity Fruit Machine” is copyright S. Qiouyi Lu, 2017.

"The Slow Ones" is copyright JY Yang, 2017.

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

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

Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back on February 28 with a reprint of “for she is the stars, and the sun revolves around her” by Agatha Tan.

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