Saturday Storytime: The Breath of War

Aliette de Bodard has been featured here before. This time, it’s a story that’s been nominated for a Nebula Award.

Rechan watched her niece from a distance. The discussion was getting animated and Akanlam’s hand gestures more and more frantic. “Help me up,” she said to Mau.

The stonewoman winced. “You shouldn’t—”

“I’ve spent a lifetime doing what I shouldn’t,” Rechan said; and after a while Mau held out a hand, which she used to haul herself up. The stonewoman’s skin was lamsinh—the same almost otherworldly translucency, the same coolness as the stone; the fingers painstakingly carved with an amount of detail that hadn’t been accessible to Rechan’s generation. Mau was Akanlam’s breath-sibling; and Akanlam had put into her carving the same intensity she always put in her art. Unlike most stonemen, nothing in her looked quite human, but there was a power and a flow in the least of Mau’s features that made her seem to radiate energy, even when sitting still.

“What is going on here?” Rechan asked, as she got closer.

Akanlam looked up, her face red. “He says the nearest repair point is two days down.”

Rechan took in the herder: craggy face, a reflection of the worn rocks around them; a spring in his step that told her he wasn’t as old as he looked. “Good day, younger brother,” she said.

“Good day, elder sister.” The herder nodded to her. “I was telling the younger aunt here—you have to go down.”

Rechan shook her head. “Going down isn’t an option. We have to get to the plateaux.”

The herder winced. “It’s been many years since city folks came this way.”

“I know,” Rechan said, and waited for the herder to discourage her. She’d gotten used to that game. But, to her surprise, he didn’t.

“Exhalation?” he asked. “There are simpler ways.”

“I know,” Rechan said. He’d mistaken Mau as her breath-sibling and not Akanlam’s—an easy mistake to make, for in her late stage of pregnancy, having a breath-sibling at hand would be crucial. “But it’s not exhalation. She’s not my breath-sibling; she’s hers.”

The herder looked from her to Mau and then back to Akanlam. “How far along are you?” he asked.

Too far along; that was the truth. She’d waited too long, hoping a solution would present itself; that she wouldn’t need to go back into the mountains. A mistake; hope had never gotten her anywhere. “Eight months and a half,” Rechan said, and heard the herder’s sharp intake of breath. “My breath-sibling is in the mountains.” Which was… true, in a way.

The herder grimaced again, and looked at the bulge of her belly. “I can radio the nearest village,” he said, finally. “They might have an aircar, or something you can borrow, provided you return it.”

Rechan nodded, forcing her lips upwards into a smile. “Perfect. Thank you, younger brother.”

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Saturday Storytime: The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family

Often in horror, it is the fantastic element we’re supposed to be fascinated by and fear. This is not so true in the stories of Usman T. Malik. This story was also nominated for a Nebula.

“I know you,” she whispered to the Beast resident in her soul. “I know you,” and all the time she scribbled on her flesh with a glass shard she found buried in a patrolman’s eye. Her wrist glowed with her heat and that of her ancestors. She watched her blood bubble and surge skyward. To join the plasma of the world and drift its soft, vaporous way across the darkened City, and she wondered again if she was still capable of loving them both.

The administrator promised her that he would take care of her children. He gave her food and a bundle of longshirts and shalwars. He asked her where she was going and why, and she knew he was afraid for her.

“I will be all right,” she told him. “I know someone who lives up there.”

“I don’t understand why you must go. It’s dangerous,” he said, his flesh red under the hollows of his eyes. He wiped his cheeks. “I wish you didn’t have to. But I suppose you will. I see that in your face. I saw that when you first came here.”

She laughed. The sound of her own laughter saddened her. “The world will change,” she said. “It always does. We are all empty, but this changing is what saves us. That is why I must go.”

He nodded. She smiled. They touched hands briefly; she stepped forward and hugged him, her headscarf tickling his nostrils, making him sneeze. She giggled and told him how much she loved him and the others. He looked pleased and she saw how much kindness and gentleness lived inside his skin, how his blood would never boil with undesired heat.

She lifted his finger, kissed it, wondering at how solid his vacant flesh felt against her lips.

Then she turned and left him, leaving the water and fire and the crackling, hissing earth of the City behind.

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Saturday Storytime: When it Ends, He Catches Her

This is another Nebula award nominee. Eugie Foster died the day after it was published. Though she was much mourned, that isn’t why this story was nominated.

Act II, scene III: the finale. It was supposed to be a duet, her as Makira, the warlord’s cursed daughter, and Balege as Ono, her doomed lover, in a frenzied last dance of tragedy undone, hope restored, rebirth. But when the Magistrate had closed down the last theaters, Balege had disappeared in the resultant riots and protests.

So Aisa danced the duet as a solo, the way she’d had to in rehearsal sometimes, marking the steps where Balege should have been. Her muscles burned, her breath coming faster. She loved this feeling, her body perfectly attuned to her desire, the obedient instrument of her will. It was only these moments that she felt properly herself, properly alive. The dreary, horrible daytime with its humiliations and ceaseless hunger became the dream. This dance, here and now, was real. She wished it would never end.

The music swelled, inexorable, driving to its culmination, a flurry of athletic spins and intricate footwork, dizzying and exhilarating. Snowbird’s Lament concluded in a sprinting leap, with Aisa flinging herself into the air just above the audience–glorious and triumphant at the apex of thunderous bars of music. But she had to omit it. There was no way to even mark it, impossible to execute without Balege to catch her.

Out of breath, euphoric but dissatisfied, she finished on one bent knee, arms outstretched, head dramatically bowed in supplication. The score in her head silenced. This was where the curtains were supposed to come furling down and the audience was supposed to leap to its feet in a frenzy of adoration. But there was no one to work the ropes and pulleys, and the rows of benches in the theater were all empty.

It didn’t matter. She didn’t dance for the accolades and applause. When the last stages and theaters in the artists’ district had barred their doors, when all the performances had gone forever dark, Aisa had found this place, this nameless ghost of a theater. So ramshackle to be beneath the Magistrate’s attention, so ruinous that no one had bothered to bolt the doors, it had become her haven, the place she fled to so she could dance by herself in the darkness and the silence. No matter that the world had turned to chaos, in the end, a dancer danced. It was the only peace, the only sanity that remained.

A pair of hands softly clapping in the wings intruded upon her reverie.

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Saturday Storytime: A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide

Continuing this week with Nebula award nominees, it’s always fun when the nominated stories that were previously subscription-only become more widely available. This one, from writer and singer Sarah Pinsker, seems to have been the first. Let’s hope the rest come out.

In the mirror, he saw his gaunt face, his narrowed shoulder, the sleeve. His left arm, with its jagged love letter. On the right side, he saw road. A trick of the mind. A glitch in the software. Shoulder, road. He knew it was all there: the pincer hand, the metal bones, the wire sinew. He opened and closed the hand. It was still there, but it was gone at the same time.

He scooped grain for the horses with his road hand, ran his left over their shaggy winter coats. He oiled machinery with his road hand. Tossed hay bales and bags of grain with both arms working together. Worked on his truck in the garage.  Other trucks made their slow way down a snowy highway in Colorado that was attached to him by wire, by electrode, by artificial pathways that had somehow found their way from his brain to his heart. He lay down on his frozen driveway, arms at his sides, and felt the trucks rumble through.

 

#

 

The thaw came late to both of Andy’s places, the farm and the highway. He had hoped the bustle of spring might bring relief, but instead he felt even more divided.

He tried to explain the feeling to Susan over a beer on her tiny screen porch. She had moved back to town while he was in the hospital, rented a tiny apartment on top of the tattoo parlor.  A big-bellied stove took up most of the porch, letting her wear tank tops even this early in the season. Her arms were timelines, a progression of someone else’s skill; her own progression must be on other arms, back in Vancouver. She had gone right after high school, to apprentice herself to some tattoo bigshot. Andy couldn’t figure out why she had returned, but here she was, back again.

The sleeves of his jacket hid his own arms. Not that he was hiding anything.  He held the beer in his left hand now only because his right hand dreamed of asphalt and tumbleweeds. He didn’t want to bother it.

“Maybe it’s recycled,” Susan said. “Maybe it used to belong to some Colorado rancher.”

Andy shook his head. “It isn’t in the past, and it isn’t a person on the road.”

“The software, then? Maybe that’s the recycled part, and the chip was meant for one of those new smart roads near Toronto, the ones that drive your car for you.”

“Maybe.” He drained the beer, then dropped the can to the porch and crushed it with the heel of his workboot. He traced his scars with his fingertips: first the scalp, then across and down his chest, where metal joined to flesh.

“Are you going to tell anybody else?” Susan asked.

He listened to the crickets, the undertones of frog. He knew Susan was hearing those, too. He didn’t think she heard the road thrumming in his arm. “Nah. Not for now.”

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Saturday Storytime: The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye

This is an excellent time to dive back into story blogging, not to mention reading. The Nebula Award nominees were very recently announced, and I have some catching up to do. The only one I’ve read so far is Ursula Vernon’s “Jackalope Wives”, which I shared at the time.

This story is by Matthew Kressel, who is having a good stretch writing-wise, having also recently sold a trilogy.

The next Beth began with the same questions, but the Eye avoided telling her too much. And when the Beth asked about the stars, the Eye replied with a question for her.

“My planet?” the Beth said. “It’s called Dirt. You’ve never heard of it? Where did you find me?” The Beth gazed into the impenetrable black.

The Meeker was envious. He had been born on an airless moon that orbited the Great Corpus every thousand years and spent the rest of his life in this Bulb. [Read more…]

Saturday Storytime: Ten Days’ Grace

In this story, Foz Meadows does what science fiction should do.

Falling pregnant with Lily had been her first infraction against the Spousal Laws. Like homosexuality and abortion, single parenthood had been illegal ever since the National Family Party came to power nearly three decades ago. As soon as the cause of Julia’s sudden nausea was correctly diagnosed, she’d been brought before the Bureau and called to account for the genesis of her not–allowed–to–be–illegitimate offspring. The child’s progenitor, she told them, was her employer, Roy Sovas, a kind man some twenty years her senior whose wife had produced a single sickly daughter and a string of miscarriages. Divorce was impossible. Something had to be done.

Armed with her testimony, the Bureau took a DNA sample from Roy and used it to prove paternity, although he, to his lasting credit, had already confessed to the affair. For his part in their joint violation of the Spousal Laws, Roy received a docked salary, a black mark on his citizenship record and a formal reminder that he was forbidden from contacting either Julia or their child for the next eighteen years, until the zygote who was to become Lily had reached its majority. For her part, Julia was given a choice: either give birth and then surrender her newborn to an adoptive couple, or take a husband. There was also the matter of finding a new job and a black mark similar to Roy’s, but compared to the choice of abandoning her child or raising it with a man she didn’t love, such trifles paled into insignificance.

In the end, she’d opted for marriage. She knew of no suitable candidates, but then, if she had the affair with Roy would hardly have been necessary. Fortunately, the Bureau was well–versed in human weakness, and kept a roster of available men — and women, should the need arise, although it much less frequently did — who were willing to marry such as her. That exercise, at least, contained some element of choice, albeit a meagre one. Robert had seemed the lesser of several evils. They met twice, agreed to marry, and then it was done: Lily’s existence was legitimised by this façade of wedded parentage. Love didn’t enter into it, or competence, or care, or even genetics: every child, the National Family Party said, should have both a father and mother, come what may. And as Lily was still years from her majority, the fact of Robert’s death didn’t matter, either. Once again, the choice was Julia’s — either give her daughter away, or marry another man to ensure Lily’s proximity to an official father–figure.

She’d been silent for a long time, pretending this not–quite–conversation with Agent James was heading in a different direction. She looked at him, hoping she might somehow have slipped backwards in time, to an era when this sort of thing didn’t happen, but still the stylus stabbed inexorably downwards.

Tap. Tap.

“You understand,” said Agent James, “that the Bureau’s concern is only for Lily’s well–being. A child raised by only one gender, no matter how lovingly, cannot ever be more than a half–being.”

“I understand,” croaked Julia, although she did not, could not, never had, never would; least of all now, when Robert, whose existence should have protected her from this eventuality, was gone, and how was she to feel about that, anyway?

“You do not have to decide just yet,” said Agent James, so gently that Julia found herself hating him. “First, there is the funeral to attend to. Afterwards, however —”

“Yes,” she said bitterly, “I remember. Ten days’ grace in which to find a husband.”

“Ten days’ grace,” said Agent James, nodding his head. “Shall I bring you the list of candidates, once things are sorted?”

Fuck your candidates, Julia wanted to scream at him.

“Yes,” she said.

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Saturday Storytime: Between Sea and Shore

I don’t remember who it was that said ennui is nostalgia for a place one has never been. The idea has stuck with me, but the source hasn’t. I was reminded of it again as I read this story by Vanessa Fogg.

I was playing alone on the beach. I was perhaps four years old. It was the cool time of evening when families gather to enjoy the reprieve from the heat; children splash and run in the sea as their mothers sit weaving baskets and the men mend nets or clean out traps for the next day’s fishing. The fishing boats have been dragged ashore, and their painted eyes and charms glint in the day’s last light.

I had wandered far from my friends and from any adult. Orange streaks from the falling sun lit the sky, but my feet seemed to be moving in a separate world of darkness. I watched my own feet splashing through the dimming water; I followed them, fascinated, as though I were following the appendages of some mysterious creature. And I was singing a lullaby as I went, something my mother would sometimes sing to me, a song from her own inland village.

Kirri, kirri sing the little birds.

They call for you in the dawn.

Mik, mik calls the mouse in the field.

He misses your shadow passing by.

I was singing, and was there an echo I heard, a second voice tracing those words? I sang louder and it seemed that the waves were growing stronger. That second voice sang with me, a half-beat behind, and I could hear the curiosity in its uncertain refrain. The current sucked at my legs . . .

And my mother was screaming my name, running at me; she grabbed me and swung me away from the water, up into her arms. “Don’t,” she cried. “Don’t ever sing that song, don’t sing here at night, don’t you know–”

She shook me, she was so angry, and I saw the tears glinting on her cheeks. I burst into sobs.

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Saturday Storytime: Tommy Flowers and the Glass Bells of Bletchley

I do like stories that send me off to find out more about real people, like this one by Octavia Cade.

When little Tommy Flowers was presented with a baby sister, he was disappointed to find that she was not a Meccano set. Her head lacked the simple geometry of strips and cogs and angle girders, and her fingers were innocent of gears. What was worse was the fact that she cried so—wailed, really, and nothing comprehensible at that. There was nowhere for him to build in peace, and even the construction sets he did have paled when he couldn’t hear their connective clicks for crying.

If he could have used his dad’s bricks to build a wall between himself and the cot he would have. “You wouldn’t be able to hear her if you did that,” said his dad, bringing him a glass of milk and an apple for his supper, and that was the point.

“It’s not like she can talk, is it,” said Tommy. “So I wouldn’t be missing out on much.”

“She’s talking,” said his dad. “In her own way. It don’t sound like much now, but you’ll figure it out.”

Tommy bolted plates together, tightening the nuts carefully, with deliberation, a milk moustache on his face. The empty glass sat beside him, near clear but for the last pale drops slithering to the bottom. He lay on his tummy, cogs around him, and when his sister squawked from her place in her cot, he glanced at her, automatically, through the smeared material of glass.

It was in his way. He couldn’t help it.

What are you doing? said the glass. The milk drops had coalesced, moving upwards, forming wet, sloppy letters on the inside of the glass—letters that soon lost their form and dribbled down into disassembled alphabets.

The glass wasn’t warm, or cold. Tommy snatched it up to his ear, but it didn’t make any sort of sound, and when he put his finger in, gingerly, and then his tongue, the drips of milk remaining didn’t taste any different that they usually did.

His sister squawked again, interrogative.

What are you doing? said the glass. Tommy had cleaned out most of the remaining milk with his tongue, so the letters were much fainter than before. He looked at his sister, and she looked back, her head cocked on one side and fat, gearless fingers gripping the bars of the cot in fascinated earnest.

“I’m building,” he said, feeling stupid. He didn’t say it very loudly, in case he was going crazy, in which case it would be best if dad didn’t hear him, but he said it nonetheless. He reached out with one hand, blind, and felt a girder piece press into one palm. “Look,” he said, waving it at his sister. “You make the pieces fit together. For trains, and cranes, and . . . all sorts.”

His sister gave a little chirrup.

Can I have a train? said his milk glass, and Tommy resigned himself to building to order, and to a baby that stumbled after him through the house, clutching a milk bottle that bubbled What are you doing, Tommy? What are you doing? What are you doing?

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Saturday Storytime: Witch, Beast, Saint: an Erotic Fairy Tale

It is as the title promises, and C. S. E. Cooney has more for you in her Witches Garden if you want it.

I put him in the cellar and fed him up until he was able to move about on his own. Then I began the arduous task of coaxing him outside to the wishing well and washing him, which took many days and a great deal of patience. Already the potatoes and last year’s apples and the onions greening in their barrels had begun to take on his dank and desolate stench. And really, he was so grateful for the attention.

Like many beasts, he found the sound of my voice soothing. So I told him the story of how he came to be.

“This cottage passes from witch to witch,” I said. “My predecessor was ancient by the time she mistook an oak tree for an open passage and drove her mortar and pestle right into it. They say mortar and pestles are safer than brooms. I don’t know about that. I prefer to walk everywhere, or maybe hitch a ride on a wagon. You have nice broad shoulders. Perhaps I’ll teach you to piggyback me, by and by. There’s a bit of a pig in you. Well, boar. It’s the tusks. Your nose is more stag. Soft and broad from bridge to tip. Those gently flaring nostrils.  But your horns are definitely bull. Anyway. What was I saying?”

The monster made a gesture like a pestle grinding something in a mortar.

“Right!” I cried. “My predecessor. Apparently in the last few decades before her terminal flying accident, she’d developed this habit of turning local boys to beasts every time they slighted her—or she imagined they did. The most famous case was that of our sovereign prince himself. He lives in a castle, in a stretch of forest not far from here. Don’t worry though. He found a local hedge-witch—much like myself—to break the spell. They say she was so beautiful she could shatter strong sorceries with a kiss.”

I shrugged. My hands were wrist-deep in his sudsy fur, the soap black with his murk.

“Could be. Or she might have been a scholar—much like myself—who knew the right incantations, under which phase of moon to utter them, how to transfer all that moonlight and magic words from her lips to his. It looks much like a kiss. All very standard, unless you slip in some tongue. Fact is she was probably tired of trading chicken eggs and goat milk for her minor miracles. Thought to have a go at the princessing business instead. Never have to pick nettles in a midnight graveyard ever again—unless she wanted to. And once a witch, we like to say, always a witch. Princess or no.”

Pausing, I regarded the monster, wondering what it would be to kiss him. The juncture at my thighs prickled, swelled, pulsed, grew moist. Then he exhaled and I stepped back.

His fangs needed brushing. Badly. Too, I wasn’t sure he was used to me yet. That he wouldn’t startle back in panic, catching my lip on one of his pointy bits and taking half my face with him.

His eyelashes were very long, coarse and curly. He would not yet meet my gaze. But when I stopped scrubbing, he knocked his large skull against the palm of my hand, urging me on.

“Beast, be still!” I commanded, and he was. Except for his tail, which swept around to brush my hip in shy apology. I ran my hand along it, muttering as I scrubbed, “Why I didn’t just shave you bare-ass naked so we could start afresh, I don’t know. Probably because my garden shears aren’t big enough.”

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Saturday Storytime: Chopin’s Eyes

I’m not usually a fan of the Victorian propensity to romanticize illness, but this story from Lara Elena Donnelly does things a little differently.

George courts Chopin like a terrier down a rabbit’s hole, teeth bared, tongue dripping. He flees, but every so often turns to look over his shoulder with liquid, changeable eyes. She lives for those glances, drawn into flashing moments when he is less than human and more than prey.

In early autumn, she corners him playing in the parlor, at a house party. George crosses the room, thick carpet quieting her riding boots. He does not notice her; his dark head is inclined towards the keys. The air in the room is electric. George swallows against a thickness in her throat, holds fast to a small sound trembling in her larynx. She dares not break the silence.

Kneeling by the bench like a postulant, she lays her cheek against his leg. He starts; his notes go sour, and the charged atmosphere dissipates. He holds his artist’s hands up high as if he is afraid to touch her, even to shoo her away.

“Madame Sand—”

“Angel,” she says. “You are an angel, sent from God. Please, don’t stop.”

But he does not begin again. He closes his hands—soft, cool, uncalloused—over hers and lifts them from his knee. “Please, madame. This is most improper. Most distracting.” He coughs with his mouth closed, wincing against the sharp convulsion. “Please.”

“Please,” she repeats, breathless. “Yes. Please. Go on.”

When she does not leave him, he sighs at her stubbornness and slides his fingertips between the black ridges of the sharps and flats and plays: a single dark note that fades, then builds into furls of triplets and sixteenths.

George, with her cheek still pressed against him, feels the change in his body, the sudden strength in the long, lean muscles of his thigh. He is fevered, and where she touches him she can feel currents moving, sliding like a great cat through a shadowed jungle. Her hands climb the contours of the piano leg, skip from the varnished wood to the give of Chopin’s flesh, grasp at him as the music swells. He is hard with need beneath the soft summer wool of his trousers, but ignores her in favor of his impromptu.

Chopin’s left hand strokes the lower octaves. His right climbs in rolling arcs towards the high reaches of the keyboard. George has made love to many men in her life, but never experienced ecstasy like this. Her orgasm crescendoes, and she sinks back into her body, dizzy and prickling with sweat.

The piece finishes with a gentle undulation and chord that is little more than a suggestion of sound. Chopin lifts his hands from the keys and looks down at George. He seems surprised to find her there, surprised to find himself at the piano. He draws breaths to speak. It catches somewhere behind his breastbone and he doubles in on himself, wracked with coughing.

George pulls his mouth to hers and kisses him, seeking mysteries in the darkness of his mouth. She does not find them. His breath is sharp with the iron tang of tubercular blood. Nevertheless, she knows what she has seen: something lives within him, uses him, and she wants it.

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