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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Saturday Storytime: Blessed Are the Hungry

Apex Publishing has been bringing good science fiction and fantasy to American authors for several years with its Books of World SF series. This is a tradition Apex Magazine follows as well, as with this story from Victor Ocampo.

That afternoon they flushed San Carlos Seldran out the airlock. Everyone on Cabra Deck was required to watch, even the little ones.

Despite what old people tell you, in the vacuum of space your blood won’t boil. Your body won’t explode either. In less than a minute you’d simply die from a lack of oxygen. There wouldn’t be time to scream.

His was a humane execution — quick, clean and painless.

“The Lord preserves all who love him but all the wicked he destroys,” growled the ancient Holosonic, droning the day’s lesson with great pomp and solemnity.

My family and I watched as our former parish priest drifted away towards infinity. The void swallowed him up with a deep hunger, deep as the ever–present darkness. I wanted to close my eyes but I just couldn’t look away. None of us could. Instead we just watched him die and committed his soul quietly to Our Lady of Gliese.

The people of Cupang couldn’t let him go without a send–off. We removed our bracelets and dropped them to the floor discreetly, at random places, beneath the notice of the ever present Domini Canes. We’d made them from old cable ties and plastic bags, recycled colour against the blackest of blackness. Each one a secret funeral wreath for a good man we’d all loved and respected.

After the ceremony, mother hugged my youngest brother tightly. It was Bino’s first excommunication and he was understandably quite upset. He buried his head deeply into her bosom, sobbing quietly. We all turned away, to let my mother console him privately.

The sooner that Bino got inured to executions, the better it would be for him and the easier it would be for the rest of us. Life was hard enough as it was without the tears of a child.

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Saturday Storytime: Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome

Y’all probably know who John Scalzi is. What you may not know is that he has a prequel of sorts for his new novel Lock In available to read online. It’s worth it.

It was clear this wasn’t the H5N1 variant so we started breaking it down to see what we had. What we had was a virus that had a widely variable but long incubation period—that’s the time between when you get the virus and when you start showing symptoms—but a short latency period, meaning the time between when you catch the virus and can start spreading it to other people. Long incubation plus short latency means there’s a fairly large window for subclinical infection—people infecting each other before they feel sick themselves.

So that’s what happened here. The Haden’s virus is transmissible by air, which makes it easy to catch. By the time the International Epidemiological Conference winter meeting had adjourned, roughly eighty percent of the thousand or so attendees had been infected. They had been in close contact and breathing in each other’s air the entire three days. And then when they dispersed they traveled back to several hundred points of origin on six separate continents, traveling in airplanes packed with other people. From a virus’ point of view, you couldn’t have asked for a more optimal transmission pattern.

Now, that’s optimal for the virus. It’s not optimal for us. When it came to the Haden’s virus, by the time we knew what we were dealing with, we also knew that it had potentially already spread to millions and possibly billions of people. What we didn’t know was how serious this new virus would be. We had half of New York throwing up in ER rooms, but we didn’t know how long it would take for the virus to resolve itself, and for the body’s own systems to beat it.

We did know we didn’t have a vaccine. The Haden’s virus initially presented like an influenza virus, but when we started looking at it we realized we really were looking at something new, so the sort of antivirals we use for flu—the neuraminidase and M2 inhibitors—weren’t necessarily going to have the same effect on Haden’s.

So no matter what, we were in for a rough time.

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Saturday Storytime: Toad Words

Ursula Vernon has, among many other things, won a Hugo for her graphic novel Digger and created the lovely, wonderful Morally Ambiguous Honey Badgers. This week, she did this.

Frogs fall out of my mouth when I talk. Toads, too.

It used to be a problem.

There was an incident when I was young and cross and fed up with parental expectations. My sister, who is the Good One, has gold and gems fall from her lips, and since I could not be her, I had to go a different way.

So I got frogs. It happens.

“You’ll grow into it,” the fairy godmother said. “Some curses have cloth-of-gold linings.” She considered this, and her finger drifted to her lower lip, the way it did when she was forgetting things. “Mind you, some curses just grind you down and leave you broken. Some blessings do that too, though. Hmm. What was I saying?”

I spent a lot of time not talking. I got a slate and wrote things down. It was hard at first, but I hated to drop the frogs in the middle of the road. They got hit by cars, or dried out, miles away from their damp little homes.

Toads were easier. Toads are tough. After awhile, I learned to feel when a word was a toad and not a frog. I could roll the word around on my tongue and get the flavor before I spoke it. Toad words were drier. Desiccated is a toad word. So is crisp and crisis and obligation. So are elegant and matchstick.

Frog words were a bit more varied. Murky. Purple. Swinging. Jazz.

I practiced in the field behind the house, speaking words over and over, sending small creatures hopping into the evening.  I learned to speak some words as either toads or frogs. It’s all in the delivery.

Love is a frog word, if spoken earnestly, and a toad word if spoken sarcastically. Frogs are not good at sarcasm.

Toads are masters of it.

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Saturday Storytime: The Case of the Passionless Bees

Another from the Women Destroy Science Fiction issue of Lightspeed Magazine. I’m glad this, by Rhonda Eikamp, is one they chose to make publicly accessible, and not just because I’ve been reading Holmes pastiche lately.

“Your televoice mentioned bees,” I began.

“Miss Segalen was highly sensitive apparently. She’d said nothing about it, and her death would have been written off as a terrible and tragic accident if there had been only a single errant bee involved, rather than what one must assume was a basketful introduced into the room deliberately. And if the door had not been locked from the outside.” The servos of his mouth ground through their tracks, clenching his jaw. A sigh of steam escaped his neck-joint. “The stings on the corpse were too many for Dr. Culpepper to count. I believe that with her last air before her throat closed up entirely, Katharina Segalen had hoped to smash a window with one of the pots and make her exit or at the least draw someone’s attention to her plight. A handsome woman, Watson, though you would not have known it had you seen her in death—the swelling had disfigured her so. And intelligent. She would have known she had but seconds to live after the first few stings.”

“And your housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, you say, has been detained. But that is surely absurd!”

“Mrs. Hudson found her. She touched nothing, assessed that Miss Segalen was dead, and came directly to me. Not one to seize up in the face of death, Mrs. Hudson. Years of service with me have conditioned her and—well, I’ve made a few changes to her programming over the years, removed the worst of the housekeeperly fluttering her line’s manufacturers insist on adding. I require reason and nerves of my servants above all else. Strictest confidence, eh?”

This last of course was in reference to the prohibition against any amalgamated meddling with the programming of another. I would never have betrayed him. The very fact that Gearlock Holmes, out of all the amalgamated with which we surround ourselves in our homes and stables and coaches, enjoyed special status by royal decree, was allowed to own property and employ amalgamated servants of his own, namely a housekeeper and a gardener, was due to his unique cogitating skills in service to Her Majesty. Holmes’s creator Joseph Bell had left no notes before his death as to how he had obtained this altogether greater level of cognizance in the one amalgamated designed by him. I only know it left Gearlock Holmes, in spite of his blank metal face and shiny limbs, closer to a fleshly man than any amalgamated I had ever met. And if he was a breaker of rules that had not been made to apply to the likes of him, I would certainly not out him.

“No,” Holmes continued, “I’m afraid I am at fault for suspicion falling on poor Mrs. Hudson. I was too fastidious in my investigations, Watson.”

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Saturday Storytime: A Word Shaped Like Bones

The Women Destroy Science Fiction issue of Lightspeed Magazine is out and being praised and vilified in (I am happy to say) decidedly unequal measure. A few of the stories are available online. More will be Tuesday, though much of the content is available only with purchase of the issue.

I find it in equal parts amusing, frustrating, and unsurprising that the author of this story, Kris Millering, wasn’t sure her tale was ready for publication. Oh, impostor syndrome.

Maureen works on her sculptures, trying to ignore the dead man. “I was supposed to be alone,” she says to the pliant material in her hands. It’s a model, only a model; it will be cast and perfected when she reaches the planet that humans call Hippocrene. She makes the model out of a lightweight foam clay; it stays flexible for only a few hours once extruded, so she must work quickly and work small. The foam clay is not her favorite medium, but she is in space. There must be no fumes, nothing that crumbles easily, nothing that must be fired or melted. It would not do to put anything poisonous in the air that she might breathe. She usually works in materials much less forgiving, lunar basalt and glass.

A stunt, her critics said before she left. She holds her ears and buzzes her tongue against her teeth to block the voices out as she has been taught. It is not a stunt. It is a fellowship. Won, by the merit of her work. There are people who understand her work. The universe is not filled with critics!

She thinks the dead man in the corner might be a critic.

Maureen has done nothing interesting in the last few years other than win the fellowship that placed her on this small spaceship. Her sculptures sell, this is true; but selling is nothing, some of the greatest artists of the 23rd century have never sold anything. Commercialism is out of fashion. She longs for the 22nd century, when you couldn’t tell the difference between any of the genders without asking, people dressed like people, and you were only successful if you sold.

She could have been something, in 2165.

Instead she is hopelessly banal, striving for beauty in form. She sculpts the shapes she finds in her mind, all smooth curves and edges that catch at the fingertips, demanding attention. Her work does not feature a thousand flickering holograms each reciting a passage from On Hills of Steel; it does not assault anyone with the smells of the lunar landscape or the taste of needles. She regards the Synasthete movement as crass sensationalism. She never wanted to know what yellow sounds like. Yet she does, and it is something she cannot un-know.

Oh sweet breath of the divine, there is a dead man in the corner and she cannot un-know that, either.

She works. She continues to work. She is always working.

The dead man decays at her in what she feels is a possibly reproachful fashion.

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