Saturday Storytime: Restore the Heart into Love

The editors of Uncanny Magazine are a particular source of frustration for the Sad and Rabid Puppies. Whether it’s stories they’ve bought or anthologies they’ve edited, they seem to be standing right there whenever people talk about the forces destroying science fiction. (You can help with that, by the way.)

However, I’m sure that this story by John Chu will be everything the Puppies of Varying Dispositions are looking for. Set on a spaceship, with a hero sacrificing to bring valued tradition into a high-tech future? What more could they ask for?

The ship needed him more often these past few decades. Readers failed and had to be replaced. Connectors shook themselves loose and cables cracked over time. He repaired his crew mates’ pods and woke to find they had repaired his. Too often, grinding noises came from vibrating pods warm to the touch. All he could do was keep those corpses frozen to bring home. The hibernation system had killed most of the Byzantium Library’s small crew by the time those still alive had successfully diagnosed and fixed it. He had to push that away and focus on the archive though to complete the mission.

The archive was holding up well. That one dye lot had been the only large scale failure so far and Max had copied all of the affected data to chalcogenide glass in time. He’d never been prouder of his team. Their legacy lived on in the Byzantium Library. The ship wasn’t perfect. The last few times he woke, it seemed barely functioning. The archive, however, had remained intact.

So when the chalcogenide glass began to fail, Max finally cried. The errors scrolling up the terminal display blurred in his gaze. He clamped his mouth shut and held his breath even though no one could hear him. Again, the ship had alerted him in time. It could still recreate the data using the error correction bits he had layered in. The chalcogenide glass, though, was already the back up.

The wall panel that protected the data modules vibrated before Max. Maybe cables had failed or solder joints had crumbled. Maybe the data hadn’t decayed; the ship just couldn’t access it. He wanted the problem to be something he could fix. They could no longer afford the energy to re–burn the data into the glass. Power from the ship’s photovoltaic arrays dropped every year at a rate consistent with space debris pitting the array’s outer surface.

He set the panel next to him. The modules embedded in the walls looked as they did the day they were installed. Rows of cards sat in racks screwed to the floor. Ties bundled floating cables together. He ran continuity tests. Signals sent down the cables had no problems reaching the rest of the ship. He tested the modules themselves. The electrical resistance of the chalcogenic glass’s amorphous states had increased enough to blur the distinction among its various possible states. Everyone on the team had expected that would happen over time, just not on the order of decades. The memory was slowly confusing everything Max had burned into it.

The runners on his overalls tugged against the walls. Max tapped furiously on the terminal’s keyboard. He had a data scrubber to write and he didn’t know how long he had before the chalcogenic glass would fail so badly that he wouldn’t be able to recreate the correct data from the error correction bits.

The ship had only one type of data storage he hadn’t tried, the volatile short–term memory that it operated on.

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Saturday Storytime: Nine Thousand Hours

It’s worth remembering, as this story by Iona Sharma tells us, that sometimes you screw up because you’re good at something. And there may be nothing you can do to fix it.

Cally made tea and put biscuits on a plate; I didn’t do too much of anything. Without even looking at me she got her phone out of her pocket, dialled a number and said, “Yes, this is Calliope Norwood. At the light, yes. Can you send up—mmm, cheese and pepperoni. Thanks.”

I thought about that for a minute, and then said, “You know the pizza delivery phone number by heart?”

She ignored that. “Drink your tea.”

I drank the tea and ate a couple of biscuits, and slowly the world came into a little better focus. When I was a child the kitchen in that house, with its cast-iron range and big white-painted rafters, seemed enormous: as enormous as the possibility of one day being grown up, of my being a practitioner of the Salt and Cally’s being the lighthouse keeper. We knew, I think, that that’s what Cally would be, some far-off day—but then Commander Norwood died suddenly, of a heart attack in the middle of the night, and that was that. My father still lived in the cottage in Weymouth where I was born, but he understood, more than anyone, why home was the house under the light: it was my father’s people who built the tower.

On the table, stark against the stripped oak, were a handful of bare sheets of paper and a pen. I motioned towards them a little ruefully, and asked, “What did they used to be?”

“Tide tables,” Cally said. “It’s all right for me, I can remember them, mostly. But I tried to write them down for the others, and . . .”

“Yeah.” I’d tried to write down lists of magical logarithms, and phone numbers, and then just my name, over and over. We all had. I picked up a pen and attempted to write “Amal” and then “Salt” on the page. My pen formed the letters, but a millimetre above the surface; when Cally took it from me and tried, she couldn’t force it into the sweep of the C without it leaping from her hand. Above us, I noticed for the first time the neatly arrayed spice jars, now with blank labels, and the cookbooks on the shelf by the door with bare spines. “I really am sorry, Cally. I’m so sorry.”

Cally glanced at me. “I guess you’re apologising to a lot of people, right now.”

I nodded. Having been right in the focus of the blast, I had been stumbling aphasic for a while, dimly fumbling through the confusion; after that cleared, sorry was the first word.

“Okay.” Cally seemed to consider. “It’s time to check on the light. Do you want to come up with me?”

I nodded and followed her up the spiral steps. “I thought it was lucky,” I said, as we went round and round, round and around, “that the light magic can still be done.”

“Yes,” Cally said, “but luck has nothing to do with it.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by that until we emerged into the lamp-room, greenish with daylight. And it was strange that I’d never seen it before, but then, perhaps I’d never really looked.

“Two power sources,” Cally said, tapping the glass. “Magic, for when the power goes out, and electricity, for—well, for things like this.”

I bowed my head. “I can still do it,” I said. Because my magic comes from seawater and salt, it tends to the deep, wordless workings—heat and cold and calm and light. Not all the people of the Salt want to take time for the learning, the way I did—Cally was taught all she needed in primary school and then by Commander Norwood, for the upkeep of the light—but the power is in all of us, brought with us when life crawled out of the sea, or so I’m told.

Cally nodded. “I’ll get you to help, then, when the time comes”—and then there came the ring of the bell from downstairs, so we finished up and went back down. Cally fetched in the pizza and paid for it over my protests—it’s a good thing that sterling banknotes are different colours, because there wasn’t a word on any of them—and set it down in front of me and watched while I ate it, and then I did help her with the light at dusk, and after that, went to bed before nine o’clock.

You must understand: there wasn’t anything to do, at that time. You couldn’t go online, or read a book. You couldn’t check your email or read the news. You could sing if you knew the words; you couldn’t do it for the first time unless you were doing it by ear. Offices and schools and universities were closed, waiting. So many people took up running that there were two London Marathons that year. And magic had become a primal thing—you could do it if you knew the working so well it was part of your body; you couldn’t look it up. And I remember people didn’t even do that: they were frightened, because of me, because of what I had done.

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Saturday Storytime: Dr. Polingyouma’s Machine

One of the joys of having an essay in Uncanny Magazine was doing the page proofs. Page proofs aren’t usually much fun. It’s your last chance to catch problems, but you don’t want to find big problems because they’re a pain to fix at that stage. For Uncanny, however, you have the option to proof the whole magazine, which means being able to read all the stories, poems, and essays before anyone else.

I particularly liked this story by Emily Devenport for the fact that it found something compelling in the work that science fiction all too often assumes will magically disappear with progress.

“You’ll see people in this corridor sometimes,” said my trainer, who was named Reed. “Don’t look directly at them, don’t talk to them, and don’t get in their way. They’ll just be passing through, and they probably won’t even be aware of you. But don’t take chances. Interfering with their journey could get them killed. Or get you killed. Understand?”

No way did I understand. But I believed him. “Yes.”

“Most of the time those people will look human,” said Reed.  “Sometimes they won’t. You can’t let it get to you, and the best way to avoid that is not to look at them.”

His remarks would have surprised me if he had uttered them somewhere else. But in that hallway, they made perfect sense. Weirdness seemed to radiate from every surface, and the floor, even covered with that horrendous mess, was the most normal thing to look at. 

As we continued deeper into The Effect, people passed us, just as he had warned. I couldn’t tell where they were coming from, but they all went the same direction, toward the Gate. Sometimes they were engaged in conversation as they walked, but I couldn’t make out what language they were speaking. I kept my eyes on the floor, and once the people had left us alone again, something occurred to me. “Reed—don’t the Journeyers care about the mess on the floor? Most people would be grossed out.”

“The Journeyers don’t care,” said Reed. “I’m not even sure they notice.  They may be out of phase with this place. It’s the people who made the Gate who care. If all goes well, you’ll never meet them.”

I found it hard to fathom that the Journeyers didn’t care about the mess.  That first day, and on many overlaps thereafter, there was blood as well as urine on the floor. Sometimes I wondered if a slaughter had occurred there, and the excretions had been provoked by terrible fear. Other times, it seemed more like something was marking its territory, angry because we had invaded the borders of its hunting grounds. I say its, because often the biological fluids on the floor did not appear to have a human origin.

As Reed and I made our way to the far end of The Effect, the hall opened into an odd bathroom that also contained a floor sink in one corner for wheeled buckets. The bathroom and floorsink were normal features of the basement, but they were enlarged and distorted by The Effect, which twisted the bathroom three–quarters of a turn counter–clockwise to make room for another hallway that intersected the main hall at an angle. One end of this new hallway disappeared around another curve, which arced away from the main hall. The other end continued for a few feet past the bathroom and terminated at a blank wall. 

But when I glanced at that wall, I saw ripples spreading in circles from its center, as if it were a pool of water. I looked away.

“That’s the Gate,” said Reed. “That’s where the Journeyers go. No one who’s seen around that bend—” he jerked his chin toward the other end, “—has ever returned to tell us about it. So don’t get curious about it.”

I nodded and looked at the stalls. The fixtures inside also appeared distorted, and I fervently hoped I would never see the creatures for whom they were intended.

“Walk me back out,” said Reed. “Then you can get started.”

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Saturday Storytime: How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps

After the Hugo nomination news last weekend, Saladin Ahmed asked what people thought should have been on the ballot. You could do much worse than to take heed of those recommendations. I found this story by A. Merc Rustad that way. I’m so glad I did. It’s a story that suicidal teenaged me could have very much used.

Everyone knows you can’t be in love with a robot.

I drop my plate into the automatic disposal, which thanks me for recycling. No one else waits to deposit trash, so I focus on it as I brace myself to walk back to the counter. The J-90 SRM smiles blankly at the empty front counter, waiting for the next customer.

The lunch rush is over. The air reeks of espresso and burned milk. I don’t come here because the food is good or the coffee any better. The neon violet décor is best ignored.

I practiced this in front of a wall a sixteen times over the last week. I have my script. It’s simple. “Hello, I’m Tesla. What may I call you?”

And the robot will reply:

I will say, “It’s nice to meet you.”

And the robot will reply:

I will say, “I would like to know if you’d like to go out with me when you’re off-duty, at a time of both our convenience. I’d like to get to know you better, if that’s acceptable to you.”

And the robot will reply:

“Hey, Tesla.”

The imagined conversation shuts down. I blink at the trash receptacle and look up.

My boyfriend smiles hello, his hands shoved in his jeans pockets, his shoulders hunched to make himself look smaller. At six foot five and three hundred pounds, it never helps. He’s as cuddly and mellow as a black bear in hibernation. Today he’s wearing a gray turtleneck and loafers, his windbreaker unzipped.

“Hi, Jonathan.”

I can’t ask the robot out now.

The empty feeling reappears in my chest, where it always sits when I can’t see or hear the robot.

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Saturday Storytime: The Fisher Queen

This year, Alyssa Wong‘s first professional fiction sale was nominated for a Nebula Award. You can also read an interview with her about this story.

When we pull the nets in the next morning, they are so heavy that we have to recruit the cook to help us haul them onto the ship. There are a few tuna, bass, and even a small shark, but the bulk of it is squirming, howling mermaids. As we yank the nets onto the deck, bobbins clattering over the planks, I realize that we’ve caught something strange.

Most of the mermaids tangled in the nets are pale, with silvery tails and lithe bodies. This one is dark brown, its lower body thick, blobby, and inelegant, tapering to a blunt point instead of a single fin. Its entire body is glazed with a slimy coating, covered in spines and frondlike appendages. Rounded, skeletal pods hang from its waist, each about the size of an infant.

Worse, this fish has an uncannily human face, with a real chin and defined neck. While all of the mermaids I’d seen before had wide-set eyes on either side of their heads, this one’s eyes — huge and white, like sand dollars — are positioned on the front of its head. And unlike the other mermaids, gasping and thrashing and shrieking on the deck — there are few things worse than a mermaid’s scream — this one lies still, gills slowly pulsing.

“We got a deep-sea one,” breathes Sunan.

Ahbe crouches over the net, mouth agape. When he reaches his hand out, my father barks, “Don’t touch it!” and yanks Ahbe’s arm away. His body is tense, and when the mermaid smiles — it smiles, like a person — its jaws unhinge to reveal several rows of long, needlelike teeth.

I can’t stop staring. The mermaid has a stunted torso with short, thin arms and slight curvature where a human woman would have breasts, but no nipples. This shocks me more than it should; why would a fish have nipples? Heat rises in my face. I feel exposed, somehow, fully clothed though I am.

“Wow,” Ahbe says. His eyes are shining like he’s never seen a deep-sea mermaid before. Maybe he hasn’t. I haven’t either. “We’re gonna make a lot of money off of this one, huh?”

“If you don’t lose a hand to it,” my father replies. The other mermaids are wailing still, the last of the seawater trickling from their gills in short, sharp gasps. “Let’s bring them below. Do your best not to damage them; we need as much of the meat intact for the buyers as we can get.”

We descend on the net with ropes and hooks. The brown mermaid’s eyes are blind windows, like an anglerfish’s, but her face follows me as we move around the deck, securing the mermaids, pinning their delicate arms to their torsos so they won’t shatter their wrists in their panicked flailing. Once they’re bound, Dad and Sunan lift them and carry them down to the hold. With Ahbe packing the other fish into coolers, I draw close to the deep-sea mermaid, rope in hand.

That mouth opens, and I swear — I swear to god, or gods, or whatever is out there — a word hisses out: “L¯uk¯s¯aw.”

I drop the rope and stumble away. Ahbe’s at my side in an instant. “Shit! Lily, did it hurt you?” He grabs my hands, turning my arms over. “Did you get bitten?”

The pods at her waist clatter and air whistles between her teeth. She is laughing at me as they bind her and drag her down to the hold. “L¯uk¯s¯aw. L¯uk¯s¯aw. L¯uk¯s¯aw.”

Daughter.

My belly burns. I can’t stop shaking.

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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…]