Saturday Storytime: Significant Figures

I didn’t have much time to read stories just before Christmas. I’m very glad I didn’t miss this one by Rachael Acks in all the rush.

That morning, at great personal risk, Stephen’s waffle iron attempted to tell him something.

Bachelors were not generally known for their possession of specialized kitchen appliances, but Stephen owned a full array of top-of-the-line single use devices, including the aforementioned waffle iron. And perhaps only slightly more bizarre, Stephen’s kitchen gadgets were rather more sentient than any electronic device had a right to be. This was pure self-defense on their part, sheer will to survive actualized by the field of latent unreality that clung to Stephen like a second skin. Only the waffle iron and the blender were old enough to recall the horrifying day when the espresso machine, upon beeping at an inopportune time, had been redefined by a startled Stephen into greasy slag that smelled faintly of French roast.

Thus it was with no small amount of trepidation that the waffle iron sought to draw Stephen’s attention to odd fluctuations of the power grid by flickering its little red light and letting out a strangled beep.

Stephen set his tablet down; he’d been scrolling through the morning’s market reports. The waffle iron dared another plaintive beep as he opened it and levered the waffle free. Stephen frowned, patting at his pocket in search of his pen. “Not going bad, are you?”

Immediately the waffle iron held its light steady. The pen carried with it disturbing implications. Stephen had a degree in theoretical mathematics, which involved solving problems within a closely constrained world where all the rules made sense. But his passion and talent lay in slicing through reality with a sharpened slide rule and redefining the fiddly bits so problems politely solved themselves. In short, Stephen Charlemagne Robins was the rarest sort of person in the universe: a combat mathematician.

A combat mathematician who promptly wandered from the kitchen, plated waffle in hand, tablet forgotten on the counter.

And that, the waffle iron thought with no small amount of bitterness, was the biggest problem with Stephen. The man loved his waffles, but he didn’t blink nearly often enough and was utterly abysmal at asking the right questions.

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Saturday Storytime: Boat in Shadows, Crossing

Tori Truslow says she’d like to be a genderfluid cyborg on Mars. Given her talent for making the suspension of disbelief a small thing, one would almost think it could happen. Thanks to AJ Fitzwater for the pointer to this and other good short fiction from 2013.

Listen: down in the mangroves, just a few days before this story-telling night, a certain fisher pulled up wicker eggs that turned into wicker fish. He showed his wife the trap that bore them, shiny stones tied onto it like eyes. She shook her head and turned to their daughter.

“It’s because you made it too lifelike,” she scolded, “and now something’s possessed it.”

“Oh, no,” the daughter said. “I made it more deathlike. So it’d suck fish to the same fate.”

And her parents thought, and conferred, and spoke to their cousins and their neighbors, who all agreed: a girl with such a talent could marry well.

One said he’d heard of a wealthy ice merchant from across the seas with an unmarried son, who needed someone with haunt-tricks to help their business—he had bought a ghostwood barge to use as a roving shop but couldn’t get it to go. Now, Bue’s parents cared for their daughter but not for ghosty fish-traps—and to be joined to a merchant family was a fine thought. So they asked her, as they sat down to supper, what she thought.

“But Ma, Pa, who’ll tend the traps?” Under her calm face, dismay tumbled with delight. The city, the city! But as a merchant’s wife?

“I can do that,” her mother said. “Just think! No more blistering your fingers with work, but sitting in a high chair and commanding a house! And there’d be money to send home.”

“So send me as a servant,” Bue said, ladling soup into their bowls. “I’ll earn you some coin, and I’d rather work with my hands than worry about accounts.”

“I’ve heard nothing good about rich boys and servant girls,” said her father.

Bue’s smile was not a delicate thing but a big rash grin when she said, “why should I be a girl?”

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Saturday Storytime: The Ghosts of Christmas

Paul Cornell is most broadly known as a writer for Doctor Who, though he’s worked widely in television and comics as well. He wrote the scripts for “Father’s Day” and the two-part “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood”. He wrote several original Doctor Who novels and created the character of Bernice Summerfield, a character many feel inspired River Song. This short story also explores the concept of time travel, though in a very different way.

I grew numb with fear as autumn turned to winter. I grew huge. I didn’t talk to Ben or anyone about how I felt. I didn’t want to hear myself say the words.

In mid-December, a couple of weeks before the due date, I got an email from Lindsey. It was marked ‘confidential’:

 

Just thought I should tell you, that, well, you predicted it, didn’t you? The monkey trials have been a complete success, the subjects seem fine, mentally and physically. We’re now in a position to actually connect minds across time. So we’re going to get into the business of finding human volunteer test subjects. Ramsay wants ‘some expendable student’ to be the first, but, you know, over our dead bodies! This isn’t like lab rats, this is first astronaut stuff. Anyway, the Project is closing down on bloody Christmas Eve, so we’re going to be forced to go and ponder that at home. Enclosed are the latest revisions of the tech specs, so that you can get excited too. But of course, you’ll be utterly blasé about this, because it is nothing compared to the miracle of birth, about which you must be so excited, etc.

 

I looked at the specs and felt proud.

And then a terrible thought came to me. Or crystallised in me. Formed out of all the things I was. Was already written in me.

I found myself staggered by it. And hopeful about it. And fearful that I was hopeful. I felt I could save myself. That’s ironic too.

My fingers fumbling, I wrote Lindsey a congratulatory email and then rewrote it three times before I sent it so that it was a model of everything at my end being normal.

I knew what I was going to be doing on Christmas Day.

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Saturday Storytime: Blood Makes Noise

Gemma Files claims to be perfectly ordinary–until you take a peek inside her head. Have one such peek.

I press my eyes closed, momentarily forgetting to remember just how deep we must already be. HPNS regulations at least breached, for certain-sure, if not exceeded — more than deep enough to check my hands for tremors, and count off the rest of those prospective High Pressure Nervous Syndrome symptoms our mission literature listed:

Increased excitability, motor reflex decay; aphasia. Mental glitches.

 …under the deep black sea, who loves to die with me…

—glitches. Psychosis. Cyanosis.

And eventually…

I slam my head back, skull on wall, hard enough to ring myself true — short, sharp shock, broken left incisor into lip, tweak of clarifying pain. Instant coherence. Kiley’s rules, channeling themselves: Keep alert. Tell it through. No opinion without research. No solution without…

 …with — out…

“Book,” the Doctor whispers, beside me. I shift a bit towards him, deliberately trying to find the floor’s sharpest angle, to bend my hip in such a way as to make the pain flare just so, girdling my pelvis. Making myself uncomfortable.

“Doctor,” I answer.

“Book, Regis. American. No…registered rank.”

“Specialist.”

He coughs. “I…didn’t know that.”

“No reason you would.”

The Doctor give a snuffling gasp, a liquid retch. Something catches in his throat, rattles there briefly — then flicks out again, splattering the floor between us with wet, red bile. I glance back at the wall I just used for a memory aid, which could frankly use a few shadow animals right about now. And as though he’s read my mind—

—which may, I suspect, no longer be quite as hard to do as it once was—

“Black…Ops…operative. ‘Wet…boy.’ Yes? C…I…A — puppet.”

I smile, thinly. “Whatever.”

But at least you know my first name.

“You…are a — coward, Book,” the Doctor tells me. Then lets all his breath out in one big rush, ragged with the effort, like he expects me to pause, to take note — to congratulate him on his sudden insight, his startling perspicacity.

As though this were really some big revelation.

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Saturday Storytime: Hunger: A Confession

Dale Bailey recently noted that this story took him far less time to finish than his work typically does. It doesn’t seem to have hurt this piece of classical horror in the least.

So that was my life—interminable days of boredom, torturous insomniac nights. It was the worst summer of my life, with nothing to look forward to but a brand new school come the fall. That’s why I found myself poking around in the basement about a week after we moved in. Nobody had bothered to unpack—nobody had bothered to do much of anything all summer—and I was hoping to find my old teddy bear in one of the boxes.

Mr. Fuzzy had seen better days—after six years of hard use, he literally had no hair, not a single solitary tuft—and I’d only recently broken the habit of dragging him around with me everywhere I went. I knew there’d be a price to pay for backsliding—Jeremy had been riding me about Mr. Fuzzy for a year—but desperate times call for desperate measures.

I’d just finished rescuing him from a box of loose Legos and Jeremy’s old Star Wars action figures when I noticed a bundle of rags stuffed under the furnace. I wasn’t inclined to spend any more time than necessary in the basement—it smelled funny and the light slanting through the high dirty windows had a hazy greenish quality, like a pond you wouldn’t want to swim in—but I found myself dragging Mr. Fuzzy over toward the furnace all the same.

Somebody had jammed the bundle in there good, and when it came loose, clicking metallically, it toppled me back on my butt. I stood, brushing my seat off with one hand, Mr. Fuzzy momentarily forgotten. I squatted to examine the bundle, a mass of grease-stained rags tied off with brown twine. The whole thing was only a couple feet long.

I loosened the knot and pulled one end of the twine. The bundle unwrapped itself, spilling a handful of rusty, foot-long skewers across the floor. There were half a dozen of them, all of them with these big metal caps. I shook the rag. A scalpel tumbled out, and then a bunch of other crap, every bit of it as rusty as the skewers. A big old hammer with a wooden head and a wicked-looking carving knife and one of those tapered metal rods butchers use to sharpen knives. Last of all a set of ivory-handled flatware.

I reached down and picked up the fork.

That’s when I heard the stairs creak behind me.

“Mom’s gonna kill you,” Jeremy said.

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Saturday Storytime: The Jackal’s Wedding

Vajra Chandrasekera lives in Sri Lanka but prefers to write in English. His speculative poetry has won him a Rhysling Award.

That was the day she first tried putting her paws aside for hands. Father didn’t like that, either, he sighed from his corner of the burrow. His glade magic was strong, but unlike hers. He could not change. Or perhaps he just refused to.

“The glade magic is a curse for sons,” Father would say. “Only for sons, my daughter.”

She didn’t understand why he called it a curse when it was so powerful. He made weather mild, food plentiful: voles, squirrels, even hares. She had just cracked a lizard open, noisily slurping it, when she smelled Tien approaching.

He was not the first treasure hunter to find the glade. Anyone except Jack could enter or leave. But Father’s magic hid the treasure from strangers, and kept them from bringing harm to the glade. She had no fear of him.

But Tien wasn’t interested in treasure. He offered Jack cooked meat from his pack. She tore into the richness of it, overwhelmed by the spices. Tien stroked her neck and her ears flattened in pleasure.

“Stay away from him,” Father told her later, but he always said that. “The last human who was my friend was a king. He got me stuck here looking after his shitty shiny rocks for a thousand seasons. Why do you think I refuse to make sons?”

Jack rolled her eyes. The glade magic let him hold back monsoons and blow out forest fires. It was a gift, not a curse.

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Saturday Storytime: Yuca and Dominoes

Some of my favorite fantasy stories don’t necessarily have anything supernatural in them. This is José Iriarte‘s first fiction sale.

Carmencita sways into Ana Teresa as they stagger down the sidewalk, shooting pain up and down Ana Teresa’s bad leg and nearly knocking her over. The sour stench of vomit wafts off of Carmencita. She says, a little too loudly, “You’re a good friend. I’m glad I’m stuck here with you.”

Ana Teresa is in no mood to listen. It’s Carmencita’s fault they’re walking through Miami’s Little Havana at two o’clock in the morning, drunk and underage.

“Thanks,” she says anyway. “We’re not stuck, though. Keep walking; we’ll make it. If we’re lucky, your parents and my grandparents won’t even find out.”

Carmencita shakes her head. “I don’t mean here. I mean, yes, here, but not here on Eighth Street. I mean all of it. We’re all stuck here. ¿Entiendes?”

“No, but that’s okay.” She doesn’t expect Carmencita to make sense right now anyway.

“We’re stuck at Casa Varadero. Nobody . . .” she trails off. Ana Teresa puts a hand on her friend’s arm to steady her. “Nobody ever leaves,” she finishes at last.

“I’ll leave.” Damn right she will leave. She has too many awful memories tied up with the ancient apartment building for her to stay. Two more years of high school and then she is done with Casa Varadero, done with Little Havana, done with Miami, even.

“No you won’t,” Carmencita says, her head shaking. “It’s a curse. Or something.”

Ana Teresa frowns. “Don’t be stupid. It’s an apartment building, not a jail. People leave all the time.”

“Yeah? Like who?”

Several darkened shops and businesses fall behind them while Ana Teresa tries to think of an example. She stares in the windows while she focuses. A bakery with a giant hand-lettered sign that says, “Pasteles de todos tipos.” A Spanish bookstore. A Domino’s Pizza.

“Hector,” she says at last.

Carmencita snorts. “Weekend neighbor. Doesn’t count.”

“Osvaldo and Cristina.”

“What are you talking about? They’re up on the third floor, right over you guys.”

“Now. But they used to live on the first floor, and then they moved away when Osvaldo got a job in Vermont.”

“Right, but they moved back when Cristina’s asthma flared up. Which means I’m right. You can leave, but you always end up back here.”

She shrugs. “Whatever.”

Carmencita drapes an arm around her. “Like I said, we’re stuck.”

Ana Teresa wrinkles her nose at another wave coming off of her companion. Tequila, garlic, and ropa vieja.

“I will leave,” she mutters. “Count on it.”

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Saturday Storytime: Go Through

Alma Alexander has lived in five countries on four continents. That background has fed into her work, as she has written not-your-average-European-setting fantasy in many of her novels. This is one of her rare short stories that is available online.

She doesn’t know, when she wakes, where she is. Not quite. The bed — the room — they look vaguely familiar but she can’t be sure whether it’s because she’s seen this particular room or slept in this particular bed before or because she’s seen a thousand rooms just like this one.

Beside her on the other pillow, he sleeps. He snores. There is the shadow of a beard on his face. She tries to hunt through her mind for his name, but fails. It’s a man. That’s all she knows.

She gets up, slowly, carefully, disturbing as little of the bed as she can. She lays one long-fingered hand on the dusty curtain, brings her face up close and inhales the musty scent of fabric which hasn’t been washed for years, puts her eye to the crack where the two wings of the curtains have been pulled together, peers outside.

Nothing is quite familiar. Nothing is completely strange. She almost thinks she recognises the place. She is not sure enough to swear to it. If she walked down this street and turned a corner she is almost-but-not-quite-completely certain that she would see an open square, with a tree whose outlines she has known for years, with certain shops lining the square, with a worn path through the grass where people persist in taking shortcuts. But perhaps none of this is real. Perhaps she has just dreamed it all, there in that bed which is still warm with the memory of her presence — perhaps she has put together that square in her mind from dozens of mental snapshots of places she has known but it has never existed, in the shape or form that she now visualises it, outside the confines of her imagination.

She glances back to the bed. He is still asleep. She suddenly knows that she could not bear it if he woke, if he looked up and frowned as if he couldn’t remember her face at all, or worse, if he woke up and smiled and called her by name or called her his darling. She can’t face any of it. She’s alone, here, now, in a cold room with the grey light of early morning gathering outside and the first shadowy shapes of scurrying people hugging the houses, scuttling along the sidewalks with their heads down and their shoulders hunched, their hands gloved and their collars raised. That tree in that square which may or may not exist no longer has its leaves, she knows this for a certainty — it’s autumn, late autumn, sliding into winter, the light tells her so.

She dresses in silence. There is a run in her pantihose, draped across the back of the chair. No help for that. She slides her feet into the stockings, smoothes them over her legs. Pulls on a nondescript dark skirt, a sweater. There is a battered handbag lying by the door; she pads towards it in stocking feet, carrying a pair of sensible shoes in her left hand, picks up the handbag with the fingertips of her right hand — there is no other woman here, the bag must belong to her, after all. Somewhere, soon — not here, not now — perhaps over a cup of coffee in a cheap diner nearby — she’s going to open the bag and rummage inside it, for identity, for something to tell her who she is, what she is doing here.

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Saturday Storytime: Velvet Fields

Anne McCaffery is best remembered for her Pern books, but she wrote extensively in several other universes as well. She also produced the occasional one-off short story.

So, suppressing our pervasive sense of trespassing, we moved into the abandoned dwellings, careful not to make any irreparable changes to accommodate our equipment. In fact, the only sophisticated nonindigenous equipment that I, as colony commissioner, permitted within any city was the plastisteel Comtower. I ordered the spaceport constructed beyond a low range of foothills on the rather scrubby plain at some distance from my headquarters city. An old riverbed proved an acceptable road for moving cargo to and from the port, and no one really objected to the distance. It would be far better not to offend our landlords with the dirt and chaos of outer-space commerce close to their pretty city.

We pastured the cattle in neatly separated velvet fields. Martin Chavez worried when close inspection disclosed that each velvet field was underpinned by its own ten-meter-thick foundation of ancient, rock-hard clay. Those same foundations housed what seemed to be a deep irrigation system.

I did ask Martin Chavez to investigate the curious absence of herbivores from a planet so perfectly suited to them. He had catalogued several types of omnivores, a wide variety of fowl, and a plethora of fishes. He did discover some fossil remains of herbivores, but nothing more recent than traces comparable to those of our Pleistocene epoch.

He therefore was forced to conclude—and submitted in a voluminous report with numerous comparisons to nearby galactic examples—that some catastrophes, perhaps the same that had wiped out the humanoids, had eliminated herbivores at an earlier stage.

Whatever the disaster had been—bacterial, viral, or something more esoteric—it did not recur to plague us. We thrived on the planet. The first children, conceived under the bluish alien sun, were born just after we had shipped our first year’s surplus offworld. Life settled into a pleasant seasonal routine: The beef, sheep, horses, kine, even the windoers of Grace’s World imported on an experimental basis, multiplied on the velvet fields. The centenarian crops from half a dozen worlds gave us abundant yields. We had some failures, of course, with inedible or grotesque ergotic mutations, but not enough to be worth more than a minor Chavezian thesis in the record and the shrug of the pioneering farmer. If a colonist is eating well, living comfortably, with leisure time for his kids and time off with his wife on the languid southern seas, he puts up with minor failures and irritations. Even with the omnipresent guilt of trespassing.

I was not the only one who never felt entirely at ease in the pretty cities. But, as I rationalized the intermittent twinges of conscience, it would have been ridiculous to build facilities when empty accommodations were already available, despite their obstinate refusal to work no matter how Dunlapil tried to energize them. Still, we managed fine and gradually came to ignore the anomalies we had never fully explored, settling down to make our gardens and our families grow.

The tenth year was just beginning, with surprising warmth, when Martin Chavez called a meeting with me and Dunlapil. Chavez had even convened it on a Restday, which was annoying as well as unusual.

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Saturday Storytime: Thief of War

Beth Bernobich‘s work isn’t what I’d classify as light reading. Nor is it difficult, simply rich with a mix of politics and the personal that will stick with you.

I committed the message and drawing to memory, then burnt the paper along with several other scribbled notes from my research. I moved with great deliberation, my emotions held in check, as I gathered my books and headed for home.

Strange, how strange, I felt. I ought to feel a sense of victory. I did, but my emotions were strangely muted, as though my mask encompassed my heart as well as my outer self. A foolish fancy, I told myself. The late hour and my long weeks of spying had affected my mood. I had spent too many months erasing myself for a better cause.

I came at last to my lodgings. Though we had left behind the darkest season of the year and stood on the verge of spring, the wind blew cold and damp through the streets, and the sun hung low in the sky, a small white disc against the expanse of gray. Two stories up, I could see the golden squares that marked the windows of our common room.

One last night here. Then I go home.

I was sick with longing to end my exile and accomplish my task.

I longed to stay in Duenne, and earn my degree.

Two contradictory desires, much like the contradiction of magic, of life followed by death and life again.

I sighed, shifted my haversack to a more comfortable position, unlocked the door, and climbed the stairs to our rooms.

Nedda and Klera sat by the hearth, toasting bread and cheese. Taavi sat cross-legged on the floor, teasing Biss with a morsel of bread. At my entrance, Nedda glanced up, her face still alight with laughter from whatever Klera had said.

“Irene,” she said, with such obvious gladness that I collapsed into tears.

I pressed the heels of my hands against my eyes. “I’m tired,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

Before they could reply, I hurried into my room and locked the door.

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