Saturday Storytime: Fire Above, Fire Below

Garth Nix is well-known as a prolific writer of young adult fantasy novels, his Old Kingdom and Keys to the Kingdom series in particular. It’s always nice when he finds time for shorter works.

“What’s this about, Hansen?” growled the mayor.

“The Oldgate building fire,” replied the chief. He pointed at the small shed over on the corner of the roof. It had chicken wire walls and a corrugated iron roof, and pigeons were roosting on top of it. “Let’s go over there.”

“What’s the Oldgate fire got to do with a pigeon house?” asked the mayor suspiciously.

“Nothing directly,” said the chief. He led the way, shooing some pigeons off so he could open the door. “But there is something you need to know about the fire.”

“Listen, your people said it was some kind of one-in-a-thousand gas main explosion. We told the media it was a gas explosion! Why do you need to drag me up to a pigeon house to tell me anything different?”

“I wanted to show you something,” said the chief. “Which happens to be here, with the pigeons.”

He brushed the straw from the floor to reveal a trapdoor fastened with a big brass padlock. He opened this with a key he wore on a chain around his neck. The key was iron, big and old, and the mayor thought it must be damned uncomfortable to have it hanging around your neck. He began to wonder about the sanity of his fire chief.

Then the chief opened the trapdoor, and the mayor began to wonder about his own sanity. Under the trapdoor was a cavity, and curled up on a bed of gold twenty-dollar pieces, there was a small dragon.

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Saturday Storytime: A Hollow Play

Sometimes I read a story, and I wonder why I bothered to write any. This story by Amal El-Mohtar was one of those, and I’m glad that it’s inclusion in the “2013 Locus Recommended Reading List” has prompted the publisher to make it freely available to everyone.

When Emily woke again, it was to morning light filtering through the blankets over her head and whispering voices in the hall. She ventured a peek over the sheets, and saw Anna and Lynette in animated conversation, while someone who shared Lynette’s height, cheekbones, and colouring stood silently by with arms folded. Kel? They had short–cropped black hair, sharp cheekbones, and human feet.

Lynette’s remained disconcertingly taloned. She hadn’t imagined it.

Emily rolled over and burrowed deeper into the blankets in search of oblivion.

“Hey,” came Anna’s voice, gently, from beyond the duvet. “Morning. How are you feeling?”

Emily tried to part her lips to say something intelligent and managed a tiny croak of misery. Anna patted her shoulder.

“Have some water. Come on, we won’t bite. What do you remember?”

Slowly, Emily sat up, taking in the company. Anna, in pink flannel pajamas, looked concerned. Lynette without her make–up and feathers was still devastatingly beautiful: her black hair was a long sideways braid over her shoulder, and her light brown cheeks still had a hint of glitter to them. Her eyes were as black as her hair. She looked less like a magical bird–woman and more like someone from Emily’s own family now — as did Kel, who was looking at Emily with distrust.

She accepted a glass of water and took small, careful sips. “Lynette has bird feet.”

Anna winced. Kel muttered something under their breath that sounded like it was probably rude. Lynette waved her hand.

“We will speak of that later. I think Anna meant from earlier in the evening.”

“Oh.”

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Saturday Storytime: The Innocence of a Place

I admit to having a weakness for gothic horror, though the overwrought emotionality of much of it makes me giggle when I take a step back. That made finding this story by Margaret Ronald all the better. It shares much of the sensibility of gothic horror without overselling anything.

Ibbotson’s record picks up the next morning, after two fathers came by hoping to help their daughters. Ibbotson’s uncle seems to have reassured them that Wilbraham was taking care of the girls, and given the state of the river at the time, it’s understandable that the fathers decided to wait it out. Ibbotson herself continued to watch through her telescope off and on as the rain continued.

I can certainly sympathize; even though the rain here is hardly as bad and the risk of flood practically nonexistent on the new fill, after a while one does start looking for any distraction. The sound of the rain is monotonous but not unpleasant; what is mildly disturbing is how the rain on the glass changes the quality of the light, turning it from gray to an undersea green. It is sometimes easy to believe that my entire apartment is beneath the water somewhere, submerged deep under sky and stone.

I find distraction in writing up my notes—as Ibbotson did, later on in life.  I wonder if she, too, discovered inconsistencies as she went along, if she found the drumming of rain as conducive to a meditative state. Surely that would explain her time in Kansas; surely that would mark yet another similarity between us.

At the time, though, Ibbotson found a different sort of distraction in pointing her telescope at Wilbraham’s house, where despite the rain a strange game appeared to be in progress. As Ibbotson puts it:

Three or four girls stand at the doorway, then one runs outside. Sometimes the others run to catch her; sometimes they hold on to the doorframe as if it were an anchor, and it must be Mr. Wilbraham or Miss Farles who runs after. They or the girls catch their friend & pull her back into the house. First Cassie Garlin, then Beatrice Silber, then Victoria Bahn. And now Cassie again; she has nearly made it to the water, but Miss Farles has pulled her back, dragging her heels in the mud.

This has happened six times in the last hour. Once Miss Farles herself kept running past Sadie & Mr. Wilbraham had to grab her around the waist and carry both her and Sadie back to the house. I think if it had not been Sadie, who is the smallest at Braxton, he would have lost one of them.

It is as if they seek something in the water, but they fear to leave the house and fear to let their schoolmates leave.

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Saturday Storytime: Jackalope Wives

The new year brought a new editor at Apex Magazine, which is frequently featured here. Lynne and Michael Thomas are moving on, and I expect good things from them wherever they end up. Joining Apex is Sigrid Ellis as editor-in-chief, whom I think you’ll find has a somewhat familiar touch. She’s worked on the magazine for quite a while and is well-prepared to take on this role. After all, she brings us this story by Ursula Vernon in her very first issue.

Now, it happened there was a young man in town who had a touch of magic on him. It had come down to him on his mother’s side, as happens now and again, and it was worse than useless.

A little magic is worse than none, for it draws the wrong sort of attention. It gave this young man feverish eyes and made him sullen. His grandmother used to tell him that it was a miracle he hadn’t been drowned as a child, and for her he’d laugh, but not for anyone else.

He was tall and slim and had dark hair and young women found him fascinating.

This sort of thing happens often enough, even with boys as mortal as dirt. There’s always one who learned how to brood early and often, and always girls who think they can heal him.

Eventually the girls learn better. Either the hurts are petty little things and they get tired of whining or the hurt’s so deep and wide that they drown in it. The smart ones heave themselves back to shore and the slower ones wake up married with a husband who lies around and suffers in their direction. It’s part of a dance as old as the jackalopes themselves.

But in this town at this time, the girls hadn’t learned and the boy hadn’t yet worn out his interest. At the dances, he leaned on the wall with his hands in his pockets and his eyes glittering. Other young men eyed him with dislike. He would slip away early, before the dance was ended, and never marked the eyes that followed him and wished that he would stay.

He himself had one thought and one thought only — to catch a jackalope wife.

They were beautiful creatures, with their long brown legs and their bodies splashed orange by the firelight. They had faces like no mortal woman and they moved like quicksilver and they played music that got down into your bones and thrummed like a sickness.

And there was one — he’d seen her. She danced farther out from the others and her horns were short and sharp as sickles. She was the last one to put on her rabbit skin when the sun came up. Long after the music had stopped, she danced to the rhythm of her own long feet on the sand.

(And now you will ask me about the musicians that played for the jackalope wives. Well, if you can find a place where they’ve been dancing, you might see something like sidewinder tracks in the dust, and more than that I cannot tell you. The desert chews its secrets right down to the bone.)

So the young man with the touch of magic watched the jackalope wife dancing and you know as well as I do what young men dream about. We will be charitable. She danced a little apart from her fellows, as he walked a little apart from his.

Perhaps he thought she might understand him. Perhaps he found her as interesting as the girls found him.

Perhaps we shouldn’t always get what we think we want.

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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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