Blue Morphos in the Garden

By Lis Mitchell

When Vivian and her daughter witness the family matriarch die without leaving a corpse, Vivian can no longer ignore the family “gift” or the choice that lies before her.

I am elbows-deep in dishwater and morning sunlight when Lily brings me the news.

“Gray-Granna’s down by the river,” Lily says. “She’s turning into butterflies.” She delivers this with a mixed air of authority and awe.

I nearly drop the plate I am holding. That would be bad—it’s part of Aunt Augustine’s set and Lily would cry if any of them broke. Carefully, I lay it down on the counter next to the sink. Leaning forward, I submerge my hands into the soapy water. The warm water feels so good. I can almost feel my blood flowing in my veins, I think, and I flex my fingers. No trembling. Good.

“Mom?” Lily takes a step behind me. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, sweetheart.” I turn around and wipe my hands on my jeans. “Fast or slow? Is there time to find your father?”

“Slow,” Lily says. “Very slow. And Dad knows. He’s in the garden.” She ducks her head and stares at me from beneath a frizzy halo of ash-brown curls, looking very much like her father’s child. “He wants you to come.”

“Of course, he does.” I sigh. Damn Dash. I would have come—I will still come—but he has to keep flinging himself against this and it’s going to break his heart. I’m not going to change.

Lily hears my sigh. She echoes it in that exaggerated way kids mimic adults, thrusting out her lower lip, and huffing until the curls around her face tremble.

“Come on, Moooom,” she says and pulls at my hand.

She tows me out of the cool darkness of the house and into the green wilderness of the garden. We head southeast towards the river that marks the boundary. I keep my pace deliberate, slow, dignified, despite Lily’s impatient tugs.

“The butterflies are so pretty,” Lily tells me. “They’re blue and big, almost the size of my hand. Like this!” She pulls from my grasp and cups her hands together to demonstrate.


The path to the river comes out behind an overgrown hedge and leads us down a slight slope. As we skirt a willow tree, the river comes into view. I see Dash standing stock-still on the path ahead, one arm clasped across his chest, the other hand propping his chin. He has not yet noticed Lily or me come up behind him, being transfixed by the scene before us.

The river is a small one, shallow, gentle, hardly deserving of the name—a tributary branch leading to a larger one. A low rocky embankment leads up the slope towards us, and perched on the largest of those rocks is a withered and naked woman…if you can call the husk before us a woman at all.

Faded blue gingham pools around her feet, and her legs rise like scrawny white aspens above the crumpled fabric. Her arms are open wide, as if to embrace the sun, and her white-gray hair unspools into the morning breeze. A cloud of blue butterflies eddies on this same breeze, shifting around her, exposing and then hiding and exposing again her collapsed breasts, her sagging buttocks, her scarred belly. As I watch, I see dark spores blossom on her skin. One here, one there. They swell slowly into gold-green pods—chrysalides, really, which ripen and split. The butterflies crawl backwards into this life, unfurling crumpled, wet wings. The outer edge of the wing resembles split wood with whorled knots, but each butterfly unfolds itself into a slice of fluttering blue sky and dark stormshadow. Open—sky, closed—wood. Each insect delicately buds. Each one just as delicately extends a proboscis to taste the salt on Gray-Granna’s skin, and then casts itself into the butterfly-cloud.

She is already shriveling, her mass dropping away in featherscale weights.

Lily pulls her hand from mine and sidles down the rocky slope towards Gray-Granna. “I’ve brought them,” she announces.

I doubt that Gray-Granna hears Lily. I can no longer see visible ears. The face itself is masked by a hundred opening-and-closing wings. The thin hands that once stroked my daughter’s hair reach sunwards, like starveling branches attenuated in a drought. The breasts are all but gone now.

Lily doesn’t seem to notice this ruin. She only sees butterflies. Beautiful blue butterflies. She reaches a hand towards the cloud and Dash reflexively clamps his hand on her shoulder, pulling her up short.

“Not now, kiddo,” he says, the gentleness in his voice belying the urgent grip. “Leave her be.”

“I want to touch her,” Lily says. “Before she finishes dying. I want to touch them.”

I find my voice. “Honey, they’re new butterflies. You could hurt them.”

Both Dash and Lily turn and give me identical surprised looks. “Not Gray-Granna’s butterflies,” Lily says patiently. Don’t you know anything, Mom?

Dash converts his surprise into a warm smile for me. “I’m glad you’re here, Viv. She’s glad you’re here too.” He nods at his grandmother.

You can’t know that, I think bitterly, unfairly. Unfair to Dash anyway, who means well, damn him.

“I should get your parents,” I say. “Your father will want to know. Maybe your cousins—”

Dash’s eyes focus on something beyond me. “They know.”

Of course. The family always knows.

Dash’s father arrives next, slogging over wet stones, from upstream. Swaddled in ugly green waders, he has slung a creel over one shoulder and wields an expensive rod as if it were a sword. He hitches his head towards his mother as he passes her, and asks, “How long?”

“Thirty-two minutes.” Lily brandishes a Hello Kitty stopwatch. “Slow.”

“Damn fool woman,” Dash’s father says. “Took the only spot I can get a reasonable cast off. Too shallow on the shore.”

Dash rolls his eyes.

Dash’s mother makes her way down the path only a few minutes later. Like her husband, she’s armed and ready for a deathwatch. Her weapons of choice are knitting needles. She picks her way daintily down the path, and finds a half-rotted log for a seat, sitting down with a dignified flourish. “Hello, Vivian. I didn’t expect to see you here,” she says.

Dash winces.

“Hello, Janet,” I say. I can’t bring myself to call her Mum, like she insists, even though my own mother is dead and certainly wouldn’t begrudge Janet the title.

Janet begins to knit, needles flashing and clacking, building a comfortable rhythm. “We haven’t had a slow one in a while,” she notes. “It’s so nice to have a chance to say goodbye.” Given that nobody is actually talking to Gray-Granna, this patent fatuousness is clearly intended to put me at my ease, something that Janet confirms with her next words. “This is your first chance to see a passage, isn’t it, Vivian?”

Janet likes to ask questions she already knows the answer to. It keeps the conversation under her thumb, which is where she prefers everything in her life to reside. I don’t even bother to answer and Janet steams on, reminiscing over all the passages she’s ever seen. I already know the contents of this grim catalog, as Janet has taken care to introduce me to every family member, showing me how to care for them, and issuing dire warnings about dropping, chipping, cracking, kicking, wrinkling, shoving, tearing, or even moving the family heirlooms. Only Janet could have turned Modern Housekeeping into a necronomicon.

Idly I wonder what Gray-Granna thinks about this catalog. Perhaps her ears were among the first to bud and dissolve so that she wouldn’t have to hear her daughter-in-law’s roll call of the dead.

Lily ignores Janet—she knows the family history as well as any of us. Instead, she skips around in circles, trying to Not Catch butterflies. I suppose I should feel grateful that this is not a sad moment for her. When my paternal grandmother died, I was made to kiss her dry shriveled lips as my father held me over her open casket. I had nightmares for weeks after. Lily will have none of that—just sunlit memories of chasing butterflies.

I am in the midst of composing a mental note: Tell Dash that Lily does not have to kiss me when I am dead, when Lily suddenly turns to me and says, “It’s so pretty. I hope when you die, it’s as pretty and slow.” And I can’t help thinking that when I die it will be slow enough, and not pretty. Never pretty.

Dash tightens his mouth, and whisks Lily away for a whispered conference.

Lily was the only one to see Opa—Gray-Granna’s husband—make passage. This is her second death and a very different death from the first. Opa had been reading a story to her, part of a bedtime ritual that had lasted until his death. Lily’s eyes had closed and she had nearly drifted off, when Opa stopped reading. Lily waited and waited, and when she opened her eyes, there was only an empty leather armchair at the foot of her bed. Empty but for an open book and sitting where no armchair had previously sat. Lily had called us, and we had called Dr. Waterhouse and all the business of passage was got through, although Lily insisted on keeping the armchair in her room.

How long does it take for a woman to shed her skin and finish dying?

We watch for several hours. Gray-Granna becomes less and less distinct, her form collapsing and falling. The mass of butterflies finishes off her head, her thin arms, her shoulders. Now she is a torso-trunk, and all we can see is a boiling mass of cocoons and wet wings.

Now the legs are beginning to thin, and as they disintegrate, the mass of flesh topples forward. Upon hitting the ground, it bursts—a papery dry explosion, rather like a wasps’ nest. Only instead of angry wasps, we are left with a blue cloud of confusion.

Well then. We’re not going to be able to shut that up in a china cabinet. “Those are tropical butterflies,” I say. “And summer’s nearly gone. How long will they live with the colder nights coming on?” I wonder what happens when they die, the butterflies. Do they have a secondary afterlife too?

Janet sighs. “We’d better open the greenhouse. That will do for somewhere to sleep.” She finishes counting off a row, and then collects her needles and yarn. “Lily, let’s go open the greenhouse.”

Somehow, the butterflies know to follow Lily. The cloud wraps around her, keeping pace. As she runs up the long slope of the lawn, all I can see are her legs and her mop of curls, dark against the blue shroud of wings.

For the first time since her birth, I am permitted to read a bedtime story to my child. Somehow Opa and Gray-Granna usurped that right during the early sleepless days of parenthood, when we were too tired to protest the kindness. I suppose if Janet was at all inclined towards bedtime stories, it might be a luxury I’d never achieve. But Janet does not like books, and the only stories she knows are ones about dying.

There is a shelf of pristine Dr. Seuss books, bought by me when I was newly pregnant. They’ve never been read to Lily. Opa and Gray-Granna did not care for them. Opa deigned to read from the Lang fairy books, and Gray-Granna knew dozens of old Märchen, and that’s what Lily knows. I suppose that wouldn’t be a far cry from Janet’s catalog of family deaths. When you get down to it, all the old fairy stories get bleak.

After Lily slips into slumber, Dash joins me on the window seat. He gathers me into his arms and I lean into him. We used to sit like this in his university dorm, holding still and camouflaged in the sharp-edged silence of curfews.

The years have matured our silences, and now we watch the moonlight creep across the floor towards the bed where our daughter lies sleeping. Time slows and slivers while we hold each other. Momentarily, I feel safe, watching Lily’s small chest rise and fall. There is nothing else in the world that matters so much, and I wish this moment could last forever, that we could remain here, cocooned in moonlight.

But too soon my hand begins to quaver in Dash’s, and he breaks the silence as he always does, with a whispered plea to marry him. His lips in my hair, he breathes promises he knows he can’t keep. His hands tighten gently on mine, trying to still the trembling. “Viv, I don’t know that I can live without you.”

“I said no.” I always say no. We have this down to a ritual, he and I. Every night he asks me and every night I refuse.

My spine is steel-straight from all the nos that have accreted over the years. It was harder to say no to Dash when I was younger, before there was Lily, before my mother died. Sometimes I wonder if he would have been quite so honest with me about the family enchantment if he’d known the cost.

Marrying Dash means joining the family.

“I don’t understand why you won’t,” he says. He lies. No, that’s not the right word. Dash thinks he understands, but he can’t. “Think of what it would mean to Lily.”

“I have.” I disentangle my treacherous fingers from Dash’s. “It’s not enough. Or it’s too much. I won’t be subsumed. It’s Lily’s birthright—if she wants it—but I don’t.”

At least Dash never mistakes my reluctance to join his family for anything but what it is. He knows I love him, just as he knows that I will not change my mind on this. But it’s not in his nature to give up.

“Look,” Dash says, low and fervent, as he follows me into the corridor. “That’s why I wanted you to see Gray-Granna’s change. I wanted you to see how beautiful it could be. How comforting it is for Lily to know that her great-grandmother is still with her. How we can still bask in her presence.”

“I know that.” I feel a million years old.

“You didn’t see anything with Opa,” he says. “I wouldn’t blame you for not believing. It’s so different when they go fast.”

I take a deep breath and try to explain. “It’s not a matter of believing or not believing. It’s a matter of choice.”

Dash nods eagerly, thinking he’s snagged my attention. “You might be anything. You could be a warm blanket for Lily. A lamp for her to read by. You could be—“

“A decaying shell. Cold flesh and food for worms.”

“Dammit,” Dash snaps. “How is that going to help your daughter? How is that a comfort for me?”

“How is it not? It’s my abandoned body. Can’t I feed the worms if I want?”

“Don’t you think it’s selfish not to leave something that Lily can see, that she can tell her children about?”

“Don’t you think it’s a bit much to expect me to define my entire life by my motherhood and the expectation that my daughter will want me around forever? I’ll be just as useful as worm meat as I would be in the house.”

“What about a tree?” Dash pleads. “It’s not a far jump from worm food to a tree. The terminal folks plant them over graves. I’ve seen them do it. You could be shade in the summer, warmth in the winter.”

A tree is almost tempting, but I’ve thought this through. “You don’t know, do you, if they really choose what they turn into?”

That quiets him, as it always does. He doesn’t know. None of them do. Once the process has begun—fast or slow—none of the dying have ever spoken. Dash’s family doesn’t do last words.

I am not sure that I want this for Lily. I’m equally not sure that I can change that now. But the idea of her living her life on this estate, part of the family funeral cult, gives me the creeps. Every Karner comes here to die.

The house once charmed me, when Dash first brought me round to meet his parents. The oldest part of it dates back to the late 1700s, a stone root cellar laid in by Dash’s many-times great-grandfather. Every generation added on to it, Dash said, which accounted for its higgledy-piggledy lopsided character. Delightful, right? But I thought they’d built it, with wood and stone and labor under the sun.

I was wrong. The house grew…organically. The turret tower where Lily sleeps is furnished with a white canopy bed with pink curtains—a gift from her great-great Aunt Rosie, who died tragically at the age of three from scarlet fever. The library—Great-great-great Uncle Irving. The greenhouse—distant cousin, Ida, reportedly something of a botanist. The bed where we conceived Lily: Great-great-great-great-Aunt Minerva. Aunt Augustine’s dish set isn’t just an heirloom—it really is Aunt Augustine. Over half the house is dead relatives.

Lily inherits all of this.

Lily insists on accompanying me to the doctor. She guards me like a small brown bulldog with a suspicious stare. Only reluctantly can she be pried from my side, when the nurses call me back to take my blood pressure. Even then, she scorns the plastic Fisher-Price playset offered up by the receptionist. Instead she unfolds a medical pamphlet on urinary tract infections. “I’ll be good,” she promises before I’m led away.

My regular doctor is out of town. They shunt me off to the covering physician, a Dr. Blake. He is younger than me, and brimming over with enthusiasm. Keen, some might say. He tut-tuts over my charts. He asks me to hold out my arms and gives me objects to clench in my fist. He has me walk a length of hallway. He tests my reflexes, and then asks if I’m having any problems swallowing.

“Not yet,” I say. Not yet is the answer to nearly everything. Only my trembling hands and my mother’s early death give the game away.

Dr. Blake seems dissatisfied with my answers. He asks the same question several ways before finally giving me what he seems to think is a paternal and stern gaze. “Mrs. Karner—“

“Dawes,” I correct. “I’m not a Karner.”

“Kept your name, did you?” Dr. Blake says dubiously. I don’t bother to correct this misapprehension, although I consider waiting until old Dr. Waterhouse can return. Dr. Waterhouse knows not to ask about the state of Dash and me.

“Ms. Dawes, I need you to be honest with me. We don’t judge, you know. We’re just here to help. But it’s going to be hard for me to help you if you won’t be honest with me. We need your history unvarnished. You don’t need to edit for us.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I say. I really don’t. Dr. Waterhouse has all my history. “My charts are right there, but I don’t think I’ve left anything out.”

Dr. Blake looks at me kindly. “You said you’d experienced no new symptoms of note, but you failed to mention the hallucinations.”

“The hallucinations?” I repeat, baffled. “What hallucinations?”

“I realize this must be very difficult for you. It’s hard to admit when—“

“What hallucinations are you talking about?”

He looks sheepish. “I overheard you talking with your daughter about her grandmother’s death. I know it must have been traumatic for you. I need to ask what medications you are on. We might need to adjust their dosages.”

Realization sinks in. He had overheard Lily and me talk about Gray-Granna turning into butterflies, and he had assumed that I couldn’t have seen that, I must’ve been hallucinating. Lily, of course, was only a child. Prone to flights of fancy, or maybe she’d been humoring me. That’s what he’d think.

“You seem to have misheard the context,” I explain stiffly. “I assure you I’m not hallucinating.”

A frown tugs at the corners of his mouth, but he pushes it back to cheerfully assure me that I may not think I’ve been hallucinating but…

“There are no buts. I’ve been perfectly lucid. You misunderstood.” I stand up to indicate that this visit is over.

His eyes narrow. He isn’t done examining me, although I’m done being examined. Dr. Waterhouse would know, I think resentfully. Dr. Waterhouse has been the family physician his whole life. He writes the death certificates for the family. He’s never once asked to see the bodies. He knows, I expect, what he’d find…or not find.

I push past Dr. Blake and collect Lily from the waiting room. She pockets a pamphlet on iron deficiency when she thinks I’m not looking.

Dash and I argue that evening. I tell him we need to tell Lily.

“Do you know what I found between One Fish Two Fish and Hop on Pop?” I ask him. “‘The Ten Warning Signs of Heart Disease Women Most Ignore.’ She knows something is wrong. Just not what.”

Dash runs his hands through his hair. “I don’t want to tell her anything until I know what I can tell her to expect. You’ve got to make a decision, Viv.”

I cross my arms over my chest. “I made a decision. You just refuse to accept it.”

“That was not a decision,” Dash says. “That was you blindly accepting tradition, embracing the status quo.”

“Whose status quo?” I ask. “Your family’s ways are…”

“They’re a gift,” Dash says.

“You think they’re better than what regular folks do.”

“Aren’t they?” By now, his hands have raked his hair up in tufts. “Nobody dies to be forgotten. Nobody gets pumped full of chemicals and dumped into a cement tomb in the ground. Nobody dies in hideous pain.”

“But they still die,” I point out. “I’m still going to die too. I’ll still be gone.”

Dash blinks hard against this statement. “Not if you become family.”

Here is the Gordian knot that rubs between us when we hold each other. I am not a Karner. I love Dash, he loves me, we have a daughter binding us together. We are family but not. I’m on the outside. By choice, I remind myself.

“I won’t.” Can’t. Shouldn’t. What are the words that will explain this to him? I have no idea.

He flinches. “Fine. I’ll let you explain it to Lily. It’s your choice after all.”

“Why do you always pretend like it’s Lily I’ll be hurting most? Why not just say that you want it for you, and acknowledge it’s for your own selfish reasons?”

Dash exhales long and slow before making a reply. “I thought I had. That wasn’t good enough. And Lily isn’t good enough either.” He turns on his heel and walks out of the room, leaving me to wonder why I’ve held my ground on this for so long.

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The Hundredth House Had No Walls

By Laurie Penny

The King was bored.

For five hundred years he had been King of the country of Myth and Shadow, and he was a good king, if a slightly bewildered one. The countryside rolled with treacherous forests rammed full of all the requisite enchanted creatures, and stories grew wild and weird in the fields. The people were happy, even when they had to chase their idle daydreams out of the back garden with a broom.

The King lived in a huge palace that he had dreamed into being all by himself, full of dark, mysterious corners and fierce, beautiful courtiers and lovely young women with dark hair and flashing eyes who could dance on their points for a day and a night and never set a foot fully on the ground. The King appreciated all of it. He had designed it for his own appreciation. Still, he was bored.

He could summon a few of the lovely young women to sing and dance for him and perhaps see to some of his less strictly aesthetic needs—but that was just too easy, and anyway it always made him feel a bit awkward.

He could wander down to the Fields of Fancy and go on an absolute rager eating fairy fruit, and that might distract him for a decade, but it always gave him a brutal hangover.

He could do some work. Being the King of Myth and Shadow wasn’t a lazy man’s job. The stories weren’t just going to write themselves—except, more and more, they seemed to.

The King was bored, bored, bored. He had everything a King could want, and he was still horribly, horribly bored.

He had never quite intended to become King. That was why he was good at it. When he had first arrived in the Kingdom, it was a grey and anodyne country, and he was a simple travelling bard and sometime sorcerer looking to make his name.

In fact, the bard thing had been the original plan. The King of Myth and Shadow, before he became the King, was the seventh son of a seventh son, which wasn’t a big deal, really, and he didn’t like to talk about it, although it did prove handy on the road when busking fell flat to be able to magic yourself up a serviceable tent and a hot meal just by wishing it.

Barding was the job of choice for enterprising young men with good hair who wanted to see the world, back when the world and the King had both been so much younger. When he came to the grey and anodyne country, all flat marshes and chalk skies, he stopped at the first inn, got out his harp and started pounding out a cover of ‘Venus in Furs’.

He hadn’t even finished the song when the villagers begged him to tell them a story instead.

‘It’s not that you can’t sing,’ said the innkeeper’s wife, who was a kind and thoughtful person. ‘It’s just that we don’t get a lot of stories around here these days.’

‘You don’t?’ said the young king, who was not yet the King. ‘But I thought this was the land of Myth and Shadow?’

‘It was, once,’ said the innkeeper’s wife, who was really too kind and too thoughtful to be stuck running an inn for a dull man who did not appreciate her. ‘But as you can see, the Fields of Fancy are all blighted. We’re lucky if we can harvest a couple of decent parables between us. The fairies and goblins are leaving the forests. As for shadows, there are hardly enough to fill the corners anymore. All the kids are moving to the city to become accountants.’

‘Times are hard,’ the villagers agreed.

‘Alright,’ said the young king, and he started to tell a story about a storm of inspiration that rolled through a grey and lacklustre land, raining all sorts of wild notions down on the fields.

Immediately, a great gust of wind rattled the shutters, and the villagers ran to bring in the picnic tables.

‘How did you do that?’ cried the innkeeper’s wife. ‘It’s raining free verse out there!’

‘It’s just a talent I have. It’s no big deal,’ said the young king, although he was secretly rather proud, and pleased to have made everyone so happy.

‘Can you do it again?’

‘Sure,’ said the young king, and he started to tell a story about doorways that opened to stranger lands where elves and centaurs and unicorns and vampires and witches and all the less popular long forgotten creatures had retreated, bringing them back to the grey country.

Instantly, the door flew open, and a harried farmer rushed in demanding strong drink on account of a griffon having taken up residence on his roof.

‘That was brilliant!’ said the innkeeper’s wife, putting the kettle on for some nice hot tea, because the young man was working hard and starting to look a bit peaky.

‘Watch this,’ he said, and he started to tell another story, all about a herd of wild shadows wheeling in from the North and taking up gloomy residence in the forests and crannies and all the too-bright places in the land.

And that, too, was suddenly so.

After a while, the people of the no longer grey and anodyne country asked the young sorcerer to become their king.

‘In principle, of course,’ he said. He had heard a lot about kings, mad kings and bad kings and kings who were worse still by virtue of sheer spineless incompetence, and while he didn’t know if he’d do a better job, he certainly wouldn’t do a worse one. ‘But shouldn’t there be some sort of election?’

‘No,’ said the innkeeper’s wife, who by this point was also the young sorcerer’s personal assistant, because he worked very hard, but sometimes forgot to eat breakfast. ‘That’s rather the point of Kings. If you want my advice, just give the people what they want. You’re good at that.’

‘My life is generally better when I take your advice,’ said the young sorcerer. And so he became king, and built the palace, and the land of Myth and Shadow continued to prosper.

Ten years passed, then twenty, then all at once five centuries had gone by and the King still hadn’t run out of stories. They came to him easily as breathing and dying and falling in love seemed to come to everyone else. Any time he wanted a new lover, a new toy, a new wing for his palace of Shadows, he simply thought about it and it happened. This, too, made the King feel awkward.

But more than that, he was bored.

He was bored of being rich and brilliant. He was bored of new lovers and new toys and bored of his palace, and he knew he shouldn’t be—after all, he had been so very lucky. Any of his subjects would have killed for his problems. Somehow that only made it worse.

So the King decided to do what kings do in these situations and go and wander the world in disguise as a normal, non-royal person. He took only a small entourage—just twenty Knights of Wild Notion, plus their ostlers, servants and squires most of whom, as is traditional, were actually girls dressed as boys. It was really a very modest retinue, and the King could not understand what the fuss was about when they piled off the Acela Express at Penn Station.

The King had never really believed in New York City.

More precisely, he had always imagined it was no more or less a true place than the Fields of Fancy or the Forest of Wonder and Moderate Peril: a place sustained entirely by the belief of its citizens and the untold millions of dreamers who willed it into being every morning.

When he arrived, he found that this was true. New York was no less impressive for being mostly fictional. Of course, the place was lousy with writers.

The King felt right at home.

After a pleasant morning bothering the penguins in Central Park Zoo and a less pleasant afternoon getting hassled by tourists on the High Line, all of whom seemed to want his picture, the King found his way to a cabaret bar in the East Village.

He shuffled into the back with his Knights and ordered a cup of tea. The barman was about to explain that he did not serve tea when he was surprised to find himself in possession of a very fine earthenware tea set and a big jar of Assam.

The King sipped his tea, which was very good, and settled down to watch the show.

That was when he saw her.

Her hair was a rage of upstart red.

Her eyebrows were inexplicable.

Her dress fell from her shoulders in rolls of dirty white silk.

Her voice was rich and dark and angry, like just hearing it could crack open your chest and whistle through all the hardened dirt in the forgotten corners of your heart.

She was alone on stage. Just her and a piano. She played it as if she was trying to rip the song from its teeth, and the song was raw and true.

The King listened. His tea went cold.

The King came backstage after the show, after telling the doorman a story about a doorman’s wife who was about to be treacherously discovered in bed with a doorman’s sister. He didn’t like doing that sort of thing, but needs must when you’ve just met your future bride.

There was a sign on her dressing room door. It read:

The Princess of Everywhere and Nowhere.

She was draped across an old couch, smoking a cigarette. Without the clownish makeup she was even more beautiful, her face a mess of exquisite angles, scrubbed bare and vulnerable.

‘How did you get into my dressing room?’ she asked.

‘I’m a sorcerer,’ admitted the King. ‘It’s what I do.’

‘Well,’ said the Princess, ‘since you’re here, you can get me a water from the fridge. Don’t I know you from somewhere?’

‘It’s possible,’ said the King of Myth and Shadows, handing over the water. ‘You might have read about me in an old storybook, or met me one day in a dream.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said the Princess. ‘I mostly dream in music. Oh, I know! It was an interview in Vice.’

‘Or that,’ said the King, who had become uncommonly shy. ‘I like your singing.’

‘Thanks,’ said the Princess. ‘I like your hair. What was it that you wanted?’

‘I wanted to invite you to walk with me through the endless Marshes of Unfinished Plots, where it is always a yearningly perfect late spring morning, and listen to the songs of the forgotten muses, and be my consort for a year and a day.’

Instead, they went to a sushi restaurant on St Mark’s.

The Princess ordered yellowtail sashimi, so the King did, too.

‘How did a Princess end up playing piano in the East Village?’ he asked, spearing a piece of fish.

So the Princess told him.

‘I was born a princess,’ said the Princess. ‘No slippers or spinning wheels involved.

‘My parents lived in a palace full of every toy a little girl could ever dream of, and it pleased them to see me play with them. More than anything, though, they liked my sisters and I to play with the dollhouse.

‘It was a beautiful dollhouse, built to look like a real castle, with a ballroom and a kitchen and working lights, and a tiny wooden princess to move between the rooms. She was skinny as the sticks she was made of and she could sit up at the dining table or lie down on the bed or stand propped up against the wall on her tiny stupid feet, but she couldn’t run or dance or talk, and she was all alone.

‘I hated that dollhouse. I felt so sad for the little wooden princess who was imprisoned there. I would steal her out of the dolls’ house and keep her under my pillow so she could go adventuring with me in my dreams. I took her with me secretly to play my parents’ piano, which stood all alone in the great ballroom, untouched and unloved. But my parents were worried. A princes shouldn’t shout and scream and tear strange sexy music out of innocent orchestral instruments. A princess should play quietly with dollhouses. How else will she learn to keep her own house when she’s a grown-up queen?

‘So they built me another dollhouse. And then, when I hated that one too, another. There was a townhouse and a cottage and even a saloon, which the little wooden princess did enjoy for a while, but soon we got bored again. Eventually the palace was full of dollhouses, sprouting everywhere like sad wooden mushrooms, gathering dust. I hated all of them.

‘I was bored of being a princess, and all the things you had to learn to do—eat with your mouth shut, speak softly, suck in your belly. And the list of things you had to learn NOT to do covered almost all the fun stuff.

‘So one day I went out to the forest and set the little wooden princess free. Finally, she stood up and stretched on her wooden feet and spun and danced and told me she would miss me before she disappeared forever into the underbrush.

‘When I came home I told my parents I was leaving to become a cabaret singer. They were furious. Their rage ran red and hard and loving and I caught it in a silver dish and used it to dye my hair over the sink. Then I packed some spare knickers and ran off to Boston to start a band.’


‘I was bored. I hate to be bored.’

‘I can relate,’ said the King.

‘What’s your real name?’ asked the Princess.

The King was momentarily bewildered. Nobody had called him anything but ‘Your Majesty’ for at least a century.

‘I can’t quite remember,’ said the King, ‘but I think it’s Colin.’

‘I’m Melanie,’ said the Princess.

The King thought that was the most beautiful name he had ever heard.

‘Want to get a hotel room?’ she said.

And for the first time in a very long time, the King was not the least bit bored.

The next night, the King was back at the bar before the band even started getting set up. The Princess of Everywhere and Nowhere was doing sound-checks with an upsettingly handsome drummer.

‘Can I help at all?’ asked the King.

‘Plug in that amp for me,’ said the Princess.

The King fiddled with the amp for forty-five minutes until someone took it away from him.

The next day, over breakfast in a run-down diner, the King asked the Princess to marry him.

‘Honestly, I’m flattered,’ said the Princess. ‘But I’m not really into the whole marriage thing.’

Nobody had said no to the King in a long time.

‘If you come to the land of Myth and Shadow as my Queen, we can feast together all day and night on every sort of sushi your heart desires. I will give you ten beautiful maidens to wait on you and ten handsome swordsmen to guard you and a golden piano to play, and you will enchant all the creatures of my land with your music as you have enchanted me.’

The Princess looked intrigued, so the King raised his game. ‘You will sleep on a bed of spider’s silk,’ he said, ‘and I will dress you in gowns of spun starlight.’

‘I’ve been dressing myself since I was six,’ said the Princess.

‘And aren’t you sick of it?’

‘You’re a very strange man,’ said the Princess. ‘I like it. I have to head back to the studio, but text me, ok?’

The King went back to his castle, gathered his most tenacious shadows about him and prepared for a sulk that would go down in legend.

She’s just a girl, he thought to himself. There are others.

But a chill wind of pathetic fallacy was blowing hard over the storyfields, and it whispered: you’re an idiot, and you’re kidding yourself.

‘What do I do?’ the King wailed at the innkeeper’s wife. ‘There’s nothing here she wants.’

‘Oh, you foolish man,’ said the innkeeper’s wife, who was no longer married to the innkeeper, and now ran a small vegan cafe in town. ‘She doesn’t want any of your treasures. She just wants you.’

The next night, when the show was over and all the hangers-on had finally left the party in the hotel lobby, the King climbed into bed. He curled his body around Melanie and started to tell her a story about a princess who grew up to be a cabaret singer, and a King who fell in love with her.

The King was nervous, because he’d never told this sort of story before. For one thing, the narrative structure was all wrong. For another, it had no ending to speak of, not yet, maybe not ever.

‘Once upon a time,’ said the King.

His mouth was very close to her face. Her hair smelled of cigarettes and vanilla.

The King of Myth and Shadow was no different from the rest of us in that he preferred stories to real life, which was messy and full of plot holes and disappointing protagonists. You couldn’t count on real life to deliver a satisfying twist, just more complications and the random violence of everyday heartbreak.

But he carried on telling the story, whispering it in Melanie’s ear as her eyelids fluttered closed.

‘This one’s good,’ she whispered. ‘This one’s my favorite.’

They were married in New Orleans, on the Southern leg of her tour.

When it was done, the King took the Princess back to the land of Myth and Shadow, and dreamed up a whole new wing of the castle just for her.

Since the King had a whole kingdom and the Princess was living out of a tour bus, it made sense that she would move in. She brought her own retinue, a crowd of lost boys and girls with wild hair and weird ideas who liked to dress in stripes and lace and drape themselves listlessly across the furniture between sets.

‘Where does she find them all?’ said the innkeeper’s wife, who by now was living in a small cottage near the palace with a nice woman named Carol who liked to go hiking on Saturdays.

‘They follow her home like cats,’ said the King. ‘She doesn’t have the heart to turn them away.’

The innkeeper’s wife saw to it that little dishes of cream and vodka were left at strategic points around the palace, and the lost boys and girls were well pleased.

After a few weeks, though, the Princess became restless. She stopped eating her sushi at breakfast. She stopped speaking to the King at dinner. Great stormclouds of dramatic tension boiled over the land, and the lost boys and girls of the Princess’ court and the King’s Knights of Wild Notion hid in the cellar and behind the curtains and under the table to wait for the weather to get a bit less metaphorical.

‘What’s wrong?’ the King asked the Princess, after three days of dreadful silence.

‘It’s the house,’ said the Princess. ‘It’s so big and so beautiful, but it makes me feel like a wooden doll in a display case.’

‘But I dreamed up a recording studio for you,’ said the King. ‘Don’t you like it?’

‘Of course I like it,’ said the Princess, ‘but I like the road better.’

The King thought and thought. He couldn’t let the Princess be unhappy. When she was unhappy, he was unhappy, and when he was unhappy, the Kingdom was unhappy. If she was unhappy in the Kingdom, she must be unhappy with him.

Eventually, he hit upon a solution.

‘I will build the Princess a new palace,’ announced the King.

And so it was done. The new palace was next door to the old one, with a gleaming pathway cut between the limerick grasses that grew wild on the mountainside. It was even more beautiful than the first. Its turrets were spun out of lost screenplays and its galleries were haunted by the mournful ghosts of singer-songwriters who never quite made it big. The King was sure that the Princess would be happy now.

And she was, for a time. The Princess liked newness, and adventure, and she recorded a well-received album in the basement of the new palace. But after a few weeks, she became restless again.

The King thought and thought. ‘If she doesn’t like this one, I’ll build her another,’ he said to the innkeeper’s wife, who put her head in her hands.

‘I know you’re trying to be romantic, but you’re approaching the question of female agency all wrong,’ she said.

‘What makes you think that?’ said the King.

‘Well, for instance,’ said the innkeeper’s wife. ‘I don’t even get a name in this story.’

‘How is that my fault?’

The innkeeper’s wife looked at the King for a long time without saying anything.

‘Alright,’ sighed the King. ‘I’ll put it on my to-do list. Right now, I’ve got a palace to build.’

The next palace was an enormous treehouse, built into the branches of the three tallest redwoods in the forest. The court had to be winched up in buckets or flown up on the backs of griffons, as there were no stairs to speak of, and an elevator would have spoiled the look of the thing. Walkways strung with fairy lanterns connected all the passageways, and the wind whispered dirty, earthy lyrics as it muttered through the leaves. Ravens and starlings and bright birds of paradise nested in the high eaves, and great dances were held on platforms in the canopy, where you could see the whole Kingdom sparkling in the endless starlight.

‘It’s great,’ said the Princess, ‘it’s really great. Let’s spend the week here.’

‘I was hoping you’d want to spend your life here,’ said the King.

‘Let’s come back to that question,’ said the Princess, taking him by the hand and leading him to bed.

By the end of the year, the King had built the Princess ninety-nine houses.

There were brutalist modern apartments and twee little cottages and cloud-castles built of the sharp, lovely dreams of underpaid academics who really wanted to be novelists. But still the Princess would leave, and go missing for days, and turn up in a dive bar a week later draped in reprobates and the obscene sweat of songwriting.

By the time she walked out of the ninety-ninth house, the King didn’t bother looking for her, and went to numb his heart for a little while in his library.

After a week, he was only a little bit worried.

After two weeks, the words swam and snickered on the page in front of him, and he couldn’t concentrate for worry.

By the end of a month, he was frantic. Where had she gone? What had he done wrong?

‘What is any of it worth,’ said the King, out loud, ‘if I can have everything I want, but I can’t have her?’

The words hung in the air like obscure art on a gallery wall, and the King had a great idea for a new story. He saw it all in his head. It would be a story about a boy, and a girl, and a kingdom, and a quest, and there’d be enough angst for a trilogy, and probably some sizzling gypsies.

The King picked up his pen.

The Princess put her hand down on the blank page. She stood beside him, and the room fell away, and they were on the steps of the castle, and the air crackled with electricity, and her rage was beautiful and terrifying.

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In Xanadu

By Lavie Tidhar

Security through physicality. Security through redundancy. Security through obscurity.

How do immortal artificial intelligences defend themselves? With an air gap. With a security force that has no connection to anything that can harm them. With a young woman, trained to fight and to die who, along with her cohort must keep them safe. But In Xanadu things don’t always go as planned…

The Theremin played.

In the great hall of the Banu Qattmir all was peaceful. The great screen displays overhead flickered in a bright rainbow light of nothing very much. The Keepers of the Cores went about their business on the gleaming floor, seeming as small as ants in the vastness, and the music played on. It had always been so, for as long as Nila could remember it.

I hate it, she thought savagely. I hate it, hate it, hate it!

The hall was immense and the lighting always soft and the music played on. Information scrolled up on the screens. The patrols went out and the perimeter was secure. Nothing living or digital could approach within a hundred klicks without being detected and if need be eliminated. Overhead, the cloud of routers and signal repeaters extended into the atmosphere of Titan and connected to the dark satellites in the moon’s orbit. Old-fashioned underground cables ran away from the Cores and hooked into ghost points on the Conversational infrastructure of Titan, and into secure escape-pods set up by Clan Qattmir centuries before, redundancy Cores set under the polar ice, inside volcanoes, or under the methane seas.

I hate it! Nila thought. Nothing ever happens here!

The Three Laws of Security were inscribed in gold letters ten meters high on the far wall. Nila knew them by heart.

Security through Physicality.

Security through Redundancy.

Security through Obscurity.

Talk about obscurity! she thought. She had to get away from there. Had to get out. The nearest human settlement was hundreds of klicks away, and even that was just a shell of the Clan, a sort of Potemkin Village to further obscure the Cores’ location. Whereas all Nila wanted was to be away from it all, to see something – anything – else. She couldn’t even enter the Conversation, not like normal humans could, and this was what the Keepers had instilled in her since she was young – she’d never belong outside, she wasn’t noded.

Out there, she was blind and deaf and mute, nothing but a base human like they had back on Earth during the early Holocene.

It was more secure for the digital intelligences inhabiting the Cores to have humans working for them who were guaranteed to not have access, who were completely immune to digital threats, the wurms and virii and Trojans and logic bombs every noded human could be subject to.

Nila longed for the Conversation. She longed to be a part of something bigger than herself. Service, that’s all she knew. Her mother was a commander, her grandmother was a general, her great-grandmother had been a foot soldier during the notorious Phalcon/Skism Engagement, which saw the irreversible destruction of zettabytes of date in Saturn near-space and the use of several final-resort nuclear weapons, one of which hit the Titan surface at 10°S 165°, all but wiping out Shangri-La.

Nila would have almost been happier had there been something to fight. The last perimeter intrusion happened years before she was even born! These days the Banu Qattmir patrolled; maintained; secured – in other words, they did their job.

‘But that is what we do, Nila,’ her mother said, patiently, during one of their fights. ‘The Cores are safe, which is why we’re here. Soldiers only fight when they have to. So far this cycle, we have achieved that rare thing, security through peace. You should be happy!’

But Nila wasn’t happy. She was bored, and she hated Xanadu, and she wanted to be somewhere – anywhere! – but home.

She’d run away, she decided. She’d run away to Polyphemus Port and from there hire out on some ship going to Jupiter. They were always having wars out there on the Galilean moons: she’d sign on, she might even get a node implanted, like people did back on Earth before everyone was just born with one. It would never be as good but at least she’d be in the Conversation.

And it wasn’t like she couldn’t soldier. She knew eight silent ways to kill a man.

She already knew eighty ways to kill a man, but most of them were pretty noisy.

She was trained to fight, there just wasn’t anyone or anything to fight.

The hall was dug deep into the iceberg. Nila climbed into the elevator at the far end. She rose up to the viewing platform. Stepped out and stared at the view. The storms raged on the horizon, purple and red, and she put her hand on the transparent material of the wall, as though she could feel it pulsing against her skin.

When would Junaid come back!

It’s been two Core cycles since he’d left. He’d promised – he’d promised he’d come back!

She remembered the day he left. There had been no ceremony, no crowds. Only her mother and father by the disguised exit to the underground tunnels. Junaid was thin and short-haired, looking a little awkward in his outdoors suit. He hugged her, squeezing her tight until she laughed.

‘You’ll never make it out there!’ she told him. ‘You look like an early astronaut stranded on the moon.’

‘I don’t think they were stranded on the moon,’ he said. ‘I think they made it back, you know.’

‘Fine,’ she said, ‘well, then you better get back!’

He released her and they stared at each other, a little tense now that the moment had come.

‘I’ll be fine,’ he said, trying for an adult reassurance that didn’t quite fit him. He was only a couple of years older than her. ‘I’ll take the tunnel direct into Polyphemus Port, no one will notice a thing.’

‘It leads out into their garbage processing level, you know,’ she said, and he stuck his tongue out at her.

‘It’s all going to be fine,’ he said. ‘I have the right ident tag and everything.’

She didn’t even know where he was really going. What he was going for. There were people who maintained the Clan’s connections to the outer world: the safe-houses and dead letter boxes in Polyport and the other settlements on Titan, the secret tunnels, the dark satellites in orbit. External Auditors – but Junaid wasn’t a part of that task force. He was a low-level Tech who loved hardware and talking about qubits and Bloch spheres and Bose-Einstein condensates. Whatever any of those were.

Nila should have been the one to go! She knew eight silent ways to kill a man! At least in theory.

‘Well,’ Junaid said, ‘I guess it’s goodbye.’

She hugged him. Properly this time. Held him tight because she didn’t want him to go. To leave her.

‘I’ll come back,’ he said. ‘Promise.’

And that was that.

She stared out at the ice and the storms.

Only he didn’t, she thought. He didn’t, he didn’t, he didn’t!

And no one talked about it. It was like Junaid no longer existed, maybe like he never existed.

Security through Obscurity.

It was an ancient principle, from the very early days of the Conversation back on Earth, when the whole fragile network depended on a handful of underwater cables that crisscrossed the planet, converging and making landfall in a small number of hubs. A single diver with bolt cutters could have taken down the bandwidth of three continents, back then. But no one ever did, because no one ever thought to. Because, and all while redundancy was being built into the network, no one thought about it.

For humans, the Conversation had always been what was inside of it. The chatter, the endless chatter of the virtual world, of billions of souls all shouting joyously at each other.

No one thought of that as a bunch of black boxes sitting in air-conditioned warehouses, linked by copper wire and spittle. It was only the inside that mattered.

Obscurity kept the network safe. To have let Junaid go as he did, the Others, those digital entities that lived inside the Cores and paid the Banu Qattmir to protect them, must have had exceptional reasons.

Junaid, to put it simply, was a security breach.

She’d leave, Nila decided for the hundredth time. She’d leave and they couldn’t stop her. She’d trek out to Polyport across the ice storms and methane snow. She could do it, too. At twelve, she and the other kids destined to be soldiers all underwent the Trial, a month-long rite of passage where they were dropped off over Tui Regio to survive as best they could. It was volcanically active…Several of her friends didn’t make it. She knew she could do it.

Why Junaid? And what was so important out there?

She gave up staring at the horizon. Nothing ever came.

A voice spoke in her earpiece. ‘Blue team report to perimeter duty.’

She left the observation deck and went to join her team-mates in the out-deck facility. She dressed in the outdoors suit and checked her scanners and weapons. Farah was ahead of her, already locked and loaded. She flashed her a smile. Farah was a year older, an expert with the bolas and the kukri.

‘Think we’ll find anything today?’

‘Sure,’ Nila said. ‘There’s bound to be a full Spetsnaz wetwork team just round the corner, right?’

‘Or some terrorartist’s time dilation bomb…’ Farah said, sounding wistful.

‘A planoformed ice-boring worm with a Banu Qattmir gene-specific plague payload,’ Nila said.

They both laughed.

‘Ice,’ Farah said.

‘Rain,’ Nila said.

‘Wind!’ they both said, and burst out laughing again. Nila checked her gun. It fired smart bullets, tiny semi-sentient winged kinetic projectiles that were all called Sam. If she tuned her earpiece to the right frequency she could hear them chatting, just as she and Farah chatted now. But the bullets, for all that they had brief mayfly lives, would forever be closer to the Conversation than she and Farah were. Nila was almost jealous.

Knife, gun, goggles, scanner, cold-weather suit, oxygen reservoirs, short wave radio, EMP blaster and grenades (they’d fry any digital intrusion for a klick around), oxygenation kit, trowel, first aid kit, comms – all systems operational.

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Manuscript Tradition

By Harry Turtledove

Dr. Feyrouz Hanafusa is a curator at Yale in the 23rd century. Space exploration is still ongoing, and signs of life have been discovered on a planet near TRAPPIST-1. Signs, Dr. Hanafusa realizes, that suspiciously resemble drawings in the Voynich manuscript, which no one has been able to decipher for over eight hundred years.

Dr. Feyrouz Hanafusa glanced at the wall clock above the exit. In big red numerals, it told her the time was 7.08. In smaller numerals below, the clock admitted it was also 1700. Conversion to decimal units had been under way for more than fifty years: since Feyrouz was a girl. It remained incomplete. The curator of the Beinecke expected it would still be incomplete in 2269—fifty years from now. For the really old-fashioned, still smaller characters called it 5:00 PM.

While she watched, it went from 5:00 to 5:01 and from 1700 to 1701. Less than half a thousandth later, 7.08 became 7.09. However you marked it, however you looked at it, it was quitting time.

As if to underscore that, the soft rumble of plastic wheels on industrial-strength carpeting announced that Tony Loquasto was making the last cleanup swing of his shift. The janitor took a hand off his rolling trash barrel and touched it to the edge of his tricorn. “G’night, Professor,” he said, as he did more evenings than not. He tried to time that last swing so he came to the door at the same time as the curator.

“Good night, Tony. See you in the morning.” Dr. Hanafusa smiled fondly at him. The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library had preserved such things at Yale since the middle of the twentieth century. Loquastos had been sweeping up there from at least the 2070s on. Tony claimed they’d been doing the job even longer, but the Great Data Smash of 2071 made that hard to prove.

She remembered seeing a Yale print yearbook from the 2080s. Vic Loquasto’d been the Beinecke’s head custodian then. He’d worn a bushy mustache and had a lot of curly hair sticking out from under his dumb-looking baseball cap. Such details aside, he looked a lot like his several-times-great-grandson.

Out into the muggy warmth of a July early evening she went. She smiled again. How fitting that even the Beinecke’s janitors had so much history behind them.

Thinking of history made her looked back at the building where she lived her professional life. It was built in the spare style that had been called modern architecture all those years ago. Five stories tall, it was shaped like a shoebox and resembled nothing so much as a gray-and-white waffle.

By now, several stylistic movements had come and gone since the Beinecke was modern. The swooping lines and translucent finish of the Tereshkova Xenobiology Hall across the quad were only half as passé as the Beinecke’s resolute rectangularity.

Except for the microbes of Mars and the odd oceanic creatures under Europa’s icy crust, xenobiology had been theoretical when the Tereshkova Hall went up. The swarm of people coming out of the building now showed how much it had grown in the past century and a quarter. Probes had found life on a planet of Tau Ceti and on another one revolving around Epsilon Eridani. Analyzing, comparing, and exploiting different biochemistries was as hot a field as computer graphics had been a couple of hundred years earlier.

And, odds were, it would be heating up still more. Nothing had gone wrong with the robot ship launched toward TRAPPIST-1 as the twenty-first century drew towards a close. Now it was sending data back to Earth. Or rather, now the data it had sent back to Earth forty years ago were starting to arrive.

TRAPPIST-1 was a piss-poor excuse for a star. An M8 dwarf, it was only a little bigger than Jupiter, though more than eighty times as massive. But even in the early twenty-first century they’d learned it had seven planets with at least the potential for life. That made it a most intriguing target for starships.
It was an old star, billions of years older than the Sun. The life its planets bore—if indeed they bore any—would be older than Earth’s, too. As far back as the late twentieth century, David Gerrold had realized extra gigayears of evolution could mean corresponding extra sophistication.

A headline ten meters tall appeared in the air in front of Tereshkova Hall: CRAWLER LANDING ON FARADAY. Back in the day, TRAPPIST-1’s planets had borne letters from a to g. Now they were named, alphabetically still, after famous old scientists: Avicenna, Bohr, Curie, Dawes, Eratosthenes, Faraday, and Goodall. Their orbits, all close to their star, were full of complex resonances. The inner five always turned the same face toward TRAPPIST-1; Faraday and Goodall rotated three times for every two revolutions. A crawler had already come down in the libration ribbon between Dawes’s light and dark sides.

Feyrouz knew vaguely that getting the landers to good areas on those unimaginably distant worlds hadn’t been easy. Modern savants kept worrying that the primitive, slow, stupid computers on the starship weren’t up to the job. They seemed to have been wrong, though. The curator didn’t worry about the details, any more than a Victorian businessman in Salt Lake City worried about how the telegraph sent his message to Indianapolis.

Feyrouz walked to the edge of campus and waited for the bus to take her to her apartment building. Its electric motor as quiet as the inside of a library was supposed to be, the bus rolled up to the stop a few minutes later. Like so many industrial products these days, it was manufactured in the Brazilian Empire. The Naviopedra batteries that powered it were a Brazilian specialty; they held more power in less space and weight than any competitors.

Ten minutes later, she got off. The bus glided away. She went up one block and over two to reach her building. Her head was on a swivel while she did it. New Haven had always had its share of crime and maybe a little more. Cameras everywhere made robbers more likely to get caught. That didn’t stop a lot of them. And, if one of them clouted you in the pot so you wouldn’t hold on to your goodies, you might be too damaged afterwards to care.

No one bothered her on the way to the her apartment. The DNA sniffer at the security gate confirmed that she was entitled to go inside. The door sighed open. She went in. The door slid shut behind her.

Another DNA sniffer (a newer, better model, one she’d paid for herself) on her door agreed that she really did live in Unit 27. She walked inside. The door closed. The lights and the air-conditioning came on.

The cat walked out of the bedroom. His complaint-filled meows said she’d stayed away from him much too long, even if today was no different from any other day. “It’s all right, Wilfrid,” Feyrouz said. Wilfrid was unconvinced, as he was almost every evening. She scratched his chin, then sat down on the carpet beside him and petted him and rubbed his tummy while he did flop-and-rolls and purred like a boat with an internal-combustion engine.

She fed the tropical fish. It was a peaceable tank: cardinals and neons and danios and little rasboras and the like. A Corydoras catfish went along a side wall, nibbling on algae and keeping the view clear. Wilfrid batted at the fish he couldn’t reach. They were as much fun for him as a good immersive was for her.

Once the critters were taken care of, Feyrouz could tend to her own dinner. She took a tilapia-and-rice pack out of the freezer and stuck it into the microwave. The oven’s sensor registered the ration points when she touched the HEAT panel. She sighed. The authorities insisted things were getting better, but she remained convinced food packs had been more substantial when she was a kid.

As she waited for the microwave to finish, she glanced at the photo of her son on the little table. Sam was living his own life, homesteading and doing urban archaeology in the ruins of Sandusky, Ohio. Feyrouz wished he would call or vid more often, but what mother didn’t?

She ate, rinsed the pack and chucked it into the recycle bin, and washed her hashi before sticking them in the dish drainer. Then she said, “News.” Words and pictures appeared before her, on a smaller scale than in front of the Tereshkova Xenobiology Hall but with the same principle.

The Red Sox were going through their pregame warm-ups against Havana. Feyrouz gestured impatiently. No matter how the algorithm felt about it, she didn’t think that was news. The West Coast and New Texico had tightened their infoblockade against the United States. She gnawed on the inside of her lower lip. Colleagues in both countries had warned her that was likely. It didn’t make living in a data-driven world any easier, though.

Spokesfolk for the shah of Iran were denying that the outbreak of antibiotic-resistant plague in Kurdistan had anything to do with his government. Spokesfolk for the Kurdish prime minister said genetic work in their labs proved the shah was a lying Shiite dog. Feyrouz wondered whether the Middle East would ever know peace. It struck her as unlikely.

She waved away reports on the bribery scandal in Brussels, the data-access scandal in Washington, and the anti-Mormon riots in Sacramento (grainy video almost scrambled by the blockade). They were a fine basket of deplorables, but she couldn’t do anything about any of them. “Space news,” she told the AI.

A report that the planetary probe had gotten down safely on Faraday made her smile and nod. An atmosphere with 22 percent oxygen had already shown that Faraday held life. The crawler was starting to analyze it. Genetic material there seemed to use nineteen amino acids, seventeen of them among the twenty that terrestrial DNA employed. “The crawler appears to have landed in a forest, not far from the edge,” the voice-over said. “First pictures are expected in ten to twelve hours.”

Feyrouz sighed. The little pea brain inside the starship—the best they could do back in the twenty-first century, she reminded herself—would be crunching numbers as hard as it could, crunching them and putting them together to make images and beaming back across the light-years. Or rather, it would have been doing that almost forty years ago. Those images would have left TRAPPIST-1’s system when she was a college sophomore.

“Enough news,” she said when the starship report finished. It was a little past seven. If she wanted to, she could watch the Red Sox and the Cigarmakers bang heads. But she didn’t feel like it. New Haven lay almost on the border between Red Sox Nation and the dark kingdom of the Yankees farther west. She wasn’t tempted into rooting for the false gods in pinstripes, but her faith in Holy Fenway had weakened in recent years. A string of sorry Bosox finishes didn’t help, either.

She put on a pair of headphones, letting one rest a few centimeters above each eye. Then she asked for the immersives menu. She chose an adaptation of a classic, Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo. She’d been inside that one before; she knew it was good. Something familiar would help her wind down and get ready for bed.

Closing her eyes, she said, “Begin!”

By anything her brain could prove, she wasn’t a middle-aged woman in modern New Haven any more, but a child on a stage in Athens 2,600 years earlier. Everything Nikeratos, the main character, experienced or thought or felt, so did she. Part of her dimly realized she and the people around her were speaking English, not ancient Greek, but it didn’t matter.

When they came in a hundred years before, immersives had changed acting forever. You didn’t just have to sound and look convincing; you had to make the people who would be there with you—well, with the recording of you—believe that you were going through everything that happened in the story. There’d been a great shakeout of performers at the time, the way there had been when talkies conquered silents a couple of centuries earlier.

The only thing wrong with The Mask of Apollo she could see was that its ending was almost too painful to stand. But she found herself smiling anyway when she took off the headphones. Whenever she dipped into this immersive, she better understood—at least for a little while—what her son felt for his husband.

She was still smiling when she went to bed, and again when she got up the next morning. She fed Wilfrid and cuddled him and gave him fresh water, then ran him around with a laser pointer till his sides heaved. He wouldn’t have much excitement till she got home unless a fish jumped out of the tank. In that case, he’d have a snack, too.

After a quick shower, Feyrouz fixed her own breakfast: coffee, along with natto and green onions and mustard on top of leftover rice. The slimy fermented beans were better for her than bacon and eggs, and much easier on the ration book. She splurged every once in a while, but only every once in a while. A curator wasn’t made of money.

“News,” she said as she cleaned up and made herself a second cup of coffee so she’d be sure her heart would keep beating all morning. A moment later, she added, “Space news.”

“Here are some early images the Faraday crawler transmitted to the starship in the TRAPPIST-1 system,” the AI said. “You will see them two ways: first in the very red light the star actually emits, and then with processing to make the light peak appear yellow, as it would under our sunlight.”

The first photo that appeared in the air in front of Feyrouz was as murky as the newsbriefer had warned her it would be. The sky looked purplish; the dust was a deeper red than Mars, and the plants seemed a brownish-black mass, with few details visible no matter how she squinted.

The photoshopped version seemed magically better. The sky turned blue—not quite Earthly blue, but something closer to turquoise. The few clouds changed from the color of wet, bloody cement to grayish white. And the dirt looked like dirt, and the plants looked like plants.

Not quite like terrestrial plants, though. Despite image processing, their green wasn’t that of the green hills of Earth. The leaves didn’t look like any Feyrouz would see growing on campus—or in an arboretum, either.

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Dark Warm Heart

By Rich Larson

“Dark Warm Heart” by Rich Larson is a horror story about a woman whose husband returns from the frozen Canadian North Territories, obsessed with texts he discovered there.

The bite mark was wine-red on anemic-white, crenellating Kristine’s bare shoulder. She moved the strap of her nightgown when Noel stumbled into the kitchen, drawn by the sizzle and clank of the frying pan, so he would be sure to see it.

“Morning,” she said, sliding the sausages onto a paper towel.

“Hey.” Noel stopped short, still scratching at the wiry hair up his belly. He frowned. “Did I do that?”

“No,” Kristine said dryly. She dabbed at the grease. “Somebody else. While you were gone I cheated with a…a hyena.”

Noel came closer, whispering one finger along the ruined skin. Shook his head. “Shit,” he said, wrapping her waist. “Désolé. I didn’t mean to.”

“Good,” Kristine said. She tipped her head back for a kiss. “I don’t mind it,” she decided, plucking at his hand. “See? We match.”

“Yes. Lucky.” Noel held up his broad hand, two of the fingers still scarred purple from frostbite. “What do you call it? An accent color?”

Kristine laughed, and gave him a small shove towards the white table. Noel sat down in his old spot, like he’d never left, while she doled out sausages and toast with margarine. The small kitchen was still crammed full with gleaming wedding gift appliances.

“So finally you had someone to laugh at your jokes?” Noel asked, sawing with his knife.

Kristine smiled. “What?”

“The hyena.”

“Hm. Yeah.” She watched Noel sniff at the sausage, like he’d been rescued off some island instead of from the YEG airport late last night. “And he always ate the leftovers.”

Noel laughed, warm like an electric blanket, and she wished she’d told him the night before. But there had been no space for words, just skin and sweat in a bed that had been too big for too many weeks, and she’d waited this long, hadn’t she?

“I’m going to start on the transcription today,” Noel said, chewing.

“Already?” Kristine asked. “You aren’t going to, I don’t know, warm up for a day? Relax?”

“It’s not so warm here either, Krissy.” He nodded towards the sliding door, half frosted over, and the pinwheeling flakes beyond it. “It’s snowing.”

“Warmer than your igloo in NWT,” Kristine suggested. “I have to run a few errands. Unless you wanted me to stay and help you. With, you know, the bilabial sounds.” She leaned forward and pressed both her lips against his. They felt dry.

“I didn’t sleep in an igloo,” Noel said when they broke, but grinning. “All right. I’ll wash up. Leave the plates.”

Kristine went to the pristine bathroom, which would not be pristine for long now that Noel was back. She’d almost missed seeing his bristles in the sink. She turned the shower on, hot. The mirror fogged fast. She retched a few times over the toilet, but nothing came up, so she stepped inside the shower. After, while the curling iron was heating up, she rummaged a tube of concealer out of her vanity drawer. She shook it as she eyed the bite mark, debating.

She put the concealer back. The mark was somehow like a checked box, a reminder that Noel was real and he was home and he loved her to death, and it was nothing like the cuts up her legs she’d hidden in high school.

When she passed through the kitchen, keys jangling in her fingers, Noel was already swallowed up between Bose headphones, the noise-cancelling kind. His face looked thin and sharp and his eyes were tracking across the laptop screen, left, right, left, right.

“Don’t work too hard,” Kristine said, once she’d tugged one of the headphones down.

“I would never,” Noel said. “Thank you for breakfast.”

He brushed crumbs off his lip before he kissed her good-bye, but the sausages were still sitting on the plate, uneaten. Kristine handed him a Tupperware container on her way out the door.

Her shoulder throbbed while she was getting cash from the ATM. It throbbed when she pushed through the Grade 5/6 portable doors to pick up the worksheet she’d forgotten to photocopy, it throbbed when she shivered in the meat section of Superstore, trying to remember if Noel liked minute steaks, and it throbbed when she returned home to find him still at the table with his face sickly awash in laptop light. He’d forgotten he cooked Sundays.

“Hey, Mister Linguist, have you even moved?” Kristine asked, opening the fridge freezer. Cold billowed out as she put the steaks in, then fished for an ice tray.

“Buy me a catheter,” Noel said. He gave a wan grin. “This is great shit, Krissy. Come. Listen.”

“I don’t speak Inuktitut.”

Noel laughed, and said it wasn’t Inuktitut, and then the room was quiet except for the crack-pop of ice cubes into a ziplock. Kristine wrapped the bag in a wet cloth, still watching Noel watching the screen, and held it against her shoulder.

“All right,” she said. “Show me.”

“Come.” Noel slipped the headphones from around his neck and held the ice against Kristine’s shoulder while she put them on.

The feedback volume made her jump.

“Sorry.” Noel dialed it down with a practiced finger. Kristine repositioned the headphones and listened. It was a low guttural wail, broken up by a sort of huffing. When she listened harder she could hear an uncanny melody.

“Nice. What is it?” She looked to the screen, where the spectrogram was showing the noise slither along, pitch black, undulating through the grayscale background. It made her think of ultrasounds.

“Throat-singing,” Noel said. “Beautiful. I tried it, when I was up there. Very difficult.” He turned the volume up slightly. “This is just the icing, though. You know, for when I get tired of the interviews. There are so many stories. Some of them, never heard in English. Never.”

Kristine watched him maneuver the mouse through his crowded screen, over IPA charts and reference logs. He pulled up another audio file. The throat-singing was replaced by an old man’s voice and a dialect that Noel said was all but extinct. She sat in his lap and they pushed their heads together, each using one side of the headphones, and listened.

Noel’s cheek scratched her cheek and his arms ended up around her, but with the ice trickling on her shoulder she couldn’t feel warm, and it wasn’t the time.

It happened in the night. Noel’s knee was keyed between her knees, his arm was over her arm. They’d fucked again, not so frantically this time, and Kristine was still awake when Noel plucked her hand out from under the covers. She turned in the dark and saw his eyes were not quite closed.

“Hey,” she said, moving back against him.

He didn’t say anything, didn’t make a noise. He brought her hand up to his face slowly, deliberately, with his thumb at her wrist. In the quiet Kristine could imagine the sound of her pulse against his skin. He opened his mouth and kissed his way along her arm, teeth skimming her, making her shiver.

Kristine half-smiled. “What are you doing?” she whispered.

“Whatever I want,” Noel mumbled into her skin. He gnawed at her wrist-bone, tickling her.

“I’m so glad you made it home,” Kristine said. “I’m just. You know. I was scared shitless, when I heard about the storms. When you called.”

Noel bit down, playful.

Kristine winced. “Easy, boy, I don’t need another one.”

Noel’s teeth pressed harder, deeper, so she could feel each individual crown.

“Noel, stop. You’re getting spit on me. Stop.”

Noel pulled back a moment, tracing the indented skin with his finger, and then he bit down again, not playful, a sudden sharp snap like an animal.

“Ouch!” Kristine jerked away. “Noel! Don’t!”

“Don’t what?” Noel asked thickly. Kristine slapped the light on, exposing the purple bags under her husband’s eyes, the sharpness of his cheekbones somehow more pronounced. “I just want…” He trailed off.

“Can’t you leave the transcription for like, a day?” Kristine demanded.

“Everything’s still fresh,” Noel said. “I’m, you know, I’m zoned.”

“You’re being weird. Really fucking weird.”

“You’re being dramatic.”

Kristine went to the bathroom, flicked the light on. She ran cold water over her arm. Her reflection in the mirror looked pale and sick. She prodded her stomach.

“Come on,” Noel groaned from the bed. “You don’t need a Band-Aid, Krissy.”

“Can’t you shave?” Kristine demanded, coming back. “Unpack? Call your dad to tell him you’re back so he doesn’t call me again?” The fresh mark was blooming on her arm, and when Noel saw it his expression was something she didn’t like. Kristine put her other hand overtop to hide it.

“I didn’t know he called you,” Noel said.

“I’m going to sleep in the study. Just for tonight.”

“I’m sorry. Look. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

“You hate the hide-a-bed.” Noel rolled up and out of the covers. He scratched at his neck. “I’ll go,” he said. “Are there pillows?”

“In the linen closet,” Kristine said.

She stopped to get them on their way to the study, and then held them against herself while the hide-a-bed unfolded with a creak and a clunk. Noel took the pillows without smiling. He tossed them onto the bed.

“Good night,” he said.

It wasn’t.

Kristine needed a swim, so she left early in the morning with the sky still dark and didn’t even open the study door, just exchanged a good morning/good-bye with Noel’s half-asleep voice. Exhaust was billowing on the cold roads like a fog as she drove, one hand on her swim-bag. She dialed her mother at a stoplight. A voice thick with sleep or Valium answered on the fifth ring.

“Hi, honey, what is it?”

“Hi, Mom.” The light lanced green through the clouds of exhaust and Kristine drove. “I just had a question about the thank-you notes, I’m still finishing up and—”

“Noel’s back, isn’t that right? Give him my love. Hugs. How’s his frostbite?”

“I will,” Kristine said. “The thank-you note for Uncle Carrow, I can’t remember his girlfriend’s name. Was it Sheryl?”

“No. Carol? No. Hell, I can’t remember either.”

“Noel’s acting different.”

There was a staticky pause, and then her mother’s voice came edged with a sigh.

“What do you mean?”

“Just, I don’t know,” Kristine said, and she didn’t, not quite. “Doing weird things. Not eating. Yesterday after breakfast he didn’t eat anything all day. He’s, like, he’s obsessing over his transcription. Won’t talk to me.”

“Well, he’s driven, you know—”

“Not like that.” She dropped her indicator and turned into the Glenora parking lot, still mostly empty of cars.

“—and it’s a good thing. It really is.” Another pause. “A lot of things might be or look a little different now. All those little things that were nice, you know, endearing, a lot of those things look different when you realize it’s for the rest of your life.”

“It’s not a honeymoon is over thing, Mom,” Kristine said, putting the car into park. “It’s been over for a while.”

“I mean, your father, my God. He had his days. Weeks. Years. But it was all worth it. I never once thought of leaving him. And Noel’s a good man. A really good man. It’s all about compromises, isn’t it? People thinking marriage is supposed to be easy? Makes me laugh. It’s all about sacrifices. There were things I wanted to do, plenty of things…”

“I’m not talking about leaving him, Mom, I’m just saying he’s acting funny and I don’t know why.” She turned off the engine and fumbled the key into her coat pocket. “This thing with the storm…”

“Sharon. It was definitely Sharon, and half his age, too. Maybe a prostitute. Look, honey, just stop worrying. He hasn’t even been back for a week. Go for a swim, you’ll feel better.”

“Thanks,” Kristine said, hefting her bag. “Bye. Love you.”

“Bye, honey.”

She swam longer than she’d meant to, churning up and down the lane until the water felt bathtub warm, and so she went to the school with her hair still hanging wet wires and the toothed trace of swim-goggles around her one eye like a sucker scar. But she did feel better, even though Elijah and Braden had to be sent off to the principal for the third week running.

Noel didn’t answer her text, or the second one. She tried not to worry about it. She fixed a smile to her face as she climbed the stairs to the apartment, went down the hallway that always smelled like weed and Febreze, and keyed open their door. It was dark inside again. Kristine flicked on the lights and checked the bare sink. No dishes. She opened the fridge. Nothing touched.

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Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light

By Sarah McCarry

“Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light” is about a lonely young woman, recently moved to the big city, who is looking for love. What she finds is a friend and confidante who is much older and wiser than she.

Marcus arrived on the third day of school. Of course, Rosamunde didn’t know then his name was Marcus. All she knew was that the new guy was hot. Like, really hot. Shampoo-commercial hair hot. Tawny skin like a lion’s golden coat just like when the sun hits a lion’s golden coat on a plain somewhere in Africa hot. He walked into homeroom just like a lion, totally confident and cool. His confident gaze raked the classroom. Like he could eat them all alive if he wanted to. And then he looked right at her with gorgeous, glowing violet eyes. As if there was no one else in the world. As if his whole world, just right then, were Rosamunde.

Consider deleting second and third use of ‘lion,’ I write in the margins. To avoid repetition.

—Are his eyes really glowing? asks the vampire, looking over my shoulder. —Doesn’t that seem inconvenient?

Glowing eyes? I write. Reword?

It isn’t what you’re thinking with me and the vampire; we’re just friends. Probably you’ve read too many books. We meet every evening on the corner of Twenty-Sixth and Sixth after I finish work and go for cocktails at the Half King. I am an assistant to a literary agent and he is a vampire, which is I suppose a certain form of employment.

There are a lot of people in this city who have money that comes from no transparent source, but as far as I know the vampire is the only one who is a literal monster. Early in our acquaintance I asked the vampire why he liked to spend time with me, why he had chosen me out of all the millions of other girls moving in glittering packs through the night streets of the city. Soft-skinned slim cool girls with blinding teeth and neat manicures, immaculate girls who leave in their wake the scent of jasmine and new dollar bills; thoroughbred girls far glossier than me.

—I don’t know, said the vampire. —You have a certain je ne sais quois.

Rosamunde’s highly profitable literary franchise comprises three novels; the literary agent has given me a draft of the fourth to review. Thus far in the series, Rosamunde has proven a magnet for supernatural entities of all kinds. Two werewolf brothers, several half-demons, and one fallen angel have told her she is beautiful, but she doesn’t believe them. Rosamunde is certain she is only average. Her skin is soft and smells of roses. She enjoys bubble baths, the Brontës, and Frappuccinos. The vampire has offered to act as a consultant on Rosamunde’s latest adventure, in which the new boy in school turns out to be a vampire himself. Although he dabbles in the dark side, Rosamunde’s suitor is persuaded toward the light thanks to a generous application of Rosamunde’s love. Everybody likes a project. Tonight my vampire is feeling clever; he’s ordered a Bloody Mary, although that’s not a nighttime kind of drink. The bartender gave him a dirty look when he thought the vampire wasn’t looking and the vampire ran his finger over his teeth. Most nights the vampire drinks Pernod and complains daintily that he can’t smoke indoors anymore, although it’s been years and years since one could. Time is different for vampires, as you doubtless already know. The vampire has deigned to lend me his coat, which is the band jacket Hedi Slimane did for Dior Homme. I did not know things like this before I met the vampire, only that the vampire’s jacket was beautiful and made me feel, the first time I put it on, as though I had been wearing the wrong clothes my entire life. ­

—What does ‘shampoo-commercial hair’ mean? the vampire asks.

—I guess it means that he’s clean, I say.

The vampire looks at me in surprise. —Is that really all you people want now? My goodness, what a very different time it is, indeed. A year or two ago the Half King was closed briefly for the filming of a movie in which Drew Barrymore finds love in unexpected places, and I had to explain romantic comedies to the vampire. He was quiet for some time. —I like that fellow Tarkovsky, he said finally. —No talking.

It’s not my first winter in this city but I still can’t manage to dress warmly enough. There are nights I think the cutting wind will pull me apart and cauterize what’s left into solid ice. I came here with my pockets full of dreams but the people-clotted streets are lonelier than anywhere I’ve known. The place I left behind never got cold enough to kill you.

—You can make it here; you can make it anywhere, the vampire says. I think he means this to be encouraging.

We met at the library on Sixth, which is where I spend my weekends. The building has heat and you do not have to pay anything in order to sit all afternoon and cry like a teenager into your open notebook. The library used to be a courthouse but it looks like a palace. There’s a spiraling stone staircase and a tower with stained-glass windows that let in rainbow-chipped light from another, kinder dimension. Sometimes I imagine myself a princess coolly awaiting her coronation, her diadems, her velvet gowns. A princess, perhaps, called Rosamunde. I was reading a book about public executions in the sixteenth century when the vampire approached me.

—It’s not altogether true, you know, the vampire said, although of course I didn’t know then he was a vampire. I didn’t know who he was at all, this lean, tall man with cool gray eyes that were startling against his dark skin. Outside, the storm-silted afternoon was sinking into night.

—I’m sorry? I said. I’d only been in the city for a few months, but even then I could tell his clothes cost more than my rent.

—I’ve read that book, the vampire said. —­It wasn’t quite like that, although he gets close. ­

—I’m researching a novel, I said, although my tear-spotted notebook was blank.

—Is that so, the vampire said. ­—How fascinating. Might I buy you a drink?

I share an apartment with four other girls in a part of the city that will not be cheap for much longer. Once a month a black family moves out of my building and a white couple moves in. My roommates, like me, all came here to do things other than the things they are now doing.

—Five of you in that tenement, the vampire says in horror. —Like rats in a box.

—We don’t call them tenements anymore, I say. The apartment is filled with the miasma of human presence. The bathroom is murky with leavings: clumps of hair, spent toothpaste tubes, a greasy sheen in the sink. The heat’s been broken for months and I sleep in two sweaters and wool socks. In the morning my stale breath clouds white in the pale air. I don’t much like to go home, which suits the vampire just fine. He’ll buy me drinks until the table slides across the floor. Sometimes he puts me in a taxi and I wake up in front of my building with crumpled twenties and pieces of eight in my pockets, the cabdriver’s eyes meeting mine in the rearview mirror.

—You are lucky, a cabdriver said to me once, —to have such a generous friend.

I gave him one of the vampire’s antique coins. ­—I don’t know if generous is the right word, I said, —but he does his best to be nice.

When I first interviewed with the literary agent, I told her I wanted to be a writer. —Who doesn’t, she said, rolling her eyes. —Bring me a story, I’ll take a look. The printout I gave her still sits, yellowing, on the bottom shelf behind her desk. Girls these days like to read about vampires, or so I am told by the literary agent, who makes her living off books that aren’t particularly good. If she had dreams once they have long since scurvied into misshape under the flickering gray-green lights of her windowless office. I suppose if one is not acquainted with an actual vampire, love disguised as cruelty sounds better than the world outside. All these monsters, waiting for the right girl. All these girls, hoping for monsters. Once a beauty finds her beast, she blossoms. Her junky old jewels turn out to be talismans, her dead mother’s cheap locket a portal to another plane. All she needs to learn magic is for someone to call her pretty.

How people die now: torture, shot by police, hate crimes, executed by the state. Am I safe? I can’t tell. In this city, in this century, I don’t know what the word means anymore. The literary agent sends me home with manuscripts to read on my own time; this is for my career development. Some of them belong to her clients. Most of them belong to people who want to be.

This one defies credibility, I write in the reader’s reports I submit to her.

I agree!!!!! she emails back, although she sits six feet away from me. Please reject J J J

After science, Rosamunde walked up to the new guy. He was so hot. She could hardly believe her own nerve. She was shy. She didn’t know how to talk to guys. Especially not guys like this one. So cool. So energetic.

—She means ‘enigmatic,’ surely, the vampire says.

­­—Or egomaniacal, I say, and am pleased when the vampire laughs. I make a note in the margins.

“We’re supposed to choose lab partners,” she said, trying to keep her voice from quivering.

—Quavering! the vampire says huffily. ­

—You’re the one who wanted to help, I tell him, and he subsides, muttering into his Bloody Mary.

“You’re new, so—I’m guessing you don’t have one.”

“No,” he said. His smell, now that he stood so close, was heady. Masculine. Like a forest. Almost like a powerful animal with muscles bunching underneath its rippling skin. He was wearing an expensive brand-name sweater that brought out the sapphire blue of his eyes.

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By Julianna Baggott

Our young narrator has many skins. Shedding and taking on new ones help them to find their way back home after leaving to avoid more tragedies and assaults. But what price do they have to pay to acquire the one true skin that fits the best?

I shed the first-layer avatar like the skin of a snake, easily, as if I’d outgrown it. Actually, I was trying to revert. I had no connection to my original body anymore. I barely remembered its heavy headedness, its ticking and pounding, and the scents it pressed from its pores. It was so buried I didn’t even have a sense of having aged.

What I did remember was this: what it was like to ride a bicycle across a stubbled field away from an angry house toward blue sky as if—arms spread wide—I could fly off into that sky. There were half-built abandoned houses surrounding the field. My legs were pumping. My budding breasts bound by a too-tight undershirt. Over it, I wore one of my father’s old button-downs. It rippled against my arms. I’d filled one of my sister’s ankle-socks with sandy dirt and slipped it, penis-like, into the front of my underwear. Behold, a real boy was nearly flying, hard-packed dirt bumping under the tires, the bicycle seat pressing my handmade boyish parts against my girlish parts, which were never very real to me, folded up as they were between my thighs like small hands in prayer.

The shedding of this first-layer avatar—its tough, bulky shine—was slow but painless. And it made me think—what really ages?


Longing ages.

The second-layer avatar needed to be scrubbed loose like a thick film of grit.

The third—yes, I was manly (I always chose to be manly) and robotic, tall and strong. I chose this avatar after falling in love and being betrayed. I had to unlock bolt after bolt, screw upon screw, shining plates popping loose. Then the chest opened on its own. A hinge squeaked, a door yawned open, exposing a cavity with nothing but a small lit fuse. I dismantled it like a bomb.

I haven’t seen my sister or my father since I ran away shortly after my mother died. Her mind went first, as if it had been nibbled away by the moths let loose in our woolens in the attic. And a sudden fever, headache, the bucket by the bed. Her neck seizing, her body wheeling and tipping. Finally, a seizure, her skull pounding against the headboard.

When the seizure was over, she looked up at me and said, “How can I be so young again? Girl, you are me. Why are you me?”

In one way, I felt a kinship. She was outside of her own body, which was how I lived. And, in another way, I was hurt. I couldn’t ever become my mother. I would never be a woman. And I would never live in an angry house.

I left while people were still coming over with sorrow-induced baked goods.

The fourth-layer avatar was a memory of a memory of a memory lost in ether and fog and the foam that washes up on sandy shores. I had to chase it in order to shed it. It came away like a loose nightgown dropping to the floor. But I wasn’t laid bare.

I’d forgotten my years of pacing, catlike, along cliff edges.

I’d forgotten my Buddhist time of simplicity, just wanting to be fruit bobbing on a limb. (But even as a piece of fruit, I was sure that I was male.)

And then the world that had gone Bankrupt. There was nothing there. Not even my own avatar. Bare shelves, the dream of buzzing fluorescence. Vacancy, dust. I was a brittle shadow and wrote my old initials into the shelf dust: A.S.

I shed the avatar where my skin held the roughness of bark.

I shed the avatar of Mouth Eating World; I’d once been so ambitious. I shed the avatar of Villain and Hero; it can be hard to tell the difference between the two. I shed the avatar of Eye of God; he’d never been a real comfort.

And then, still, another thickened layer. Enamel-coated.

Then, finally, a rind to pull back. Digging my thumbnail into my own skin, I remembered an actual orange. It had pores too and when peeled, it would sometimes release a fine misty sigh into the air.

I knew I was getting closer because I could remember the bike seat’s clitoral hum more keenly, how the line between where it ended and where my handmade penis began was a blur because the penis was as real to me as my own arm. It was the phantom made manifest. The clitoris told it to wake up, needling and needling and it woke up.

It was neurological embodiment, the kinetic equivalent of looking in the mirror and not finding holes.

And then I found the kind of avatar I could afford in the early years after I ran away. False toughness. Bagginess hiding weakness. Tightening my too-big eyes so I didn’t look so vulnerable. A plushness to my body like a stuffed toy, but not a recognizable creature. Off-brand.

A city of near-constant night. Caged streetlights. Barred pawn shops. Bare-boned strays. White-white hippies in fringe vests near the Moto-dome. Prostitutes angling on every corner. Hawkers shouting about currency exchange.

A sprinting lost gazelle.

A gunshot.

It fell and hustlers were on it—sawing antlers and leg bones, a slaughter house on the street.

Blood pooled.

Some were only here to gut things—buildings of their copper wiring, streets of their manhole covers, bodies of their organs…

I kept trying to remember how to shed here. It would come to me. I knew it would. I kept walking, trying to get out of the city.

But I must have gone in a circle. I saw the gazelle again, and now it had been picked clean.

Or was it a different gazelle?

I knew then: I must pick myself clean.

My father had always seemed bearish, wolfish. And the moment he looked up from the kitchen table and saw me as a boy, I saw the flash of recognition. A stony moment. He shook his head woefully, and then tore after me, in a way he’d never done before. It was more the way an angry father would tear after a son. And then he stripped me down. Buttons popped off the shirt. He pulled the back of the undershirt up over my backbone, over my short hair. He grabbed my crotch. “What the hell is this?”

It was mine.

He slapped me. “All you need is a good fuck.”

And the dog barked. And the trees were tossing outside the window. And my mother was crouched and crying in the doorway, hugging my sister’s head to her chest.

Don’t think of it, my mother told me. I didn’t. But an eye patched for too long will rove then go blind. My parts numbed.

After the picking-clean—a delicate task—I landed in a world in which my avatar was pale and soft and bare. I was in a hospital bed in a row of beds. Other patients twisted in sheets and dreams. I looked out the small barred window and saw another window in another building. I held up my hands and wondered what they were made for. They seemed to want to work.

I wondered how to shed this avatar. Nothing came to me. My stomach looked pleated with pink scars. A blue vein ran over the knot of one of my ankles. My eyes felt pinched and tired.

I was sure that I contained a mass of dead tissue and living tissue. I wondered if I could slough the dead and be more alive. I rubbed my arm; the skin gave more than I expected. I rubbed it but it was of a piece. It didn’t show any stitching or binding or knots or seams or beaded welding marks or hooks or buttons. Nothing to undo. Nothing to separate living from dead.

Beside each hospital bed, was a propped frame with a photograph. A personal effect? I picked mine up. I’d been a bony child. My sister, too. Back to back sitting on our old porch steps, we’d braided our hair together.

Longing ages keenly and what sung inside of me was sharp.

I reached under the white sheet and hospital gown and found nothing and felt nothing. There was no avatar left to shed.

They allowed me to leave. A nurse handed me paperwork to sign. They gave me a small stack of clothes—my own. The clothes no longer fit, but as I ran my fingers over the small buttons, I remembered the papers I’d signed to get in.

A trade.

I understood the pink puckered scars now. “Was I good at bearing babies?”

“Did you notice that your avatars improved over time? That your choices grew?”


“We grant more choices with each pregnancy. You were, in fact, very good. You have enriched the lives of many people. Did you enjoy your journeys elsewhere?”

I had to think about it. “Yes,” I said, but I realized I had nothing to compare it all to. To say no would have been an act of self-loathing. “My journeys have defined me.”

The nurse smiled. I’d said the right thing.

She gave me a final payout and I left.

I hitchhiked until I recognized the marshy air by taste. This was the way the bushes roll along the side of truck. This was the factory; it was abandoned and no longer chuffing. There were more buildings, more gas stations, malls…But still out of nowhere, a marshland surrounded itself with reeds. And I recognized the shape of the marsh.

The field was fallow. The house stood stark and small against the sky. The abandoned houses, half-built, were caving in on themselves.

When I was close enough, I saw a face in the window. My mother, older than I’d ever seen her.

But it wasn’t my mother. My mother was dead.

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When Stars Are Scattered

By Spencer Ellsworth

Ahmed is a doctor working in a far flung outpost of humanity. His way was paid for by the leaders of his faith and his atheism is a guarded secret. His encounters with the “kite people” will cause him to doubt his whole worldview however when the aliens start dying and escalating tensions between religious extremists threatens to destroy the colony’s peace. “When Stars Are Scattered” is a moving story about alien contact, religious intolerance, and the redemptive power of the divine channeled through the spirit. Whether that spirit is human or alien.

The author would very much like to thank Khaalidah Mohammed-Ali for her support & suggestions on this story.

The alien lay dead on the sickbed. Mucus had crusted around its enormous nostrils. More mucus had oozed from the small flaps, like gills, on its chest, and dried on the thin translucent skin.

The aliens really did look like kites. It was no wonder no one in the colony could remember the scientific name. A tiny triangular head, all nose and wide ears with pinpricks for black eyes, crested an enormous square, paper-thin body like one wide wing.

“Time of death: zero forty-three.” Ahmed rubbed his eyes and looked around. The sickroom was unusually quiet; just the deep, humming sound of kites breathing and the faint pings from the monitors. “I’m going to move him for the autopsy. I want to look at that second breathing apparatus.”

The imam said, without looking up, “It can wait.” The harsh light of the clinic illuminated the worry creases in his thin face. “I have to know what is killing the kites. To figure it out properly, you need to be rested.” The imam traced a finger along the delicate bones that framed the one huge flap of kite skin.

“I know what killed him,” Ahmed said. “Virus. Could be a new strain of flu, could be something that jumped out of the goats or the pigs, but it’s nothing world-shattering.”

“It could be genocide.”

Ahmed forced himself to exhale slowly. Damn, did this guy ever love the word genocide. “I will know more after the autopsy. Man-made diseases can be fought just like natural ones.”

“Inshallah, Doctor. Take your time. I need to know for sure.” He looked down at his hands. “So few Muslims on this world. So few voices raised in truth, and the kites listen to ours. If only God would tell us what to do.” He stood straight and headed for the door.

Ahmed walked to the exam room, next door to the sickroom, and sat down. “Hell, damn, hell.” He reached for the flask of whiskey in his coat pocket, before he remembered that he was still on the job. He poured more water over the overused grounds in the coffee maker and watched, dazed, as it percolated.

Ahmed suspected that he had already burned through his month’s ration of coffee. This part of the planet Isach was a barren place, far from the communities clinging to arable land along the coasts. No one here but Nova Christos homesteaders, stuck on worthless land, and this community of opposites, the Muslim missionaries who came to “guide” the kites, their new converts.

Anywhere on this planet—anywhere in this sector of space—Muslims were a tiny minority. Ten years ago, when this section of the planet was opened to homesteading, there had been a rare couple of Muslims among the flood of those who wanted to make a new life on arid plains. That couple had, with one Qur’an and a little kindness to the kites, changed everything.

Now, the kites just happened to eat the cash crops the Nova Christos homesteaders depended on. So the Christians killed them like pests, and the Muslims brought them to prayers. The territorial authorities argued that the kites weren’t fully sentient, and the Islamic Confederation was mired in political games of their own.

The worst part was, he’d fallen right into this.

The Islamic Confederation paid his student loans, in exchange for service as a doctor in these colonies. Ahmed had jumped on the offer, even though he had been an atheist since he turned twelve. He had expected a backwater. He hadn’t expected a bloody religious war in the making. When was it appropriate to ask for a transfer? Second day?

The nurse walked into the exam room from the sickroom on the other side of the partition, navigating around the examination bed. Her face fell, a familiar expression of sadness. “Another one dead. Did you know his name?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t even remember yours,” Ahmed said. His hand trembled as he sucked down the watery, bitter coffee.

“I’m Adéla,” she said. “I told you twice.” She smiled weakly, as if to say she understood. “In case you missed it this time, that handsome, worried imam who just left was my husband. This last month has been hell for him.”

“This kite that just died—I’m going to do an autopsy on him,” Ahmed said. “You flash-sterilize everything?”

“Yes. I need you to look at one of the living kites…” She was staring at him, up and down, reassessing Ahmed. “In the morning, when you’re not so tired.”


“He’s unusually old. Older than the others by several years. I thought the virus would have gotten him by now, but he’s doing well, mashallah.”

“Bring him in to the exam room. Anything irregular is worth a look.”

Ahmed hadn’t seen a kite healthy enough to move around yet. Most of them lay in bed, wheezing, secreting mucus, too weak to wipe it on their skin flaps.

This one flopped into the exam room determinedly, pivoting on two tiny toes at the lower corners of his body. His head perched on a thin stick of a spine, while the rest of him could have been a draped blanket. His papery frame sagged and he clung to the wall with two little clawed fingers at the top corners of his baggy skin, then he swung his body outward and grabbed the edge of the examination table.

They really couldn’t walk, couldn’t move without a strong wind. They blew across the plains of Isach, endless flocks, living on the updrafts, mating in the sky, only coming down to eat.

He saw Ahmed and gave a hideous, sharp-toothed, mucus-coated smile that could not have been a natural expression. “Salaam alaykum,” he chirped and again, in Standard, “Friend?”

“Ibrahim, this is Dr. el-Mahy,” Adéla said in Arabic. “Ibrahim is, like his namesake, a father of many nations. Twenty-four children.”


Adéla looked from Ibrahim to Ahmed. “Are you going to answer him?” When Ahmed didn’t answer, she said. “They place a lot of stock in friends.” After a moment, she added “Also, I think it’s the only word they know in Standard.”

Ahmed reached for a syringe. “Can you tell him that I want to draw his blood?”

“He understands Arabic. Tell him yourself.”

Those little black eyes were making him shiver. Ahmed spoke his best, patchy Arabic, “This will hurt, but it will maybe heal you.”

“Naam, sadeaki.” Ibrahim tilted his head, giving Ahmed access to the flat, webbed neck that displayed a number of blue veins. Ahmed took the blood from the kite’s veins. It was a very familiar, Earthly dark red. “Thank you.”

“Friend, sadeaki, allahu akbar, inshallah.”

The little thing babbled in Arabic through the whole blood draw, clinging to the table and occasionally shaking, snapping the flaps of his body. When Ahmed withdrew the needle, he looked at Adéla and squeaked out a long, loud string of Arabic.

“What was that?” Ahmed asked.

“A joke,” she said. “Kind of. He says that his blood is a little overripe. Because he’s old.” She frowned. “Ibrahim, you are funnier when you’re not trying to be funny.”

Ahmed put the vials next to his microscope slides.

“So,” Adéla said. “I have to know—what did they tell you about this assignment?”

“Not enough,” Ahmed answered.

“Well.” That left her at a loss for words. She stroked Ibrahim’s enormous snout. The old kite muttered more in Arabic. Ahmed caught the word “jihad.” He supposed everything must look like “the struggle” right now to the kites.

“Let me take a look at your nose and ears, too, Ibrahim.” Ahmed said. “Might help.” He bent down.

Ibrahim leaned close, and his nose moved, making that peculiar deep rumbling sniff. “Friend…” Ahmed met Ibrahim’s eyes, dark, deep wells—and not so dark. Ahmed thought he saw clouds billowing across that gaze, heard a high wind—

Darkness swallowed everything.

He soared; he rose above clouds. The sun should have burned, should have blinded, but it held him, warmed him, danced around him in a graceful pattern.

The light formed words, gracefully swooping, curving words in Arabic. He could almost read them—

Darkness again.

He dreamed he was a little child, holding his mother’s hand. She showed him how to bow, how to sink to his knees, and how to get up again. “We praise God five times a day,” she whispered. “It is to remember what God has done for us.”

“What has God done for us?” Ahmed asked.

“Oh, my dear,” his mother said. She pointed above them, and Ahmed became aware that air was rushing around him, lifting him, pushing him into the air. “He taught us to fly.”

He woke cold despite the thick blanket. The tiny room, nearly filled by his bed, was bright with sunlight streaming through the dirty window.

“Allahu akbar, allahu akbar, ash-hadu alla ilaha…” The call to prayer echoed faintly through the air, magnified. Ahmed looked at the small clock on his bedstand. Thirteen-thirteen. Friday.

“Shit!” Ahmed scrambled out of bed. He was still in his scrubs. He bolted through the curtain that marked off his bed from the rest of his small house—“Ahhh!” Ahmed was too late to stop himself. He crashed into Adéla, and a much younger girl. All three of them fell to the floor. A cup of coffee spun around in the air, and came down on the younger girl, drenching her.

Ahmed grabbed the girl by her hand, pulled her up. “Are you burned? Adéla, in my bag…”

“Not burned. It was lukewarm already,” Adéla said.

The little girl wiped it out of her eyes. She was a younger version of Adéla, about thirteen. She pinched the fabric of her blue, white-fringed dress and held it away from her body…her obviously new dress, that had come in on the shipment with Ahmed. Shit.

“Well,” Adéla said. “Salaam alaykum to you too. It’s okay, Sofia.” Adéla raised her daughter up by the hand. “It’s okay.”

Ahmed opened his mouth, and shut it again. By her face, he was sure that Sofia would have gladly traded a new doctor for the new dress.

“I’ll get the stain out, habibi,” Adéla said, and exhaled. “Somehow.”

Sofia finally said, in a very small voice, “Pablo would have done something to it anyway.”

I’m so sorry. The words weren’t much, so Ahmed didn’t say them. Adéla hugged her daughter, heedless of the coffee. She had none of the haggard look of last night—she wore makeup, a soft purple hijab, nice pants, and was rather pretty in this light. “Doctor, this is Khadija Sofia, the better version of me. Sofia, this is Ahmed.”

Sofia said, “Salaam alaykum.” And then, a little more cheerfully, “Mamí thought you had dropped dead last night. We’ve been checking your vitals.” She was remarkably polite given that heartbroken stare.

Adéla added, “If I had known you were that exhausted last night, I would have sent you to bed.”

“I was about to do an autopsy, and I cut the kite and I felt—” Felt the presence of God? “What was that?”

“Ah. You too.”

“What was it?”

“I don’t know,” she said, voice a reverent whisper. “It just happens sometimes, around the kites.”

“Huh,” Ahmed said. “Maybe a pheromone or something. Subtle smells can do that.”

“Smell.” She gave him a look like he was a child that had amused her. “It just happens. There’s more coffee on the stove. Drink! I came to invite you to jumua.”

“Someone needs to be at the clinic.”

“I’ll do it,” Sofia said.

Ahmed opened his mouth to say, No, and Adéla chimed in, “This is your first jumua with us. Don’t worry. My husband hates long sermons.”

“All sermons are long,” Ahmed said, and a moment later, cursed himself for being obvious. They’d said it in the briefings. You will compose yourself as a true, faithful Muslim in all things. We will check the reports to ensure you are good representatives of your faith.

“All right, if that’s how you feel.” She laughed and went toward the door.

“No, I’ll come. Just let me clean up.” On a Nova Christos world it wouldn’t be enough to avoid pork, booze, and loose women; they wanted a Qur’an-quoting, happy member of the ummah, who would help resolve disputes and argue the meaning of scripture.


She and Sofia went out the door. Ahmed changed into the pants, shirt, and jacket he’d packed out. He reached into the crumpled lab coat and grabbed the flask of whiskey, splashed a bit of it into a fresh cup of coffee and gulped the mixture with a deep, satisfied sigh.

He stepped outside. The hot, dry air of Isach blasted his face.

A few rugged, bare hills lay on the far horizon to Ahmed’s left. In the other direction, flatland stretched to infinity, marked by red scrubby grass. A brown river ran through the vista, dotted with small, white-barked trees. Corrugated metal buildings clustered on the cleared land around them. A field of corn waved in the wind, the only patch of green against the red and brown.

It was an especially godforsaken place to inspire so much debate about the guy.

Kites rose out of the cornfield, sweeping up toward the sky, like playing cards flying into the air from a child’s hand. Black squares, one after another, lost in the blue.

“They eat the bugs in our crops, and in return, we feed them,” Adéla said.

“Handy,” Ahmed said. “Can’t the homesteaders make the same deal?”

“The homesteaders aren’t getting resupply every six months. That’s a big risk to take on a cash crop.”

“They must be able to live with the kites. You’ve found a way.”

“We have the Islamic Confederation to bail us out when things go wrong, Doctor, and believe me, things go wrong. Everyone else within a thousand miles is a former asteroid miner who made just enough money to buy a patch of a real sky and real earth. One bad harvest, and…” She sighed. “I don’t know that it will matter for much longer.”

“Why do you say that?”

She raised a hand, motioning to the kites in the field. “Just two months ago, when a flock roosted here, they looked like a carpet. They would cling to the ground and the wind would lift them like tents. For miles, covering the hills and the plains.”

Ahmed put fingers to his temples. “I need to find a way around—that thing. What happens around them. I can’t afford to lose it in the middle of a procedure again.”

“Odd, that. It doesn’t happen to everyone. I can feel it, but my husband feels nothing around the kites.” She adjusted the hijab over her head, which was threatening to unfurl in the wind.

“Pheromones,” Ahmed said.

She gave a groan. “Allah, I see that you have brought me another man who knows everything.”

“I’m sorry,” Ahmed said.

“Well, mashallah. He knows how to apologize.” She gave him a broad smile. “I am only giving you a hard time. You are the doctor.”

She was a bit guarded. He hated that. “Yes, well, if something is important, I want you just to say it. Don’t worry what I will think. I need your help, and I appreciate the good nursing.” He added, “I apologize again if I devalued your opinion.”

She actually blushed. “I…well thank you.”

“Say exactly what you’re thinking.” Even if it was religious nonsense, it didn’t pay to ignore a nurse.

The mosque was one of the only buildings in the settlement that had no artificial elements. Light stone the color of the distant hills was chinked with brown, clay-ridden concrete. It was a perfect octagon, washed out by the brilliant sun, and a smaller octagon at the center of the roof made up the minaret. Over the roar of the wind, the call to prayer sounded, lyrical and soft.

Inside the mosque, homespun wool prayer rugs covered the swept-dirt floor, and woven grass hanging proclaimed Qur’anic verses in swooping black Arabic. The riches of the mosque were a sharp contrast to the poor colony outside. Ahmed supposed that the only mosque on the continent, maybe the whole planet, had some kind of duty to impress.

People recognized him even before Ahmed removed his shoes. A thin, bearded man stood up and grasped Ahmed’s hand, and several of his compatriots followed. “Salaam alaykum, Doctor. It is so good to have you here. Rahman was saying how much he wished we’d had a better doctor a few months ago.”

“Why months ago?”

“We found an entire tribe with holes torn through their bodies. Very sad.”

The man identified as Rahman grasped Ahmed’s hand. “Lucky they didn’t live long.”

Another man grasped his hand. “God has surely sent you here.” His eyes glistened. “We were taking kites with us on hajj next year, all the way to Earth. And now those who were to go are dead, all in the last month. This virus is a part of the war, you can be sure. We will see some justice in time, inshallah.”

“Sorry.” Ahmed pulled away and excused himself to a basin for ablutions, washing himself as much to keep people away as to keep up appearances. When he was done, Ahmed pulled a prayer rug from the wall, rolled it out, and sat, trying not to show his irritation. He noticed Adéla doing the same, in the back of the mosque with the women. It felt wrong. He wanted nothing more than to throw down the rug and run. There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. And you’re all goddamn nuts.

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Shape Without Form, Shade Without Color

By Sunny Moraine

Haunted by starlings in the dark, a young woman spirals into an altered state of consciousness.

Starlings whisper from the bamboo.

Sometimes sense emerges. It’s nothing but pattern recognition run amok, nothing but old instinct performing where it’s no longer needed, but the experience is pleasurable. If you stand in the driveway at dusk and remain silent, let it settle around you like a gray blanket, then make a single small movement, the sound explodes. They are easily startled. More, they hiss warnings to each other with their wings. They too are governed by instinct. When they come they mark the last days of fall and the first of winter. They do not arrive but with the cold; they bring the chill with them, clinging to their feathers.

They whisper. It’s been like this since we moved in, since the words started flowing again. This house at the far end of the long drive, overshadowed by an entire ecosystem that lost its balance decades ago. It’s full of shadows. I stand beside the car and listen to them as they rustle and flutter and in the end grow still again. I say grow because it’s not an absence of sound but the presence of quiet. It’s a thing in itself, and it swells, blooms like a flower in the dark, feeding on cold night. Stand for a while until the chill becomes too much and overpowers a jacket that’s now too light for the temperature. Inside, into a warm house, but as the door shuts they explode again.

They’re whispering. It’s a single voice made of many. There’s something wistful in it, something heavy with desire. It might be a reflection of one’s own feelings, because this time of year is one of transition and transition always carries a sense of yearning, an ache. One is homeless. One migrates. This is the sound of liminality, and very few of us are comfortable with the liminal.

There are songs of boundary conditions. I stand in the doorway, close my eyes, think about crashing waves and the loneliness of a shoreline. I have been here before. This is a piece of something I was given at birth, at the moment between moments, and will never lose.

But I go in to him, despite the presence of a gentle tugging, a pull back through the door and into the dark. I go in to him, because he’s always been there, patient and generous with both time and space, and because when I can’t remember he does so for us both. He helped me get this far, and whatever the starlings whisper, I do believe he’ll lead me on.

So small in the corn. Late summer, and it’s tall and green. This is a dream of running, this is a dream of fear that creeps up from nowhere, fear of an old nightmare. Begin to run and feel it rise; the sense that there’s something from which to run comes with the act of running. The corn whispers, its leaves stroke your cheeks. You remember this, even if you’ve forgotten you do. There are footsteps behind you, corn husks and dry hay. This was meant to be fun. So many things are meant to be fun when one is small and instead become sources of terror.

The world is wrong when you’re this small. Everything is oversized and strangely shaped. The corn towers and breaks up a sky thrown into sunset reds and golds. You both love and dread the fall. Later you’ll understand this as the adoration of a mad god and you’ll understand how one could fall into that kind of worship. You’ll take it with you and make use of it, and you’ll believe—in the hubris of age—that you can leave the rest of it behind. You can tell these stories and you won’t have to be afraid of why.

Stories of a corn maiden. Her would-be lover, will-be captor blows ice into the world.

These rules only apply in the twilight and after. The truth—one of the rules—is that the starlings are never actually seen. I know they’re there only by the sound. I can’t even say, with any real degree of certainty, that in the dark they still are starlings. I believe in the way that we believe anything when we don’t actually see it—I draw conclusions from the little I do know, and when the conclusions are sensible, or appear to be, I hold to them. But I don’t know, and I have never gone into the bamboo thickets, looking for them. The bamboo is their territory, and I am not convinced, in the face of hundreds of claws, wings, beaks, that I would be welcome.

It’s not that I think they would be easily startled. I don’t think that. That’s not why they burst into sound to answer my own sole-author noises. This, also, I do not know. But I draw conclusions.

Tonight I stand by the car, in the dark, and I don’t go inside to where he waits. I’m late; he might wonder, but now the tugging is stronger than my desire to avoid it, and there is something about inside that seems no safer. I look. I think again of pattern recognition, of the lies it generates, and I think also of certain truths. I look into the shadows and I see deeper shadows, the outlines of shapes and the faint suggestions of a kind of solidity. I see something move that contains things that move. I see a form outlined, and I begin to make out its aspects. Something seizes me, shivers down my legs into my feet, and the whispering of the starlings slips its way into coherence. My hands are bloodless, aching even as the sensation fades.

Run. Run.

If I ran, I would want to run faster. I suck in a breath and I turn toward the house. I won’t run. Eyes are the pressure of hundreds of tiny fingertips, moving over me. I won’t run.

There were always shapes in the dark, little girl. You forgot your own monsters but they’re still waiting. Listen: They’re calling. They’re lonely. You ran, and running was love, the rhythm of your feet and heart; your running was a song. We showed ourselves to you. It was all we ever wanted. Your heart in your throat but no further; we didn’t want to take it from you. We come back to you now, with the cold and the dark. Won’t you come to us?

We were waiting for you in the corn. Every year we were waiting, to play.

Anyone who says they aren’t afraid of the dark is lying. I truly believe this.

I have trouble sleeping. The pills for that are helping less than they used to. I talk about it later, trying to make people understand: My head is full of voices, all vying for attention. The dark clears away everything that surrounds them during the daylight hours and they rush forward, beating at me. Sitting at the kitchen table in the sunlight, coffee, trying to explain. He sits across from me, listening. I think. I say, It’s always been easy for you; you never have to try. Lying beside him at night, consumed with jealousy. I can’t sleep. The voices are so loud.

They turn my head, like hands framing my face, to look at him. My hands are shaking, clenched fists. Here is what they’ve said, what they say now: You could kill him, cut his throat. Cut it to the bone. Go to the kitchen, get a knife, do it. It wouldn’t be that difficult. He would never see it coming. By the time he was awake enough to stop you it would be too late.

I don’t want to. It chokes me. I turn away, get up, look for light. But I think, sitting at the kitchen table and listening to the whisper of the starlings, that it’s a great wonder that there isn’t more murder in the world. All these thoughts, waiting in the shadows, solidifying into facts. Those people you sleep beside: Do you realize how much trust that is? How much you trust them? It would be so easy. I don’t know why every bedroom wall isn’t painted with blood.

In the woods, you always moderated your pace. You knew what would happen if you failed. We watched you from the branches. We loved you so. All of us, our waving and undulating selves, extruded from your temporal lobe, emerging from your head like steam. We sprang from you fully formed, and we found better-defined forms of those forms. We became and it was all because of you. Don’t you see? We loved you like a god. We watched you, came to you in the night, plucked at your blankets and prayed for your gifts. We never could make you scream; it would have been a feast. We gave you so much in spite of that. We never asked for much.

Stand in the dark and we’ll wind ourselves around your hands and seep, like water, into your skin, and our long journey back to you will be ended.

I remember the worst of that early terror was that I would open my eyes in the dark and see a face very close to mine. Inches. Its appearance changed but the greatest part of it was the suddenness, the closeness. In my nightmares things moved in ways they shouldn’t. Stilted, jerking, too fast. People were like broken marionettes. I used to wake when he shook me, and after nights of waking came the doctor and the pills, and him holding me in the dark, whispering, You’re safe, you’re safe, I’m here. For a while things were better. Now, beside him, I lie awake and stare at the open bedroom door. It’s like a wall of dark, and I feel certain that any moment something might emerge. Something might be there, and then I would blink and it would be next to me. It would be staring at me. I shut my eyes. Open them. Nothing is there.

The window is slightly open, admitting the cold. I hear the starlings whisper. Don’t you love us? Don’t you want us anymore?

Well, don’t you? Don’t you remember how alive we made you feel? Don’t you remember that?

I call up a friend of mine and we have coffee. She says, I haven’t seen you in weeks, what’s going on with you? I shake my head and stare down at the wood grain, the spoon, a drop of bland pumpkin spice trickling down the cup’s side. There are a lot of things I could say. That I’m swinging wildly back and forth between not writing at all and writing thousands of words in a sitting, none of which make any sense when I read them later. That I haven’t slept in almost a week. Or it feels like I haven’t. That I slip in and out of something somehow more and less than a doze, and I don’t like the dreams I’m having. I’m not certain they’re dreams.

I could say that I think I’m haunted. I think something found me.

Just unpacking, I say. The place is indeed full of boxes. The walls are bare. Sometimes I imagine building a cardboard fort, something to hide in.

You both doing okay? Managing?

I know without needing clarification that she’s asking about something very specific, which she’s far too tactful to mention, and suddenly I regret this plan of action. I nod.

Well, you look kind of awful. We should have you over. Both of you.

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This World Is Full of Monsters

By Jeff VanderMeer

An alien invasion comes to one man’s doorstep in the form of a story-creature, followed by death and rebirth in a transformed Earth.

I Did Not Recognize What Sought Me

The story that meant the end arrived late one night. A tiny story, covered in green fur or lichen, shaky on its legs. It fit in the palm of my hand. I stared at the story for a long time, trying to understand. The story had large eyes that could see in the dark, and sharp teeth. It purred, and the purr grew louder and louder: a beautiful flower bud opening and opening until I was filled up. I heard the thrush and pull of the darkness, grown so mighty inside my head.

I grew weary.

I grew weary and I fell asleep on the couch holding the story, wondering what it might be and who had delivered it to me. But there was no time left for wonder. As I slept, the story gnawed its way into my belly and then the story crawled up through my body into my head. When I woke, gasping my resistance, the story made me stumble out the door of my house and lurch through the dark down my street, giddy and disoriented, muttering, “Do not stop me. Do not stop me. Story made me this way. Story made me this way.”

I felt a compulsion to turn to the left, and then to turn to the left again. Until the story made me stop at the end of the block, where the last fence meets a forest. By now I knew that the story wasn’t a story at all. It had just made me think it was a story so it could invade my brain.

And while I stood there in the shadows of the moonless night, beyond the street lamps, beyond the circling moths and with the nighthawks gliding silent overhead…while I stood there and pleaded, the story-creature sprouted out of the top of my skull in a riot of wildflowers, goldenrod, and coarse weeds.

The explosion smashed through me. I screamed out, but the story-creature clamped down on my throat and the scream turned into a dribble of whispered nonsense rhymes in a code that crawled across my skin and inside my mouth. My head itched and there was an uncomfortable weight so my balance was off. But somehow it felt right.

Even the midnight bumblebees circling my head like a halo felt right, or the things like bumblebees that had erupted from my skin, my mouth.

There were so many things I had already begun to forget.

How This Came to Be and What Came Next

I am a writer…I was a writer. It is easy to fool a writer into thinking a creature is a story. The doorbell had rung earlier. When I had opened the door, a bulky little envelope lay on the welcome mat, under the glow of the porch light. When I opened it, a booklet crawled out onto the kitchen table. The booklet smelled like moist banana bread. It was filled with strange words, but somehow I understood that language. I read the booklet from cover to cover like it was a wonderful meal and I was a starving man. I devoured every word.

I had read a story. I was sure of it, even though I couldn’t remember what the story had been about. Nor could I recall who else had been with me in the house, except that there were two of them and they had become mere shadows on the wall.

Now, by the fence, the wildflowers and goldenrod and the weeds twined together and became something else and roots splayed out into me, and atop my head grew a sapling. My balance was terrible—I had to hold the sapling with both hands because I knew that if the sapling snapped it would kill me. But soon the weight would be unsupportable. Soon I would be beyond repair.

The story-creature that had sprouted from my head was restless and had tasks to accomplish. So I plunged deep into the forest in the dark of night, raging across the paths there, smashing into trees, backtracking, unable to know where I was or trying to wrest control from the thing that wanted to control me. But soon I adhered to paths despite myself. Soon I cohered and came to know balance and lifted my hands from the atrocity jutting from my crown. Soon I walked smooth and slow and no root tripped me and no false trail fooled me. I could see in the dark by then, or It could, and what, really, by then was the difference?

By dawn and the calls of birds, I recognized, through the grayness, the side of a hill and a clearing and there I turned once more to the left and pitched face-first into the grass and dirt and crawling beetles. The story-creature’s roots plunged greedily through my brain and through my soft palate and through my lower jaw, seeking the soil. While above me the swaying sapling had become a young tree. Or had taken on the appearance of a tree. It could never have been a tree.

I lay there, face-planted, with some thing growing through me and I let It soak up inspiration from the earth and from the air and from the new sun. I was awash in dreams of chlorophyll and photosynthesis…

We lay like that for a long time until the story-creature had used all of me It needed. Then It withdrew, and cared not how harsh that might be, for even in that short time I had become dependent, and the retreat was like screaming against an addiction. A hole had been left behind and my consciousness ached and jumped through the hole again and again like it led to hell or to nothing, and all my atoms frayed at the edges or spread out wide, or seemed to, and I did not know if I was dead-alive or just dead.

My left leg was a withered thing now, a wet pant leg wrung out to dry, and my left arm I left in the soil—it broke off when I tried to rise, and the stump refused to bleed but after the snap became just like an old rotting tree branch. I think I carried it around with me, waving it around with my other arm, like something demented and foolish and out of date.

I was in the world but I was not in the world, endless and numb yet in agony.

I was shooting through an empty sky with the stars all fallen to the ground, and every star cut whatever it touched, including me, and all the stars that fell touched me.

I could not stop reaching out to make contact even though it made so little difference to my fate.

I Did Not Wake for One Hundred Years

I did not wake for one hundred years. This was truth.

This is the truth.

When I woke, a century had passed and the hillside had folded in itself and become overgrown with vines and the story-creature appeared to have long left and perhaps passed on its message to others and now beyond the hill lay a vast and unyielding desert and facing me on the fertile side, my withered leg pointing at it, was a waterhole from which drank any number of disquieting animals. They held shapes my eyes did not want to recognize although some held no real shape at all, but I knew they were other story-creatures and had spread more than one story.

Some I could only see out of the corner of my eye. Others had the right number of legs but no symmetry and trailed across the ground at odd angles, drawing deep lines in the mud. They snorfled and snuffled and grunted at the waterhole. They fought and died there, too, raising tusks and claws and fangs, and turned the edge of the water to a bloody froth…only to come back to life and forget a moment later their conflict.

The sun above seemed strange, as if it came to me through a filter, but I found that my eyes had a film over them that created a slight orange tint. I did not know how it came to be there, but it seemed protective or at least not unfriendly.

With help from a dead tree branch I could hobble along, and I made my way past the waterhole into the remnants of the forest, back into my neighborhood. Overhead the things that flew should not have been able to fly, for they did not really have wings; they just had the suggestion of wings, like some careless creator had not drawn them in right. My mind made them into insects, because my mind wanted stories it could understand, stories that would not frighten it. But still I knew my mind was tricking me, and for a second I loved my mind for the deception.

My old street, which I felt I had left just hours before, lay in ruins. The pavement had not just cracked but become so overgrown it had no agency, left hardly any impression and my memory had to place it there—along with street lamps that now were just nubs of concrete columns that stood little higher than a foot tall. Among the houses of my neighborhood all roofs had been staved in and few walls remained and even of foundations there were only a handful in evidence.

One of those belonged to my home, and because I had had a basement, that is where I retreated to. I slid with relief into that space, which was flood damaged and filled with debris and overgrown with grass and vines and much worse things but still provided shelter. I slid into that space on the strength in one arm and one leg and I stared up at the sky until the things that must be messages but were also creatures curling through the air, written there and then dispersed, tormented me too much.

I dug into the dirt and grime, bereft. I dug there searching for my past, for something that had once curled around my wrist, for people that I had known but now existed like a reflection in murky water. Why were they no longer there? How could I no longer know them? Their rooms had been there. Their lives had been here. And were no longer.

“It was just a story,” I croaked, and lapped from a dirty pool of water I was so thirsty.

This was a mistake because in that water were still more fragments of story like the one that had been left in an envelope on my doorstep. Phrases and words that were neither phrases nor words absorbed into me and changed me even more, so that my withered leg became a kind of thick, flat tail and of my two eyes nothing remained but in their place were several eyes, but only one of them could see in the regular way and the others looked across the sedimentary layers before me in that basement and saw the past and all the changes that had been wrought, and because I could not accept the mighty judgment and wrath of that, for a time I rebelled and I shut all of my eyes but the regular one.

Thus I squinted at the world that it might look more like the regular world, the one in which I had been a writer and not believed in God and lived alone in a house writing and thinking that being written meant one thing when it meant so many other things as well.

My World Was Irretrievable

The world as it had become held a strangeness too vast for me to understand. I could only comprehend the space mapped by the edges of the basement and so I lay there, hungry and thirsty, for three days and three nights and watched the passage of time as would a rock or a scorpion or a blade of grass. The clouds were curious and not as I remembered and they did not form shapes that I could recognize but shapes I didn’t recognize that were still recognizable as something, even if that something was beyond me.

This troubled me greatly, more than most of my situation, and the way too that the clouds seemed to be something now, that they were looking down at me and that they saw me. I did not like this, and this fact was how I came to know that the past was irretrievable. For some part of me had thought, perhaps, that all I saw might be undone, be unraveled. That I might recover my true sight and my old home and go back to when the story creature lay in an envelope on my porch and that if only I never brought it inside all of the new-terrible would go away, be put back in some kind of box, perhaps even into my brain.

But it could not be put back.

What Happened As I Lay in My Basement

After three days and nights, I sensed the approach of unlikely kin, although the sound of Its passage was unfamiliar. But still, the story-creature that had sprouted from my head, now a century older, leaned in to look down upon me and unfolded Itself before me and in all ways and throughout all times looked down upon me and unfolded Itself before me and kept unfolding and I could not stop It from doing so.

Even though I wanted to so badly.

Even though I would have given anything for the story-creature to go away or to stop doing what It was doing, because I had lost so much already and this new world could not replace that.

But still the story-creature revealed Itself to me, until I understood that now It covered every surface, every space, and even though I thought I had been alone down in the basement among the rat-things and the other things I wanted very much to be rats and weren’t…I had not been alone. The story-creature had always been there, silent beside me, breathing beneath me, waiting for me to wake to its presence, to understand where I really was. But I would never understand. How could I? I had not understood the story to begin with.

When the story-creature knew, when I revealed to It by my demeanor how much I did not understand, the story-creature made a sound like the wind through branches, although the wind through the new branches I had woken to sounded more like a throaty scream being choked off. So this was a sound like the old wind, a lullaby about the ancient times to soothe whatever swarmed and seethed within me, although that was not the problem. Not really. The story-creature bent low and protruded and, there entered into the basement, sack-like, still attached to the story-creature…another me.

I opened my mouth to shriek at the sight, but the sound came out of the mouth of the other me. A me that had been rewritten, so that it resembled me in some ways, down to the wrong eyes and the tail for a leg, but different in others, so that to look at this other me made me feel nausea and claustrophobia until my adjustment.

Unlike me all of its eyes were open—and they saw…so much. So much more than me. Except now those of my eyes that were closed saw what its eyes saw and I fell to the basement floor, unable to process so many incoming images and feelings.

For so long after, I came to understand, I would spend my days listening to part of my own story issue forth from the mouth of another, and still not understand all of that story.

I Began to Have a Brother I Did Not Want

I had not been much part of the story of the world before my awakening and before the creature assigned myself to me. The story-creature told me I had lived alone. I had written alone. I had done odd jobs and been out of the house when I needed to be somewhere else. I had a car and I had a big wooded backyard and I listened to music and I complained about things like everyone else. I believe I talked to the neighbors just enough and I would go over to their houses for dinner on holidays, although I did not invite them over to our house. Others had lived in the house with me, though, stains upon the wall now, lost in the foundations, overtaken by the story-creature’s tale.

I knew only that I had killed people and buried them in my backyard. Bad people. People who needed to be ended. This is how I created my fictions.

I killed them by writing stories about them in which they died and taking the stories and crumpling up the pages. Then I would take a shovel and dig a hole and shove the pages in and cover them up with dirt. Then I would say a few words about their souls and refill the bird feeder or rake the leaves. Sometimes the people died in life and not just on the page. Sometimes they didn’t. But always after I buried the pages, my writing would be enriched.

I didn’t mind being eccentric in these ways. I didn’t mind not having a brother or having parents that I could not remember, and now a century, like I did not mind many things. But I minded having been given a brother by the story-creature. It might seem like a small thing in a way, since I had been asleep so long and lived in the basement of the foundations of a house that had rotted away decades ago.

It might seem like a tiny thing given the world had been colonized by the story-creature and its brethren and even the sun and the clouds had become so strange. But it was a large thing to me. My brother who was me stared at me and I became the receptor for so much that was alien to me. I would lurch to my feet and run around the basement because my brother willed it, while in my head I would see from my brother’s eyes some memory in which he had had to run. Or I would sit quiet as he had sat quiet or I would weep and it was because of some time he had wept. Until finally I realized he was downloading another story into my brain, his story, and soon enough I knew that while I had slept I had been copied and that my brother was almost a century old and been awake that whole time and now I was to become as like him as possible—and then I raged. I raged and smashed my skull against hard things because I did not want to know about the last hundred years or to be filled up with what might make me not myself. Or too much myself.

If I had still been able, I would have written a story about my brother dying and buried it in the backyard.

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