Apex Magazine http://www.apex-magazine.com A magazine of science Fiction, fantasy, and horror Fri, 05 Feb 2016 14:00:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Calabash http://www.apex-magazine.com/calabash/ http://www.apex-magazine.com/calabash/#respond Fri, 05 Feb 2016 14:00:23 +0000 http://www.apex-magazine.com/?p=10952 It breathes midnight—
the shape of her hips
is the body of a sitar
notes that thrust
notes that drone,
that wash away breath.

The shape of her hips
a hand grenade
washing her explosive
mouth, the mouth
of the winnisimmet—
flowing, chasing rabbits

Through muck and salt
and salty clams.
Fevers walk their edges
tiptoeing to a house
painted by thought.
The house takes off

His hat, erases his
red soil, beckoning.
Beckoning.
Melted wax of the sun
if the sun was Icarus
or two ovaries.

A calabash pipe sits
in a room all alone.
Mother-of-pearl inlay
adorns its stem
stem adorns her lips
she pulls hard

at smoke,
rich and thick
her lungs are smiles.
A C string resonates
inside her gourds
her white flowers
Her white smoke

Her white blood cells.
She switched
her babies over
to compassionate care
that evening, holding

Them when they went
peacefully back to
the source of everything.
Her hips a calabash.
Her hips a hand grenade.
Washing utensils—

Calabash cups, bowls,
and basins, ital lifestyle
let the moons eat
this salt, Carribbea,
stars in the sea.
We wither,

We ashes,
we new fishes
even your touch
is alive, your tongue
a conduit, insulator,
conductor.

It spills midnight
through the sky’s
panes of glass.
Trace mandarin
oranges with it—
a surfeit.

Calabashes
Calabasas
Caligula
use for cleaning rice,
carrying water,
bowls for palm wine

And yerba tea
and pennyroyal
steeping
in mason jars
steeping
with mason bees.

Mike Jewett is editor and publisher of Boston Poetry Magazine. His poetry has been compared to, among others, Andrew Wyeth, Van Gogh, Richard Brautigan, Galway Kinnell, and Dylan Thomas. When he was a wee lad he was featured on poetry.com. By day, he is a web developer.
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Interview with Author Benjanun Sriduangkaew http://www.apex-magazine.com/interview-with-author-benjanun-sriduangkaew/ http://www.apex-magazine.com/interview-with-author-benjanun-sriduangkaew/#respond Wed, 03 Feb 2016 16:01:09 +0000 http://www.apex-magazine.com/?p=10947 I first read Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s short fiction in a Clockwork Phoenix anthology, and it was love at first read. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was reading something new, a fresh writing style that no one else was doing. Although peppered with futuristic sounding words, reading “The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly” it was like getting immersed in the smell and memories of my favorite comfort foods. Unapologetic and avant-garde, her writing blends lustrous beauty and edgy technology, in environs that can be dreamlike, militant, and intimate; and often all of them at the same time. It’s happened a few times now, that I’ve thought about purchasing an anthology, and only decided to buy the book because her name was in the table of contents. If you’ve enjoyed novels from N.K. Jemisin or Kameron Hurley, Benjanun Sriduangkaew is right up your alley.

You can see where it all started with her intensely imaginative “Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods” that was published at The Future Fire (and can also be found in The Apex Book of World SF: Volume 3) and would garner her a 2014 Campbell nomination. Since “Courtship” debuted, her work has been featured at Expanded Horizons, GigaNotaSaurus, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Mythic Delirium, Tor.com, and in the Clockwork Phoenix, Steampunk World, Meeting Infinity, Phantasm Japan, and She Walks in Shadows anthologies, among many others. Her novella Scale-Bright, the final chapter in her series of mythology retellings, was nominated for a BSFA award. I highly recommend Niall Alexander’s columns at Tor.com about Scale-Bright and the associated stories.

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If this issue of Apex Magazine is your first experience with Sriduangkaew’s writing, you’re in for a treat with “The Beast at the End of Time.” At first, the story felt a little like Valente’s “Silently and Very Fast,” albeit written in a very different key signature. Nabaat wakes up in a world that should be thriving, if her instructions had been followed to the letter. But this world is dying — programs haven’t been followed, requests weren’t answered, something went horribly wrong and the world’s denizens began sacrificing themselves in an attempt to find a solution. But now that Nabaat is awake, she can fix everything, right? Because fixing the broken things is her job, that’s the reason she’s awake, right? Depends on your definition of the word “fix.” Benjanun was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the genesis of the story, tricky POV switches, her writing style, and other short fiction authors she recommends.

Apex Magazine: Early in “The Beast at the end of Time,” you use a smart method to change the narrative from third person POV to first person. Why not present the entire story in either 3rd or 1st? Why the decision to switch POVs at certain points?

Benjanun Sriduangkaew: I love experimenting with points of view — I’ve written a story that was partly in second person and partly in third, and I like to joke that someday I’ll do one that does all three. Here in particular I think the switch helps illustrate Nabaat’s success in compartmentalizing herself, in creating a second self. Some distance is required and, in text, that move back and forth between third to first person feels to me like a natural choice.

AM: The story is ultimately about Nabaat, but I was completely fascinated by Enmaten and what her family went through. Can you tell us a little about the creation and genesis of these characters?

BS: I was slightly tempted to give Enmaten her own viewpoint, but felt that’d make the story too long for the short story format. Needless to say she’s led a demanding life (as has Nabaat, to be fair, but they have responded to harshness differently). Enmaten’s motive is partly to avenge her family, partly to heal the world as best she can, and most of all to survive. In those ways she’s the opposite of Nabaat. I also ended up unconsciously writing this story as a take on Beauty and the Beast; despite Nabaat’s nickname, both she and Enmaten variously fulfill both the roles of Beauty and Beast respectively, at different points.

AM: Nabaat wakes up to a world whose coding has eroded over so many iterations. Perhaps eroding is the wrong term, but something in the code changed, and it’s caused unexpected and irreversible consequences that become tragic for the world’s remaining denizens. Many of your science fiction stories include references to computer coding, futuristic technology, the melding of people and machine, and the like. Is there any particular research that you’ve done (or real world experiences) to develop the technological terminologies you employ in your writing?

BS: I’ve done my share of dabbling, and the interaction between tech and everyday life has been a longtime interest for me. We trust the tech we use easily but their origins are sometimes unsavory (created for use in war, for example) or part of malicious/oppressive systems. We shy away from understanding these tools at our own peril, so to speak.

AM: Many of your stories feature two (or more) characters who often come from different backgrounds but realize they have a common goal. “The Beast at the End of Time” goes in a different direction entirely, with Nabaat having a very different goal than those around her, and I happily admit the end of the story was a surprise for me. Why does Nabaat want this particular ending?

BS: She is a nihilist who believes that humanity is destined to end. I expect — though I haven’t built up extensive background for her — that she’s lived a less-than-easy life; before she went into suspension, she’d achieved considerable fame and power but it didn’t change her outlook that humankind is essentially unfixable. When hope is lost, all that remains is a finale and because (like most people) she’s narrative-minded, she wants an ending that is beautiful and total. Nabaat in particular is a character I intentionally wrote as having a role that’s usually not given to female characters, a genius and unapologetic in her monstrosity.

AM: I first discovered your work in one of Mike Allen’s Clockwork Phoenix anthologies. “The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly” brimmed with pearlescent metaphors, unearthly technology, and emotive characters that were a hybrid of animal, insect, and metal, feeling like the most perfect blend of science fiction, fantasy, and engineering. After that, I was constantly on the lookout for more of your work, being rewarded time and time again with gorgeous prose, sentient spaceships, reinvented mythologies, and character’s journeys that spoke to me. I’m often recommending your work to others, yet I struggle to describe your style. So I put the question to you: For readers new to your work, how would you describe your writing style?

BS: Ha — this is a difficult one! I’ve written a fairly big range, I think, of subjects and themes but I often come back to memory, identity, power. I want to say my writing is ruthless, though that mightn’t make a lot of sense to new readers. Maybe I can say that my style is intense?

AM: I’ve enjoyed so many of your short stories and novellas over the years, do you have any plans to write a full length novel, or do more books similar to Scale-Bright that bring together a number of connected short stories?

BS: I’m absolutely doing more novellas! It’s a very natural length for me, and a superbly attractive format. Not too long, not too short, room enough to develop and flesh things out but still a form that allows for a lot of experimentation (versus a novel, which tends to ‘have’ to be commercial). What I have got in mind right now would be entirely new things rather than bringing together short stories. (I dream of completing and publishing a novella every year, but it turns out writing longer-form is a bigger challenge than I thought! Scale-Bright went by really fast — it took me a couple months, not counting edits and revisions — but that was an exception.)

AM: What trends in speculative fiction would you like to see gain more popularity in the next few years?

BS: Hm, that’s hard to say, but I’d love to see more writing that’s unconventional. Think Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique or Kuzhali Manickavel’s fiction. Not a trend, but I’d still like to see more of: #ownvoices. That is to say, greater representation in fiction by authors from those backgrounds (writers of color writing characters of color, and so on).

AM: As a writer of short fiction, I’m sure you read a lot of short fiction as well. What authors (of short or long form fiction) do you recommend?

BS: For novels, my recommendations are Helen Oyeyemi, Nina Allan, and Chimamanda Adichie; for short fiction, Vajra Chandrasekera, Pear Nuallak, and Rahul Kanakia have published fiction in 2015 that really worked for me. They are all different writers, with vastly varied styles, but they have in common a willingness and strength to challenge, subvert, and create work that repudiates hegemonic pressure. (I also enjoy Chandrasekera’s and Allan’s criticism; they are both passionate, incisive readers.)

Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. If she’s not walking around her day job with a coffee mug in hand, then she’s at home with a book in one hand and a craft beer in the other. She can be found online at her book review blog Little Red Reviewer and on Twitter, where her handle is @redhead5318. You wouldn’t know it from this bio, but Andrea is a very goofy person.
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The Beast at the End of Time http://www.apex-magazine.com/the-beast-at-the-end-of-time/ http://www.apex-magazine.com/the-beast-at-the-end-of-time/#respond Tue, 02 Feb 2016 14:01:10 +0000 http://www.apex-magazine.com/?p=10925 4,000 Words

As the world marches toward the guillotine of its finale, the sleeping beast shakes loose the slats of its painted unthought and licks the tang of dénouement from its fangs. It stirs upright on trembling ligaments, clad in starvation and rust.

“You are not here,” a calm voice which mimics the beast’s speaks in its skull. “You died a long time ago.” An existentialist voice, it thinks as it tests the strength of its sinews, the curve and length of its legs.

“You’ll understand nothing,” the voice goes on. “This is not your place and you will die again, returning to sand and grass.”

The beast totters and falls to its knees. The catenary of its spine warps and its mouth opens, stretching to the limit of its hinge.

It vomits. A catalogue of its regurgitation: half a meter of soft wire, seven silicone molars, one-fourth liter of fluids—acid, blood, mucus. And a single hexagonal chip, data-bright and laden with age.

The beast’s skull-voice slows and stutters, then goes silent entirely.

§

The beast sips (I sip) knowledge from the remains of the chip. Raw data remains inside its (my) mouth, on my gums like the detritus of a meal, but I haven’t eaten for a long time. Recollection (hers?) of food kicks up in spumes, tamarind paste and egg, sleek pork laid out against coils of rice noodle. Sour. Hot. My palate stings at the pinpricks of memory.

There are ports in my flanks and calves, leashed to nodes that tremble like loose teeth in the stone. Delicately, I unplug each, unmooring myself. I expected shackles; I expected resistance. Instead I step free with ease, a dry rasp of corroded jewelry falling from my shoulders, desiccated hairpins from my shorn scalp. Sockets in my ribs and shins gush one last mouthful of fluids, purging. I skim my fingers down between my breasts, along the ladder of my bones. I’m all rungs, only I lead nowhere and no one will come to climb. In this climate, there is only descent.

The horizon is distant, the sun a needlepoint in the sky’s burial shroud. Stars are absent. The remnant of my chip tells me this dissolving place is humanity’s last shelter and that I’m its last failsafe.

This piece of information snags. My voice, which until now meant to emerge, shrinks in panic. The rest of me strides on, bare-footed, under lycoris lilies that surround the chamber of my waking, rising tall and pitiless overhead. Bulbuls perch on their stamens, beaks sewn shut. The wind is thick with dust and machine appetite.

When I look down again, a lynx is circling me. Its pelt gleams pearl-gray, its eyes scintillant with live circuits. Old habit guides me to peck at the weave of its heuristics, intricate gossamer code as visible to me as the flowers and the birds, as tangible as my own feet. In this way I remember myself: what I was, what I did, what I can do. I unearth my voice from the mud of its fear; so much of me is animal froth, mindless terror unconnected to intellect. “Lead me.” My words flow, liquid rather than the parched rasp I expected. Once there was a girl who loved my voice, called it silk and enamel; she’d love it still if she were alive now.

The lynx lowers its head. Turns, and obeys.

Despite everything, this is not a world in ruin. The buildings that rise before me, choking the streets like a vise: all new, new. Freshly made windowpanes, umbels of roofs just blossomed and glossy, houses just hatched and eggshell-smooth. The ever-renewing city, its face always novel. I begin to see the shape of the disaster, how it had gone wrong.

Strange that no one roused me when armageddon was still gestating rather than sprung. No one woke me when it had grown to adolescence. Now it is fully fledged and I have risen too late.

The lynx halts before an arch of quicksand, points its muzzle to the bronze-wheeled path beyond.

The path runs straight and determined, unmarred by fork or intersection. By next week this corridor will be something else: an empty room in an empty house, an auditorium lined with ivory seats, a stage with shifting heat-tiles for dancers who will never arrive. Where the path stops a woman is waiting for me, encased in body armor like surface tension. Her gaze moves against me like a knife against rags. “You’re the beast. The architect, Nabaat.”

“I’m a stopper for the bottle of apocalypse, but I fear the glass has already broken.”

“Cracked. Not broken. Come with me, if you’re really who you seem to be.”

She brings me to a pomegranate hall: pillars of white pith housing red seeds and clad in tatters of golden rind. Some dozen people look up and become still. On the walls heads are mounted, horned and antlered; it takes a moment to see past the stylization, the demon-paint and tusks, the impossibly wide mouths. “When was it,” I say aloud, “that you began to call me a beast?”

“When the end began and you didn’t wake; when it gobbled its way to maturity and still you lay, despite your promises. After that your name became a curse.” She holds up her hand, gesturing for calm at her people. “Your life and the pledges you made were before my time, but some of us are very bitter.”

Their faces resolve in degrees—it takes me time to reacclimatize to this sudden human contact. Most are of that indeterminable age, between prime adulthood and withering. One or two children. There’s nobody I know and they are all dressed to evacuate at a moment’s notice, their belongings lashed to them like messy exoskeletons. Few look well fed. “I’m here now. Give me something to eat.”

She might have chastised me for so brazen a demand, but she must recognize that even I require food. From an adult—a man I think, though it can be hard to tell—she liberates a nutrient tube. Tasteless, but against the memory of life and full bursting fruits it’s even more so, like graveside offerings — all melted wax and incense smoke. As I lick and suck the flavorless fluid, she tells me of what happened while I slept.

Her name is Enmaten. Her mothers—engineers, my contemporaries—led the first of what would be many efforts to wake me. Enmaten accompanied the third and fifth. “By the sixth,” she says calmly, “I was down to one mother. By the seventh, I was an orphan. At that point even organic matter—flora, fauna—fell under raw material; your children turned one of my mothers into a bridge, the other into part of a mural. I kept visiting them but within the month they’d become something else, until I couldn’t find them anymore.”

I do not and have never felt parental toward the flock. They are product, not offspring. “When I made the fabricators, I implemented very exact protocols. They shouldn’t have been able to defy those.”

Enmaten smiles with a pale, thin mouth nearly the color of her skin. Aged ivory, lightly gilded. “You don’t believe in evolving heuristics?”

“They are built to be competitive, to some extent, but no. The sentient AI is an ancient fantasy for the romantic mind. There was a limit: if-else arrays, however complex, remain just those.” I glance over my shoulder at the masks that represent my face. “You said there were efforts to rouse me.”

“Oh yes, people journeyed far and wide to see you. Before it all went wrong they built a temple around you, canonized you as a saint in several religions, the deity-in-flesh who gave us the future. You ended scarcity, made desert-ruins habitable, turned waste to gold. Your fabricators allowed for beauty. And on top of that you suspended yourself so you’d always be there to fix everything. Who could not love you, not braid your casket with rare orchids and dream of lying at your feet like tame housecats?”

The lynx has put its head in my lap. Absently I stroke it, the ruff of its neck pashmina to the sandpaper of my palm. “What prevented them from waking me?”

That edge of gaze again, scalpel priming for vivisection. “The suspension system never unlocked and there was no way to extract you from it without the risk of killing you. One of your lovers, it was said, tried to kiss you through the glass—kept trying right up until the fabricators made a marble pillar of her. I’m sure her bones are still out there somewhere, incorporated into a roof or street. Or scattered between a thousand houses. Like dust, like pearls spilled from a necklace.”

Pearls and dust are nothing alike, I want to point out. “I don’t know whom you might mean,” I say not to sound callous, but because I genuinely can’t remember. I haven’t had so many lovers and of those I can recall none would be so devoted. “It should have been simple to wake me. The moment the fabricators started malfunctioning, I should have been alerted.” Jolted from my dreams of negative space, my dreams of submersive heat where my skin is glass, my lungs and stomach planet-core blaze. Where I arise from magma, first of all things, preceding humankind.

Her eyes are feverish, though the rest of her face betrays nothing. “What are you going to do about it?”

Her people’s gazes mimic hers, the gazes of famished beasts ready to sink teeth into soft meat. I may be humanity’s final failsafe, but I’m also the architect of its demise.

“My flocks and my sleep have been tampered with,” I say and the mouths of the masks move with me, silent chorus. “I know who did so. I’ll find them and bring them to heel.”

§

The road snakes along the city’s seams, though by tomorrow there will be neither road nor city; Enmaten tells me that the world lives nomadic now. Those last few sites of production are jealously guarded and isolated, but she says they don’t have long before they too are overtaken. “A generation or two, at most,” she says, laughing like it’s a particularly fine joke. “It’s why I never got around to having children.”

I lead as though I know precise directions—and I do, I remember the shape of things. The identity of my opponent abides in the seedbed of my throat, roots writhing, for the right time and the correct amount of light. Until then I’m a harvest in waiting, a series of partitions to which I as yet lack the command.

They watch my every move for that moment of uncertainty, for a step that falters. Enmaten herself sleeps at my back, one arm slung over my waist like a possessive bride, though it has nothing to do with desire or tenderness. She’d whisper of the woman who tried to wake me with a kiss: her eyes the brilliant black of an event horizon, her voice a mezzo-soprano. “And her name?” I ask one evening.

The first time she says, “That you will have to earn.” The second time she answers, “You are not worthy of it.”

The third time she says, “When the ships left, they brought your flocks with them to terraform.”

I do not ask if any has returned or when they were last heard from. She does not name those who follow her and nor do they introduce themselves. In this way they recede from my awareness, existence distilling down to Enmaten and Nabaat, Nabaat and Enmaten.

When I sink into my implants I can track the fabricators, cluster by cluster, their cognitive arrays like star-sear. Access to modify and redirect remains out of my reach. Not denied: rather that the part of me which knows how to pluck and pull their strings is missing, detached like a lost tooth or misplaced like an old coin—the part of me I’ve come to think of as it, the beast. In spite of that the fabricators chart my path, the patterns of their migration as clear as vectors. I could reach my destination with eyes shut: the flock would never harm me—that much can’t be pried from the core of their code.

But I have more with me than my scattered self. An entourage still nameless, and Enmaten who watches me with the glittering eyes of a hungry ghost.

Navigating around the clusters lets us keep to the most stable patches, where a house might stand for as long as a month before it’s refashioned into clock towers and life-size statues. We take shelter in a forest of jewelry, boxy trunks spreading human arms. All shapes: biceps thick or thin, wrists scarred or smooth, hands wide or tapered. From them dangle chains, bracelets, torques with gemstones the size of heads. Even the earth is lustrous cabochon. I can almost remember it—my fabricators can recompose raw material into nearly anything and I must have commissioned an artisan for templates, for fancies, to absorb into the flock’s library. I might have even meant it as a gift for the woman whom Enmaten refuses to name.

Strange there’s such a void; strange my dreams are empty of family, colleagues, spouses. On so blank a canvas, Enmaten could have painted anything and I’d be none the wiser. Is painting it already, with this woman who may or may not have existed.

The forest stretches on (the beast knows where it ends; it does not tell me). We spend nights under lattice earrings the size of chandeliers, canopies of linked anklets and circlets sized for titans. My certainty grows stronger as we go, yoking me to its muscled stride, its inexorable might. Without meaning to I set the pace. When I’ve shortened my sleep from six hours to three a night, Enmaten takes me aside to tell me that her people can’t keep up. “I can’t slow down,” I try to explain. “Do you see? There’s a time limit. What awaits us won’t be there forever.”

She does not see. Instead she gives her people a maze-map of stable sites that I didn’t realize she has been drawing up all this time, and comes to me saying, “I can keep up with you.”

So we march, lynx-shadowed, the sighs of wind making blank verse against jewelry accompanying us. This far in the trunks begin to show, like the pomegranate hall, images of me: my sleeping face etched in gold, a silver nose and copper cheekbones. In others my eyes are masked behind strips of brass, my mouth open wide to swallow entropy. Each looks like a parasite fruit feeding off the filigreed trunk.

On the third night after we have parted with her people and I at last submit to fatigue, she encircles me with her armored body and a glimpse—at last—of the gun I always knew she would have. Enmaten murmurs, “You said you know who did this.”

Under the shivering platinum shadows, the topaz and emerald drops like rain, I smile. “That you will have to earn.”

“This isn’t a game.”

“Are you worthy of it?”

Her fingers twitch: I see it now, the callus at the base of the thumb, the way epidermis hardens to the gun’s trigger as the mind hardens to the kill. “This is a matter of survival.”

“Humanity carries its own destruction,” I say, though the words are not quite my own, “within the womb of its animus. That is how we are made, embedded into the road of our axons, inscribed like cipher into the myelin sheath. All of this was inevitable.”

“Then why bother? Why did you suspend yourself, pledge to return?”

My head cants this way and that as though too ripe for the stem of my neck. “We’re creatures of narrative and structure. A path that begins must of necessity end. Like anyone else, I crave closure and knew I wouldn’t get it within my lifetime.”

The forest thins, rounding out to a gentle slope so the transition between jewelry ground and pelt prairie seems almost natural. Sheaves of skin and fur, the coat of every conceivable animal: the red spotted flanks of deer in summer, the black of panthers sleek with health, the brindle white of seal pups. They rustle gently against our calves and hips, and in the thick of them my (our?) lynx blends camouflaged, moving predator-sure among its own kind.

In the distance, collared by a ring of shivering rabbit pelts, is a prison.

Unlike everything else in this refashioned world, it is not new; the corrugated shell is overrun by heat and scourged by time, crowned in its own rot. Like the chamber of my waking, it has never been renewed, never touched by the offspring of my imagination. This is original. This has always stood, somehow, not as old as my suspension but nearly its contemporary. As my person and my sleep, the flocks hold this place sacrosanct.

This is the home of my enemy. The one I will fight, and vanquish, and through that defeat redeem this fallen earth.

Enmaten precedes me, gun out. The weapon nests in her hand shadow-drinking, its industrial edges pure with purpose. I’ve always wished the human creature could be like that, built and honed to a single focus, ennobled by it.

The doors have long collapsed, leaning against equally dilapidated partitions. There are no bars but there are indentations in the walls: when I hold my wrists to them, they fit exactly as though this was tailored for my capture. On the ceiling women pray in high relief and their faces do not belong to me: the chin is too sharp, the nose too high, the mouth like a seam. Her gaze is lidded, lacquered black as a bride’s teeth, but there is an attitude of accusation—or judgment—in the angle of her chin, the bend of her flat pressed hands. It is as though I have crossed an invisible line that divides country from country, and not into a friendly neighbor but into that of an enemy locked in war against mine. All is hostile, even the dust crowding the corner, the decay breathing down our necks. The lynx noses along the ground, sniffing at debris.

My tongue darts out, tasting the air. It is inert. There’s no machine here, nano or otherwise, my fabricators or simple engines. No thrum of generators, no murmur of electromagnetic impulse. “There’s no one here.”

Enmaten does not object that perhaps we ought to search every room first, turn up every floor tile and move aside every shard of architecture. “Perhaps she fled knowing Nabaat approaches and heralds her conquest,” she says, her voice tuned to the music of mockery. “Perhaps she couldn’t bear the weight of your footsteps, the sound of her imminent loss.”

“That can’t be.” I press my wrist, again, to the curve in the wall that seems built just for me. If I engage it with my body entire I may well find that my frame fits too, exactly right. Cradling me as close as my skin cradles my bones. “My flock told me who and where she was. It’s not as though machines have much room for ambiguity.”

“They don’t,” Enmaten agrees and puts the muzzle of her gun to my temple.

The corporality of it seems almost preternatural, the chill of it nearly arctic. No weapon has ever felt so hyperreal, but then no other has ever been pointed at me so close, digging into my scalp like a lover’s fingers rigid in passion.

“When did you realize?” the beast says through my mouth.

“I carry the name of the mother who bore me. The name you never did earn. She believed in you; her wife—my other mother—did not. Both were engineers but Enmaten was blinded by sentiment, unwilling to consider that someone like you would never have created fabricators so prone to error, let alone one of this magnitude. The notion of nanobots gone amok, replicating and recreating mindlessly, because its coders didn’t limit and check it—that isn’t reality, it’s cheap entertainment. You were better than that, so was everyone working with you, like my mothers.” Her expression does not change as she kicks my feet out from under me.

I lack the strength to resist and the beast provides no surge of counterforce; it allows me—us—to collapse. It does little to defend us from a blow to our side that empties our lungs of wind, leaves us gasping and curled like a salted snail.

“Another possibility,” she goes on, “had to exist. A hidden section of protocols, set to activate after certain conditions were met. So secretive none of those who helped midwife the project could detect it, so buried as to be invisible to my mothers. The same protocols regulated your sleep. You never woke up because you didn’t want to; you were waiting for the fabricators to complete their work.”

“This isn’t a story,” the beast says softly, its voice like wind through picked bones. “Destroying the monster does not murder also its offspring. I’m not the cortex that feeds the flock its thoughts, the heart that gives it animation. With or without me, they will continue.”

“Nothing is a story.” And here her mouth bends, her jaw clicks, as though nursing an old hurt. That her mother wasn’t a story, gone unnarrated and without meaning. That she isn’t a story, for all that she’s trying to tell herself. “But when you die I’ll rake through your corpse, crack open your skull like a fruit. There, or in your spine, I’ll find a neural chip where your secrets reside. Decryption is its own dénouement, perhaps the definition.”

With my lips the beast grins, and there must be a glint to it—alien and revolting—that makes her take a step back. “You share my love of finales.”

“Is that why you did it?”

“To see a world fashioned to a single purpose. To see the ending when all else has been stripped. To be the last thinking creature alive. Yes.” It touches its flanks (mine) to check for damage, locate bruise or rib-crack. “Enmaten might have mentioned it, my dreams of emptiness, of a world made pure by absence. She didn’t see the appeal, but truly I did love her.”

Were she her function alone she would already have pulled the trigger. Instead that driving curiosity slows and blunts her, makes her bitterly ask, “You couldn’t have waited longer? Sleep enough and you would have woken up to a planet denuded and vacated. Heat death would have come. Or humanity would have extinguished itself, you were already convinced it’s written into us.”

“I am. But I was never patient.” Pulled into reluctant unity we both gaze overhead, to the praying women, to the praying Enmaten we left behind who tried to kiss us awake. Enmaten, whom the flock has preserved in image. “Not then. Not now.”

A lynx leaps; a gun fires. A story ends.

§

The prairie is motionless, furs and pelts flattened as those of animals lying in wait. For prey, or else for hunters to pass.

From the prison’s gate a lone woman emerges, accompanied by a pearlescent lynx. Both move with the certainty of belonging, predators paired, dressed in muscle and warm with the sweet hunger of monsters.

Blood stains the lynx’s jaw. She bends to wipe at it until her hands are as slick as its mouth. With crimson fingers she traces characters, spelling out a name. “Enmaten,” she says, putting her thumb to the lynx’s ear, a full stop to the uneven calligraphy. “It’s an inherited name, wealthy with two generations. Someone should carry it on. You will do. Shall I teach you to speak, one day?”

It tosses its head, indifferent and incurious, serene in its animal completeness. Nabaat draws to her feet, casting out the net of her mind. The flocks ignite the fabric of her thought, embroidering it like the light of distant suns, the light of ships that left seeking other stars.

The prairie parts. The architect steps through, in search of the best spot from which to watch the world end.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew writes love letters to strange cities, beautiful bugs, and the future. Her work has appeared in Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, and year’s bests. She has been shortlisted for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer and her debut novella Scale-Bright has been nominated for the British SF Association Award.
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Words from the Editor-in-Chief http://www.apex-magazine.com/words-from-the-editor-in-chief-14/ http://www.apex-magazine.com/words-from-the-editor-in-chief-14/#respond Tue, 02 Feb 2016 14:00:31 +0000 http://www.apex-magazine.com/?p=10917 Welcome to issue 81!

This month we’re back to normal in terms of volume. Even so, it’s an issue rich with imagination and strange worlds.

What kid on the cusp of becoming an adult doesn’t look forward to the day when they’re able to travel past the bounds of childhood? Daniel Rosen takes that concept and, because this is Apex Magazine, adds a disconcerting and thought provoking twist. We welcome Betsy Phillips and Benjanun Sriduangkaew back to our pages. Betsy’s story feels particularly timely due to the recent 1.5 billion dollar Powerball Lottery drawing.

As for Benjanun’s story … I’m going to leave her opening sentence right here:

“As the world marches toward the guillotine of its finale, the sleeping beast shakes loose the slats of its painted unthought and licks the tang of dénouement from its fangs.”

Wrapping up our fiction selections, we present a reprint of “On the Occasion of My Retirement,” a novelette by Nick Mamatas receiving its digital debut inside Apex Magazine.

Our poetry this month comes courtesy of Heather Morris, Mike Jewett, Crystal Lynn Hilbert, and Laurel Dixon. Russell Dickerson interviews cover artist David Demaret. Andrea Johnson interviews Benjanun Sriduangkaew regarding her avant-garde and poetic fiction output.

Our podcast fiction this month is “Four Gardens of Fate” by Betsy Phillips.

Finally, enjoy an excerpt from Glitch Rain by Alex Livingston, the latest book from Apex Publications. Many of our regular readers will recognize Livingston for his story “Proximity” from issue 73. Glitch Rain is set in the same universe as “Proximity.”

See you next month when we have Lavie Tidhar, Jason Sanford, Travis Heerman, and Elizabeth Bear.

 

Jason Sizemore

Editor-in-Chief

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Kutraya’s Skies http://www.apex-magazine.com/kutrayas-skies/ http://www.apex-magazine.com/kutrayas-skies/#respond Fri, 29 Jan 2016 15:32:10 +0000 http://www.apex-magazine.com/?p=10903 7,900 words

Shadoua arrived early at his home, just after midnight in the full planetless darkness Kutraya’s farside enjoyed, a darkness he was all too aware of on this night. Only a farside astronomer such as myself could have discovered this danger, he thought. Little comfort, but perhaps some small consolation.

Normally he wouldn’t be home until after Seyel’s brilliance caused the wise, eternal stars to hide behind the curtain of dawn. As he entered the sleeping chambers of their modest apartment near the observatory, he saw that his true-mate Alaria slept quietly. Her world is about to change, he thought. That’s true of everyone in the world, but for her the change will come before anyone else.

Except me.

As he undressed, Shadoua admired the smooth rise of Alaria’s crest of bone at the top of her head, her chin which jutted forward at such a pleasing angle. As he slipped into bed with her, she stirred, momentarily startled, but calmed at his touch on her neck where her soft smooth green skin gave way to her beautiful tan fur. “You’re home early,” she said.

Shadoua embraced Alaria as she snuggled against him. In his excitement, his penis began to emerge from its protective sheath, but he willed his body not to enter reproductive mode, as he knew Alaria would, as well. “I couldn’t work anymore tonight.”

Alaria turned her face toward him. “You sound worried.”

Shadoua ran red-furred fingers across his true-mate’s pleasingly pointed ears. “I am.”

“Something I need to know about — ?”

“Something the whole world needs to know about. Especially since I’ve never loved you more.”

“And especially since you have a one-mate about to give birth.”

“Yes. That, as well. And I know you wish to have a one-mate soon, as well. So let me tell you.”

After he told her, he held her tightly with his upper arms even as his lower arms left their sheaths and caressed her as well, their strength kept in check as they could only be with the one he loved as they reached out for the only comfort they could provide one another, no matter how fleeting.

§

Raytier was having a light lunch in her commonage, which was devoted to the study of science, Kutraya’s capital of Arsek. She was still unused to working in such close proximity to others — as many as ten to fifteen other scientists in the admittedly broad and open area filled with spectrophotometers, mass spectrometers, odor analyzers, and with plenty of computers and display boards. I don’t know how farsiders manage it, she thought. This is bad enough, but to actually live in a city as they do — I don’t know whether I could stand it.

Even Arsek was a settlement of nearly a thousand nearsiders, much too densely packed for comfort as far as Raytier was concerned. But that’s part of the job, she thought.

A glance out a wide window that gave a live view of the gas giant Gisreth provided a bit of relief. Gisreth was an unmoving presence in the nearside sky, its wide, convoluted bands of methane and ammonia barely visible in the midday darkness. Kutrayan orbital missions were exploring the planet more closely, but their crews never discovered enough to satisfy her.

Raytier’s comm buzzed. Looking at the ID, she realized, It’s Shadoua. Must be something interesting. He usually doesn’t call in the middle of his work night. Though they’d met in person only at scientific conferences, Shadoua kept up a brisk phone and text correspondence with her on issues both astronomical and political.

Raytier punched the comm and her farside friend’s image appeared before her. “Shadoua, it’s so good to hear from you. But — are you at home?”

“Yes. I had to … tell Alaria first. Before I told anyone else what I’ve found.”

“It sounds serious.”

Shadoua said, “Two comets have collided out in the system. Their normal orbits have been altered. One will eventually strike Gisreth.”

“Which will absorb it as it does all the other comets it attracts. It’s a common enough sight. But — the other one?”

“You’ve guessed it. It’s actually going to pass us here on Kutraya once without any harm. But it’ll make a close pass around Gisreth, go into an elliptical orbit, and come back again.”

Raytier ran a white-furred hand across the top of her crest. She said, “And that’s when it’ll hit?”

“Yes.”

“You’re sure?”

Shadoua’s image stood with his hands folded in front of him and the tips of his ears dipped downward. “You know I’m not one to brag. But I also acknowledge my own skills. Yes, I’m sure.”

“And it’s big enough to do considerable damage?”

“We’d see major shock waves throughout the world’s crust. Tsunamis. Firestorms.”

“Could we destroy it while it’s still heading away from us?”

“Possibly. But the largest pieces would maintain their orbit and strike anyway. It might actually make matters worse, spread the destruction over a wider portion of the world.”

“So we have to divert it.”

“Which means quick work — I’d suggest developing several booster engines that use the comet’s own materials as fuel. If we can land them there and increase its speed, it’ll still loop around Gisreth, but on a path that misses us.”

Raytier said, “That’s my kind of work. I’ll need all the help you can give me figuring out the orbital mechanics.”

“I’ll come to your side of the world as quickly as I can. But you know the engineering and science won’t be the biggest challenges. Those will be in the World Council.”

“You’re being cynical, Shadoua. The future of the whole world’s at stake.”

“Both Alaria and I want children.”

“Your one-mate is about to give you a child.”

“Not if this comet strikes. And Alaria hasn’t yet found a one-mate. While my hope eventually is to find a two-mate and three-mate.”

“I’ve never been one for children, myself. True-mates have been enough for me. But I understand what this means to you.”

Shadoua said, “Even our most opportunistic politicians will eventually realize this isn’t a political issue — that they’ll have to work together if we’re going to survive.” But I know all too well, Shadoua thought, how political realities can hover over you, unspoken, unseen, then burst forth and take away everything you’ve worked for.

§

A day later, Shadoua gave Alaria a passionate embrace as he left their home. She told him, “Tell Trenori I hope I can find a one-mate and, later, a two-mate as dedicated as she is.”

“I will,” Shadoua said. Soon he arrived at Trenori’s commonage, a grouping of simple homes in which nearly a hundred Kutrayans specialized in caring for children. Trenori greeted him warmly, with a clasping of upper arms and a slight bow. Shadoua felt himself beaming with pride at the sight of her swelling belly.

“Come inside for a drink,” Trenori said.

“I can’t,” he told her, outlining the danger from the comet.

Trenori rubbed the back of her crest of bone, a nervous gesture. “What’ll happen if you can’t destroy that comet?”

“Unfortunately, that’s up to the Council.”

“I so want this child for you. And I know Alaria is eager for a one-mate as well.”

“She sends her best — and admires your dedication.”

A final handclasp, and Shadoua left Trenori and her commonage behind. He took the next flight to farside and accompanied Raytier to the Council. Seyel rose through clear skies toward its midday rendezvous with Gisreth, which stood in its accustomed place in the heavens half in shadow, half resplendent in crimson and golden bands. At least, Shadoua thought, the need for nearsiders to take their eclipse nap should keep the debate short.

The Council stood within a natural amphitheater overlooking the settlement of Arsek. Councilors mingled around, and Shadoua caught snatches of conversation, everything from gently prodding for political insights to compliments on one another’s fur. Nerves led him to brush a hand down one arm, then the other, making sure his own fur beneath his short sleeves was straight. This isn’t the time for wrong impressions, he thought.

Shadoua said to Raytier as they sat within the observers’ section, “You look tired.”

“Just adapting to the time change. I’m often up overnight anyway, but I’m used to being in darkness then.”

World Sovereign Farasor called for quiet and summarized Shadoua’s findings, as photos of the colliding comets were projected behind him.

Afterward, debate began and the amphitheater quickly reverberated with Councilors’ loud voices:

“If we delay, everyone in the world could die!”

“There are things more important than mere survival!”

“This is no better a theory than a multi-colored could come up with.” Hearing that last phrase, Shadoua made a mental note to touch up the color of his crest where a thin line insisted upon coming in white instead of red. Talk about wrong impressions, he thought.

The Councilors continued:

“How do we trust this Shadoua?”

“Our own Raytier vouches for his findings.”

“How can we spend such money based on images on a screen?”

Shadoua, his anger building, felt his lower arms stirring at his sides, felt his ripping teeth straining to expose themselves. Ancient drives made it difficult to suppress those urges, but he sat as calmly as he could, contenting himself with a low growl, otherwise resisting the temptation to go on all sixes and tackle his opponents. He watched the many speakers trying to take control of the main podium and asked Raytier, “Not a political issue?”

“You should acknowledge your worth as a political savant, as well.”

“What needs to be acknowledged is the legitimate danger to the world. And I didn’t come here to be insulted. Especially not to be compared to a multi-colored.”

Shadoua saw Raytier hesitate before she said, “I abhor their prejudices. And I’d hoped you didn’t share them.” Kutrayans whose fur was of more than one color were considered by many to be genetically inferior to the majority whose fur was of a single hue.

“I know the science doesn’t back up those kinds of feelings,” Shadoua said. “But people are comfortable around their own kind.”

Raytier looked pained. “Let’s not talk about that anymore. Those Councilors are looking toward next year’s election, not anything else.”

Shadoua said, “There won’t be an election next year if they don’t act.”

Sovereign Farasor turned his back on the Councilors and raised his arms toward the gas giant Gisreth, as if in supplication. Shadoua leaned toward Raytier and asked, “Is the Sovereign really paying homage to Gisreth?”

Raytier said, “He’s a true nearsider, no more a believer than I am. But he’s primarily a politician, and he needs the support of those who do believe.”

“By which you mean he’s appealing to farsider ignorance — to religion instead of science.”

Raytier indicated the many politicians vying for attention, who were only now drawing quiet at the sight of Sovereign Farasor’s silent appeal. “Look at the loudest of them, the ones appealing primarily to emotion, no matter what your evidence shows. Who are they?”

Shadoua’s ears stood straight up in exasperation. “I can’t deny they’re mostly from farside. But your nearside Sovereign is making an equally reprehensible appeal to cynicism.”

Sovereign Farasor turned toward the Council. “My friends. We may not agree on where to place our faith. For many of us, especially here on nearside, the scientific evidence alone is clear and sufficient. Others, including many of our farside friends, want a signal from Father Gisreth. After all, it is He who stands in our skies as a constant protector. It is He who provides us with our notions of morality and family.”

That’s literally true, Shadoua thought. But how many are aware that our notions of one-mates and two-mates and beyond derive from the need to maintain genetic diversity against the mutations Gisreth’s magnetic radiation causes?

Farasor pointed toward the observers’ section. “We have here possibly our top farside scientist,” he said. Shadoua was aware of becoming the focus of attention of everyone in the amphitheater.

Sovereign Farasor continued, “Imagine the signs — a scientist brings us the most precise scientific evidence of the danger ahead of us. Yet he is a farside scientist — one who also understands the stars, which are best seen on that side of our world. One who understands how they speak to us.”

The worst part, Shadoua thought, is that he may be right. Thoughts I believed I’d banned since childhood return at the most inopportune moments, when I need my objectivity more than ever. He could even look up toward the gas giant Gisreth and feel that it was peering down at him. Father Gisreth knows I’d never reveal a bit of that to Raytier.

Farasor turned his attention back toward the assembled Councilors, imploring them for their vote to provide the money Shadoua and Raytier needed for the space mission that would save the world. As he sat, a quieter debate began. The vote will come at any moment, Shadoua thought. Here is the turning point for our civilization — for our species.

Raytier told Shadoua, “I know what it took for you just to sit there quietly.”

“I wanted to stand up and shout that I’m not one of those stereotypical farsiders who worships the stars.”

“I know you’re not. But you understand them. And we have to work with them. We have to be better than them, and better than any of my nearsider colleagues, too. We have the facts. We know the consequences.”

“If we don’t succeed in this,” Shadoua said, “the entire world will know the consequences.”

§

Later that day, Raytier brought Shadoua into her workspace, shooed away several hovering colleagues, and blocked incoming calls on the comm. She served a hot herbal drink they both enjoyed as they stood at a large window overlooking the capital — apartment buildings that housed dozens of people at a time, the council amphitheater they’d just left, the more soothing sight of the wooded areas beyond.

The sun, Seyel, had disappeared behind Gisreth minutes earlier. The gas giant itself was a waning crescent that soon would be completely in shadow and bring the darkest part of the day here on nearside.

Raytier showed Shadoua a small telescope in one corner. “Like to do a little planet-gazing before we talk? It can be relaxing.”

“I won’t relax until those comets are past,” Shadoua said. “Besides, we should settle a few things quickly. I suppose you’ll want to take a nap soon.” Nearsiders were accustomed to intermittent sleep cycles, given the daily interlude of darkness during the daily eclipse and the bright face of Gisreth shining throughout the night.

“I can put it off until later,” Raytier said.

“Very well, then. First of all, I can’t believe we got the Councilors’ support.”

“We got their money. They can withdraw their support at any moment.” Just as you might withdraw your support from me, my friend, if you knew the secret I’ve kept from you all these years.

Shadoua ran a hand across the hidden line of white that would otherwise mar the tuft of red hair covering his crest. “All the more reason to hurry.”

“So, we should figure out how to save the world.”

“Given its trajectory,” Shadoua said, “We’ll have to catch up to the second comet on its first pass. Waiting for it to come around Gisreth will be too late.”

“Any spacecraft that does that will need its own boosters. I’ve seen your numbers — that comet will just miss reaching Gisreth’s escape velocity. All we’ve ever achieved is a close orbital velocity.”

“I can supply the hard numbers that will result in the rendezvous. That lets you get a grasp on the engineering.”

Raytier said, “The political fight isn’t over yet, either. But we can’t let ourselves get distracted.”

“The religious arguments against us are nonsensical. Their side won’t endure.”

“Don’t underestimate them. We’ve got to stay ahead of them in our planning. I’ve got other engineers at Arsek Spaceport already looking at a way to mount extra boosters onto an exploratory shuttle.”

“One was already scheduled to go?” Shadoua asked.

“There’s a mission already orbiting Gisreth. We keep a rescue flight ready in case of an emergency. I suppose it’s still a rescue flight — just for the whole world, now.”

“Which means the rescue flight itself won’t have a backup.”

“That’s right,” Raytier said. “But if they get in trouble, there won’t be a world worth returning to, anyway.”

§

Only days before the rescue mission was to launch, Shadoua was watching the mating of the giant booster rockets to the shuttle that would take part in the rescue mission. The craft was a standard exploratory cruiser, the Akhir, named after a great peacemaker of many years past. Raytier was supervising that effort, but when she saw him, she approached him and said, “I’d like you to be part of the crew aboard this shuttle.”

The fur on Shadoua’s back raised. “I’m not an explorer, except through my telescopes over on farside. I’m certainly not an adventurer. Why me?”

“You know the mathematics involved, and the orbital mechanics. Landing those booster engines is vital, and it’s all got to be done by remote. The crew can’t land on the comet, and it can’t just trust to the computers — the world can’t.”

“I can be in Project Command the entire mission if you need me.”

“And what if there’s a problem with the radio?” Raytier asked. “The comet eclipses the ship, perhaps. No, I won’t take the chance.”

Shadoua felt his ears begin to sag, and immediately perked them up again. “I’d rather not do this. But you’re right. Will you be going?”

Raytier smiled. “My job is essentially done once the ship lifts off. I’d be dead weight. I’m the one who’ll be in Project Command during the mission.”

“I’ll be glad to hear your voice. But — I’d like to return home to see Alaria before I go.”

“We can arrange that.”

“And — I’d like you to go with me.”

Raytier folded her hands in front of her. “This should be your time together.”

“And we’ll have that. But you and I — we’ve known each other for so long and you’ve never met her. I want you to know one another.”

Raytier said, “We can only stay a day or so. But we could use the travel time to discuss details of the mission without distractions.”

“Thank you, Raytier. I suppose without faith in Father Gisreth, we’ll have to find it within ourselves.”

§

During the flight to Kutraya’s farside, Raytier marveled at just how nervous she felt watching Gisreth slowly fall beneath the world’s horizon. She told Shadoua, “I know it’s completely irrational. I’ve never worshipped “Father Gisreth” or had the slightest faith in anything except knowledge — but I have to admit the thought of an ‘empty’ sky unnerves me.”

Shadoua smiled. “Perhaps you can understand how I feel coming to nearside. Certainly I know all the gravitational relationships between the planet and our world. But every time I look upward and see Gisreth looming in the sky, something within me wonders what’s holding it up, and suspects it’s about to fall on me.”

After the better part of a day, the plane landed in Shadoua’s hometown of Beyarna. When they arrived at his home on the outskirts of the city — countless people packed into a single settlement even more densely than her research building! — Raytier stood quietly as Shadoua’s true-mate Alaria embraced him. To Raytier’s surprise, Alaria grabbed her into a tight hug, as well. “Shadoua has told me so much about you,” Alaria said. “Do come inside. I’ve a late supper ready. Shadoua told me yesterday neither of you had eaten for a couple days. I do hope you enjoy farside cuisine.”

Raytier said, “Recent events have made me more adventurous. I’m willing to try most anything.”

Shadoua spoke up: “You’re more adventurous? I’m the one who’s shooting off into space.” But his smile set the mood as they settled in around a table filled with sunleaf salad, grilled blueroot, and roast gorzon.

Afterwards, Raytier leaned back in her chair and told Alaria, “I can’t recall when I’ve had such an excellent meal. Both my stomachs are full — I can go two or three days now.”

“Thank you. I felt I had to fix something special. You’re helping Shadoua so much, and it’s going to take both of you to save our world. It makes me feel as if we’re family.”

Raytier felt a twinge of guilt: If I say one particular word, you may not feel the same way, she thought. But she told Alaria and Shadoua, “Thank you. I don’t have much in the way of family, and that means a lot to me.”

Shadoua said, “I know your work has been so important to you. You should slow down, get to know someone outside work.”

Raytier turned to Alaria and said, “The world is in danger and he’s worried about my love life.”

“And I’m right to be,” Shadoua said, “since apparently you’re not.”

“There was someone last year. You must remember Eladar, my true-mate for a time.”

“I do. But that didn’t seem to last long.”

That’s because he heard that particular word, Raytier thought.

Alaria said, “I’m sure everything happens in its own time.” She stood and embraced Shadoua. “I’m an early riser, so I’m heading on to bed. Besides, I’m sure you both have plenty to talk about.”

Shadoua watched his true-mate leave, then said to Raytier, “Why don’t we go out back? I’d like to show you something there.”

They stepped out beneath that “empty sky” that Raytier had feared. As she had anticipated, the lack of Gisreth’s comforting presence casting light across the landscape was unnerving, somehow wrong. An irrational part of herself wondered if the gas giant had somehow been eliminated forever from the firmament.

Once she accepted its absence, however, Raytier began to see the sky’s own beauty, which Gisreth mostly obscured nearside. Shadoua’s home stood far away from the city of Beyarna’s lights, allowing the stars themselves to shine with an intensity she’d never experienced. And there are so many of them, she thought. Scientifically, subjectively, I knew how many stars I should be able to see here on farside, but to see them sprawled out across the heavens as if an omnipotent painter had laid them out across a canvas — it’s breathtaking.

Shadoua pulled a small telescope on a rolling stand over to Raytier’s position. “I have something to show you.” A few adjustments as Shadoua looked through the eyepiece, and he motioned Raytier over.

“I think I know what I’m about to see,” Raytier said.

“As I expected. But you should still look.”

Raytier leaned over and looked through the eyepiece. Seyel’s light illuminated the comet so that it stood out before the more detailed starfield the telescope revealed. A brilliant white at its center, it grew dimmer and “fuzzier” toward its edges. “So that’s our enemy,” Raytier said.

“The second comet,” Shadoua said, then leaned over and made an adjustment to the telescope. “And here’s the comet that will actually approach first — the one that’s going to fall into Gisreth.”

Raytier looked into the eyepiece again. “Its angle doesn’t look much different from the other one.”

“Just enough to make all the difference,” Shadoua said. “I realize that a lot of nearside scientists wonder why farside astronomers even exist. ‘There’s nothing there,’ they say. I know they’re wrong.”

“Forgive me,” Raytier said. “In my younger days I probably said it a couple of times myself. But no more.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Shadoua said. “I imagine viewing Gisreth is marvelous, too, especially from orbit. But Gisreth is real to us. It’s a world just as Kutraya is, and we understand a lot about it.” He indicated the vast starfield. “Out there is mystery. Oh, we understand a lot about the other planets and the stars and their movements — quite a few things about their composition and lifespan — but there’s so much more we don’t know.”

“Such as — are other people out there?”

“And how much of what we understand about life is universal? Is life inevitably based on carbon? Do lifeforms elsewhere pass on their genetic heritage through a triple helix? Do they all have fur?”

Raytier said, “Perhaps some of those things apply some places, but not others. I’ve even heard speculation that life could exist upon a planet, rather than a moon.”

“I suppose it could. But without such a world always overhead beckoning, would such beings even be drawn to travel into space?”

“Once we divert the comet, the universe opens up to us.”

“Of course, if we don’t divert the comet, none of this means anything. Unless some of those other beings arrive later to view the remains of our civilization.”

§

Shadoua was awakened early the next morning by a pounding at his door. Even Alaria, the early riser, wasn’t up yet, though she was just awake enough to mutter, “Who could that be?” Shadoua motioned for her to stay in bed as he dressed quickly and went to the door.

A familiar figure stood there, rotund, dark-furred. “Niaghos,” Shadoua said. He was a Councilor who represented Shadoua’s province.

“Forgive my intrusion so early, Shadoua, but we live in difficult times.”

“Come inside. What’s so important? Has someone died? Is some sort of political crisis going on?”

They sat as Niaghos said, “Died? No, not yet. Political crisis? Certainly. And you’re the cause.”

“I am? How?”

“With your blasphemous idea of a mission to go after this comet.”

“A comet that threatens to kill us all!”

“And which Father Gisreth himself is guiding toward us. Don’t you understand? How many times have we seen such gifts fall into Gisreth himself? Surely this one will also be harmless.”

Another voice said from behind Niaghos, “Can we take that chance?”

Niaghos turned and said, “You must be Raytier.”

“I am.”

“I’m sorry if I woke you.”

“I’m a typical nearsider — we nap a lot, given that so little of our day is spent in darkness.”

“And you’re the one who’s put these ideas into our friend Shadoua’s head.”

Shadoua spoke up: “I made the initial discovery. I went to her.”

Niaghos kept his gaze on Raytier, telling her, “All the same, you’ve not tried to sway him from this dangerous path.”

“You must forgive me. I’m not spiritual. Besides, if we’re wrong, what can happen? The comet flies by harmlessly, leaving you alive to brag of the rightness of your theories.”

“I have no wish to brag. I only want to avoid angering Father Gisreth.” Raytier didn’t respond, and Niaghos continued: “I understand that He is only a symbol for the underlying truths of the universe. I’m not a fool, neither am I uneducated or naive. I’m only concerned that you may be be working with forces far more powerful than mere worldly intelligences are meant to understand.”

Shadoua said, “I respect the old beliefs, Niaghos, perhaps more than you realize. But the forces we’re working with are as natural as Seyelshine and the wind on our face. Marvelous, sometimes more powerful than we can imagine, but not supernatural.”

Niaghos said, “Now it is you who must forgive me. This injures my soul, Shadoua, but I came here hoping to convince you away from this awful path. It seems I cannot. So, in fairness, I tell you I will be back on nearside soon, and I will do everything I can to halt this disgraceful venture, whether in the Council or the launch site or on the streets.”

“Serve your conscience as you see fit,” Shadoua said, “and Raytier and I will serve ours the same way.”

Niaghos told Raytier, “I wish we had met differently.” To Shadoua, he said, “I believe the better of our opinions will triumph.”

“That’s odd,” Shadoua said. “I believe the same thing.”

§

Raytier, back on nearside at Arsek Spaceport, watched glumly as a crowd of protesters chanted their rage at the spacecraft that would, this day, be launched with the purpose of saving their world.

But none of these idiots care, Raytier thought. They’d rather fall back upon their pre-scientific beliefs that may have served us well as a primitive people, but threaten our very existence now.

The metal fence surrounding the launch pad didn’t seem tall enough or strong enough to be sufficiently secure to Raytier, but the massed security personnel trying to push the protesters farther back looked to be making headway without resorting to violent measures. In their upper arms they held stunner rifles, and kept their lower arms sheathed. But she couldn’t help but notice that most of them also had more lethal weaponry strapped to their backs, weapons their lower arms could grab in an instant. Raytier thought, This spaceport was once a place for explorers, and they were acclaimed and admired. We never anticipated facing a serious threat of violence here.

Raytier forced her attention away from such unpleasantness and returned it to the spacecraft standing beneath Gisreth’s full midnight brightness. The Akhir would carry four people, including Shadoua, into an orbit parallel to the threatening comet. It was capable of spending many days around Gisreth and of altering its orbit many times during its exploratory missions. And it featured all the modifications that Raytier had designed for its next, most crucial mission.

The tall boosters attached to either side would allow it to catch up to the second comet as it whipped around Gisreth in its elliptical orbit. This spacecraft’s going to need every bit of maneuvering ability it possesses to rendezvous with the comet, Raytier thought. It’ll almost have to break free of Gisreth’s orbit to approach it at all. Then there’s the small matter of landing these rockets on it.

A voice behind her said, “I suppose I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.” It was Shadoua, who approached wearing the spacesuit that would activate to press firmly on his stomach and legs during the high-gravity maneuvers of liftoff and comet rendezvous.

“Captain Direl’s as good as we have,” Raytier said. “And I’ll be in touch with you the entire trip.”

“You’ll be busy back here fighting off Niaghos and his followers. I think I may have the easier task.”

“This ship is taking off today. After that, they can yell and demonstrate all they want.” Raytier embraced her friend. “Do well, but stay safe. It’s almost enough to make me ask Father Gisreth to look after you.”

Shadoua smiled. “We’ll be close enough. I’ll make sure we put in a good word for ourselves.”

A volley of stunner fire behind them, and Raytier turned to see a mass of protesters charging the guards. Without thought, she ran toward the confrontation, barely aware of Shadoua’s shouts of concern.

Another blast of stunner fire, and more protesters fell. But many of the security guards found themselves with their backs against the metal fence, sections of which actually bend inward slightly from the pressure.

As she ran, Raytier went to all sixes even as her lower arms unsheathed themselves, hard fists forming, and her ripping teeth emerged. A couple of the protesters were struggling with the guards, trying to wrest their stunner rifles from them. A broad section of fence buckled and several protesters stepped across it or jumped over it.

Raytier tackled the first person who’d made it through the fence, her upper hands grasping him by the shoulders as her auxiliaries punched him repeatedly in the torso. The protester slumped to the ground. Raytier went bipedal again and stood over him, resisting the primitive urge to bite into his neck.

More shots from the guards — Lethal ones, Raytier realized, ducking. But they were warning shots only, with the ones aimed at the protesters remaining stun shots only. More of the protesters who had breached the gate collapsed all around her. Most of the rest hesitated, then began running away from the spaceport. The guards didn’t pursue them, but detained the few who stayed behind.

A touch on her shoulder, and Raytier turned, teeth bared. “It’s me!” Shadoua said, and Raytier forced herself to calm.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just…”

“I know. Our primitive side touches all of us one time or another.”

Raytier consciously sheathed her lower arms and within the next moment her ripping teeth retracted of their own accord. “Let’s move away from here as quickly as we can,” she told Shadoua. “We have much more civilized work to do.”

By the time Seyel was close to rising, Raytier’s emotional outburst had subsided and she watched from the safety of the sprawling command bunker as the spaceship meant to rescue the world lifted off. The ship’s fiery launch banished what remained of the early morning darkness as Raytier stepped outside and watched the rocket’s exhaust disperse within a cool breeze. She continued watching as Gisreth became a thin crescent, then returned to the bunker to await the Akhir’s approach to the comet.

§

Shadoua thought he knew what to expect when the Akhir’s main engines cut off, and he dreaded it. He’d hesitated eating anything that morning, fearing he’d throw up the contents of both stomachs once weightlessness arrived.

The actual sensation, though disconcerting at first, was actually pleasant. With his body still restrained by his tight harness, he didn’t have as much sensation of floating as he’d assumed he would. When Captain Direl said they could leave their seats, Shadoua did so tentatively, even as he watched the other four crewmembers, experienced space travelers all, eagerly release their harnesses and float free.

He caught a glimpse out the nearest viewport and grabbed the backs of seats and handholds on equipment to get there, however clumsily. Kutraya stood beneath them, sunlight glinting off the surface of the Lucerian Ocean, clouds a pure white covering much of the land. He looked back the way they’d come and saw that they were swiftly leaving Gisreth behind. Even as a farsider, I find that somehow disturbing, he thought. But — patience — he’ll be back soon enough.

The Akhir was to make a single circuit of Kutraya, using its gravitational pull to whip itself away from the world and toward the gas giant, presumably in a course just ahead of and parallel to the comet’s path.

Captain Direl’s voice interrupted Shadoua’s thoughts. “All crew, prepare to double-check all ship’s systems. I want everything in order before the insertion into the comet’s path.”

Time to get to work, Shadoua thought. I’ve got to make Raytier proud of me.

Before it seemed possible, the Akhir was crossing into Kutraya’s nightside, and their preparations became all the more frenetic, especially since now they could see the second comet, the one that was bearing down on their home. The first one, which would strike Gisreth, was taking a different path, one not yet visible from their current position. By the time the ship swung around toward daylight again, the second comet’s image filled the rear viewscreens even at the lowest magnification. It’s as if it’s abandoned all plans of striking our world and is, instead, consciously bearing down on Akhir!

§

Raytier, in Project Command, was surprised to hear that Councilor Niaghos had arrived and was demanding to see her. She found him waiting in an unused room. It was bare, windowless, and musty, and Niaghos was standing there, arms folded, facial features set. “Raytier, you must cancel this project immediately and rely upon Father Gisreth to protect us.”

“It’s a little late for that, don’t you think? The Akhir is right in front of the comet and ready to begin diverting it.”

“My constituents have been watching both comets approach and are terrified. They’re demanding answers.”

Raytier said, “And I’m providing the best ones I know. You may not accept this, but I respect your faith. Mine, however, lies elsewhere.”

“In your science that turns us away from real truths. My constituents demand to know why the government has not built shelters for them, or spacecraft that could take them to safety.”

“There’s no shelter from this. Earthquakes, floods, firestorms — there’s nowhere to hide. Besides, how could we build shelters for billions of people? Or spaceships to take them anywhere? And where would they go?”

“So your science doesn’t have as many answers as you claim.”

“I thought you were trusting in Father Gisreth to protect the world.”

Niaghos said, “That was before your blasphemous spaceship proclaimed a lack of faith in Him. That is the reason the comet is bearing down upon us.”

Raytier turned toward the door. “I don’t have to listen to any more of this. I’m going back to the real work of saving us.”

“You’d better stop and listen to me.”

Reluctantly, Raytier stopped and turned back toward the Counselor. “What is it?”

“I know your secret,” Niaghos said. “And if you don’t turn that spaceship around and bring it back to Kutraya, I’ll reveal it for all to hear.”

Raytier held her breath at Niaghos’ words. She knew what he must be threatening to reveal. How did he find out? she wondered, thinking of all the consequences of her carefully guarded secret getting out. I’ll lose my job. All my friends, maybe even Shadoua — all gone.

She considered her response for only a moment, and as she told Niaghos of her decision, she felt a peacefulness washing over her that she hadn’t experienced in years.

§

Captain Direl’s voice came over the ship’s comm: “Shadoua, please come to the cockpit.”

Shadoua wondered what could be so important — he’d not even been to the cockpit this entire mission. He pulled himself along within the cramped confines of the ship and entered the cockpit.

Captain Direl was alone. “Close the door behind you,” he said.

Shadoua did, then maneuvered himself into the co-pilot’s seat. He found himself staring at the immensity of Gisreth. With the Akhir making a close approach around the gas giant, it dominated the view, its illumination overwhelming any glimpse of the stars. Shadoua was able to perceive its largest bands of ammonia and methane slowly moving against one another, their edges undulating against one another, and how some borders even braided together.

Captain Direl spoke up: “An amazing view, isn’t it?”

“I’ve seldom seen it at all, living on farside. And I’ve only viewed it through a telescope a couple of times. To be this close, to see this much detail….”

“It’s almost like a living thing, isn’t it?”

“And I can tell this isn’t why you called me up here,” Shadoua said.

“You’re right. I’ve just received a message from Project Command. Raytier just resigned from the mission and is headed home.”

“Headed home? Why?”

“Politics. It turns out she’s a multi-colored. A former lover of hers — Eladar was his name — revealed her secret to the Council.”

Shadoua felt the hair on his crest rise. “I can’t believe that!” As many times as we’ve spoken from one side of the world to the other, as closely as we’ve worked together on this rescue mission — and I never suspected.

Captain Direl asked, “Are you all right?”

“I’m…fine. Just getting used to the idea.”

“I have to ask — which idea? That Raytier is off the project, or that she’s a so-called multi-colored?”

“Oh, the, uh — that she’s off the project, of course.”

Direl looked at him with a skeptical eye, but said, “I’m glad to hear that. After all, you’re a scientist. You have no reason to believe this nonsense about the color of a person’s fur. Keeping people out of jobs, sometimes even assaulting or killing them — it’s shameful.”

Except — it’s a genetic deviation, a sign of other problems that can’t be seen. Can we trust the engineering work she performed for this mission? Can we trust her even to want this mission to succeed?

“Shadoua — are you sure you’re well? You look like you received quite a shock.”

“Yes. I’m sorry. I really should get back to work.” But when Shadoua left the cockpit, he didn’t immediately rejoin his colleagues who were preparing the spacecraft for the rendezvous with the comet; instead, he shut himself up for a time in his personal bunk, a space so small he could barely float free.

§

Raytier stood outside the back door of her home, moments before Seyel was to set, and watched as the first comet bore down upon the gas giant Gisreth. Its long tail of gas and dust made the comet easily visible even without a telescope. Despite the immense speeds involved, she was struck by how slowly the comet seemed to approach the planet — it gave the impression of being unwilling to be drawn in to Gisreth as so many others had been.

Though not an uncommon event, such comet strikes were rare enough that Raytier had never witnessed one as it happened. She savored the anticipation in the last moments before the comet gave in to the inevitable and allowed itself to plunge into Gisreth — a crimson fireball probably the size of Kutraya itself bloomed languidly, almost seductively, from the planet. Raytier heard a scream from several houses away, then other voices, more muffled, urging that person to remain calm. Don’t worry about Father Gisreth, Raytier thought. He’s taken much bigger punches.

Kutraya wouldn’t survive, though. And the second comet will be on its way within moments.

It’s all up to Shadoua and everyone else aboard Ahkir.

Raytier heard muffled steps behind her, and turned to see two people approaching. Silhouetted against Seyel’s dying rays, she couldn’t make out whether she recognized them, but their purposeful strides told her this was not a random encounter.

Before she could react, one intruder grabbed her upper arms as the other advanced toward her unlocked door. Raytier struggled, but the grip against her upper arms only tightened, and the intruder’s lower arms held hers in check, not even able to unsheath. “We’ll do this quietly and quickly,” the intruder holding her said as he pushed her into her home. “No reason to draw this out as you did the buildup to your blasphemous space mission.”

Raytier shouted, “Get out of my house!”

The other intruder slapped her on the side of her head, and she fell to the floor. The first one told her, “I said ‘quietly.’” He motioned to the other. “Follow through on ‘quickly.’” The first intruder leaned down next to her and said, “Take comfort in the fact that your suffering is alleviating that of Father Gisreth.”

The filthy rag they stuffed into her mouth kept her from screaming as the first blows rained down upon her and the first intruder pulled out a razor-sharp blade and bent over her.

§

Shadoua approached Raytier’s house one night three days later. He wasn’t concerned about the lateness of the hour, knowing of nearsiders habits of napping, especially with Gisreth shining nearly full as midnight approached.

His joy over the success of the rescue mission remained tempered by concern for her. She won’t answer when I call, he thought. I’m told no one in her commonage has seen her.

Local security forces had told him they’d checked in on her and everything was fine, but Shadoua didn’t trust that report.

I heard a frightening tone in their voices, even over the comm line, he thought. As if it didn’t matter whether anything had happened to her.

It’s the same tone I heard in my own voice when I told Captain Direl I was ‘getting used to’ the revelation that Raytier’s a multi-colored.

Shadoua walked up to Raytier’s door and knocked, waited. No response. He knocked louder. Finally he heard movement inside. A weak voice spoke from behind the door: “Please go away.”

“Raytier — it’s Shadoua.”

“I know. Why would you want to speak to someone like me?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I was wrong to feel the way I did.”

“I wish I could believe you.”

“Let me in. I’ll convince you. I’m…worried about you.”

A moment passed, and the door opened on her darkened house. Raytier wore a hooded robe that covered her entire body except for part of her face. Shadoua took a step forward and Raytier took two steps backward. “There’s no reason to be afraid of me,” Shadoua said.

“Then — you don’t know what happened?”

Shadoua fought to keep anger from flaring: “I know that I went on a space mission when I didn’t want to. I know I helped save the world. We couldn’t have done it without you, but I did my part, too, and I think that gives me the right to an answer — what’s going on here?”

Raytier lowered her hood and pulled the robe down to expose her shoulders. “Oh, dear Father Gisreth,” Shadoua said at the sight, a phrase from his more faithful youth he uttered without thinking.

Raytier’s face, the side of her head, and even parts of her crest were heavily bruised. The tips of her ears hung down forlornly. And where her white fur was supposed to begin at her neck, there was only bare green skin, which was marred by many small but deep cuts in the first stages of healing.

“They shaved off all of your —”

“Yes. They beat me and stripped me and shaved my entire body.”

“Who did this?” Shadoua asked.

“They didn’t say. But I’d suspect they’re some of Niaghos’ followers.”

“I don’t agree with the man’s views, but I have a hard time believing he’d order something like this.”

“I don’t say he ordered it,” Raytier said. “But he may have some overzealous followers.”

“I can’t imagine the shame…”

“Could it be worse than the shame I suffered all these years, knowing I was a multi-colored, knowing I’d never be able to advance as I knew I could…”

“I have to apologize, “Shadoua said. “I’ve seen who it is who makes such statements. I have no wish to be associated with them.”

“We saved the world. Nothing else matters.”

“They want to honor me before the Council. I’ll refuse unless you can stand there with me.”

Raytier laughed, rolled up her sleeves to show her naked arms, hitched up her robe to show her naked legs. “Is this who will appear before the Council? No, they will not embrace me.”

“I won’t accept the honor unless they do embrace you.”

“Thank you, Shadoua. That, I will accept,” Raytier said as she took Shadoua’s hands in hers. Shadoua kept himself from flinching, despite the unnaturally warm feel of smooth unfurred skin and a sense that this was inappropriately intimate, a type of touching he should share only with his true-mate whenever he caressed her smooth face.

 

Originally appeared in The Human Equations (Hydra Publications, 2014), a collection by Dave Creek

Dave Creek is the author of a novel, Some Distant Shore, and the short story collections A Glimpse of Splendor and The Human Equations. He’s also published a series of novellas, including The Silent Sentinels and A Crowd of Stars, with The Fallen Sun forthcoming. He’s also a regular contributor to Analog Science Fiction and Fact, where many of his short stories first appeared. He’s also contributed stories to several anthologies. Find out more about Dave’s work at www.davecreek.net, on Facebook at Fans of Dave Creek, and on Twitter, @DaveCreek. In the “real world,” Dave is a retired television news producer. Dave lives in Louisville with his wife Dana, son Andy, and two sleepy cats — Hedwig and Hemingway.
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Maxwell’s Demon http://www.apex-magazine.com/maxwells-demon/ http://www.apex-magazine.com/maxwells-demon/#comments Thu, 28 Jan 2016 15:45:20 +0000 http://www.apex-magazine.com/?p=10883 sits dangling his tiny legs
(because his feet can’t reach)
as he ushers us in and out.

We are sorted casually:
hot and cold
fast and slow
bad and good
but we don’t mind;
we would have spent
that energy anyway,
running to the grocery store
making love
writing free verse
so we let him guide us
through the door,
unworried.

I can’t see you now.

Maxwell cheerily claims
that nothing’s lost or gained,
but as I look for you
across a chasm under
two miniature, swinging feet,
I wonder why
we let ourselves
be sorted by a demon.

 

Annie Neugebauer is a novelist, short story author, and award-winning poet. She has work appearing in over fifty venues, including Black Static, Fireside, and Buzzy Mag. She’s an active member of the Horror Writers Association, webmaster for the Poetry Society of Texas, and a columnist for Writer Unboxed. You can visit her at www.AnnieNeugebauer.com.
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Various Kinds of Wolves http://www.apex-magazine.com/various-kinds-of-wolves/ http://www.apex-magazine.com/various-kinds-of-wolves/#respond Thu, 28 Jan 2016 14:48:54 +0000 http://www.apex-magazine.com/?p=10886 here: have a red cap
or a red shirt
in this story you are the prettiest creature
or expendable
or both

have some accessories: a fresh-baked cake
a fresh act of heroism
a fresh-faced naiveté

have a pot of butter
and the good regard of your fellows
have some good intentions
and trust in your mother
your commanding officer
do as they say

have an impossible situation
where grandmother has lost her mind
or her body
or both

have death or an axe to kill her
have the kindness of strangers
cost

the moral of the story is
your fault regardless
and also
no one is safe

J.J. Hunter lives by the motto, “Think like a scientist, dream like a poet.” In addition to some truly magnificent experimental pizza topping combinations over the years, this has led her to work in science education design, and to cultivate playful exploration of the bounds of things.

J.J. makes her home in Boston, MA. She is the founder and co—admin of the online poetry discussion community POETREE @ Dreamwidth.

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Paper Tigers (Excerpt) http://www.apex-magazine.com/paper-tigers-excerpt/ http://www.apex-magazine.com/paper-tigers-excerpt/#respond Wed, 27 Jan 2016 14:33:18 +0000 http://www.apex-magazine.com/?p=10874 Back cover copy:

In this haunting and hypnotizing novel, a young woman loses everything—half of her body, her fiancé, and possibly her unborn child—to a terrible apartment fire. While recovering from the trauma, she discovers a photo album inhabited by a predatory ghost who promises to make her whole again, all while slowly consuming her from the inside out.

 

Blurbs:

Paper Tigers gathers the best from every childhood scary story—creepy antiques, haunted houses, seemingly friendly ghosts—and repackages them with the worst and most isolating of adult fears. Walters’ prose is vivid and gripping, luring you in, feeding you images that will leave you comforted by the light of your bedside nightstand; horror nostalgia at its finest.”
—Rebecca Jones-Howe, author of Vile Men

“With Paper Tigers, Damien Angelica Walters has created a hauntingly elegant portrait of loneliness and longing for healing. But where she confronts real terror is in answering the question of what it costs the wounded to be whole again. This book is at once as beautiful and frightening as a scar on smooth skin or a scream with perfect pitch.”
—Bracken MacLeod, author of Mountain Home and Stranded

“Damien Angelica Walters pulls you into the heart of her characters and traps you there until you’re not sure if the story is haunting you, or you’re haunting it. Wonderfully creepy and heartwarming, fear and sadness alternate and blend throughout in a story that’s packed with atmosphere. Keep the lights on and the tissues close.”
—Sarah Read, editor of Pantheon Magazine

 

CHAPTER 1

The soles of Alison’s shoes marked each limping step away from her front door. She tugged the scarf on her head, pulling the fabric down to cover most of her forehead, and shoved her gloved hands deep in the pockets of her jacket. A woman’s voice, high-pitched and nasal, broke the 3 a.m. stillness.

“Get outta here!”

Alison froze, a rabbit in disaster’s headlights. Ten feet away, a man stumbled from a house with his shoes untied and the tails of his shirt flapping around his hips. The door slammed behind him, and he let out a string of mumbled curses. Alison tucked her chin toward her chest, willing herself into an insignificant shape, another shadow in the night, and only when the man crossed the street and disappeared did she move again.

Once she reached the street sign at the corner, marking the point of no return, her steps quickened. Her first rule: if one tiny sliver of shoe went past the edge of the sign she had to go on and, of course, tonight it had. Her second rule: she couldn’t alter her steps approaching the sign to prevent such an occurrence.

She paused. If she turned left, she’d pass by the elementary school, and although it used to be her favorite route, she hadn’t been that way in months. Not since the night she’d stumbled upon a few teenagers lingering in the playground. If she’d seen them first, she never would’ve entered the playground and she never would’ve heard their words. Alison blinked twice, forcing the memory away. Decision made, she turned right.

She passed more houses, all nestled next to each other. Narrow brick boxes, some with painted screens covering the basement windows, others with awnings over windows and doors, and all with a marble stoop, a Baltimore trademark.

The original residents of Hampden, a triangular shaped area in northwestern Baltimore, were mostly millworkers. Now, artists, college students, and families took their place.

The late September air held a promise of rain underneath the scent of old exhaust. Alison turned onto 36th Street and a quick gust of wind ruffled the scarf covering her head. Shops and restaurants with darkened windows lined both sides. Traffic lights cast arcs of red, yellow, and green on the asphalt. An empty plastic bag spiraled on the pavement and bounced across the street. Alison peered into the windows and saw cloth-covered tables in one, shelves of handmade jewelry in another, and racks of women’s shoes in the next, teasing her with their proximity, taunting with their inaccessibility. When she neared the last store at the end of the block, her pace slowed and she smiled. The skin on her right cheek twisted and tugged, turning the side of her face into something closer to a grimace than a grin.

A small hand-lettered sign in the corner of the window read Elena’s Antiquesin careful print. Antiques, maybe. Junk, definitely. Until a month ago, the building housed an art gallery. Not the sort with champagne openings for brilliant young artists selling work for six figures, but the type featuring art heavy with barbed wire and faces contorted in misery and torment. All prices negotiable, of course.

The streetlamps cast a pale glow on the items on display: an old tricycle with faded plastic streamers hanging from the handle grips, a lamp with a multicolored glass shade, several small stone dragon statues, a hand mirror with a gilded handle, the reflective side facing away, and a photo album with a worn, ash grey cover. A large split in the leather ran from one corner down to the center, and the bloated shape of the page edges gave proof of the photos within.

Over the past three weeks the shop had filled up with old furniture and other odds and ends, but the sign and the items in the front window were new additions. She bent close to the glass, turning slightly to see everything with her one good eye. A quick succession of footsteps heading in her direction pierced the silence. She exhaled and stood, leaving behind a circle of breathy fog on the window. The steps drew closer.

A short, round woman with a bright scarf wrapped around her hair emerged from the shadows. Alison backed away from the window, blinking in disbelief and dismay. 3 a.m. on a weeknight was normally safe; she never ran into anyone. And twice in one night? She hunched her shoulders.

The woman unlocked the door, turned, and jingled a large ring of keys in her hand.

“You want come in?” she asked.

“No thank you,” Alison said, angling her face away from the glare of the streetlamps.

“Is okay.”

She glanced at the photo album. She could call her mother tomorrow and ask her to pick it up. But what if someone else bought it? A ridiculous thought. But what if?

“Aren’t you closed? It’s the middle of the night.”

“Sometime close, sometime open. If you want something, I let you come in anyway.”

Alison worried her lower lip between her teeth. The woman gave the keys another shake. Why was she so willing to open her door, so unconcerned at this time of the morning?

Alison whirled around, moving away from the store. Red flared inside her, a deep shade of crimson shot through with scarlet, and she tightened her hands into fists, hating the way the right curled in, misshapen and smaller than the left. The red swirled in and around, twisting her every cell into a grim reminder of what she had, what she remembered, and what she lost. Her vision blurred.

Go away, Monstergirl, a voice said.

How she wished she didn’t know that voice so well. The voice, sharp of teeth and cruel with contempt, bit down hard. The woman remained at the door, her eyes narrowed.

Alison closed the distance between them with several short steps that helped hide her ungainly walk, ignoring the ache in her right hip.

“The photo album in the window. I want.” She cleared her throat. “I’d like to buy it. Please.”

“Okay, you come in.”

The woman held the door open with one hand and gestured with the other. Alison paused, her mouth dry. How long since she’d been inside any building other than her house or the hospital? She couldn’t even bring herself to cross the threshold of the house in which she’d grown up, in spite of her mother’s assurances that she’d taken down all the old photographs.

Her mother’s words came to mind: Babygirl, you have to try.

Alison kept her chin down and when the woman turned on the lights, she turned her face away.

Leave, leave, leave. She hasn’t seen you yet, a voice said, not the voice of the red, but of the sharpest yellow. Alison swallowed hard. Shoved the voice away.

The walls still retained the previous tenant’s paint, a steely shade of grey, complete with unpatched gouges in the plaster. Some of the ceiling tiles in the long, rectangular space had been replaced, but others, stained and bowed in the middle, hung from the framework. A fluorescent tube near the window flickered.

“You want look around some, is okay,” the woman said as she headed to a counter in the corner, her scarf, a vibrant fuchsia with dark flowery swirls, bobbing up and down the entire way. “I here for little while.”

“Thank you,” Alison said.

She nudged the hand mirror in the window out of the way, and grabbed the photo album. It slipped from her grasp, sliding back with a heavy thud and a puff of dust. She cast a glance toward the counter, but the woman (maybe Elena?) muttered to herself and crouched down, leaving only a curve of her scarf visible. Alison wrapped her

old scars, old hurts

gloved fingers around each side of the album, breathing in the passage of time and a hint of tobacco as she pulled it free and held it close against her chest.

Despite the bright lights, the shop called out with a siren’s song, and after another check to make sure maybe-Elena wasn’t watching, she let her feet answer the call. The smell of old boxes, yellowed paper curling at the edges, and unwanted clothing hung in the air, musty and thick. And beneath, a trace of artificial rose, reminiscent of the squares of decorative soap her grandmother had kept in a porcelain tray in the bathroom. From a large bookcase set against the far wall, she removed a volume of Poe’s works, but a dark stain covered more than half the pages and rendered the text illegible.

She traced a set of initials—JSJ—carved into one corner of the desk, and her fingers left three trails behind in the fine layer of dust covering the scuffed mahogany. A brass-handled drawer gave a tiny squeal of protest, and the carved legs ended with well-worn lion’s feet. The sort of desk designed for a master wordsmith’s time and tales. Alison’s own poetry, all random, chaotic outpourings of battered emotions, did not warrant such a masterpiece.

If a writer didn’t purchase the desk, Alison hoped a teacher would. The kind of teacher students gave gifts to; the kind of teacher students remembered long after they left the classroom. She could almost see a stack of test papers on one corner, an open lesson plan in the other, a collection of pens off to the side. She closed the drawer a little harder than she intended, picked up the photo album, and made for the counter.

“How much please?” she asked, keeping her chin down.

“Five dollar.”

When she handed the money over, their fingertips touched, glove against skin, and she held her breath. Maybe-Elena said something low, something soft and not in English, but Alison recognized the tone. Oh yes, she did. Yellow raced in, a huge wave (so young, so ugly) crashing down, too fast and too hard to hold still, and she stumbled back, grabbing the album, refusing to lift her gaze, refusing to see everything she hated—feared—in maybe-Elena’s eyes. Without another word, she fled back into the safe anonymity of the shadows, her heart a steady beat of hurt.

§

It took three tries before Alison could hold the key still enough to slide it into the lock. She rushed in, flipped the dead-bolt latch, and stood with her back against the door, the album clutched to her chest.

Red and Yellow, two of the Muses of Disfigurement accompanying Alison on her journey through the land of scars, still fought within her. She envisioned them as women in flowing robes, their faces hidden behind swathes of fabric. Red carried anger in her fists; Yellow bore the weight of pity upon her shoulders. Both had voices far too strong and sharp to ignore. Both were bound to Alison with unbreakable chains stronger than steel.

Alison’s eyelids fluttered shut and she willed herself to a blank slate. Emptiness flowed in, leaving her still, silent, and colorless—the absence of self, the absence of everything. Her pulse slowed, and her breathing turned even.

She slipped off her gloves (plain thin gloves, not the hateful pressure garments meant to tame the scars into submission), shifting the weight of the album from side to side. The spaces where pinkie and ring fingers on her right hand should be cried out with a familiar phantom itch, familiar enough to ignore. As she kicked off her shoes, her hip gave a small thank you. The reinforced heel of the right shoe kept her hips properly aligned and turned her limping gait into something less awkward, but like braces on teeth, the forcing of crooked into straight held a price.

She shrugged out of her jacket and sat on the end of the sofa, closest to the light, with the album on her lap. She’d done it. She’d gone into the store and braved the woman’s stares. Sure, she’d hightailed it out of the shop, but that was okay. She’d faced a stranger. That had to mean something.

Baby steps, babygirl. Baby steps.

Tracing her fingers along the cover, she imagined the feel of the old leather. Rough, yet smooth, perhaps cool to the touch. The tip of her forefinger caught on one jagged edge of the long split, hard enough to leave a small mark, a raised line of white against the pinkish skin glove of scar tissue, but not sharp enough to draw blood.

She opened the album, smiling at the scent of tobacco. They never smelled the same. Another odd smell conjured images of old furniture and empty animal cages.

Faint smears of indigo marred the stiff, heavy paper of the first page. Traces of old ink? She tilted the page. Yes, definitely. Old words too faded to read, but still there nonetheless. She angled the album a little further, almost able to make out the handwritten words. An inscription? The name of a family? One line stood out at the bottom, a little darker than the rest, the handwriting old-fashioned and spidery. Not a name, though. Too many words for a name. She held the album even higher, and the words came into focus. Alison read them twice to make sure.

A paper tiger to swallow you whole.

A snippet of poetry perhaps. Oddly compelling.

“Here there be paper tigers,” she said and turned the page.

The yellowed paper crackled and a small corner crumbled off into her hand. The first page contained one photo, a sepia-toned, somber faced man in a dark suit, a dark stain obscuring the bottom half of the picture. Alison traced the man’s face with her finger, willing it to memory. Dark hair, bushy moustache, stern eyes, small spectacles balanced on a strong nose, thin lips pressed into a narrow line.

“George, I think. You look like a George.”

A bachelor with a penchant for strong drink. A banker or a businessman. The fantasy spilled out and took shape. His voice deep and raspy, yet eloquent. Educated. A haze of pipe smoke floated around his head, illuminated by the glow of candlelight. A journal, ornate script on its pages, lay open on the table. The sharp bite of liquor. Brandy.

“A good year. Only the best,” he said, lifting his glass in a toast. “Only the best.”

A predatory smile and quick shift of the eyes. He slammed his fist down. Glass shattered and liquor pooled onto the journal, blurring the ink. Blood seeped between his fingers and mixed with the alcohol and the ink.

Alison pulled her hand back from the page and the images drifted away. The tips of her fingers tingled again, the disconnect between brain and dead nerve endings teasing her with the memory of sensation. She dropped her hand onto the sofa, and her breath caught in her throat. Smooth fabric played beneath her skin, soft and real and warm, not phantom. She pushed harder; the sensation melted away, leaving her with the familiar nothingness and tears burning in her left eye. But she knew she felt it.

The red coiled tight. Liar, it said. Fool.

It wasn’t the first time it had happened, nor would it be the last. It could happen for years, her doctor had said. When she asked how many years, he’d glanced away. Obviously, more than two. Then he resumed his pep talk about living in the here and now. Easy to say, and even easier to do, for a man with all ten fingers, two eyes, a full head of hair, and unscarred skin.

A dull, uncomfortable ache nestled in the pit of her stomach.

Let me out, Monstergirl, Red said.

She closed her eyes, counted to five, and let it all go. Nothing more than spilled milk. Not worth the tears. Not worth the hope.

She grabbed the next page in the photo album. A triangular piece of the paper ripped, disintegrated to parchment confetti between her fingers, and spiraled down to the sofa. She slid her finger under the opposite corner of the page and lifted. The corner split; she gave a small growl.

Flipping the album on its side, she fanned the page edges with her fingernail. A brittle yet musical rustle danced up, but all the pages, save the first, held fast together despite no visible sign of water damage darkening the thick paper. She tried sliding her finger between two pages. They wouldn’t budge. At least George’s photo, his face, made the album interesting enough to keep. Behind the spectacles, his eyes gleamed with an intense light, like the look of a caged animal with dusky stripes pacing past the walls of its prison, waiting for a chance to be free.

Or to attack.


CHAPTER 2

Three quick little raps of knuckles against wood announced her mother’s arrival, and Alison closed her laptop before opening the door. Her mother bustled through, wrapped in a comforting cloud of gardenias, all smiles and shopping bags. She set down the latter before she pressed her lips to Alison’s unscarred left cheek.

“Wait until you see the sweater I bought you,” she said, stepping back. “It might convince you to change out of your pajamas once in a while.”

“Please. You don’t have to buy me something every time you step foot in the mall,” Alison said. “And my pajamas are perfectly fine. You’re the one who bought them for me anyway.”

“Hush. I can buy my daughter a present if I want to. Are you sure I bought those?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Remember? I asked you to after I saw them online.”

“Hmm,” she muttered. “Monkey pajamas. What every well-dressed twenty-four-year-old woman is wearing these days.” She glanced over at the laptop. “How are your friends?”

“They’re fine,” Alison said.

A shred of guilt wormed its way in, turning the words bitter. For a few months after her release from the hospital, she belonged to an online forum for survivors, but once her friends started discussing their reintroduction to society, she deleted her account and all the subsequent emails. And in the year since then, she’d avoided any website that even hinted at human interaction.

They never spoke of the other friends, the old friends and coworkers

pushed away

long gone.

Her mother stopped in the middle of the living room and sniffed. “What is that smell?”

“What smell?”

“It’s dreadful. Can’t you smell it?”

“I can only smell your perfume. Too much, like always.” She let out a fake cough, hiding a smile behind her hand.

“Hush.”

Her mother pointed at the album. “It’s that, I think.” She fanned the air in front of her face. “Oh, Alison, it’s horrible. It smells like dead, wet leaves. How can you stand it?”

Alison shrugged. “It doesn’t smell that bad to me. A little musty, but it’s old. I bought it last night.”

“Last night?”

“Well, technically this morning, but yes, I got it from a new shop on 36th Street, one of those places with a handful of antiques and a lot of junk. This was in the window.”

Her mother stopped with her hand in mid-air. “You went in the shop?”

“I did.”

“Oh babygirl, I’m so proud of you,” she said, taking Alison’s hands in hers.

“It was no big deal. I was out walking, and the woman was going in. She saw me looking at the album and said I could come in. She wasn’t open, though. There weren’t any other customers, I mean. Just me.”

“But you went in?”

“Yes, I did.” Tears glittered in her mother’s eyes. Alison gave her hand a small squeeze. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to go out in the middle of the day. I wanted the album.”

“But it’s a step in the right direction. The next time you go out will be easier and soon—”

“Enough, okay?”

“Okay. Well, show it to me.”

“You don’t even like them.”

“I’ve never said that. I just think it’s morbid. All those dead strangers. Of all the things you could possibly collect…”

Alison rolled her eyes but flipped the front cover open. “You’ve said that too, more than once. What can I say? I like them. This one isn’t much, though. The pages are all stuck together. You can only see one picture.”

Her mother fanned the air again. “From the smell, I can believe it. It’s like someone dipped it in manure and rolled it in mud.”

“It’s not that bad.”

“Sorry dear, but it is. I think you have so many of them you’ve become immune. I wish you would collect something…more aromatic.”

“Like perfume? Sorry, you have the market on that one. Do you want something to drink? I can make some tea.”

“Tea would be wonderful, but I can—”

“Nope, you stay put. I’m not crippled.”

In the kitchen, Alison filled the teapot and set it on the burner before she turned the knob, hiding the tiny blue flames from her sight. She normally used the microwave to make tea for herself but it made her mother happy when she used the stove. Another check mark on her “Alison is making progress sheet.”

Alison clenched her jaw. It was hard enough to make progress; knowing her mother was always taking notes made it harder still.

“Mom, are you hungry?” she called out. “If you want, I can make something.”

Her mother came into the kitchen and fetched the sugar bowl. “No, I’m fine. I had a little something before I came over.”

“You couldn’t sit and wait, could you?”

“Oh you know me. I get itchy feet when someone else is in the kitchen. Maybe I’ll come over next Sunday and make you dinner.”

“You don’t have to do that. Why don’t you come over, and I’ll make you dinner.”

“But I like doing things for you.”

Of course she did, but did she have to try so damn hard? Alison wasn’t going to shatter into pieces. She’d made it this far, hadn’t she? She held her tongue, said only, “I know you do.”

“I’ve been thinking. I can add a cell phone to my plan at any time and since you go out walking now, I’d like to get you one.”

“I don’t want one. I’m fine with the phone here.”

“But what if something happens? What if you fall?—”

“Mom. Please? If I decide I want one, I’ll let you know.”

Her mother held up both hands. “Okay, okay.” Her nose wrinkled. “You’re not really going to keep that album, are you?”

“Sure, why not? I might be able to get the pages unstuck and get to the other photos.”

“I think you should throw it away. The man in the picture is horrible.”

Alison turned away so her mother wouldn’t see her smile. “It’s just an old photo, and he’s just an old dead guy. He’s perfectly harmless.”

“Still, it’s unsettling. Please, don’t keep this one.”

Alison turned back. “Okay, fine. I’ll throw it out.”

The tea kettle rang out with a high-pitched whistle, and they jumped in unison.

§

After her mother left, Alison took a butter knife into the living room and sat on the floor beside the coffee table. She slid the blade between two of the photo album’s back pages and wiggled it from side to side, wincing at the sound of tearing paper and pulling it out when it met resistance.

She flipped it to George’s photo. Despite her odd daydream of broken glass in a slammed fist, his gaze held only a middle-aged man, dark of eyes and hair, from a forgotten time, his name lost everywhere but her own imagination. Nothing visible anchored the photo in place, and the edge of one corner bent out. She tapped the knife against her palm, set it aside, and slid her finger under the tiny separation. The paper crackled in protest, but the photo stayed intact. When the edge came up a little more, she poked and prodded the opposite corner until it lifted as well. The third corner wouldn’t budge, so she traced the edge of her fingernail around the last one, and with a tiny, brittle creak, it gave way. As her fingertip slipped under the picture, a white crack appeared at the edge, breaking through the sepia tones in the shape of a lightning bolt. She pulled her hand back, and two drops of blood dripped onto George’s shoulder.

“Damn,” she muttered. “Sorry, George.”

She cleaned off the blood from the photo with her thumb, leaving behind a small smear. Crimson welled from the small gash on her finger, a wet mouth within scarred lips, and she pressed her thumb on the cut, longing for the sharp sting. This wound would scab over and gift her construct of ruined flesh with yet another mark. As if she didn’t have enough.

Yellow rushed in, sunshine bright belying the ugliness it contained. It spoke of Monstergirls and broken things, useless fingers (and not quite enough because two little finger-piggies went away and never came home) and fractured images in a mirror, wrapping her in a blanket of familiar hurt. She closed her eyes, and tried to find the nothing-place, but the scars crisscrossing her palms and fingers and the back of her right hand didn’t care about closed eyes.

They all stare at the Monstergirl. They stare and point and make faces because you’re the sideshow freak, and they can’t resist the horror. Come, give up a tear or two, you poor, poor thing. So young, so trapped in your unmistakable destruction. Save your prayers, your hopes, swallow everything you ever thought you wanted. This is all you have now. Take it, choke it down, drown in it—

A heady scent of tobacco pushed through the voice, and her eyes snapped open. A grey wisp of ribbon-thin smoke hung in the air. Then it vanished. She held out one hand, touching the space where the smoke had been.

She wiped the blood smear again. Tingles raced up and down her thumb and she hissed in a breath. Under the pins and needles, the exterior of the photo changed from a dull pressure to rough against her skin, not the slick, slippery feel of a new photograph, but parchment, textured and warm. She traced the outline of George’s face; when she slid her thumb from the picture to the surrounding paper, a cool heat like icemelt on a hot pavement radiated from its pebbled surface. Spreading her fingers wide, she set her hand down, half-covering George’s photo, half on the paper, but the coldhotcold touched only her thumb. The rest of her skin remained an insensate landscape of alternately ridged and smooth scars. The tingle intensified, a creeping, insectile buzz beneath the skin. She blinked and the sensation ceased, like the phantom smoke. With a sigh, she stuck her finger in her mouth, tasting the metallic tang of blood.

A paper cut from a paper tiger.

 

Publisher’s Note: The version presented is from the ARC and may differ from published edition.

 Paper Tigers Hi-Res

Damien Angelica Walters’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in various anthologies and magazines, including The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2015, Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume One, Cassilda’s Song, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu: New Lovecraftian Fiction, Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, and Apex Magazine. She was a finalist for a Bram Stoker Award for “The Floating Girls: A Documentary,” originally published in Jamais Vu. Sing Me Your Scars, a collection of short fiction, was released in 2015 from Apex Publications. Find her on Twitter @DamienAWalters or on the web at http://damienangelicawalters.com.
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