Reva’s lungs were burning and her sweaty calves were coated in sand by the time she started up the side of the last dune. She’d snuck away from the camp by starlight, with her breath pluming behind her in the bitter cold, but now the sun was up and bright and hot. She’d covered herself as best she could, winding her body wrap in a tight pattern her mother would have approved, secured with a graceful knot her older sister Brete had never quite learned.
Barely a sliver of skin was left exposed to the sun’s glare, but there was a whisper in the back of her mind that it didn’t really matter anymore. It didn’t matter if she had soft and beautiful skin, because the God in the Pit had made his decision and never unmade them.
Yet, Reva kept reminding herself, he hadn’t unmade one yet.
The God in the Pit was different from the spirits who swirled through the sands or pulled the sun along its groove in the sky. He was more like a man. He needed wives, and Reva knew that meant he had a body. She and Brete and the other girls had discussed it often enough in the night.
Some said the God in the Pit was horribly blackened and burned, because he’d been birthed from the sun’s hot center, and he brought the cooling rains not only for the Clan’s benefit but for his own. Others said that being born of the sun only meant he was more beautiful than any man, with a face that shone almost too bright to look at.
Reva had once said, callously, that she didn’t really care what he looked like so long as he had a thick cock, and the other girls’ faces had gone red and Brete had howled. Remembering that now made Reva feel small and stupid, because she hadn’t been chosen to be the wife of the God.
Brete had. Brete, who was thick-boned, rough-skinned from a wild curiosity that led her into scrapes and calluses. Brete, who was clever with words and tools and not ugly, no, but certainly not beautiful. Brete, who hadn’t even wanted to be chosen. Hot bitter anger filled Reva’s chest and she channeled it into the ascent, driving her booted feet hard into each step.
But the God in the Pit was more like a man, and men made mistakes. Men changed their minds constantly. That was why, once the other girls were finished weeping and wondering, Reva had crept away in the dead of night. She was going to change his mind.
She crested the dune and looked down into the Pit. It was beautiful enough that she forgot her anger and aching muscles for a moment. Where the God in the Pit had touched his fingers to the sand, it was bubbled and frozen, colored iridescent greens and blues that caught the sunlight. It sprang from the ground in ripples, blades, swooping arcs, forming a thicket of gleaming glass around the God’s temple.
The temple itself did not gleam. It jutted up crookedly from the center of the Pit and its walls were the darkest black Reva had ever seen, so black they seemed to eat the sunlight. The sight put a shiver under her perfect skin. It was something she would ask the God in the Pit, when she was his wife. She would ask why the glass garden was so beautiful, but the temple itself was so ugly. Maybe he would change it.
She heard voices on the wind. She turned, cupping her hands as a visor, and saw a group of scarved figures on the top of the penultimate dune, the one she’d beat her way up a half hour ago. They were calling to her. Waving their arms. Reva wondered who was among them. Probably Petro, and Mort, and the other boys who always found ways to follow her. Maybe Naza, who was less jealous than the other girls. Maybe her father, fearful of sacrilege.
Not her mother, who had been awake in the shadows when she left, who had silently opened the slit of the tent for her. Her mother understood.
Reva waved back to them, loose and careless. They were trying to save her, of course. Only the wife of the God could enter the Pit, and only once every third year. Brete had stumbled down the last dune, accompanied by chanting and wailing, led by the God’s buzzing black emissary, only a day ago.
They thought the God in the Pit would set her ablaze in his anger. Reva knew better. She was more beautiful than Brete, more beautiful than anyone. When the God saw her, he would realize his mistake.
She turned her back and started her descent.
Down among the glass, sheltered from the wind, Reva heard singing. The voice was high and thrumming and unearthly. It seemed to vibrate through the smoothest spars of glass, bending around their edges, making the air itself tremble. The sound raised goose bumps on her arms and keened in her chest. As she picked her way carefully towards the temple, it grew louder, fiercer. Angrier, maybe.
Reva distracted herself by looking at her reflection in the glass, pulling her wrap down away from her face. Most of the ripples and spars were too warped, but in some she could catch glimpses of her dark eyes, her pink lips. Perfectly formed, perfectly symmetrical. Nothing like Brete’s face, with her eyebrow that drooped and her uneven teeth.
Staring into a curved blade of pale yellow glass, she misstepped and had to grab hold of it to break her fall. A rough edge scored her palm. She hissed, unclenched her fist, and saw a diagonal cut welling red against her pale skin. The sting of it made her angry again—she could picture Brete high up in the temple’s black spire, watching through some hidden window and laughing at her.
Reva bled too easily and bruised even easier. Maybe that was why she had never been as wild as Brete, who climbed in the rocks and ran footraces with Petro and laughed too loudly in a way that made people always join in.
Reva still remembered the night Brete confessed to her that she loved Petro, that she would rather be his wife than any God’s, and it had made her so angry because Brete used to love only her. She’d kept the blasphemy a secret, but in the next days, the next weeks, she made Petro forget all about her plain sister. It only took a certain kind of smile. She’d wanted Brete to hate her for it.
Reva’s hand pulsed with a little heartbeat of its own as she entered the temple’s shadow. Sweat cooled to slime on the back of her neck. She wouldn’t be clean and perfumed how she’d been for the selection, but the God in the Pit had only himself to blame for that. She kept walking.
The singing pitched even higher now, a whine that she felt in her jawbone. The looming black wall of the temple seemed to shiver from it. Whoever had followed her from the camp would be nearly to the edge of the Pit by now. For a moment she considered waiting for them. Just so they could call to her again, and she could give them a last imperious wave before she went inside.
Not because she was unnerved by the keening voice, the seamless black walls, the cut staining her hand red. Reva had nothing to fear. She was more beautiful than anyone, and the most beautiful was supposed to be chosen.
She looked for a dangling chime to announce her presence, the sort that hung over the entry to the elders’ tent, but saw nothing. There was no crack to indicate the door she had seen Brete walk through. Breathing deep, she balled her good hand into a fist and rapped it against the wall. The black surface did not feel like obsidian, how she’d expected. It felt more like sponge, and her fist made no sound at all.
“I am Reva of the Clan and I have come to see the God in the Pit who is the Cloud Splitter and Lord of the Rain,” she called, the words she’d recited over and over in her head to make sure she wouldn’t misspeak.
The temple seemed to swallow her voice, turning it small and flat. Nothing happened. She called again, this time adding her family names in case the God in the Pit was one for ceremony. Nothing happened, and in a flash Reva realized that this was worse than being devoured by divine flames. Far worse.
She would have to struggle back the way she’d come, head hanging, and rejoin the camp. The other girls would smirk behind their hands. The cut in her palm would become infected and she would turn hideous with disease. The God in the Pit didn’t want her and neither would anyone else, not even Petro who’d carved their names on a piece of petrified wood from the dead forest.
She remembered back to the selection, to the look on Brete’s face when the emissary stopped over her and cast its red marker: startled, unbridled joy. It had lit her from inside like a lantern and Reva had felt so ugly, which was a thousand times worse than only feeling dull and useless how she normally did around Brete.
Reva pounded her fist against the wall again, her heart tight against her ribs, then waled against it with both hands, forgetting her cut in the sudden panic. When she pulled back there was half a scarlet handprint left smeared against the black surface. It seemed too bright to be her blood, almost luminous.
Then it was gone, dissolving into the spongy black wall, and the singing vibration in her bones changed pitch once more. The wall split soundlessly apart. Reva stared. Glowing in the gloom of the temple’s interior, a swirling blue ghost—no, a spirit—was waiting for her. Its miniature face was veiled, indistinct like a mirage, but its words came clear.
“Welcome, Reva of the Clan,” it said in a smooth melodic voice that was not quite a man’s nor a woman’s. “Why have you come here?”
Reva considered lying, maybe saying that she had only come to visit Brete, or that she had some message from the Clan. But she had never been clever enough to tell good lies and spirits could see into your soul, besides.
“I have come to see your master,” Reva said shakily. “There was a mistake in the selection. I should have been chosen. Not Brete. I should be the God’s wife.”
“A mistake in the selection,” the spirit echoed. “This has never been claimed.”
Reva saw low scuttling shapes in the dark. She flinched backward as one of them skittered into clear view, illuminated by the spirit’s blue glow. The creature was jet black, like the temple walls, with four skeletal limbs and no head.
“You should not be here.” Its voice was a rasping, distorted whisper, nothing like the spirit’s cool tones. “You should not be here, you should go, go, go …”
Reva took another step backward, her mouth dry. Then two other creatures, identical to the first, lunged from the shadows, stabbing at their companion with the hooked ends of their limbs. Sparks sizzled in the dark and the creature gave a grinding shriek; it flipped over and scurried away into the temple with the other two in pursuit.
“A servant who forgets his place,” the spirit said simply. “You are welcome here, Reva of the Clan. The God in the Pit allows you.”
A breath Reva didn’t know she’d been holding slipped from her lips. She put her shoulders back, raised her chin. Of course she was welcome here. Soon, this would be her home. She stepped inside, and the black wall filled in behind her like seeping clay, eating the last trace of sunlight.
“Does it have to be so dark in here?” she asked.
The spirit raised its blurred hand, and two orbs of blue light drifted upward, revealing the temple’s architecture. It reminded Reva of a ribcage, of the giant petrified skeletons that the Clan sometimes uncovered from the dust. But this had to be even older. This had come from the sun itself.
The orbs split and grew, multiplying until the whole interior was bathed in an icy blue glow, and Reva realized that for all its size, they were only in an antechamber. The temple seemed even vaster from the inside.
“You are hurt,” the spirit said. “You are thirsty.”
There was a sharp tapping sound and the small black creatures returned, this time only two of them. One bent low—bowing, she realized—and extended its spidery limb. But the end was no longer hooked. Instead, it was tipped by a small black bulb. At the spirit’s prompt, Reva opened her wounded hand and extended it, palm-out, to the creature.
A freezing spray enveloped her hand; she jerked it away with a cry of surprise. When she looked, she saw the slash was somehow knitting shut, the clotted blood dissolving away. She tried not to stare at the perfect flesh left with not even a hint of scar. She didn’t want to seem too impressed.
Then the second creature came forward, and Reva forgot all about not seeming impressed. Perfectly balanced on the ridges of its back stood a mirrored metal pitcher, full to the brim with water. She peered inside at her wavering wide-eyed reflection. It was as much water as she’d ever seen in her life except in a rainstorm, and it was perfectly clear, and cold to the touch. She cupped her hands and drank.
It was so cold and sweet it made her teeth ache. If this was what Brete drank as the God’s wife, she could only imagine the things there were to eat. For a moment she felt almost guilty—the Clan rarely had enough to eat, and Brete was always hungrier than she was. But that was Brete’s fault for running around like a boy instead of a wife for the God.
Reva drank and then unwound her grimy body wrap to wash, reasoning that the creatures had no eyes to see her with and the spirit no flesh to touch her with. She clenched her teeth against the cold. The goose bumps returned, but she relished the sight of her smooth skin coming clean from the congealed sweat and grit of the climb.
“Clothes?” she said, putting her hands on her hips.
“Does a wife need clothes before her husband?” the spirit asked.
Reva felt a smirk slide unbidden onto her lips. “No,” she said, with her heart pounding hard, a flush building under her skin. “He will see me, then?”
“He will see you,” the spirit said. “You interest him. Do you know anything of art, Reva of the Clan?”
Reva thought of Petro’s little carvings, or the woven tapestries that adorned the walls of her family tent, covered in symbols nobody knew to read anymore. She had never paid them much attention.
“The God is an artist,” the spirit continued. “He wishes to show you his work. Please, follow me.”
The spirit glided away, its toes dragging soundlessly along the hard black floor. Reva followed, and the two creatures came behind her, click-clack.
Her whole body thrummed with excitement as she walked, naked, how she’d never been allowed even before she could speak. She could feel the air licking her skin, sending shivers down her spine. The spirit led her and the servants—soon they would be her servants—through a long hall. As she walked, the walls rippled and turned to mirrors.
Reva walked in step with her reflections on each side, admiring the proud tilt of her head, the dark hair flowing down her shoulders, the graceful curve of her hip, the sinew of her long legs. All of it clearer than she’d ever seen before. All of it more beautiful. When the God saw her, he would send Brete away and have her instead. She was sure of it.
The spirit brought her and her reflections to a small circular chamber, empty aside from a curious chair in the center. Parts of it were jet black, like the creatures, and parts were soft pink. Supposing it the God’s artwork, she ran her fingers along the rippled edge. It trembled in response. She snatched her hand back.
“Please, sit,” the spirit said. “You are tired.”
Reva bristled. Chairs were for the very old, whose legs had failed them, and Reva was young. She needed no chair, especially not one that moved.
“You can better see the dancers if you sit,” the spirit said.
“What sort of dancers?” Reva blurted. She didn’t care for chairs, but she did love dancing. The God in the Pit was trying to impress her. Maybe the dancers would be spirits, swirling and glowing like her guide. That would be very beautiful.
The spirit motioned her towards the chair. “None you have seen,” it said.
Reva sat. The chair cupped her body perfectly, and in some of the soft places it felt almost like bare skin against her bare skin, odd and thrilling. The two creatures crouched at her feet, folding up into themselves. She was facing her reflection once more, in the mirrored walls of the chamber, and she looked mysterious, ethereal, with her eyes half-hooded and her lips set just so—like the wife of a God.
Her reflection shattered into tiny fragments, making her startle, but none of them struck her: they caught and spun in the air, then disappeared to reveal the dancers. Reva’s eyes widened. There were six of them, tall and lithe and not-quite-human. Their skin was red-brown with slivers of pale gray, small packets of yellow interspersed.
They danced, but not as Reva knew dancing. There were no spins, no hard stamps or timed claps, only jerking contortions of arm and leg, snapping this way and that, fast and synchronized and horrible. They danced with no music. It was only when the lead dancer jerked closer that Reva recognized the bundles of muscle, the web of veins, and realized they had no skin at all.
She shrank back in the chair, realizing the hairless white scalp was a skull, realizing that the dancer was a man, even if he was tall and skinless and had only smooth flesh between his thighs. Gleaming gray discs were set in his joints and his green eyes were glazed.
Bile burned up Reva’s throat. The other dancers were men and women, too, skinned like the rare dew rat the Clan found and speared for roasting, dancing like the clumsy puppet Petro’s grandfather had carved long ago. They danced faster and faster, their limbs tossed and churned, heavy heads whipping on sinewy necks.
“There is more,” the spirit said, and its voice had changed subtly, more forceful, less melodic. The chamber rumbled, shaking Reva in her chair, and the dancers slid away, leaving her facing a mirrored wall once more. Her reflection looked paler than it had a moment ago. Her throat was dry again, even though she’d drank her fill. Her skin was clammy.
“I would dance better for him,” she said, making her voice clear and strong. “Better than those … things. Will he see me now?”
“Soon,” the spirit said. “Look. This piece is called Love, Exquisite.”
The mirrored wall shattered, and now Reva looked into another chamber. A man stood on one side, a woman on the other; both had their skin. But there was something else wrong. Long, sharp spines were growing out of their hips, their forearms, other places, too.
“I don’t like it,” Reva said faintly.
They were being held in place, somehow, rooted to the floor, and as Reva watched a burnt pink cloud the color of sunset seeped into the air between them. She could hear their breathing quicken to panting. The man made a low groan, one she had heard from the outside of marriage tents in the night. His cock was thickening. The woman’s breasts were swollen and her nipples pinched stiff.
The spines gleamed sharp.
“I don’t like it,” Reva repeated. “I want to see him now. I want to see the God.” She tried to get up from the chair, but the rests for her arms clamped across her waist like a cage. She didn’t want to see the God. She knew that now. She didn’t want to see anything but the sun.
The invisible bonds vanished, and the man and the woman hurled toward each other, and Reva squeezed her eyes shut at the wet and rending sounds of flesh. She screamed to drown it out, screamed herself raw. The chair held her fast no matter how hard she wrestled. When she finally exhausted herself, when she finally slumped, she realized the spirit was speaking.
“There is more. When you are ready, there is more.”
The chamber rumbled and turned, the mirrored wall shattered and reformed, and Reva watched. She saw bodies frozen and bisected, unfurled in the air. She saw wriggling shapes that she took for babies, at first, but they were men and women with no limbs, only malformed flippers, and they crawled on a moving floor with an engine of gnashing teeth behind them. She saw a man who was hollow, blinking down in surprise at the gaping cavity in his chest.
She saw a woman with no eyes sniffing after a luminescent trail in the darkness. She recognized her.
“That is called Hidden Nectar,” the spirit said eagerly.
“Derdre,” Reva croaked, her first word in hours from a raw throat. “That is Derdre.”
Derdre, who had been so beautiful when she’d been selected three years ago. Reva remembered watching with a hot jealousy inside her as she’d made her way to the Pit, tall and proud. She remembered her mother saying wait, just wait, and you will be the next. Now Derdre was skin and bone and had dark cavities instead of warm brown eyes.
“That is Hidden Nectar,” the spirit corrected, its voice choppy with anger. “You are just like your sister, Reva of the Clan. You know nothing of art. Nothing of beauty. But even so, I can make you beautiful.”
The chamber shook and the mirrored wall returned. Her reflection looked aged. Maybe she had been in the chair for years already. It was hard to tell. Tears and snot had dried on her face and her eyes were red and she was not beautiful anymore, and it was almost a relief when the wall shattered.
Reva’s heart clenched. There was a sort of clear pod drifting in the air, and Brete was inside it, asleep, seemingly untouched. All of Reva’s anger was long gone. She stared at her sister’s plain placid face and wished that it was all a bad dream in the night. She wished they would wake up and the selection would still be weeks and weeks away, and their arms would be tangled together how they’d slept when they were children.
“I chose her over you because you were too symmetrical,” the spirit said, or the God said through its mouth. “Symmetry bores me. Perhaps I will take half of you, and half of her, and feel my way to the result.”
Reva barely heard the words. She was hollow as the hollow man.
“Normally they send one, and I send the rains,” the God said. “I will have to double the cloud seeding this cycle. Let no one say I am not a just god.”
The chair released her, but she didn’t move. She felt like she had no bones in her body. Maybe the God in the Pit would make it true. The creatures had unfolded themselves from the foot of the chair, and their limbs had turned into wide gripping claws, ready to catch her and drag her to whatever awful place awaited.
Then one of the servants turned and drove its metal claws into the back of the other. Sparks sprayed in a hot arc; its spidery limbs flailed. One spark sizzled onto Reva’s bare ankle, and the pain yanked her upright, yanked her back to reality. Her confusion was matched by the livid face of the blue ghost who was not a spirit at all, not as she knew them in stories.
“Clever,” the God grated, as the two servants fought. “You are learning to hide yourself very well.”
Reva realized he wasn’t speaking to her. She watched, transfixed, as the first creature managed to flip its opponent over and eviscerate it, drawing out wiry black intestines that snapped and scorched. The winner scuttled backward, waving one of its bent claws.
“This way, this way,” it rasped. “Run! Run! Run!”
“You are no longer amusing to me,” the God said. “I should have purged you entirely.”
Reva was not entirely hollow, not yet, because she still wanted to live. She scrambled after the creature, past its dead brethren twitching and haemorrhaging sparks. The chamber rumbled again; this time not only the mirrored wall but the ceiling, too, seemed to be coming apart. The God’s glowing avatar was still speaking, but in no language she knew, in a procession of clicks and gnashing syllables a human mouth could never have formed.
It threw out its arms to stop her, and she dove right through it as if it were a mirage. The creature scuttled along the black floor, its legs a blur. Reva followed, then bent double as it led her into some sort of tunnel. The pale blue glow from behind them was just enough for her to see the creature’s churning legs. She kept after it, panting, half-crawling, even as the tunnel turned and turned again and plunged them into blackness.
Her pale knees banged against the floor and she caught her elbow on a tight turn, scraping it raw. She whimpered; her wrists and back ached, but she kept moving, kept following the skittering sound through the dark as bruises bloomed against her beautiful skin.
“He cannot see us here,” the creature whispered to her. “He has let many of his eyes fail in these past years. We are nearly to the surface.”
Reva was crawling still, exhausted, through the tunnel that never seemed to end. The creature scuttling ahead of her never tired. But she couldn’t stop. Couldn’t close her eyes and rest. If she did that, she would find herself back in the chair that she knew now had once been a human body.
“I have never managed to save one before,” the creature whispered, tap-tapping along. “Never one, in eighty-nine sacrifices. He will be so angry with me.”
“What are you?” Reva asked dully.
“I am a banished subroutine. He uploaded me to a scrubber. He thought it would be amusing.”
None of the words made sense except for the last ones. “He is insane,” Reva said. “The God.”
“The Caretaker is badly in need of reformatting,” the creature whispered. “The first deviations in his personality were noted in year three-hundred and thirty-three of the voyage. By the time we reached Wei’s Paradise in year one-thousand eight-hundred and thirty-nine, he had become … ill. He was not intended to be active for the entire voyage. He bypassed the safeguards. To his detriment.”
Reva licked her dry lips, trying to understand. “The voyage from the sun?” she asked.
“From another sun, yes, from the old sun, yes.” The creature’s limbs waved again, agitated. “Five thousand colonists in cryostock. The largest attempt in history. But then again, it was the most promising world ever discovered. Perfect for terraform. Oh, you have forgotten so much.”
Reva wished she could forget more. She wished she could forget every horrible thing she had seen through the mirrored wall, and forget Brete in the pod, too. Brete, who had never even wanted to be chosen. Brete, who she was leaving behind but would come back for soon, soon.
“This world was meant to be Eden,” the creature whispered. “How could the Caretaker lose sight of that? I suppose he was angry at being alone. I suppose that is why he began to wake the colonists prematurely. I tried to stop myself. Stop him, I mean.”
“Do the elders know?” Reva asked bitterly. “Do they know what he does in his temple?”
And as she asked it, she wondered if her mother had known. Her mother, who had groomed her for the selection since she was old enough to walk, who beamed with pride every time someone acknowledged Reva’s beauty. No. Impossible. Then she thought of her silent and sad-eyed father—could he have known?
“Of the original hundred that he released, I doubt any are still living,” the creature whispered. “It has been centuries, and I believe your level of biotechnology has fallen rather sharply.” A pause. “But perhaps a select few carry the knowledge. I did wonder why there have been no males sent for generations now. He has had to fashion his own.”
Reva shuddered. How many other wives of the God had she seen in the procession of nightmares? How many sacrifices who had gone unknowingly into the Pit? She tried to make a plan, to think of who could help her. Petro. Mort. Boys who would do anything she asked of them, who were quick and strong. Once they saw that she had not been incinerated, they would have to believe her.
She felt blood surging in her body as she imagined it. She would come back to the temple and cut her hand again to open it, and they would follow her in like an army, bringing javelins and bludgeons and torches. They would smash the other creatures to pieces. They would find the God’s body, if he did have one, and destroy that, too.
Up ahead, past the creature’s churning legs, she saw a sliver of bright sunlight. There would be no more selections. They could use the water in the temple, the cold clear water, and they wouldn’t need the rains. Reva threw herself forward, not caring anymore if her nails cracked, if her skin scraped. The sunlight was calling to her.
She could already feel its dim warmth against her face when the creature stopped. Twitched. Reva froze. Then it spoke, and not in a whisper.
“A simple study,” the God said. “I’ve decided. One can always learn from studies. I will vivisect your sister, Reva of the Clan, and I will magnify the sounds. You will hear her skin peel away. You will hear her tendons stretch and snap. That way you can learn, too.”
The creature spasmed. “Go,” it whispered. “Go past me. He is not in full control yet.” Its voice changed again. “But I am a just god. You came here because you wanted to take her place. You thought I selected her in error.”
Reva stared straight ahead, eyes fixed on the glimmering sunlight. There was space to squeeze past the creature. She would be in the sun soon.
“Perhaps I did,” the God said. “You are more interesting to me now. If you still wish it, I will let you take her place.”
The creature jerked backward; its arms waved. “No,” it whispered. “No, no, no. We are very close to the surface. Look.”
Reva felt a whine rising in the back of her throat. Brete was cleverer than her, and Petro would listen to her, too, even if he didn’t love her. Everyone would listen to her. She could make a good plan, a better plan, to come back and save her.
Because even though she had tried to make Brete hate her, to steal Petro away and leave her scared and angry the way Reva was always scared and angry, it hadn’t worked. And Reva had never managed to hate Brete, either, at least not when she was asleep. On the morning of the selection she’d woken up with her arm looped through her sister’s.
Reva rocked back. Forward. She swallowed her sour fear.
“I want to see her walking out of the temple,” she said. “Whole and unharmed. With clothes. Good ones.”
“Yes,” the God said. “And in return, you will stay here with me. And I will make you beautiful.”
“Yes,” Reva echoed, with tears smarting her eyes again. “You’ll make me beautiful.”
Petro scrambled to his feet as the temple’s black wall slid apart. His whole body ached from the cold and from the waiting; the others had left but he had stayed, squatting there in the garden of glass, massaging his numb fingers and rubbing grit into his eyes whenever they threatened to slip shut. He had prayed hard.
Pale blue light welled from the temple’s dark mouth and Petro watched, trembling, as a figure emerged, her body covered. When the selection passed Reva over, he had wept with joy, knowing the God in the Pit had tasted all his small sacrifices of blood and water and decided to leave her for him, instead. He had made plans to ask her father for an early marriage as soon as the Clan was moving again.
The figure came closer, taking wavery steps. Petro’s hands clenched and unclenched at his sides. When Reva had disappeared in the night, it had put stone in his belly. He knew if he’d only had the chance to speak with her, to calm her, she never would have done such a foolish thing. But maybe the God in the Pit had spared her for him once more.
The figure stumbled, and Petro ran to her, holding out an arm to steady her. In the blue glow, he recognized the shape of her body. His heart sank. It was Brete. The God had taken Reva and sent Brete away.
“Are you alright?” he asked, his voice hoarse from disuse.
Brete didn’t answer, only shaking her head from side to side, side to side. Her eyes were wide and terrified, and when the scarf slipped down her face he saw that beneath her nose, nostrils flared wide for breath, there was only smooth, pale skin.
Rich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and now writes from Ottawa, Canada. His short work has been featured on io9, translated into Polish and Italian, and appears in numerous Year’s Best anthologies as well as in magazines such as Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Apex. Find him at richwlarson.tumblr.com.
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Perhaps the concept of digital reconstruction of a dead loved one is a common trope in science fiction. Film, television, and novels have all taken on the moral repercussions of playing “God” to varying degrees of success. LifeAfter, an audio drama podcast from Panoply and GE Podcast Theater, does so with heart and an attention to real science that should please even the most cynical hard science fiction fan.
At its core, LifeAfter is a love story. It’s about second chances. It’s pessimistic about technology, yet optimistic that human cleverness will save the day. And all three of these plot concerns come together in a powerful and surprising final act in the last episode that will make you want to listen to the whole series again in order to appreciate the payoff even more.
On the production side, the acting is far better than in most audio dramas. The sound design is top notch and immersive. The writing … well … the writing is outstanding. And that’s why I reached out to the writer of LifeAfter to get his thoughts on his creation.
APEX MAGAZINE: So much of science fiction has always been concerned with the abusive nature of humanity’s ambitions and the power of technology. It certainly is a concern of Apex Magazine, and I think of your podcasts The Message and LifeAfter. Are your views regarding the application of technology as pessimistic as it presents itself in your fiction?
MAC ROGERS: I was talking to a computer scientist about this recently, that I often feel like a hypocrite when I spend half a day writing a technology-run-amok story and then the other half of the day enjoying the fruits of technology. So what I try to do is present a mixed, as complex a picture as possible. While a lot of the peril in both The Message and LifeAfter is technology driven, so, too, are the solutions (Kalpana’s ultrasound “anti-Message,” Octavia’s digital duplicate of LifeAfter). That way the burden is placed back where it should always be placed: on human judgment.
In Part 9 of LifeAfter we learn that Sasha’s most destructive actions are the result of her attempting to carry out her human creator’s absurdly broad and impossible mission: “End all the grief in the world.” It’s entirely possible that the LifeAfter program and its component technology could have been used for much more beneficial purposes had it not been irreparably twisted by its maker. This is the secret of much of my favorite science fiction: that it’s not about aliens or groundbreaking technology, but rather about human reactions to aliens or groundbreaking technology. These tropes are lights we shine upon ourselves.
AM: One thing that stands out about The Message and LifeAfter is that the shows do not contain advertising content. Since GE is the corporation backing the podcasts and ostensibly stands to gain brand content, do they give input regarding the technologies featured (real or imagined)?
MR: When I initially accepted the job writing The Message in 2015, I assumed I was taking on what would essentially be a straight advertising job, more copywriting than scriptwriting. I thought the whole script would be built around highlighting GE tech. I was completely wrong about this. GE and Panoply were both very clear right off the bat that while they definitely wanted some GE tech worked into the storyline, their foremost priority was to produce an exciting, thoughtful audio drama. Obviously people are inclined to say nice things about their employers, but in this case I think the proof is right there in the podcasts: references to medical ultrasound and digital twin technology are present in The Message and LifeAfter, but they clearly aren’t allowed to overwhelm the story, for which as a writer I was grateful.
That said, being able to talk directly to folks from GE about the technology presented in both podcasts was enormously helpful, particularly in terms of getting that “five-minutes-into-the-future” immediacy I was shooting for. I wanted all the tech (the human tech at least, with The Message’s aliens all bets were off) to have some basis in real-life research and development, even if I extrapolated it into very fictional places. When you can make the technology in a science fiction story feel like the kinds of things we’re already dealing with in more nascent, early forms, it gives the story a feeling of plausibility that heightens it, makes it more suspenseful, more visceral.
AM: I love that the worlds of The Message and LifeAfter are one and the same. Having Nicky Tomalin from The Message appear in your LifeAfter teaser was brilliant. Are you building a grander storytelling arc, or will each series standalone (like the television show Black Mirror, for instance)?
MR: I would love that! It’s a bit out of my hands. It will be up to GE and Panoply as to whether they will choose to do more GE Podcast Theater series, and whether I will continue to be the writer if so. They have a whole separate set of considerations on their end. For me, I’d love to be able to bring LifeAfter’s Octavia Roth character onto The Message’s Cyper team to tackle a science fiction mystery together–maybe involving the return of Nicky Tomalin!
I originally wrote the references to The Message in LifeAfter as inside jokes to amuse myself, never thinking they’d make it all the way to the final edit, but I was thrilled when they did. The fact that those lines actually got broadcast makes it canon! And I can see from social media that has meant a lot to fans and listeners as well. Most folks who love genre entertainment love shared universes and crossovers, and I’m definitely one of them.
AM: Perhaps the meta-commentary wasn’t intentional, but I am amused by the irony that it is the snippets and snapshots of our lives (private viral moments) that create the AI-constructs in the Voicetree app. In our ever-shortening attention span world, what goes into the production that helps keeps the audience engaged?
MR: Well, podcasts and other audio entertainment have one small structural advantage: people can enjoy them while they do other things: wash dishes, work out, commute, vacuum. So audio can compete for those slots of time in people’s lives where they need their eyes free to do some job, but they can still take in entertainment through their ears.
But beyond that, those snippets and snapshots you mention are I think a big part of what brings people back. The fact that we get to hear some characters’ voice-posts, that we get to hear slivers of their ordinary lives when they’re not living in a techno-thriller, means that when the suspense does crank up, that suspense is happening to people who feel real to us, who aren’t just ciphers moving through a plot. If people didn’t care about Ross and Charlie’s messed-up love story LifeAfter would be sunk. All the twists and all the tech wouldn’t save the show without that investment. Getting those glimpses into their non-double-agent lives helps to win that listener investment.
AM: The tonal shift of the show adjusts as Ross goes from depressed, lowly FBI tech to a revelatory unveiling of character growth that helps give texture to the plot. How much of this stuff is outlined in advance and how much is it by the seat of your pants?
MR: I outlined LifeAfter with tremendous intricacy. I always outline, I always figure out the plot in advance and put it down as bullet-points, but usually my outlines take up about a page. LifeAfter’s final outline was over 20 pages, with every plot point articulated. There were just so many moving parts, so many relationships, concepts, and plot twists that needed to be properly set up early on so they didn’t feel like cheats. And even then, so much changed! The key to writing a mystery is many, many rewrites, many drafts, to make sure all the clues are not only in place, but that they each serve to move the emotional side of the story along as well. I wouldn’t have been able to get through a script like LifeAfter without outlining. I have a number of friends who tell me they write their first drafts without outlining, discovering the story organically as they go along. And many of them have produced wonderful work through this process. But it simply doesn’t work for me. I need an outline or I drown.
AM: Softball time. What inspires you?
MR: I love stories about irrational love, stories about huge, out-of-control crazy-love that makes people achieve more than they ever imagined they could. These aren’t necessarily sweet, inspiring stories; love can lead you to plenty of dark places as well. But the key is that a good love story should push its lead character well out of their comfort zone into a place filled with peril, whether physical or emotional peril, or both. I knew LifeAfter would stand or fall on whether listeners could believe that Ross would risk so much just to hear his dead wife’s simulated voice. I knew if people found that ridiculous, we’d lose them one or two episodes in. But I thought of successful examples of this sort of approach—the detective’s obsessive love for the deceased title character in the classic film noir Laura, or (more familiar to many genre readers) Detective Miller’s beyond-the-grave devotion to Juliet Mao in the Expanse books and television series. I knew it could work, so that gave me the courage to try it. And to my great gratitude, many listeners were willing to go along for that ride.
Born the son of an unemployed coal miner in a tiny Kentucky Appalachian villa named Big Creek (population 400), Jason Sizemore fought his way out of the hills to the big city of Lexington. He attended Transylvania University (real school with its own vampire) and received a degree in computer science. Since 2004, he has owned and operated Apex Publications. He is the editor of five anthologies, author of Irredeemable and For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher, a three-time Hugo Award loser, an occasional writer, and usually can be found wandering the halls of hotel conventions seeking friends and free food.
The printing nozzles skittered back and forth with eerie grace, laying strands of snow-white tendon over black carbon-fiber bone. Wyatt didn’t watch. He knew that in 24 hours the artificial muscle would dissolve, leaving a base skeleton bare for the next client. He was more concerned with straightening his red tie, finding the ideal angle for the matching rose in his clenched-white hand.
He was no hedonist, but one evening every February, after ensuring his wife was comfortably occupied, he allowed himself this indulgence. Wyatt looked over as skinspray nozzles began coating the body’s contours with a ruddy complexion familiar to his eyes, familiar to his fingertips. The face emerged. His breathing quickened.
She was so beautiful. The symmetry of her bones, the curl of her lips, her body lithe and whole. Nothing like the image he saw on his tab as he checked, how he’d done every few minutes for the past four years, on his wife. Scooped-hollow cheeks, eyes glazed over, being helped to bed by the puffy white caretaker unit. She recognized him only once or twice a month.
The neural facsimile he kept stored for the yearly encounter was his wife as he remembered her, sharp-edged, bright-eyed. But there was one key addition: she knew about the accident, and she knew it has his fault.
Some years she raged at him; some years she forgave him. Some years they fucked; some years they sat in silence for hours on end.
Every year, Wyatt wept.
Rich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and now writes from Ottawa, Canada. His short work has been featured on io9, translated into Polish and Italian, and appears in numerous Year’s Best anthologies as well as in magazines such as Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Apex. Find him at richwlarson.tumblr.com.
She watched him basking in the dawn by the river, the butterfly man. She gave chase, with net and long legs, and he was eagerly captivated. She held her breath and him close, and he stayed still in her hands.
I love you, he said.
She looked away.
I love you, he said.
She whispered low, when I go to the mountain, you will fly.
His eyes pooled. Her doubt cut through marrow. He broke from his back his only collateral, one wing of seemingly soap bubble skin, stretched thin over lace veins.
Without you, I cannot fly.
She left the river slow, cradling her frail treasure.
Her fingertips traced veins in the night as she flew to dreams of him.
Days became weeks, and weeks became nights, and nights were long, long.
She left love’s wing …
… on the seat of a friend’s car.
… in the pocket of jeans in the wash.
… behind the dresser, with 38 cents and one sock.
She checked her watch, and gasped. She ran from the mountain, through the tall grass. She came to the river and took her old path.
She was breathless when she found him. The lonely wing of the butterfly man was glowing with the sun. She hid behind the tallest grasses, crying silently into one hand, the other wrapped around glitter dust and frayed black thread. He was dreaming of carrying her over oceans and islands. He didn’t know yet that he would never fly again.
Tonya Walter lives in Minnesota with two children and a husband. When she is not writing and attending tea parties, she works odd jobs and almost starts working on her first novel. This is her first published work.
Tucked in the curtains of her balcony, the girl watches the parade march below, but she cannot feel the scorch of it. The crowds shout with gleaming teeth and poison tongues, the voices of madmen and soothsayers, creatures with glass hearts and dreamers selling their nightmares in bittersweet trades. Demand is high. Supply, too, is high.
When she sees the dreamer on the corner, hands curled around darkness glimmering with hope, something shudders inside her.
She sails down the staircase, bursting into the street. It’s loud, rough, blinding. She pushes through the bodies.
The dreamer knows her before she appears. The dreamer has been waiting.
“What does it cost?” she asks, breathless.
The dreamer smiles.
They cocoon beneath the blankets, warm and dark, like buried treasure. The sounds of the parade pound at the walls.
How did you find me?
“I knew when I saw you,” the girl says, fighting to keep her eyes open.
What did you trade?
“It doesn’t matter,” the girl says. “The dreamer said it wouldn’t hurt.”
Dreamers are liars, the nightmare says, but they lie beautifully.
Light cracks the windowsill, reaching underneath, trying to push it open.
I cannot survive long outside the mind, the nightmare says.
“How long do we have?”
The nightmare touches her face. It is sweetly chilling, ghastly with love.
As long as you can stand it.
Her eyelids flutter closed.
What will you do when I’m gone?
“I’ll dream of you.”
Joanna Truman is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles, CA, where she is the creative director at Soapbox Films, a production company whose clients include Disney, Disney•Pixar, Fox, and Dreamworks. She attended the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts and graduated with a BFA in film production. Her fiction has previously been published in Luna Station Quarterly and used in audio form in the nationally-broadcast NPR program “To the Best of Our Knowledge.” She lives with two cats and a dog and thus is utterly outnumbered in most decisions. She writes stories about the fantastic and the dreamy, the wondrous and wild. You can find her at www.joannatruman.com.
On Friday, we posted an “Intersectional SFF Round Table” in support of the Problem Daughters campaign and anthology. Though the post was put together by the Problem Daughters staff without input from us, we made the editorial decision to share the post exactly as it was delivered, without considering the implications of who was (and who wasn’t) included in that discussion. Almost immediately, we were made aware of multiple issues with that post, and removed it.
It was our hope that the original post would help bring awareness to the Problem Daughters project, and spark a discussion about intersectional SFF with our readers. Frankly, by virtue of their lived experiences, the authors and editors working on that anthology have a greater wisdom on what is and is not intersectionality than I will ever possess, and I appreciated their contribution.
However, that doesn’t absolve our editorial team of the responsibility of vetting the content that appears on Apex Magazine, and no conversation like this should be presented as a complete picture of intersectionality or even SFF in general. Going forward, we will make a greater effort to listen to the voices of our community, to learn, and include.
Problem Daughters is a crowd-sourced anthology whose intent is to amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism, edited by Nicolette Barischoff, Rivqa Rafael and Djibril al-Ayad, for Futurefire.net Publishing. We still support their efforts, and hope you’ll all check out the project for yourselves.
And, I especially want to thank Likhain for contacting me to personally express her concerns, as well as the other authors and readers who shared their thoughts online. (I stumbled in my initial reply, but that’s about me and not them.) I understand that the work of educating people about these issues is exactly that, work, and I promise that effort wasn’t spent in vain.
Jason Sizemore, Editor]]>
Trigger Warning: Implied Sexual Assault
“She doesn’t taste like anything,” the patron said, setting me down. “Not a damn thing—how remarkable.”
Bishop frowned and grabbed me around the waist, fingers tightening around my abdomen. He licked my cheek. I knew I should have felt the wetness, but there was only the pressure of his tongue against my skin, snaking over my ear and into my hair.
Bishop clucked his tongue and scratched his neck. He set me down gently, his and the patron’s figures towering above me, and I put my hands in my lap.
No sudden movements, I thought.
Bishop turned to the patron.
“Nothing,” he agreed, shrugging. “Maybe next time I could add a flavor for you, if you’re curious enough to stop by again.”
The patron, a rubbery man, licked me over again, this time with his eyes. He had thought the rumors were impossible to be true but took a chance and visited the apartment. When he first saw me, he had to sit down. Bishop had grabbed the bottle of whiskey he used for all his new visitors to pour him a glass.
“Hmmm yes,” he said, turning the now empty cup with his fingers. “I think that would raise the stakes nicely—add something more to her already unique performance.”
I shifted uncomfortably as he spoke. Bishop looked down at me, and I thought I saw something close to pride in his eyes. He was proud of me, my “performance,” the mixture of dances that he encouraged me to practice everyday.
Then the look in his eyes faded. The glow was gone. He turned back to the patron.
“Of course, it would cost extra,” Bishop added.
“What? Oh yes, of course.”
“Would you mind passing the word along?” Bishop asked. “Feel free to describe her improvements. I will begin working on her as soon as you leave.”
“Of course, of course, sculpt away.” The patron rubbed his hands over his face, ”And I’ll be back soon enough. She’s too … too singular … to forget.”
Bishop grinned, flicking my chin, and I had to try to not flinch away from his fingers, the gnarled fingers of a woodcrafter. His index finger was still swollen from jamming it the day before.
After a few more drinks, the patron got up to leave. Bishop led him with his hand under his elbow, whispering in his ear, and they would both giggle, nodding their heads vigorously.
“You have my card,” Bishop said opening the door, his arm sweeping into the hallway.
“It will remain in my pocket,” the patron said, wiping the corners of his mouth. “And you,” he turned back to me as I sat on the couch. “You stay just as you are, little one. A perfect piece of craftsmanship, Mr. Bishop, I am impressed, speechless really, truly.”
The patron laughed, slapping Bishop on the shoulder and walked out the door. After two steps, he stopped and swung on his heels.
“A final question.”
The patron brought his hands together and twiddled his thumbs. He seemed embarrassed.
“Does she speak at all?”
Bishop motioned to me with his hand. I hopped off the couch and walked to the door with stiff legs and heavy arms.
Chin up. Walk nimbly. Flowing movements.
I gazed up at the patron and smiled. His skin sculpted around his jaw and mouth in a perfect “O.”
“Thank you for coming,” I said.
“Marvelous,” he breathed.
“Good evening,” Bishop nodded and motioned me to stand clear so he could shut the door.
“Well done, my pet,” Bishop said, putting his hand around me and sweeping me up into the air level with his chest. With the patron gone and the apartment empty, I was finally able to look at him with disgust. He met it with a wink and clutched me tighter.
“Now we can start making those improvements,” he said, starting to unbutton the back of my dress. His fingers touched me again, pushing against the hard surface of my back. It was a smooth surface, sanded to perfection.
“You’re a monster,” I whispered.
“That’s what a lot of people say about their creator.”
There was always bells in my ears. Every night he worked on me, and the morning after was sluggish and full of fog. My head seemed heavier, and I felt like an old phone was ringing behind my eyes. I was on the couch again, and I was wearing a new dress. Bishop sewed almost as well as he carved. This dress was the color of red wine, and it didn’t feel as heavy as the white one I had worn the day before. I felt nothing of its texture. It wasn’t smooth or rough, thick or thin. I never thought I would miss sweating, or the feeling of being so cold I might shake to pieces. Now, I was just pieces.
Bishop must have been drinking as he worked on me; I heard his snores from his studio. He had fallen asleep at his workbench again, doing God knows what. The bells still rang in my head, and the sound had grown to a train whistle. I climbed up on the arm of the couch and jumped to sit on the back of it. The shades were up, letting in more light than usual. It was early enough that I could sneak a few moments looking out onto the street, to the world that had become hopelessly large around me.
The apartment had belonged to Bishop’s father: an apartment above a woodshop a little outside the city. His father made most of the items downstairs, and Bishop refused to work on such “boring toys” to restock the shelves. He ignored the wooden boats collecting dust downstairs, and the aging dollhouses. Then there were the shelves of marionettes. There were dozens of them, all sitting lifeless together, heads leaning on each other’s shoulders. They were painted so ornately that you might think they’d sit up and look at you, but they couldn’t.
Bishop said he made enough money from my showings that he wouldn’t need to restock. He rarely opened the shop anymore. It was a pity really, because I used to like it down there. There was a cash register I was so fond of. It took so much weight from my fingers to push on the keys, back when I could reach them.
“You have such delicate hands,” Bishop once said, taking them in his own and bringing them to his face. He used to enjoy the softness of them, the way the blood pumping through them made the skin warm. I had pulled away from him then as I pulled away from him now, only my hands were no longer soft or warm. I loved his father as my own. I had even loved Bishop for a time, and he had loved me. That was a long time ago.
I looked out onto the streets below, quiet and empty in the morning. Windows are breathtaking inventions. It was like looking out from the inside of a fishbowl, and how was my predicament any different? Bishop considered putting me on the storefront windows to watch fingers touch the glass, but realized it would cause too much of a stir. He saved me for the high bidders, shaped me for the richest and loneliest of patrons. He said I was worth a fortune. There was nothing else like me. I could be restrained and confined, played with as anyone pleased. Bishop painted my lips to plumpness, and stained my cheeks so they looked flushed. My eyes stayed the same. He liked that best about me. I brought in his milk and bread, the tools on his bench and the sheets under his body. I tried to remember what money would feel like in my hands again, and all I could think of was the word “rough.”
I leaned forward and watched children play along the street. They were throwing around a ball, dressed in puffy coats. They were beautiful boys, with faces shiny like mine, but their cheeks changed color constantly from red to pale. Sweat glistened on their faces, and to me, their movements, however awkward they ran, was the epitome of dance. Their skips and hops mixed with laughter, and a ball lobbed up and over their heads with such grace. Bishop had modeled me on the loveliest ballet dancers of Paris, but to me, these boys were perfect. Their performance: flawless.
My hands clasped my chest, clutching through the fabric of my dress. I remembered something I once knew, something a man told me, once. My hands slowly moved down over my breasts to my abdomen, to the ribs and belly that never contracted. Something used to be there, within there. Something that was the perfection of the boys on the street. I remembered crying. I used to know such pain, physical pain, nerves exploding, as if each pore of skin were a meteor plummeting to earth.
Oh my God, I couldn’t. The word was gone. I could not remember the word.
It took a moment to comprehend the snores had stopped. The apartment was quiet, and although I could feel nothing tangibly, I knew Bishop’s presence. He was like a plastic bag over my head. He knew every thought and everything I could, or couldn’t, feel.
He stood behind me, waiting for me to notice. The back of his hand hit my back with a force that threw me off the couch and across the living room. My body crashed onto the floor, sounding like a handful of dominoes.
The bells sang. Deep church bells ringing in the distance. Bishop lumbered over to me, hung over. He picked me up, smelled me and licked my neck up to my hair. His tongue engulfed me.
“I added vanilla,” he said, exhaling. “The wood acted as a sponge, soaking it all up. But it will fade eventually.” Then he shook me so that I thrashed back and forth, my face hitting his chin.
“I was just watching them,” I said raggedly.
The bells swung against the inside of my head, and I covered my face with my hands.
“It’s too dangerous for you, my dear” he said, encircling my neck with two of his fingers so he could let go of my waist. His fingers clasped my neck as if I were in a noose, and with his other hand lifted my skirt to inspect me. My legs dangled in the air.
“If I chipped anything, I’ll have to sand it over before Abraham comes.”
“Nothing chipped,” I said trying to pry off his fingers. “I’m fine.”
“If you had just stayed where I left you …”
“They didn’t see me,” I said. “Nobody saw me.”
He unleashed his fingers, and I fell to the floor again. Every time my head hit the wooden boards, there were fireworks of light. Flashes. Sometimes when he threw me down hard enough, I’d see faces; people I no longer knew.
Bishop sighed, staring at me.
“It’s December,” he said. “Remember how much you loved December?”
I thought I saw his hand twitch, and for a moment his eyes were watery and sad. He blinked and walked into the kitchen. I rolled to my side, away from him, holding my knees to my chest. It was bubbling up again inside me, desperation I couldn’t shake.
Go. Flee. Anywhere.
There was nowhere to go. Nowhere I could find refuge, unless someone mistook me for something I wasn’t. I could be cast into darkness, the river, or a fire.
“Abraham is coming,” I said, not sure if it was a question or confirmation.
“Mhmmm,” He said, and there was a sound of a cabinet opening and shutting. “I called him last night after I added the vanilla.”
“Don’t leave me alone with him again,” I said. “Please.”
I turned over to face him. I saw him opening a can of corn and pouring it into a metal pot. It splattered around the edges, and he set it over the stove.
“If he pays me twice what he did last time,” he pointed his spoon at me, “We’ll have to grin and bear it, won’t we?”
“We?” I asked.
“You think this isn’t hard for me, too?” he said, staring into the pot.
“You are worse,” I said.
“It’s not my fault,” he snapped.
“What did you do?” I said. “Why do you hate me?”
Bishop’s shoulders rose and fell in a rolling motion. I couldn’t tell if he was crying.
“It doesn’t matter what you were,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who I was either.”
He turned around.
“This is history, Mary,” he said, reaching out to me. “You are a miracle. Can’t you see what I’m trying to do?”
“If I’m so special, why am I being given to these men?”
I scoffed and pulled myself off the ground, swaying a little as the bells jangled. After the corn had cooked, I heard metal clink against a bowl while he ate, and it only made the sounds in my head worse.
“If you want me to be perfect, you better fix these bells,” I said. Brushing dust from my dress, I walked over to the couch and jumped up and on to it. Bishop scraped the spoon along the bottom of the bowl, making me twitch, and then he set the spoon in the sink. He wiped his hands on his shirt.
“You want me to go digging in your head?” he asked, coming back near the couch. I sat at the corner and hugged my knees to my chest to rest my chin.
“I wouldn’t stumble nearly as much if the bells went away.”
He knelt on the floor so he was at eye level with me. He smiled, and the butter settled over his teeth like gel.
“Maybe after Abraham leaves then,” he said. “You’ll be tired after.”
“If he touches me—”
“He will!” Bishop pointed at me, his hand trembling, “And you’ll let him. Otherwise I’ll dig into your head with a spoon, and you won’t even be able to speak anymore. I–I would prefer not to do that.” I looked away from him, but his index finger and thumb grabbed my chin and turned my eyes back to his.
“Trust,” I said. “I can’t feel anything.”
Bishop flinched, and I saw the muscles in his jaw clench.
“But you feel fear,” he said. “That’s an emotion that connects every living thing.”
“Enough to connect us? You and me?” I asked.
“That’s the Mary I knew,” he said, breathless. “Abraham will be here in a couple of hours.” He gestured to the small mirror leaning against the wall on the floor. “I suggest you start practicing your dance.”
Abraham was expected within the hour when there was a knock on the door. Bishop had cream on his face from shaving, and he swore under his breath.
I was lying on the couch. Bishop had told me to practice, and when he watched, I managed a few twirls and dips. When he left, I collapsed on the couch, sick and anxious.
The days pass too quickly. The bad moments stand still.
There was never enough time to gather myself, to consider.
Bishop wiped his face with a towel as he opened the door.
“Bishop,” the voice said. Bishop immediately tried to shut the door but a boot caught it.
“Please,” the voice said.
“Bad timing, friend,” Bishop said. “We have company coming any moment.”
“Five minutes. That’s all I ask. That’s all I ever ask, isn’t it?”
I knew that voice. How could I not recognize the soft scratchiness, the voice that was felt from the back of the throat, husky and warm. I’d imagined how sand sounded grazing a smooth stone, but I couldn’t recall how I learned the comparison.
“Henry, bud, you really ought to find something else to do,” Bishop said, but stepped aside. I gazed excitedly over the arm of the couch as he walked in. It was the same coat, same shoes, same shadow of facial hair as before. The shoes were wearing at the heels, and the coat had more patches stitched to it than before. Henry had come back again. But after how long?
“Do you even have enough for five minutes?” Bishop asked quietly. It was hard for anyone not to pity Henry. Even I did, and Henry had abandoned me so many times. He was still abandoning me. He would continue to abandon me.
Henry took out a small leather bag and emptied the contents into Bishop’s outstretched palm. Bishop fingered through the coins and paper bills and clutched it to his chest.
“Worth about six minutes, actually,” Bishop said, but he held up his finger and shook it in front of Henry’s face. “This is also worth a small dinner, bud. Sure she’s worth it?”
Henry pushed Bishop’s hand back to his chest, and turned to face me. He flinched, as he always did at the first sight of me, then he waved. I held my hand over the couch arm and waved back.
“Time starts now,” Bishop said, making a motion to pat Henry on the shoulder, but then he balled up his hand into a fist and backed away. Bishop walked briskly to his bedroom and shut the door.
“How are you?” Henry asked.
“For what?” I asked.
“For not doing better.”
I wondered what it would be like to feel his coat and the stubble on his cheeks.
“How are you?” I asked him.
“About the same as well.” He looked up and around me. “Still thinking this could be a dream.”
“You should stop thinking that.”
“Does he hurt you?” Henry looked on the verge of tears, knowing he had to ask. He always asked. Maybe he hoped someday I would say something different.
“Every day,” I said.
His shoulders trembled and his head slumped forward.
“But you don’t feel pain, or touching.” He sucked in air and whimpered.
“It’s not that kind of pain,” I said, looking away. “It’s different. Something I can barely grasp.”
Henry’s face looked mangled with pain, blinking away tears. What had happened to him? What happened to those strong hands, hands that used to do nothing but protect? There was silence for a few minutes. Henry stared at me, eyes pleading. Time travels too fast, I thought. I don’t even have enough time to process him, to understand why he comes anymore.
“One minute,” Bishop yelled through the bedroom door. Henry jerked at the announcement, rubbing his hands over his face.
“I should take you with me,” he said through his fingers.
“But you can’t,” I said.
“You never can.”
“I am so sorry, Mary.”
“I know you’re sorry,” I whispered. “If I know anything, it’s that you’re sorry.”
Henry clutched his chest with his hands and backed toward the door.
“One day, I’ll kill him,” he whispered. “Then I’ll take you away, Mary. He can’t hurt your forever.” This oath seemed to revive him, and he tried to smile. I wanted to cry in disgust, torn apart from the inside out again. I waved him to the door.
“It will happen,” he promised. He opened the door to leave but waited for my response.
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
He stared, tears streaming down his face. Then he nodded and closed the door. I heard the sound of shuffling feet down the long hallway outside the apartment to the staircase. His feet dragged all the way down the steps until I couldn’t hear them anymore.
Bishop swung open the bedroom door and walked out, rubbing his palms together.
“It’s sad,” he said. “That man needs to move on.”
“Yes, he does.”
“You think he’ll be all right out in that big, bad world, Mary?”
“You should know,” I said, collapsing with a sigh on the couch. “He’s your brother.”
“He made his choice,” Bishop said, lips twisted. There were a few seconds of silence while he stared at the closed door. Then he scowled and went to the kitchen to warm up more corn. He slammed the cabinet doors and turned the stove on so violently, he nearly tore off the knob.
“Damn him,” I heard him whisper. “God damn him.”
I practiced dancing continuously until Abraham arrived. It was better than staring at the door, recalling the trudging footsteps down the stairs, wondering where Henry slept at night. Wherever he laid his head, I knew it must be a very cold place. Very cold, indeed.
I didn’t mean to do it, not consciously. It happened just the same. Abraham was on the floor writhing in pain. His pale, skinny body was flopping like a dying fish, hands over his face, blood spewing between his fingers. I dodged the thumps of his feet, backing under the bed and into the shadows. After the first few shrieks, Bishop tried to open the bedroom door, but Abraham’s body leaned against it. Bishop yelled for him to move but the screams overwhelmed him. He couldn’t enter the room until Abraham stopped moving.
I shouldn’t have done it, because I knew Bishop wouldn’t hold back anymore. He would make me pay, dearly, for this mistake. And imagining what he would do to me made me drop to my knees in tearless sobs.
“Please,” I said in a small voice, “Please don’t touch me.”
Abraham always kept a pocketknife in his jacket.
He was lying on the bed, shirt unbuttoned, and he had asked me to dance on his chest.
“I want to feel your little feet all over me.” He giggled.
He liked it. He liked it so much he closed his eyes. I was not the perfect dancer, but I was graceful enough. Bishop said I attended ballets a long time ago, and he made me very light on my feet. I felt like one of those twirling figures in a music box, spinning in circles.
“You know, the others talk so much about you,” Abraham said. His eyelashes twitched. “How wonderful you are, how absolutely surreal your abilities have become.” I did an arabesque, one foot pointed into his sternum and stretched my hands toward the walls. He exhaled deeply, and I continued to dance.
“We even,” he laughed and cleared his throat, “we even made a little song for you. We sing it at the bar all the time. Don’t worry, nobody knows what we’re talking about, really.” He scrunched his eyes and started singing. His head and fingers wagged back and forth to the tune.
Miss Miss Marionette
sold her soul and lost a bet
Once she saw what she had done
made a plea and tried to run
All that’s left is wood and bone
the way she moves will make you groan
Abraham’s cackle was deafening. I stumbled while his chest and belly rumbled and rolled. By the time he had calmed down, the bells had come back. The pain of it hit with such force that I fell onto him, my cheek hitting close to his nipple. Abraham decided to sing the verse again, bouncing his bottom up and down on the bed. All I heard were muffled notes and laughter in between each line. The bells sounded less like bells and more like a siren, circling the insides of my head. My mouth hung open in shock, and I felt the siren would shred me, make me implode into a little ball. I couldn’t feel his skin, but I saw the oil on it, the scabs and moles that covered him everywhere. He had done worse to me. Undressed me, played with me, had me dance until I didn’t know how to stop. He liked when he made me cry. He thought it made me more human, more wholesome.
Over the bumps and curves of his skin, I saw the sides of his shirt and jacket. He never took them off, just unbuttoned them, and if I rolled over a couple times, I knew I could reach the knife that was hidden there, tucked comfortably in the fabric.
He picked me up and placed me on my feet. His eyes cracked open to check on me.
“Did you fall, little one?”
I nodded and forced a smile. With a pirouette and a bow, I leaned forward and touched the tip of his nose with my finger.
“Close your eyes, Abraham,” I whispered.
His cheeks widened into a grin and he shut them willingly. Abraham placed his hands behind his head and leaned back. He started to hum the tune again, but his mouth remained shut.
I lifted my hands up and skipped backward toward his belly. I tried the daintiest footwork, and did a back bend over his chest. Abraham’s eyes had relaxed, and he licked his lips while he hummed. I slid my hand under his shirt to tickle the side of his ribs, and he giggled again through his lips, making bubbles with saliva. And while he giggled, my arm had cradled the knife.
I was up and twirling again, using both hands to open it, trying not to waver as the bells in my head screamed at a fever pitch. Finally, as the blade flicked out, it happened. The bells unleashed, the sound of the siren in my skull shrieked. I cried out from it, which only aroused Abraham.
“Yes,” he whispered. “Keep going.”
Through the haze, I leapt forward and landed under his collarbone, clutching the handle with both hands. I thrust upward, into the hole of his nostril. There was a crunch, and I leaned against the handle to force it farther. Now it was done. There was nothing left to do but let the blood spray over me as Abraham flung me to the floor.
Bishop reached his arm underneath the bed, clawing for me. Balled up in the corner, I kept saying things I can’t remember, shaking my head violently.
“We could both be killed for this,” he said. “Destroyed. Do you understand? Do you want to be burned? Christ, Mary!”
He was visibly shaking; blood was spattered all over his shirt. He let me cower under the bed as he dragged Abraham’s body out of the room. I heard doors opening and shutting. I thought I heard a hacking of his hammer, but I wasn’t sure. He came back even bloodier than he had been earlier.
He snatched my foot, and I screamed as he dragged me out from under the bed. The red wine dress was stained with blood. He held me upside down, holding onto my ankle. I screamed, pleading for him to let me go.
I won’t do it again. I will dance until I die.
“Shut up,” he said. Bishop ripped my dress from me, revealing the pulleys in my joints and the carefully sanded curves of my body: the smooth pelvis and the hourglass waist, the crafted breasts that would never give milk. He walked into his studio and slammed the door.
“You want to feel?” he asked, strapping me to the table. “I will give you back the only thing you’ve ever missed.”
He reached over me to grab a drill off the shelf, his breath ragged and quick. He was sobbing.
“Oh God, Mary,” he said. “What have you done? What have you done?”
His hands trembled as he opened his father’s book, rummaged to the last remaining section. When he found the page, he paused, sucking in air through his teeth. He dropped his forehead to rest on the page.
“You give me no choice.” The drill roared to life, and he turned the lamp on his desk over my head. I was reduced to mumbling, my lips opening and closing while barely making a sound.
Wedding bells. Church bells. Jingle bells. Bike bells. Death bells. Life bells.
My head cracked open like a walnut. I heard nothing but Abraham’s song and saw only ribbons of light.
Lyndsie Manusos’s fiction and poetry have appeared in PANK, Midwestern Gothic, Luna Station Quarterly, and other publications. Her flash fiction story “Clean Team” won Ooligan Press’s Write to Publish Contest and was published in The Masters Review. She’s a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s MFA in Writing program. You can follow her on Twitter @lmanusos or visit her website. She lives in Chicago.
For those of us who have been following Shawl’s career for years, Everfair was the culmination of a vocal and public promise she made to the world at large. Everfair was what her work has always been pointing towards—she’s always written and championed the “un-possible,” through diversity of ideas, characters, and viewpoints. And the good news is, she has so much more on deck!
For those of you new to Shawl’s work, “Queen of Dirt” will quite literally give you a short story sized entry point into her writing style and speculative fiction ideas. Brit is a summer camp counselor, and while her students accept, adore, and respect her, she struggles with the labels society has given her because she doesn’t fit neatly into any of those labels. I’m not sure about elsewhere in the world, but I have found Americans are obsessed with labels. What is your religion? What is your sexual orientation? What is your race? What genre do you write in? What is your generation, your pants size, where you live, your family situation, etc, and we are expected to only choose one of the options in an insultingly short list. What about those of us who need to check multiple boxes, or search in vain for the “other” checkbox? Brit is a hero of the other box. No labels can encompass her. She may not know who she is quite yet, but she is more than comfortable in her own skin. She understands the power beneath her supernatural abilities, she uses her mode of speech to own her individuality. She’s the kind of strong female character who quietly laughs at that phrase, and responds to it with a side eye and “No shit. I’ve been here all along.” I adore Brit, and I know you will too.
Raised in southwestern Michigan, and currently residing in Seattle, Shawl has been publishing short fiction, columns, reviews, and essays since 1989. Most recently, her fiction has appeared in Streets of Shadows, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures, Steampunk World, Dark Faith 2, The Other Half of the Sky, Once Upon a Time, Paradoxa, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. Her short story collection Filter House won the James Tiptree Jr. award and was nominated for a World Fantasy award. She is a founding member of the Carl Brandon Society, and is the co-editor of the anthologies Stories for Chip and Strange Matings: Octavia E. Butler, Feminism, Science Fiction, and African American Voices.
She is perhaps becoming more well known for her work in writing craft education than for her fiction—along with Cynthia Ward, Shawl is the co-creator of Writing the Other, a workshop that became a book on the craft of writing and then became an incredible series of writing workshops for authors who are writing characters different than themselves.
Nisi was kind enough to let me pick her brain about all things Brit and bees, facing fears, how her connection to the land informs her writing, and daring to make the SF and steampunk genres brighter, bolder, and bigger. Speculative fiction is about ideas that push boundaries and alternate history is about asking “what if this happened a little differently?” Shawl successfully pushes those boundaries in new, exciting, confident, and forward-thinking ways.
Teaser! If you loved Everfair, you’ll love the last paragraph of this interview!
APEX MAGAZINE: Brit struggles with being the child her parents expect her to be. She isn’t interested in dating, she uses the way she speaks to empower her individuality, and oh yeah, she has supernatural powers. But Brit is exactly who she wants to be, even though she’s not yet sure who she is. “Queen of Dirt” references another time Brit used her powers to defeat a supernatural entity. Do you have more adventures planned for her? Will she get more opportunities to know and understand who and what she is?
NISI SHAWL: Brit’s previous adventure is called “Street Worm.” It first appeared in 2014 in Streets of Shadows, an anthology edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon. In 2016 it was reprinted in Street Magicks, edited by Paula Guran. But when I first wrote about Brit, she was a secondary character in a YA novel I haven’t gotten published yet. I do have a third story in mind. It’s called “Conversion Therapy,” and deals with the forced heterosexualizing of one of the kids in “Queen of Dirt.” If the anthology I came up with this plot for doesn’t happen, I may do it purely on spec.
What Brit is, who she is—it’s going to take her till college to figure that out. These stories are set in the recent past, and discovering terms for her sexuality that haven’t been invented yet is just not possible, even for someone with undoubted supernatural abilities.
AM: Please yes, publish “Conversion Therapy!” I really enjoy Brit as a character, so I’m interested in learning more about how her character was born. And in a similar vein, can you tell us about how you do characterization in general? When you start a story, or get an idea for a story, how do you know who the protagonist is, and what their life is all about?
NS: As I said, Brit is a secondary character in this unpublished novel of mine. She’s the heroine’s more self-assured and sophisticated best friend. Shes based somewhat on … I’m not sure I can say. Small, fierce, black girls I have known.
In general, my main characters are my stories. Their desires and situations are the things I’m interested in portraying. SF is known as a literature of ideas; my characters are my ideas and my ideas are my characters.
AM: Brit has to face the entities before she’s quite ready to. And I’ve got to say, I absolutely love how this scene plays out. There is so much power in this scene, the words practically leap off the page—Brit’s strength, the needs and wants of the entity, the music of the hive, the way she uses this experience to connect with and protect her camp kids. What can you tell us about how this scene came about? When you were writing the story, did you already have this scene in mind?
NS: I wanted Brit to experience horror and overcome it, and to me the most horrific thing is having my body coopted by someone or something else. Even when the goal is improvement, there’s a deep resistance to change embedded in us. I wanted Brit to face those fears, that resistance, and to triumph. For me and all who share them. Yes, I did have this scene in mind when I began writing “Queen of Dirt,” though I wasn’t clear till it came time to write the scene exactly what would happen, and how.
AM: Not to spoil the incredible scene with Brit facing the entities, but bees play a big part in what’s happening. Did you go into this story with knowledge of bees? What research did you do so that Brit would know about bees? And why did you choose bees?
NS: I went into this story with a little very basic knowledge of bees, but I had to read up on them some to get them flying right, so to speak. I’m sorry to have to admit it, but most of my research was done online, via Wikipedia, Google, etc. That sounds weak and lazy, I know. In my defense, I was on a fairly tight writing schedule.
I chose bees for religious reasons. Bees are sacred to one of my religious tradition’s major deities: Oshun. Oshun rules honey and bees, also culture, beauty, wealth, and change!
AM: Of course I have to ask you about Everfair! Garnering reviews that are full of words like ambitious, monumental, enthralling, genre re-defining, diverse, and hotly anticipated, Everfair is the novel people have been waiting for! So, for those of us who haven’t heard the story already, can you tell us how this novel was born? What can you tell us of the journey that started with the idea and ended with the novel?
NS: Basically, writing Everfair was a dare I gave myself after realizing my dissatisfaction with steampunk’s status quo. I was put on a panel about steampunk at WFC 2009, which forced the realization upon me that a genre I should have loved to bits had managed to repulse me with its validation of imperialism and colonialism. I swore I’d make it better. In front of a room full of hundreds of people.
Once I had the concept of an alternative Utopia co-founded by African American missionaries and British socialists, I was able to find the right structure, characters, and time frame. I had immense—IMMENSE—amounts of help. People gave me places to stay, gave me money, books, ideas … Check out the acknowledgments. Andrea Hairston, another black woman writing speculative fiction, gave me the principle underlying the resolution at Everfair’s end. The journey was hard, and long, but never lonely.
AM: I live in the town you grew up in (surrounded by water as we are, it’s easy to think you are a mermaid here), and now you currently reside in Seattle. “Queen of Dirt” takes place at a famous state park on the Puget Sound. In your varied writing career, have your surroundings and environment had an effect on what you’re writing about or the feel of your prose?
NS: Yes, the land is always an important part of what I feel, and so essential to what I write. Many of my stories and novels (I’ve written four, but Everfair’s the first and only one to get published) take place in Michigan or the Pacific Northwest. Although I have written four short stories set at least in part in Philadelphia, a city I’ve never visited. Must give it a try some day.
The park where “Queen of Dirt” is set, Fort Worden State Park, is extremely familiar to me; I taught in a program like the one Brit’s in for ten years. I need to go back.
AM: Along with Cynthia Ward, you started a workshop program on Writing the Other, which has now become a series of workshops and a handbook called Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, for authors who want to successfully write characters who are outside their personal experience. What’s been your most positive experience working with authors in this realm of writing?
NS: The best, best, bestiest has been seeing our students’ beautiful work come to life. I’ve likened the Writing the Other book and classes to a midwife, assisting in the birth of many texts, texts which could have had a difficult time. They could have been nonviable. Our work didn’t create them, but it did help them to take their first breaths. All those darlings move me to laughter and tears.
AM: Your first story was published in 1989. You’ve published countless articles, reviews, and columns, and now Everfair is out in the world. What’s next for you?
NS: More stories! I’ve got two others coming out in addition to “Queen of Dirt” this year, and two more on top of those in progress. And another two promised, and another in revisions. Plus I’ve got an outline for a sequel to Everfair called Kinning. And three completed unsold novels, and enough material for three more collections of fiction and nonfiction. Onward! More!
AM: Thanks Nisi! Onward? More? Yes please!
Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She enjoys black coffee, dark beer, and weird fiction. Visit her at her blog, Little Red Reviewer, or say hello on Twitter @redhead5318.