DP FICTION #77B: “Kudzu” by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers

A mech could breathe for a person, fill the pilot chamber with oxygen or pipe it through slender tubes that sat in their nose, winding behind their ears. A mech could walk for someone, taking thoughts and the slightest twitch of their muscles and translating them into smooth footsteps that indented the earth. A mech could allow someone to work to pay their debts, giving them employment they long thought was impossible. For Caris, the mech did all Her body had been, still was, still would be, ravaged by cystic fibrosis. It wasn’t so bad that she needed a transplant, but she’d been on disability for some time, each paycheck slim, each breath feeling numbered and tighter than the last.

Her unit was sleek black carbon fiber, ten feet tall and humanoid in shape, albeit with elongated arms and legs. Where the head should be was the cockpit, surrounded by layers of acrylic that was supposedly bullet-proof, not that they were supposed to test that. Both hands had three fingers, perfect for grasping and pulling but not otherwise very dexterous. Someone had painted dark green stripes onto the mech, alongside a unit number, a kudzu winding up one leg. This was the eco-corps.

Humanity had done a very good job of fucking things up, environmentally speaking. By the time people had thought to fix things, it was almost too late. Invasive plants choked the life from the soil, while feral bioengineered animals presented a very real threat to life and limb. It was possible to send people out to manually clear plants and kill animals, but it was safer to send out people in mechs. They did the work of five, and as it turned out, the units interfaced well with people who had disabilities of almost every form. It was an employment option where there wasn’t one before. It was a hint of danger in the air, the possibility that they would have to fight and face down man-made monsters. It was too tempting to resist and for Caris, it meant making a dent in her own medical debt. Three hundred thousand a year, and that was one medication. Besides, the corps had health insurance. Deep down, if pressed, Caris would talk about the books she read as a child, the glossy magazines she received at her house monthly, filled with pictures of animals and places that no longer existed in their unaltered forms. Before reality had set in, she wanted to make documentaries or be a park ranger or save animals. This was the next best thing.

The cadets used clumsy and ancient mechs for their training. There was noticeable lag between the embedded jack that went into your head and actual movement of the mech’s body. Compared to that, Caris’ new unit responded instantly, each step fluid. She had thought she would have to get used to the balance and weight of a body not her own once again, but it was like slipping on a second skin.

She saw her fellow alumni practicing similar movements. They moved gracefully, almost lightly, in the constrained space of the mech bay, knowing they had just a few hours to practice before they were actually sent out into the field. They had to earn their keep, the pressure placed on all their heads all the more heavily for their perceived weaknesses. Prove your worth, some said. Prove your productivity. Prove the value of your disabled life.

“Hey Lungs,” a voice crackled over her headset, “you practicing ballet or you piloting a mech?” Harsh laughter accompanied it. Turning the unit, Caris could see some former students watching every move she made—people who had graduated from the real military, piloting combat units. It was easier, at least financially, to lump every mech together in the same building, rather than build separate facilities, but it was more difficult for the pilots. Sometimes it seemed like the other operators enjoyed showing off their physical prowess, working out conspicuously, always laughing with their eyes on the eco-corps. “How you like playing dress up, Lungs? Feel good to be wearing our cast-offs?” Caris had earned her nickname only recently, when a coughing spasm had overtaken her in the middle of the bay, racking her body until blackness was crowding the edges of her vision.

Another voice cut in. “Shut the fuck up, Booker. Go enjoy being cannon fodder somewhere else.” Jordan, one of Caris’ former classmates, managed to sound permanently pissed off whenever they spoke.

“How is it feeling?” Caris asked, afraid that reality wouldn’t match up to expectations. The small twitches and arm movements that piloted her new robotic partner didn’t aggravate her body, but arthritis was a different beast from Jordan’s own Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

“Feels fucking great. Do you even remember running?”

“Not really,” Caris laughed, and suddenly she and Jordan were running full tilt side by side. It was an extension of her body, more natural than anything else she had felt. She was large. She was powerful. She was prepared to take on the world. She couldn’t even feel the jack in the back of her head, the oxygen tubes that wound around her head, feeling like a permanent tether at all other times. They were all a part of her now, flesh and metal indistinguishable in their purpose.

Well, maybe she wasn’t quite ready to do every task just yet. A scant few hours later, the corps members were dumped in Monterey County, up near the coast. Lots of land had been left to reseed and re-wild, but it needed more help than human hands could do alone. Kudzu duty it was, the incipient vine crawling up trees, its lush green a comforting lie of health. It was not dissimilar to the mucus in her lungs; a little lighter, maybe, but just as choking. Airways and veins, nightmares of a leaflet crawling out of her mouth to face the light, holding her in place more than oxygen ever could. To face all this, Caris had her metal body, by now pumping fluids into her with a small IV, nutrients via her feeding tube. She would never have to leave, if she didn’t want to.

It was going to be an easy in and out mission. The mechs would move forward, tearing out the kudzu as they went. They were supposed to get as close down to the root as they could; everyone was paid per pound of what they managed to pull up. The plant was never supposed to spread this far, but once it made a foothold in the west coast, it seemed to thrive, spreading more and more. It choked out all things beautiful and native, constricting them more and more. Caris’ lungs constricted in sympathy.

The squad leader followed behind, meandering in their own mech, which had a flamethrower attached. Scorched earth policy, fire units standing by. The land would recover from a fire. It wouldn’t recover from kudzu. Caris’ body would recover from the antibiotics that made her so ill she couldn’t physically leave her bed, but they would never recover from the scar tissue the mucus left behind.

There was an easy rhythm to the work, despite rumors passed around by other corps members about strange creatures and danger lurking in the hills⁠—both the real and the imaginary, Bigfoot and big cats. The mechs had music they could play, and Caris felt herself enjoying the physicality of hard labor. She hadn’t done this since she was a kid weeding her grandma’s garden. They’d banned her from playing in the dirt soon afterwards, afraid of the superbugs that might lurk within. Too late and too bad. They were already there, and like the vine, they had made enough foothold to make themselves comfortable. Each plant she pulled out was like extracting the liquid from within. She could even imagine a pleasant ache in her muscles, even as she knew they were perfectly fine. When she imagined herself extending an arm, the mech did it. Every step she took was just a fraction of a second behind thought. Her second skin may have been bulky and metallic, but it was swiftly becoming home. You’d have mental fatigue before physical fatigue doing this kind of work. Before she had fallen so ill, in the distant past, Caris could remember working hard and playing hard, and how it felt this effortless.

The corps members slowly spread out. Jordan had her unit do a comical, three-fingered wave as they marched off to their own section of land. The hills rose gently so that Caris was cut off visually from the others, but they always had open comms. Slowly she zoned out, imagining a future where she didn’t have to emerge from her pilot’s seat at the end of the day, so that she wasn’t going to spend her free time longing to feel arms and legs pumping so easily again.

Move forward, pull up a plant, move a step forward again. Watch the dead trees underneath reveal themselves, the bronchi of branches still reaching up to the sky. The crashing noises didn’t interrupt her until they were far too close. She whirled the unit around in a clumsy side step that nearly overbalanced her.

A wild hog regarded Caris slowly and carefully. It was one of the modified ones, descended from a pig that someone had made bigger and bigger, until it was the size of a small horse. Somewhere along the way, the pig had escaped and bred with existing wild population, bits of wild boar thrown in there for fun. The tusked monstrosity that stood before her was “kill on sight”; there was a fat bonus for killing feral pigs. The hog was next month’s supply of medication, wrapped in hundreds of pounds of muscle and fat.

They didn’t leave the corps members completely unarmed. With shaking fingers, Caris pushed a single button and her mech extended a machete, usually used to chop through unusually thick clusters of plants, but with an edge sharp enough that she could defend herself if need be. She could use that bonus. More altruistically, she knew that the pigs were something else that pushed out anything native and good from the environment, leaving only space for their own kind.

As the blade extended, the pig bolted, and with her heart pounding, Caris urged the unit forward, faster than they had ever done in practice, laughing at the exhilaration. “You need help?” Jordan called out, voice broken up by distance. Caris just laughed in response, imagining her hair streaming behind her, pretending that she wasn’t attached to a glorified oxygen tank.

The pig vanished right away, but she could hear its squeals. War mechs had heat vision; an eco mech had plain old vision and a guide in it that could identify any plant just by turning the unit’s optic receptors towards it.

Faster, faster. She still couldn’t see the hog, but Caris thought she had to be catching up. If pushed, she knew she could get 40mph out of her unit, and she had to be close to that now. Running so freely and so easily was something she had never imagined she would do again, even after a transplant. Pain free, legs pumping, no worrying about choking and having to stop to cough.

Suddenly, a large tree was looming too close, an oak draped in kudzu, standing in a clearing. She managed to stop, but barely, skidding and falling, feeling the jostle of the mech hitting the earth in her very bones. Getting up would be tricky, but not impossible.

Had she lost the pig? She managed to get her mech up again, damage report on her screen. Nothing too bad, but she’d scratched the hell out of it. Paint was just paint though, right? She needed that money, still had the machete out…

There was no sign of the pig, but as she pushed past the oak, letting the vines catch the blade and then snap against it, feeling a sense of strain, she thought she saw something else, something running towards where the ground was still open. The pig? She had to see, had to find out.

Caris tried to creep now, but there was no stealth in a giant robot. The crashing sound of her own footsteps filled her ears, drowning out the music. So close… there. Just there.

It was a lone zebra, something that would have made more sense in Kenya than here. Caris raked her mind for an explanation; was she hallucinating from a lack of oxygen? No, her O2 stats displayed were good. She could feel the rub behind her ears from the tubes. It was a real zebra, the description filtering over the screen.

Memories from a childhood field trip filtered into her mind. Down south, there used to be a big house. They called it a castle, a publisher’s monument to hubris from decades ago. The owner had filled his land with wild animals, and long after he died, the zebras had remained, breeding and carefully managed. Then, about five years prior, wildfires had burnt the whole thing down, destroyed the fences. No one knew what happened to the zebras that lived there, but here one was, miles away from home and looking at her, eyes rolling in its head, white foam at the corners of its mouth.

No pig, but her eyes were riveted on the animal, watching as it slowly backed away, then turned and ran, galloping across dry earth and grasses that would probably burn in a few weeks. It might have been the last one, for all she knew, and in every movement there was beauty and sadness. Zebras were meant to live in herds, from what she remembered of long-ago nature documentaries. Then again, this zebra wasn’t meant to be alive at all. Not here, not now. It was supposed to be a relic of the past, something not meant to last in the current environment. What would happen to it?

Was adaptation possible when the environment kept shifting beneath its hooves? She watched the zebra for a few minutes more, its eyes searching for an escape. It had long scars along one of its flanks, the sign of battles fought, yet it appeared healthy otherwise. Like so many other creatures, it had survived. It had carved out a niche for itself here. Where the world would not willingly yield, the zebra had made it. It had survived.

Then, perhaps, so would Caris. Survival was not made for them. They existed on a plane that denied their very right to endure, but there were no other options. As the zebra pushed and pushed to make a space for itself in these kudzu-choked hills, so too did Caris. It was not cowardice, she realized, to make the world accommodate you. It was not asking too much to survive.

The zebra was alone, but so vibrantly alive. Its muscles quivered, preparing to run. It would be so easy to give in without the support of the herd or facing a robotic terror armed with a blade, yet even now the zebra sought a way out. Escape was possible. Life was possible.

Sheathing the machete, Caris turned back. There was kudzu still to cut, bounties to be earned. There was a group of corps members that waited for her. Most importantly, there was the power, the autonomy that the mech gave her. The world had not made space for her. Instead, Caris would punch a woman-shaped hole into it. She was not alone, as the zebra was. She had her friends, the other corps members. She had the memory of the zebra springing away, the sound of its hooves hitting the dry earth. One improbable survivor. Two, if she counted herself.

With another laugh, she ran back simply for the joy of running, of feeling the oxygen in her veins and knowing that the mech too, was a part of her body.


Author’s Note: I was thinking about the future of assistive tech and also thinking about giant robots, as I usually am. Somehow the two conflated in my mind and managed to weave their way in and around my sometimes day job of writing about the native environment to form “Kudzu.” 

Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers is a California based writer of both fiction and nonfiction. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MSc in Creative Writing and has since worked primarily as a nature/conservation writer. Her essays have also been in the Mary Sue and Strange Horizons, while her fiction has appeared in Translunar Travelers Lounge. Her poetry can be found in Strange Horizons and Kalediotrope.


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DP FICTION #77A: “Along Our Perforated Creases” by K.W. Colyard

Content note (click for details) Content note: domestic abuse

In my earliest memory, my mother folds in half. It couldn’t have been her first time. She was already so small by that point, so diminutive, that it’s hard, even now, to imagine her big, unfolded to her full size, giving birth to me. It was not her first time, and probably not even the first time she folded in front of me, but it is the first time I remember, and it happened when my father hit her.

I am six years old, sitting backward in a chair, watching between the spindles as my father takes a swing at her. Or tries to, the drunken bastard. He throws a wide right that turns the kitchen tiles into mortars, his fist into a pestle. The left arm, holding a handle of whiskey at length, acts as his ballast, keeping him upright as his body teeters like a wobbly top.

His fist crashes toward her. She ducks and covers, like a child in an Atomic Age cartoon. Instead of crawling under a desk to hide from my father’s bomb, my mother folds. Her forearms melt into her shins. Her hips roll up and sprout arms from their sockets. Her head rises from the floor to sit on her new shoulders, which she still hugs close to her neck. In a moment she is half the size of the woman my father tried to hit, and so he misses.

The swing drags him forward into the laminate kitchen counter, where he pauses, panting, wide-eyed. He turns over his shoulder to stare. I’m not sure that his booze-addled brain could make sense of what had happened. He stands up straight and takes a long swig from the bottle, never breaking eye contact with her.

Her whole frame trembles as she gazes up at him. Even when he slams the door to their bedroom, she remains taut as a piano wire. Not until we hear specters from his television cry out through the wall does she sag and collapse a little, into herself.

I am not surprised, in this memory. I think I already knew, at that point, that women could fold themselves into forever smaller shapes.

It was a hot topic in those days: to fold or not to fold. Unfolded women intimidated male interviewers. Folded women had trouble climbing stairs and using public toilets. Almost every day, tabloid shows interviewed folded women who had been assaulted by their bigger and stronger children—often boys, but sometimes girls.

You could go almost your entire life without meeting an unfolded woman. Pregnancy necessitated a certain amount of upsizing, and childbirth demanded complete unfolding. Almost no newborns were folded, and no one wanted to imagine what would happen if a folded mother gave birth to her unfolded child. You heard rumors, of course. Many stores did not stock folded clothing sizes in their maternity sections, because they feared the campaigners who might boycott them for encouraging unhealthy behaviors and body standards. No one mentioned the magazines, the ones with cover stories about postpartum celebrities who were already back to their shrunken, idealized selves.

Childbirth aside, it was preferable for women to remain folded for most of their lives. Tiny brides were all the rage then, although the exact, en vogue size changed often. I have a distinct memory of a wedding tape, played on one of those funniest-video shows, in which a husband pretends to eat his bride, who is no bigger than a jewelry-box ballerina. It got a lot of laughs.

At some point, I’m not sure when, I swore that I would never fold myself for anyone. It might have been when I saw my mother trembling on the kitchen tile, or maybe when the toy bride appeared to disappear behind her groom’s teeth. I didn’t know what it meant to fold or unfold, not really. All I knew was that I didn’t want whatever they had. It sat wrong with me, like when you interlace your fingers but put the wrong thumb on top.

And then it happened. I never planned it. I don’t think anyone plans out the day they will diminish themselves. I broke my promise to myself in the way that we break all such promises. Long before we swear that we will never be like our parents, we hold ourselves to other standards that we haven’t yet realized are impossible to meet. Remaining unfolded was one of them, at least for me.

My father was dead of sclerosis by then, and my mother had folded herself for other men, until she was the size of a walnut—a Thumbelina of the city. We lived in an efficiency apartment big enough for unfolded people, which was expensive in the city at that time. She never said anything, but we both knew that we could improve our financial situation if we—if I—could fit into one of the micropartments available a few blocks away: the provenance of single moms and daughters.

Maybe that’s why I did it. Or maybe it was just time for me to fit into spaces that no longer accommodated my full-sized self.

It happened on the train. I sat next to the door, four stops from home. He had been staring at me from one end of the car for the last six stops, but I was too afraid to leave the safety of the train. It was a long walk home. I had no chance of making it, not if he followed me.

I waited, and so did he. I gritted my teeth and prayed to every god I knew for protection. It did not help. The only other passenger got off two stops before mine, leaving us alone together in the car.

We were so close to the next stop when he began stalking toward me that the train’s braking threw him into me. I don’t know if I screamed. I couldn’t feel my body. He steadied himself, propping one ursine arm against the tall shaft of a rail, swinging the other toward me like a grappling hook—palm open, fingers clawed.

I panicked, threw myself backward toward the railing, and folded, not once but twice, as I slipped through it. I joined my limbs as I once watched my mother do, and then twisted to fold one side into the other. For brief moments, I was a column of a person: a scepter with my bowed head in place of a gem. Then my body split apart again into new arms and legs.

The doors opened behind me and I bolted, leaving the man just as bewildered as my father had once been.

Everything burned—not hot like an iron, but sharp, as if a thousand tiny paper cuts had been made along the seams of my body. It hurt, this folding, and I realized that, despite all the media buzz, no one ever talked about the pain.

*

It hurt, but I lived. Diminishing myself was the price I paid to not be accosted by strange drunks on the subway. It pleased my mother, in a sad way, because my double-folding put us two steps closer to a micropartment. Survival was the trade-off for pain.

Before downsizing could happen, though, I needed to fold again. The next time was seven months later. Picture a bodega, robbery in progress. I hid behind an endcap of Manischewitz and MD 20/20, praying no one had seen me yet, and I folded, just once. I could always fold again if I needed to crawl beneath the shelves, but once was enough to condense the bulk of my body so that it didn’t show around the corners of the aisle or between the gaps in the wine bottles.

I lived again, and again received that same mixture of radiating sadness and hope from my mother, who had ceased to look so tiny to me. I needed to fold at least once more to fit into the micropartment. Maybe that was why the next time came so soon.

Three months later, the robbery remained unsolved. I was walking home late at night, bringing milk and bread from the market. Maybe it was because I was only a few blocks away from that bodega, because I was alone, because the robber was still out there. I can’t say. But I heard footsteps behind me—heavier than mine and just out of sync—and when I tried to speed up on my shortened legs, the footfalls trailing me only grew louder.

I dove into the next alleyway, folding myself to fit behind the dumpster. My heart pounded in my ears as I waited to face my assailant, but my pursuer—if they even existed—never came to the alley. The footsteps faded off in the other direction, leaving me alone.

I slid out into the alley, slick with foul grime. I left the now-too-heavy milk behind the dumpster and cradled the bread, looking for all the world like a small child holding its new sibling. When I walked through the door, my mother hugged me tighter than she ever had before.

We were approved for a micropartment the next week.

*

The Internet made the Unfolding possible.

I came from a generation of compulsive bloggers who poured out their hearts to nobody in particular on LiveJournal and Tumblr. YouTube made everyone feel like a star. Things that we’d once spent years whispering about were confirmed at full volume, and with increasing regularity, in grainy 270P. In addition to videos of police brutality and child abuse, we began to see people unfolding themselves.

At first, it was just candid bystander videos. Someone would whip out a camera phone to film a man harassing a folded woman and wind up capturing footage of her unfolding. It looks nothing like the process of folding. She becomes twice her size in every dimension, globbily at first, then smoothly. She yells, her voice louder and deeper now that she’s of a certain size.

Women—mostly young and pretty ones—took over the blogosphere with messages of “conscious unfolding,” the precursor to the capital-U Unfolding. People called it a movement, lauded and vilified it.

A consciously unfolded person did not wait for harassment or abuse before they decided to grow larger. They took up the full amount of space their body was allotted from birth. Unfolding was about reclaiming the space they had once given up for safety or acceptance.

The media labeled some of the unfolded as frauds, mostly the idealistic teens who lived in micropartments, who unfolded in train station restrooms on school-day mornings and shrunk themselves down again before going home at night. Or the actors who unfolded for the red carpet but folded for roles. Then there were the actors who didn’t fold for roles, but looked as if they did, thanks to cinematographic trickery. The women who folded for work every morning. The sex workers who folded for clients. The sex workers who unfolded for clients. Everyone was suspect and no one was pure.

But more of them unfolded every day. To fold, to unfold—these became political decisions. Perhaps they always were. My mother and I could not afford to unfold, which was a different matter of politics.

We were still calling it “conscious unfolding” when the real Unfolding happened. The first person to do it was a nonbinary teenager named Tash. The authorities would never identify the cameraphone’s owner, but he, or someone close by, could be heard saying, Tash is gonna get it.

Tash was not, in fact, gonna get it.

Fourteen-year-old Tash Clemmons had never folded, not once. But when three older boys came at them, promising violence, they Unfolded. It wasn’t supposed to be possible, and yet it was. They stood eye-to-eye with the tallest of their attackers, fists clenched by the hem of their shorts, holding their ground.

The boy paused before swinging his bookbag at them. Tash deflected the blow and Unfolded again. Then, looking down on him, their voice booming, they said something, one thing, something we realized then that they’d been saying all along, ever since the camera started rolling: Leave me alone. Get out of my face. Leave me the fuck alone.

Tash’s attacker was arrested for assault, but the charges were dropped. They did the news media circuit to talk about how they planned to never fold themself back into their original, 5’4” frame. They said they were 7’2”, and doctors confirmed it. They said they had scholarship offers from colleges, positions on the basketball and volleyball teams at their school. Officials confirmed that, too. Some people called them a monster. Some called them an inspiration.

And so the Unfolding began.

It was the teenagers first, just as it had always been. They pulled themselves apart, pushed the limits to see just how large they could become. Rumor had it that one girl in New Delhi was able to walk across the city in ten steps, but there were no videos to prove that she existed.

The old ladies were next. Women whose wrinkles became the size of subway tunnels when they stretched themselves out. Women whose backs were still bent, even at eight or nine feet tall. Grandmothers whose grandchildren clapped when they grew larger. Old, Southern women who Unfolded as a party trick to step up into their great-grandsons’ lifted trucks with ease.

Some countries tried to outlaw it. Doctors were paid to debate its safety on television. Some states warned that Unfolding could affect fertility or increase the risk of cancer, but there was no evidence to support either claim. A bald TV psychiatrist asked one teenager what she got out of being called a monster. She told him: Power.

The men complained, as they always did. Could you really charge a husband with domestic violence, one lawyer argued, when, sure, he hit her, but then his wife exploded into an eight-foot-tall harpy, smashing an egg pan against his skull? Could it truly be called self-defense then? The Unfolded argued that the very act of growing larger was an act of self-defense. They lost many cases. Then they began to win.

Micropartments gave way to macropartments gave way, eventually, to mixcropartments. The Unfolded lived with their original-sized and folded roommates in areas built like nesting dolls, growing larger from the ground up. It wasn’t unusual to see an Unfolded person climb over buildings or step around traffic jams to drop their folded friends off at work or school.

I was still very small when I signed the lease on our mixcropartment. The woman who handed me the pen cup had fingernails taller than me. She smiled, teeth long as piano keys, but it was a warm smile, and full of hope. I thanked her and grabbed my purse—that purse, for the last time.

I would need my mother to open it for me at home. It was about to be too small.

I stepped outside, in the fresh air of the autumn morning, and I stretched

out

wide.


Kristian Wilson Colyard grew up weird in a one-caution-light town in the Appalachian foothills. She now lives in an old textile city with her husband and their clowder of cats. Her nonfiction has been published on Bustle and Tor.com, among other places. She’s on Twitter and Instagram @kristianwriting, and you can find more of her work online at kristianwriting.com.


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DP FICTION #76B: “We Will Weather One Another Somehow” by Kristina Ten

When Benj comes home, I swear his hands are smaller than before, and thinned out in the spaces between the knuckles, the points of contact if someone were to lace their fingers with his. It’s a millimeter’s difference, maybe less, maybe half. But then, I’ve gotten used to these reduced units of measurement.

When I find the dust in the cuffs of his jacket, I’m sure.

Benj is thirty-four years old, has been in my life for two. He is reliable and even-tempered, a good listener, easy to love. Lots of people call him their rock. I called him that too, before I knew.

He says he can’t pinpoint when it started, his erosion. Of course, I know—watched the videos in grade-school earth science same as everyone—that it’s one of those things that happens gradually over a long period of time. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing, nothing. Then one day, in the foreign angle of a changing-room mirror, a deep gully down the center of his back from where the shower water hit for ten straight minutes every day since he was a boy.

I let my fingers hover over the gully, a flock of birds caught in the wind, but I don’t touch down. He is limestone, vulnerable. Soft sedimentary. I dare not contribute.

Meanwhile, Benj takes his eroding as a fact of life. Hereditary, his dad. When he shows me old family photos, I recognize it immediately. Limbs narrow around the bone from continuous exposure.

“The fuck is this?” is how I found out, turning to look over my shoulder at his bathroom mirror, wiping long streaks of gray-pink dust from the back of my dress. A little drunk, both of us. Hiccups. Laughter. We had been out dancing, still new then, and I had been showing off.

He told me. Answered my questions, met my incredulity with patience. Gradually, yes, like buttes and canyons and river valleys. But much faster than those. Proportional to his size. Wait, parabolically proportional. No, it doesn’t hurt.

Later, lying there next to him, I didn’t know what to believe—finding all parts of him just as they should be, warm and present and braced so sturdily, I thought, by blood like mine. I remember hooking my hand onto the ledge of his collar bone, my legs draped over his so irresponsibly.

I asked about his dimples.

“Au naturel,” he replied.

The words “naturally occurring” mean something different to Benj. So do the words “worn out.”

One thing that wears Benj out, the way most people mean: phone calls from his mother, who’s back in Kansas, tornado-proofing her now-too-big house and putting fresh flowers on Benj’s dad’s grave. She sprung for a granite headstone. Erosion resistant. Made to last.

I hear one end of their conversations:

“Ma, please. We’ve been over this a thousand times.”

“Yes.”

“I am.”

“I am.” His face screws up and he turns away, his voice dropping to a near-whisper.

“A suit of armor, Ma? Jesus. What year is it? Where would you even get something like that?”

“It’s limited for everyone. Everybody’s on their way out. What did Dad used to say? ‘As soon as a story starts, it’s already ending’?”

A long pause. He shakes his head.

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“Okay, but I’m not wearing the armor.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

He keeps the phone to his ear, waiting for her to hang up before he turns around.

I look up from whatever book I haven’t been reading and smile brightly, try to be easy, pretend I heard nothing, that me and his mom, we’re nothing alike.

I’m no geologist, but I’ve always had a head for formulas. There’s a logic to them. Follow the rules and you know things will come out all right. And sometimes I think I could sit down and do the math. Figure out, based on the progression to date, give or take, how much time we have left.

If I had more courage. And a good calculator.

If I wasn’t so afraid.

If I didn’t find myself, on windy days, positioning my body in front of his at the bus stop, a head shorter than him and in more ways than that an ineffective shield.

If he didn’t tickle the spot on my ankle that only he knows about. If I didn’t have to remind myself not to tickle him back. If he didn’t joke-not-joke that he’s made of weaker stuff.

The most common causes of erosion are: water, wind, glaciers, people.

Benj is social for someone who’d be better off if he wasn’t. We go to what feels like the same party every weekend—same people, same half-empty bowl of party mix on a fold-out table, combed through for the good stuff.

I chew the inside of my cheeks as he greets everyone individually: enthusiastic slaps on shoulders, special handshakes with intricate steps.

The ones who hug him bear-hug hard, and over time, this has left shallow depressions hidden by T-shirts, in the middle of his chest, the tops of his arms.

The ones who kiss him do it the French way, one cheek, then the other, and they are supposed to be air kisses, but now his face tapers above the jawline as if shaved away.

I’m the only one who observes the dust falling off Benj onto the discolored carpet, sucked up by a vacuum in the morning and no one the wiser. Of course they don’t see it. They aren’t the ones who bring him home.

Home, our apartment. Our shoes all mixed up together in the caddy by the front door, both our last names on the small laminated label on the mailbox downstairs. When we moved in, Benj insisted on a plus sign between our names, not a slash. Said that we should be an “and,” not an “or.”

Living with Benj is like living inside an hourglass, one of those two-minute timers you used to get at the dentist. The fine dust of him collects all around us, proof that he is, cell by cell, sloughing away. A sick gray tinged with pink: ground-down skin, muscle, bone.

Though he has learned to shower more carefully, with most of his body out of the stream, though he has trained himself not to roll around in his sleep, he still leaves it behind when he walks his most-traveled paths, from bed to fridge to computer chair and back again.

I wonder which room he’ll be in when the world, after shaping him for so long, decides he has had enough.

He thinks it’s morbid that I won’t get rid of it, that I sweep the dust into loose mounds in the corners of rooms. But what else am I supposed to do with something that’s part of him?

“You don’t throw out your loved ones’ ashes,” I argue.

“Sometimes you do. Actually, a lot of times you do.”

“Well, I don’t.”

“You would if the will said to.”

I roll my eyes. This is the thing I worry about most lately: wasting dwindling time on conversations we’ve already had.

“Doesn’t matter if I would or not. You’d be gone and who would check up on it anyway?”

He looks down. His eyelashes are crusted with dust and the beginnings of crying.

“I’m not dead yet, you know.”

My mind jumps to flat prairies transformed into basins, hiking passes carved into mountains by ice.

When Benj isn’t around, I go to the piles and make a bowl with my hands and scoop up the dust. I pretend I’m a gymnast reaching into a tub of chalk at a big meet. Pretend my team is counting on me, and the dust, it helps me with my grip.

Benj erodes fastest in the places touched most often, so I try not to touch the parts of him I’d like to stick around. The way the tip of his nose turns up at the very last second as if it’s been waiting to surprise you. The spot on his right earlobe where I swore I saw a freckle once, only Benj is no good at keeping freckles. As soon as he gets the right amount of sun, a rush of wind polishes them down.

Loving Benj is an exercise in restraint. He hates that I kiss him so gently, says what good will holding back do in the long run? I say it’s all about the long run. He says he doesn’t like this side of me, this just-like-everyone-elseness, this being more concerned with longevity than depth.

When he says “depth,” he presses his thumb against the gates of my teeth, daring me to open, let him in—and I’m a goner. I forget myself, grab hold of him desperately. There’s the all-too-real sensation of him slipping through my fingers.

The next morning, I slide my arms out of the fresh rills that cross his stomach. Notice the crumbling around the teeth marks on his neck.

But Benj hasn’t had fingerprints as long as I’ve known him. I can’t pretend the pads were worn down by me.

He tells me that we are more solid than ever, and not to conflate things. We are not what is deteriorating.

He tells me that he is grateful. That whatever time we have, for him, it is enough.

But I am greedy, greedy, greedy.

I want to put him in a glass box like they do in cemeteries with the stone busts of children, when the families do not want the likenesses to ever decay. At these times, when I am at my most selfish and delusional, I know I am the weak one between us.

Which is why, when the worst comes, I’m the one to crack.

Benj goes grocery shopping and tries to carry all the bags from the car in one go. The plastic handles sink inches into his forearms, cut through him like wire, almost clear through to the other side.

Afterwards, we stop going to the parties that are all the same. By now, his legs are so eroded and his back so concave, he finds it difficult to walk.

Then we develop bad coughs, as the piles of dust in the apartment grow steadily taller. We ignore the coughing for a while, blame it on something going around the building, until eventually Benj orders a reusable particle mask for me. Just the one, I notice. Not a pair.

Then Benj declares he’s going to the Archways.

The Archways is a national preserve a couple of states over in which Benj has previously expressed no interest. For one thing, it’s a full day’s drive. For another, it’s known for its sandstorms.

Now, Benj leaves the tourism website up on his computer all the time. The photographs show striated rock the color of sweet dried oranges. Hard-packed earth is punctuated by otherworldly formations: a natural bridge between two cliffs, spindly pedestals rising hundreds of feet like a giant’s game of Jenga. And the namesake arches, chiseled away over millennia and toothpick-delicate, forming open-mouthed O’s in the landscape, frames for whatever lies beyond.

“Do you know how many people die every day just commuting to work?”

This again. The particle mask hides my expression. “No. Do you?”

“All I’m saying is that the same people who refuse to get on airplanes, they’re the ones who’ll step out into the crosswalk one day at the wrong time and just—”

“I get it.”

“Do you?”

I recite so he doesn’t have to: “We’re all dying, one hundred percent of us, one hundred percent of the time. We’re dying from the day we’re born.”

He nods. “Listen. I need to have a say. With my dad, we assumed he had more time. He was still doing work on the house, picking up shifts at the yard. Freak dust devil got him. Little, unremarkable one too.”

I feel like I’m suffocating. Not sure if the mask’s too tight or it’s something else.

He grabs my hands firmly, and instinctively I shoot him a look of warning.

“I want you to come with me,” he says.

He told me it doesn’t hurt.

He was wrong.

I try to be tough, strong, metamorphic. The granite of a headstone, the diamond of a promise ring. As I drive, I stare at a fixed point on the horizon, certain that if I turn my gaze toward him, it will bore a hole right through. A frame for everything that lies beyond him—which, as far as I can tell, is nothing at all.

The car’s stuffy and too quiet as I try to figure what would do less harm: roll the windows down and let the air blow against him, or leave them up and risk the sweat dissolving wavy lines into his skin.

Doesn’t matter. Neither of us expects him to be in that passenger seat on the way back.

Even in the stillness, the dust of him swirls lightly, landing on my hair, his jeans, the lids of our sodas, empty chip bags in the footwell, the red buckle of his latched seatbelt.

I ask why he bothered with the seatbelt.

He takes his chance: “Hey, you think I have a death wish?” And though it’s not funny, it feels better on the other side of silence.

When we pull in, the view from the visitors’ lot is depressing. Back home, we have coverage, densely packed trees, important for minimizing erosion. Here, the vegetation is sparse and the way it doesn’t touch fills me with regret. Low shrubs spaced so far apart, you get the feeling they want nothing to do with each other.

The rock formations, though, are beautiful in person, in the way of things that were not made all at once with a singular vision but by many invisible hands unhurriedly over time.

Already, the wind is howling.

Then these things in quick succession: I put the car in park. The wind shakes it violently. Panic strikes me, knocks something loose.

“Stay,” I blurt out. I hate the beg in my voice, say it anyway: “Please. Stay.”

Through eyes blurring with tears, I think I can see his body responding. He is filling out at the edges, widening where he was narrow. Coming back to sense, to me.

When I blink, my vision clears and the brief burst of hope is gone.

In its place is Benj, looking sad but resolute. He pulls his shoes and socks off slowly, left then right foot, then tugs his T-shirt over his head. He’s not being careful now. As he pushes his jeans down, the denim drags and I watch the dust fall.

He folds his clothes methodically on the center console. When he’s done, he turns and finally looks me in the eye.

Benj leans over and kisses me so hard I have to reach up and check my lips, I’m so sure it’s a piece of me that’s broken away.

He takes a series of fast breaths: in, out, in, out, in—

Then he throws the door open and goes.

Immediately, the wind begins the vicious work of whittling him down. One gust, three fingers off his left hand. The next, a chunk of his thigh. Fragments of him strike the windshield like hail while I sit, frozen. A crack forms down the middle of the glass, the space between his seat and mine.

Has he always been this decisive, this stupid, this brave?

People change, of course. Imperceptibly, then plain as day.

I can’t watch, but can’t not watch either, am here to be here. So I force myself out of the car and race to Benj, as far as he has managed to get, running on thin limbs and his own conviction.

How quickly he dissolves as we walk together, sideways in the wind, to one of the larger arches. He points forward, onward, with the index finger of his good hand. The sandstorm comes from everywhere, stinging, and I don’t try to shelter him from its blows.

When we reach the base of the arch, a thought burrows into me, painful and invasive. It makes me think of some wedding backdrops I’ve seen: clean-smelling, flower-wrapped pagodas; a place for ceremony.

At first, Benj’s gray-pink dust stands out, pale against the surrounding red rock. Once the wind hits blood, though, I can’t tell the difference.

“It doesn’t hurt?” I ask-yell over the storm.

Close up, I can’t see the whole of him. Only brown eyes, a little less domed than mine, looking back at me without fear.

“Not the way you think!”

When the next gust shears off his smile, I think, finally, I know what he means.

How does it hurt? It hurts like wishing hard won’t help you. Like being good won’t help you. Like there is no formula: you could’ve behaved completely differently and still.

We are insignificant and seen mostly at the surface.

If we’re lucky, seen deeper by some.

The dust of Benj hits me sharp and sudden, mixed with sand, and quickly I am bleeding. I squeeze my eyes shut against it. I shout into the unfairness, though I knew it was coming, and I swear I can hear Benj shouting back, though the air is thick enough to blind and I’m sure he is mostly bodiless now. In my useless mouth I try to catch him, hold him there, an urn for my beloved. Try not to let him dissolve on my tongue. Something like safekeeping.

When I open my eyes again, unsure of how much time has passed, the air is unnervingly still. Would it really have been easier not to have known?

I am red-raw and pinpricked. Dust sticks in ornate patterns atop the wetness of my tears or sweat or blood, like glitter to glue on art projects when I was a kid, and it’s true: I feel decorated. I remember glitter being impossible to get rid of. I walk back to the car, thinking that later, I’ll have to pick out the particles with tweezers one by one.

Or maybe not.

Maybe let it get infected.

Maybe stay evidence, of how great an impact one person can have. How much of them you can then carry with you, embedded, a burial under the skin.


Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer with work in LightspeedBlack StaticWeird HorrorAE Science Fiction, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop and a current MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she also teaches creative writing. You can find her at kristinaten.com and on Twitter as @kristina_ten.


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First Reader Applications AND Upcoming Submission Windows

written by David Steffen

Hello! We have a few upcoming things we need to announce, let’s get right to it shall we?

General Submission Window

Diabolical Plots is opening for general submissions for the first two weeks of August 2021. Read the guidelines for more information!

First Reader Applications

Diabolical Plots is looking for new First Readers! You may also know them as “slushreaders”, they help read submissions of stories that come in to help us consider them for publication. We are taking applications from BIPOC applicants until June 30th, and after that from everyone until July 10th. For more detailed information and the actual application form please follow this link.

Themed Submission Window

Diabolical Plots is pleased to announce our first themed issue ⁠— stories of food, dining, and cookery, which we couldn’t resist titling “Diabolical Pots”! (Actual pots optional.)

We’ll be accepting submissions for this special issue from October 7th – 21st, 2021. In addition to being centered around food, stories must have a speculative element. Pay rate, format, and submission restrictions (no reprints, no resubmits, etc.) will follow our general submission guidelines.

So, how can food be integrated into your story? Any way you want! Maybe a crew of space pirates is about to score big on some outer-planet delicacies. Or a tense family dinner gets tenser when the youngest child insists they hear scratching sounds in the wall. Or two witches both reach for the last bundle of herbs and their eyes meet and…

For this themed issue, our assistant editor, Kel Coleman, will be taking the wheel and making final selections. Of course, your story should still be a good fit for Diabolical Plots—check out our general guidelines for an idea of what that means—but what might win you extra points with Kel?

Well, Kel would love to see:

  • Lush descriptions of food
  • Immersive worldbuilding—food is never just food. Food is love, food is culture, food is survival
  • Science fiction that’s high on emotional resonance, low on unexamined imperialism
  • Any kind of prose—it can be ornate, experimental in structure or tone, or punchy and simple, as long as it is intentional and serves the story

“Open House On Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell Wins the Nebula Award For Best Short Story!

written by David Steffen

On Saturday June 5th, SFWA held the Nebula Award ceremony. The finalists and winners of the Nebula Awards are determined by votes from members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). “Open House On Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell is this year’s winner of the Nebula Award for Best Short Story!

We are very happy for John for the win! This was his first major award finalist and win in his writing career. If you didn’t watch the award ceremony, you might want to check out his acceptance speech as well, which has a lot of encouragement for writers.

And of course we are very excited for ourselves as well! This is the first time any work originally published by Diabolical Plots has been finalist or winner of a major award as well! We have gotten a lot of new visitors to read the story in the last few days, and hopefully this is not the last.

The same story is finalist in two other science fiction awards that haven’t determined their winners yet: The Locus Awards, and the Hugo Awards.

DP FICTION #76A: “One More Angel” by Monica Joyce Evans

“What was it this time?” She looked exhausted, shoulders slumped over a file covered with names, and ruffled her wings at me like an angry pigeon. “Transporter trip? It’s usually a transporter trip.”

“Um,” I said. The last thing I remembered was the departure platform at Greater Houston, and the familiar buzz and glare of a successful transport. “Is this what it looks like?”

“I’m marking it as a repeat,” she said, and pointed me toward a small white room, already looking at the next file. There were fine lines at the corners of her eyes. I wondered if she had a flaming sword, and if I should be worried.

In the white room, I was met by myself.

“Hello, you,” the other me said, swinging one leg over the back of a chair and straddling it. “Where was it this time?”

“Mars,” I said cautiously. “Just a weekend trip. I’m dead, right?” The room was as bare as a VR stage. “Or this is the weirdest ad I’ve ever been in, and I’m not sure what you’re selling.”

“No, you’re dead,” said the other me. “Look, I keep drawing the short straw on this whole explanation thing, so I’m going to go fast. Two things that are true.” She held up two fingers and waggled them. “One, Heaven is real, God is real, all that religion stuff is real. Not the nasty bits, just the simple, straightforward, everybody gets an afterlife part. That’s real. That’s thing one. Thing two? Transporters are murder.”

“No, they’re not,” I said. “I use them all the time.”

My other self twisted her mouth into a crooked smile. “Follow that thought through,” she said.

“I mean,” I said carefully, “they just take your atoms apart and put them back together again. On the other end.”

“That’s death,” the other me said. “Literally and technically. You’re dead, and your copy goes to Mars for the weekend. Well,” she amended, “your new copy. We’re all copies here, except for the ten year old. She was first.” Outside the open door, the pigeon-winged woman had started laughing, the way an exhausted parent laughs when the children start drawing on the walls with crayon.

I swallowed. “I don’t use transporters that much. I mean, I don’t really keep count.”

“Yes, we can tell,” the other me said, and guided me into the next room. About forty versions of myself were grouped in small clusters, having quiet conversations and looking bored. They were all about my age, but slightly younger. Except for one little girl who seemed particularly bitter.

None of them looked happy. “You’re sure this is Heaven?”

“Yep,” said the other me, and put a hand on my shoulder. “That’s every transporter trip you’ve ever taken. And that thing with the jellyfish when you were a kid, when you were dead for twelve seconds and change. That counted.” She waved at the ten year old, who glared at us.

“I guess we all led good lives or something,” I said weakly. Ten year old me should definitely have been happier. I mean, she’d been here for what, thirty years? Give or take?

The other me, the first one, looked where I was looking and nodded. “Oh, the first few decades were great. It’s recently, really, that everybody’s gotten… well, like this.”

It was deeply awkward. There wasn’t anything else in the big white room to take our minds off each other, and none of my previous selves seemed to want to talk to me. “Shouldn’t there be marble columns or something?” I asked finally. “Trees and fountains? Lots of light?”

As I spoke, two columns and a fountain sprouted gently, and the room was bathed in warm golden sunlight, like it was four-thirty on a perfect afternoon. “Oh, sure,” said the other me, poking at a column. “Lots of people start with this. Don’t feel bad,” she said to the expression on my face. “Familiar’s just fine. Anyway, we’ll go through all this again in a few days, when the next one of us gets back from Mars, so…”

“Okay, no. No more,” I said, looking around at myself. “This can’t be it. I can’t end up like all of you.” Sunlight sparkled, perfectly, on the fountain next to us, and I resisted the urge to kick it.

The other me cocked an eyebrow. “You’ve been traveling a lot lately.”

“Well, how was I supposed to know?” I said. “Everybody uses transporters.”

“That’s the point,” she said, guiding me past a pair of shining trees. Some of the others followed us, not closely. “All those little deaths, all the time now. People used to spend time with relatives, ancestors, some interesting famous people, but now, well.” She shrugged. “There’s just too many of us.”

“Heaven’s overcrowded? I thought Hell was other people,” I said. Nobody laughed. The ten year old rolled her eyes and left the room, which at least meant there was a way out, I thought.

The other me sat us down on a delicately filigreed bench, by a small pond rippling with fish. “They’re calling us multiples,” she said. “Repeats. And there’s talk, you know, that it’s not really sustainable. People think the whole system’s going to break down.”

“The afterlife?” I had a brief moment of panic, then remembered I was already dead. “Is that possible?”

“Oh, no,” the first me said, waving her hand like she could wave the thought away. “But it’s a strain, you know. The place wasn’t built for repeats.” Some of my other faces looked worried.

“Just hypothetically, though, if it did break,” I said. “What would happen?”

The other me shrugged. “You know, nobody’s saying. It’s probably fine, though.”

“Probably.” I looked around, imagining stacks of myself piled like cordwood, grumbling. Or maybe the whole place would shatter like a mess of pixels, or something even worse. “Can we do anything?”

She smiled wide, and I swallowed. “Well, if you think of anything, you be sure and let everyone know.”

Fish turned in gentle loops under the pond’s surface, perfectly. It wouldn’t be nice to kick at them, I thought. Besides, the sunlight was warm on my skin, the fountain burbled pleasantly in the distance, and life had always been short. “So, what do you all do?” I asked, settling back on the comfortable bench. “When you’re not running slightly older versions of yourself through the tutorial.”

“Oh, well,” she said. “Pretty much anything nice you can imagine.” She waved in the direction my child self had gone. “Our ten year old made an ice cream land with tame dinosaurs. And you can still meet your relatives and ancestors, if you can find them. They’ll still talk to some of us, the younger ones.” She chattered on, and I thought about the news story I’d seen, when I was waiting my turn at the transporter to Mars.

Home versions. Just announced. So convenient, to transport back and forth from home every day. Multiple times, probably.

Everyone was going to want one.

“Tell me about the ice cream land,” I said, and smiled at the fish. Let the next version of me tell everyone the bad news. Meanwhile, I’d see as much of the place as I could, while it lasted.

Death was too short not to enjoy it.


Author’s Note: I’ve always been somewhere on the scale of bothered-to-terrified about the standard transporters in Star Trek. Site-to-site matter teleportation would be fantastic, if only I didn’t have to worry about whether it was “me” that emerged on the other side. I’ve also been replaying The Swapper, an indie game in which you’re constantly abandoning cloned versions of yourself that may or may not be conscious, and started thinking about all those potential transporter copies – what if they didn’t die, but went somewhere else? An overcrowded afterlife was the logical next step.

Monica Joyce Evans is a digital game designer and researcher who began publishing speculative fiction in 2019. Her short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Analog, Nature: Futures, Flash Fiction Online, and DreamForge Magazine, and her most recent academic work can be found in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. She lives in North Texas with her husband, two daughters, and approximately ten million books. You can reach her at monicajoyceevans@gmail.com.


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DP FICTION #75B: “Three Riddles and a Mid-Sized Sedan” by Lauren Ring

When the cars started driving themselves, we went back to the old ways. It wasn’t a slow change, the way the news made it out to be. One day we were in control, and the next we weren’t. Now they can strike anywhere, anytime, any make and any model, all with dead-eyed electronic smiles on their windshields.

The old ways help us stay safe. I teach my daughter to chalk runes around the house, double yellow lines that forbid the cars from crossing. We bring a baby stroller everywhere we go. It saved a friend of mine once, making him rank slightly higher in the car’s inscrutable calculus than the woman on the other side of the street.

Sometimes I wonder if he feels guilty.

I know I wouldn’t. I need to be there for Margot, so that I can protect her in this new world, and keep her childhood peaceful. She’s the only reason I keep going. No one else matters.

Today, Margot and I are going to the park. Margot is wearing her favorite shirt, the one with the pink stripes and the ice cream scoops, and I’ve done up her hair with matching bows. A bright rainbow of face paint covers her button nose. She skips along happily, clutching her chapter book to her chest as I push the stroller with its disguised doll.

“I’m going to see the bridge troll, Mama,” Margot tells me. I resist the urge to sigh.

“Bridges are on roads, sweetheart.They aren’t safe anymore, remember?”

“You never let me have any fun.” She pouts and stops skipping.

“We’re going to the park right now,” I point out. Margot huffs and buries her face in her book. I want to tell her not to read while walking, but that’s one battle I won’t ever win. I step to her left, between her and the road.

The book she’s reading has a troll on the cover. Its eyes glow yellow and its rocky body blends into the bridge behind it. Next to it stands a young girl with her hands on her hips. I make a mental note to skim it after she falls asleep tonight: I don’t want her getting the wrong idea.

It’s the way people thought before the cars. Some people still think it; try to take the cars down. I hear about them on the news, next to footage of their weeping parents. Margot is only curious about the cars now, but I can’t help worrying that she’ll grow up to be one of those radicals.

Margot tugs at my sleeve.

“Want to guess a riddle?” she asks.

“Sure, honey.” We’re almost at the park now. It’s isolated, deep enough in the maze of the suburbs that I can let my guard down a little.

“What has legs but no feet?” Margot asks, placing her finger halfway down the page.

“I don’t know, what?”

“I win,” she squeals, holding the book out to me. “It’s a chair, it says right here. Now you have to let me go to the bridge.”

“Not if I catch you first!” I chase her all the way to the park, roaring like a bridge troll.

There are other families at the park, and other children on the swings. Margot spots her best friend Nadia playing in the sand pit and runs off.

Across the sand, my friends Dave and Samir are chatting at a picnic bench. Samir spots me and waves me over, smiling wide. I scan the park for escape routes and hiding places before joining them.

“How have you been, Alicia?” Samir asks. His disguise of the day is all harsh lines and interlocking spirals, so dark they look like tattoos across his face. In the oldest days, it was unwise to share your true name. Now you can’t share your true face.

“We missed you at our baby shower,” Dave adds.

“Right.” I had been too afraid to leave the house that day. There had been a car victim in the news, a child Margot’s age, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. “I’ll bring your gift to the next self-defense workshop.”

Samir rolls his eyes, but I know he’s more exasperated than annoyed. After all, Dave leads the workshops. He had been a designer on the cars long ago, back when people were still actually in charge of them, but his workshops tend toward the arcane.

“I’m working on a charm.” Dave holds up a spinning, blinking object that flashes pattern after pattern. “If we can overload a car’s sensors for even a millisecond, it might swerve.”

“Do you have to call it a charm?” Samir grumbles.

“If it works, it works,” says Dave. “I think there’s a lot we can learn from the old ways.”

“They’re machines, not fairies. The way we get back to normal is by somebody figuring out who hacked into the AI, not by all of us pretending that they’re magic.”

“What about in the meantime?” I interject. “Things aren’t getting any better. Half the kids in Margot’s classroom haven’t come in since the attack by the high school; the district says we’re all moving to remote schooling.”

“Maybe it would be better.” Dave places a hand on my shoulder. “She’ll still have the backyard, and Nadia can come over for playdates.”

“I just want her to get a chance to live the way we lived, you know?”

Dave and Samir give me sympathetic nods, but they don’t say anything. There’s nothing to say.

I turn back to watch Margot play, hoping some of her carefree joy will stick with me.

The sand pit is empty. A half-built bridge, a pinecone troll, and a trail of sand left like breadcrumbs are all that remains of Margot and Nadia.

I start running.

At least she’s with Nadia, I think to myself. At least she isn’t alone. It pains me to make the same cold decision as a car, but Nadia is older than Margot, and age is supposed to be one of the metrics.

I sprint across streets and swing around corners with wild abandon, following the sand. Margot is out there. Margot, who I still can’t convince of the dangers of the world. In another life, I would have wanted her to stay innocent.

The nearest bridge isn’t a bridge at all. It’s actually a freeway overpass that crosses a quiet road, but it’s close enough in the eyes of a child. Margot and Nadia stand there at the edge of the shadows, their arms linked.

“Margot, Nadia, come here,” I call as loudly as I dare. “We can play somewhere else.”

“But Mama, we found the troll,” Margot says.

I get closer and see yellow in the shadows. Not eyes. Headlights.

I’m in front of Margot in an instant, spreading my arms to block her as much as I can. Nadia whimpers and ducks behind my leg, but Margot just tries to slip under my arm.

“I want to tell it my riddle,” she says.

“Margot, honey, this is a car,” I say carefully. She knows the stories, the warnings, but she has never seen a feral car in the wild before. I’ve sheltered her too well. “We talked about how they’re different now. It’s not going to answer your riddle.”

The car’s windshield changes from the neutral face that means no danger to something new: a question mark. I have never seen an autonomous car without an indicator face before.

“Sweetheart, I want you and Nadia to get back.” I use my sternest tone. When they step back, though, the car revs its engine and inches forward.

The car’s windshield displays a stop sign. The children halt.

“Okay, Margot. Ask the riddle.” My voice shakes.

She places her hands on her hips, her little chin thrust high in the air.

“What,” she demands, “has legs but no feet?”

The car displays a chair on its screen. My heart skips a beat as it starts rolling forward, picking up speed. Margot turns to me with wide eyes.

“It won, mama.”

I scoop Margot into my arms and start to run, but Nadia grabs at my leg, and we all go tumbling down to the asphalt. Margot starts to cry and I have just enough time to notice the bright red smear on her scraped elbow before the car is upon us and I have to act, now.

“I have riddles, car,” I say, desperate. “Play with me.”

The car screeches to a halt and slowly reverses until all I can see are its eerie yellow headlights and the question mark on its windshield.

“If I win, you leave me and my daughter alone. Forever. All of you.”

The car displays a red frown. I’ve asked for too much.

“Just her, then.” I wipe the tear-smeared paint off Margot’s face and force her to look at the car. It will kill us anyway if I fail here.

A green smiling face. A question mark.

The problem is, I don’t have a riddle. I’ve never really been one for puzzles, and the only games I play are the ones Margot suggests. Besides, anything I’ve heard of before, the car will also know. It knows so much. More than I do. It knows the answer to unanswerable questions. Like “whose life is worth more?”

Nadia trembles behind me.

Margot would be heartbroken if anything happened to her. If it comes down to that choice again, I know what I will do, but for now there must be another way. Samir was right: they’re cars, not fairies. But Dave was right too. Both of those things play by the rules, and both of those things can be tricked.

“You can’t kill us until you answer my riddles,” I tell it. Again, the green smile. I step forward and walk so close I can feel the heat of its engine. I try the door handle.

“What are you doing, Mama?” Margot asks, grabbing my hand with her stubby fingers. “Don’t let it eat us!”

“Just trust me, honey.” I tug on the handle again. The car hums, like its air conditioning has been left on high. The first glimpses of a plan are forming in my head. “I need to get my books from home, so I can find the very best riddles.”

With a click, the car door unlocks. I think it’s curious. Kind of like a child in that way, if the child weighed several tons and could kill with ease. Margot clings to me as I open the car’s door and climb inside, with Nadia at my heels.

The children huddle in the passenger seat, clinging to each other as I snap their seatbelt in place. I eye the manual override, but I know better. I’ve heard of people who tried that and held on. Heard what happened the moment they let go.

If we can just get home, though, I might be able to pull this off. Maybe.

I key in my address and with a sound like a sigh, the car pulls out from under the overpass.

It’s been years since I’ve been inside a car. My knuckles are white as I grip the useless wheel. Outside the window, the trees and the streets and the houses blur together.

I can almost understand why the world chose this path. There’s no traffic, no mistakes, no rude gestures. But it only feels safe from inside the car. I’ve lived too long on the outside to be fooled.

Maybe I can beat the car at its own game, instead of resorting to one of the frantic, risky plans bubbling up in my mind. I can’t come up with any suitable riddles, though, and I know my own books won’t be any help. All I know are the childish riddles I’ve picked up through my time as a parent, from playgroups and picture books.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Because it was running for its life.

My house comes into view. It’s a single story, just big enough for me and Margot. Yellow painted rune-lines circle the structure, and all of the blinds are drawn shut. Weeds have broken through the concrete of the driveway. The car crushes them as it pulls up.

I unbuckle the girls and step out on shaky legs. I can at least get Margot inside. Maybe she can barricade herself somewhere, and force the car to destroy itself getting to them. But that’s a temporary solution at best.

The car revs its engine as Margot and Nadia head for the porch. It rolls up behind them and they freeze. Nadia is crying now, globs of silent tears pooling on her cheeks. Margot’s face is tight and pale.

“Stay out here, girls,” I say as gently as I can. “I’m going to get some books. Everything will be okay. I’ll bring some chalk for you to play with. Don’t worry, alright?”

Margot grabs my sleeve as I pass her. The look in her eyes breaks my heart almost as much as the look in her eyes when I have to keep going. The chalk will work, though. It has to work.

The house is quiet and still. The car’s headlights follow me through the blinds as I hurry to the shelves. Margot’s books are usually scattered around her room, but there are still a few fairy tales left where they should be. I grab them and the chalk.

Back outside, the car looms over Margot and Nadia, their nightmares made real for the very first time. It’s a small car, but they’re small girls. Too small to be dealing with this right now and certainly too small for what I’m about to ask them to do, but there’s no one else that can do it.

“Here you go, girls. Don’t be afraid.” I hand them the bucket of chalk, then turn my back to the car and hide my hands as I gesture to them what to do.

I can only hope they understand. I turn back to the car.

“I’m going to ask you three riddles,” I say, stretching my words out to buy time as the children begin to draw. I can see Margot trembling as she nears the car, but she draws anyway. So brave, my girl. “It’s the traditional number.”

The green question mark stays on the car’s display, unwavering.

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

The question mark winks out. Moments later, the car’s screen fills with text. Every inch of the windshield is covered in blog posts and thesis papers, giving me every possible answer to the unanswerable riddle. Then it shows me a green check mark.

It makes sense. The cars have always been judge, jury, and executioner. This isn’t a contest I could ever win. The car starts rolling forward and a piece of pink chalk explodes into a cloud of dust and shards beneath its tire.

“I have two more.” My voice was supposed to be firm and strong, but instead it’s high and reedy. “You haven’t heard the best ones yet. Stay where you are until you answer.”

The car indulges me and stops. I open one of Margot’s books and read aloud.

“As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives…”

This riddle is one of Margot’s favorites. She likes the way the words sound; likes the lyricism and the puzzle combined. I try not to look at her, because I know I will cry. I hope she knows how hard I’m trying to save her.

The car, of course, has its answer the instant I’m done reading. The number one appears on its screen. This time, though, it’s an angry red.

“Very good,” I say, glancing at the girls and their chalk. “Just one more, and then we see who wins. One more riddle and the game is over.”

A red timer appears on the car’s screen, ticking down from thirty seconds. It wants me to stop stalling, but I just need a little more time. Thirty seconds will have to be enough.

I wait for the last five seconds before I speak. The silence is as solemn as the grave and is punctuated only by the scratch of chalk and the steady hum of the car’s engine.

“My last riddle for you, car,” I say, “is: how are you going to get out?”

For a long moment, longer than ever before, the screen is blank.

Then the car rears forward, headlights ablaze. I can’t help it—I close my eyes. If this doesn’t work, then it’s all over, and I won’t watch my daughter die.

There is no scream. There is no crunch. There is only silence.

I crack open the eye and see the car frozen in place. It skidded to a halt just inches from poor Margot’s face, but—thank God—she is unscathed. Nadia is panting with effort. Her hand shakes as she grinds her piece of chalk into the last mark on the rune, a simple do-not-cross indicator that signals to the very core of the car’s programming.

Margot runs to me. I hold her tighter than tight, burying my face in her soft hair. I wish I could stay this way forever, but it’s not safe, even now.

I bundle the children into the house as the car revs its engine and spins its wheels uselessly within the circle. It flicks on its high beams and the light spills through the closed blinds.

Nadia stands by the door and stares at the ground.

“You left me,” she says. “You ran with Margot.”

“Honey, I’m sorry.” I crouch down to her eye level. Only then do I see the nail marks on her inner palms, where she clutched the chalk so hard she nearly bled. Without her help, my daughter would be a smear on the pavement.

I place my hands on her shoulders. She looks up, her eyes wide and tearful and, I realize for the first time, the same shade of brown as Margot’s.

“I won’t ever leave you again.”

Nadia takes one of my hands. Margot takes the other. I lead the girls deep into the house, where the thick walls will protect us, and pull out my phone.

Dave can help, and Samir, and they will know other former programmers who will know more and more. The cars are connected, but we can be too. Our solidarity gives us power. And now, if I have to, I will join the charge.

For Margot.

For everyone.


Author’s Note: This story was inspired by James Bridle’s 2017 art piece “Autonomous Trap 001,” which features a self-driving car trapped by a salt circle. I saw his piece when I was in college researching the UX design of self-driving cars (such as windshield displays to communicate to pedestrians), so I immediately started thinking of all the other ways this technology could be connected to folklore. The story itself came from wondering why a car would need to be trapped in the first place.

Lauren Ring (she/her) is a perpetually tired Jewish lesbian who writes about possible futures, for better or for worse. Her short fiction can be found in Pseudopod, Nature: Futures, and Glitter + Ashes. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction, she is pursuing her career in UX design or attending to the many needs of her cat Moomin.


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DP FICTION #75A: “The PILGRIM’s Guide to Mars” by Monique Cuillerier

Ursula knelt on the uneven surface of sand and rock, putting her tool box down beside her. She paused and considered the robot before beginning to work.

Covering the top of the rover’s main body and extending outward from it, the solar panels were obscured by a thick layer of Mars’s pale red dust. That was where Ursula would begin, with the easier job of clearing the flat surfaces. Then she would move on to the more delicate task of removing the tiny grains of dust and sand that had inevitably worked themselves into the rover’s nooks and crannies hidden below the panels.

She opened the box and removed a sturdy brush with an extended head and began with long, broad sweeps across the panels. For the initial cleaning and maintenance, she tried to keep an empty mind, paying careful attention, re-familiarizing herself with every panel and antenna, every camera and spectrometer.

The large brush soon gave way to a smaller one and then another, of different shape, but there was no hurry. Ursula took the time required to do the job thoroughly even though she was aware that her own time was coming to an end.

This was Mars Exploration Rover A, called Spirit by those who sent her. Spirit had worked hard here in the Gusev Crater for five years until she became stuck, the loose sand too much for her six wheels, each of a diameter of only twenty-five centimeters.

Once Ursula had cleared the panels and body, she began to dig around the wheels, freeing each of them in turn. She did not have the skills to allow the rover to move again, that was beyond both her training and her mission objectives.

But, as she did with each of the rovers and landers, she moved it, just a little. The objectives recommended slight adjustments be made, to mimic the robot’s nominal behaviour. She changed the direction the navigation and panoramic cameras pointed in and extended the arm so that the rock abrasion tool at its end was directed towards a different spot on the surface.

Then it was time for reflection.

Brushing the dust from her own body, she stood up and bowed her head slightly, as she had been instructed.

First, she silently paid tribute to this hardworking, dedicated robot who had been sent to this planet, to explore and understand where humans could not.

And then, she acknowledged the efforts of all those who had imagined, designed, built, and sent the landers and rovers to explore the unknown.

And finally, she silently recited the details: 

Mars Exploration Rover A, called Spirit.

Landed in Gusev Crater on January 4, 2004, tasked with the investigation of climate, geology, and the possibility of life. 

Stuck in soft sand in 2009, but continued with stationary work until communication ceased in March 2010. 

Mission determined completed on May 24, 2011. 

Total distance travelled, 7.73 km.

Ursula then paused for a moment before she put away the tools and brushes and took them back to her buggy, ready for the next robot.

The process was specific and detailed, as Ursula made her way from one robot to the next, as she circumambulated the planet, as she had been doing since her arrival twenty-three Earth years ago.

Over the past year, though, Ursula had become aware of changes in her processes. Her central battery pack no longer held a charge the way it once had. And the joints in her left lower limb did not bend so easily as they had previously. Her memory circuits had become full and sluggish.

And on this sol, as she had disconnected from the buggy’s power source and rebooted her systems, she had been filled with an awareness that she would not be able to do so again. 

But there was nothing to be done but to continue as she did every sol, to tend to the robots and acknowledge their contributions and where they came from.

*

Ursula herself did not require a controlled environment within her mode of transportation, although the vehicle was enclosed to keep as much sand and dust out as was reasonable, the better to protect her own joints, nooks, and bends.

The buggy had only enough space for her and the equipment she used to tend to the robots. Large wheels carried it over the sometimes precarious surface. It did not move quickly as that had not been a priority in its design.

It was unnecessary for Ursula to refer to the map built into her memory to know that the next robot she would visit was Mars 3, a lander sent by the USSR in 1971, very early in human attempts to explore this planet. In the midst of a dust storm, it had reached the surface, only to cease functioning a mere one hundred and ten seconds later.

As she made her way across Terra Sirenum towards the lander, Ursula powered down all but her navigation system, which was connected to the buggy. The buggy was a shell robot, dependent on Ursula for all computational needs, a skeleton with a power source.

When Ursula ceased to operate, the buggy would no longer have a purpose.

Perhaps one of the other Processor-Integrated Logistical General Robots for Independent Maintenance (PILGRIMs) would have need for it. Their paths did not often cross, and she had not seen another in more than three Mars-years, but the planetary-wide instructional system would accommodate for her absence and absorb her schedule into that of the others.

Ursula knew these things to be fact, as she had been aware of her projected lifecycle from her arrival. There was always some uncertainty as to how long any given robot would continue, but that was life.

*

The Mars 3 lander was unlike Spirit in every way. A lander not a rover, of course, but also of very different shape and intention. Bell-shaped and sitting on a flat circular base, triangular petals unfolded around it, Ursula began with a medium-sized brush and made her way slowly around the lander, sweeping out the sand and dust that had accumulated in the petals and freeing the lower segment of the lander from the planet’s encroachment.

Had the lander survived, she would have measured temperature, pressure and wind, she would have used her scoop to dig in the ground.

When Ursula eventually reached the time for reflection, she considered the short time that Mars 3 had existed as a functional object on Mars, more than some, but so much less than others, like Spirit and her sister Opportunity. But the length of functioning time was not the only metric by which the worth of a robot was measured. 

What had been learned from the experience, what the builders on Earth had intuited from it — these were what was of value, Ursula had been told. She had been shown how each robot fit into the larger picture of Martian exploration and knowledge, an entirety into which they all contributed. The builders had impressed upon Ursula that the PILGRIMs also existed within this framework. While they might not be collecting, crushing, and analyzing rocks or taking seismic measurements, they were nonetheless an important part of the whole.

Ursula began the routine of putting away her tools. There had been a time when new robots arrived on Mars with greater  frequency, but that time was now firmly in the past. The latest arrivals had been other PILGRIMs, working as Ursula did.

*

Once she was finished with Mars 3, Ursula again made her way back to the buggy and connected her navigation system.

The next location on her map was on Planum Australe, less than one thousand kilometres from Mars’ southern pole, where she would provide care to the remains of the Mars Polar Lander, which arrived in 1999. 

Even as she activated the navigation system, Ursula was aware in the depths of her active memory that her systems were not likely to last the entire journey, short though it was.

But she had no decision-making tree that would direct her to a choice other than the one she had made every sol, to re-charge while the buggy made its way across the Martian surface towards her next location.

Halfway to the Mars Polar Lander site, Ursula was roused from her energy-saving half-slumber by a gentle but persistent signal from her base level emergency monitoring system.

Charging program has halted, the signal impressed into her consciousness. Restart charging program.

Ursula had to retrieve instructions for restarting the program from her deep memory cells. She had never needed to do such a thing before and she knew what that meant.

Restart will take four point three minutes, an alert echoed inside of her.

Her skeletal structure jerked as the restart began and her limbs twitched.

No thought processes occurred while it continued.

Charge at thirty per cent, the signal eventually told her. 

She considered that. It should have been more than that by now, but she restarted the navigation connection on the buggy’s dashboard.

As the buggy continued over the uneven terrain, Ursula ran a full diagnostic procedure on herself, even though it was a drain on her charge and she knew what the result would tell her.

*

Three-quarters of the way to the polar lander, the results of the diagnostic were unfortunately clear.

She had reached the end of her mission.

The report suggested a build up of sand between the thermoelectric modules through a crack in the outer housing of her right leg. If there was a way to fix that, Ursula did not know what it was. Her purpose had never been to perform mechanical tasks.

She was a pilgrim — she paid homage and provided care.

Overriding the buggy’s intended route, she brought it to a stop.

This was as good a place as any and she wanted to ensure she had the opportunity to properly reflect in the time remaining.

Perhaps it was a flaw in her design, but she could not locate an appropriate set of instructions for what to do next. However, she had been provided with the means to improvise when necessary, within her parameters.

She left the buggy and found an appropriate spot, beside a large rock and arranged herself on the surface, as if she were examining it.

*

Agnes made her way across Planum Australe towards the Mars Polar Lander in her buggy, her systems dimmed as she recharged.

A gentle ping brought her back to full awareness. The planetary instructional system had updated her map and current destination.

The current destination was along the route she was travelling; there would be no detour necessary.

*

The buggy came to a halt beside another of identical design.

Agnes took up her tool box and went in search of the other PILGRIM, finding her easily, laying stretched out on the surface not far from the vehicle.

She knelt down and selected one of the smaller brushes. Carefully, beginning with the head, she brushed away the thin layer of sand and dust that had already begun to accumulate.

Then Agnes tilted the PILGRIM’s head slightly to the left, as if she was considering the other side of the rock.

It did not take long for her to finish and then it was time for reflection.

First, she silently acknowledged that the PILGRIM had been a hardworking, dedicated robot, sent to this planet to perform a job that humans could not.

And then she considered the dedicated effort of all those who had imagined, designed, built, and sent all the landers and rovers and other robots, like the PILGRIMs.

And finally, she silently recited the details.

Processor-Integrated Logistical General Robot for Independent Maintenance 92-04-38, called Ursula. 

Landed on the edge of the Jezero Crater on February 23, 2093.

Tasked with the care and acknowledgement of the human-designed presence on Mars.

Time spent, twenty-three Mars years. 

Distance travelled, 72 569 km.


Author’s Note: I have a great fondness for the rovers and landers and orbiters that humans have sent (and continue to send) to Mars and I know others share that feeling. We, collectively, imagine and design and build these robots to go and do the work we want to do, but for the time being, cannot. It says a great deal about humanity that we do this, but as well, it has resulted in a planet that is currently inhabited entirely by robots. The seed of the idea for a Martian pilgrimage route came to me a few years ago, around the time the rover Opportunity stopped working. I kept beginning and abandoning stories about it, because none of the plots were quite right. Once it occured to me that other robots were the obvious pilgrims, the story unfolded easily.

Monique Cuillerier is a writer of (mostly) near future science fiction. When she is not writing, she likes to run, knit, garden, and get very angry on Twitter. Her favourite object in the solar system is Saturn’s moon, Enceladus and her favourite tv show is either Babylon 5 or Star Trek: Voyager (her cat Janeway votes for the latter). She is Canadian, born in Toronto and living (for the time being) in Ottawa. Her work has appeared in the Bikes in Space anthologies Bikes Not Rockets and Dragon Bike, as well as Queer Sci Fi’s Impact and Migration. The scarf Monique is wearing in the author photo depicts the Mars Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity Helicopter (available from STARtorialist).


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DP FICTION #74B: “For Lack of a Bed” by John Wiswell

Noémi tried to focus on the mermaids and ignore the floor. She lay in the middle of her living room, upon a nest of laundry bags and blankets, hoping for just a couple hours of sleep before she had to open the shop tomorrow. The new pain pills did as little as the old ones, and so she pulled the covers over herself at sundown and tried to use the internet as medication.

Chronic pain and Mermaid Tumblr. It was a normal night in her world. Videos and GIFs of those fish-tailed people swimming, their fins swirling through water currents, sometimes lulled Noémi into distraction. She needed those distractions tonight.

Her phone buzzed with a text from Tariq. He was working late.

TARIQ

u want a bed, but would u sleep on a sofa?

NOEMI

I’d sell a kidney for a sofa.

TARIQ

what if some1 died on it? but u keep ur kidneys

Okay, it was a weird offer. But was this that much weirder than the selkies down the hall who kept offering her herbal remedies? You knew you were pathetic when selkies pitied you.

You also knew you were pathetic when your roommate offered you dead people’s furniture. But her mother had worked with estate auctions, so Noémi had grown up with plenty of grim hand-me-downs. A bed was out of her price range. She knew what her mother would’ve said.

NOEMI

Is it clean?

TARIQ

clean as a disney movie

She sat up and her entire spinal column rioted. She felt vertebrae kicking over trash cans and lighting cars ablaze in her lower back.

NOEMI

Dying on a sofa would be the highlight of my year.

“Good!” Tariq yelled from the hall outside their apartment. She didn’t register it was him until their door swung open and he shimmied in butt-first, dragging a bulky sofa behind him. “Because I am not carrying this back to Apartment 3A.”

It was sand-colored with brown freckles, a fashion risk even for a freebie. At least it wasn’t splattered in gore.

She meant to run a hand over its arm rest, but immediately found herself sitting on it. Sinking into the cushions felt like a hug from a friendly giant. The honking and crying and thrumming of the city outside their apartment seemed to calm down.

Forget sleeping on the floor; she never wanted to touch the floor again.

“Hey,” she said, “try sitting on this.”

Tariq asked, “Did you take your meds tonight?”

She asked, “Someone died on this?”

She couldn’t hear his answer over the sensation of touch not hurting for the first time in hours. The leather was so warm, so welcoming, just like skin.

*

Tariq shook Noémi’s foot, and she pulled her blanket over her face. She mumbled, “I don’t need dinner. I’m turning into a human ramen.”

He said, “It’s eleven.”

Sunlight blurred her vision and she rubbed the grime from her eyes. “Eleven? Then how is it light out?”

“They invented this thing called ‘A.M.’ You slept through your alarm.”

“No…” She didn’t know what she was denying. She stretched out on the sofa. For the first time in weeks, her back didn’t feel like it was on fire. The pain had calmed to a dull throb—an annoying pain rather than an intense one. If she’d overslept, her body obviously needed it. She almost felt more tired than yesterday.

Tariq pried the fleece from her hands. “I made you a couple waffles. Please, please eat them.”

Her appetite was a magician; it had one hell of a disappearing act. Pain made it easy for Noémi to skip meals. Still, with bleary eyes, she read the concern in her friend’s face. It was the same concern she’d felt on so many nights when she helped him through his anxiety attacks. 

She smiled up at him and said, “You know something? I slept.”

He offered her a hand up. “That’s pretty awesome. We should party tonight.”

*

There was no party that night. The food truck broke down and Tariq texted that he was stuck helping his uncle fix it. 

Noémi felt for him and was relieved at the same time; she could barely move her fingers by the end of her shift at the pet store. Gryphon chicks were adorable, but insisted on being hand-fed, and the basilisks had broken out of their blackout cage and were looking at customers again.

The pain ground her brains into powder. What people didn’t understand about chronic pain was that it wasn’t about your legs going weak – it was about getting mentally exhausted managing the assaults. All day, she fantasized about sitting down.

Once home, she barely opened her string cheese before plopping onto her freckled sofa. Lying on it was like her entire body was biting into a marshmallow. This she had an appetite for. The cushions slid apart, enveloping her in the leather, like it wanted to swallow her.

In her dreams, it did.

*

Her phone vibrated on her chest. It was work. It was also noon, and she didn’t know what day.

She answered, and picked her string cheese off the carpet. She must have sleep-punted it.

She said, “Hey Lili. Sorry. I must have—”

Lili cut her off, “I think the mogwai are picking the locks on all the cages after hours.”

Lili was a succubus and normally had everything together. If she was as nervous as she sounded, then this was dire.

Noémi forced herself to stand free of the sofa’s wonderful grip and walked to the center of the room to wake up. Her spine popped and she shuddered. She asked, “Did they eat after midnight?”

“Not this time, but I found one molesting the breakroom pantry.”

Noémi was sitting on the edge of the sofa. She didn’t remember sitting down. “I found the nicest furniture. You’ve got to come over and try it.”

“You know that when I say ‘the monsters are picking their locks,’ I mean ‘get your butt over here immediately,’ right?”

Noémi said, “Got it.” 

She hung up, and had the funny desire to kiss the sofa goodbye. And why not? Nobody was watching.

She leaned in and smooched a cushion. It smelled like a perfume that Noémi had only ever encountered in dreams.

Then it was 6:24 PM. Her phone had eight messages.

*

She thought the knocking was Tariq having lost his key, but it was Lili at the door. All six feet and two inches of her. Lili’s normally lustrous golden hair frizzled out like copper wire. She had gory paw prints on her skirt which hopefully weren’t her own blood.

Noémi said, “Oh my gosh, Lili, never in a million years…”

Then Lili was inside her apartment, stooping to go nose to nose with her. She thought the succubus was going to bite her head off. “Where were you?”

“I’ve almost never missed work like that, and it won’t happen again, I promise.”

“I thought your new meds killed you or something. Your landlord said you wouldn’t answer the door.”

Noémi bit the inside of her cheek. “I may have slept through her knocking.”

Lili gripped onto Noémi’s shoulders. “So you’re okay?”

“I’m awesome. You know I wanted a bed, but we found a sofa and it’s the best thing in the world. My body must still be catching up on sleep.”

Noémi backed into the apartment. The sofa was tucked into the far wall of their combo kitchen/living room. She fought the urge to curl up on it right now.

Lili looked like she’d bitten into an extremely ripe lime. “When did you invite her?”

“Her? Are you gendering my furniture?”

Lili pointed a sangria red fingernail at the sofa. “That’s not furniture. That’s a succubus.”

Noémi tilted her head. Giving it a few seconds didn’t make it make any more sense. “I know you’re the expert, but I’m pretty sure succubi don’t have armrests.”

“Come on. You know my mom is a used bookstore, right?”

“I thought she owned a used bookstore.”

“The sex economy sucks. With all the hook-up apps and free porn out there, a succubus starves. My mom turned into a bookstore so people would take bits of her home and hold them in bed. It’s why I work at the pet store and cuddle the hell hound puppies before we open.”

Noémi asked, “Is that why they never bite you?”

“What do you think? Everybody else gets puppy bites, except me. I get fuzzy, affectionate joy-energy. Gets me through the day, like a cruelty-free smoothie.” Lili blew a frizzy strand of gold from her face. “But this sofa has devolved really far into this form. I know succubi that went out like her—she’s just a pit of hunger shaped to look enticing. No mind. Just murder. Where’d you even find her?”

“It was a freebie. I mean, maybe somebody died while sleeping on it, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

“And you’re sleeping all the time now? Always on it? She’s totally eating you.”

“My sofa is not a murderer.”

Tariq walked in through the front door, and they both looked up at him. He said, “Hey ladies. Breaking it in?”

That’s when Noémi realized both she and Lili were sitting on the sofa.

They shrieked, and ran from the apartment, dragging Tariq with them.

*

Noémi and Tariq slept in the stairwell that night, each careful to jab each other in the ribs if they started inching back towards the apartment. Lili tore across the city in search of anyone who doubled as a furniture mover and an exorcist.

*

Noémi didn’t sleep a minute for the rest of the week. The pain that had dwindled during her affair with the sofa now returned with the cruelty of a direct-to-video sequel. For most of the day, she could barely think. Through the nights, crashing in the back room of the monster pet store, she could barely sleep. Everything was a fog of social auto-pilot.

She had to bribe Lili to come back, promising to scrub the hell hound cages. The puppies had eaten a mogwai and their bowel movements had turned into some horrible form of post-modern art.

Lili arrived at the apartment wearing a bright yellow hazmat suit. Tariq donned six pairs of plastic gloves before deigning to touch the succubus-turned-sofa. He and Lili had to do the lifting.

Noémi could scarcely stand up straight, let alone carry furniture. Instead she stuffed the remaining sofa cushions into a trash bag. She hesitated over the last one, on which she’d laid her head for the easiest nights of her year. She held it, thinking about how people got lost.

*

When Noémi came into the alley, Lili was dousing the sofa with equal parts holy water and kerosene.

Tariq reached for the garbage bag, but Noémi clutched it to her chest. Noémi asked, “Do you really think the sofa is that bad?”

“Yes,” Tariq said. “Pure evil. She haunted our apartment without paying rent.”

“She was probably lonely. She couldn’t find a companion she could keep. But now she’s found a new identity, and someone who appreciated her…”

“She was eating you.”

“Could we ask her to, you know, stop eating me?”

Lili emptied the last liquids over the sofa and said, “There’s no consciousness left in her. She’s just hungry furniture now. And you’re just loose change about to get stuck between her cushions.”

“I didn’t feel like loose change. I felt different. Everybody gives you magnetic bracelets, and pot brownies, and tells you to sleep with your legs over your head. It all did jack for me. But the sofa was helping.”

Muttering something in Latin, Lili tossed a lighter and torched the sofa. The backrest went up first, in a brilliant blue flame with silver smoke that climbed the alley’s brick walls. They needed to make this fast or their landlord would catch them in the act.

Tariq said, “I’m not going to tell you how to feel.” He stretched out his hand, offering to take the bag. “You want me to do the honors? Technically I was the one who brought her home and started all this.”

“Nah,” Noémi said, avoiding eye contact and tossing the bag of cushions onto the pyre. It went up in even more lustrous smoke, so thin it could’ve been vapor. It smelled like tears. “Let’s get out of here.”

Tariq said, “Look, take my bed until we find you something, okay?”

Noémi put a fist over her mouth. “Are you sure?”

“The surest. I’ve got a lead on some money.”

She hugged her friend for a fierce moment in time.

Then they ran before someone called the cops.

*

Noémi knew she’d woken at 5:32 because that’s when the text came in. It’d taken her forever to wind down, but she’d guess she’d slept four and a half hours. That was a record since the bonfire, and this was her first night trying out the secret weapon.

The incoming text read:

TARIQ

got a pair!!!!

Limited edition sneakers. You downloaded an app that pinged you at a random time and if your GPS reported you were in a certain radius of a certain boutique, you got a crack at one pair of obscenely expensive shoes. Tariq had basically haunted that neighborhood for days waiting for his phone to vibrate. With the magic of economics, he could flip the shoes to a trust fund kid and turn them into a new bed.

Or he could turn it into rent.

Or, as Noémi expected, he could sink all of those dollars into his uncle’s food truck. It was family and livelihood. And you couldn’t carry a treasure chest to the surface when you were fighting to tread water.

She texted him back:

NOEMI

You woke me up. Jerk.

He’d get a good laugh, never believing she’d really slept this late. She wouldn’t have believed it either, if she only had his bed.

She scooted to the far edge of the mattress, leaving her pillow behind, letting her feet scuff across the carpet. Impact sent sharp tingles up her calves, sparks of pain where yesterday there had been an inferno. When she stretched, the sparks sprang up at her spine, and then down her arms.

These were aches. They were not agonies. They were things she could live with, if it didn’t mean getting swallowed up by a spell from the other side of the bed.

One minute passed. She timed it on her phone.

Two minutes.

Three minutes.

The oblong lump lay in its pillowcase on the other side of the bed. Sofa cushions weren’t supposed to be pillows, although this one was changing Noémi’s mind. Neither Lili nor Tariq had noticed that the bonfire had been one cushion short.

Noémi asked, “And you’re not trying to kill me?”

She leaned in and hugged the cushion to her chest, in the way she liked to be held. It squished so perfectly that she wondered if there was a metric scale for comfort. She was able to put it down easily; no succubus mind control was at work. If this thing was self-aware, it wasn’t manipulating her anymore.

“A lower dosage of you is helping,” she said. “This way we can stay together. You won’t hurt me. You’ll eat me, but on my terms.”

The succubus-turned-sofa-turned-pillow said nothing in return. It was as good as inanimate. Lili was probably right that it was mindless, save its hunger. But it had a home now, and someone who consented to having her pain eaten. Noémi hoped her pain was delicious.

Idly, she petted the pillow’s seams, wondering when Tariq would figure it all out. They needed to talk before his bedroom turned host to a witch trial.

Two more texts came in: one of Tariq kissing a shoebox, and a second asking about her.

TARIQ

u get any z’s?

NOEMI

Only because I had company.

TARIQ

lol you better buy me new sheets

A moment later, he texted again.

TARIQ

some1 i shld meet?

She hesitated with her thumbs on the screen, creating an accidental string of N’s.

Lying to him now would be a mistake. God, she’d be dead without her friends.

NOEMI

Yeah. I’ll introduce you tonight.

He texted another picture of himself holding the shoebox up like it was the Infinity Gauntlet.She snorted so hard her eyes crossed, then reclined against the succubus pillow. So this was what relief felt like. 


Author’s Note: I’ve lived with chronic pain for more than two thirds of my life, but until a couple years ago, I never wrote fiction about it. After a series of sleepless and listless nights, I fantasized about the Devil’s bargains I would strike to be comfortable for just a little while. But there are more interesting things out there to bargain with than the Devil, now aren’t there? Like, perhaps, a hungry hungry sofa. But it couldn’t be a story about isolation and disabled pain. It had to have the social elements. Here I tried to capture a little about the human support systems that keep people like me going, and that reflect that we matter. A painful world isn’t necessarily coldhearted. If it gets better, it does so because we look after each other.

John (@Wiswell) is a disabled writer who lives where New York keeps all of its trees. This is his third story at Diabolical Plots, following “Tank!” and “Open House on Haunted Hill.” His work has also appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Nature Futures, and Nightmare Magazine. He has made it through multiple decades of chronic pain, and wants you to know you aren’t alone.


John Wiswell’s previous stories here are “Tank!” in June 2018 and “Open House on Haunted Hill” in June 2020. If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

“Open House On Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell is a Hugo Award Finalist!

written by David Steffen

The news came out yesterday that, for the first time, a story first published by Diabolical Plots is a Hugo Award finalist: “Open House on Haunted Hill” by John Wiswell, about a haunted house that just wants a nice family to come live in it.

A lot of people really love this story, for it was also nominated for a Stabby Award, a Locus Award, and a Nebula Award: all which are the first times that John Wiswell has been nominated for those awards, as well as the first time that works published in Diabolical Plots have been nominated for those awards. Well done, John!

We look forward eagerly to results–though it will be a while for this one, the Hugo Award ceremony won’t be until December this year so they can attempt to have an in-person convention instead of entirely online.