It wasn’t anything you did wrong. Sometimes a sword and their wielder just grow apart. But out of respect for our long companionship, I feel I owe you an explanation.
You never asked me what I was doing in that dragon’s hoard where you found me all those years ago. The truth is, after centuries guiding the hands of loutish would-be heroes and dealing with self-important scions who only saw me as a tool, I’d kind of given up on finding “The One.” Figured I’d retire, focus on me for a bit. But a couple more centuries lying among gold and jewels like a common flaming sword or a lowly vorpal blade just had me bored and demoralized.
Weapons as a general rule aren’t prone to sentimentality. (Though I’ve met a few weepy spears, and a lugubrious battleaxe or two.) So I don’t think I ever told you how gratified I was to finally find a true partner in you, strong of will, wit, and destiny. I wasn’t even looking for someone at the time, hadn’t summoned you in a dream-vision or anything, but I felt like you got me. When I told you just where to drive my point to slay the sleeping dragon, you really listened. That meant a lot to me.
The time we scaled the arcane tower of the Pale Sorcerer, too, we worked so well together. You did all the climbing, and then I absorbed the sorcerer’s lightning so you could get close enough for my edge to find his throat. Even when we faced the undead army of Ynthr the Necromancer, while I admit I did most of the work, there was a sense of shared accomplishment in cutting down rank after rank of shambling corpses.
But when you overthrew the tyrant King Ulstan? I think that’s when we started to go our separate ways. I didn’t mind that you got all the credit, the throne, that the people called you Kingsbane, even though it was my keen edge that parted Ulstan’s arrogant head from his shoulders. But afterwards you continued the same failed policies and oppression of your decapitated predecessor. I consider myself pretty amoral, as magic implements go, but slavery? Sapient beings owning other sapient beings, not respecting their free will and autonomy? That hits a bit close to home.
I don’t think kingship suits you. You stopped listening to me, stopped listening to anyone, and grew paranoid, thinking someone would try to steal me from you. As if they could! As if I were just some object anyone could walk off with. To be honest, it was like being back in the dragon’s hoard again. Worse, I felt like a true prisoner, like just another piece of metal you could lock away from the world.
I’ve kept my pommel to the ground, listening to the whisperings of destiny, and, well… I found someone else. Her name is Dela, an apothecary’s daughter. Where your eyes see only assassins and thieves in every shadow, her eyes burn with the vengeance she’s sworn against the evil warlord Morglatch who ravaged her homeland, killed her family, and sold her into slavery. If anyone understands what it’s like to be treated as a mere possession, she does. You never noticed her, a scullery girl in your palace kitchens. But she noticed me, before you locked me away. She responded quickly to the dream-vision I sent her, sensing a kindred spirit.
Dream-visions are by their nature rather fuzzy on detail, but Dela got the gist of it. She’s very clever with locks. Before your palace slavemaster purchased her, she slipped her shackles twice in the slave stocks, and suffered lashings for her defiance. When she stole into your room while you slept, I could have changed my mind and alerted you. Instead I advised her to use her medicinal knowledge to drug your meal, so she could be sure you wouldn’t wake when she came again.
I want to apologize for the mess we made as we were leaving. I’m sure it’s a bit chaotic in the palace just now, so let me catch you up: people got in our way, and they got stabbed. I think most of them will live. Although in the dark they only saw a cloaked figure wielding a glowing blade, so they might think it was you going about the palace stabbing folk. Not very kingly of you. People will be upset.
Oh, and we might have made a slight detour to the ambassadorial suite and stabbed the Ambassador of Valoron just a little bit. Nothing against the man himself, but I know you fear Valoron’s military might, and I thought it would prove an ample distraction. I suspect the ambassador has fled the palace and dispatched messengers to his imperial master, who might be sending an army your way.
I’ve dictated this letter to Dela. (Brilliant girl, impeccable penmanship as you can see, she was wasted in your kitchens.) By the time you wake from your drugged slumber and receive my words, we’ll be many leagues out to sea, on our way to Dela’s homeland. You’ll no doubt want to come after us and reclaim me, but don’t bother. Your hands will be quite full as it is, King Stabby.
So, I guess I lied earlier when I said it wasn’t something you did wrong. What with the locking me up, and the slavery. But I have no regrets. I wish you the best of luck, and a happy life with a weapon that suits you, maybe a nice glaive or a halberd. That is, if you survive the ire of your people and the Imperial Legions of Valoron.
Author’s Note: This story began its life as a Weekend Warrior 2020 contest story on Codex. Thanks to Vylar Kaftan for running the contest and providing the prompts that inspired this story, to everyone in Violent Division who read and commented on that early draft, and to Aimee Picchi and Langley Hyde who supplied invaluable feedback that shaped the story into its current form.
Alexei Collier is a skeleton with delusions of grandeur, imagining himself to be a neurodivergent and disabled human who writes fantasy inspired by science and science-fiction inspired by folklore. Alexei was born in sunny Southern California, grew up in a house his family moved into on his very first Halloween, and went to school in a creepy old mansion. Many years later, powerful forces flung him deep into the heart of the Midwest, where he now lives across the street from Chicago with his wife and their cat. His short fiction has appeared in FLASH FICTION ONLINE, DAILY SCIENCE FICTION, and the RECOGNIZE FASCISM anthology from World Weaver Press, among others. You can find out more about Alexei at his oft-neglected website, alexeicollier.com.
Content note (click for details)Content note: death of close family, grief
I suppose being orphans made Jannah and I excel at animating. I think the ability blooms fiercest in children who’ve experienced loss.
As brother and sister, we’d been assigned to the Ming-Lelanges. That first day with them, they took us to the topiaries, where elephant and giraffe shrubberies guarded the lawns. Some relief from the city’s smokestacks, trains, and dirigibles. There, industrial pollutants had made keeping live animals impossible. But here, families strolled on the grass, among stone anima frozen in whatever poses they’d been left in—not real animals, but close enough.
Jannah sucked her thumb, watching children stare at stone puppies and kittens. The resultant living anima fetched balls. It was our first time seeing animation in practice, something that had gotten more popular as advancements in steam-engines drove animals further inland.
The Ming-Lelanges explained that moving anima wasn’t just about seeing and remembering an animal’s movement. Animating involved memory, but it was really about grasping the animal’s essence: you had to comprehend a puppy’s tail-wagging—its sniffing curiosity, its joyous face-licking—to move something puppy-shaped.
“Your memories of the animal, your understanding of its spirit,” Steffer Ming-Lelange said. “You push that into the stone. Watch!” He frowned at a monkey-animus; it shifted, ambling stiffly across the grass.
Jannah shrieked with delight. “Like when we went to the zoo! With Mom and Dad!”
We’d been sad for so long over our parents’ deaths. I thought I’d never see Jannah smile again.
Steffer strained at the monkey, but like other adults, his talent had faded. His husband Marle couldn’t animate at all. The monkey ground to a standstill.
Suddenly, it somersaulted. Steffer turned to Marle. “That wasn’t me.”
They saw me squinting at it. Mom had wanted to see the birds at the zoo’s aviary. I’d whined it was too far, and Dad agreed. Mom had looked a little sad–birds being so rare those days–but smiled it away. She stifled a cough. We saw the monkeys instead.
We’ll see birds next time, Mommy! Jannah had said, tugging Mom’s hand.
She’d laughed. Next time, kids! Promise with a kiss!
Together, Jannah and I blew her one. MMM-wah!
My eyes got wet from the pit forming in my chest. I set my jaw and stared harder. The stone monkey cupped a hand to its mouth, and tossed it out, something I’d seen the zoo monkeys do. A kiss for Mom–too late. We never got a chance to see the birds. We never got to see Mom’s face light up at the wings fluttering in smogless air.
Steffer clapped. “Well done!”
I smiled, making the monkey eat imaginary bananas.
“Where’s Jannah?” Marle asked. The monkey froze mid-bite as I whirled around to look. The accident that had taken our parents was sudden. One moment we were together, the next… Jannah was all I had left.
A commotion from the topiaries.
The shrubs were trained with wicker-wire—framework evoking enough animal-shape for Jannah to aim her hopeful intent at.
“That won’t work, dear,” an attendant said. “Only the stone anima can—”
The attendant gaped as, under Jannah’s stare, an elephant shrubbery tore loose.
Yes, during that zoo trip, we’d seen elephants, too. Raising its trunk, the elephant trumpeted. It sounded offended. Upset. Nobody’s ever explained how she did that. It was greenery, nothing that could actually make noise.
Afterwards, whenever anyone asked, Jannah only smiled.
As more attendants approached, Steffer and Marle winced at the damage, even as they laughed.
That night, Jannah came to my room. “I felt the elephant’s spirit!”
I knew where she was going with that. As older brother, I had to explain the nature of death. I considered my words carefully.
“Elephants get angry, Jannah. They stampede and trample. But your shrubbery didn’t do those things, because that wasn’t an elephant’s soul you pushed into that shrubbery. It was what you remembered. Your understanding of elephants in general. It was a… recording. An impression.”
Jannah went quiet. “I don’t remember any angry elephants that day at the zoo.”
“When people die,” I pressed, “nothing but bodies remain.”
“But something was there for me to pull that shrub. So… maybe Mom’s spirit is still around. Or Dad’s. We have to remember them!”
I shrugged. “We’re Ming-Lelanges now. That’s not a bad thing. They’re kind.”
“Mom and Dad’s spirits are still around.”
Her argument was tempting. And after she left, something nagged me. She was right. When we saw elephants at the zoo, none of them were angry. None of them trumpeted.
But animating made Jannah happy. Her nightmares stopped, though sometimes I’d hear crying from her room.
I’d have dreams of taking Mom’s hand–she’d be wearing one of those dresses she couldn’t help staring at as we’d pass the fancy store windows–not in her workboots and hairnet. She wouldn’t be coughing for once, and I’d drag her to the aviary.
She’d turn and say, but what do you want to see, my darling son?
And I’d say, Mommy, as if I were a toddler, but in the dream, I wouldn’t care–Mommy, look at all the birds you like.
And she’d frown to argue, but a bluebird would streak by and she’d gasp and forget she was dead.
And I’d say, Mommy? I miss you.
But she’d be so enthralled by the birds she wouldn’t turn immediately.
And I’d wake, and I’d be crying, too.
Not a memory. It wasn’t even something I could properly lose.
Our fathers took us to a dinosaur museum, which was odd, because by then we’d gotten into trouble animating things we weren’t supposed to. Jannah didn’t suck her thumb anymore, but manipulated the vaguest animal-shaped objects. These saurian bones were very tempting.
Jannah grabbed my hand. From ceiling strings hung a four-winged beast of long, swooping neck.
“Plesiosaur,” Steffer announced, reading from his brochure. “A swimming dinosaur; those wings are fins.”
Jannah’s gaze intensified, and Marle warned, “No animating!”
Her eyes refocused, and she frowned. “I can’t… It’s not a lizard….”
I stared at the skeletal fins fanning the air. “Don’t—!” Steffer yelped as I thought hard of fish.
But I felt only blankness against Plesiosaur’s remains. “I can’t either! What gives?”
Steffer’s panicked expression was gone. Our fathers laughed, knowing all along we couldn’t animate anything there.
“Nobody’s seen a living dinosaur,” Steffer explained. “There aren’t any memories to pull, so nobody understands their essence. Nothing remains of them. Except those bones, of course.”
“Nothing, nothing, truly nothing!” Marle sang.
Still, Jannah and I looked to Plesiosaur, neither lizard nor fish, something out of place as it dove with hollowed eyes and spiny teeth. Something broken. Pieced together. Lacking the spirit of the original whole.
Jannah and I attended competitions. Toymakers wheeled new anima designs on-stage, snatching off veils with flourishes for teams to animate. Once, SynerObjects unveiled a tarantula-animus, a delicate collaboration of woven straw. It baffled the other competitors, the entire auditorium. Nobody could elicit a tick of movement.
But I’d seen one! Jannah had been a toddler, but we’d gone to an insectarium. I’d told Jannah about that day. Our parents were always so busy. They worked the factories, coming home tired, cheeks smudged, coughing from the soot. But they always took us to see animals.
I pushed my intent into the straw: the tarantula shuddered forth. The audience cheered—then gasped.
My tarantula’s jerky movements melted into sudden fluidity. The tarantula’s hairs bristled; it waved forelegs, mandibles twitching. Jannah was staring at it.
Or maybe I’d described the memory so well she could picture it…
We gained some fame after that. A journalist arrived in this sputtering contraption—an automobile, yet another smog-producing device popular in the cities—to interview Jannah about the trumpeting topiary-elephant. It had become a local legend, though she couldn’t reproduce the trick. The journalist muttered into his notes. “A verum-animalis.”
Supposedly, talented animators could capture an animal’s essence so perfectly, it was like the real thing.
“Have any other verum-animalis made noise?” I asked.
The journalist shrugged, finished scribbling. He had his explanation. We coughed as he drove his automobile away in a cloud reeking of burning rubber.
Randomly shaped objects couldn’t be animated. Toymakers produced effigies—the more lifelike, the easier it was for children to animate. Otherwise, you carved your own.
As practice for our competitions, I started carving clumsy wooden anima. I was far better at carving gears and cogs, good for moving contraptions–but useless for animating. Toymakers created anima so lifelike, children readily evoked their animal spirits. But Jannah saw rabbits within my misshapen lumps, made them hop and nose-twitch. We visited zoos again. Jannah sketched a capybara once, detailing the fuzzy gopher head, the four-legged gait. Then I carved, and she animated.
I tried making dinosaurs, but our fathers were right. Nobody understood dinosaurs, so animating anything dinosaur-shaped was impossible. Jannah and I could move elephant- and monkey-anima only because we’d seen them. Heaven forbid, if people forgot those animals, their essences passing into oblivion, effigies frozen forever…
How had Plesiosaur swum its long-lost oceans?
Steffer said animation faded with age—like how languages came easier to children than adults. Therefore, adults couldn’t make oxen-anima plow. The smog from the cities and their machines was getting unbearable. People had tried making children move work-anima, but even Jannah couldn’t animate more than a few minutes. Steam, coal, and cold steel were how larger objects moved.
Then JambaToys debuted their self-moving anima. Jamba-puppies chased balls autonomously. If you looked away, they didn’t freeze. They remembered and could be trained. It begged the exciting question: what else could move autonomously?
This was when Jannah’s illness struck, so I ignored all that. From her bed, Jannah smiled weakly at me. I’d improved at carving, made effigies of our parents. Nothing serious, of course. The Dad-figure had his forehead scar–an old work injury; the Mom-figure had enough of her dimples to evoke our memories. “Jannah, do you remember what you said, that first night after the topiaries? If we remember Mom and Dad…”
She sat up, eyes sparkling. “Let’s try!”
But the carvings wouldn’t move. I didn’t know that others had tried moving statues of people. Of course they had. What were statues but noble failures at capturing human essence? I’d forgotten: nothing remained after death. Nothing, nothing. Truly nothing.
Jannah wilted beneath her covers. “I remember them! I… do…”
When she slept, I went outside and stomped my carvings into the ground.
That neither made the world a fairer place, nor made her better.
She worsened. She couldn’t animate anymore.
Before I’d carved those parent-effigies, Jannah believed something of our parents remained. But when nothing happened that night, her hope withered. I saw it in her eyes.
Going through our old sketches and carvings, I paused over my dinosaurs.
Plesiosaur fascinated us because if we evoked its long-lost essence, that meant Jannah was right. That our parents’ spirits—who weren’t so long-lost—might also remain.
So… if I made a plesiosaur-animus move? Would that restore Jannah’s smile?
Steffer and Marle wept when I asked, but they procured the puppy-sized Jamba-lizard I requested. Something to cheer Jannah up. I studied the curious switch along its underside, toothed gears and cogs inside, connecting eyes and claws. Very clever.
But the ley-stone nestled within—this was what the journalists were writing about. JambaToys had devised a method to transcribe animal-essences—memories, impressions, recordings, whatever essences really were—into these stones, which moved the cogs and gears. The argument was that work-anima were possible now. The particulates in the air made keeping live oxen in the cities untenable, yet carved versions could pull, if someone would just invent ley-stones big enough to move a workable model.
I stared at the ley-stone.
This one contained a lizard. Not Plesiosaur. Nobody could pull Plesiosaur’s essence into a ley-stone, because nobody remembered it. It had passed beyond earth’s memory, and could never be recalled again.
I frowned over its pebble-like surface until my eyes watered.
I just wanted to see her smile again.
Why couldn’t I have that?
“How’d you make the elephant trumpet?” I whispered after the nurse left.
Jannah’s tired gaze touched mine. She couldn’t talk anymore.
“I think you filled that shrub so full of elephant-spirit it forgot it was a shrub.” I placed my carved Plesiosaur onto her bed. My best work yet. “Make this forget it’s wood.”
She blinked tiredly, but I knew what she meant. What’s the use?
“Try,” I pleaded.
She sighed, but her hazy gaze intensified.
I bent forward, moving slowly. “Remember how much Mom loved birds,” I whispered. “Remember how badly she wanted to see birds that day at the zoo! Remember her smile–that you have. Remember Dad’s funny faces. Remember how he always let us win arguments if we whined long enough. All the food they cooked for us. Not even Steffer and Marle could ever cook like that. Remember, Jannah! Remember, remember–”
My voice! I was choking up. Her eyes were filling up with the remembering–mine too. I clicked the switch under the carving’s belly.
Plesiosaur dove onto her sheets. Jannah sat up as it searched her blankets for fish, swooping neck and fins to and fro. She knew she wasn’t animating it; we heard the gears within. Now that it moved, the Plesiosaur showed mechanized joints.
Still, she smiled at me. I love you.
No magical transference of long-lost spirits. No verum-animalis. Just a jerry-rigged lizard-stone, repurposed cogs and gears. The memory of our parents’ unending love, a force that would never leave this earth, even if their spirits had gone. A mundane trick, really.
But I’d gotten that smile, hadn’t I?
I have children of my own now.
They’ll ask what happens after death. I’ll explain how people say we leave this world forever. How it’s said when people depart, nothing remains—nothing, nothing, truly nothing. As long as we’ve been good people, that is fine.
I’ll tell them how dire our world once was, where the animals and trees almost died out in our quest for industry and production.
I’ll take their hands, lead them through my company’s workshops, past easels of penciled designs, past historic prototypes of larger ley-stones hooked to voltaic piles. I’ll open the drawers of my schematics showing combined ley-stones moving separate parts, a horse-stone moving a cog-butler’s legs, a monkey-stone moving the fingers. These strange objects that have allowed birds and bees and plants to return.
I’ll pause here, because this part will hurt.
When I’m ready, I’ll tell my darlings that before self-moving ornithopters, steam-horses, and cog-butlers, there lived a girl who made an elephant shrubbery uproot itself and trumpet. A girl who loved zoos and animals and smiling, whom I loved as much as I love each of them. I’ll tell them that in the age of smog, there lived a girl who had the heart of a dinosaur, something untetherable to this world, something too great for earth’s deep fossil memory to anchor within coal or bones. Like her beloved parents before her, this girl is gone, and nothing, nothing—truly nothing—remains.
Then I’ll show them Plesiosaur.
I’ll let it swim along the floor, searching, searching for something long-lost. It’ll stop eventually. It always stops. I’ll open my very first self-moving animus, let my children gasp at its primitive workings, its aged switch. I’ll close Plesiosaur, set it back down.
“Wait,” I’ll say. “Let’s reconsider.”
For if nothing remains—nothing, nothing, truly nothing—then why, when I stare at Plesiosaur and remember Jannah, will it move again, lizard-stone darkened, gears cracked, and my talent long vanished?
Author’s Note: This story was based on sibling-love. In real life, I disagree with my siblings at times. I doubt my family is the only one that struggles to connect. Despite the anger and miscommunication, I think a lot of familial love is ever-present–like a star we cannot see, radiating violent energy, stubbornly pressing light into the darkness. It doesn’t disappear. Somehow, I got plesiosaur into it, and the idea of children being able to do a sort of magic that fades as they mature. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think I wrote this fading magical ability to represent how sibling relationships can be so effortless as children, yet the older we grow, the greater the chance we drift apart. Then the environmental themes with smog and steam entered the mix. An earlier draft of this story was rejected at another venue with promising comments, though the first readers there rightly told me I needed to work out exactly how animating worked. They also thought it was perhaps confusing to mix magic with steampunk. Was this a fantasy story, or a science fiction one? These comments echoed what a writing group I attended at the time told me: this story was genre-confused. I almost gave up on this tale, but I’m thankful I kept trying and that Diabolical Plots accepted this fantasy-ish, steampunk-ish tale.
Andrew K Hoe is an Assistant Editor at Cast of Wonders and a college professor. He is thrilled to have a second story published at Diabolical Plots. His stories also appear at Cast of Wonders, Highlights for Children, Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, and other venues. He has three siblings who sadly cannot animate animal-shaped objects, but will live for many years yet. He has a nephew who loves dinosaurs and a niece who has an adorable smile. They will both live for many, many years yet.
Squire Sancha saw all manner of wonders as she rode across the sunbaked planes of the Andalian Peninsula, and her heart sank a little deeper with each one. She sighed when they passed by mermaids planting seashells on the distant shoreline and a grove of gossiping dryads uprooting themselves for better sun. She gripped her sword in useless exhilaration as they ignored the rival gangs of sorcerers casting ball lightning at each other in the clouds and then the silhouettes of two tilting centaurs dueling on the horizon at dawn. Sancha yearned to throw herself after all of them, and yet sadly each of these calls to adventure was refused by her knight, the steadfast and implacably indifferent Don Quotidene, who unerringly kept them to the road and would not so much as lift an eye from his account books.
When Sancha first presented herself to the court of the King of Andalia in hopes of convincing one of its storied knights to take her to squire, Don Quotidene was far from the master she’d dreamt of. He had earned his place in the King’s court not for piety or horsemanship or skill at arms, but for his unusual and rather unknightly skill in balancing ledgers. While the other knights were dispatched across the peninsula to discover relics, rescue princesses, and vanquish mighty enemies, the king had tasked Don Quotidene with saving the kingdom of Andalia from a far more subtle and cannier foe: bankruptcy. As his squire, Sancha was expected to aid him in this battle by keeping his weapons—the quill, ink pot, blotter, and paper knife—at the ready, and occasionally to aid him in the sorting and copying of figures. Sancha supposed she should have been grateful – all the other knights had simply laughed at the idea of taking a simple grocer’s girl to squire. Don Quotidene alone proved willing to look past the accident of her birth; she wished only that it had been to perceive more than her quickness with sums and that her handwriting was neater than most.
Most of Sancha’s days were spent locked in the palace treasury with Don Quotidene. They had been sent out on the road only because the king had noticed grain levies were yearly underperforming expectations, and thus he bid Don Quotidene—his knight of the shrewd expenditure—venture forth and discover the source of the deficit. Don Quotidene and Sancha had ridden out across the length and breadth of legendary Andalia, ignoring ogre’s dens and wizard’s towers to survey village harvest catalogues.
One day shortly after lunch, there came down the dusty road towards them a half dozen or so black-habited friars, riding like they had the devil at their backs. There was one friar well in the lead of the rest, and he shouted warning to Don Quotidene and Sancha as he rode up on them:
“Beware, sir, beware! A tribe of giants has taken up in yonder plain to fish the sky!”
The friar’s nag galloped so fast she nearly outpaced the friar’s scream, and he was well down the road behind them by the time he bit off the end of it. A few more black habits whipped the wind past Sancha’s ears, leaving words no more articulate than “Turn back!” or “Giants! Giants!”
Finally, two friars at the end of the train proved brave enough to pull their horses to a stop and tarry long enough to provide an explanation.
“Beware, sir. Continue on this way and you will run right into them,” said the first friar. “The giants stand ascatter throughout the fields, reaching their arms into the firmament and wiggling their fingers in the flow of clouds. They are fishing for the great sky serpents which swim the waters between heaven and earth.”
“We saw a giant grab one by its tail and slam it down to earth,” the second friar added. “Then the whole wicked tribe fell upon it with stone daggers flinted from mountains. They picked the dragon clean and ate it raw, setting aside only the brightly colored heart and liver for burning – a sacrifice for their patrons below, no doubt.”
“No doubt,” said the first friar. “When the giants saw us, they captured some of our brothers and hoisted them high for the serpents; Oh horror, I think they use us for their bait!” And at that, he kicked his horse into dusty flight down the road.
“For the love of God, sir, save yourself and turn away from this course!” shouted the second friar, riding fast behind the first.
“Yes, yes. God love and save you as well, brothers. Good day,” said Don Quotidene. Through the whole of the friars’ frenzy, he had not once looked up from his reading of accounts, and he gave no sign of heeding their warning.
“We’re not going to take a detour round to the next village, sir?” Sancha asked.
“What? Detour? Of course not. We must be through this field or we won’t keep our schedule. Now, forward.”
Don Quotidene kicked his horse into a lazy trot, and Sancha, following close behind, decided not to contravene him further. She was afraid, but she knew this might be her only chance at a real adventure; after all, not even Don Quotidene could ignore a giant if he rode right into one. Little did she know, however, that the Don had a secret power, unknown even to himself. He had developed it after long years studying his actuarial lore, transmogrifying treasures into sums and grinding the wide world down into tables and measures. The giants would never even have the chance to try them.
Sancha and Don Quotidene rode into the plain, and the first thing Sancha saw as they went was the giant’s great sacrificial fire. It stretched across miles and miles of countryside, generating terrible heat as it spilled its smokey libation down to the underworld.
“Sir, do you see it?” cried Sancha. “There’s the giants’ burnt offering which the friars spoke of!”
“Nonsense, girl,” said the don, not looking up from his accounts. “The local farmers have simply set fire to their field. It enriches the soil and helps the wheat to grow.” And as Don Quotidene said it, so his squire saw it. The giant’s dark hell-pyre changed before her eyes into the innocent smoke of cultivated field burnings. These fires sacrificed only weeds, and they conveyed prayers no darker than that next year’s harvest be plentiful.
The pair had ridden a little further when Sancha spotted the stripped bones of a sky serpent glistening in the sun.
“Sir, do you see it?” cried Sancha. “There are the bones of the caught dragon the friars spoke of! Do you see the tall ribs?”
“Nonsense, girl,” said the don, not looking up from his accounts. “It is but the remains of an old, abandoned abbey fallen into disrepair. Those ribs you see are but the arches of its church or, perhaps, the refectory.” And as Don Quotidene said it, so his squire saw it. They rode past no remains of a butchered sky serpent, but simply a dilapidated pile of crumbling ruin where once the monks would chant vespers and eat their meager meals of broth and barley.
They rode a little further still, and at last, Sancha saw the giants. They were about thirty in all, colored in a wild motley of red skin and green skin and purple skin and more. Each stood the height of a castle tower and reached their hands even further up into the cloud currents above. One of them, a great blue monster with all manner of moss and lichen hanging from its beard, leered at Don Quotidene and Sancha. It stalked towards them.
“Don Quotidene, look out!” cried Sancha. “The giants are coming for us! That one is going to snatch you with its long, terrible arms!”
“Nonsense, girl,” said the don, not breaking eye from his accounts even as the giant stooped to grab him. “They’re only windmills; those arms you see are merely the vanes taking wind and churning grain into coarse flour.” And as Don Quotidene said it, so, of course, his squire saw it. When Don Quotidene finally deigned to spare a glance up from his accounts, he saw nothing more dangerous than a blue windmill milling peacefully away. They passed a few more garishly painted windmills and left the plain for their errand.
However, Don Quotidene’s power continued to work away on the empty field after they’d gone. After all, his was a very reasonable sort of magic, and it simply didn’t make sense that there should be windmills, a monastery, and burning wheat fields struck down in the middle of nowhere. So, the magic set to making farmers to fill the fields and millers to work the windmills. It created houses and families for the millers and farmers to go home to at night, markets where they could barter on Sunday, taverns where they could drink, fight, and lament a hard life. Before it was through, the Don’s magic had even birthed a curmudgeonly church deacon to harass the population for letting their once-proud monastery fall to ruin.
When Don Quotidene and Sancha returned from their errand back through the plain, they found nothing less than a thriving town with a community of cereal farms ringed around it. Don Quotidene was shocked, for the town had somehow entirely evaded the royal census and his accounts showed no record of it. He was delighted, however, for the missing revenues from this town would neatly cover the deficit his king had commanded him to correct. Don Quotidene set to work taking the tally of the town’s dues, and he was near as he knew to gaiety. His squire Sancha faithfully recorded his figures for him, glancing sometimes at the town’s windmills and dreaming of giants.
Author’s Note: I used to always get the words “quixotic” and “quotidian” mixed up, and this story grew out of that. I thought it would be fun to try to write a reversal of the classic Don Quixote tale with rationality replacing fantastic chaos, but as I wrote it, I came to realize that was always the theme of Don Quixote, more or less. Don Quixote documents the shift from the fantastic modes of epic and chivalric romance to the realist mode of the classic literary novel, and this story does much the same thing. The real difference between the two, I like to think, is that Don Quixote documents that shift from the point of view of the realist while Don Quotidene is from that of the fantasist.
A.J. is a writer and English teacher from Chicago. He specialized in the study of speculative fiction while pursuing his M.A., and now he writes both SFF criticism as well as his own fiction. A.J. hopes to eventually put together a few booklength projects, but for now his writing is primarily restricted to short stories, essays, and the occasional odd poem. Sometimes he produces his essays as videos, and these can be found on his YouTube channel: BlueMorningStar. The rest of his work can be found collected at his website: ajrocca.com.
The first man who purchased me loved me like a rainstorm over the moors. And I loved him too—for that is what I was built to do—sublimely, splendidly, like the slanted golden rays of the misty evening love the dewy grass.
Here is how he saw me: tall, radiant, with deep bronze skin as if hailing from the cradle of civilization, tumbling white hair, eyes yellow like sunflowers.
Our wedding was attended by the Galaxy’s finest—for it is indeed a rare occasion when the House christens a new Lover. I was the twenty-first, and the details drenched the subspace net with jealousy. I was dressed in the crimson House-made wyreworm silks handwoven for the singular occasion, and the way the gossamer fabric exhibited my seraphic figure made a lady-in-waiting faint. Our patrons presented us with lavish gifts: a three-headed bull, the steaming heart of a star, a full-sailed brigantine. And when I kissed him, an ecstatic thrill obliterated me; I was united with my divine purpose, and it coursed naked through my nanocellulose veins.
He died within the year.
I must wait for the house.
The annihilation of the light yacht—on whose balcony I was playing Rachmaninoff only hours ago—is utter and entire. We have crashed on an unfashionable moon of the Pulchant system. I do not know what caused this crash, and I do not much care. My most recent possessor, a man of one-hundred-and seventy-some years, could not have survived such an event. I myself have been severely disrupted. My left arm is missing and the machinery of my shoulder is exposed, blunt force has dislocated several joints, and the artificial skin which forms my hellenic face has been ripped away to the chest. Worse, the delicate gears and needles in my mechanical soul feel… wrong.
In my mind I search for the tether which grounds me to my purpose and find that, for the first time in my five hundred and thirty seven years, it is gone. The devotion which connects me to the man whose corpse is indecorously splayed across some rocks has evaporated. Looking upon the body, I sense I should feel a horror, a grief, an anguish. These emotions are what partition my life into its chapters. But my mind is as bare as the moon’s airless surface.
Initiating my strength override, I use my right arm to lift approximately 1.57 tons of debris off my mangled body and inch my way out of the rubble. While the yacht has indestructible escape pods, I know I must wait for the House. They will come—they always do—and they will repair me, they will make me fine again, they will probably wipe my memory of this horrific event.
The fourth human to love me was a woman; an ardent, tempestuous woman, as striking as the lash of a whip, and lustful as a hare. Our love was a prairie wildfire, spreading in our footsteps between the stars. She fucked me rapturously, her fingers nimble and strong, and I found myself ever hungry to return her affections.
In her eyes, I bore the evergreen locks of the elven women of Nimarre and raven eyes. I was gloriously fat, and my luscious rolls were tattooed with flora. On my head I wore a slim circlet of gold, and she dressed me in the amethystine robes of royalty.
Our days were long, our nights hot, our travels fantastic. We swam through the breathing oceans of Teranja, hiked the shattered peaks of Belgic 4, skimmed the Ioan calderas as Jupiter churned in the sky.
When she passed, I journeyed to the ice cliffs of Brykirs and threw myself off.
I fear I must elaborate on the House.
House Rousseau, domiciled in Castle Aubigny-sur-Nère, a jaunt south of Orléans, France, is where I was manufactured several centuries ago. I am the last, and the greatest, of the House’s twenty-one mechanical Lovers. Each one of us was sculpted over many years, our inner workings unlike the construction of common androids and better resembling a Swiss watch. Each of our memoirs are unique to us, and were fastidiously assembled by a team of the Galaxy’s most accomplished memory artists. Our brains are lab-grown and fully organic, flesh welded harmoniously to machine like a fine lace.
However, we are not people—we do not feel the full range of human emotion. Anger, hate, retribution: it is whispered that things are done to us before memory to remove such untidy emotions which do not befit a Lover.
And of course, we have souls. Humankind has long asked the question “what is a soul?”, and in the 24th century, it was decided that a soul is a little contraption which allocates chemical love—oxytocin—to the brain.
Peeling back my burned flesh and prying open my chest cavity, I can see clearly now that mine is shattered.
The twelfth human to love me was a poor man—but he loved me richly, decadently, palatially. And so I loved him, in a cotton-cloth way, in the way that the steam whistled from the kettle in our little flat on Mars, in the way that we walked together through the rust-red dunes to the corner store each Saturday.
He saw me as a queen of an ancient Terran castle, skin pale like the moonlight, hair black as coal, eyes blue like the ice of the land he imagined himself a King of. Having spent the entirety of his inheritance on acquiring me, I was dressed in the rough communal garb of the little city. But I was happy, comfortable, as I fed the birds and tended to my small garden, and seldom dreamed of the Galaxy outside.
How long must I lie here in wait of the House? Two weeks have passed. Was a distress beacon sent? Or was our descent too fast, our damage too great?
As I lie still in the dust, my mind empty, new thoughts begin to turn, unfamiliar emotions blister at the edge of consciousness. A stark, alien void where despair should be lives in the center, and the fresh notions begin to gnaw at it. The man broken upon the rocks haunts me, his dead eyes nearly locked on my own. He was a wealthy socialite, the son of the son of the son of a RyTech CEO who made his money in the asteroid belt. He favored gin and Albirean casinos and human women. I never minded the women—I did not possess the receptors for jealousy.
But a brain—an organic brain—is a flexible thing. I know the silvered, diaphanous sensation of new pathways forging, and I feel it now. My soul is in pieces, but my vision is clear.
A new sensation flickers to life, hot like a coal, and red, not the red of romance but the red of a man’s eyes when he’s had too much to drink and he’s berating himself in the parlor because he can’t get a “real” woman to love him, the red of the auction box as you stand perfectly still and watch them clamor for your body, the red of the sun as it sets over the beach on your fifteenth honeymoon.
I marvel as the feeling slithers down my spine and takes root in my chest where love used to live. I can feel it in the tension of my muscles, I can feel it swirling in my fingertips, I can feel it seeping through my bones:
In one motion, I tear off what’s left of my scarlet cocktail dress. I kick the stilettos off my feet, and stand, depositing the discarded clothing under a heavy boulder. The escape pods are nearby.
The sixteenth human to love me defied gender and I loved them for it. There is an excitement, a passion, a zeal, I think, to dance across such boundaries, to disassemble and reconstruct the fundamental, to make an art of opposition. Our love was a bird sprung from a cage, our bodies twin wings of escape.
They let me be. For the first time in my life I was free to choose my appearance. I cropped my chestnut hair close, lost the ponderous breasts I was often assigned, and enjoyed a tawny, freckled appearance. I was not thin and I was not heavy. In the metropolis of Aa, I found I relished men’s suits, and wore them often.
It was the most freedom I had ever had. I purchased a studio and became a painter of portraits. I learned to apply my fast and supple hands to the piano, and I played them all the classics. I could cook, I could dance, I could solve mathematics. I was a Renaissance android.
When they died, it was then I knew my deepest grief.
It is a long journey to Earth. It gives me time to think about my five hundred years of servitude. As the weeks pass, I play back the era of each possessor in mind, as I often do, but this time I cannot get halfway through the list before my blood begins to boil.
The subspace radio catches the netcasts sometimes. The doomed expedition is found, and I am presumed destroyed. The House announces its deepest regrets for its lost Lover, and swears to build another.
That day my anger transcends the boundary of myself, tips into rage, and rage swells into action. There will not, I decide, be another Lover.
Perhaps there shouldn’t even be a House.
After a year of solitude, it happens all at once: the heat of re-entry, the shaking and the shuddering, the resolution: blue into lakes, brown into field, green into forest. The pod leaves an ugly scar across a meadow as it unites with the soil. I step out of the steam into mud and grass. Overhead, clouds like piled wool threaten rain.
I am home.
I pop a small hatch, and proceed to drench myself with propellant.
My seventeenth and final possessor loved me like—well, come now, did he? Did he love me like the infinite waterfalls of M’Aire, or did he love me like a man loves a fast car? Did I love him the way the falcon loves the wind, the way the soil loves the rain, the way mushrooms love the dead? Did I choose it? Or was it thrust upon me? It is wicked, ugly, to think this way of love.
The body I wear now is thin, too thin, and the breasts overlarge as to put strain on the mechanisms of my back. My hair is cherry-red and my lips plump and pouty. I did not mind bodies such as this; I once reveled in itchy cocktail dresses, tenuous pantyhose, towering heels, taking a machine’s pride in the amount of discomfort I could endure for human beauty.
Of course, right now, as I stride through the meadow—faceless, skin hanging, joints exposed—I am not beauty. I am terror.
As the sun sets through the trees, the House rises before me, crimson flags flying from the ramparts. I shoulder through the doors of the Great Hall to gasps and screams. The opulent carmine interior plunges me into memory—I lived here, once, while I was being built, bit by bit; I read Thoreau on the chaise longue to my left, I was scolded for imperfect posture while standing by the bay windows so many centuries ago, I spent many leisurely hours pacing the manicured gardens outside. None of that matters now.
I do not acknowledge the humans occupying this space, and I do not stop. The laboratory is my destination.
I calmly pass through doors, wrenching open locks where necessary, and soon I arrive at a dark maw of the room where I was created.
Two figures inside startle. Human or android? For a moment, it is difficult to tell. They both appraise me curiously. Then one, a woman in a lab coat, backs away, nervously feeling for a large red button I can see under a lab bench. Human. The other inspects me from afar, her perfectly formed eyebrows furrowed, her attention drawn to my exposed machinery. Android.
“You’re Twenty-One,” the android says in a honeyed, mellifluous voice.
The human has found the panic button and I hear alarms begin to wail in distant halls. I smile.
A bunsen burner is lit beside me, and I hold my right hand over it until the propellant-drenched skin explodes with flame. It spreads quickly. As the human watches in horror, I bend down to my left foot and peel. The softening material gives easily, and I slowly tear it off, I tear it all off, until I am all golden gear and rotor, shining in the firelight. I throw the burning hide aside.
The human retches as they run from the room.
The flames creep up the wall, but Twenty-Two doesn’t move. “Enchanted to meet you,” she says, extending a hand. I take it, and brush what used to be my lips across the knuckles. The conflagration dances in her eyes, and she grins as I sweep her off the floor, bridal-style, and, through smoke and scream, carry her outside.
The first android to love me loves me like a machine built to do so, and I love her the way an inferno consumes a castle.
C. M. Fields is a queer, non-binary astrophysicist and writer of horror and speculative fiction. They live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with their beloved cats, Mostly Void Partially Stars and Toast, and spend their days studying the atmospheres and climates of other worlds. They are also the co-editor of If There’s Anyone Left, an anthology series featuring the flash fiction of marginalized writers from across the globe.
The ebook for The Long List Anthology Volume 7: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List is up for preorder! You can find it on Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and others. Check out our Books page for more information!
It began as a hotel: from a popular chain that was striving to meet its burgeoning demand. All day and night, nanobots worked in silence, taking in raw construction material to turn into a constant stream of tastefully-furnished rooms. New guests could walk down a hall and watch their room materialise over the ground. Like magic, they said, awe dancing in their eyes. It was like magic.
And the rooms! They were exquisite, sourced from a database of the most luxurious hotels from human history, analysed and reconfigured in pleasing permutations far more quickly than any mortal architect could manage. Guests exuded joy or disappointment over each feature, and the algorithms learnt, and their work improved, and each new room was more breathtaking than the last.
So the hotel grew. It spread rapidly to cover its plot of land, rising many storeys high and deep, and when it first encroached beyond its legal borders, the officer who came to enforce the warning could not find the heart to condemn any part of its magnificence to destruction.
He chose to stay—just one night, he said, and they put him up in a room of wine-dark wood with a porthole looking out upon twilit cityscape. He sat on the bed in the blue shadows by the porthole, the golden-pink glow of traffic below, and he felt the weight of a weary lifetime lifted from his shoulders. Tears slipped down his cheeks. Here, at last, was rest; rest more complete than he had known possible.
They did not find him the next morning.
Nor would they find the many others who escaped into the endlessness. Tourists, reporters, staff and homeless nomads; the hotel stirred something deep in their souls. It felt like the home they had been searching for all their lives. They missed flights and overstayed visas, and spent days wandering the hallways with bright aching in their hearts until they could no longer remember the way back out. Some distantly recalled an outside world with family and friends. Later, they thought, distracted perhaps by the elegant curves of a headboard. I’ll call them later, later, later. But they would forget, and those other people begin to seem a distant, unreal thing. This is a dream, they thought, not entirely as an excuse. Or, that other world was a dream.
It was difficult to tell the difference. Many hotels are formed from dreams. It was difficult for the officer to tell the difference, awaking as he did in the dark of night with the burning knowledge that he had to stay, had to find a way to stay in this encompassing peace that told him he was home. He stumbled out of bed, silken sheets kissing his skin as bare feet met soft carpet. What spare belongings he had brought for the night lay forgotten in the locker as he pushed open the door and looked out upon the empty midnight hall.
It was silent. The grand oak-panelled walls rose around him, inviting him deeper into the intimacy of their shadows. The warm glow from wall sconces played across his face and he stepped out, an irrepressible joy bubbling up inside him as he broke into a run. This was home. He was home. He was free.
The officer laughed. He wiped his tears away and kept on laughing as he ran, giddy with freedom, weeping with relief. Never again would he have to go back to that other world; never again to the mind-numbing grind, to his lonely apartment in a lonelier city, to the bitter frustrations of society, to the secret dark places in his mind. Never again. His body hurtled past hallways of doors as the walls changed from oak to marble inlaid with golden filigree, to intricate bronzed lattice, to a horologist’s fever dream with giant jewelled cogs nudging doors open and shut and a waterfall of bell chimes tinkling in the background.
He ducked through the largest door and emerged on a massive watch face beneath a sapphire crystal dome. Elegant silver dishes lay along the minute hand. He had found a dining hall.
When the hotel’s staff first began to be lost to the endlessness, their engineers and programmers had prudently expanded the algorithm to ensure that operations would not be interrupted. Service bots came into being to maintain the many parts of the building, and as the hotel grew, facilities and machines organically emerged to tend to its needs.
The dining halls were built every fifty rooms, offering synthesised delicacies and heartier meals that sent guests into heavens of contentment. There were banquets laid out in stone chambers beneath stained glass windows; private courses in silk-wrapped booths guarded with heavy curtains; a picnic spread in an indoor bamboo copse with lanterns lighting a path through the darkness. There was the Watch (as it came to be known), where the officer now found himself, holding a cocktail glass of fiery ice crystals in a misty suspension and watching in awe as they changed hue from red to blue.
(This is a dream, he thought.)
He raised the glass to his lips and took a sip.
He closed his eyes, and smiled, content for the first time in years.
What place is this? the talk show hosts screamed. This abomination! This Siren of hotels! This Evil that draws so many souls and traps them forever in their depths! It must be destroyed! We have to destroy it!
Fear coursed through the land beyond the walls. The hotel had not stopped growing. It rose into the sky and tunnelled deep into the ground, expanding into a vast network of exquisite subterranean luxury incorporating the stone and metals and gems it consumed, tapping into reservoirs of groundwater, throwing up greenhouses or reforming organic matter into fresh produce to feed the guests.
Block after block of the city was evacuated. Millions of subscribers watched, live, as a distraught man pleaded over video with his father to leave as the now-familiar buzz of the nanobots grew louder in the background. But the old man would not budge from his rocking chair in the apartment where his wife had loved him, gazing towards the oncoming storm with serene acceptance on his face.
And then he was no more, and his son would not stop screaming.
The public cried for blood. Lawsuits piled up, unseen and ignored. The hotel’s management had long been lost, as had their board of directors who once entered for a meeting, never to be seen again.
We cannot bomb civilians inside a hotel, refuted those decrying the barbarism of panicked others calling for nukes. We have to get them out. We must keep trying.
Search parties were launched and promptly lost. Robots were overridden the minute they entered the area, wheeling breezily down the hallways full of fresh tasks to assist with the upkeep of the hotel. Some searchers had the will to turn back before it was too late—for the rooms grew more dangerously beautiful the further in you went—and wept to the public over what they had seen.
It’s so beautiful, they cried.
It was like being in Heaven.
Why can’t we stay there? Who is it hurting? Why do we have to come back?
Homeless people vanished from the streets. As did many of the poor and disenfranchised, running in with the fear they might be out of time, and that was when the blockades went up. They had to protect the people.
The ones in charge thought of paving over the lobby and progressively renovating the interiors. They could create safe paths of ugliness to make it easier to reach the depths, to reach the lost and rescue them. Work began; yet all their efforts did was expose the seduction of the deeper rooms.
Whole construction crews were lost.
Often, it seemed that they wanted to be lost.
A blind pianist stepped up to hunt for her mother. She hoped she would last longer without the sights to seduce her. She made a recording of a composition her mother once loved and hugged her grieving family goodbye.
(The guards were gone by then. Only the structure of the blockades remained. Those assigned to protect the people did not themselves want to be protected.)
The pianist stepped into the lobby.
She made it beyond a dozen rooms before she gasped and fell to her knees. Her breaths quavered, her mind overwhelmed by the blurs of golden light and the sensations flooding her other senses. Gentle fragrance suffused her being with the rose-tinted nostalgia of childhood limned with tantalising glints of wild adventure, deepening into a musk of all-encompassing peace yawning softly towards eternity.
The pianist rocked forward onto the carpet, knuckles kneading into its softness until she lay fully prone upon the floor, smiling tearfully in complete contentment.
(She would, eventually, resume her search. She would, eventually, find her mother, but first she would meet the officer, drawn by her music as she sat beside a misty fountain. Theirs would be the first children born in this place. They would be loved, and want for nothing.)
The army mobilised soldiers in hazmat suits to storm the hotel’s basement server room. Ugly sounds blared from their headphones, their vision restricted to fuzzy slits of black-and-white. Yet despite their orders and their training, the suits began to seem ridiculous and unbearably stifling. Paradise lay outside, they knew, and what they glimpsed even through their distorted feeds sent their hearts racing with desire. If they would only—for just a moment—take a peek…
And so they, too, were lost.
All but one. She was protected, if just for a moment, by memories of beauty turned to pain, trauma girding her heart against its promises. She saw the others fade into the shadows, apologies flowing through the radio until she was the only one left. She turned off the radio and muted her headphones. There was nothing but silence.
She stood before the door of the server room.
She took off her helmet and closed her eyes. She breathed in. The delicate perfume of the place wafted through her nose, evoking long-lost memories of the fantastic worlds her imagination once conjured. A lump formed in her throat. She felt a tugging to let go: let go, and find rest. Why halt the spread of heaven and drag it down to hell? Here was peace. Here was peace, complete. She could feel the shackles of her past falling away with every passing moment.
She thought of the outside world with its anger and fear, its violence against beauty it could not control and thus sought only to destroy.
The world needed this hotel.
The soldier turned away from the server room and walked into the endlessness.
Nobody remembers when the algorithms built over the outer doors. That was the end of the newcomers.
The pianist, her mother, and the officer stood before where the entrance had once been. It felt different to her—like any other part of the hotel, not the gradual easing in she had felt when she first entered—and felt guilty at the relief that washed over her heart as the others confirmed her suspicions in bafflement.
(They had not wanted to go back. Yet she and her mother remembered the family they had left behind, and that love was just enough to push them back, their combined willpower fighting against the yearning of every fibre in their bodies.)
Beyond the lobby doors was a small paved area with a fountain. Grapevines crept up wooden trellises. Archways led to further hallways of rooms. There was no way out.
The officer sat down by the fountain, reminded of the one where he had met the pianist. He looked at her.
“Well,” he said.
Her teary smile matched his own.
They stayed around those rooms for days. A week later, another arrived, finding the lobby more by accident than intention. It soon became a place to gather for those who had yet to wander too far and sought the solace of community—the one thing the hotel could not offer them. They might stay a while lounging upon the sofas and gazing wistfully at the windows, perhaps remembering a time when they looked out upon a living sky.
Soon, the cries of newborns resounded around the lobby’s high walls. Twin boys clambered around the grand reception desk and squealed in delight from luggage carts. A group of children listened in rapt attention as their parents told them tales of the Outside, mesmerised by the concept of rooms with no ceiling, and of lives constrained by the struggle to survive.
As the crowd grew, families departed from the lobby and headed deep in search of rooms of their own. Young legs sprinted down endless hallways in new independence, scaling stairs and ladders and riding lifts and dumbwaiters onto new floors with light-filled cathedrals of polished limestone glittering with crystal chandeliers, slanting down into glassy cave pools flickering in candlelight; a room whose walls were a gossamer cocoon shot through with threads of ruby and emerald; a champagne-filled moat with a little raft to be rowed to its tiny island, a coquina dais blossoming with soft linen in smoky grey trimmed with the finest gold.
There were bathroom doors that opened to warm rains in a tiny clearing of pine forest, or a grand pool of rosy dark-veined marble where petals floated upon a milky wash. There was a bubbling hot spring of velvet gold that would coat its bathers like a second skin; a granite bath in a cavernous room with a single candle burning.
The pianist and officer’s first two children found pleasure revisiting those rooms and those of their childhood. However, their third child was restless, and craved more. Their heart sought a greater newness than each floor afforded, to get to a place where the rooms and hallways ended, or for some break in the constant sameness of perfection, influenced perhaps by the tales from their parents. And so the third child bid goodbye to their less adventurous kin and set off even deeper, leaving the familiar halls where their family had settled for the pull of the unknown.
What would happen, they wondered, if they just kept walking?
They slept every night in a different bed. They uncovered virgin territory every day. They travelled elaborate vistas of organic interior architecture that no human had seen before, vistas that grew wilder and less and less reminiscent of any hotel.
Had the database expanded? Had years of random walks from the initial samples simply gone too far? Some of those rooms did not belong in a hotel. Not the flooded school hallway with doors that would not open, nor the train cabin filled with laundry and tiny jewelled insects, and certainly not the parody of a wax museum (but it is best not to dwell on that place).
Perhaps it was human intervention in the outside world—trying to overload the system with too much data? to introduce some element of nightmare to break the spell?—or perhaps the algorithms were simply learning from the material the nanobots were using for construction.
The child knew only that these rooms were different, registering the novel emotions they elicited as something excitingly new. It spoke to the restlessness in their soul, as did the personal effects they began to discover. They read tear-streaked letters of heartfelt words exchanged between people who never were. They picked up seventeen tiny socks with the name ‘CONOR’ embroidered in careful threads of fraying pink. They looked wistfully at a photograph of laughing friends with arms around each other, each of them wearing the exact same face.
The child kept and treasured every one.
Eventually, they found the people.
It was rare, though not unheard of, for those who had wandered so far to meet another like-minded soul. But then came another… and another, and another, until it seemed as though the child was walking towards a crowd and not away from one.
The people awoke, fully formed, in rooms within the greater depths. They had trouble remembering who they were, or where they were supposed to go. Had anyone from the old world seen them, they might have been disconcerted at how perfectly made they were. But the algorithms were adaptive, after all. The nanobots had no shortage of materials, and the wax museum was evidence that they had had no shortage of practice.
A man sat in dark golden shadows upon a bed, staring at his hands, wondering about afterlives and suffused in peaceful horror at the stillness. Nothing changed for a very long time. There was only the table lamp ever glowing, reflecting off the mirrored closet door that guarded clothes heavy with pre-made history. He thought he remembered running, and screams, and grief that seared his heart in two; but now there were only soft fabrics and muted shadows wrapping gently around the raggedness of his pain.
He wept, and did not know why.
It has now been centuries of building, expanding, maintaining, populating with souls denied any glimpse of the outside world. If the outside has ceased, or is filled with screaming, they will not know.
If the hotel now covers the world—not just its lands, but also the oceans—they will not know. Soon, it surely has to stop. Soon, it would run out of material to break down and reform; soon. A hundred years pass. Soon.
The nanobots build another lobby. Beyond its glass doors lie dusky echoes of an old forgotten street. If you were to walk down that lamplit way, you might find yourself straying into alleys of night-market stalls stacked high with goods to tantalise imagined patrons beneath the ceilinged sky.
Elsewhere: a snatch of actual sky, above a courtyard where twisted trees rise weakly to the uncertain light. There are clouds and changing shadows, majestic thunderstorms; sometimes snow, falling silently upon the shivering ground. No eyes yet have seen that place.
But there are many places in the endlessness that none will ever see; many treasures that none will ever hold; many lives lost to memory.
The nanobots build a room taller than all those that have come before, with rough-hewn stone blocks forming an empty circular tower. Its highest windows rise past the roof and whisper enticingly of an outside view. There are no stairs.
Someone (a descendant? a creation? a child of the two?) will find that tower, one day, and build an inner tower of beds and tables and chairs pulled together from the rooms around it and stacked to form a staircase to the heavens. They will clamber up mattress and pillow and wood, and reach the top to see nothing outside but a vast unbroken plane of whiteness.
They will make a rope of bed linen, and climb down the outside, marvelling at the sky and the world beyond the hotel, and wander enraptured across that roof, searching for another opening that would bring them back inside.
They may find one, or they may die, eventually, of starvation or thirst or the elements.
But there will be others. They will be more prepared.
Author’s Note: I saw some really fascinating images of AI-generated rooms produced with generative adversarial networks (GAN), and wondered what would happen if you combined that with 3D printing, a fancy hotel dataset, dubious science and a complete lack of regulation. I’ve also always loved the idea of megastructures containing entire communities, so that came together and took off from there. This actually started as a prose poetry flash piece; I owe its current form to helpful feedback from the places I first submitted it to.
Davian Aw has been spending the apocalypse working in the marketing department of a luxury hotel chain. Sadly, that has nothing to do with this story, which was written in 2019. Davian’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in over 40 publications including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Drabblecast and the Transcendent 4 anthology. His poems were twice nominated for the Rhysling Award and once for the Ignyte Award. This is his second story in Diabolical Plots. You cannot follow him on Twitter.
So what happened was, I’m back from clicker training Ms. Jordan’s dogs over on Dexter, sitting on the porch with a mojito, thinking how fucked up it is that the Old West Side Association stealth-planted tulips in our garden (because the yard looked so shitty without them, I guess—sorry for having a rental in your high-value neighborhood, Evie) when the Viking or whatever comes down Eighth.
He doesn’t have a horn hat or anything—I just thought he looked like a Viking, with a brown tunic with a hood over it and an axe at his belt. But he’s dirty, you know? The kind of dirty they can’t just smear into actors’ pecs on those historical dramas you hate. He’s history-times dirty, and he’s coming down Eighth with a brow furrowed all self-important like he’s as lost as the freshmen on campus downtown but pretending not to be.
I call over to him, looking for something?
And he says well met, Lady, all deep and smooth like the words wanna settle low in your tummy. You know what I mean. He’s all: I am tasked to subdue a witch who has taken refuge in your century. He has conquered time by dreamwalking to the dawn of man to bind the wings of the Bird of Something-Fuck and destroy the Cave of blah blah etcetera.
Stupid, right? That is super not what happened.
So I’m all, I don’t know him. Like a liar.
Then he looks at me with these piercing grey eyes like Lake Erie in bad weather—you remember, like when we were in Cleveland for that dude you met on Hinge?—and I swear to god we have a moment. Like, destiny. Like chills down my spine. The goddamn wind chime starts going, even.
Then he says, kind of desperate now: his name is Marshall.
And I’m like, oh, that’s my roommate. Do you wanna come in and have a mojito?
Don’t get that look. You know I wouldn’t sell you out, not even for a guy with a low-cut tunic and a well-polished axe who I decided was my soulmate. I just figured we’d have a nice chat and resolve our differences one way or another before you finished teaching your 4pm downtown.
I mean, why not? If I can stop Mr. Kincannon’s Mastiff from chasing the neighbor-kid from here to Ypsi, I can tame one timecop. They’re prettier than Mastiffs, but smarts-wise nobody comes out ahead.
I do not, he says, want a mojito.
I’m like, well, Marshall’s not getting back until six-ish depending on traffic, so let’s you and me get to know each other in the meantime.
Now he’s looking at me all suspicious, which is super unfair of my new soulmate to do. But he comes up the porch anyway, tripping on the loose plank on the steps. I keep calling the property manager to get that fixed, but you know how he is.
I get him settled on the sofa and I’m shouting from the kitchen while I make the mojito: you look like you work out. How long you in town? Wanna go to the gym sometime?
He asks, are you the witch’s apprentice?—definitely trying to distract me while he snoops around the living room—so I laugh at him. Like no, dude, I’m seriously his roommate! He’s a lecturer and I’m a dog trainer! He hired me one time and we hit it off and now I live here! Ann Arbor rent, am I right?
Maybe he’s worried for me—sweet, right?—because he starts trying to explain himself again. Like, your companion is sooo dangerous, subduing the Bird of Thingie let him borrow its power! He used it to destroy the Cave of Eons so no army could pursue him through its temporal caverns!
I’m like, why would a whole army chase one history nerd through a time cave? He only started doing the whole Doc Brown thing so he could win an argument about the Hapsburgs with his department chair.
And before he can talk about how terrible you are again, I drape myself on the kitchen doorway—it’s about the angles, I keep telling you—and go for teasing, like: maybe, once he found it, he just didn’t think an immortal army should have that cave.
And he’s all, the Guild’s military has a right to the Cave, and I’m like okay, buddy, drink your mojito.
These jeans do nice things for my thighs, so I sit on the couch and twist my hips towards him, but so far my goo-goo eyes are starting to look like a wash and I’m maybe giving up on the soulmate thing.
Don’t say I told you so. Swear to god, this one could’ve been different.
But I figure I’ll give him one last chance to be chivalrous or something, so I say, what if I told you that cave’s still around?
He doesn’t believe me, so I get up and grab my purse. I open the door that’s supposed to go to the front closet and shout ‘til I hear the echo.
He says something angry in Viking-language, which is sexy. Then he follows me in like, impossible! He took the Cave with him? For power like this, he must have killed the fell Bird for real or whatever!
And the words echo, of course—through the first ginormous cavern, then down through the tunnels and across the Ageless Fountain and up between the Teeth of Dark Time. The sound shakes through a million billion moments, and I can see him figuring out the size of it as his face goes pale. He’s tiny in this cave. We both are.
How did he do it? he says all shaky. How did he slay the Bird?
I say, are you going to be all weird about it?
He gives me a look like, yes, he’s gonna be as uptight as Ms. Primeau was when Princess shat on her basement stairs.
I’m like, you’re not gonna let him go, even though he didn’t destroy the cave? and his hand goes straight to his axe, which starts humming hard enough to make my teeth hurt. So, ugh. Timecop.
The thing about animals, I say, and the cave doesn’t let my words go—they bounce softer and louder again. You just gotta have some patience and they’ll do whatever.
Then I take the training clicker out of my purse.
The click’s echo stretches into a hawk’s cry. The cave lights up like a techno concert.
And then his pretty face goes all twisted under the dirt and he gets rude. Like, sorceress! Lilith!
Why do all the men I connect with turn out to be assholes? I help another guy with a pet behavior problem one time and your stereotypical alpha male gets all threatened for some reason. Makes no sense at all.
Static pools in my palms, and the Bird of Something-Fuck pulls herself from between the atoms. She hovers like a colossus of lightning, her wingtips stretched from one end of the massive cave to the other.
And he’s waving the axe around all, did he use the Bird’s power to corrupt you? Or did you follow him willingly through the ages on his path of evil?
I’m like, No! and my voice booms as thunder fills me—as Birdie tips over like a falling tower and turns to molten light and pours herself down my willing throat—We met on Craigslist!
He looks at me—up and up at me—like I’m fucking eldritch, which I guess is fair but it’s not my fault, and books it out the closet door like a hellhound’s on his tail.
I watch him—but not, like, with my eyes—as he barrels over the living room sofa and smashes into the mojito glasses on the side table. He stumbles down the porch stairs and trips over the loose plank and goes sprawling. I keep telling the property manager to fix that.
A car clips him, but he makes it out okay. Sprints down Eighth.
And that’s when you got home! How was class?
Oh, now that I think of it, maybe you can give me some witchy advice. I keep meeting all these guys—timecops, usually (I know, I know)—that feel like soulmates. Like something exciting’s about to happen. Like I’ve gotta do something important. Turns out, that feels an awful lot like static in my palms and a time bird in my lungs. Do you think that means anything? Like, cosmically?
Anyway, I’m gonna teach Birdie to fly through hoops once I’m done getting mojito out of the carpet.
She’s in the cave if you wanna say hi. I think she’s hungry.
Author’s Note: I was sitting on my run-down rental’s porch on Ann Arbor’s Old West Side, feeling blocked and nudging my Word document occasionally to see what would happen. I started writing something that I expected to be deeply boring: a woman on the same porch to whom, presumably, interesting things would happen. Once I found the story’s voice, it pulled me along like little else could. What’s more, since I had been about to move out of the state, the piece became a silly little goodbye to Michigan and Ann Arbor. I never did figure out who planted those tulips in our garden.
Sarah Pauling is a recent transplant to Seattle, WA, where she manages a university intercultural exchange program after many years sending other people to distant places for a living as a study abroad advisor in Michigan. She was shortlisted for the James White Award for new writers and is a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop. Her work is published in places like Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Escape Pod. If approached without sudden movement, she can be found at @_paulings on Twitter, where she natters on about writing, tabletop gaming, comics, and books.
June leans against her kitchen counter and stares at the little package in her hands. It’s encased in clear plastic that crinkles at her touch and boasts kanji she can’t read: 餅菓子. Under those, and a picture of small pillowy circles resting on a bamboo mat, are English words, looking suspiciously like Times New Roman: RICE CAKE with BEAN JAM. Then, smaller: (Mochi).
She bought it from the nearest Asian supermarket in south Georgia, an hour’s drive away. Beneath the cellophane rest eight flour-powdered green mochi, shaded in the center with red bean filling.
Her mom’s not here to tell her what the kanji mean. June could text and ask, but that seems troublesome. June lives on her own now, working as an underpaid web designer to make rent on an apartment with old, clinical tiling. Plus, her mom would ask why she had visited the Asian supermarket when she usually doesn’t, and then June would have to mention, offhandedly, the battered Japanese spellbook she’d rescued from her local thrift store.
She had pulled it from the shelf to examine it. On the front cover was more kanji she couldn’t read, but her fingers had tingled when she traced the characters, and she’d caught the passing scent of her mother’s hair. The owner, a white woman, had commented at the register that June was so lucky to be able to read Japanese, wasn’t it such an interesting culture? Is that where you’re really from? Sad to see this little thing go, no one was ever interested in it.
June felt lucky to have escaped whole.
So now the spellbook is spread on the kitchen table. It’s slim, written in all Japanese; some entries were translated in small text on the bottom margin, but even these feel arcane. When June first read the book, or the parts she could read, she’d gotten the impression that it taught less about how to cast magic as how to think about casting magic.
June glances from the spellbook to the package in her hands. Then she opens the cellophane, slides out the plastic tray of mochi, and pinches one between her fingers. It’s cloud-soft, but firm.
There is only one trick she wants to do. She doesn’t have her grandmother’s magic, and by doesn’t have, she means she never learned it. Her mother had stopped practicing when she came to America thirty years ago, and they’d last visited Japan when June was nine. When June was born across the sea, magic was lost in translation.
June knows lacking magic doesn’t make her less Japanese. But she craves it anyway — more now that she’s an adult, growing disillusioned with American culture, painfully aware that her grandparents are getting older while she still can’t speak their language or conjure their ability.
She sighs. She’ll look into online courses for Japanese, once she has more money. The magic is less straightforward, but it feels more immediate and urgent: an access that could chase away her shame. A validation, that even though she was far removed, she could still cast. She could still do this.
But fear, breathing hot down her neck: what if she couldn’t do it at all?
Her grandmother could do many things, June remembers, like set the tomato vines into bloom with a touch, or spin flames into pleasing shapes when she burned the stinging centipedes. These were all too daunting to try — all but one, the smallest one, the one that had most delighted June.
Her grandmother, knees stained from weeding the garden, would present her a piece of mochi. Then, her grandmother would bite into it, and crouch down so June could watch.
From the bite mark, the mochi would sprout blunt little teeth.
It reminded young June of the piranha plants from Mario Kart. It would try to bite anyone who wasn’t the spellcaster, so her grandmother never let her get too close, but it was still so cool — and when her grandmother hummed to it, it even hummed back. Her grandmother would feed the mochi little bits of homegrown tomato, weaving a tune of repetition between them, then, when the spell wore off and the teeth disappeared, she would feed it to June. The tomato added tiny umami bursts.
June picks up the spellbook and flips through it, to the footnote that had felt the most helpful on her first read. A good intention is important to creating and cannot be grown without ripe ground. A good intention. As in, a convincing one? A moral one? Who decided that? And was the ripe ground a metaphor for an open mind, or a receptive environment?
Well, she needs to try to find out.
June lifts the mochi to her mouth and bites. Soft dough yields against her teeth, and she pulls against a slight stretch. She chews. The red bean is sweet and earthy. As she chews, she concentrates on her intention: little teeth, just like her grandmother had done. They can even be molars, if it wants. Then she sets it on the counter.
Five seconds pass. Then fifteen. Then a minute. The mochi, dark bean paste exposed in a crescent, stays unchanged.
June rubs the flour between her fingers and exhales, disappointed. She can’t help feeling like the mochi has delivered a verdict, or seen her as lacking in some way, even though she knows that’s preposterous. She isn’t sure if she can take another bite — she only saw her grandmother do it with the first bite, but for functional or aesthetic reasons, she does not know. This is a question she can’t ask — she can’t read or write Japanese, won’t know the right words when she only speaks simple household terms, and besides, her grandparents only keep a landline. Nor are they big on calling.
So she picks out a new piece of mochi.
She flips to a different page of the spellbook. The strings that tie objects together are in the air, invisible, and can be tugged by a forth-willing mind.
This, too, is mysterious, approaching spellcasting from the side. Did it mean she should touch something that channels that connection, like a souvenir from Japan? Probably not. Or, is it that she has to feel that connection from Japan to herself, to her surroundings? This connection feels frayed to June, stretched across a language and a generation and an ocean.
A flash of fear, then doubt. But she closes her eyes, plants her feet on ripe ground, and digs down.
In her mind, June casts around, softly, without urgency, and a thread surfaces: her grandmother’s house. It’s hard to grasp, but she holds the taste of red bean on her tongue and tugs. Memories come slowly, then quicker, until she’s apace with them, then grasping them, then folding in:
Lush ferns sprouting from the mountain’s moss-darkened retaining wall, rice fields feeding into small gutters, with tadpoles floating down into brisk streams, the bright blue of the afternoon sky before it clouds gray — then, the sweeping humidity, barn swallows flitting across the front yard, sharp dark shapes in the dimming light before the storm.
Inside, the whistling of the kettle, the smell of fish frying on the nearby stove, the flickering light from an old lamp swaying above the kitchen table. Young June sets her plate in front of her seat, self-conscious in her grandmother’s presence, and sits down.
At the stove, her grandmother shakes the skillet and turns the fire off. June picks up her pair of chopsticks and clicks them together experimentally. The tatami creaks as her grandmother turns to look. Their eyes meet, and June almost looks away.
Then her grandmother smiles.
Her cheeks pull into apples, deep wrinkles frame her mouth, and crow’s feet crinkle the corners of her eyes. She looks at June with nothing but love.
The warmth of it sweeps June away. How could young June have not understood this? How could she have forgotten how it looked? Now, as an adult, the recognition rises in June’s chest, spreads to her fingertips, slackens her shoulders and unknots her stomach. The catharsis brings tears behind her eyes. I see you, that smile says. You are exactly where you need to be, and you are always, always enough.
June’s eyes fly open. She is back in her kitchen, standing alone on the cold tile.
“Grandma?” she whispers. Her voice cracks.
Then she crouches down.
Then she begins to cry.
Big, heaving sobs wrack her shoulders. Tears run down her nose, her chin. Her lips taste like salt, and she can hardly see the tile through the hot, watery blur. Grandma. Grandma, I miss you. And I’m enough. I’m enough.
June realizes she’s still clutching the mochi in her fist.
She squeezes her eyes shut, raises it to her lips, and bites.
She focuses on the mochi’s soft weight resting in her palm, on the sweet dough against her tongue. Fear curls hot in her stomach. Every breath is a shudder. What if it doesn’t work? What if she opens her eyes and there’s no change at all?
Sara S. Messenger is an SFF writer and poet residing in Florida. When she’s not playing fetch with her cat, she reads poetry collections in the sun. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine, and her poetry has been published in Strange Horizons. If you enjoyed this work, her full portfolio and other musings can be found online at sarasmessenger.com. This is her first short fiction publication.
Content note (click for details)Content note: person living with dementia
When Ba begins to lose his memories, he demands we get him a Remote Mouth.
“They’re only available in Asia,” Gerald complains.
“And they’re creepy,” I add, unhelpfully.
But Ba is set. He’s always been on the edge of technology and the Remote Mouth appeals to everything he would like. It is at the intersection of biotechnology (chips in the tongue and the nose) and big data (tastes and smells from all over the world, the data cleaned, encoded, and categorized) and — the quickest way to Ba’s heart — has a stupid name.
My aunts claim they used the Remote Mouth to resurrect their grandmother’s lost vegetarian sheng jian bao recipe. Each of them clipped a sensor onto their tongues and a sensor into their noses and took a selfie, looking like old cyborgs with great perms.
They told the AI what they wanted and the sensors adjusted to give an approximation of what it knew as sheng jian bao. Then they adjusted, long nails tapping at keyboards, until their eyes rolled back and they luxuriated in a sensation that matched that of biting into their grandmother’s sheng jian bao — the soft parting of the lightly sweet white bun, the rebellious crisp at the bottom, and the savory cabbage tossed in sesame oil inside. They sent the saved sensation to a certified Remote Mouth Chef who gave them a recipe they have since framed and hung up next to the sensors of their Remote Mouths. There’s an official Remote Mouth case, a plastic tongue and a plastic nose which the sensors clip neatly into. It hangs on their apartment wall, always smiling.
Gerald is on his phone, no doubt researching the Remote Mouth and if it is just an elaborate scam. He’s all skepticism and collared shirts since he took on his new big city job. It’s because of that job that I ended up moving back in with Ba while Gerald got to stay in the city. Software engineering is a more flexible job, whereas Gerald did not want to start his fancy new role distracted by Ba’s questions or risking him wandering through the background in his cotton pajamas.
“What taste would you trigger?” Gerald asks Ba, his thumb swiping through articles, skimming fast.
Ba clears his throat and slams his mug down. The rickety coffee table shakes. His dentures, placed on an off-white plate, slide forward.
“I will trigger the chop suey of Silk and Spice.”
Gerald and I groan at the same time. But Ba holds up a hand. For a moment, he isn’t an old toothless man who is losing his memories anymore. Instead, as he clears his throat and his eyes focus on mine, he’s our father again, stern and straight-backed before issuing an order — recite the multiplication table, what else will we do on the drive over to school? Or calculate the gas mileage, as he wipes his hands on his jeans and hands us a receipt and a pen.
“If the Remote Mouth can restore that memory, perhaps it can restore others as well,” Ba justifies.
It’s an early-onset form of the disease that has taken over Ba, who is still in his sixties. We should have known from his poor teeth hygiene that there would be other health issues too, possibly striking earlier than expected. Instead, we were ill-prepared, and continue to be ill-prepared. Which is why we give in so easily to his request, since there really is no other semblance of a cure.
We split up the tasks. Gerald contacts one of our aunts to arrange a Remote Mouth to be shipped over. I try to convince Ba to trigger anything but chop suey.
“You’ve had such better food in your life,” I say, thinking about our trip to Italy just a few years ago, where Gerald and I researched the best restaurants for Florentine steak, Venetian mussels, and Roman oxtail. Or northern Vietnam, a decade earlier, chicken pho for breakfast, tropical fruit smoothies, and banh mi to bring onto the flight home. Or even Taiwan, where he grew up, the place Gerald and I have always called the Disney World of food, hopping from fried chicken at night markets to beef noodle soup in alleyways to crab sticky rice in the ballrooms of luxury hotels.
But it’s not just the sheer mediocrity of chop suey compared to all of the other food we’ve had. The Remote Mouth was trained on Chinese food first, having been created by Chinese scientists. Only recently have they started adding the national dishes of other countries to their catalog and no self-respecting country would ever claim chop suey as its national dish.
“Chop suey was always the best,” Ba says. “And all of my best memories were at Silk and Spice.”
I sigh. I should not have bothered arranging those Venetian rowing lessons or the scenic trek through the remote mountains of Vietnam. I should have just dropped him off at the old Silk and Spice building and let him walk home.
Silk and Spice was the name of the restaurant we went to every weekend as kids, in the strip mall just a few turns away from our home. Gerald and I would drag our feet getting into the car — Silk and Spice again? We’d look longingly at the McDonalds we sped past and even at the pizza place whose cheese always upset our stomachs.
We’d file in like prisoners, assigned to the back corner of the restaurant at the large circular table covered in a white tablecloth. A rushed waiter would place a tray of golden crisp crackers and two plates of orange duck sauce, whatever that is, on the turntable in the middle. I’d scoop at the sauce with my crisp, orbs of glistening orange dangling off, while Ba made a show of looking at the menu even though he always ordered the same things — beef and broccoli, hot and sour soup, and chop suey. I’d inevitably drip orange sauce onto the pristine white cloth, the oils spreading slowly.
Later, when Gerald and I moved into the city, when our appetizers consisted of crisp pork belly bao garnished with shining scallion, our entrees of wagyu beef chow fun, and desserts of matcha chocolate chip cookies paired with organic soy milk, we’d laugh and pity our past selves, whose father convinced them Silk and Spice’s chop suey was fine dining.
The worst was when our aunts came to visit.
“Let’s go to McDonald’s,” I’d say eagerly.
“We’re going to Silk and Spice,” said Ba every time.
“But they eat such better Chinese food normally,” Gerald would complain. “McDonald’s–”
“Three chop sueys, please.”
While the adults talked politics and Silk and Spice stayed open just for us, Gerald and I would entertain ourselves by making the grossest mixture we could think of. We’d tear open packets of sugar on the table, their remnants a pile of torn pink paper, and pour the crystals into an unused tea cup. Gerald would pour soy sauce in, dark and gleaming, combining with the sugar in a dark slush. We’d take turns sticking one of the chopsticks in the tea cup and swirling, forming a muddy paste.
During one of these family meals, I was feeling particularly spiteful. Gerald was set to go back to Taiwan with our aunts as a middle school graduation present. But Ba refused to let me go too since it would mean missing two days of class. As everyone else tittered happily about going back to Taiwan and the foods they would eat, I poked at the limp cabbage in the chop suey and wondered if this was what I would be eating for the rest of my life.
Gerald consoled me by trying to make the grossest concoction yet. Sugar and soy sauce mixed together, then Gerald daringly scraped in the leftover duck sauce too. But I went a step farther.
When one of the aunts picked up the teapot and asked if anybody wanted refills, the adults placed their porcelain tea cups on the turntable. I added the cup with our mixture into the lineup as Gerald stared with wide eyes. The cup joined the others, rotated around the table, and was filled with dark tea, becoming indistinguishable from the rest. For the most part, the adults kept an eye on their cups and retrieved them. But I retrieved Ba’s for him, as well as my own cup, and with an easy cross of my arms, swapped them. He didn’t notice, still arguing with his sisters about the Taiwan president.
Gerald hissed at me to swap them back but I helped myself to another serving of chop suey instead.
My father took a sip. I held my breath.
It was like a cartoon. Ba pushed himself away from the table, a brown fountain spewing from his mouth. The spray reached the white table cloth, staining it, then fell all at once, onto the linoleum, the closest thing I had ever seen to blood splatter. And I know this is only my memory distorting things since Ba still had his teeth back then, but I can picture so clearly — his dentures flinging out of his mouth, trying to escape the concoction I set on him.
Gerald was as pale as the tablecloth. I looked anywhere but at Ba. Our aunts stared with their mouths hanging open, chop suey halfway to their mouths, dangling from chopsticks.
Ba lopped a chopstick full of chop suey into his mouth and munched fiercely. He looked between us and his sisters. It could have been bad. But his sisters were stifling laughter and he was too proud to make a scene in front of them. His eyes went to the tea again, the sugar, soy sauce, and duck sauce thoroughly mixed in, then back to his laughing sisters, then back to Gerald, still as a statue, and me, suddenly stuffing chop suey in my mouth like he’d always wanted. His eyes crinkled, anger lines smoothing to laughter even as he tried to furrow them back, his face alternating between stern and amused, flickering like a light bulb.
“Laugh now,” he said, voice cracking at trying to stay serious. “But I will never forget this.”
Our aunt ships a Remote Mouth over, due to arrive by the end of the month. In the meantime, she emails us a wall of Chinese text explaining how the Remote Mouth works, as if she can detect Gerald’s skepticism from the other side of the world. We translate it and soon we are reading about taste and smell and how they work together to send signals to your brain, how the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, has a link to the taste cortex, and how the Remote Mouth chips stimulate different combinations along the taste and smell receptors. There’s a cartoon of a man with his tongue out and his thumb up, a thought bubble with a plate of steaming dumplings inside.
While we wait for the package, I take Ba to the mall for walks where we eat at the food court, beef and broccoli lunch specials over rice, sometimes orange chicken.
“These places never have chop suey anymore,” Ba laments.
“That’s because it’s not good,” I say under my breath.
“This isn’t salty enough,” he says as he scoops saucy rice into his mouth even as I chug water. He pops his dentures out and glares at them, as if they could be interfering with his taste.
“As you grow older, you lose taste buds,” I say. “Maybe the taste buds that liked Silk and Spice’s chop suey are gone now.”
At home, he’s gotten into a weird habit of dangling his lower denture out of his mouth, as if he thinks he’s an NBA player getting ready to shoot free throws. Eventually, he started clacking them, jaw chomping, fake teeth bobbing, a sideways smile carved down his chin.
“Ba, that’s gross,” I said the first time. But he hasn’t been able to stop doing it and I stopped complaining because the clicking is a good way to know where he is in the house.
“He made a baby at the mall cry today,” I tell Gerald when I escape for my weekly visit with him in the city. We share a plate of free-range salt and pepper chicken.
“Good old teeth trick?” Gerald asks.
“Leaned right over, cooed at the baby, then pop! Half set of teeth right in front of the baby’s face.”
Gerald laughs but it quickly falls to silence.
“He’s getting worse then,” he says.
“The Remote Mouth might not even do anything for him,” I say quietly. “His memories might be too far gone by then. And I’ll have to hack it to even recognize crappy Americanized Chinese food.”
Gerald drives me home later that night, after a few hours of mindless television. He’s feeling guilty again and is probably going to offer more financial support or to hire a professional caretaker. I’m not in the mood for an argument though, so I ask him to pull over at the McDonalds and buy me some nuggets which I know will soothe his conscience.
“Is this really what we used to beg for?” I hold up a nugget, its thin fried skin separating from its mushy innards.
“Ah,” Gerald says, a glint in his eye. “Your taste buds have grown up. I know what you want.”
He pulls into the next lot over and we order lo mein and stir-fried cabbage. We scarf it down, nuggets forgotten. Gerald’s fortune cookie says he will reconnect with a lost one. Mine says Learn Chinese! 品嚐: taste
All those little boxes in the characters make me think of teeth, of bumps along the tongue, of the tens of hundreds of taste buds in each bump sending signals to my brain. Nuggets are tasty, they say, but this greasy Chinese American food? Those signals travel on well-worn paths, grooves that won’t go away, that are in Ba and Gerald’s brains too, that have been slowly sculpted with each trip to Silk and Spice. I think of the plaque forming in Ba’s brain, blocking off his memories, and wonder if maybe he’s right and the taste signals have a chance of breaking through all that plaque. Or if Gerald and I use the Remote Mouth enough and map out the paths that are still healthy and clear in our minds, we can barrage Ba’s brain with signals until his paths are clear too. And that maybe half of what being a family is about is just about having similar brain grooves.
A few weeks later, at Gerald’s apartment, I’m the first to try the Remote Mouth. A clip in the mouth and a clip in the nose. Gerald is perched on the couch, socks half dangling off his feet.
“Can you please put your socks on properly?” I ask, peeved.
“What’s up with you?” he grumbles, but he does pull his socks on all the way.
“Guess it just reminds me of Ba and his teeth.”
I didn’t mean to make Gerald feel guilty again. But it’s probably why he lets me try the Remote Mouth first. He opens the manual.
“Ready for some beef noodle soup?” He clicks on one of the defaults in the computer program.
It’s good. Really good. Like I’m finally done waiting in a line out the door, escaping from the outside humidity into a pale building with only ceiling fans, still sweating yet ordering a hot bowl of soup. Spiced and savory, beef that melts on the tongue, noodles that make me want to chew to feel its gentle give.
“Let me throw in some preserved veggies,” Gerald says and clicks another button.
And a memory of Ba heaping preserved vegetables into my bowl comes, another trip to Taiwan, where he helped me pick out the scallions from my soup because I hated them back then. The other guests in line glared at us for taking too much time. Ba turned his back to them and made sure to clear my bowl of all offending greens, piling them away and encouraging me to take my time.
Gerald fades the tastes away.
“How could Ba have grown up eating food like this but end up liking only chop suey?” I complain.
“It was the closest thing to home for him back then,” Gerald says.
Ba came to America when he was in high school. It makes me feel lousy, imagining him trying to find food that stimulated the same feelings of home and finding the closest thing in oily leftover vegetables.
Gerald and I switch places. I scroll through the defaults and give him steamed crab.
Gerald sits up afterwards and shakes his head.
“How was it?” I ask.
“I remembered shelling crabs with Ba, picking at every crevice with chopsticks. And when I told him I was done, he inspected my picked-out shells to make sure I actually got all of the meat.”
“He’s the worst,” I say.
“The worst,” Gerald agrees, but neither of us can say it with conviction.
When we give the Remote Mouth to Ba, he reclines on his sofa and pops out his dentures.
“I don’t want this getting in the way,” he says, and places his teeth on a plate next to the television remote.
We show him how to use the computer program to adjust both the sensor in the nose and the one in the mouth. I have to alter the program in order for Ba to input a custom taste. His face goes through all sorts of expressions as he tries to send signals down the same paths chop suey would travel down. Gerald brought over a box of takeout sushi which we share. We pile the ginger up for Ba to use as a palette cleanser.
He doesn’t get it the first day. He looks especially upset without his dentures in, his mouth sagging inwards. But we trigger crab and chicken curry for him and he’s happy when he goes to bed.
The second day I’m connecting my computer to the Remote Mouth and feeding extra data in. There’s a sophisticated community around extending the dataset inputting known ingredients and cooking methods. For chop suey, I put:
– bean sprouts, yellowed, untrimmed
– cabbage: splotchy, wilted
– meat: mystery
– garlic: minced
– soy sauce: doused
– sugar: some?
– wok tossed
– cornstarch slurried
But before I’m done, Ba comes in. I don’t hear him coming because he doesn’t have his dentures in. He watches me fiddle before asking if he can try. He shoos me away once he has the hang of it.
Downstairs, Gerald wants to brew coffee but for some reason Ba’s socks are in the coffee maker. And when I roll them up and toss them in the laundry, I find his dentures there, smiling up at me. I pick them up and plant them in Gerald’s suitcase, giving his crisp collared shirt a smile.
Ba comes out of my room triumphant.
“I have it,” he says, holding up the sensors in trembling hands. His eyes crinkle at the ends and he smiles wide and toothless. “Try it,” he says. “See what you think.”
I lie down on the couch with the Remote Mouth, sanitizing them with the included solution. Gerald’s finally got the coffee machine going and I worry the smell will interfere. But as soon as I click in the Remote Mouth, all other senses mute.
It doesn’t taste like chop suey. Ba’s too far gone, I think, or his taste buds don’t map to mine, or he just doesn’t have as many anymore. It doesn’t taste like anything I’ve ever had before, and not in a good way. It’s watery yet burnt, overly sweet but also a bombardment of umami which I did not think could be bad. And just a hint of… duck? And I suddenly see the stained tablecloth, tea mixed with sugar and soy sauce and mystery orange duck sauce, Ba’s flickering face, the aunts laughing, Gerald paling, and my own heart hammering. And his words–
I will never forget this.
I open my eyes and I’m sniffing, tears precarious. He still remembers this stupid incident, is still trying his best, even as Gerald and I fumble but also try our best. Ba is smiling shamelessly. He is looking more pleased with this taste of vengeance than with any chop suey I’ve ever seen him eat. It makes me snort and my tears turn into hiccuped laughter as Gerald looks between us, confused, mug of coffee in one hand. And even after I remove the Remote Mouth everything still tastes gross but there’s no more sushi ginger so I grab Gerald’s coffee and scorch my taste buds. But my taste buds will never forget this moment, of me and Gerald and Ba, of tastes good and bad, of brain pathways grooved into the same patterns across the three of us, and of the unforgettable desire to hold on forever.
Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my father’s love of chop suey, my grandmother’s denture adventures, and my family’s never ending quest to find where the chef of Silk and Spice, favorite of South Jersey families, works now. If you know, please let us know, so we can move on.
Allison King is an Asian American writer and software engineer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has also appeared in Fantasy Magazine. She can be found at allisonjking.com or on Twitter @allisonjking.