DP FICTION #93B: “Beneath the Crust” by Phil Dyer

The zone we drop into is softer than the digger likes, so the foodies lead the way from the start. Three, for a heavy crew, each of us with our own technique. Fold murmurs mantras aloud, rhythmic repetition, the crunch of crust, the crunch of crust. The new hire is next, silent, head down, hands clasped. Maybe looking at videos in her visor. I do best with just the drugs. No distractions. I imagine the salty rice-paste crust of tiger bread, capture the smell, the taste, the texture of the craggy shell, imagine biting down to yes, the crunch of crust. I want it. I focus on wanting it. The soft, steaming inside is good, I spare a thought for it, but what’s important is the crust.

The digger rolls forward. The surface under its tracks has become hard and craggy, salty fired rice paste over a crust like a geological formation. It crunches, flexing as it bears the digger’s weight, but it holds. The machine roars onwards and we follow, foodies and mercs and techs, ants at a picnic. Onward, into the Bake.

The digger is mining gear, obviously, but the business end is custom. Rock drills would just churn uselessly—instead, claws scoop and gouge, crimping and pelleting. We advance in a torchlit tunnel of pressed dough, waste material dumped as wadded dumplings behind us. Far back along our trail of flares, away from the foodies, the hard crust floor softens back into the same material as the tunnel walls, spongy, yielding, always edible. One by one, our lights are swallowed up. This is the default terrain, the ur-substance of the Bake. Bread without end.

We assume some things about the original Bakers. We assume they are dead. We assume they were extremely advanced, at least in certain areas. They were ambitious, explorers, visionaries. And when their extradimensional adventures brought back the micro-organisms we now misclassify as some sort of cosmic cousin to yeast, we assume they engaged in scientific study before they tried to make a loaf of bread with them.

Maybe not. We do assume they were human.

The digger breaks through into an air pocket. The foodies pull back and the two mercenaries come forward, point flashlights and guns into the warm cavern. All clear. Techs poke lasers inside, take readings, somehow use the hollow to get a better fix on the signal we’re following. Exactly what that signal might be is none of my business, and I’ve been paid enough to keep my guesses to myself. Four years ago a deep explorer team found a single glove embedded in a dough cyst. I’ve seen pictures. It didn’t look like much. That oven mitt went on to inform the development of a material so impervious to harm it changed the course of two corporate wars. A shame Bakelite was taken..   

 I reinforce the crust beneath our gathered weight, concentrating on the range of textures and taste, stray crystals of salt, the savoury flare of burn marks. The Bake obliges, forming new layers as I imagine them. As the ground shifts and hardens with my thoughts, there’s still a tiny thrill, the rush of shaping our environment with mere whim. I—we, with the other mission-critical foodies—we are as gods (within a four to six metre radius, and assuming our desires do not extend to a substance not generally defined as a baked good).

And then I smell apples.

It takes me by surprise. Just for a moment, the infinite yeasty funk of the Bake parts and I smell roast apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar. Bubbling jam seeping up around a burnt crumble topping.

The digger tilts slightly. One balloon tyre is suddenly sinking into molten crumble, oozing caramelizing fruit sugars. I jerk in surprise, bite my tongue. The pain helps empty my mind. It’s over in a second as the other foodies blot it out and there’s nothing but plain, structurally sound breadcrust under the digger’s wheels. I’m not sure anyone even noticed. My heart pounds in my throat.

I haven’t had a blip like that since basic training, never so completely without warning. I glare at the others from behind my visor. Fold and the newbie seem occupied. The techs bustle. The mercs watch. Maybe one of them’s a latent foodie. If they’re not taking their appetite suppressants, it could happen…but this is denial, because that wasn’t just pie. That was my pie.

We cut a path around the air bubble and press on. I keep us on tiger bread without incident. When our signal begins to fade, the techs unload a sensor pod. It has to be sunk into the ground, trailing a line as an aerial, so we all wait around as Fold constructs a custard pit. His specialty. A bead of sweat rolls down his chin as he mutters, dropping into the expanding, bubbling yellow hole by his feet. The yellow of yolk, the yellow of yolk. The Bake is obliging, but liquids are a grey area. Technically I think he’s invoking a single, lidless custard pie, four metres tall, half a metre across. God knows how he trained that one. The techs poke the pod under the custard with a pole, paying out cable as it sinks.

I crunch over to the new hire. She’s tall but somehow fragile-looking despite the bulky environment suit, standing apart from the techs and the blank-masked heavies. Like Fold and I, her helmet is open at the nose and mouth, air supply washed across her face, so as not to obstruct her sense of smell. The air in the Bake is more breathable than you’d think.

“I didn’t introduce myself in the shuttle,” I offer. “I’m Clipper.”

“Victoria. Vick.” She scratches distractedly at the corner of her mouth.

“Been doing this long?” I persist, because otherwise my only conversation on the expedition will be Fold. The rest of the crew keep foodies at arm’s length, and Fold’s relentless mysticism is probably why.

“Not very,” Vick allows. “Little trips. This is the biggest.”

A research group, probably. There is something oddly familiar about Vick, and I wonder if we’ve crossed paths before. “How are you finding it?”

“It’s fine,” she says. “No surprises.” She casts around for something to say. “The suits are better than I’m used to. Not too hot.” Another awkward pause. “I get very chapped in the heat.”

The suits are excellent, full-body cooling coils instead of the usual back-and-wrist pads. From the action-movie stealth shuttle that dropped us off, to the cutting-edge apparatus currently settling into custard, this is easily the most expensive expedition I’ve ever seen. I don’t come cheap myself, and neither does Fold. So I take Vick’s inexperience with a pinch of the salt that I’m imagining, glittering on that thick, supportive crust.

“Always good to hear someone from the old country,” I say, suddenly realising what’s so familiar. The drugs make you tune out things that aren’t food. “You don’t meet a lot of Scots in this line of work.”

She looks confused.

“The accent,” I press. “You could be from my town, even. You grew up near Inverness, right?”

“Oh. Yes. I guess so,” she says. “I’ve never thought about it much.” She goes back to picking at her mouth. It is indeed starting to peel.

“Try closing your eyes really tight.” I say. She looks confused again. I point at her mouth.

“The itching, right? It’s always the same in these suits, soon as they seal you up you gotta scratch. So you go to town on the only bit that’s exposed. Classic displacement. Scrunching my eyes up always helps me.”

She lowers her hand and looks at me for a little too long.

“Thanks.”

We’re moving on before I can prise any more conversation out of that. The new heading is somewhere far below us, and the drill doesn’t work as well at sharp inclines. I transmute the material ahead of it to speed our passage, swapping spongey bread for the lightest, flakiest pastry I can imagine. It shatters beautifully as the digger comes crashing through, great sheets of buttery rough puff obliterated under our boots. Fold stabilises the crust, while Vick anchors safety lines along our trail with caramel. Her creations are quick and perfect, clean little discs of sizzling sugar, ringed with delicate short-crust.

I end up next to Fold as the crew ready the digger for another switchback turn. Vick is further back, busy with some detail work.

“What do you make of the new girl?” I ask quietly.

Fold shrugs, still muttering.

“The crunch of crust. Not much yet. A prodigy, I heard. Rising star. The crunch. Some little science group. A few months back. Of crust. Out of their league, I think. The Bake clearly favours her. The crunch-“

“Mm. She’s good. Surprised I haven’t heard of her before now, really.” Trained foodies aren’t so rare we don’t need to keep tabs on the competition.

“She’s new. But I take great interest. The crunch. In experiences like hers. Of crust. And yours—very similar, you know. The crunch. She was found. A wanderer in the dark.”

“Shit.”

The memories heave up, but the drugs keep them at arms’ length. More than a decade old now, early in what would become my career. The Bake was a relatively new discovery, its mechanisms still barely understood, and I was there with a group of explorers, trying out my newfound status. They didn’t even call us foodies then, I was an Extradimensional Operations Special something-something, and when I stepped through a pastry shell and fell thirty metres into darkness, that was what they put on the death certificate. But the Bake is soft, and it’s not like I was going to starve.

“I was thinking,” Fold says. “I understand your reluctance. Crust. To talk about your. Crunch. Your ordeal. But perhaps, perhaps you could encourage her to talk to me-“ He suddenly jerks in surprise. “Clipper!”

I smell almonds, marzipan, sickly sweetness. The tunnel around me is a chessboard, a grid of pink and yellow squares emerging from undifferentiated bread. Marzipan is forming underfoot, apricot jam oozing up.

I have never trained on Battenberg cake. I’ve never even made one. Too sweet. But when I was six I stole one, didn’t like it, and hid it under my pillow for a week, forcing down daily bites out of a vague notion that this was the ethical way to dispose of it. The cake coming out of the wall has flecks of hair and fluff. I know exactly how it tastes, the strange cardboard chew of stale marzipan.

Far down the tunnel, Vick is staring at me, face hidden by her helmet lights.. Her sense of smell must be incredible.

“Crust!” snaps Fold. I startle out of my reverie and focus. Between us the Bake reforms in a moment. A couple of techs are looking. One of the mercenaries strolls over.

“Everything all right here?” she asks. Her suit whirs softly as she inspects us. The heavies wear powered frames over the environment gear. Even with her rifle slung amicably on her back, she could literally pull my head off. She might, if it came to it. A foodie in a meltdown endangers the whole team.

“Yes, yes, of course. Testing the resonant depth, overlap times—” Fold brushes her away with a mouthful of nonsense. She nods and leaves us to it. Artists get the benefit of the doubt.

Fold leans close as the digger gets rolling again.

“Not like you.”

“It’s not,” I agree.

“Is there going to be a problem?”

“No.” But there is. I have no idea what’s happening. I am sharp, I am focused, I am specifically and carefully drugged. I am sure, absolutely certain, that no part of my subconscious was dwelling on stale cake, nor on that apple pie; made for my first crush, shared with her boyfriend. And yet.

I’m waiting for it to happen again as we press on. I double-check every crumb I lay down, roll the imaginary flavour around my mouth. I lean on my aids more than usual, calibrating for every little trick and amuse-bouche. I’m sure Fold notices. I bridge gaps with mooncakes, raise baguette buttresses. No problem. There continues to be no problem right up until the monster.

Even if our own universe- the one with the Earth we’d recognise—was the only player in pan-dimensional exploration, things would still get crowded in the Bake. It’s a lucrative dimension, whether you’re strip-mining bread or salvaging Baker tech, and while the Bake itself may be infinite, the entrances that we’ve found come out pretty close together. Even on an expedition like ours, so far off the beaten track, you can’t be sure who’s been out here before you. And we are not the only universe here.

A tech shouts something. Jaws come through the tunnel ceiling, a short way back from the digger. Black plates slide and click around a mess of scrabbling hooks, scything blades longer than my arm. Blank eyes gleam wetly.

One of the techs is snatched up, scream muffled in his suit. I fall to the ground and scramble under the digger as the heavies let loose. The gunfire is apocalyptic in the tunnel, even through my helmet, rattling thunder through my teeth. Fluids spatter. Fold is standing, advancing even, arms up like a wizard casting a spell. He’s shouting something.

We’re not sure which of the many Earths to visit the Bake is the monster-maker. We call them weevils. Probably they are not meant to eat people. Best guesses and traces of harness have them as engineered burrowers, faster than our mechanical digger—but no-one has ever found one with its team. Perhaps these feral remnants are all that’s left, abandoned by a world with more on its plate than infinite bread.

The weevil bellows. The digger rocks. I curl into a tighter ball and shut my eyes.

The darkness is waiting for me.

***

After the fall, as Fold puts it, I wandered. I walked in dark places. My suit battery died in two days and I assumed I’d follow shortly. I was always on the brink of choking. Any exertion brought on spiking headaches, neon pain against the black. I walked blindly in the tunnels of ancient explorations, following the soft walls with my fingers.

In the absence of light, it is hard to know when to eat. I discovered early on that the Bake could provide fresh fruit—sliced, as a pastry topping—so that was my water. My nutrition came with my moods, fistfuls of dough clawed from the walls, or great blind feasts, every baked good I could think of, until something switched over and I was weeping and gasping for air over a heap of latticed pies. Sometimes I heard weevils. Once, I think I stumbled into Baker ruins, crumpled and swallowed by expanding bread. I spent a long time there, feeling my way through caverns that might equally have been ovens or blast chillers. I remember a confusion of scale beyond the demands of industry–stacked trays the size of swimming pools, a countertop the height of my chest and three thousand paces long. I have never been able to locate these again, though they should have been unmissable. Probably they shifted, tumbling in the infinite like the lucky coin in a pudding. Of course, I spent a lot of time going crazy.

I devised and judged grand challenges for myself. At first I set rewards for milestones; a perfect semolina cake, for which I would allow my favourite childhood brownie. Later, these became punishments; sleep when you get it right. Drink when you get it right. I tried so hard to produce a flambé for light—cherries jubilee, or pudding—but it never worked no matter what I threatened. I think it failed because I couldn’t imagine the taste of fire.

I learned a lot. Eventually, it no longer felt like learning—it felt like teaching, like a conversation. Here is what I want. Here is what it means to me. I poured out my life in the only language the Bake might understand. The pie for my crush, the stolen cake, my nana’s cornbread. In my least lucid moments I walked with and within a vacantly smiling god, a vast benevolence made cruel only by the scale and indifference of its kindness. It would want me to be happy, if only it knew what I was.

Or something like that. I want to be clear; I was half-dead, completely unhinged. Fold comes out with this stuff sober.

Once I heard another expedition, machine and human noises, high above but too muffled to pin a direction on. I dug with my hands to reach them, but they moved on too fast. I remember wishing, desperately, that one of them would fall like I had. This was the point I had reached- I had forgotten to hope to escape. I just wanted someone to share it with. Just one person, I pleaded, that would be enough. Someone to relate to, to swap notes with. We would talk to the Bake together. Then maybe I could get that flambé.

Seven months after people stopped looking, a survey team for one of the big harvesters found me on the outskirts of their newest claim. I remember the pain of light, and being confused. Where were we going? I had nearly perfected meringues…

***

The gunfire has stopped. The digger is still. Little by little, I unfold and extricate myself.

Smoke and alien gore wind through the stench of bread. The mercenaries stand unharmed, barking commands and pointing. There seem to be as many of us as we started with, though medics are earning their keep, dressing wounds, strapping an arm. Even the tech who was grabbed is still here somehow. He groans as they cut his suit open, dousing his wounds with trauma foam.

The weevil’s corpse sprawls half into the tunnel, a glossy tangle of limbs and hooks. Yellow ichor has spattered in all directions, bringing a sweet popcorn musk. Fist-sized holes riddle its carapace. What remains of its head is locked in a pillar of pecan brittle, while its largest limbs are fused into caramel, trapped between soda-bread stalactites. Mounds of giant bao buns are slowly subsiding—sandbags, to protect the digger.

The heavy from earlier says something approving to Vick, claps Fold on the shoulder. She turns away when she sees me, I assume in contempt.

“Well. You two were busy.” I say. Vick says nothing, just looks at me, still picking at her face.

“Horrible creatures,” says Fold primly. “Were you injured?”

“No. Just uh, got thrown a bit. Good work on the brittle there, who was that?”

Fold coughs pointedly. I look down. A dense yellow crumb is spreading out around our feet, pockets of cheese leaking to the surface. I know what it is before I even catch the smell; my nana’s cornbread. I barely remember her face, but this I know.

I don’t have much left in me to react with. A wave, a thought, it’s gone. Fold jerks forward.

“Get it together,” he hisses. “Right now.”

“It’s not me!” I snap.

“Bullshit. Has your focus run out? I have refills—“

Vick puts her gloved hand on my arm. It’s so strange that we both stop to stare at her. Her mouth is getting worse.

“Listen,” she says. It’s not clear who she’s speaking to. Fold tilts his helmet at me.

“It’s not me,” I say. “They’re from me, they’re my memories, but I’m not bringing them up.”

“So how—“ Fold begins, and then I’m telling them about the dark. Not everything, but enough.

No one interrupts. Behind us, the expedition pulls itself together. A stretcher is assembled, munitions are counted, equipment is dusted off and redistributed. There’s a long way yet.

Fold looks hungry when I stop.

“A lasting connection,” he says. “Response beyond immediate reaction.”

“I guess so,” I say.

“But that was years ago. So something has changed.” He puts a hand on the tunnel wall. “Perhaps it’s finally reaching out, the only way it can. Perhaps it’s trying-”

“The Bake doesn’t want anything, Fold.”

“You know that’s not true,” he says. “It wants to nourish us, to give us what we want. Food has always been the way to bring people together. What peace there could be, if only—”

“I was alone!” I yell. “Choking and alone in the dark! All I wanted—the Bake doesn’t care what we want! It doesn’t even know!” People turn. I don’t care. “You think it’s a god? Go pray to it yourself. You know the way.”

The weevil’s entrance hole reflects in Fold’s visor. Beyond the jagged body is darkness, mile after mile of crisscrossed burrow, down into eternity. Fold smiles.

“Perhaps I will.”

He turns and walks back to the expedition, raising a fresh crust as he goes. I go to follow him, but Vick catches my arm again.

“It cares, you know,” she says. “The Bake does care. But some prayers take longer to answer.” She picks at her flaking cheek again, then, in one deft movement, pinches the pale flesh together, kneading it smooth with the heel of her hand. In a moment, her skin is flawless. She smiles. Her lips are blushed marzipan.

As she too walks away, rich currant pudding pools in her bootprints, quickly disappearing. Before it does, it flickers with purple flame.


© 2022 by Phil Dyer

3600 words

Author’s Note: A loaf of bread with a sufficiently ‘open crumb’ is full of bubbles which often link together, forming tunnels and alien cave systems. I enjoy sci-fi expeditions into dark places, but these doomed ventures often subsist on vague but unpleasant ‘rations’, if food is mentioned at all. That would probably keep me off the team. I was moved to make a case where being way too into what you eat is a valuable, practical asset.  

Phil Dyer does science and writes spec fic in Liverpool, where he appears to have settled for now. He has firm opinions about food, games and seagulls. Loves the outdoors, but wouldn’t live there. His stories have appeared in BFS Horizons, Aurealis, and once before in Diabolical Plots. He can be found on twitter as @ez_ozel . 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Phil Dyer’s work has previously appeared on Diabolical Plots with “Everyone You Know Is a Raven” in January 2021.

DP FICTION #93A: “The Restaurant of Object Permanence” by Beth Goder

Kazia files a folder of correspondence and closes the manuscript box. She leaves the archives as the sun is setting. Her head is filled with the collection she is processing, the papers of Elgar T. Bryce, noted American biologist. For eleven years, she has worked as an archivist, arranging and describing the papers of scientists, economists, and professors. She loves the quiet of the archives, the way folders line up in a processed box, tangible history in her hands.

Outside the archives, there’s a strange flyer on the bulletin board. The first thing she notices is the paper, a small blue square, probably acidic, attached to the board by the thin metal line of a staple not yet turned to rust. It’s an invitation to the Restaurant of Object Permanence. To go, one is instructed to eat the flyer.

She pulls the paper from the board and swallows it in one bite.

***

The Restaurant of Object Permanence is brightly lit, each table under a spotlight. Although four chairs surround each table, every diner sits alone.

Before Kazia are two objects, a worn work boot and a bracelet drooping with dainty emeralds. Kazia recognizes the items immediately. She picks up the boot, Misty’s favorite toy. A wave of memory washes over her—throwing the shoe (which first belonged to Kazia’s father), Misty’s tail wagging, sunlight streaming through the oak in their backyard.

The bracelet was a graduation gift from her grandmother, lost in a move a decade ago. She has not thought of these things in years, but now that they are before her, she feels tenderness for them, like light touching a place long dark.

The woman at the next table has a merry-go-round figurine and a black rock. She ingests the merry-go-round, which shrinks to fit perfectly into her mouth. The look on her face is a mix of sorrow and wonder—a version of nostalgia. The door to the restaurant opens. The woman leaves.

Kazia looks at the boot and bracelet, both a promise of memories renewed. Also, escape. To leave the restaurant, she must eat.

Carefully, she puts both objects to the side. She has never liked limited, binary choices—so little in the world reflects this structure. If this is a restaurant, she should be able to order what she wants.

“Book,” she says, experimentally. A Wizard of Earthsea appears before her. Not just any copy. She’d recognize the scratch on the cover anywhere. When she was eight, she bought the book at a garage sale and devoured it in one sitting. Since then, she has believed in the true names of things. This belief carries over to her work, where she tries to divine descriptions for archival documents.

All three objects sit before her, waiting for her to choose.

She loves them all in different ways, but she is reluctant to eat any of them. What sort of gift is the past? Is this a gift at all, or a responsibility to remember?

She wonders what will happen if she orders something intangible.

“Determinism,” she says. All these choices have made her think of free will, and that competing philosophy, determinism—the idea that all our actions are predetermined, the inevitable consequences of the motion of particles tracing back to the birth of the universe.

Perhaps, she thinks, determinism will manifest as a rendition of the Big Bang, some strange tableau. However, what appears is a black bowtie with a broken clasp. The one Adrian left behind, in the apartment that used to be theirs. All at once, she remembers herself, at twenty-three years old, crushing the bowtie in her hand. Her past self is wondering how her choices have brought her to this place, and if her choices mattered at all, or if the universe had planned this all along. Her bracelet is gone, a graduation gift from her grandmother. Perhaps it had gotten mixed up with his things.

In the restaurant, she picks up the bowtie, letting the silk run over her thumb. Kazia worries that if she eats this manifestation of determinism, the world will disintegrate into its component parts. She puts the bowtie aside, adding it to the archival collection of her past objects.

She’s tempted to order a paradox, because it is in her nature to explore the limits of a system in order to ferret out the underlying structure, but she doesn’t. She refrains from ordering any other intangibles—love, sadness, morning, noon, night, nostalgia, the feeling before falling asleep or the bright dawning of understanding. All of her objects have been personal. What would it look like if she ordered love or grief? Would she be given Misty’s collar, her grandmother’s lace tablecloth, a photograph of her father?

“The Restaurant of Object Permanence,” she says. A model of the restaurant appears.

Object permanence is the ability to remember objects when they are no longer in sight. Archival records, she thinks, are a method of object permanence for our history, a way to remember events that have disappeared from living memory. The record is a physical object describing the intangible past.

She peers into the model of the restaurant, with its tiny tables and chairs and faux diners, with miniature artwork on the walls. In front of each diner sits a choice of objects, but the objects are obscured from Kazia, blurred like a memory. The static model cannot possibly convey the significance of those objects to the diners, the crucial choice the restaurant has on offer; but everything that can be represented, is. What Kazia sees is an archival obsession with the past, with collective memory, and the spaces between, the empty chairs and tables, moments undocumented in the historical records, lost now, forever. These spaces are what she focuses on most. The places where things are missing.

This is what she will eat. She can remember her own past without the use of objects. It is the concept of the restaurant she needs to carry with her—the knowledge that so much history has been lost, the silences in the archives. Documents tell a story, but what happens when the documents that would speak are not saved? What happens to those stories?

Into her mouth goes the Restaurant of Object Permanence. It tastes like nothing she’s ever eaten. It’s as if she’s forgotten the words to describe taste.

The door opens. In the distance, she sees the archives. She sets out toward the building. The archives will be locked now, but she will touch the pebbled walls, run her fingers in the spaces where the pebbles meet, and feel the absence there.


© 2022 by Beth Goder

1000 words

Author’s Note: As an archivist, I drew on my personal experience for this story. I’ve never been to the Restaurant of Object Permanence, but I have thought a lot about the silences in the archives and how we, collectively, remember historical events. Working in the archives has changed how I understand history. (I can relate to the quote that says, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”) This story began with a prompt about object permanence, which immediately made me think about how archival documents serve as evidence of events that have passed out of living memory. These documents are a tangible connection to the past.

Beth Goder works as an archivist, processing the papers of economists, scientists, and other interesting folks. Her fiction has appeared in venues such as Escape PodAnalog, ClarkesworldNature, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. You can find her online at http://www.bethgoder.com.


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DP FICTION #92B: “Estelle and the Cabbage’s First Last Night Together” by Amy Johnson

Content note (click for details) Content note: death and dismemberment

Estelle placed both hands on the plastic-wrapped cabbages. Against the pale green leaves her fingers glittered darkly, slender crescents of soil adorning the nail beds of nine fingers. The tenth finger, her left thumb, bore no such jewel, but rather a ring of woven fungus, beige and tough and fibrous. Estelle stretched all ten fingers wide, fingertips brushing as many cabbages in the jumbled heap as she could reach, and made her offer: “Would any of you be interested in reanimation?”

It was rare these days for Estelle to approach supermarket vegetables, rare that her garden did not already provide what she needed. And even then, seeds were more her style; younger plants tended to integrate more easily into the garden community. But the urge to prepare bigos had stolen over her suddenly, a yearning for the recipe of another Estelle—her great great great grandmother or something like, who had lived long ago in a small town in what was now Poland and cooked triumphs of cabbage prepared multiple ways. She didn’t have time to wait for seed to mature.

The plastic around the cabbages slowed communication. Most of the cabbages ignored her. No surprise there. Industrial agriculture bred for disease resistance, productivity, and dullness; few cabbages from factory farms had the imagination and quickness of wit previous generations had delighted in. Consequently, few heads challenged their approaching deaths, unaware their roots also lay dead or dying.

There was one likely candidate: a handsome cabbage with a thick bold rib arcing across the side of its head and clean veins of palest green. It was older than the others. Beneath the sheen of plastic its outermost leaves, which had once gripped each other tight, were beginning to loosen, sharp edges softening. In Estelle’s experience older vegetables, who had seen more of life, tended to have stronger opinions about reanimation, both for and against.

The cabbages had questions: Did she mean merely to root them? To bring them to flower?

Yes, she explained, she would help them grow fresh networks of root. But no, she wasn’t offering just to help them finish out the second year of their biennial cycle, she was offering the opportunity to relive their first year over and over, producing head after head. True reanimation.

Impossible! declared various cabbages and declined to converse further.

Can you guarantee this? wondered a more flexible thinker.

“No,” said Estelle, “any cabbage that returns with me will have to be accepted by the larger garden community. Ultimately, invitation is the community’s prerogative.”

Beautifully bundled heads, tight and tidy, thought this through.

***

I’m interested, announced the handsome cabbage with the soft edges. I’ll go home with you.

Outside the apartment Estelle paused to retrieve the cabbage from her bag. Carefully she unpeeled the plastic that encased it. When she had removed every last scrap, when the cabbage had adjusted to the sudden return of sensation, she opened the door.

“Home,” she said with quiet pride.

The stirred air brought a fresh moistness of living things. In front of them the hallway gleamed. She had cleaned before heading to the market in hopes someone would return with her.

“Tour first? Yes, let’s.”

Down the hall and into the living room, with its large and glossy spathiphyllum and exquisite maidenhair ferns, its mother-of-thousands quietly dropping babies on the window sill. Into the bedroom, where geraniums bloomed pinkly on tables on either side of the bed. To the bathroom and the enormous Boston fern that hung in front of the window striped thinly with venetian blinds, the spider mending her web in the corner. Back through the small hall, quickly in and out of the kitchen, no plants here, only gleaming steel and humming appliance and a door that shut tightly, until, finally, to the patio garden.

Some might call it a balcony garden, for the apartment was seven stories up, the last story but one, but balconies are thin, wistful things crowded by railings. This was a grand room, two-thirds open to the sky and divided thus into sunlight and shadow, its walls and half-walls covered in tile.

Before them stood nine large raised beds of varying depth, clustered together, each touching the next. From the beds a tangled exuberance spilled, all green and flower and fruit. In one, the bed at the very center, a small space had been cleared, red-brown mulch pushed back to reveal soil rich and dark beneath. Welcome! the plants murmured. Welcome!

The cabbage pulsed with excitement.

Estelle explained the patio’s winter transformation, how the skeletal frames at the edge of the roof unfolded, how the tight cylinders of transparent tarp unrolled, how they sealed together cunningly to preserve warmth and life. She explained the full-spectrum lights, bold and bright, to stave off seasonal affective disorder, theirs and hers both, and also the clean, unlit place for those who preferred to spend the season resting dormant.

“If you stay, we’ll talk about what you prefer, for seasons, for day-to-day care.” Estelle ran a hand affectionately through the arugula, tickled the rosemary until it giggled. “Some in the garden feel dry leaves as itches to be removed as quickly as possible. Others, like this fine basil right here, prefer to wear theirs until a windstorm strips them away all at once.”

The basil sighed, So good, it’s the only way.

With a step they crossed the line between sunlight and shade. Here stood a twin bed and a set of shelves, previously made invisible by the brightness. Estelle paused before a vase filled with paintbrushes. Some had finely pointed tips, some had bristles thin and straight, some fluffed out from their ferrules like dandelions.

“If you decide later to flower and seed, we have some lovely insect visitors. But I can also help.” Estelle laughed. “Some of the others enjoy brushing on their leaves or stalk as well. Let me know what you like, I’ll do my best.”

They passed the small table and chair where Estelle liked to watch the sky change and came to the composter, tucked into one corner. Estelle debated what to say. “Let’s go to the kitchen,” she said finally. “You should know the worst first.”

In the kitchen she placed the cabbage in a shallow dish filled with water, so that the scar where the head had been hacked from stalk, where sharp dry air had cauterized its flesh, might begin to soften and release. She rested one hand lightly on the top of its head.

“Let’s start with your options: You can stay and be reanimated. You can be composted. You can, if you really wish, be thrown away with the trash, though I will try my best to persuade you otherwise.” She grinned at the cabbage. “If you stay, you will not be limited to a single annual or even biennial cycle. You can choose to undergo reanimation once, many times, or anything in between. And you can choose to flower and seed between reanimations, if you like.”

The cabbage started to speak—

Estelle cut it off. “Before you decide, you must know what it means to stay.” She took a moment to gather herself. When she spoke once more, solemnity made her words quiet and powerful. “The first time I will use you to make bigos. Vegetarian bigos.” She shuddered at the memory of her sole attempt to reanimate meat. “I’ll sever the mass of your head from the bit of stump that still remains from your stalk. That’s what I’ll use to reanimate you—I’ll slip this bit of stalk into the garden bed and call roots to grow and a new head to form.”

She carried the cabbage in its dish to the row of knives on their magnetized strip, silver and sharp and neat.

“I keep the knives very sharp indeed, so that they cut cleanly and immediately, no bluntness, no painful tugging at flesh.” She placed the cabbage on the counter and pulled a small knife free; the sound of its blade shimmered in the air. Gently she ran the blade over the pad of her index finger with its many delicate scars. She rested her finger lightly on the pale green head so the cabbage could feel the precision of the cut. A bead of blood gathered where their flesh touched.

“I will slice you into ribbons. You won’t be alone, there will be onions and mushrooms with you. And sauerkraut that I made two summers ago, too.”

That cabbage, interrupted the cabbage, the one you turned into sauerkraut. Why isn’t it still in the garden?

Estelle fetched the glass jar of sauerkraut down and set it to touch the cabbage’s cheek. She didn’t open it. Glass, though thicker than plastic wrap, was less of an impediment to communication, as plants were long familiar with the ways of silica from their work cultivating soil. And she’d never quite adjusted to the way plants related to their severed parts.

“There were three cabbages back then. One succumbed to a mosaic virus, and afterward the other two didn’t want to go on. So I rooted them out and turned them into sauerkraut. We haven’t had a cabbage since.”

Beneath her fingers the cabbage fell silent.

Estelle resumed: “I’ll sauté the onion and garlic first. I won’t put you in until after I’ve added red wine and tomato paste. So when you go into the saucepan it will be less of a searing heat and more of a bath of heat all around you. You’ll go in with the mushrooms and the sauerkraut, with veggie sausages and spices and stock. I’ll turn the heat up very high and the liquid around you will boil and steal away the water that runs through your veins, that plumps you and nourishes you and keeps you alive. And when the liquid boils, I’ll cover the pot to trap in the steam and turn the heat down and for sixty minutes you will simmer and soften in the dark, your life juices mixing and fleeing, spices invading, until at last I deem you ready, season you with salt and pepper, and eat you with bread.”

She wanted to pull away from the cabbage’s dismay, but she hadn’t finished.

“You should know: I will enjoy this. I will not enjoy your pain and I will do everything I can to minimize it, but I will enjoy the act of slicing, of turning you into ribbons, I will enjoy the way you sizzle in the wine reduction and the fragrant steam that blossoms from you and bathes my face, and I will very much enjoy the flavors and textures of you as I eat you.

“Do you have any questions?”

It did. Might it stay in the kitchen to comfort itself while it cooked? (She thought no, but would consider.) Did reanimation feel like bursting from seed? (It should ask the other plants.) Could it, perhaps, advise her on spices and accompaniments? (She didn’t recognize this for a joke until the cabbage chuckled, but then they were both lost to laughter.) 

When at last she had finished answering the cabbage’s questions, she carried it back to the patio garden. Carefully she settled the cabbage into the soft soil of its temporary bed. And then, so the cabbage might confer with the garden community in privacy, she returned to the kitchen, pulling its door shut behind her. 

***

Long ago Estelle had lived in a forest tall and dark and grand, with trees many hundreds of years old. She didn’t remember her parents, though she must have had some. What she remembered most was the fungus that spoke to her when she couldn’t find her way home and lay huddled on the forest floor near a ring of its flowers. The fungus, subterranean and massive, was the forest’s heart, its negotiator, mediator, and controller, and for reasons known only to itself, decided to take her on as an apprentice. From the fungus Estelle learned to command the most terrible of magics—not the magics of death, but the magics of life.

Many years later, when she had learned all the fungus would teach and knew everything about how life should be, she set out to explore. Soon she came upon a small town made from two villages that had grown until they met and merged. Here she dwelled, learning all the townspeople could teach her with great interest, until one day a new friend took her to the cemetery.

When her friend, weighed down by the recent loss of a sister, explained what lay beneath the stones, Estelle immediately thrust her hands into the soil and called on her magics to wake the seeds of life that lingered below. The friend’s sister emerged first, others took longer to reknit bone and sinew. But her friend and the other townspeople didn’t rejoice as Estelle expected, rather they screamed of monsters and set to hunting. By the time the last of the cemetery’s occupants emerged to a reception of axes, Estelle herself had long since been chopped into pieces: her head, her hands, her arms, her feet, her legs below the knees, her legs above the knees; pieces gathered in a heap and buried in a hole in the ground without the benefit of coffin or marker.

Hacked apart or not, her magics still lingered and slowly she regrew. But her magics were fungal, accustomed to bodies of very different shape and form, and when she regained consciousness she found herself starved of air and with a body seamed and restuck wherever flesh had fallen on flesh when the murderous townspeople tossed her into the grave. They must have thrown her torso in first; her head lay upside-down between her breasts, a knee grew against one ear. She died again in the terror of discovery.

She died five more times as she reshaped herself. In the airless dark of the soil she couldn’t find all of her limbs, a foot and an arm had disappeared, and so she improvised as best she could, rebuilding herself until at last she was able to break free from the earth and lie once more in the sunlight. 

After so long beneath it hurt to breathe the clean air. Soil scratched her lungs as she coughed, coughing became vomiting. When finally she stopped heaving, she sensed the remains of her missing right arm not far off. She dragged herself toward it, foundbones yellowing and encrusted with dirt,  scored where an animal had gnawed upon them. 

Before, in her improvised reassembly, she had affixed her right hand directly to her right shoulder. Now she grew the fingernails of her left hand into talons and tore that right hand free. She passed out from the pain; perhaps she died again. When she came to, she reset the pieces, arm to shoulder, hand to arm, and endured the torment of reattachment. She never found her left foot and instead regrew it whole. Later she would wonder if other Estelles, born from its bones, wandered the corners of the world.

When she could move and breathe once more, when she had ceased vomiting soil and the seams of her flesh had puckered into shining scars, she made her way back to the town that had once been two villages. Years had passed while she had regrown and the town, too, had changed, with new houses and people. Even the colors of the town had changed, for shifts in trade routes had brought new dyes and pigments taken up with fervor. At first, many of the people were strange and unfamiliar, but soon she saw familiar faces amidst the townsfolk, now lined and collapsing with age.

It was enough: Like the cold air that masses beneath warm to suddenly spill a fatal chill, the fury of at least seven deaths broke in Estelle. Later, she would remember this fury—cold, inexorable—as belonging to a still-not-quite-yet-fully-alive Estelle, though doubt would make her uneasy. Now, she simply knelt at the edge of the town’s main road and with her fingers dug through dust kicked up by horse and carriage, until she reached the darker earth beneath and she thrust her hands into the soil and she called to the life within each and every townsperson.

Life swelled and burgeoned. Some townsfolk grew so tall that their spines snapped and they collapsed on themselves and suffocated. In the organs of others, small cancerous cells grew huge and greedy and devouring, until systems failed and bodies stopped. Still others grew layer upon layer of skin that thickened and dried, hard as bark, until their bodies could no longer sweat and they became delirious and weak.

They lay where they fell. Some died fast, most did not. Only when each and every townsperson was dead, only then, with tired satisfaction, did Estelle finally release them. And insects laid eggs in the dead flesh and animals scavenged the bodies for meat and rot took what remained and the liquids of decay watered the earth beneath.

Estelle announced herself loudly when she returned to the patio garden. She collected the cabbage and set it in its dish of water on the small table. Then, one by one she plunged a bejeweled finger into each of the nine planters. The brassicas praised the cabbage’s growth mindset. The Swiss chard was boldly in favor, it always was, convinced that any problem could be overcome. Several of the scallions, who had themselves come from a market, confessed the cabbage reminded them pleasantly of their younger, more naive selves. The rosemary grudgingly agreed to give the cabbage a try, but grumbled because the rosemary liked to grumble. The sweet potato vines swayed and urged Estelle to get on with it already.

By the time Estelle wrapped up her conferences and returned to the cabbage, the sun was melting into the horizon with great smears of gold.

“Everyone’s in agreement: we’d like you to join us.” Estelle touched the cabbage gently with one fingertip. “You don’t have to decide immediately, take your time, think it over. You tell me when you’re ready.”

She slipped away then to bring them some music, re-emerged to Chopin. And so she and the cabbage sat together, listening to nocturnes and watching the sky darken, the cabbage humming pleasantly off-key.

At length,  after a tremendous swell of piano had slowed to a delicate and careful trickle, the cabbage said, I’d like to give it a try. Once. Maybe more than once, but let’s see how it goes first.

“Wonderful!” Estelle beamed at the cabbage. “I’m so glad. And remember, you can change your mind at any point, you’re not locked into a single course of action—except, of course, that growth takes time and energy.”

The cabbage murmured appreciatively.

When the last note of the last nocturne had disappeared into the night air, when the moon had risen and the stars pricked the sky, Estelle returned to the planters. Once more she placed the cabbage in its temporary resting place. Soon she and the cabbage would return to the kitchen to begin dinner, but for now, this first moment altogether, their community grown by one, she knelt and buried her hands in the soil and celebrated.


© 2022 by Amy Johnson

3200 words

Author’s Note: During the first year of the pandemic, I became fascinated by regrowing scallions and other veggies. It prompted questions: What does it mean to live ethically with a plant you eat? One you keep eating? How can we reconcile consent and consumption across species? Various cultures and individuals have taken up these questions, creating traditions and practices in response. For me, now, these questions—plus my interest in four-act storytelling structures and my ongoing culinary exploration of my Polish heritage—brought me to Estelle and the cabbage. With the character of Estelle, I also wanted to explore how, after doing something terrible, we might choose to live differently, might choose to practice care. Unexpected side effect: I haven’t been able to cook a cabbage since writing this.

Amy Johnson is a writer and scholar. This is her first story to be published in Diabolical Plots. Her short fiction was shortlisted in the Dream Foundry’s 2021 Emerging Writers competition and is forthcoming in Lightspeed. She’s also the editor of Drones & Dreams, a speculative sprint collection published by Digital Asia Hub, and runs workshops using speculative fiction techniques to explore the personal and societal consequences of technologies. Find her at amyjohnson.com or on Twitter at @shrapnelofme, where she tweets about language, technology, and other fun things.


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DP FICTION #91B: “A Stitch in Time, a Thousand Cuts” by Murtaza Mohsin

Content note (click for details) Content note: Indirect Reference to Death, Mass Violence, Collective Punishment, Imprisonment

Ali never got used to the things they asked for. All those mismatched items left behind in those desperate moments. But there would be only one item per family so he advised them to choose wisely.

Usually, it was something small. Grandmother’s favorite azure prayer beads strung on a nail on the high shelf reserved for religious texts, a lost doll the kids had just rediscovered or a lucky tie for those rarest of job interviews. Sometimes it became fiercely practical, like heart medicine, the keys to an old car that had miraculously eluded being pummeled by those angry whistling bombs or useless saving certificates and property deeds.

In the beginning, he had used his gift as a child does. To try to wrong the little rights. To copy the answers of the smartest girl in class (beautiful flowy handwriting) or knowing just when to intercept sweaty Ahmed’s long pass and score the winning goal for his beleaguered football team.

But he could keep on cheating till eternity and nothing would change as long as the Occupation Housing Authority (OHA) controlled the territory. He would never get a job because there were none for anybody below the age of 40, no marriage before 50 or jumping the endless queue to the overcrowded beach that opened once a month on a random Friday. Instead, he had to wait as everyone else did in the Zone.

The Zone, casbah of the damned, the darkness of its pitted alleyways punctuated by nightflares. But it was the only world Ali had ever known and it was getting smaller every year or so, whittled away by the regular mini-invasions to root out the “miscreants”’ amongst them, houses demolished for archaeological/religious significance, OHA administrator rights, etc.

Ali’s vocation emerged out of the mad contours of life in the Zone provided he was close enough in the first place. Every so often, a roof knocker bomb would politely announce the randomized destruction of a designated apartment tower and let off red-hearted smoke, a warning for everyone in the Zone to behave.

Soon the evacuees of the destroyed building would start piling up around him with their requests and Ali would have to go to work. With desperate smiles, they would plead for him to go back (literally and temporally) to save the precious belongings they had abandoned in the terror of their flight.

Those ten precious, splendid minutes were all Ali ever had for his neighbors. It was the farthest extent he could stretch his being backwards in time before the doomed building was levelled by the damn OHA. By horrible synchronicity, this period aligned perfectly with the gap between the OHA’s warning and bombing.

All Ali asked for was they pay him something, anything they could spare from lives that had just tumbled into a pile of rubble. It all went to his parents, every last dinar. For a long time, he wondered if this hopping through time in this narrowest of spaces was his deepest destiny. As if he had been picked by fate expressly for this doomed place.

The smoke and dust seemed endless the day Burraq Heights was bombed for the third time by the OHA. Each time the Burraq’s stubborn owner had rebuilt his apartment block a storey lower hoping and praying to escape scrutiny.

Ali had lurched into the condemned building, managed all he could. His old Red Crescent canvas bag and repurposed combat vest bulged to the brim with lost and found. There was only one failed recovery, a silver ring rubbed against a saint’s shrine for luck. Exhaling slowly, he happily ran a hand through his scant hair, feeling relatively fresh and counting his money. It was a good day for recovery.

All this time, the loudspeakers emblazoned with the sleek logo of the OHA reminding them the good things in their lives:

1. Security (The lowest crime rate in years! So many criminals rounded up, gone without a trace.)

2. Well-settled refugees (Generation 6? Who was counting anymore?)

3. Environment-friendly roads made from plastic waste (Potholes a convenient size for a child to curl up and sleep inside.)

4. Graceful apartment towers lined with bright red cladding (those highly flammable borders lit up like a Roman candle when the bombs hit.)

The sun-drenched boulevard was so bright that he only saw the scrawny man when he was nearly on top of him. “You, lionheart, may all my generations bless you. Abu Zaman, please help me. My mother!” He was pointing in the distance, frame wracked by sobbing.

Abu Zaman, divine shadow, the snake which eats its own tail. They have a lot of titles for him. The dripping effusiveness of the prayers suggested he had no payment to offer. Ali tried to appear noncommittal. “Where in the Burraq, what was left behind? There’s nothing I can do about that now. It’s too late.”

The man’s seamed face strained as his finger pointed. Ali imagined his body toppling over into a hill of dust. “No, not in the Burraq,” he moaned, “she’s inside…our house.” Ali finally perceived the small pile of rocks, cragged like a cairn.

The Occupation had done a double tap, the man’s house bombed with only the slightest of time gaps with the Burraq. It was a rarity but who could divine the logic behind the biopolitical policies of the OHA?

The South Wind slashed Ali’s face with grit. He attuned himself, face like ageless stone. “Time of impact?” He said sharply.

“Four minute, two minutes ago,” the dazed son replied.

Not good. Barely enough. He would have three minutes with any margin at most.

He brought out his battered Zippo lighter in a flash and thumbed it sharply. He held his talisman aloft against fate, a passport to the dark void and leaned into his backward step. A blinking light steadied. And suddenly he was there and running past the rusty-railed veranda of the simple stone house.

He had been expecting a comatose woman, barely responsive. Instead, there was a mess inside. The barefooted little woman, wailing and weeping, had her wizened back to him. He called to her lightly and she wheeled around like an angry cat, her crystal eyes flashing out at him from under her turquoise shawl. He knew her from his childhood before his time travel had left a scar in place of every memory, each face a blur. Her name eluded him. She used to set out precious water for birds, always smiling at children and giving them creamy treats when they broke their life’s first fast in Ramadan.

But she seemed feral now, insensitive to all but the tide of blood and rage welling inside her. “My key, where is it? My son, my damned son, has hidden it. I’m sure of it.”

She moaned gently, “I couldn’t stop looking. He wants me to forget, curse him,” before she abruptly fell silent.

Patient Ali had waited for her to finish, didn’t doubt that she came from a long noble line and held fast to the rope like a desperate man groping in the dark. “Sayidaa,” he coaxed.

“Your son has sent me. Your face… It glows with the light of your lineage – surely you will sit on God’s right hand. Please come with me. The bomb is about to fall, I have seen it with my own eye.”

“So what?” she snapped, “We are all living on borrowed time, you most of all.” She stood still, her weathered upper lip curling stubbornly as she started her search again. Her densely veined hands shook slightly, knobbled by arthritis that the OHA didn’t permit to be treated. She was clawing at phantoms when he was trying to save her from annihilation. He hated her, this moth dancing around the flame. He felt exasperated and shouted. “Why can’t we just leave it? There’s nothing anymore. We lost.”

She was unfazed and flared at him. “So we will always be the wretched of the earth, always apologetic for our existence? Doesn’t our nation have a place under the sun? You should know better, Abu Zaman, you help so many.” Her voice rolled over him, a lullaby for resistance and revolt. “Son, we can still fight against the dark if we keep our heart and faith.”

He tried to tell her. The nation was dead. A thousand cuts, indignities, lies, and denials later, the Zone was all that remained. The vulture’s leavings. How does faith fare the sword? Fight how?

Her voice fell to the reedy whisper of a conspirator, “Can’t you just keep jumping? Ten minutes, again and again? Go back to when it all started and stop them in the very beginning. You could save our homeland.”

He wanted to laugh at the delusional hag. That wasn’t how it worked, how could it? He could barely manage the two jumps, one after the other, he had just made and now she wanted Ali stretched into infinity, sliced into tiny fragments.

He sucked in air, his chest red and heaving. Even his breathing sounded weak and strange to him. Within him the space between things moved, a subtle shift of infinite dimensions. An expanse was emerging that had never existed before.

For Ali who lived ten minutes at a time, tasted the presence of what had once been. He saw the lady’s lost home. His eye the spy of his heart. And he couldn’t avert his gaze. The glowing house standing on a windy hillock. The cool shade of date palms, the earthy smell of lively flowerbeds, trickling fountains playing the music of heaven, enormous teakwood doors, marbled staircases and most clear of all, the library which glimmered of books filled with endless dreams.

This loss was a reality Ali thought he accepted. Like everybody else in the Zone, his family had lost their dream as well. He saw the blank faces and empty eyes of his mother and father who lived in a squalid apartment that had miraculously never, not once, been hit. He knew why they rarely left its narrow confines. It wasn’t for any fear but the singular fact that the world outside, this Zone, held nothing of value for them. They had so few words left now, so desiccated were their empty lives. At night, he would fall to his knees and press his forehead hard against a gifted prayer mat, pleading and sobbing. All his efforts a band-aid for a gaping wound where bone gleamed back.

Deprived of land, hearth, factory and shop. All lost to the relentless tide of an invasion that now curled up into the black night of the OHA. But would they be deprived of memory, of thought, as well? No matter how painful, perhaps this was the only way for their brutalized humanity to survive…

“Do you think it’s possible to take all these broken pieces and make something new out of it?” he asked no one in particular.

Lost, he couldn’t remember the bomb streaking towards his destiny. It might as well have been the mother of all bombs that had pockmarked the Zone over the ravaged decades. He recalled the dusty words of a poet whose name was lost to ashes. The answers we hunger for already reside in our heart. He saw himself, a proud man standing tall in the redness of dawn.

So Ali fell to his knees to look below the tattered sofa that served as her humble bed. He tossed open the roughly finished cupboards, the low humble shelves. Spice jars and mirrors fell, dashed against the dirt floor.

He screamed and raged for that key. It would be found for the lady, for himself, for their weeping nation, he vowed. The old woman smiled at him faintly, like a ghost. Her dry lips moved silently in prayer before she blew her blessings upon him. It felt like a cool breeze for his tired soul, all the way from a homeland he might still know.


© 2022 by Murtaza Mohsin

2000 words

Murtaza Mohsin takes things as they are and tinkers with words. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan and is curious to see where this writing thing goes. His fiction has appeared in Future SF Digest and is forthcoming in Galaxy’s Edge. 


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DP FICTION #91A: “The Grammar of City Streets” by Daniel Ausema

Mapmaker Sayya draws maps in a florid script, each route a beautifully written sentence full of allusive meanings to guide people through the city and to bind the changing streets, for a moment, into predictability.

Goose watches (the) mist (that) gathers over (the) sea, she gives to one client to guide him to the house of his former lover, now widowed. It will lead him from the Goose Street market, where Sayya has come to deliver the map, to the widow’s home, on a route that is not perfectly direct but not too circuitous either—in keeping with accepted ways of courting. A diacritic on the final vowel tells him which house on Sea Street is the one. The twist of her magic sets his feet on that specific route.

The founders of Nahn named all east-west streets with nouns. North-south streets were given verbs. Intersections acquired an array of optional prepositions and conjunctions. These words define the reality of the city. But language changes, and the streets lack stability when maps do not bind them.

Sayya sends a separate map to the widow, Sea fills (the) bowls lining (the) courtyard for rain or sea fills (the) pomegranates bobbing in (the) well. It’s a double map, one route telling her to expect her former lover, showing the route to his house, if she chooses to take it. The map will arrive long before the suitor does, as he abides by Sayya’s map, so the widow will have time to decide what to do, which sentence to choose. If she wishes, she can surprise him, reach his house even as he is reaching hers. Or, just as surely, she can reach him by waiting where she is. Or neither. The other map reminds her that she doesn’t have to accept him, that there’s help for widows—and all people—on Well Street.

The grammar of city streets is fluid, verbs and nouns shifting to other parts of speech as needed, open to word play and creativity.

(The) wise one sails (his) raft beneath frowning deities into leaping joy is the personal map Sayya writes for her route to her favorite market, ensuring the streets do not change while she is on them and committing herself to take that route. The market is not on Joy Street, though—there is no Joy Street in Nahn—but Oak Street. Oak does not fit the verb before it, and the dwarf oaks do give her joy, so in the fluid effects of her magic, the map is still true.

On Frowning, or the Street that Frowns, a banker accosts her, recognizing her by the tell-tale robes of a mapmaker, white and emerald with designs of golden thread. “I’m in need of a map. A small street that keeps moving away from me.” Brusque, imperious. She knows already she’ll give him an unnecessarily complicated map to take him out of his way. “It’s a house on Sea Street. Its owner died, and I need to claim payment.”

The widow. Could be anyone, she tells herself, but Sea Street is short and coincidences are seldom random in the city of Nahn. “I don’t conduct business during errands. Come to my shop on Sage Street.” She deliberately gives him no map. Let the streets lead him astray. Let them shift into uncertainty at all the wrong times. Maybe he’ll delay, anyway. Maybe the widow will fall in love and be whisked away in time for it not to matter. Or she’ll get help on Well Street and pay off her late husband’s creditor. So many maybes in the unmapped future.

She shops in the joy of dwarf oaks, letting the tiny acorns smooth away the rough recollection of her encounter with the banker. Her bags full of food and new cloth, she heads back to the Street of Wisdom.

The banker is waiting when she arrives at her shop. Without doubt, too little time has passed for the widow to have found help from either a lover or charity.

As she suspected, the widow’s house is his target. Her station means she must acquiesce, must sell the man a true map. She weaves a route, wordy and awkward. Goose swims in the teakettle running sunward through whispering loaves (that) eat (the) placemat making (the) sea. A terrible, nonsensical sentence.

“What kind of map is this? How does a teakettle run?”

She says only the standard phrase of her craft, binding him to it. “It is the route.”

When the banker leaves, Sayya races through unnamed cross-alleys to Sea Street. The former lover stands outside the house, holding wildflowers. Their stems wilt, and his hopeful face is braced for disappointment. Sayya marches past.

The widow sits beside the window, clothes the white of mourning, hat the yellow of one who is soon to set mourning aside. “Mapmaker Sayya. I received your message, thank you. But I haven’t made it to Well Street yet.”

“It may be too late. A banker is coming to claim your home.”

The widow’s head droops.

“Do you have the money?”

She shakes her head.

“What about your lover…”

“I couldn’t. Someday, maybe,” her voice barely a whisper. “But not yet.”

Sayya closes her eyes to picture the street. There’d been a walkway beside the house, too narrow for a cart.

“What do you call the alley outside?”

“Nothing. It doesn’t—”

“I know it has no official name. What do your neighbors call it? What’s its name when you think of it, when you imagine the way it leads back between houses?”

“I don’t… Something little, fast, I guess?”

“Swift?” Sayya flattens a blank map paper on the floor.

“Yes, that’s it, exactly.”

With careful calligraphy, Sayya writes a quick sentence. Sea gathers, divides into swift sea. Below she repeats the swift sea with the diacritics changed. Pen-strokes to define the world. She glances out, sees the widow’s lover sitting in the plaza in the other direction. She doesn’t want to force the widow to go that way, if she isn’t ready.

“Run this to Gather Street and back. Enter the house through the alley door. Quick.”

When the widow returns, the map-spell is binding. She clutches the paper to her, and it’s clear from her eyes that she’s seen her lover, that she is not opposed to seeing him, but still feels conflicted.

“Following the map,” Sayya says, “he will no longer find your house. It will take him a time to realize he’s lost, a time to find me and complain, a time for me to prove his error and correct his reading so he can find you again. Three times, that is how long you have to find help. Go to Well Street for a lender to bridge you over until you know what you want. Your lover awaits you, if you wish, but his waiting does not bind you.”

After accepting the widow’s thanks, Sayya leaves by the alley—Quick Alley, the Alley of Swift Feet—which cuts across many city blocks, easing into the name that Sayya has granted it. Sea swiftly swiftly sails the wise one home.


© 2022 by Daniel Ausema

1100 words

Author’s Note: This story was one of several I wrote from prompts for a friendly writing competition at Codex. The story had to involve a piece of writing with an unusual property, which ended up taking a fantastical twist. Some of the messages that Sayya turns into maps were inspired by other prompts in the competition as well.

Daniel Ausema’s fiction and poetry have appeared in many publications, including Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and Daily Science Fiction, as well as previously in Diabolical Plots. His high fantasy novels of The Arcist Chronicles are published by Guardbridge Books, and he is the creator of the Spire City series. He lives in Colorado at the foot of the Rockies.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Daniel Ausema’s story “The Blood Tree War” appeared here in April 2016, and his story “Three Days of Unnamed Silence” appeared here in October 2017.

DP FICTION #90B: “Take Me To the Water” by Sarah Macklin

Content note (click for details) Mention of child abuse

Grandma always said I was born drowning. She pulled me on out, rapped my backside, and a huge gush of water came whooshing out my nose and mouth. Made a great, big ol’ puddle on the floor, enough that Grandma nearly dropped me when she jumped back. Mama and Daddy thought I was dead ’til I started wailing. Filled up my mama’s kitchen with noise. 

As soon as the cord was cut, Mama grabbed me close and never let me go near the water. Yeah, I still took baths and had to wash dishes and all that, but that lil’ creek that ran behind near everybody’s house was right out. Even on days like today, when everybody was gathered where the creek swelled to join the river, she kept me firmly by her side.

Pastor Atticus stood out in that cold, dark swirling water in the deep blue robe Miss Jessie Mae had made for him last spring. I felt bad for him. The world hadn’t got the message that it was time for spring and that water had to be as cold as death’s pinky finger. I looked over to Malachai and he stood in his white robe looking at the creek. His whole face was twisted like he wanted to bolt. I felt bad for him too. Baptisms always looked like Pastor Atticus was trying to drown the sin out of you before he let you back up. I wasn’t sure I wanted any part of that.

Pastor raised his arms and everybody started to sing, from the highest voices to the lowest. The sound made little fingers run down my spine. It was like they were calling on the Holy Spirit and it was actually coming. I peered around Mama and saw Malachai’s mama singing, tears just rolling down her face. His daddy stood, his big crooked fingered hand on Malachai’s shoulder. He wasn’t singing and we were all better for it. They both led Malachai forward and I saw him flinch when he stepped in the water.

I tried to take a step forward to get a better look but Mama’s hand squeezed down on my wrist. I looked to Daddy on my other side, but he gave a little shake of his head. He always told me it was best to let Mama have her way in this. I just hung my head. I understood why she was afraid. She’d nearly drowned in the creek a little before she found out she was carrying me. Then, when I was born, I was full of water. I could truly understand why she was afraid. It was still a silly fear though.

Malachai waded out to where Pastor stood. I stifled a giggle when I noticed Malachai’s teeth chattering. Pastor Atticus recited the words I’d heard at every baptism I’d seen in all my fourteen years. It was a sacred act. One shouldn’t take it lightly. After today, Malachai’s soul would be saved from damnation. I had to wonder if Mama would ever want me to get baptized. I was curious how it would feel to go under. That creek would be the deepest water I’d ever been in. I couldn’t swim a lick but it only came up to Pastor’s waist at its deepest. It would come to my shoulders at best. I’d be safe.

I stood on my toes to see better as Pastor clamped his thick fingers over Malachai’s nose and dipped him back so hard I thought he was really trying to kill him. The waters whirled around and down. It was the same kind of sound of when me and the other children would throw the biggest rocks we could find into the creek. I tried to look through the surface to see the panic I knew was on Malachai’s face when I saw something looking back at me.

There were eyes in the water, a bunch of pairs of eyes, looking at me. I leaned as far forward as Mama would let me and saw the faces attached to all those eyes. They looked like us in one way, then like fish in another. Where our skin was brown, theirs was a beautiful gray-blue, the color Daddy said the ocean was. They didn’t have a scrap of hair on their heads, not even eyebrows.

One swam closer to the surface, looking dead at me. He smiled at me and I wanted to smile back but my good sense stopped that. I looked around because surely somebody else had to see this, but everyone had their eyes fixed on Pastor. I looked back to the fish man smiling at me and I felt my heart start to race. There was something familiar about him, something about his eyes. Something about the shape of them.

I patted Mama’s arm. “Mama,” I whispered and she looked at me with the wrath of God cuz I was speaking right now. “Mama, I see… people in the water.”

I expected her to use that tone that was worse than a beating but she just stood like a statue for a moment, eyes big as the moon. She turned, caught me by the elbow, and marched us from that creek. Daddy struggled to catch up with us. She didn’t say nothing ‘til we reached the road.

“I never wanna hear you say a word about that again, you hear me, Cassie? Not another word in the rest of your natural life.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I managed to get out while I tried to keep up with her walk. Barely a word was spoken the rest of the day.

***

Mama had me on the second pew at church next Sunday, right behind the mother of the church, where I was sure to receive the word directly to my soul. The fish people hadn’t left the front of my mind all week. The way they looked so much like people I knew or, better yet, like people I should know. There was something warm in that fish man’s smile, something that drew me in like a cat to cream. And his eyes, I couldn’t get the shape of his eyes out of my head. It vexed me, as Daddy would say.

A sharp pop to my thigh brought my thoughts back to the works of the Good Lord, my eyes back up to Pastor and the fiery sermon he was giving. I’d been paying enough attention to know we were going over the story of the Israelites marching through the Red Sea. The part after they complained about being freed but before they started complaining about having to walk so far. I always wondered what those people saw as they strolled between two great walls of water. Did they see animals? Just as Pastor really got fired up and Sister Washington caught the Holy Spirit I thought of the fish people again.

I could just imagine them swimming through the waters of the Red Sea, swimming all around the other animals in the sea. I could see them showing the chosen people of God the way, blue-gray hands beckoning them on. That seemed like a fine place to be for me, in the calm of the sea with nothing but fish and turtles and whales to worry about. It made me think of what water that sat exactly where God put it felt like. Was it slimy like the frogs that sometimes hopped up onto the back porch? Or was it the same as the water out of the pump? Did the fish people move through it like we moved through the world? And my mind settled on that fish man who smiled at me again and his eyes. His familiar eyes.

The choir starting up broke my thoughts and I saw Pastor coming down out the pulpit to beckon people to get they souls saved. I had never thought of making that trip up front before, all eyes in the church on me. I glanced at Mama who had her eyes closed, caught up in the choir’s singing. If I didn’t do it now, I wouldn’t do it ever.

Right before the second verse started, I stood myself up and shimmied down that pew before Mama knew what was happening. People started cheering and praising as I walked up to Pastor Atticus and told him I wanted to be baptized. I heard Mama’s wail behind me. Folks probably thought she just caught the spirit.

Pastor Atticus grinned that wide grin of his. “Are you sure you want to give your life to the Master?” he asked, the choir humming behind him.

“Yes, sir,” I said back. My mind turned back to the fish man’s eyes. “I’m ready to go in the water.”

***

The weather finally decided to turn warm that next Sunday. My robe was set out and pressed on my bed, ready to come with me to church. Daddy had eaten early, pressing a big, proud kiss on my forehead before he set out to the church house to help open up. That left Mama and me at the kitchen table and I wasn’t sure I much cared for that. She’d been near silent towards me all week, looking at me near tears one moment, angry as kicked up hornets the next. I was putting some more butter in my grits when she threw her glass across the room. Shards flew everywhere. I sat stock-still, watching her hang her head in her hands, not knowing if there was going to be another explosion.

“How could you do this to me?” she asked me, her voice all raggedy.

“Mama, what?”

She slammed her fist down so hard on the table I thought she might break it. “You hear me, gal. How could you do this to me? I done kept you away from that creek for a reason and now you want to go running off to half drown yourself in it.” Mama fixed me with a stare that jabbed me to my soul. “I hope—no—I pray you get exactly what you’re looking for.”

We were silent for another while. I didn’t know what to say to her. I took a deep breath, praying she wouldn’t come across that table at me. “Mama, why did that fish man’s eyes seem so familiar to me?”

Mama shot up from her seat. “I told you not another word about them,” she screamed.

I ran to my room, closing the door behind me. I shoved my tall dresser in front of it just in time. The door bucked and rattled as Mama tried to get in. “Cassie Lee, you open this door right now! You ain’t too old for me to lay hands on you.”

Her pushing at the door bumped the dresser enough to knock my only picture to the floor. I picked up the little frame of a drawing my Daddy made of me when I was about ten. I frowned at the glass, cracked like a star over my chubby face. I peered harder, looking at the eyes. The shape of my eyes.

I threw on my church outfit and grabbed up my robe. Mama had stopped trying the door by the time I’d shimmied out of my window. I didn’t know if she was going to make it to church and I didn’t much care by then. I ran down the road, my best heeled boots covered in dust by the time I arrived. Pastor’s Wife had me sit on the first pew beside her so I didn’t have to see if my mama came tearing in later. I was thankful. I didn’t see her as we left the church house and took that trip out back to head down to the creek.

There was a warm breeze in the air as Pastor waded his way into the waters. After he made his solemn speech about the purpose of our being here, Mother Fields started singing, her strong, deep voice rising to the heavens. 

“Take me to the water, take me to the water….”

I looked over to Daddy who was trying to hold back tears. I studied his face, looking hard for some part of myself in his nose, his mouth, his eyes. He smiled at me and I felt tears in my eyes start up.

One of the choir members helped me take off my shoes and put a hand to my back. Pastor was looking at me expectantly. I took a deep breath and dipped my right foot in the water. It felt like a hug. I took a step forward, then another one. 

It was cool, swirling around my ankles like somebody was rubbing them. My eyes couldn’t hold back the tears and big fat ones came pouring down my cheeks as I walked out to Pastor Atticus. He took my free hand as the other one was busy wiping away tears. Whatever words he was saying might as well have been for the birds, because I couldn’t hear them. He clamped his fingers over my nose and I took a deep breath. I heard my mother screaming my name just before he plunged me under the waters.

The creek closed in around me, like warm sheets on a winter’s night. It felt like any old water and something else entirely. It was like I’d gone somewhere else. Then I saw the eyes again. There were dozens of them, the fish people, swimming up, looking like folks I should know. I heard their voices, their language, and while I didn’t understand it, it was like honey to my ears. Then I turned my head and I saw the one that had smiled at me. All my wondering shed off me like old skin. I knew him as much as I knew myself. I  floated before him, his nose like mine, his eyes like mine, and mine like his.

Then I smiled.


© 2022 by Sarah Macklin

2300 words

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my father’s tales of getting baptised in the nearest creeks. Looking into those waters always made me wonder what was beneath them.

Sarah A. Macklin is the author of The Royal Heretic and a number of fantasy short stories. When not creating new worlds, you can find her drawing comics or finishing her latest piece of clothing. She lives in South Carolina with her husband and two daughters.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #90A: “Dear Joriah Kingsbane, It’s Me, Eviscerix the Sword of Destiny” by Alexei Collier

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.

Formerly Yours,

Eviscerix


© 2022 by Alexei Collier

950 words

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.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #89B: “Heart of a Plesiosaur” by Andrew K Hoe

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.

*

And I? 

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.

She remembered…

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?


© 2022 by Andrew K Hoe

2580 words

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 WondersHighlights for ChildrenYoung 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.


The previous story by Andrew K Hoe that appeared in Diabolical Plots was “Finding the Center” in August 2020. If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #89A: “Of the Duly Conducted and Mostly Unremarkable Meeting of Don Quotidene and the Giants of Andalia” by A.J. Rocca

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.


© 2022 by A.J. Rocca

1500 words

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.


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DP FICTION #88C: “The Twenty-Second Lover of House Rousseau” by C.M. Fields

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:

Anger.

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.


© 2022 by C.M. Fields

2200 words

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.


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