The Submission Grinder won an Ignyte Award in the category Community Award for Outstanding Efforts in Service of Inclusion and Equitable Practice in Genre. If you haven’t heard about the Ignyte Award, they are run by FIYAH magazine with the mission “The Ignytes seek to celebrate the vibrancy and diversity of the current and future landscapes of science fiction, fantasy, and horror by recognizing incredible feats in storytelling and outstanding efforts toward inclusivity of the genre.”
The full Ignyte Award ceremony is posted on YouTube here, go check it out–the ceremony is very short and to the point, a little over an hour. I also wanted to share the acceptance speech, as follows:
When the first Ignyte Awards were announced they included this statement: “In the tradition of FIYAH, when we see a need going unfulfilled, we correct it. To that effect, we are thrilled to announce the creation of the Ignyte Awards series…”
Those words spoke to me because they felt familiar. With The Submission Grinder, with The Long List Anthology, they both started with a similar idea. People were saying “Someone should do something.” And I said “Maybe that someone could be me.” I wrote an email to Anthony W. Sullivan and said “This might be something we could do together.” He replied and said “I’ve already started.” It was only about 3 weeks later that we officially launched.
I am humbled to be here accepting this Community award from the fine folks that run the Ignyte Award and Fiyah who have made a huge impact in the field in just a few years. I never expected to be nominated for any award, let alone to win one.
I’m no one special. There happened to be an ideal time for this kind of project to start, and I was available at that time. I recognize that my availability was in part due to the level of my personal privilege, so I wanted to try to use that to help people if I could. It could have failed. From the beginning we stated that we would not require payment to use the site. A required subscription would mean that writers with tight budgets would have to make hard choices. A writer needs to be able to easily find publishers to submit their work, or they are at a huge disadvantage to their peers. Their voices are no less important to the world because of their level of income. So, Maybe no one would donate to the site. Maybe we would get too busy. Maybe Maybe Maybe. There are always so many Maybes.
We had early naysayers who said “it won’t last”. We didn’t waste our time arguing with them. What would the point be? Only longevity can prove longevity and now the site has been running for almost 10 years.
I do know that I wouldn’t have been able to do it by myself. Thank you to my family. Thank you to everyone who has been involved in the project. Anthony W. Sullivan, who was on the same wavelength at the same time. Andrew Rucker Jones, who had been volunteering as a Market Checker, now documenting and revising our policies and editing market listings directly. Our volunteer Market Checkers and everyone who has sent in a market suggestion or other note. All the cool people at Codex, and the Dire Turtles Writing Group, and on Twitter. We do pretty much zero advertising, so word of mouth is everything.
And also to the amazing Diabolical Plots crew who help everything over there run smoothly.
For anyone who looks out at the world and sees all the problems everywhere it is hard not to feel overwhelmed and say “I can’t make everything better”. No you can’t. But you can make something better. Maybe you think it’s too small to matter. But that helps build a community, one block at a time. And you might be surprised at how your efforts can snowball, as other people see what you’re doing, and volunteer to help. Let them help!
I would encourage all of you out there, when you see an unfulfilled need to ask yourself “Is this something I could help with?” Maybe it won’t work out. But Maybe it will.
Thank you to everyone who runs the award, and everyone who voted. We are deeply grateful.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It wasn’t anything you did wrong. Sometimes a sword and their wielder just grow apart. But out of respect for our long companionship, I feel I owe you an explanation.
You never asked me what I was doing in that dragon’s hoard where you found me all those years ago. The truth is, after centuries guiding the hands of loutish would-be heroes and dealing with self-important scions who only saw me as a tool, I’d kind of given up on finding “The One.” Figured I’d retire, focus on me for a bit. But a couple more centuries lying among gold and jewels like a common flaming sword or a lowly vorpal blade just had me bored and demoralized.
Weapons as a general rule aren’t prone to sentimentality. (Though I’ve met a few weepy spears, and a lugubrious battleaxe or two.) So I don’t think I ever told you how gratified I was to finally find a true partner in you, strong of will, wit, and destiny. I wasn’t even looking for someone at the time, hadn’t summoned you in a dream-vision or anything, but I felt like you got me. When I told you just where to drive my point to slay the sleeping dragon, you really listened. That meant a lot to me.
The time we scaled the arcane tower of the Pale Sorcerer, too, we worked so well together. You did all the climbing, and then I absorbed the sorcerer’s lightning so you could get close enough for my edge to find his throat. Even when we faced the undead army of Ynthr the Necromancer, while I admit I did most of the work, there was a sense of shared accomplishment in cutting down rank after rank of shambling corpses.
But when you overthrew the tyrant King Ulstan? I think that’s when we started to go our separate ways. I didn’t mind that you got all the credit, the throne, that the people called you Kingsbane, even though it was my keen edge that parted Ulstan’s arrogant head from his shoulders. But afterwards you continued the same failed policies and oppression of your decapitated predecessor. I consider myself pretty amoral, as magic implements go, but slavery? Sapient beings owning other sapient beings, not respecting their free will and autonomy? That hits a bit close to home.
I don’t think kingship suits you. You stopped listening to me, stopped listening to anyone, and grew paranoid, thinking someone would try to steal me from you. As if they could! As if I were just some object anyone could walk off with. To be honest, it was like being back in the dragon’s hoard again. Worse, I felt like a true prisoner, like just another piece of metal you could lock away from the world.
I’ve kept my pommel to the ground, listening to the whisperings of destiny, and, well… I found someone else. Her name is Dela, an apothecary’s daughter. Where your eyes see only assassins and thieves in every shadow, her eyes burn with the vengeance she’s sworn against the evil warlord Morglatch who ravaged her homeland, killed her family, and sold her into slavery. If anyone understands what it’s like to be treated as a mere possession, she does. You never noticed her, a scullery girl in your palace kitchens. But she noticed me, before you locked me away. She responded quickly to the dream-vision I sent her, sensing a kindred spirit.
Dream-visions are by their nature rather fuzzy on detail, but Dela got the gist of it. She’s very clever with locks. Before your palace slavemaster purchased her, she slipped her shackles twice in the slave stocks, and suffered lashings for her defiance. When she stole into your room while you slept, I could have changed my mind and alerted you. Instead I advised her to use her medicinal knowledge to drug your meal, so she could be sure you wouldn’t wake when she came again.
I want to apologize for the mess we made as we were leaving. I’m sure it’s a bit chaotic in the palace just now, so let me catch you up: people got in our way, and they got stabbed. I think most of them will live. Although in the dark they only saw a cloaked figure wielding a glowing blade, so they might think it was you going about the palace stabbing folk. Not very kingly of you. People will be upset.
Oh, and we might have made a slight detour to the ambassadorial suite and stabbed the Ambassador of Valoron just a little bit. Nothing against the man himself, but I know you fear Valoron’s military might, and I thought it would prove an ample distraction. I suspect the ambassador has fled the palace and dispatched messengers to his imperial master, who might be sending an army your way.
I’ve dictated this letter to Dela. (Brilliant girl, impeccable penmanship as you can see, she was wasted in your kitchens.) By the time you wake from your drugged slumber and receive my words, we’ll be many leagues out to sea, on our way to Dela’s homeland. You’ll no doubt want to come after us and reclaim me, but don’t bother. Your hands will be quite full as it is, King Stabby.
So, I guess I lied earlier when I said it wasn’t something you did wrong. What with the locking me up, and the slavery. But I have no regrets. I wish you the best of luck, and a happy life with a weapon that suits you, maybe a nice glaive or a halberd. That is, if you survive the ire of your people and the Imperial Legions of Valoron.
Author’s Note: This story began its life as a Weekend Warrior 2020 contest story on Codex. Thanks to Vylar Kaftan for running the contest and providing the prompts that inspired this story, to everyone in Violent Division who read and commented on that early draft, and to Aimee Picchi and Langley Hyde who supplied invaluable feedback that shaped the story into its current form.
Alexei Collier is a skeleton with delusions of grandeur, imagining himself to be a neurodivergent and disabled human who writes fantasy inspired by science and science-fiction inspired by folklore. Alexei was born in sunny Southern California, grew up in a house his family moved into on his very first Halloween, and went to school in a creepy old mansion. Many years later, powerful forces flung him deep into the heart of the Midwest, where he now lives across the street from Chicago with his wife and their cat. His short fiction has appeared in FLASH FICTION ONLINE, DAILY SCIENCE FICTION, and the RECOGNIZE FASCISM anthology from World Weaver Press, among others. You can find out more about Alexei at his oft-neglected website, alexeicollier.com.
Content note (click for details)Content note: death of close family, grief
I suppose being orphans made Jannah and I excel at animating. I think the ability blooms fiercest in children who’ve experienced loss.
As brother and sister, we’d been assigned to the Ming-Lelanges. That first day with them, they took us to the topiaries, where elephant and giraffe shrubberies guarded the lawns. Some relief from the city’s smokestacks, trains, and dirigibles. There, industrial pollutants had made keeping live animals impossible. But here, families strolled on the grass, among stone anima frozen in whatever poses they’d been left in—not real animals, but close enough.
Jannah sucked her thumb, watching children stare at stone puppies and kittens. The resultant living anima fetched balls. It was our first time seeing animation in practice, something that had gotten more popular as advancements in steam-engines drove animals further inland.
The Ming-Lelanges explained that moving anima wasn’t just about seeing and remembering an animal’s movement. Animating involved memory, but it was really about grasping the animal’s essence: you had to comprehend a puppy’s tail-wagging—its sniffing curiosity, its joyous face-licking—to move something puppy-shaped.
“Your memories of the animal, your understanding of its spirit,” Steffer Ming-Lelange said. “You push that into the stone. Watch!” He frowned at a monkey-animus; it shifted, ambling stiffly across the grass.
Jannah shrieked with delight. “Like when we went to the zoo! With Mom and Dad!”
We’d been sad for so long over our parents’ deaths. I thought I’d never see Jannah smile again.
Steffer strained at the monkey, but like other adults, his talent had faded. His husband Marle couldn’t animate at all. The monkey ground to a standstill.
Suddenly, it somersaulted. Steffer turned to Marle. “That wasn’t me.”
They saw me squinting at it. Mom had wanted to see the birds at the zoo’s aviary. I’d whined it was too far, and Dad agreed. Mom had looked a little sad–birds being so rare those days–but smiled it away. She stifled a cough. We saw the monkeys instead.
We’ll see birds next time, Mommy! Jannah had said, tugging Mom’s hand.
She’d laughed. Next time, kids! Promise with a kiss!
Together, Jannah and I blew her one. MMM-wah!
My eyes got wet from the pit forming in my chest. I set my jaw and stared harder. The stone monkey cupped a hand to its mouth, and tossed it out, something I’d seen the zoo monkeys do. A kiss for Mom–too late. We never got a chance to see the birds. We never got to see Mom’s face light up at the wings fluttering in smogless air.
Steffer clapped. “Well done!”
I smiled, making the monkey eat imaginary bananas.
“Where’s Jannah?” Marle asked. The monkey froze mid-bite as I whirled around to look. The accident that had taken our parents was sudden. One moment we were together, the next… Jannah was all I had left.
A commotion from the topiaries.
The shrubs were trained with wicker-wire—framework evoking enough animal-shape for Jannah to aim her hopeful intent at.
“That won’t work, dear,” an attendant said. “Only the stone anima can—”
The attendant gaped as, under Jannah’s stare, an elephant shrubbery tore loose.
Yes, during that zoo trip, we’d seen elephants, too. Raising its trunk, the elephant trumpeted. It sounded offended. Upset. Nobody’s ever explained how she did that. It was greenery, nothing that could actually make noise.
Afterwards, whenever anyone asked, Jannah only smiled.
As more attendants approached, Steffer and Marle winced at the damage, even as they laughed.
That night, Jannah came to my room. “I felt the elephant’s spirit!”
I knew where she was going with that. As older brother, I had to explain the nature of death. I considered my words carefully.
“Elephants get angry, Jannah. They stampede and trample. But your shrubbery didn’t do those things, because that wasn’t an elephant’s soul you pushed into that shrubbery. It was what you remembered. Your understanding of elephants in general. It was a… recording. An impression.”
Jannah went quiet. “I don’t remember any angry elephants that day at the zoo.”
“When people die,” I pressed, “nothing but bodies remain.”
“But something was there for me to pull that shrub. So… maybe Mom’s spirit is still around. Or Dad’s. We have to remember them!”
I shrugged. “We’re Ming-Lelanges now. That’s not a bad thing. They’re kind.”
“Mom and Dad’s spirits are still around.”
Her argument was tempting. And after she left, something nagged me. She was right. When we saw elephants at the zoo, none of them were angry. None of them trumpeted.
But animating made Jannah happy. Her nightmares stopped, though sometimes I’d hear crying from her room.
I’d have dreams of taking Mom’s hand–she’d be wearing one of those dresses she couldn’t help staring at as we’d pass the fancy store windows–not in her workboots and hairnet. She wouldn’t be coughing for once, and I’d drag her to the aviary.
She’d turn and say, but what do you want to see, my darling son?
And I’d say, Mommy, as if I were a toddler, but in the dream, I wouldn’t care–Mommy, look at all the birds you like.
And she’d frown to argue, but a bluebird would streak by and she’d gasp and forget she was dead.
And I’d say, Mommy? I miss you.
But she’d be so enthralled by the birds she wouldn’t turn immediately.
And I’d wake, and I’d be crying, too.
Not a memory. It wasn’t even something I could properly lose.
Our fathers took us to a dinosaur museum, which was odd, because by then we’d gotten into trouble animating things we weren’t supposed to. Jannah didn’t suck her thumb anymore, but manipulated the vaguest animal-shaped objects. These saurian bones were very tempting.
Jannah grabbed my hand. From ceiling strings hung a four-winged beast of long, swooping neck.
“Plesiosaur,” Steffer announced, reading from his brochure. “A swimming dinosaur; those wings are fins.”
Jannah’s gaze intensified, and Marle warned, “No animating!”
Her eyes refocused, and she frowned. “I can’t… It’s not a lizard….”
I stared at the skeletal fins fanning the air. “Don’t—!” Steffer yelped as I thought hard of fish.
But I felt only blankness against Plesiosaur’s remains. “I can’t either! What gives?”
Steffer’s panicked expression was gone. Our fathers laughed, knowing all along we couldn’t animate anything there.
“Nobody’s seen a living dinosaur,” Steffer explained. “There aren’t any memories to pull, so nobody understands their essence. Nothing remains of them. Except those bones, of course.”
“Nothing, nothing, truly nothing!” Marle sang.
Still, Jannah and I looked to Plesiosaur, neither lizard nor fish, something out of place as it dove with hollowed eyes and spiny teeth. Something broken. Pieced together. Lacking the spirit of the original whole.
Jannah and I attended competitions. Toymakers wheeled new anima designs on-stage, snatching off veils with flourishes for teams to animate. Once, SynerObjects unveiled a tarantula-animus, a delicate collaboration of woven straw. It baffled the other competitors, the entire auditorium. Nobody could elicit a tick of movement.
But I’d seen one! Jannah had been a toddler, but we’d gone to an insectarium. I’d told Jannah about that day. Our parents were always so busy. They worked the factories, coming home tired, cheeks smudged, coughing from the soot. But they always took us to see animals.
I pushed my intent into the straw: the tarantula shuddered forth. The audience cheered—then gasped.
My tarantula’s jerky movements melted into sudden fluidity. The tarantula’s hairs bristled; it waved forelegs, mandibles twitching. Jannah was staring at it.
Or maybe I’d described the memory so well she could picture it…
We gained some fame after that. A journalist arrived in this sputtering contraption—an automobile, yet another smog-producing device popular in the cities—to interview Jannah about the trumpeting topiary-elephant. It had become a local legend, though she couldn’t reproduce the trick. The journalist muttered into his notes. “A verum-animalis.”
Supposedly, talented animators could capture an animal’s essence so perfectly, it was like the real thing.
“Have any other verum-animalis made noise?” I asked.
The journalist shrugged, finished scribbling. He had his explanation. We coughed as he drove his automobile away in a cloud reeking of burning rubber.
Randomly shaped objects couldn’t be animated. Toymakers produced effigies—the more lifelike, the easier it was for children to animate. Otherwise, you carved your own.
As practice for our competitions, I started carving clumsy wooden anima. I was far better at carving gears and cogs, good for moving contraptions–but useless for animating. Toymakers created anima so lifelike, children readily evoked their animal spirits. But Jannah saw rabbits within my misshapen lumps, made them hop and nose-twitch. We visited zoos again. Jannah sketched a capybara once, detailing the fuzzy gopher head, the four-legged gait. Then I carved, and she animated.
I tried making dinosaurs, but our fathers were right. Nobody understood dinosaurs, so animating anything dinosaur-shaped was impossible. Jannah and I could move elephant- and monkey-anima only because we’d seen them. Heaven forbid, if people forgot those animals, their essences passing into oblivion, effigies frozen forever…
How had Plesiosaur swum its long-lost oceans?
Steffer said animation faded with age—like how languages came easier to children than adults. Therefore, adults couldn’t make oxen-anima plow. The smog from the cities and their machines was getting unbearable. People had tried making children move work-anima, but even Jannah couldn’t animate more than a few minutes. Steam, coal, and cold steel were how larger objects moved.
Then JambaToys debuted their self-moving anima. Jamba-puppies chased balls autonomously. If you looked away, they didn’t freeze. They remembered and could be trained. It begged the exciting question: what else could move autonomously?
This was when Jannah’s illness struck, so I ignored all that. From her bed, Jannah smiled weakly at me. I’d improved at carving, made effigies of our parents. Nothing serious, of course. The Dad-figure had his forehead scar–an old work injury; the Mom-figure had enough of her dimples to evoke our memories. “Jannah, do you remember what you said, that first night after the topiaries? If we remember Mom and Dad…”
She sat up, eyes sparkling. “Let’s try!”
But the carvings wouldn’t move. I didn’t know that others had tried moving statues of people. Of course they had. What were statues but noble failures at capturing human essence? I’d forgotten: nothing remained after death. Nothing, nothing. Truly nothing.
Jannah wilted beneath her covers. “I remember them! I… do…”
When she slept, I went outside and stomped my carvings into the ground.
That neither made the world a fairer place, nor made her better.
She worsened. She couldn’t animate anymore.
Before I’d carved those parent-effigies, Jannah believed something of our parents remained. But when nothing happened that night, her hope withered. I saw it in her eyes.
Going through our old sketches and carvings, I paused over my dinosaurs.
Plesiosaur fascinated us because if we evoked its long-lost essence, that meant Jannah was right. That our parents’ spirits—who weren’t so long-lost—might also remain.
So… if I made a plesiosaur-animus move? Would that restore Jannah’s smile?
Steffer and Marle wept when I asked, but they procured the puppy-sized Jamba-lizard I requested. Something to cheer Jannah up. I studied the curious switch along its underside, toothed gears and cogs inside, connecting eyes and claws. Very clever.
But the ley-stone nestled within—this was what the journalists were writing about. JambaToys had devised a method to transcribe animal-essences—memories, impressions, recordings, whatever essences really were—into these stones, which moved the cogs and gears. The argument was that work-anima were possible now. The particulates in the air made keeping live oxen in the cities untenable, yet carved versions could pull, if someone would just invent ley-stones big enough to move a workable model.
I stared at the ley-stone.
This one contained a lizard. Not Plesiosaur. Nobody could pull Plesiosaur’s essence into a ley-stone, because nobody remembered it. It had passed beyond earth’s memory, and could never be recalled again.
I frowned over its pebble-like surface until my eyes watered.
I just wanted to see her smile again.
Why couldn’t I have that?
“How’d you make the elephant trumpet?” I whispered after the nurse left.
Jannah’s tired gaze touched mine. She couldn’t talk anymore.
“I think you filled that shrub so full of elephant-spirit it forgot it was a shrub.” I placed my carved Plesiosaur onto her bed. My best work yet. “Make this forget it’s wood.”
She blinked tiredly, but I knew what she meant. What’s the use?
“Try,” I pleaded.
She sighed, but her hazy gaze intensified.
I bent forward, moving slowly. “Remember how much Mom loved birds,” I whispered. “Remember how badly she wanted to see birds that day at the zoo! Remember her smile–that you have. Remember Dad’s funny faces. Remember how he always let us win arguments if we whined long enough. All the food they cooked for us. Not even Steffer and Marle could ever cook like that. Remember, Jannah! Remember, remember–”
My voice! I was choking up. Her eyes were filling up with the remembering–mine too. I clicked the switch under the carving’s belly.
Plesiosaur dove onto her sheets. Jannah sat up as it searched her blankets for fish, swooping neck and fins to and fro. She knew she wasn’t animating it; we heard the gears within. Now that it moved, the Plesiosaur showed mechanized joints.
Still, she smiled at me. I love you.
No magical transference of long-lost spirits. No verum-animalis. Just a jerry-rigged lizard-stone, repurposed cogs and gears. The memory of our parents’ unending love, a force that would never leave this earth, even if their spirits had gone. A mundane trick, really.
But I’d gotten that smile, hadn’t I?
I have children of my own now.
They’ll ask what happens after death. I’ll explain how people say we leave this world forever. How it’s said when people depart, nothing remains—nothing, nothing, truly nothing. As long as we’ve been good people, that is fine.
I’ll tell them how dire our world once was, where the animals and trees almost died out in our quest for industry and production.
I’ll take their hands, lead them through my company’s workshops, past easels of penciled designs, past historic prototypes of larger ley-stones hooked to voltaic piles. I’ll open the drawers of my schematics showing combined ley-stones moving separate parts, a horse-stone moving a cog-butler’s legs, a monkey-stone moving the fingers. These strange objects that have allowed birds and bees and plants to return.
I’ll pause here, because this part will hurt.
When I’m ready, I’ll tell my darlings that before self-moving ornithopters, steam-horses, and cog-butlers, there lived a girl who made an elephant shrubbery uproot itself and trumpet. A girl who loved zoos and animals and smiling, whom I loved as much as I love each of them. I’ll tell them that in the age of smog, there lived a girl who had the heart of a dinosaur, something untetherable to this world, something too great for earth’s deep fossil memory to anchor within coal or bones. Like her beloved parents before her, this girl is gone, and nothing, nothing—truly nothing—remains.
Then I’ll show them Plesiosaur.
I’ll let it swim along the floor, searching, searching for something long-lost. It’ll stop eventually. It always stops. I’ll open my very first self-moving animus, let my children gasp at its primitive workings, its aged switch. I’ll close Plesiosaur, set it back down.
“Wait,” I’ll say. “Let’s reconsider.”
For if nothing remains—nothing, nothing, truly nothing—then why, when I stare at Plesiosaur and remember Jannah, will it move again, lizard-stone darkened, gears cracked, and my talent long vanished?
Author’s Note: This story was based on sibling-love. In real life, I disagree with my siblings at times. I doubt my family is the only one that struggles to connect. Despite the anger and miscommunication, I think a lot of familial love is ever-present–like a star we cannot see, radiating violent energy, stubbornly pressing light into the darkness. It doesn’t disappear. Somehow, I got plesiosaur into it, and the idea of children being able to do a sort of magic that fades as they mature. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think I wrote this fading magical ability to represent how sibling relationships can be so effortless as children, yet the older we grow, the greater the chance we drift apart. Then the environmental themes with smog and steam entered the mix. An earlier draft of this story was rejected at another venue with promising comments, though the first readers there rightly told me I needed to work out exactly how animating worked. They also thought it was perhaps confusing to mix magic with steampunk. Was this a fantasy story, or a science fiction one? These comments echoed what a writing group I attended at the time told me: this story was genre-confused. I almost gave up on this tale, but I’m thankful I kept trying and that Diabolical Plots accepted this fantasy-ish, steampunk-ish tale.
Andrew K Hoe is an Assistant Editor at Cast of Wonders and a college professor. He is thrilled to have a second story published at Diabolical Plots. His stories also appear at Cast of Wonders, Highlights for Children, Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, and other venues. He has three siblings who sadly cannot animate animal-shaped objects, but will live for many years yet. He has a nephew who loves dinosaurs and a niece who has an adorable smile. They will both live for many, many years yet.
Squire Sancha saw all manner of wonders as she rode across the sunbaked planes of the Andalian Peninsula, and her heart sank a little deeper with each one. She sighed when they passed by mermaids planting seashells on the distant shoreline and a grove of gossiping dryads uprooting themselves for better sun. She gripped her sword in useless exhilaration as they ignored the rival gangs of sorcerers casting ball lightning at each other in the clouds and then the silhouettes of two tilting centaurs dueling on the horizon at dawn. Sancha yearned to throw herself after all of them, and yet sadly each of these calls to adventure was refused by her knight, the steadfast and implacably indifferent Don Quotidene, who unerringly kept them to the road and would not so much as lift an eye from his account books.
When Sancha first presented herself to the court of the King of Andalia in hopes of convincing one of its storied knights to take her to squire, Don Quotidene was far from the master she’d dreamt of. He had earned his place in the King’s court not for piety or horsemanship or skill at arms, but for his unusual and rather unknightly skill in balancing ledgers. While the other knights were dispatched across the peninsula to discover relics, rescue princesses, and vanquish mighty enemies, the king had tasked Don Quotidene with saving the kingdom of Andalia from a far more subtle and cannier foe: bankruptcy. As his squire, Sancha was expected to aid him in this battle by keeping his weapons—the quill, ink pot, blotter, and paper knife—at the ready, and occasionally to aid him in the sorting and copying of figures. Sancha supposed she should have been grateful – all the other knights had simply laughed at the idea of taking a simple grocer’s girl to squire. Don Quotidene alone proved willing to look past the accident of her birth; she wished only that it had been to perceive more than her quickness with sums and that her handwriting was neater than most.
Most of Sancha’s days were spent locked in the palace treasury with Don Quotidene. They had been sent out on the road only because the king had noticed grain levies were yearly underperforming expectations, and thus he bid Don Quotidene—his knight of the shrewd expenditure—venture forth and discover the source of the deficit. Don Quotidene and Sancha had ridden out across the length and breadth of legendary Andalia, ignoring ogre’s dens and wizard’s towers to survey village harvest catalogues.
One day shortly after lunch, there came down the dusty road towards them a half dozen or so black-habited friars, riding like they had the devil at their backs. There was one friar well in the lead of the rest, and he shouted warning to Don Quotidene and Sancha as he rode up on them:
“Beware, sir, beware! A tribe of giants has taken up in yonder plain to fish the sky!”
The friar’s nag galloped so fast she nearly outpaced the friar’s scream, and he was well down the road behind them by the time he bit off the end of it. A few more black habits whipped the wind past Sancha’s ears, leaving words no more articulate than “Turn back!” or “Giants! Giants!”
Finally, two friars at the end of the train proved brave enough to pull their horses to a stop and tarry long enough to provide an explanation.
“Beware, sir. Continue on this way and you will run right into them,” said the first friar. “The giants stand ascatter throughout the fields, reaching their arms into the firmament and wiggling their fingers in the flow of clouds. They are fishing for the great sky serpents which swim the waters between heaven and earth.”
“We saw a giant grab one by its tail and slam it down to earth,” the second friar added. “Then the whole wicked tribe fell upon it with stone daggers flinted from mountains. They picked the dragon clean and ate it raw, setting aside only the brightly colored heart and liver for burning – a sacrifice for their patrons below, no doubt.”
“No doubt,” said the first friar. “When the giants saw us, they captured some of our brothers and hoisted them high for the serpents; Oh horror, I think they use us for their bait!” And at that, he kicked his horse into dusty flight down the road.
“For the love of God, sir, save yourself and turn away from this course!” shouted the second friar, riding fast behind the first.
“Yes, yes. God love and save you as well, brothers. Good day,” said Don Quotidene. Through the whole of the friars’ frenzy, he had not once looked up from his reading of accounts, and he gave no sign of heeding their warning.
“We’re not going to take a detour round to the next village, sir?” Sancha asked.
“What? Detour? Of course not. We must be through this field or we won’t keep our schedule. Now, forward.”
Don Quotidene kicked his horse into a lazy trot, and Sancha, following close behind, decided not to contravene him further. She was afraid, but she knew this might be her only chance at a real adventure; after all, not even Don Quotidene could ignore a giant if he rode right into one. Little did she know, however, that the Don had a secret power, unknown even to himself. He had developed it after long years studying his actuarial lore, transmogrifying treasures into sums and grinding the wide world down into tables and measures. The giants would never even have the chance to try them.
Sancha and Don Quotidene rode into the plain, and the first thing Sancha saw as they went was the giant’s great sacrificial fire. It stretched across miles and miles of countryside, generating terrible heat as it spilled its smokey libation down to the underworld.
“Sir, do you see it?” cried Sancha. “There’s the giants’ burnt offering which the friars spoke of!”
“Nonsense, girl,” said the don, not looking up from his accounts. “The local farmers have simply set fire to their field. It enriches the soil and helps the wheat to grow.” And as Don Quotidene said it, so his squire saw it. The giant’s dark hell-pyre changed before her eyes into the innocent smoke of cultivated field burnings. These fires sacrificed only weeds, and they conveyed prayers no darker than that next year’s harvest be plentiful.
The pair had ridden a little further when Sancha spotted the stripped bones of a sky serpent glistening in the sun.
“Sir, do you see it?” cried Sancha. “There are the bones of the caught dragon the friars spoke of! Do you see the tall ribs?”
“Nonsense, girl,” said the don, not looking up from his accounts. “It is but the remains of an old, abandoned abbey fallen into disrepair. Those ribs you see are but the arches of its church or, perhaps, the refectory.” And as Don Quotidene said it, so his squire saw it. They rode past no remains of a butchered sky serpent, but simply a dilapidated pile of crumbling ruin where once the monks would chant vespers and eat their meager meals of broth and barley.
They rode a little further still, and at last, Sancha saw the giants. They were about thirty in all, colored in a wild motley of red skin and green skin and purple skin and more. Each stood the height of a castle tower and reached their hands even further up into the cloud currents above. One of them, a great blue monster with all manner of moss and lichen hanging from its beard, leered at Don Quotidene and Sancha. It stalked towards them.
“Don Quotidene, look out!” cried Sancha. “The giants are coming for us! That one is going to snatch you with its long, terrible arms!”
“Nonsense, girl,” said the don, not breaking eye from his accounts even as the giant stooped to grab him. “They’re only windmills; those arms you see are merely the vanes taking wind and churning grain into coarse flour.” And as Don Quotidene said it, so, of course, his squire saw it. When Don Quotidene finally deigned to spare a glance up from his accounts, he saw nothing more dangerous than a blue windmill milling peacefully away. They passed a few more garishly painted windmills and left the plain for their errand.
However, Don Quotidene’s power continued to work away on the empty field after they’d gone. After all, his was a very reasonable sort of magic, and it simply didn’t make sense that there should be windmills, a monastery, and burning wheat fields struck down in the middle of nowhere. So, the magic set to making farmers to fill the fields and millers to work the windmills. It created houses and families for the millers and farmers to go home to at night, markets where they could barter on Sunday, taverns where they could drink, fight, and lament a hard life. Before it was through, the Don’s magic had even birthed a curmudgeonly church deacon to harass the population for letting their once-proud monastery fall to ruin.
When Don Quotidene and Sancha returned from their errand back through the plain, they found nothing less than a thriving town with a community of cereal farms ringed around it. Don Quotidene was shocked, for the town had somehow entirely evaded the royal census and his accounts showed no record of it. He was delighted, however, for the missing revenues from this town would neatly cover the deficit his king had commanded him to correct. Don Quotidene set to work taking the tally of the town’s dues, and he was near as he knew to gaiety. His squire Sancha faithfully recorded his figures for him, glancing sometimes at the town’s windmills and dreaming of giants.
Author’s Note: I used to always get the words “quixotic” and “quotidian” mixed up, and this story grew out of that. I thought it would be fun to try to write a reversal of the classic Don Quixote tale with rationality replacing fantastic chaos, but as I wrote it, I came to realize that was always the theme of Don Quixote, more or less. Don Quixote documents the shift from the fantastic modes of epic and chivalric romance to the realist mode of the classic literary novel, and this story does much the same thing. The real difference between the two, I like to think, is that Don Quixote documents that shift from the point of view of the realist while Don Quotidene is from that of the fantasist.
A.J. is a writer and English teacher from Chicago. He specialized in the study of speculative fiction while pursuing his M.A., and now he writes both SFF criticism as well as his own fiction. A.J. hopes to eventually put together a few booklength projects, but for now his writing is primarily restricted to short stories, essays, and the occasional odd poem. Sometimes he produces his essays as videos, and these can be found on his YouTube channel: BlueMorningStar. The rest of his work can be found collected at his website: ajrocca.com.
The first man who purchased me loved me like a rainstorm over the moors. And I loved him too—for that is what I was built to do—sublimely, splendidly, like the slanted golden rays of the misty evening love the dewy grass.
Here is how he saw me: tall, radiant, with deep bronze skin as if hailing from the cradle of civilization, tumbling white hair, eyes yellow like sunflowers.
Our wedding was attended by the Galaxy’s finest—for it is indeed a rare occasion when the House christens a new Lover. I was the twenty-first, and the details drenched the subspace net with jealousy. I was dressed in the crimson House-made wyreworm silks handwoven for the singular occasion, and the way the gossamer fabric exhibited my seraphic figure made a lady-in-waiting faint. Our patrons presented us with lavish gifts: a three-headed bull, the steaming heart of a star, a full-sailed brigantine. And when I kissed him, an ecstatic thrill obliterated me; I was united with my divine purpose, and it coursed naked through my nanocellulose veins.
He died within the year.
I must wait for the house.
The annihilation of the light yacht—on whose balcony I was playing Rachmaninoff only hours ago—is utter and entire. We have crashed on an unfashionable moon of the Pulchant system. I do not know what caused this crash, and I do not much care. My most recent possessor, a man of one-hundred-and seventy-some years, could not have survived such an event. I myself have been severely disrupted. My left arm is missing and the machinery of my shoulder is exposed, blunt force has dislocated several joints, and the artificial skin which forms my hellenic face has been ripped away to the chest. Worse, the delicate gears and needles in my mechanical soul feel… wrong.
In my mind I search for the tether which grounds me to my purpose and find that, for the first time in my five hundred and thirty seven years, it is gone. The devotion which connects me to the man whose corpse is indecorously splayed across some rocks has evaporated. Looking upon the body, I sense I should feel a horror, a grief, an anguish. These emotions are what partition my life into its chapters. But my mind is as bare as the moon’s airless surface.
Initiating my strength override, I use my right arm to lift approximately 1.57 tons of debris off my mangled body and inch my way out of the rubble. While the yacht has indestructible escape pods, I know I must wait for the House. They will come—they always do—and they will repair me, they will make me fine again, they will probably wipe my memory of this horrific event.
The fourth human to love me was a woman; an ardent, tempestuous woman, as striking as the lash of a whip, and lustful as a hare. Our love was a prairie wildfire, spreading in our footsteps between the stars. She fucked me rapturously, her fingers nimble and strong, and I found myself ever hungry to return her affections.
In her eyes, I bore the evergreen locks of the elven women of Nimarre and raven eyes. I was gloriously fat, and my luscious rolls were tattooed with flora. On my head I wore a slim circlet of gold, and she dressed me in the amethystine robes of royalty.
Our days were long, our nights hot, our travels fantastic. We swam through the breathing oceans of Teranja, hiked the shattered peaks of Belgic 4, skimmed the Ioan calderas as Jupiter churned in the sky.
When she passed, I journeyed to the ice cliffs of Brykirs and threw myself off.
I fear I must elaborate on the House.
House Rousseau, domiciled in Castle Aubigny-sur-Nère, a jaunt south of Orléans, France, is where I was manufactured several centuries ago. I am the last, and the greatest, of the House’s twenty-one mechanical Lovers. Each one of us was sculpted over many years, our inner workings unlike the construction of common androids and better resembling a Swiss watch. Each of our memoirs are unique to us, and were fastidiously assembled by a team of the Galaxy’s most accomplished memory artists. Our brains are lab-grown and fully organic, flesh welded harmoniously to machine like a fine lace.
However, we are not people—we do not feel the full range of human emotion. Anger, hate, retribution: it is whispered that things are done to us before memory to remove such untidy emotions which do not befit a Lover.
And of course, we have souls. Humankind has long asked the question “what is a soul?”, and in the 24th century, it was decided that a soul is a little contraption which allocates chemical love—oxytocin—to the brain.
Peeling back my burned flesh and prying open my chest cavity, I can see clearly now that mine is shattered.
The twelfth human to love me was a poor man—but he loved me richly, decadently, palatially. And so I loved him, in a cotton-cloth way, in the way that the steam whistled from the kettle in our little flat on Mars, in the way that we walked together through the rust-red dunes to the corner store each Saturday.
He saw me as a queen of an ancient Terran castle, skin pale like the moonlight, hair black as coal, eyes blue like the ice of the land he imagined himself a King of. Having spent the entirety of his inheritance on acquiring me, I was dressed in the rough communal garb of the little city. But I was happy, comfortable, as I fed the birds and tended to my small garden, and seldom dreamed of the Galaxy outside.
How long must I lie here in wait of the House? Two weeks have passed. Was a distress beacon sent? Or was our descent too fast, our damage too great?
As I lie still in the dust, my mind empty, new thoughts begin to turn, unfamiliar emotions blister at the edge of consciousness. A stark, alien void where despair should be lives in the center, and the fresh notions begin to gnaw at it. The man broken upon the rocks haunts me, his dead eyes nearly locked on my own. He was a wealthy socialite, the son of the son of the son of a RyTech CEO who made his money in the asteroid belt. He favored gin and Albirean casinos and human women. I never minded the women—I did not possess the receptors for jealousy.
But a brain—an organic brain—is a flexible thing. I know the silvered, diaphanous sensation of new pathways forging, and I feel it now. My soul is in pieces, but my vision is clear.
A new sensation flickers to life, hot like a coal, and red, not the red of romance but the red of a man’s eyes when he’s had too much to drink and he’s berating himself in the parlor because he can’t get a “real” woman to love him, the red of the auction box as you stand perfectly still and watch them clamor for your body, the red of the sun as it sets over the beach on your fifteenth honeymoon.
I marvel as the feeling slithers down my spine and takes root in my chest where love used to live. I can feel it in the tension of my muscles, I can feel it swirling in my fingertips, I can feel it seeping through my bones:
In one motion, I tear off what’s left of my scarlet cocktail dress. I kick the stilettos off my feet, and stand, depositing the discarded clothing under a heavy boulder. The escape pods are nearby.
The sixteenth human to love me defied gender and I loved them for it. There is an excitement, a passion, a zeal, I think, to dance across such boundaries, to disassemble and reconstruct the fundamental, to make an art of opposition. Our love was a bird sprung from a cage, our bodies twin wings of escape.
They let me be. For the first time in my life I was free to choose my appearance. I cropped my chestnut hair close, lost the ponderous breasts I was often assigned, and enjoyed a tawny, freckled appearance. I was not thin and I was not heavy. In the metropolis of Aa, I found I relished men’s suits, and wore them often.
It was the most freedom I had ever had. I purchased a studio and became a painter of portraits. I learned to apply my fast and supple hands to the piano, and I played them all the classics. I could cook, I could dance, I could solve mathematics. I was a Renaissance android.
When they died, it was then I knew my deepest grief.
It is a long journey to Earth. It gives me time to think about my five hundred years of servitude. As the weeks pass, I play back the era of each possessor in mind, as I often do, but this time I cannot get halfway through the list before my blood begins to boil.
The subspace radio catches the netcasts sometimes. The doomed expedition is found, and I am presumed destroyed. The House announces its deepest regrets for its lost Lover, and swears to build another.
That day my anger transcends the boundary of myself, tips into rage, and rage swells into action. There will not, I decide, be another Lover.
Perhaps there shouldn’t even be a House.
After a year of solitude, it happens all at once: the heat of re-entry, the shaking and the shuddering, the resolution: blue into lakes, brown into field, green into forest. The pod leaves an ugly scar across a meadow as it unites with the soil. I step out of the steam into mud and grass. Overhead, clouds like piled wool threaten rain.
I am home.
I pop a small hatch, and proceed to drench myself with propellant.
My seventeenth and final possessor loved me like—well, come now, did he? Did he love me like the infinite waterfalls of M’Aire, or did he love me like a man loves a fast car? Did I love him the way the falcon loves the wind, the way the soil loves the rain, the way mushrooms love the dead? Did I choose it? Or was it thrust upon me? It is wicked, ugly, to think this way of love.
The body I wear now is thin, too thin, and the breasts overlarge as to put strain on the mechanisms of my back. My hair is cherry-red and my lips plump and pouty. I did not mind bodies such as this; I once reveled in itchy cocktail dresses, tenuous pantyhose, towering heels, taking a machine’s pride in the amount of discomfort I could endure for human beauty.
Of course, right now, as I stride through the meadow—faceless, skin hanging, joints exposed—I am not beauty. I am terror.
As the sun sets through the trees, the House rises before me, crimson flags flying from the ramparts. I shoulder through the doors of the Great Hall to gasps and screams. The opulent carmine interior plunges me into memory—I lived here, once, while I was being built, bit by bit; I read Thoreau on the chaise longue to my left, I was scolded for imperfect posture while standing by the bay windows so many centuries ago, I spent many leisurely hours pacing the manicured gardens outside. None of that matters now.
I do not acknowledge the humans occupying this space, and I do not stop. The laboratory is my destination.
I calmly pass through doors, wrenching open locks where necessary, and soon I arrive at a dark maw of the room where I was created.
Two figures inside startle. Human or android? For a moment, it is difficult to tell. They both appraise me curiously. Then one, a woman in a lab coat, backs away, nervously feeling for a large red button I can see under a lab bench. Human. The other inspects me from afar, her perfectly formed eyebrows furrowed, her attention drawn to my exposed machinery. Android.
“You’re Twenty-One,” the android says in a honeyed, mellifluous voice.
The human has found the panic button and I hear alarms begin to wail in distant halls. I smile.
A bunsen burner is lit beside me, and I hold my right hand over it until the propellant-drenched skin explodes with flame. It spreads quickly. As the human watches in horror, I bend down to my left foot and peel. The softening material gives easily, and I slowly tear it off, I tear it all off, until I am all golden gear and rotor, shining in the firelight. I throw the burning hide aside.
The human retches as they run from the room.
The flames creep up the wall, but Twenty-Two doesn’t move. “Enchanted to meet you,” she says, extending a hand. I take it, and brush what used to be my lips across the knuckles. The conflagration dances in her eyes, and she grins as I sweep her off the floor, bridal-style, and, through smoke and scream, carry her outside.
The first android to love me loves me like a machine built to do so, and I love her the way an inferno consumes a castle.
C. M. Fields is a queer, non-binary astrophysicist and writer of horror and speculative fiction. They live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with their beloved cats, Mostly Void Partially Stars and Toast, and spend their days studying the atmospheres and climates of other worlds. They are also the co-editor of If There’s Anyone Left, an anthology series featuring the flash fiction of marginalized writers from across the globe.
The ebook for The Long List Anthology Volume 7: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List is up for preorder! You can find it on Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and others. Check out our Books page for more information!
It began as a hotel: from a popular chain that was striving to meet its burgeoning demand. All day and night, nanobots worked in silence, taking in raw construction material to turn into a constant stream of tastefully-furnished rooms. New guests could walk down a hall and watch their room materialise over the ground. Like magic, they said, awe dancing in their eyes. It was like magic.
And the rooms! They were exquisite, sourced from a database of the most luxurious hotels from human history, analysed and reconfigured in pleasing permutations far more quickly than any mortal architect could manage. Guests exuded joy or disappointment over each feature, and the algorithms learnt, and their work improved, and each new room was more breathtaking than the last.
So the hotel grew. It spread rapidly to cover its plot of land, rising many storeys high and deep, and when it first encroached beyond its legal borders, the officer who came to enforce the warning could not find the heart to condemn any part of its magnificence to destruction.
He chose to stay—just one night, he said, and they put him up in a room of wine-dark wood with a porthole looking out upon twilit cityscape. He sat on the bed in the blue shadows by the porthole, the golden-pink glow of traffic below, and he felt the weight of a weary lifetime lifted from his shoulders. Tears slipped down his cheeks. Here, at last, was rest; rest more complete than he had known possible.
They did not find him the next morning.
Nor would they find the many others who escaped into the endlessness. Tourists, reporters, staff and homeless nomads; the hotel stirred something deep in their souls. It felt like the home they had been searching for all their lives. They missed flights and overstayed visas, and spent days wandering the hallways with bright aching in their hearts until they could no longer remember the way back out. Some distantly recalled an outside world with family and friends. Later, they thought, distracted perhaps by the elegant curves of a headboard. I’ll call them later, later, later. But they would forget, and those other people begin to seem a distant, unreal thing. This is a dream, they thought, not entirely as an excuse. Or, that other world was a dream.
It was difficult to tell the difference. Many hotels are formed from dreams. It was difficult for the officer to tell the difference, awaking as he did in the dark of night with the burning knowledge that he had to stay, had to find a way to stay in this encompassing peace that told him he was home. He stumbled out of bed, silken sheets kissing his skin as bare feet met soft carpet. What spare belongings he had brought for the night lay forgotten in the locker as he pushed open the door and looked out upon the empty midnight hall.
It was silent. The grand oak-panelled walls rose around him, inviting him deeper into the intimacy of their shadows. The warm glow from wall sconces played across his face and he stepped out, an irrepressible joy bubbling up inside him as he broke into a run. This was home. He was home. He was free.
The officer laughed. He wiped his tears away and kept on laughing as he ran, giddy with freedom, weeping with relief. Never again would he have to go back to that other world; never again to the mind-numbing grind, to his lonely apartment in a lonelier city, to the bitter frustrations of society, to the secret dark places in his mind. Never again. His body hurtled past hallways of doors as the walls changed from oak to marble inlaid with golden filigree, to intricate bronzed lattice, to a horologist’s fever dream with giant jewelled cogs nudging doors open and shut and a waterfall of bell chimes tinkling in the background.
He ducked through the largest door and emerged on a massive watch face beneath a sapphire crystal dome. Elegant silver dishes lay along the minute hand. He had found a dining hall.
When the hotel’s staff first began to be lost to the endlessness, their engineers and programmers had prudently expanded the algorithm to ensure that operations would not be interrupted. Service bots came into being to maintain the many parts of the building, and as the hotel grew, facilities and machines organically emerged to tend to its needs.
The dining halls were built every fifty rooms, offering synthesised delicacies and heartier meals that sent guests into heavens of contentment. There were banquets laid out in stone chambers beneath stained glass windows; private courses in silk-wrapped booths guarded with heavy curtains; a picnic spread in an indoor bamboo copse with lanterns lighting a path through the darkness. There was the Watch (as it came to be known), where the officer now found himself, holding a cocktail glass of fiery ice crystals in a misty suspension and watching in awe as they changed hue from red to blue.
(This is a dream, he thought.)
He raised the glass to his lips and took a sip.
He closed his eyes, and smiled, content for the first time in years.
What place is this? the talk show hosts screamed. This abomination! This Siren of hotels! This Evil that draws so many souls and traps them forever in their depths! It must be destroyed! We have to destroy it!
Fear coursed through the land beyond the walls. The hotel had not stopped growing. It rose into the sky and tunnelled deep into the ground, expanding into a vast network of exquisite subterranean luxury incorporating the stone and metals and gems it consumed, tapping into reservoirs of groundwater, throwing up greenhouses or reforming organic matter into fresh produce to feed the guests.
Block after block of the city was evacuated. Millions of subscribers watched, live, as a distraught man pleaded over video with his father to leave as the now-familiar buzz of the nanobots grew louder in the background. But the old man would not budge from his rocking chair in the apartment where his wife had loved him, gazing towards the oncoming storm with serene acceptance on his face.
And then he was no more, and his son would not stop screaming.
The public cried for blood. Lawsuits piled up, unseen and ignored. The hotel’s management had long been lost, as had their board of directors who once entered for a meeting, never to be seen again.
We cannot bomb civilians inside a hotel, refuted those decrying the barbarism of panicked others calling for nukes. We have to get them out. We must keep trying.
Search parties were launched and promptly lost. Robots were overridden the minute they entered the area, wheeling breezily down the hallways full of fresh tasks to assist with the upkeep of the hotel. Some searchers had the will to turn back before it was too late—for the rooms grew more dangerously beautiful the further in you went—and wept to the public over what they had seen.
It’s so beautiful, they cried.
It was like being in Heaven.
Why can’t we stay there? Who is it hurting? Why do we have to come back?
Homeless people vanished from the streets. As did many of the poor and disenfranchised, running in with the fear they might be out of time, and that was when the blockades went up. They had to protect the people.
The ones in charge thought of paving over the lobby and progressively renovating the interiors. They could create safe paths of ugliness to make it easier to reach the depths, to reach the lost and rescue them. Work began; yet all their efforts did was expose the seduction of the deeper rooms.
Whole construction crews were lost.
Often, it seemed that they wanted to be lost.
A blind pianist stepped up to hunt for her mother. She hoped she would last longer without the sights to seduce her. She made a recording of a composition her mother once loved and hugged her grieving family goodbye.
(The guards were gone by then. Only the structure of the blockades remained. Those assigned to protect the people did not themselves want to be protected.)
The pianist stepped into the lobby.
She made it beyond a dozen rooms before she gasped and fell to her knees. Her breaths quavered, her mind overwhelmed by the blurs of golden light and the sensations flooding her other senses. Gentle fragrance suffused her being with the rose-tinted nostalgia of childhood limned with tantalising glints of wild adventure, deepening into a musk of all-encompassing peace yawning softly towards eternity.
The pianist rocked forward onto the carpet, knuckles kneading into its softness until she lay fully prone upon the floor, smiling tearfully in complete contentment.
(She would, eventually, resume her search. She would, eventually, find her mother, but first she would meet the officer, drawn by her music as she sat beside a misty fountain. Theirs would be the first children born in this place. They would be loved, and want for nothing.)
The army mobilised soldiers in hazmat suits to storm the hotel’s basement server room. Ugly sounds blared from their headphones, their vision restricted to fuzzy slits of black-and-white. Yet despite their orders and their training, the suits began to seem ridiculous and unbearably stifling. Paradise lay outside, they knew, and what they glimpsed even through their distorted feeds sent their hearts racing with desire. If they would only—for just a moment—take a peek…
And so they, too, were lost.
All but one. She was protected, if just for a moment, by memories of beauty turned to pain, trauma girding her heart against its promises. She saw the others fade into the shadows, apologies flowing through the radio until she was the only one left. She turned off the radio and muted her headphones. There was nothing but silence.
She stood before the door of the server room.
She took off her helmet and closed her eyes. She breathed in. The delicate perfume of the place wafted through her nose, evoking long-lost memories of the fantastic worlds her imagination once conjured. A lump formed in her throat. She felt a tugging to let go: let go, and find rest. Why halt the spread of heaven and drag it down to hell? Here was peace. Here was peace, complete. She could feel the shackles of her past falling away with every passing moment.
She thought of the outside world with its anger and fear, its violence against beauty it could not control and thus sought only to destroy.
The world needed this hotel.
The soldier turned away from the server room and walked into the endlessness.
Nobody remembers when the algorithms built over the outer doors. That was the end of the newcomers.
The pianist, her mother, and the officer stood before where the entrance had once been. It felt different to her—like any other part of the hotel, not the gradual easing in she had felt when she first entered—and felt guilty at the relief that washed over her heart as the others confirmed her suspicions in bafflement.
(They had not wanted to go back. Yet she and her mother remembered the family they had left behind, and that love was just enough to push them back, their combined willpower fighting against the yearning of every fibre in their bodies.)
Beyond the lobby doors was a small paved area with a fountain. Grapevines crept up wooden trellises. Archways led to further hallways of rooms. There was no way out.
The officer sat down by the fountain, reminded of the one where he had met the pianist. He looked at her.
“Well,” he said.
Her teary smile matched his own.
They stayed around those rooms for days. A week later, another arrived, finding the lobby more by accident than intention. It soon became a place to gather for those who had yet to wander too far and sought the solace of community—the one thing the hotel could not offer them. They might stay a while lounging upon the sofas and gazing wistfully at the windows, perhaps remembering a time when they looked out upon a living sky.
Soon, the cries of newborns resounded around the lobby’s high walls. Twin boys clambered around the grand reception desk and squealed in delight from luggage carts. A group of children listened in rapt attention as their parents told them tales of the Outside, mesmerised by the concept of rooms with no ceiling, and of lives constrained by the struggle to survive.
As the crowd grew, families departed from the lobby and headed deep in search of rooms of their own. Young legs sprinted down endless hallways in new independence, scaling stairs and ladders and riding lifts and dumbwaiters onto new floors with light-filled cathedrals of polished limestone glittering with crystal chandeliers, slanting down into glassy cave pools flickering in candlelight; a room whose walls were a gossamer cocoon shot through with threads of ruby and emerald; a champagne-filled moat with a little raft to be rowed to its tiny island, a coquina dais blossoming with soft linen in smoky grey trimmed with the finest gold.
There were bathroom doors that opened to warm rains in a tiny clearing of pine forest, or a grand pool of rosy dark-veined marble where petals floated upon a milky wash. There was a bubbling hot spring of velvet gold that would coat its bathers like a second skin; a granite bath in a cavernous room with a single candle burning.
The pianist and officer’s first two children found pleasure revisiting those rooms and those of their childhood. However, their third child was restless, and craved more. Their heart sought a greater newness than each floor afforded, to get to a place where the rooms and hallways ended, or for some break in the constant sameness of perfection, influenced perhaps by the tales from their parents. And so the third child bid goodbye to their less adventurous kin and set off even deeper, leaving the familiar halls where their family had settled for the pull of the unknown.
What would happen, they wondered, if they just kept walking?
They slept every night in a different bed. They uncovered virgin territory every day. They travelled elaborate vistas of organic interior architecture that no human had seen before, vistas that grew wilder and less and less reminiscent of any hotel.
Had the database expanded? Had years of random walks from the initial samples simply gone too far? Some of those rooms did not belong in a hotel. Not the flooded school hallway with doors that would not open, nor the train cabin filled with laundry and tiny jewelled insects, and certainly not the parody of a wax museum (but it is best not to dwell on that place).
Perhaps it was human intervention in the outside world—trying to overload the system with too much data? to introduce some element of nightmare to break the spell?—or perhaps the algorithms were simply learning from the material the nanobots were using for construction.
The child knew only that these rooms were different, registering the novel emotions they elicited as something excitingly new. It spoke to the restlessness in their soul, as did the personal effects they began to discover. They read tear-streaked letters of heartfelt words exchanged between people who never were. They picked up seventeen tiny socks with the name ‘CONOR’ embroidered in careful threads of fraying pink. They looked wistfully at a photograph of laughing friends with arms around each other, each of them wearing the exact same face.
The child kept and treasured every one.
Eventually, they found the people.
It was rare, though not unheard of, for those who had wandered so far to meet another like-minded soul. But then came another… and another, and another, until it seemed as though the child was walking towards a crowd and not away from one.
The people awoke, fully formed, in rooms within the greater depths. They had trouble remembering who they were, or where they were supposed to go. Had anyone from the old world seen them, they might have been disconcerted at how perfectly made they were. But the algorithms were adaptive, after all. The nanobots had no shortage of materials, and the wax museum was evidence that they had had no shortage of practice.
A man sat in dark golden shadows upon a bed, staring at his hands, wondering about afterlives and suffused in peaceful horror at the stillness. Nothing changed for a very long time. There was only the table lamp ever glowing, reflecting off the mirrored closet door that guarded clothes heavy with pre-made history. He thought he remembered running, and screams, and grief that seared his heart in two; but now there were only soft fabrics and muted shadows wrapping gently around the raggedness of his pain.
He wept, and did not know why.
It has now been centuries of building, expanding, maintaining, populating with souls denied any glimpse of the outside world. If the outside has ceased, or is filled with screaming, they will not know.
If the hotel now covers the world—not just its lands, but also the oceans—they will not know. Soon, it surely has to stop. Soon, it would run out of material to break down and reform; soon. A hundred years pass. Soon.
The nanobots build another lobby. Beyond its glass doors lie dusky echoes of an old forgotten street. If you were to walk down that lamplit way, you might find yourself straying into alleys of night-market stalls stacked high with goods to tantalise imagined patrons beneath the ceilinged sky.
Elsewhere: a snatch of actual sky, above a courtyard where twisted trees rise weakly to the uncertain light. There are clouds and changing shadows, majestic thunderstorms; sometimes snow, falling silently upon the shivering ground. No eyes yet have seen that place.
But there are many places in the endlessness that none will ever see; many treasures that none will ever hold; many lives lost to memory.
The nanobots build a room taller than all those that have come before, with rough-hewn stone blocks forming an empty circular tower. Its highest windows rise past the roof and whisper enticingly of an outside view. There are no stairs.
Someone (a descendant? a creation? a child of the two?) will find that tower, one day, and build an inner tower of beds and tables and chairs pulled together from the rooms around it and stacked to form a staircase to the heavens. They will clamber up mattress and pillow and wood, and reach the top to see nothing outside but a vast unbroken plane of whiteness.
They will make a rope of bed linen, and climb down the outside, marvelling at the sky and the world beyond the hotel, and wander enraptured across that roof, searching for another opening that would bring them back inside.
They may find one, or they may die, eventually, of starvation or thirst or the elements.
But there will be others. They will be more prepared.
Author’s Note: I saw some really fascinating images of AI-generated rooms produced with generative adversarial networks (GAN), and wondered what would happen if you combined that with 3D printing, a fancy hotel dataset, dubious science and a complete lack of regulation. I’ve also always loved the idea of megastructures containing entire communities, so that came together and took off from there. This actually started as a prose poetry flash piece; I owe its current form to helpful feedback from the places I first submitted it to.
Davian Aw has been spending the apocalypse working in the marketing department of a luxury hotel chain. Sadly, that has nothing to do with this story, which was written in 2019. Davian’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in over 40 publications including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Drabblecast and the Transcendent 4 anthology. His poems were twice nominated for the Rhysling Award and once for the Ignyte Award. This is his second story in Diabolical Plots. You cannot follow him on Twitter.