BOOK REVIEW: Patternmaster by Octavia Butler

written by David Steffen

Patternmaster is a 1976 science fiction novel by Octavia Butler, first book in the publication order of the Patternist series, and the final book chronologically in the storyline.

The story takes place in a distant future where the two dominant groups of humanity are the Patternists (powerful networked telepaths that are the result of selective breeding for telepathic traits) and the clayarks (semi-human creatures created by mutated human DNA altered by an alien plague). The Patternists have long been the dominant group, with their powerful telepathic, telekinetic, and healing abilities (with individuals being stronger at certain abilities), and the clayarks mostly living as roving bands with stolen weapons in the wilderness between defended compounds.

But the order of everything is in jeopardy as the Patternmaster, the most powerful telepath who ties all the rest together, may not have long to live. The clayarks seem to sense the uncertainty and seem to be massing for greater attacks.

The protagonist of the novel is Teray, one of the children of Rayal. With the upcoming succession, assumptions and understanding about the existing order no longer stand and Teray finds himself just trying to find a place to stand in the world that seems to be shifting all around him.

This is the chronological conclusion that the rest of the series was backstory to. Wild Seed is still my favorite but I can see why this spawned the rest of the series–political intrigue between powerful telepaths and their powerful enemies. Well worth a read!

DP FICTION #60A: “Invasion of the Water Towers” by R.D. Landau

The water towers never showed up on film. That should have been a sign. In the before times, there were water towers on every rooftop. They were highly visible, distinct from the rest of the landscape, cylindrical bodies with conical heads and long spindly legs. Maybe if we hadn’t been so busy whining about work and finding the perfect brand of deodorant and wondering if that cute barista was flirting with us (They weren’t. It is literally their job to smile and draw hearts in foam and have perfect hair. We as a society need to get over ourselves) we would have asked ourselves why the water towers didn’t want us to see them represented in the movies. Maybe if we hadn’t sharpened those not-thinking skills by not thinking about global warming and drone strikes and the asbestos in the ceiling that coated our hair like dandruff, we would have asked the right questions before it was too late.

Three days before the invasion, my barista, Zed (not the barista I mentioned earlier, that was a hypothetical barista and anyways, their eyes are way too green, like who has eyes that green, it’s obviously colored contact lenses and I could never date someone who puts colored pieces of plastic in front of their eyes) said, “I think the water tower on my building moved last night.” 

“Oh really?” I said, my pulse beating at a normal tempo for a pulse to beat.

On the day of the invasion, I was waiting for Zed to turn around so I could put milk and sugar in my coffee, when the radio cut off the Inoffensive Station suddenly: “We interrupt this regularly scheduled broadcast to report that the water towers are moving. We do not know what they are, where they came from or what their intentions may be. All citizens of New York and New Jersey are required to stay indoors.”

We all checked Twitter, desperate for more news, but the water towers had destroyed the internet. Stripped of our dignity and our Wi-Fi, we sipped in stunned silence until Zed said, “free drinks for anyone who helps barricade the doors,” in a voice so confident and commanding and melodious and mellifluous and pleasing, that everyone obeyed instantly. We hauled tables and chairs and sacks of beans against the door.

Then a water tower shuffled past. I could see its long spindly legs through the advertisements for Basilisk Frappuccino that covered the window. Zed held a chair out legs first as a weapon. The other barista thrust a customer in front of him as a shield. I did… something badass and heroic. But the water tower passed us by, paying no attention. Afterwards, everyone sat on the floor drinking caffeine because what we really needed during an alien invasion was a faster heart rate.

“I thank you, fine purveyor of caffeine,” I told Zed, who was leaning on the counter, exhausted.

“Thanks,” said Zed with a tired smile that did not make me imagine massaging their shoulder blades while they lay naked in a bed of coffee grounds. 

After the water towers seized control of the banks, the city government and the bagel shops in that order (according to the radio which might have been controlled by the water towers), after we huddled in the Starbucks for 72 hours, living off soymilk and increasingly stale lemon poppy seed muffins, after we cried and wet our pants and said our prayers (we meaning everyone but me – my pants and eyes stayed dry), after we gave up hope of seeing our families or our friends or our safety-code-violating apartments ever again, we ran out of food. Various solutions were proposed: cannibalism, shoe-eating, waiting for the government to save us. While we voted, the other barista chewed on an elderly customer’s hair.

“STOP,” said Zed, in a booming voice like a sexy sea captain. “It’s way too early to turn to cannibalism.”

“Hair is dead cells,” said the other barista. “So it isn’t technically cannibalism.”

“We have to go out and get food,” said Zed. 

The (probably-water-tower-controlled) radio had warned us that if we went outside, we would be captured by the water towers. Rumor had it that the water towers drank their prisoners. So everyone avoided eye contact with the same intensity as when an accordion player asks for money on the subway (everyone including me.) 

Zed sighed. “I’ll go alone then.” They removed the barricades, while the rest of us huddled in a pile on the opposite corner. They opened the door.

A water tower crawled in, then a second, then a third.

“We have come for the coffee,” said the water tower.

Zed brandished the blade of a dismantled coffee grinder. “We can’t let them take our coffee! Who’s with me?”

No one said anything.

The three water towers surrounded Zed, sloshing angrily. “You will make us coffee, or you will be eliminated.”

Zed was beautiful and flawless and perfect in every way but they were only a barista. What good is a barista against a water tower?

“What can I get for you?” said Zed.


© 2019 by R.D. Landau

R.D. Landau recently fled New York. Her work has appeared in Star 82 Review, Heavy Feather Review and tl;dr among others. Her hobbies include watching musicals, making truffles and hiding under the bed. 


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DP FICTION #50B: “One Part Per Billion” by Samantha Mills

There were already two Irene Boswells onboard and a third in the making.

Radiation poured out of the Omaha Device in an endless stream of buttery yellow light, and Irene (the Irene in the containment room) knew they were doomed. But she slapped patch after patch over the ruinous crack in the device’s shell because she hadn’t come twenty billion miles to sit and wait for death.

Huang’s voice came through over the intercom, tinny with horror. “Your hair,” he said.

It was on fire, or close enough. The strange light lifted it away from her face in a rippling wave. The ends were burning down like the fuses of a hundred thousand bombs. Her arms were smooth and hairless, her face the same.

“Just tell me what to do next,” she said.

There were no more patches in the kit. A six inch gap remained in the smooth white shell but it may as well have been a mile long. The Omaha Device just sat there, as unyielding and enigmatic as a ceramic tortoise, and still that noxious light poured forth. Irene squinted but she couldn’t see past the light, she couldn’t see what was inside. Dammit, if she was going to die today she wanted to know what she was dying for.

But Huang was telling her to get to the controls, just rip off the back panel and do what I say, and Irene wasn’t about to argue because he was the computer specialist, wasn’t he? He stood on the outside of the containment room with his palms pressed flat to the glass. Begging.

She tore herself from the toxic mystery and dropped to her knees beside the control panel. She was sweating and starting to shake, and it took three tries to wrestle the slick casing open. What she found inside looked more like an engine than a computer, full of pipes and valves and a cooling unit that had seen better days.

At Huang’s urging, she tore open the manual that was chained to the device. She had nothing but a wrench and a screwdriver sealed in the room with her, and as she skimmed the first elaborate diagram she didn’t think they’d do the job.

It was selfish to wish she had stayed in navigation. If she had, there would be somebody else trapped here instead.

She hadn’t abandoned her post though, not really, because the other Irene was still at the wheel (well, the console), and just thinking about that other Irene made her hands shake worse.

It wasn’t right, it wasn’t natural, it was a mistake.

At the other end of the ship, in navigation, Irene looked over the ship’s readings, and they didn’t make a bit of sense. The ship was accelerating, but it wasn’t changing position. Bandile was in the room with her, a stun gun aimed loosely in her direction, but he didn’t have the nerve to take her down. Her mind began to wander. Her thoughts flitted back and forth to the containment room, where a computer like an engine was coming apart under her hands. She jerked free of it. It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her responsibility.

Because honestly? Irene had really wanted to be a dancer, if only she hadn’t sprained her knee so badly in tenth grade—and it was entirely possible her parents had lied when they said the injury was fatal to her aspirations. They’d always wanted their kids to pursue a STEM career.

Funnily enough, the knee hadn’t bothered her one bit during mission training.

This Irene had always resented being funneled into the sciences. It was the other Irene who had embraced her studies wholeheartedly. It was the other Irene’s fault they were both here.

*

First, there was a spaceship. A rather large and complex spaceship (because how else are you going to travel that far?) built precisely for eight crewmembers.

Three were Americans, because the message was received in Nebraska of all places, and the remaining five were representatives from around the world, because the message specified ambassadors of genetic and cultural diversity—and also because let’s face it, this sort of mission was mind-bogglingly expensive, and anyone with a checkbook was invited to try out.

The other delegates included: a Russian man, a Chinese man, an Italian man, a South African man, and a man from South America (let’s say…Brazil).

There was also a girl (because there is always one girl). She was one of the Americans. She was technically the navigator, because everyone had to fill a role, but for the purpose of the mission she was also the anatomical female. One uterus, two ovaries, check.

So, first, there was a spaceship. Well, first there were plans for a spaceship, and they fell from the sky in northern Nebraska, attached to a device that resembled a ceramic tortoise. There was quite the welcome party there, full of scientific and military personnel, because an interplanetary correspondence had been going on for decades, and this was their first tangible gift from space. They knew what it was supposed to be, but it could have been an elaborate Trojan horse instead.

It wasn’t.

The ship was another ten years in the making, which wasn’t bad all things considered. It gave the entire world time to agonize over the selection of a crew. After all, the ship was only designed to carry eight. Who was qualified to represent Earth in the first face-to-face meeting with their distant friends?

*

The alien light flowed through Irene and tugged strands from her hair, her memories, her thoughts, her DNA. The Omaha Device was still desperately trying to process and package, to collate and collect. It bled radiation and took in great gasping gulps of Irene Boswell.

Her fingers reddened and blistered from the heat of the wires, but she didn’t have any pliers and Huang was insisting that control had to be transferred out of the room now, right now, no time to let the equipment cool even if they could risk going to standby.

“You have to hurry,” said Huang.

And Irene screamed, “Tell him to stop looking at me!”

On the other side of the glass, a man lay trussed on the ground, his head and shoulders twisted in her direction. His eyes bulged in their sockets. A shadow covered half his face, contracting and contorting with the soundless yammering of his jaw. His name was Michael—or Miguel, or Mikhail, depending on which country he was from. That wasn’t important.

Mi/gu/ail lost it, plain and simple. He couldn’t handle the dreams being tugged like loose threads from his brain every night. He couldn’t handle the theory tentatively formulated by their own computer—the computer they kludged into the alien system out of nervousness, suspicion, unwillingness to rely entirely on alien design. The mission probably would have gone a lot better if they hadn’t tried to guess what it was doing.

They found him attacking the Omaha Device with a wrench. Huang and Parker dragged him from the room, but Irene was still inside when the casing cracked. She should have been in navigation, but she’d answered the distress call, and now she was trapped.

Irene felt herself splitting again. She shut her eyes, her mouth, her fists. She held her breath and clamped her thighs. But the pull was relentless. It scanned the heart of her and jotted her down in ones and zeroes or whatever the aliens used. It should have only filed the information away for future reference, but that idiot had broken the storage unit. Now there was a big fat crack in the tortoise leaking bits of crewmember, and Irene was splitting again.

For a moment there were four hands fisted in the wires, and then there were two.

Down in the sleep deck of the ship, another girl appeared. A full-figured shadow girl named Irene Boswell. This Irene resented each and every one of the crew. For two months she had put up with their pet peeves and their bad jokes and their bravado masking fear. They were friends and colleagues, but if she never saw a single one of their faces again she’d be gladder for it. She was sick of this crew and sick of this mission and sick of this ship.

Irene ran to the nearest communication panel and ripped it from the wall. She liked the way the wires snapped in her grip. She set off to tear something else apart.

*

Before they became a crew, they spent years trying to destroy one another.

Eight thousand candidates whittled down to eight hundred whittled down to eight dozen whittled down to eight. A ludicrously small crew, but the message said eight would go, and eight would be sampled, and it would all be perfectly safe.

In theory they were all jockeying equally for a slot, but everyone knew how the selection would shake out. The Chinese candidates were competing with the Chinese candidates (and several other Asian nations, but it was always going to be China). The Europeans were competing with the other Europeans. Africa and South America were probably lucky they snagged one spot apiece. If there had been a more genuine commitment to representing the world then the Middle East should have been there, but the Americans got greedy in the end and held three spots for themselves. Nebraska, remember?

And within and across these continental divides, all of the women eyed one another sidelong, because in addition to their national colleagues they were also competing with each another. A thousand voices insisted, “I am unlike the rest of these women. I am the best of us.” And maybe some of them felt a nagging guilt, because it seemed a shame to earn her place among the men by trashing the qualifications of the other women, but let’s be real. There were only going to be eight spots, and in all likelihood only one would go to a woman, and goddamn if any of them came this far to see it go to someone else.

When Irene Boswell was named navigator at the final roll call, she wanted to cry with joy, but she kept it contained because she had spent a great deal of time proving her emotional unflappability to the psych evaluator. Several of the men smiled and let the tears roll happily down their cheeks, but that was all right.

That was different.

The psych team was meant to reject the worst and prepare the best, but stress did amazing things to the brain, and long-term voyages had a way of amplifying hidden qualities. Somehow, no matter what you did, you always ended up with a hothead, a depressive, a workaholic, and that one guy who totally buckled under the pressure.

*

The ventilation system couldn’t keep up. The walls of the containment room flickered and groaned. Red lights strobed and klaxons wailed. The ship was breaking, breaking, breaking.

More of them stood outside the glass now: Huang and Parker and Freddie. Even Bandile had come up from navigation. They had nowhere else to go. Either Irene neutralized the device, or the walls shattered and they all broke apart beneath the accelerated effects of the Omaha Device.

Irene slammed her bloody fists against the glass. She said, “You have to get me another patch kit.”

At least, that’s what she thought she said. Her lips were numb and her words came out garbled, but she was still lucid, dammit, she knew what needed to be done. Huang stood by the outer door, shaking his head.

“The inner door’s breached,” he said. “We can’t use the airlock.”

In the navigation room, Irene danced beneath the strobe lights. She rose slowly on her toes and then down again, in lithe stretches and remembered turns. There was not one twinge of pain in her knee, Mother. Her eyes drifted shut. She extended her arms and twirled. The klaxons faded to background noise and she danced for the young woman she’d once been.

In the sleep deck, another Irene ripped photos off the walls of her crewmates’ bunks. She was a furious shadow girl screaming louder than the ship itself. Parker’s reading tablet: smashed. Freddie’s ukulele: oh, definitely smashed. The floor filled with debris, pictures and letters and electronics in a thousand pieces, and each piece was a tiny kernel of her pent-up fury, the inevitable explosion of the perfectionist pursuing an impossible goal.

In the kitchen, yet another Irene flickered ghostly and half-formed on the floor. She pulled her knees to her chest and cried and cried and cried. Her armor had cracked, as surely as that of a tortoise dropped from the sky by a hungry eagle. The cabinets rattled madly overhead, and she wished something would just fall on her skull and be done with it.

There were four Irenes, then five, then six. Each one a little different. Each one the same woman. In the containment room, Irene Boswell watched the color leach from her hands and she knew there wasn’t much time left before she’d be too thinned out to wield the wrench.

Her mouth trembled, then firmed. She said to Huang, “I’m so sorry.”

*

It was a deal that couldn’t be refused.

But.

Nobody could read the terms and not feel a bit of self-doubt.

The little gray men (their color was unknown, their gender unlikely to be binary, but play along)—the little gray men were engaged in research. They wanted a sample. They would send along the collection device and the means to deliver it back. In exchange, humanity would keep the design for a ship capable of intergalactic travel. Eight lives (and they wouldn’t even be harmed, it isn’t harmful, it’s only a sample), and in exchange you get the universe.

It was ludicrous, of course. How could Huang stand in for Asia? How could Bandile speak for all of Africa? How could eight represent eight billion? It wasn’t just the potential sacrifice that made people uncomfortable (would they even come back?), it was the limited data set. The entire human species was about to be filed away in some universal library, and they only got eight volumes to tell their story.

Because that was what the little gray men wanted, right? Not endless sociological footnotes, not a thousand characters yammering for attention so you couldn’t even remember their names. They wanted a simple narrative. The story of humanity, condensed. But they weren’t going to get that with a crew of eight or a crew of eight hundred.

The only way to understand the people of Earth was not by wedging more people into this mission. It was to launch a hundred million missions with a hundred million different crews.

*

“Boswell! Irene!” Huang screamed through the intercom as though he could stop her if he only said it loud enough. In addition to the hothead, the depressive, the workaholic, and the coward, there was always a romantic.

Irene had resisted him for a year, ever the consummate professional (and deep down she suspected the aliens were keen to observe a mating ritual; hell no). Now she stepped close to the glass, with her burning hair and smooth arms and bloody hands, and she pressed a kiss to the glass. She said goodbye with her eyes. Then she picked up the wrench.

It was impossible to distinguish between the trembling in her body and the shaking of the ship. She couldn’t patch the device. She couldn’t turn it off. She couldn’t reroute the controls. All she could do was close the overflow valve before it reached the rest of the crew.

Even now, the smooth white shell was cool to the touch. Irene fell to her knees beside it, groping along a crack she could barely see, ripping off the patches that hadn’t dried solid yet. She almost stopped there, caught in the thick persuasion of alien radiation. It was only trying to fulfill its purpose, after all. For two months it had sent subtle waves throughout the ship, recording their interactions, their thoughts, their dreams. Somewhere inside this husk were samples of their DNA, the better for syncing data. The better for recreating subjects for future study.

Inside this lump of alien technology lived all of Irene’s hopes and fears. Her confidence and her hesitation. That weird dream where she was an opera singer climbing up the walls of the opera house, bellowing love and grief directly into the faces of the people in the balcony seats, and she woke up strangely aroused and almost went knocking at Huang’s bunk.

Maybe the data was still salvageable. Maybe, when this was all over, Irene Boswell would continue to exist somewhere in the universe, although in what form and under what conditions she refused to contemplate.

Huang was yelling and trying to breach the outer door. Irene couldn’t hear him anymore but she knew what he was saying. She turned her back, to make it easier. Parker and Freddie were there to restrain him. They knew what needed to be done.

A thin pipe snaked out beneath the Omaha Device. A scant foot of it was accessible before it burrowed into the wall. Irene wedged herself into position, half-concealed behind the device, and struck the pipe with the wrench. She struck again, and again, and again. She was sweating and crying and her hands kept flickering and threatening to drop the wrench, but the pipe dented once, dented twice, pinched halfway shut. A high-pitched whistling sound escaped through the crack. Everything was yellow light.

The pressure built until the device vibrated madly at her side. Hot air shrieked through, panicked, desperate, scrabbling for release like a fisherman fallen beneath the ice.

She felt it envelop her, when the device finally gave out. Vaguely, she knew that it had exploded. She knew that a large chunk of the shell had pinned her to the wall. But she only felt the hot cushion of power wrap around her body, in its dying throes still trying to collect and quantify. It poured down her throat and in her ears. It raced through her blood, scanning, testing, plucking out sample after sample. It wrapped around her heart and her brain and her knee, and it squeezed.

Irene Boswell shattered into a million pieces.

One by one, Irene Boswell disappeared from the ship. They were entangled, after all. She was all of them simultaneously: the good student and the dancer and the angry girl and the grief. And she was more than that. She was the half-formed wraiths who didn’t quite split off in the containment room: the lonely woman, the daughter, the good friend and the bad lover. But even in all her complexity she was not nearly all the women left behind on Earth, any more than their captain was all of the American Midwest or their communications specialist was all of South America.

She was only Irene, and she was gone.

*

The ship limped along, sans navigator. The crew left the Omaha Device in pieces. The ventilation system cleared the lingering radiation, making it safe to enter the containment room, but nobody did.

A week later they saw it, flickering in and out of radar on their ailing machines: the other ship. And then they really saw it through the transparent hull of the navigation room: a strange and beautiful emissary, far larger and more advanced than the little exploration vessel whose plans they had traded for human samples.

The remaining crewmembers put on crisp uniforms. They combed their hair and cut their nails. They assembled in the docking room antechamber with all the solemnity of funeral attendees. None of them had slept in days, and the captain couldn’t stop the nervous tic in his cheek. The coward—whose name was almost definitely Michael—had deep circles under his eyes and red marks where his wrists had been tied until recently.

Whatever data the Omaha Device gathered was gone, disintegrated and vented off the ship. No computer simulacrums. No travel narrative. No biological samples except what they carried in their own bodies. Despite their best efforts to fulfill the terms of the deal they were seven now, not eight, and their anatomy woefully misrepresentative.

They really should have brought another girl.


© 2019 by Samantha Mills

Samantha Mills lives in Southern California with her husband and babies and cats, in a house that might be haunted by a demented handyman and his loyal army of spiders. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and LampLight Magazine. She blogs about life, reading, writing, and pop culture at www.samtasticbooks.com, or come by and chat on Twitter @samtasticbooks.


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DP FICTION #48B: “How Rigel Gained a Rabbi (Briefly)” by Benjamin Blattberg

Rabbi Dov Applebaum argued—quite eloquently, he thought—for keeping the spaceship to its original flight plan. After all, there were Jewish children on Orion Station who needed Torah lessons before their upcoming B’nai Mitzvah. And yet the AI refused to listen to him and instead plotted a new course towards the distress signal on Rigel-7.

When the AI stated that intergalactic law compelled them to answer a distress call, Dov might’ve kept quiet—he wouldn’t actually have kept quiet, but he might have—but when the fakakta computer started citing Jewish law, Dov had to object.

“True, Leviticus says not to ‘stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor,'” said Dov, “but there are many interpretations of the Jewish law around distress signals. For one, what is a neighbor, galactically speaking?”

Dov could have discussed this for days, turning the argument about so that every angle of interpretation caught the light. But he only had hours before landfall and the AI had stopped actually listening anyway. Dov was used to that. His students throughout the galaxy didn’t listen, so why should his ship? Dov tried to imagine the Jewish children on Orion Station wailing and rending their garments over the delayed arrival of their favorite rabbi, but it was easier to imagine them eating synth-pork and forgetting what it meant to be Jews.

To add to Rabbi Dov’s woes, as his ship entered orbit and prepared to descend to the surface of Rigel-7, the Rigelian ambassador Cho’sun called on the viewscreen to forbid Dov from landing.

The spider-like Rigelian spoke its own language, which sounded to Dov like Coney Island being picked up with little warning and shaken. Luckily, Dov had a universal translator, a small black box clipped onto the upper sleeve of his flight suit, loaded with an AI that had been trained specifically to Dov’s native language. The box seemed to hum and clear its throat before translating.

“Listen, schmuck,” said the Rigelian through the translation box, “we have no laws to protect outsiders and you’ll just have to live with the consequences.”

Dov glanced at the translation box skeptically and tapped at it with one chewed nail. He couldn’t hear any loose parts in there—and if there were, what could he do about it?

“You hear me, schmuck?” Cho’sun waved its anterior arms in emphasis.

“Ah,” said Dov, as he attempted to stroke his red-brown beard thoughtfully, as his teachers had done and their teachers before them. The effect was rather ruined by his beard’s tendency to float up in microgravity, the curly mass haloing his jaw. “But you see, Ambassador, I am not landing—the ship is.”

Cho’sun made a sound like a garbage disposal chewing up dinosaur bones. The universal translator rendered this as laughter at first and then clarified: “Dismissive laughter.”

“Ambassador,” said Dov, “intergalactic law demands that distress signals be answered by the nearest available ship.” Even if that ship was a weaponless family transport that currently held no family, just Dov and his collection of Judaica, including a parchment Torah in a chased silver case all the way from Earth. That treasure he rarely brought out: only for brief ceremonies and never while his people were noshing.

“Universal law, shmuniversal law.” The ambassador flexed its claws, which might have been body language for emphasis or negation or something else entirely. Dov had skipped taking xeno-linguistics in college and the translator had its limits. “And in any case, Mr. Bigshot, we plan to take care of our own distress call, thank you very much.”

“Ah, so there is nothing to be distressed about?” Dov looked over at the terminal where he imagined the AI to be, a slight air of triumph in his raised eyebrow.

“Nothing at all distressing,” agreed Cho’sun. “As soon as we find them, we will kill off the entire unclean species that is sending whatever call you are receiving.”

Dov grimaced like he’d tasted a bad piece of whitefish. “It sounds, Ambassador, like you are speaking of genocide.”

Insofar as a spider can smile, the ambassador did. “Aha, now you understand.”

Dov’s bad fish expression deepened and he sighed. He couldn’t see any way to avoid landing on Rigel-7. He raised his hands and shrugged, the ancestral Jewish gesture for “What can I do about this? Nothing.”

Even the ambassador, who had probably never met a Jew before, seemed to take Dov’s meaning. Its voice took on a husky edge: the Empire State Building being scraped the length of Long Island. “We will cleanse Rigel-7 of this degenerate species and if you interfere, your life will be forfeit, schmuck.” The viewscreen went dead, the communication cut.

After a long moment of sighing, Dov flipped on a tablet, calling up commentaries on mediation by the most esteemed rabbis, as well as accessing a brief summary of the Rigelians. Their description—violent, xenophobic—sounded to Dov much like his ancestors’ stories of growing up with the Italians in Yonkers. And hadn’t they made peace there before moving to Scarsdale and Florida?

Perhaps Dov could be the one to bring Rigel-7 into the intergalactic community. He’d rather keep to his schedule and be teaching Torah to ungrateful children on backwards space stations, true, but if he had to make peace between two warring tribes on Rigel-7 and go down in history, so be it.

Perhaps, with his help, no one would die.

***

They were all going to die.

Cho’sun had called these other aliens a “species,” but the ambassador had called Dov a “schmuck,” too, so what did he know? Truth be told, Dov felt less like a schmuck and more like a schlemiel: not the clumsy waiter spilling the soup, but the guy the waiter spills soup on. Only in this case, it was more like the universe itself was spilling soup on Dov.

To Dov, these aliens didn’t seem like a distinct species. For one thing, there just weren’t that many of them, maybe ten total, camped out here in the middle of the green-black jungle. The jungle itself smelled faintly of burnt sugar, like overspun cotton candy, and was lush and thorny. Dov had time to discover the thorns as he hiked a few miles from the only clearing where his ship could land, since this benighted planet hadn’t any spaceport or roads or Chinese food. It was unpleasant, even if the air was breathable and the only large predators here were the man-sized, spider-like Rigelians.

Like the ones standing in front of Dov, asking for help, and not really listening when he said he couldn’t give them any.

“No, I don’t have ray guns on my ship,” explained Dov again. “What should I have ray guns for?”

The aliens talked to each other in voices that sounded like the Long Island Expressway being rolled up and eaten like pastrami, in the same language that Cho’sun used. Not only did they speak the same language and look nearly identical to Cho’sun—the same dark compound eyes, chitinous exoskeletons, and abundant limbs—but they waved away Dov’s well-thought-out arguments with the same motions. Dov wasn’t sure what set these Rigelians apart or why he hadn’t become a dentist with a nice little practice on Mars.

“Given your similarities, why do the Rigelians hate you so?” asked Dov.

Yen’tah, a smaller and slightly reddish but just as horrifyingly chitinous and hairy spider-thing, bristled, rising on its posterior four legs. “I reject your question—we too are Rigelian! It’s divisive speech like that—”

The other Rigelians began to yell at Yen’tah, making even more noise than it did. Dov’s translation box parsed their commingled cries: “hush, sheket, enough already!” Yen’tah made a gesture that Dov assumed was rude among egg-laying, non-binary sentients, but it stopped speaking and a moment later the ones who had shouted Yen’tah down quieted to a low grumble.

“The Kin hate us Other-kin because they do not believe in change and we have changed,” said Buch’ker, who was larger than all the other Rigelians and spoke in a voice that sounded like a Ferris wheel making love to a container ship. Buch’ker cocked its head to one side and then the other, a gesture that indicated thought among the Rigelians. Buch’ker was considering how to explain to Dov, and eventually it said, “We see the world differently.”

“Ah, a philosophical difference,” said Dov. “As a Jew, I have some experience—”

The Otherkin around him cut him off, their bulbous abdomens grumbling. The whole noisy rabble reminded Dov unexpectedly of a congregation held too long at service, with the promised land of cookies and gossip so close.

Buch’ker pointed to one of its eyes, as shiny as new challah, and said slowly, as if to a young child, “We see the world differently.”

After some clarification, with Buch’ker talking ever slower, Dov eventually realized this talk of “seeing the world differently” was the literal truth, as well as a metaphor. As metaphor: whereas the Kin avoided change and only maintained the technology they had inherited, the Otherkin believed change was acceptable, particularly when it would help them avoid extinction. And as literal truth: the Otherkin had experienced a genetic shift that allowed them to sense many different wavelengths. Though as they hadn’t developed a theory of genetics yet, Buch’ker explained this as simply a difference between its family—all the spider-aliens here being closely related—and the other Rigelians.

Also, Yen’tah explained, their thoraxes were smaller or hairier or something, but Dov couldn’t see it.

While Buch’ker explained this, two of the Otherkin scuttled up the trees and began to dismantle their nests high in the canopy overhead. These nests were temporary structures, Buch’ker had said before, put up and taken down as the Otherkin migrated through the jungle, staying ahead of their distant cousins and would-be murderers. A few others began to look up at their nests, realizing that Dov couldn’t help them, that running away would be their only hope. Maybe, if they were lucky, the next starship they called with their distress beacon would be more help.

And if not, more running, more distress calls, and more running.

The original distress beacon was still beeping—Dov’s ship relayed the call to his suit, despite his request to the AI to not do that, please. Dov had even asked the Otherkin to turn off the beacon, fearing that the Kin could track it.

Alas, explained the Otherkin named Gon’nef whose eyes were oddly close together, they had just recently invented the distress beacon and had not yet invented the off switch. A few Otherkin made a noise that seemed like laughter at that.

But Dov decided to leave that topic alone, especially after Buck’ker told him that the Kin had viewscreen technology that operated only on that frequency, but not a lot of other communication technology. The Kin couldn’t track this new signal since they didn’t invent any new technology, just lived with whatever old things they had and never changed.

“This taboo against change, this is taught to the Kin from your Creator or Creators?” asked Dov then, looking forward to discussing comparative religion rather than the first topic the Otherkin had wanted to discuss: ray guns.

“What kind of a cockamamie question is that?” grumbled Yen’tah.

“No,” said Buch’ker, “the Creators didn’t teach anything to the Kin before the Kin ate them.”

But now, with the Otherkin packing their nests and preparing to run, Dov felt rather sympathetic to that distress beacon, calling off into the interstellar night for help that might never come. There was something deeply Jewish about it. Dov could almost imagine the Otherkin as the Israelites of the book of Exodus, under the cruel yoke of the pharaoh.

“I have a plan,” said Dov proudly. “We run.”

“This he calls a plan?” Yen’tah sneered.

“If we run, we can escape,” said Dov, “as long the Kin can’t track our signal.”

***

“We easily tracked your signal,” said Ambassador Cho’sun, as it entered Dov’s prison cell, high up in an ancient tower. “But then you probably figured that out when we caught you.”

Dov turned from the window, where he’d been watching his spaceship’s rocket trail, but after he saw the look on Cho’sun’s face, Dov almost turned back. On a human, Cho’sun’s expression would’ve been called a deep frown, but on a human that expression wouldn’t have exposed so many chitin-brown, needle-sharp teeth.

Dov pulled at his flight suit to try to smooth it out and got his beard caught in the suit’s velcro at the neck. “Ambassador, intergalactic law demands that I be allowed to communicate with my home government.”

Cho’sun ignored him. It placed a black box between them and settled itself into the narrow room as best as it could. To fit here, Cho’sun had to fold and tuck its legs under it, like a spider who had extensively practiced yoga. Like most of the city that Dov had seen—while being carried by angry Rigelians—this room was built to a different scale and shape than these natives. The Kin literally lived in houses made for others who had come before them, which, even for Dov, was taking respect for tradition a little too far.

Cho’sun tapped the black box, paused, then tapped it again, this time harder.

“Ambassador, I demand—”

Cho’sun picked the black box up and held it up to its ear canal and shook it, before placing it down and pressing it one more time, firmly. Dov heard a slight pop, like a jar of garlic pickles being opened. Cho’sun clicked its mandibles, which Dov had learned was the Rigelian way of nodding to oneself. Then it began to talk.

“You putz, I told you not to land and what did you do?” Cho’sun fell silent, staring at Dov.

After far too long a silence, the Rigelian added, “That’s not rhetorical, mister. This is your trial right here, nu? You want we should execute you now? Don’t say anything, fine with me.”

Dov paused stroking his beard, getting it caught in velcro again. Buch’ker had told him the Kin would hold a trial before executing and eating him—more respect for tradition, Dov supposed. He just hadn’t thought his impending death would be quite so impending. Dov considered his situation against the long history of the Jews: this was not the worst situation his people had been in. It was not a very comforting thought.

“You want me to explain what I did?” asked Dov.

“Blockhead! We know what you did—you had the gall to save those unclean things with your…” Words failing it, Cho’sun waved a claw towards the window, towards the rocket trail, a column of smoke in the daytime sky. “They all escaped, so I hope you’re happy with yourself.”

Dov considered for a moment before deciding, yes, he was a little happy with himself. It hadn’t been, all things considered, a bad plan for him to run while broadcasting a signal the Kin could detect on the viewscreen technology, while the Otherkin made their way to Dov’s ship, following a signal only they could detect. Dov had a deep, rabbinical urge for symbolism, which was satisfied by the fact that the signal the Otherkin followed was their own distress beacon, relayed from his ship.

Only now he realized the plan’s tragic flaw: he was going to die. It had seemed so clear—and so righteous—at the time for Dov to be the decoy: if any of the Otherkin were left behind, they’d be immediately killed and eaten. At least Dov got this farce of a trial. Not a long enough trial for people to come rescue him, but at least it was something, right?

“We know what you’re guilty of,” said Cho’sun, “we just want to know why. You can explain yourself. And then, the execution.”

“But what am I really guilty of?” asked Dov, a sudden flash of inspiration rising to the surface of his brain like a matzah ball of the perfect lightness and airiness. “The Rigelians wanted to cleanse Rigel-7 of the Otherkin”—Cho’sun bristled at that word, the tiny hairs covering its body vibrating with anger, no xeno-linguistics degree necessary to read that—”and I have done that. There are no more of… them on Rigel-7.”

“Our world is cleansed,” said Cho’sun flatly, “but we were looking forward to killing them all. And now we have to be satisfied with killing only you. And speaking of that,” and Cho’sun reached out to turn off the black box.

“Wait, I can explain better,” said Dov, half-reaching out to swat away Cho’sun’s claw. He caught himself and steepled his fingers as if in thought. “We Jews have an old saying from the Babylonian Talmud—a book of commentary on our laws—that says, ‘whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.'”

“I do not understand,” said the Rigelian, claw still hovering over the black box.

“Ah,” said Dov, nodding, “you see, it’s a moral calculation that asks us to consider—”

Cho’sun waved him off. “Schmuck, it’s ‘book’ I don’t understand. Whatever those are, we don’t have them and don’t want them.”

But then Cho’sun cocked its head to one side and then the other, the Rigelian gesture for considering.

“And how is one life equal to a world?” asked Cho’sun.

“A lesson like that has to be interpreted,” Dov said quickly. He paused as he heard steps coming up the narrow stairs to his tower cell. The steps were halting and clumsy, the narrow stairs not at all suited to the Rigelian’s sprawling legs. And on top of the click of Rigelian claws, Dov heard something else being dragged, bouncing on each hard step with a clunk. Dov had a moment of vivid worry, imagining them dragging some torture device up to his cell.

Cho’sun had to move aside for the other Rigelians to make their way into the cell and drop what they were carrying in a pile at Dov’s feet. The Jewish children of Orion Station would’ve said it was a torture device, but after wiping away some leaves and mud, Dov recognized it all as his collection of Judaica and teaching materials.

They were dented here and there and all jumbled together—the Seder plate next to the shofar horn, his tefillin straps tangled around Elijah’s and Miriam’s cups, the menorah with one arm bent down, the Torah surfing on a sea of yarmulkes, and a classroom’s worth of tablets, loaded with lessons on everything from basic Hebrew to the most abstruse rabbinical commentary.

“We have only you and all of this,” said Cho’sun, gesturing to the pile. And then, with a little more hope in its voice, it added, “Is any of this edible?”

“No,” Dov admitted, “but I can explain how a life is worth a world.” He picked up a tablet, the least dented and mud-covered, checking that it was still working. He turned it on, flipped to the first page, and turned it to face Cho’sun. “This, here, is the letter aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.”

Cho’sun looked skeptically at the image of the aleph on the tablet’s screen. “Listen, bubele, no more nonsense—this you call the answer to my question?”

Dov considered that for a moment, before answering. “It’s the beginning of an answer.”

“How long will this answer take?”

For once, Dov didn’t say what he thought—hopefully long enough for a ship to come rescue me—but merely shrugged, hands up, and gave Cho’sun the same answer his rabbis had given Dov back when he was a student. “It takes as long as it takes.”

Cho’sun looked back at the tablet, its head cocked first to one side, then the other. “Oy vey,” it said finally, and then clicked its mandibles. “What comes next?”

 


© 2018 by Benjamin Blattberg

 

Author’s Note: The seed of this story was probably planted by William Tenn’s “On Venus, Have We Got A Rabbi!” Not the story—just the title. (Though eventually I did read the story and you might want to check it out, too.)

 

Ben Blattberg is a software developer, improviser, and writer currently living in Austin, TX, as long as there are no follow­up questions on any of those facts. His stories have appeared in Tina Connolly’s Toasted Cake, Crossed Genres, Pornokitsch, Podcastle, and Pseudopod.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #44B: “Still Life With Grave Juice” by Jim Moss

“This is the real thing? None of that synth-sludge?”

“Yes, sir. Direct from Earth.”

“And it’s the best you’ve got?” Quincy eyed the glass on the robowaiter’s tray. He should have ordered a bottle. He would need more to help unravel the stress of his turbulent negotiations with the Wattlars, who had rejected yet another contract. At least this outpost had an overpriced restaurant where he could run up his company’s expense account.

“Highest quality and price, I assure you. You may access my Integriport–”

“Yeah, yeah…” Quincy waved his hand, the gesture cue enough for the robowaiter to spit out a coaster which landed on the table with a soft plop. In a ballet of hydraulics, the robowaiter plucked the glass off the tray and set it before Quincy with the exaggerated grace of a suitor presenting a rose.

“Will that be all, sir?”

“You know, on Earth, they pop the cork in front of the patron, so it can be inspected for dryness, and they show the bottle so that–”

“You requested a glass, not an entire bottle,” the robowaiter spun its upper torso away from Quincy and sped off. Quincy held up the glass by the stem, examining its deep burgundy contents by the overhead light. He brought it down below his nose and inhaled.

“Cannibal.”

That word, that accent, the derisive tone — Quincy knew it referred to him. It made the scent of fresh blackberries he just inhaled turn rancid. He turned his head and expelled his breath away from the glass. There, seated the next table over were a pair of Arthruds. Common in this sector, especially at spaceports, they enjoyed a reputation as damn good mechanics despite being an insufferable race of know-it-alls. To Quincy they looked like a cross between an armadillo and a giant bipedal lobster, with outer bodies covered in segmented plates and a second set of arms beneath the first. The adult and child were eating what appeared to be shards of cardboard soaked in neon anti-freeze. The child could not be more than seven molts old. Both bobbed, jostling their plates, which made squeaky noises like balloons being rubbed together. They did this when laughing, or passing judgment, or both. Quincy rolled his eyes, turned away, swirled the glass and inhaled again. He tipped a sip and rolled it around his mouth with his tongue. Yes, yes, blackberries, currant, a touch of clover, anise, oak…

“What is he drinking?” asked the child.

“I believe it is called ‘wine.’ It is a death drink.”

“Will we get to see the Earther die?”

“No.” Squeaky balloon sounds sputtered out of the adult’s body plates. “I meant death as in dead. Wine is made from the dead. As I said, they are cannibals.”

“Should we leave?”

“No, don’t worry. They only eat their own.”

“If another Earther comes along, will they try to eat each other?” The child looked around the restaurant. Quincy moved his wine aside and turned to face the Arthruds. It was one thing for two adults to spout their ignorance, but quite another for an adult to imbue such bigotry on a child.

“Excuse me, I’m sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing…” Quincy stared into the adult’s face trying to lock onto the creature’s three eyes with his own two. “Perhaps you received some faulty information. Earth people are not cannibals.”

“It is well known throughout the galaxy that yours is a cannibalistic race.” The adult met Quincy’s stare, crossing his midarms across his midsection.

“You’re wrong. I don’t know where you heard this propaganda, but it’s false and insulting.”

“On your planet, do you not bury your dead?”

“We bury them, but we don’t eat them.”

The adult raised a plated brow above its top eye and turned to face the child.

“Earthers bury their dead in the ground in graveyards where the bodies decompose. They sow their strange plant life into these yards. The plants send their roots into the soil and suck in the fragments of the dead. Then the plant blooms and bears fruit. Fruit containing bits of the dead. Fruit they then eat.”

“Where are you getting this nonsense? We don’t plant fruit trees in graveyards.” Quincy could feel a vein in his forehead throb. The adult pointed at the glass of wine with the spindly third digit of his upper right claw.

“Is not your ‘wine’ made of grave juice?”

“Ahh! Here’s your confusion. Wine is made from grapes not graves. Grapes are fruit grown in vineyards, not graveyards.” Quincy reached for his glass. The adult raised two plated brows and leaned towards the child.

“The problem, Dewlis, is that Earthers have many words in their languages that mean the same thing. They use these to confuse others about what things really are. When you point out their error, they complain that it was a mis-understanding or a mis-interpretation. Beware when an Earther says ‘mis’.” The adult turned back, his eyes drawn to the vein now bulging on Quincy’s forehead.

“You are not the authority on Earth languages, Mis-ter. What is your name?”

“Spureb. And yours?”

“Quincy. And I’m going to prove you wrong.” Quincy threw his arm out blocking the robowaiter as it attempted to zip between tables. The waiter’s upper torso spun around twice before it stopped to face him.

“Yes, sir?”

“Tell us, waiter,” Quincy held up the wineglass. “What is wine made from?”

“Grapes.”

“And where does this wine come from?”

“Earth, France, the Bordeaux region.”

“St. Emillion? Pomerol?” Quincy took a sip.

“No sir, Graves.” The robowaiter spun back and zipped away.

“Bah Za!” Spureb pointed two digits and a folded claw at Quincy.

“No! Listen, that’s just the name of the region. The waiter mispronounced it. It’s pronounced ‘grahv’ with a short ‘a’. A different vowel sound. It’s French for gravel. It’s the name of a French wine growing region. It has nothing to do with graves. Don’t mistake a vineyard for graveyard.”

“The Earther said ‘mis’ twice!” Dewlis smiled at his father. They bopped in amusement, squeaky laughter reverberating like an orgy of balloon animals.

“Just stop and listen!” Quincy pounded the table. “A vineyard is a yard where grapes grow, a graveyard is a–”

“They are both ‘yards’ then, a measured plot of land, yes?” Spureb created a square using his four arms.

“Yes, but—”

“Yet you pronounce the ‘yard’ in vineyard as ‘yerd’. A different vowel sound. Is this a mispronunciation?”

“Uh… no, because, uh…”

“So yard is a word pronounced two ways, but means the same thing.” Dewlis said. “Like ‘grahv’ and ‘grave’.”

“No! They are two different things” Quincy threw his hands up, then grabbed his wineglass and poured a gulp into his mouth. “You know, even if a vineyard was planted on top of a dead body, we don’t eat dead flesh directly, so we’re not cannibals.”

“Suppose they are two different plots of land, as you say.” Spureb sat back in his chair and clacked the digits of his upper claws together. “You still contaminate your soil with your dead. If an insect eats a leaf from a plant in your ‘graveyard’ then flies into a ‘vineyard’ and dies in the soil and the vin plants eat the soil with the dead insect, then you eat the fruit of vin plants – you have eaten pieces of your dead.”

“No. Because what I’ve really eaten is molecular compounds. Someone dies, they’re buried, they decay. Maybe a bug eats some of it. When the bug dies it decays into simpler molecules, water, proteins, amino acids. So a plant uses these nutrients and produces fruit that someone may eat. So what? Everything gets recycled. Broken down and recycled. It’s the nature of the universe.”

“That may be the nature of your planet, but not the universe.”

“Oh yeah? What do you do with your dead?”

“Our dead become art. That is the proper way to honor them.”

“Art?”

“My great ahdmah won the Op Culbet for her work on great pahdah,” said Dewlis.

“He’s hanging in the Brachalach, our finest museum.” Spureb tapped his claw on his chest plate. “And what a stunning piece he is. Great ahdmah bent his spine into a semi-circle and beneath this, draped the flesh of his pale underbelly. Over this setting moon motif, she sprinkled the glittering shards of his shattered neck plate. His top abdomen is broken open and from the center, triangular strips of muscle are strung outwards in all directions like a blazer blossom. Here, his left claw, stained in ochre bile, is curled in a fetal ball. The fourth digit, bent impossibly backwards, protrudes like a stamen. And no matter where you move to look, that digit seems to follow you. His head top hangs upside down strung from a series of tendons like a rain basket that… Bah! I’m talking to a flabedah!” Spureb threw three of his arms up in the air.

“A flabedah?”

“That’s Arthruder for uh… you have no word in your language. It means someone who does not understand or appreciate what art does for a soul.”

“Uh huh.”

“Ah! I forget. You Earthers believe the soul leaves the body after the body is no longer self-animating.” Spureb flailed his four arms and swayed back and forth.

“That’s silly!” Dewlis squeaked a series of chuckles. “Soul is made of body. How can soul leave body? Silly!”

“Dewlis, this is what Earthers believe.” Spureb cooed in sing-song. “We should not ridicule their beliefs.”

“Ha!” Quincy plunked his glass on the coaster. “You cut up bodies to make rain buckets. So you chop up souls.”

“The soul may be divided, but it is not separated. It is recombined with the body into a more appealing form of art. Most souls find it agreeable.”

“And how do you know they find it agreeable?”

“In the silent hours if we stand before our ancestors and relax our minds we can hear their voices whisper to us.”

“Zul Ahdmah whispers to me,” said Dewlis.

“Yes, she tells you to stop slumping so much.”

“No, she tells me I am entitled to extra Kerzyhisses, for I will molt large.”

“She does not. You are only imagining that.”

“Yeah, you creatures molt,” said Quincy. “You drop off chunks of body parts. What happens to the soul of those parts? You couldn’t possibly save every single— “

“We re-ingest them. That’s what we’re eating right now.” Spureb speared a boiled body plate with his fork. “We eat only our own souls, not others’, thank you.”

“I don’t like the taste of my lower abdomen,” said Dewlis.

“Well, you better eat it, or you’ll be incomplete and never get displayed in a good museum.”

“What do you do when your art decays?” Quincy tossed a gulp of wine into his mouth.

“It does not decay. It is all how-you-say — varnished. We are not primitives that allow our dead to decay into pieces that end up in the food supply and get mixed in with other souls and eaten and—”

“Is that why his abdomen is so large?” Dewlis pointed his claw at Quincy’s belly. Quincy silently cursed the station’s greater-than-earth gravity, which made him heavier, compressed his breath and pulled his belly downwards, causing him look flabbier than he really was.

“Yes,” said Spureb. “That is where they collect. No soul, even a piece of soul, wants to be expelled as waste.”

“Alright, look, my… stoutness has nothing to do with souls in my body. Extra weight is caused by fat cells that accumulate because… Look, it’s not souls, OK?” Quincy’s grip tightened on the glass.

“You bury your dead in the ground, your plant life eats from this ground, breaking up souls and—”

“Your information is ancient. Burial is hardly done on our planet anymore. Real estate is too expensive. It’s more common that we cremate our dead.” Quincy twirled the wineglass by its stem. He felt tingly; the alcohol must be kicking in. He sat back and sighed, expecting another round of squeaks.

“Cremate?” Dewlis turned to his father.

“Cream is a white goo.” Spureb’s face plates shifted out of symmetry. “Earthers whip it up and serve it on their desserts.”

“No! That’s not what it is!” Quincy bolted upright.

“Cream-ate… ’Ate’ means that they’ve eaten it!”

“No, no, no! In cremation the body is burned into ashes.”

“What do you do with the ashes?” Spureb’s voice was low, his neck sunk into his upper torso.

“Scatter them in the wind.” Quincy turned away, took a gulp of wine, and clenched his fists expecting another round of squeaks. But the Arthruds were silent, the only sound, the grinding of Quincy’s teeth. Quincy turned back to find Spureb staring at him, eye plates askew, breathing hole frozen open. Dewlis turned to his father.

“Pahdah?”

“Millions of Earthers die every year on your planet.” Spureb’s eye plates pinched together and his ears recoiled into their sockets. He held his upper claws close to his chest. “Your atmosphere is full of corpse dust. Your populace breathes in burned up pieces of souls!”

“That’s enough!” Quincy pounded his arm on the table and rose from his seat. “There are no…” He paused to catch his breath. “Souls in… dust!”

“Pahdah, the Earther is breathing funny.”

“He appears to be experiencing withdrawal. Not enough soul dust in this atmosphere for his cannibal addiction. Perhaps the grave juice isn’t enough.”

“You… No… Uh…” Quincy sputtered, struggling for balance, the tingling in his arm growing painful.

“He just spit dead Earther juice at my head!”

“Move back, Dewlis. I don’t understand what is happening. He may have angered the souls he has consumed by denying their existence.”

“You puchh… you achh…” Quincy grabbed at the table with his right arm.

“Look how red he glows.” Dewlis stared at Quincy’s face.

“He is blushing. Earthers do this when they have embarrassed themselves.” Spureb leaned in to whisper to Dewlis. “It may not be proper for us to view his shame, let us look away.”

Spureb and Dewlis turned their backs on Quincy. They heard a thud and waited a couple of minutes to allow Quincy’s fit of shame to pass before turning back.

***

“And he died, right there.”

“How awful,” said Kerlew, a lovely female Arthrud that had stopped by Spureb’s garage to pick up a replacement part for a centrifuge. Spureb led her on a tour, casually watching her shuffle along the corridor and smiling as she eyed his collection of shiny metal plates and polished tubes.

“The staff tried to reset-animate him by pulling his merry-cardio muscle, but they were so incompetent, they pushed instead of pulled. Apparently, his heart was attacked by his massive coronary gland. ”

“Such strange physiology.”

“Terribly awkward situation. Nearest relative some twenty light-years away, employer in debt due to careless expense management, neither willing to pay for transport. And you know Earthers – they would have just expelled him into space.”

“Barbaric.”

“And despite his hubris and ignorance, he was amusing and we did feel sorry for him. We told the authorities we’d take him, and so, there he is.” Spureb waved his two left arms towards a corner in his garage gallery.

“Aja! Fantastic. Do their legs really twist like that?”

“No, that’s Spiasoc’s explication. He was able to make the tissue flexible through plastination. A preservation used on Earth during a brief enlightened period when–”

“You got Spiasoc?” Kerlew’s eyes widened with interest.

“Yes.” Spureb crossed his four arms over his torso and arched his back to raise his top segment just a little. “Spiasoc is quite eager to break convention with work on other xenophylum.” Spureb turned to look at Quincy and smiled.

Quincy’s body sat on a pedestal made of his leg bones. The flesh of his boneless legs, peeled in long ribbons and twined with muscle and tendon, spiraled in a double helix down to the floor. Thin slices of his brain, stained green, were attached along these vines; the flat sides of each angled upward, seeking light. The skin of his mid-section was shorn away. His intestines, flattened, dyed brown and cut into three by eight slats were arranged to form his torso into a barrel. Deflated lungs protruded from his back in a V spread, mottled fairy wings insufficient for his bulk. His arms burst out between slats, left switched for right with elbows bent backwards. One hand reached towards barrel bottom for a dangling spigot, while the other held up the aorta stem of a goblet carved from his heart. Quincy’s neck stretched out from barrel top, his crimson colored Adam’s apple rupturing through the middle. Above his furrowed brow, the top of his head was sliced off and thrown back like a jar lid. In the open skull, a helter-skelter tower built of brain matter cubes rose toward the ceiling, looking as if it might collapse at the faintest wayward breath. Quincy’s dead eyes stared at the goblet tipped towards his mouth. The pureed burgundy of his liver spilled over the goblet’s rim forming a long droplet that hung frozen in mid air. His tongue, stretched through parted blue lips, strained to reach the glistening drop, but only succeeded in tightening the knot at its center.

“Such an honor for the Earther,” said Kerlew.

“He finds it agreeable.”

 


© 2018 by Jim Moss

 

Jim Moss is a videographer and a playwright. His plays have been produced Off-Broadway in New York, and in theatres in Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and London. His play, Tagged, was a winner of the 2018 British Theatre Challenge. Still Life With Grave Juice is his first published short story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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BOOK REVIEW: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

 written by David Steffen

A Wrinkle in Time is a young adult science fiction novel written by Madeleine L’Engle and first published in 1962–it has been adapted for a movie that will come out in March 2018.

Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry is a smart girl, but who gets into trouble at school.  She excels at math, but not in the way her teachers want her to do the work.  She lives with her mother (a scientist) and her five-year-old brother Charles Wallace is a prodigy.  Her father (also a scientist) has been on a mysterious scientific mission for quite some time and Meg’s not sure when he’s coming back.  They encounter their eccentric new neighbor Mrs. Whatsit, who it soon turns out is a creature from another planet, one of a trio that are nearby. Mrs. Whatsit knows where Meg’s father is, and she knows that he’s in trouble.  Together with the neighbor boy Calvin they set out with Mrs. Whatsit and her friends to transport themselves to another planet and save Mr. Murry.

Like other science fiction books from this era, many of the ideas might seem familiar simply because we’ve read later books that were inspired by this one, which does make it harder to judge.  Also like other science fiction books from this era, there is a lot of explanation, what might be considered over-explaining in today’s publishing environment.  But overall this book ages better than other books of its time, in large part because of its focus on characters rather than nuts-and-bolts science.  I cared about Meg and her family and her friends, and I was rooting for them as they came across strange situations on strange worlds.  It’s a very short book, a very quick read finished within a week (which is very fast for me).  It’s fast-paced, never any dull time, and it has a reasonably tight arc from start to finish.  This book works as a standalone, introducing the characters and the situations and tying up the main arc, but there are four later books feature the Murry family (which I haven’t read, so I can’t comment on).  This is one of those classic books that I constantly hear people reference, so I wanted to read it for that reason alone, but I thought it held up better than average for a book of its time.

DP FICTION #36A: “9 Things the Mainstream Media Got Wrong About the Ansaj Incident” by Willem Myra

1. Jeter and Amir were neither thugs nor terrorists. They were dumb kids, plain and simple. They meant no harm to anybody, human or alien. They were armed with blatantly obvious toy guns and throughout the whole ordeal they used PG language.

2. They weren’t turned into ash. Weren’t deleted from existence with the pull of a trigger. There was no disintegration ray involved. The alien guarding the main gate used vasoconstrictor-based pistols. That’s how Jeter and Amir died, from internal bleeding. The medical report that wasn’t shown on TV confirmed it.

3. Many have speculated about why they tried to trespass on the Ansaj military base. To the three main theories I say: no, no, and no. They were not spies (Jeter and Amir? Two twenty-something nerds who couldn’t even jump over a fence? Please!). They were not thieves. They were not on drugs. They were, however, like most of us, in search of money and fame.

4. Right before dying, they didn’t shout, “Allahu Akbar!” or, “Go back to your home, alien scum!” like many make-believe eyewitnesses have reported. What Jeter and Amir really said was, “Where’s the kaboom?” They were quoting Marvin the Martian from Looney Tunes (heck, they were even cosplaying as him) in what was supposed to be the title of the video: WHERE IS THE KABOOM? [PRANKS OUT OF THIS WORLD].

5. Jeter wanted to become an actor, having never experienced the grimier sides of LA. Amir was to start college in autumn, convinced by his parents that this was the best he could do with and about his future. The two of them first met not on Craigslist, like one CNN article clams, but through a workshop on successful public speaking.

6. They were wannabe YouTubers. Unable to find an audience on their own, they had accepted to work for a 1-million subcribers prankster channel in exchange for exposure and two hundred bucks each per video. For their debut video they were to shoot aliens with Nerf guns, shout quotes that might appeal to 90’s kids, and try their best to get a reaction out of the aliens. Little did they know the aliens couldn’t recognize a fake weapon from a real one.

7. Once they stopped panicking, the aliens did their best to resuscitate Jeter and Amir. They even called the county sheriff’s men, but it was too late by then. I know: I was one of the three guys filming the “prank” from a safe distance.

8. One thing the mainstream media actually got right: the aliens are not at fault here. But neither are Jeter and Amir. Yes, they did something reckless expecting no lasting consequences from it. But they were pushed, manipulated, brainwashed even. The only one truly at fault here is Mitchell Joysel, founder of the PrankedYaHard YouTube channel. He convinced them what they were doing was legal and socially acceptable. That they would get a shitload of views out of it. “If you have any second thoughts,” he told them, “think about this. You could be the first humans to prank an alien—ever! You do this, you’re gonna be mentioned in history textbooks for centuries to come.” Jeter and Amir—their only sin was stupidity. The greedy, boorish prick here is none but Mitchell Joysel.

9. The Feds got a hold of the CCTV footage showing Jeter and Amir’s attempt at a prank and subsequent death. Not on our footage, though. I still have my perspective and so does, unfortunately, Mitchell (he bought the recordings from the other two cameramen; I didn’t want to sell mine, didn’t seem right to put a price on someone’s death). He is going to release a video this weekend, has it scheduled already from what I’ve been told. He’s going to preface it saying the Feds had threatened him with a lawsuit or some BS, but that he felt morally obliged to share it with the world, to show the people the truth. Don’t believe him, guys. It’s all a ruse. He doesn’t care about Jeter or Amir or any of you. All Mitchell cares about is making easy money. Which brings me to us. I am posting this video to ask you guys to: not watch whatever Mitchell’s going to release, to dislike it to hell, and to flag it for violent or repulsive content. Please, guys. I get it, Jeter and Amir shouldn’t have done what they did, and maybe they deserved to die. However, that doesn’t mean that some thirty-something douchebag comfortably sitting in his LA flat should benefit from all the spilled blood. Do you really think that sounds right? I don’t. People say the YouTube community is heartless, immature, and toxic. The worst online community out there—or at least one of the worst after 4chan’s. I’ve been on YouTube for a couple years now and I know you guys are capable of nice things. So what do you say we prove them all wrong? Let’s come together once more and stop Mitchell Joysel from monetizing this tragedy. Alright? Thank you, guys.


© 2018 by Willem Myra

 

headshot-willem-myraWM is the author of a surreal fiction chapbook, Kennel-born, out from Thirty West in the summer of 2018. His work has popped out here and there in Litro, Geometry, AntipodeanSF, and elsewhere. Drop him a line @WillemMyra

 

 

 

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #28B: “Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of My Ship” by Rachael K. Jones and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2160-11-11

 

Dear Ziza,

You already know what this is about, don’t you, dear Sister? The robot raccoons I found clamped along my ship’s hull during this cycle’s standard maintenance sweep?

Oh, come on. Really? You know I invented that hull sculler tech, right? They’ve got my corporate logo etched into their beady red eyes so my name flashes on all the walls when their power is low. I admit some of your upgrades were… novel. Like the exoshell design–I’ll never understand your raccoon obsession. Impractical, but points for style. I hadn’t thought you could fit a diamond drill into a model smaller than a Pomeranian’s skull, so congrats on that. Not that they made much progress chewing through my double-thick hull, but I’ll give credit where credit’s due.

Still, it was unsisterly of you, and it’s not going to stop me from dropping the terraforming nuke when I get to Mars. Come to grips with reality, sister: you’re in the wrong. You always have been, ever since we were girls. Especially since Mumbai accepted my proposal for Martian settlement. Not yours.

I’m sending back the robot raccoons in an unmanned probe. Back, because yes, I’m still leagues and leagues ahead of you. I only lost a day cleaning up the hull scullers. I’ve kept the diamond drills. I bet they’ll chew right through that Martian rock.

I’ve also included a dozen white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, because I know it’s your birthday tomorrow. Happy birthday!

Now go home.

Love your sister,

Anita

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2160-11-12

Dear Anita,

Remember that summer when Father dropped us off at the northern rim of the Poona Crater on Mars? Alone. For two weeks. “This rustic camping trip will be a great learning experience,” he said. “My precious daughters will bond.”

When I learned that there were no pre-fab facilities and that we were responsible for erecting our own dwelling, sanitation pod, and lab, I started plotting ways to poison our father. You, on the other hand, I am still convinced, were determined to thoroughly enjoy the experience just to spite me.

But Father was a conservationist, and now that I am older, I can appreciate that he was trying to instill that same spirit in us. “Not all life jumps out and bites you in the butt,” he used to love to say. And we learned the truth of that when we unearthed a family of as-yet-undiscovered garbatrites in the red dust on one of our sand treks.

We spent hours watching them under high magnification under the STEHM, trying to communicate with them, recording their activities and creating hypotheses about the meanings of their habits. I have to admit, there was a point when I stopped cursing father and started to secretly thank him. And where I sort of, kind of, could maybe see why you weren’t so bad after all.

I don’t think I’d ever seen you so dedicated to anything before this. You missed meals and stayed up throughout the night trying to communicate with the elder garbatrite. The one you named Benny. Exhausted, you fell asleep at your desk and left the infrared light on too long and effectively fried the poor critter. You cried for days and you even held a formal funeral for Benny, something his fellow garbatrites didn’t seem too pleased about.

With that in mind, how could you possibly want to drop a terraforming nuke on a planet you and I both know is already teeming with life? Creating a new habitable world only has merits if it’s not already inhabited.

If you won’t see reason, then I’ll just have to make it impossible for you. The Council for Martian Settlement may have accepted your proposal, but let me remind you that I’ve never been keen on following the rules.

So, you found the hull scullers, eh? I knew those diamonds would distract you from my real plan. You’ve always been so… materialistic. But hey, someone has to be.

On another note, the cookies were to die for! They were even better than Mother’s, but I’ll never tell her that. I really appreciate you thinking of me. I have a proposal to make. On our next monthly meal exchange, I’ll make your favorite, a big old pot of Anasazi beans and sweet buttered cornbread, if you’ll send more of those cookies.

XOXO

Ziza

P.S. My sweet raccoonie-woonies, Bobo and Cow, liked the cookies too. They also send their love.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2160-11-15

Sister:

Come now, Ziza. Let’s not make me out to be some kind of villain. Of course I remember that summer. I remember how we licked the condensation inside our lab windows to stay hydrated because Father’s Orion Scout childhood romanticized survival stories. It’s the real reason we’re such die hard coffee drinkers nowadays. He ruined the taste of water for us.

And I remember the garbatrites. How could I ever forget? That dusty red boulder we found in the sandstorm provided just enough shelter to pitch our emergency pod while we waited out the squall. Nothing to do but talk with each other, or play with the STEHM. Which meant we chose the STEHM, obviously. It’s the closest look I’ve ever gotten at you, all those disgusting many-legged organisms crawling on your skin and hair, in your saliva, your earwax. You’ve always had an affinity for vermin.

But I’ll be forever grateful you suggested taking samples around the boulder. When we first saw the garbatrites, their tiny little dwellings drilled into rock like mesa cities–that might be the closest I’ve ever felt to you, each of us taking one eyepiece on the STEHM, our damp cheeks pressed together, our smiles one long continuous arc. When the light brightened or dimmed, they danced in little conga lines. We weren’t sure if it was art, or language. Is there really a difference?

There’s something I realized when Benny died. The sort of revelation you only have when you’re nudging together an atomic coffin beneath an electron microscope with tiny diamond tweezers just three nanometers wide: life is short. Life is painfully short, full of suffering and tragedy and wide, empty spaces. And those rare spots hospitable to life are just boulders tossed into an endless red desert, created by accident or coincidence. The only real good we can do in life is to spread out those boulders, minimize the deserts where we find them. Make a garden from dust. Plant our atomic coffins and let them bloom. Terraform whole planets, so we’ll have more than just the blue boulder of Earth.

That’s what you never understood, dear sister. It’s why when you spent your youth chasing pretty men, I betrothed myself to science, burned my hopes of human love in the furnaces of my ambition. Do you remember when Asante, my poor besotted lab assistant, proposed to me at the Tanzanian Xenobiology Conference? How I laughed! As if any children he could give me would approach the impact my terraforming nuke will make on our species. Never forget, Ziza, that this mission is my life’s work, my legacy. You will not stop me.

In other news, I got the Anasazi beans and cornbread, still warm and fresh in their shipping pod. How did you know I had the craving? That was a kindness. I remembered you while making salaat today.

I was less pleased about the virus installed in the shipping pod’s warming program. Nice try, but I saw through that in about five seconds. Here’s a tip: next time, beta test it on all the shipboard systems I invented, not just the navigation. My sanitation program does more than filter my own crap.

I’m sending you an e-manual on Programming 101, and an ordering catalogue for Anita Enterprises in case you’d like to support the family business.

XOXOXO,

Anita

P.S. Go home.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2160-11-28

 

Anita,

It’s been nearly two weeks since we last spoke, and of course, you know why. When you told me to go home, I knew that you were serious, but I never thought you’d resort to using the health and welfare of our dear mother as bait to get me to turn around and head back to earth.

I’m still trying to figure out how you managed to simulate for video not only our mother’s countenance, darkened and marred by some mysterious illness, but her voice, the cadence like smooth stones tumbling in water and her accent. When she pleaded for me to return home, telling me that she was afraid to die alone, of course I turned back.

How much time did it take for you to create those videos, one arriving each day, her looking progressively worse? The worst was that one video with her by the window in her study, Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. It came on the third day. The sunlight that glinted through her silver hair, like icy filaments, made her look so painfully beautiful, yet it was not enough to erase the shadows beneath her eyes or the sadness in them.

A better question, I suppose, is “Why?” Why resort to that when you know how much Mother means to me, especially now that Father is gone? Are you still jealous of our closeness? Do you still believe she loved me most?

Not that you deserve to be, but I’ll let you in on a secret. I used to believe Mother loved me more than you as well. One day, I must’ve been about twelve, in my pathetic need to always be reminded that I was loved and cherished, I asked her why she loved me more than you. I waited a few moments, as she looked skyward, it seemed, for the answer. I was sure she’d say it was because I was more beautiful, more kind, smarter, that I had a more generous spirit, because truth be told, these things are true. But she didn’t say that. Mother told me that she did not love me most. Nor did she love you more than me.

Then why do you spend so much more time with me than Anita? Why do you kiss me goodnight and not her? I numbered all the things she did for me and not you. Do you know what she said?

Because you need me more than Anita.

In her way, which was always kind yet honest, Mother was telling me that you were the stronger of the two of us. But now, I wonder. Would a strong person use her sister’s weaknesses against her just to win? This was a low blow, Anita.

By now you’re probably wondering how I eventually figured out that the videos from Mother were merely a cruel ploy to get me to go back home without a fight. It was the video from Day Eight.

Mother lay in bed, slight as a sliver of grass. When her image popped up on the view screen my heart felt like it was trapped in a vice. She reached out. A tear traveled from the corner of her eye toward the pillow. She coughed, then called out my name. Her voice was so soft, so small and weak.

“Please hurry home, Ziza,” she said. “I don’t want to die without laying eyes on my favorite girl at least one more time.”

Favorite girl? No, Anita. Our mother never would have said that.

You think you’re so smart. You think you know everything. Yet, you don’t know kindness or humility. You don’t even know your own mother.

The decision to dedicate your entire life to science was an error. Life is so much more than entropy, polymerisation, and endothermic reactions. You really can have your coffee and the cream too. You should have married Asante. He would have humanized you. He would have taught you to slow down and enjoy the precious little moments, that together they all add up to a great big life full of disappointments, yes, but also joy and love and mystery. He would have saved you from yourself and cold loneliness.

This is where I remind you that you know nothing about programming that I didn’t teach you. Anita Enterprises is the mega-conglomerate it is because of me, your older sister and mentor. If I wanted to shut down every system on your ship, including life support, I could. And believe me, after this latest stunt of yours, I’ve been giving that idea serious consideration. The fact that I haven’t sent a couple of torpedoes your way is a testament to my love for our mother. She’d be angry if I killed you. So, I won’t.

See you on Mars.

Ziza

P.S. Don’t start none, won’t be none.

P.P.S. Bobo and Cow are very displeased with you.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2161-01-01

 

Ziza,

It’s been weeks since I last wrote, but you haven’t been far from my thoughts. Far from it.

While I continue toward the planet, I’ve been passing the time on my escape pod making a list of all the reasons I hate you, numbered and ordered least to greatest. It’s a long long list, forever incomplete. A sister’s hate is like the heat death of the universe: infinitely expanding, eternal, the last flame burning in this cold, barren desolation where God abandoned us.

Reason #1,565: I hate the way you eat popcorn with chopsticks to keep your hands clean. Are you too good even for butter smudges?

Reason #480: I hate how you laugh at bad jokes. Puns aren’t actually funny, Ziza. Everyone outgrew “why did the chicken cross the road” after elementary school.

Reason #111: Blue eye shadow. Self-explanatory.

Reason #38: “Don’t start none, won’t be none.” Really? Better knock that shit off. Like you’re not an adult responsible for her own actions.

Reason #16: I hate how Mother named you after herself, like you were the pinnacle of all her hopes, while I was named to placate our pushy grandmother.

Reason #15: I hate how you always laugh at me.

Reason #10: I hate how your favorite animal is the raccoon. You only picked it because it’s endangered. You can’t resist a lost cause, even if you don’t actually want to do anything useful about it.

Reason #9: Seriously, blue eye shadow.

Reason #4: That last family dinner we had before Father died, when we took the shuttle out to the Moon to picnic on Mons Agnes while we watched the Perseid meteor shower dancing bright upon Earth’s atmosphere like the footsteps of angels. Mother brought her heirloom silver for the occasion; I think we all knew in our hearts it was a special trip. We’d agreed for Father’s sake to get along, just for a few hours. He hated how we fought, how we picked at each other like children picking old scabs that won’t heal. Do you remember the white curling through his black hair? His cheeks sunk deep by the chemo? He wanted to dish up the jasmine rice and flatbread himself. His hands trembled so badly the peas rolled onto Mother’s quilt beneath the picnic pop-up, just skirting the regolith.

We both know I wanted to talk with him about the inheritance. I just wanted my share, my 50/50 split, but Mother was so concerned about poor helpless Ziza, who had run into such tough times after college, chasing after pretty men and idealistic wide-eyed save-the-raccoons causes that she needed a larger cut to keep up her lifestyle. Anita Enterprises cost me everything while all you ever did was chase your girlhood dreams of love and happy endings.

We were having such a great time. Your useless pet raccoons were recharging their solar batteries in your lap. Father told us stories of his childhood, how they didn’t even have a family shuttle when he grew up, and you could only sleep rough in wild places like Antarctica’s rocky plains. Mother held his hand and kissed him, love shining in her eyes. No matter how sick he got, he was still the dark-skinned 17-year-old godling she’d met on the road to Mount Kilimanjaro in their youth. We even tolerated a few of your puns.

It would not last. I volunteered to scrape the leftovers into the recycler at the service booth down the path. It was so close, I didn’t bother to bring a communication device. You deny it, but we both know you followed me. You used the Moon’s lower gravity to pile those rocks against the door while I did my chores inside. When I tried to leave, the door wouldn’t budge. I could only watch my family from the viewing port, my mother and sister and dying father laughing together, though I couldn’t hear them. I screamed and pounded the window, but nobody noticed from the picnic pop-up. No one could hear me through the vacuum of space.

How can I ever forgive you that prank, those precious minutes of our father’s health ticking away, and me unable to be there? How can I forgive that lost opportunity, those memories that should have been mine to cherish, to bear me up when I wake at night so desperate to feel his whiskered kiss on my forehead, his voice telling me he’s so proud of me, proud of everything I’ve done?

This is why I hate you, Ziza. This is why I can never stop hating you.

Reason #2: Those diamond drills in your robot raccoons weren’t just drills. That cornbread pan wasn’t just a pan. You know what, Ziza? In spite of everything else, I only sent you back to Earth with those fake videos to protect you from yourself, and keep you out of harm’s way. Because despite this whole list, part of me still loved you, stupid as it sounds. Maybe it’s because you’re named for Mother. But you tried to dump me into the vacuum of space, Sister Dearest. You tried to murder me in my sleep. You activated the wafer computer in the pan’s false bottom, hacked my defenses, and the drills turned my hull into cheese by the time I woke up. If I hadn’t mounted the terraforming nuke to the escape pod… but I did.

Reason #1: Did you ever love me? Ever, Ziza? I’m not filling this one out yet, because I don’t think I’ve yet hated you as much as a woman can hate her sister. Not yet. But I will.

So I’m going to tell you something else you don’t yet know: On the wreck of my shuttle, scraping by on the last of my life support, are a dozen rare raccoon specimens. I was going to release them on Mars after the terraforming ended so they could colonize a safe place far from any predators. My shuttle is set to self-destruct in two days’ time. If you leave your current course, you might just have time to save them. Let’s find out what you care more about: helpless garbatrites, or near-extinct raccoons.

The shuttle also contains an urn with Father’s ashes, wrapped in extra scarves in the top hatch in my quarters. Mother asked me to scatter them on the planet because Father had so many happy memories of camping there with his daughters. I didn’t have time to rescue it when I had to abandon ship a few days ago.

I don’t have that one on my list yet. Better go add it now.

Hate you always,

Anita

P.S. Why did Ziza fly across the solar system twice? Because she was a double crosser. Get it?

P.P.S. Happy New Year, by the way.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2161/01/02

 

Anita,

By now you’ve probably realized that regardless of your efforts, your escape pod’s trajectory is no longer Mars. You are now on an intercept path with me. I know that you must be seething, cursing my name, praying for my damnation (you’ve always been so dramatic), but give me the opportunity to explain.

Your ship was never in danger. The plan was that once you entered in new coordinates to anyplace other than Mars, preferably home, the diamond drills would have set about repairing the holes they’d created in the hull of your ship. Genius ancillary programming, if I do say so myself. All you had to do was turn around. But you, with your flare for the dramatic and unwillingness to give up, even when you know you’ve lost, decided to jump ship and make the rest of the voyage via the escape pod.

The escape pod. The escape pod with only half the power you’ll need to complete the trip to Mars. At the rate you’re going you’ll be one hundred and three before you even break orbit. If you paid as much attention to the details as you do the drama, you might have remembered that.

Why couldn’t all your hot hate keep those poor raccoons warm as your abandoned ship plunges onward toward the cold outer depths of space, too long and too far for either of us to go? I won’t be able to save those raccoons, nor Father’s ashes, because I will be saving you.

You can thank me later.

Your last message, so thick with evil enmity for your only sibling in the galaxy, reminded me of Tariq, the only man I ever considered staying with for a lifetime. I’ve tried over the last forty-three years, without an iota of success, to tangle and finally lose my memory of him among the many others. He was brighter than Sirius and sweeter than lugduname, at least to me. I know that long-legged bird wasn’t perfect, he chewed with his mouth open and, truth be told, he wasn’t very bright but he loved me without reserve.

You didn’t like him at first. You called him a “pretty, useless thing”, because he didn’t have the same knack for business or driving ambition for more, that you did. He was an artist and liked to create beautiful things, to experience the delights of life with all of his senses exposed and ready.

It was through your senses that he finally won you over. So thoughtful was he, that knowing your dislike for him, he still surprised you with your favorite, hot homemade waffles, on your birthday.

When I broke off the engagement with him only a week later, you, who had hated him all along, refused to speak to me for months. You said I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. You called me a fool.

I never told you why I broke off the engagement. And I bet you never knew that even now, there are sleep cycles when instead of sleep, I lay awake imaging how happy I’d be today had I not broken poor Tariq’s heart.

I broke off our engagement because of your Reason #1. In answer to your question, I love you more than breath itself, baby sister.

Tariq said to me one day, as we lay beneath the sun in a field of cool holo-grass, “Any sister who would waste her dying father’s final hours arguing over an inheritance is surely too selfish to bear.” He took my foot in his hands and kneaded my heel expertly. “I’m willing to tolerate Anita, my love, because of you.”

I said nothing to this for a while, mostly because the foot massage was so exquisite that it stole my breath and crossed my eyes. But when he was done, I politely slipped on my shoes, clapped off the holo-vision, and asked him to leave.

“If you love me, you must love my sister too. Anything less is unacceptable,” I told him.

So you see, silly sister, you can hate me a million times, but no matter what, I’ll still love you, even though you don’t deserve it. God, you’re such a brat.

Ziza

P.S. Are you seriously pouting about your name? Mother should have named you Shakespeare because you’re nothing but drama.

P.P.S. I didn’t pile those rocks against the door. That was Bobo and Cow. They were just trying to play hide and seek with you. I guess my sweet raccoonie-woonies won that round.

P.P.P.S. Why did the raccoon cross the solar system? To keep her sister’s paw off Mars.

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2161-01-11

 

Dear Ziza,

Greetings from Mars.

Don’t worry. Nothing has changed. I have regretfully failed to deploy the terraforming nuke. My mission has failed, for now.

Perhaps even before you read this message, GalactiPol will be taking you into custody. I called them when my escape pod veered off course, when the navigation stopped responding to my counter-hacks. You might have forgotten in your rashness that the Mumbai Council for Martian Development endorsed my plan for terraforming, and that I was their agent. Interfering with my mission meant meddling with the Coalition of Humankind itself.

I didn’t call GalactiPol sooner because I wanted to beat you at your own game. So few people in this huge, empty universe can even approach my creativity and intellect. You’ve always pushed me to the greatest apex of my brilliance. I’m never as inventive as when you’re scheming to ruin me. But the thought of losing Father’s ashes into the void of space… well, it gave me no rest. He doesn’t deserve that, not at our hands. I’d hoped you’d fetch the urn, but instead I’m calling an end to our battle of wits.

GalactiPol scooped up my escape pod and listened to my account of your wrongdoings. They have dispatched a salvage vessel to my wreck, and an armed cruiser to arrest you. Unfortunately, I made a fatal mistake: the raccoons. As you well know, I did not have authorization to remove these endangered creatures from Earth.

So they’ve arrested me too. I’ve been dropped on Mars for safekeeping while they run the raccoons back to Earth. They’ve dispatched another cruiser to your coordinates. Soon they will bring you here too, dear Ziza, and for the second time we’ll wander the sands together in this desert of red storms, with only wit and curiosity and mutual hatred to keep us alive until someone returns for us.

Did you know part of our old camp is still here? Somehow the shell of our mobile lab held up against the years. Probably because of the garbatrites. Remember we’d left the lab tucked in the shadow of their great stone. Apparently they liked it (perhaps for the way it holds warmth during the cold Martian nights) because they covered it in their tiny homes like a shipwreck bejeweled with coral and barnacles. When I turn on the lights at night, they dance along the seams in swirling shapes, carving microscopic paths through the dust coating, just as frail human biceps have pushed and moved the world until you can see their efforts from space. The Great Wall of China! The glittering glass megascrapers of Nigeria! How floating Melbourne glistens like a blue jewel in the dark, riding the waves forever, its flooded gondola channels sipping the ocean’s rise and fall! Our little lab is a world for these tiny creatures. They shout,  We are here. We exist.

But let’s talk about Tariq. Now there’s an unhealed wound running to our cores. It’s true, Ziza, that you were always the prettiest. I am a plain woman, an experience you can never understand. Your beauty is a passport into people’s best nature. Everyone sees in you the face of an angel, and they give you an angel’s due. Well, any plain woman knows the converse is true, that we have to prove again and again our worth and goodness to a world that mistakes the grotesque for evil, the ungroomed for lazy, the fat for stupid.

Your Tariq, like all pretty men, suffered from the same assumptions. He was never as good to anyone as he was to you, Ziza Angel-faced. When he didn’t ignore me outright, he liked to pick on me for your amusement. He named me Yam Nose and Ogre Teeth, and when I protested, he laughed me off as too sensitive, as if I didn’t have a right to my dignity. People like him are cruel to girls like me in a thoughtless, automatic way, like they can’t imagine us having feelings any more complex than a dog’s. Yes, I detested him. But the day he made me waffles, throwing me one small, quiet kindness, I realized how happy he made you, that you intended to marry him. He’d be around our family a long, long time. I made my peace.

I am sorry you realized so late the flaw in him that was obvious to me from the first. But know, Ziza, that Tariq must accept responsibility for his own character. If you had married him, when you aged and your beauty began to fade, he surely would’ve turned that same cruelty on you. He may very well have been your soulmate, but take a hard look at your own soul, and ask whether you too mistake your angelic face for more than it is. You are merely human.

So come to Mars, Sister. Come to where this all started that summer our father wanted us to bond, back before we hated the taste of water, before we learned to despise each other in small ways and big. We cannot escape one another. Our hatred has been our brilliance, our secret genius, the harsh red desert that pushed and pinched and goaded us to build towers you can see from the Moon. Imagine what a lifetime of love might have accomplished

Come to Mars, Ziza. Scatter our father’s ashes with me. If we cannot make this place bloom with life, at least we can make it a little more dusty.

Anita

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2161-01-11

 

Dearest Anita,

I can see the GalactiPol cruiser from my starboard viewport. Its black and gold stripes practically glow beneath the strobing orange beacon and make it look like a psychedelic bumblebee. Most people in my situation, facing detainment on Mars, endless expensive legal proceedings, possible time in prison, would be locked in the grips of fear and worry. Perhaps even shame. But not me. The one thought stuck in my mind, like a diptera fastened to sticky paper, is how beautiful that cruiser is and how excited I am to begin this second adventure.

It’s all about perception.

During that last picnic on the moon, when you were locked in the service booth, Father talked about perception. “Perception is everything. If you can project what you perceive it will become reality. You will believe it. More importantly, whether good or bad, everyone else will believe in your reality as well, and they will believe in you.” Not until I read your last letter did I realize how right Father was. And how wrong we have been.

In the mirror I’ve always seen the imperfect likeness of our mother, not quite as beautiful, not quite as kind, and with but a fraction of her intelligence. I have our father’s height and amber-flecked brown eyes, but none of his grace, strength, or athleticism. Yet, somehow you see in me the face of an angel.

In you I see the sharp mind and steady hands of a scientist. A fearless tenacious spirit intent on exploring all possibilities even at great cost, able to articulate your ideas, to change hearts and minds. You have boundless strength, so much so that you have been the central support for Mother and me since Father’s death. There is nothing plain about you, little sister, nothing wanting.

How is it that our perceptions have never aligned?

Be right back. GalactiPol is hailing me

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

To: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

Date: 2161-01-12

Sorry it has taken me so long to return to this letter, but I had a few calls to make. Officers Gavalia and Ambrose boarded my ship at 2315 and took me into custody. My detainment cell is surprisingly modish, with full amenities including a computer and personal uncensored communication device. I have even been given unrestricted access to their onboard digital library.

According to officer Gavalia, though entry into GalactiPol requires extensive training and a stringent vetting system, they have little opportunity to actually do the type of policing their organization exists to perform. I suppose there just aren’t that many galactic criminals to catch these days, besides you and me, that is.

Now where was I? Ah yes. Perceptions.

I’ve been mesmerized by the images you sent of the garbatrite homes, the bright multilayered encrusted structures in every shade of red, orange and pink, lambent lights beneath the gaze of the sun. They expound beauty and ingenuity and life and more than anything, a prescience greater than anything either of us could have conceived.

We’ve been darting back and forth through this solar system, in an effort to outdo one another, trying our damndest to affect the change of our choosing, thinking we are so smart and so in control, when in truth, we are no greater than those garbatrites, and perhaps we are even less wise than they.

Perhaps there is a way for us both to have what we wanted, to terraform Mars and to protect the garbatrites. They were always keen to share their world with us and seeing the ingenuity and beauty of their structures, perhaps we can convince them to help us transform the barren surface of Mars into one of cooperative beauty. We can provide the framework for our cities and homes, and they can build upon them, layering their coral-like exoteric structures, creating homes befitting us all, unlike anything in the entire solar system.

I called Tariq shortly after my detainment aboard the GalactiPol cruiser. Before you think me hopeless, let me explain. Besides being happily ensconced in a polyamorous relationship with two of the nicest men and woman I have ever met, he has long since given up on his art (he was never very good anyway) and has been the Chief GalactiPol Officer for several years. I was hoping that there was still enough lingering affection between us that he would agree to assist me in this difficult situation.

Unfortunately, he is unable, as I had hoped, to have the charges against us repealed, but we have been allowed to serve the entirety of our sentence on Mars. Together.

Shall we do this, sister? Shall we make our dreams come true?

I envision us making a home from our old pod quarters. Perhaps we can build on an extra room and invite Mother. We can even build a special corral for Bobo and Cow, where they can play happily and where they won’t be able to disturb you as you work on your next great experiment. With the help of the garbatrites we can build a greenhouse. We’ll grow corn and tomatoes in soil fertilized with the ashes of our father. We will create a real home, a life. And we will relearn one another, our strengths and weakness, our mutual love for each other. One day other Earthers will join us on our red planet and find a world of wonder encased in garbatrite domes. A home.

Can you see it, sister? Good. Now hold that thought in your mind until we are reunited.

With all my love,

Ziza

 

*

 

From: Alamieyeseigha, Anita

To: Alamieyeseigha, Ziza

Date: 2161-01-13

 

Dear Ziza,

Why did the sisters cross the solar system? To get to the other’s side.

See you soon,

Anita

 


© 2017 by Rachael K. Jones and Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

 

Author’s Note (Khaalidah): When I met Rachael about three years ago, I experienced an instant and sincere affection for her. We toyed with the idea of a collaboration for awhile before we finally dove in. We didn’t outline this story beforehand and had no clear idea where it would go. It took us across the galaxy, with great food, adventure, and lots of laughter. Collaborating with someone as talented and easy-going as Rachael was a joy for me. She charged my imagination. I am pleased to be able to share the results with everyone else.  In many ways the end result reflects how I feel about Rachael. She is a sister in my heart and a dear friend.

Author’s Note (Rachael): Khaalidah is my dear friend, my comrade-in-arms, probably a time traveler, and everything I want to be when I grow up. So when we started kicking around the idea of doing a collaboration, I jumped on the opportunity. Writing this story with her was immensely fun, often hilarious, and always surprising. While working on “Regarding the Robot Raccoons,” we eventually realized that although we each controlled a single character’s voice, we were actually writing each other’s characters via our reactions to one another, creating a more complex and nuanced view of Anita and Ziza that you get through just one perspective. I think this phenomenon also exists in all good friendships: in seeing yourself reflected through another’s eyes, you’re inspired to push harder, reach higher, and go farther in life than you ever would on your own. Khaalidah’s friendship makes me a better person, just as collaborating with her makes me a better writer. I hope our readers, in turn, will enjoy the results.

 

Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Athens, Georgia. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael’s fiction has appeared in dozens of venues, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and PodCastle. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.

 

 

 

 

Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published at Escape Pod , Strange Horizons, and Fiyah!.  Khaalidah is also co-editor at Podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to immortality.

 

 

 

 


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MOVIE REVIEW: Arrival

written by David Steffen

Arrival is a science fiction first contact movie released in November 2016, which is based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.  The movie stars Amy Adams, with Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner.

The movie begins shortly after 12 gigantic alien aircraft suddenly appear over various places around the globe, including one in the United States in an isolated spot in Montana.  Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), struggling with memories of a lost daughter, is recruited by Army Colonel Weber (Whitaker) to find out why the aliens have come and what they want.  Louise leads the team alongside Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist aiming to use science as the medium of communication.  It’s a race against time, because the other 11 eleven alien vessels are communicating with the governments and militaries of other countries.  Do they mean us harm?  Are they willing to share their technology?  Will they share weapons?  What if they share weapons with all those they are in contact with? What if they share weapons with only some of them?  What if the aliens support one country against another. The Army has set up protocols for the meetings, about what exact topics may be spoken of, and exactly how the aliens can be approached, but Louise is willing to take big risks to try to make a breakthrough happen.  Meanwhile, as Louise becomes more and more fatigued from overworking, she struggles with memories of the loss of her daughter, coming to mind at odd moments.

This movie was very good and had me captivated throughout.  The casting was great, and Amy Adams in particular did a solid job.   The scenes in the aliens were the highlight of the movie for me, as one is watching their every movement and the team’s translations for signs of their intent, and the different concepts of the alien language were very interesting.  I appreciated that the trailers for the movie were very low-key–they didn’t give me a particular feeling about whether the aliens were hostile or not, so I honestly had no idea whatsoever what to expect.  For a movie like that, that’s what I really want, is to just find out as it happens with no advertising preconceptions.

I quite liked the special effects in the movie.  They are not the most flashy, but I thought they did well to add to the aura of mystery around the aliens–these days I find flashy special effects rather boring, because they’re a dime a dozen, it’s nice to see some other effect wrought from them.

The only minor quibble that I had is that it uses the Sapir-Worf Hypothesis of linguistics to justify some parts of the movie, and by what I understand (as someone who is not a linguist) the hypothesis has been largely discredited based on lack of data support.  But, it feels plausible to me, and works to me as a storytelling element, even if I was picking at that edge a little bit.

I haven’t read the short story that it’s based on, but I’ve heard that the movie did it justice reasonably well, and that it is one of Ted Chiang’s best.  Saying that it’s “one of Ted Chiang’s best” is no minor feat–he is not prolific, but every story of his that I’ve read has been incredibly well done.  You can read it as part of his collection Story of Your Life and Other Stories.  I definitely need to read that.

I highly recommend the movie.