Saturday Storytime: Bride Price

This story from S. E. Jones really didn’t go where I expected it to. I rather like the differences.

Late-1800s charcoal drawing of a young woman reading a page she's pulled out of a wooden desk. Circular vignette.
The family hall was tucked behind the children’s hospital. The road was dotted with skeletal plane trees, their leaves long since stolen by winter. Against the brick of the surrounding buildings, the hall looked odd—an Edwardian manor untouched by time.

Well. The great magical families had never been shy about protecting their own property while letting everything else burn. The blitz of World War Two had made much less of a dent in their holdings than in those of the general public. They had lost just as many buildings in the resulting public anger before they had joined the war effort, but that was the foresight of the great families—keeping themselves separate until reality forced them to participate in society.

Not that they’d learned yet—her bride price was not something anyone would be able to bid for. No, only those with magic in their blood need apply.

Kyria slipped in through the old servants’ door. Her footsteps echoed as she made her way down the corridor.

Her father would be in the ancestors’ hall. When built, it had been furnished with a throne and portraits of old men of power. Anything to make visitors feel small.

Now, the throne was gone, and the hall was divided into two meeting rooms, connected to each other by a single door. The walls were a product of the old messy feuds that came with the interbreeding between magical families. Now they just cut down on the heating bills.

Kyria made her way to the first meeting room. The portraits stared down at four chairs, each occupied by a man. One chair stood empty.

So these were her supposed suitors. Quick off the mark. That made them very rich or very poor. Either eager to cement their legacy, or desperate to start one.

Damn them all and all their legacies to hell. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: Bride Price”

Saturday Storytime: Bride Price

Saturday Storytime: Hiranyagarbha

This story from Kevin Jared Hosein is just one piece in Lightspeed Magazine‘s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Flash Fiction! issue. There’s a whole bunch more great short fiction to check out as well.

But I stop myself. I had to call Yadav to see this. So when Yadav and me come back to the spot, we come prepared, camera and all. We didn’t really know what to expect. To be honest, I thought we was gon find something similar to what happen in Brazil a few years back—where the Rio Doce was running red after a dam collapse and spill iron into her veins. Didn’t have nothing like no oil rig or ore mine set up shop anywhere near Caroni Swamp, though—didn’t matter. We just wanted to be the first to see. At least, we coulda claim that.

The water was shallow enough to wade round near the mangroves. We take a cutlass and chop a path through where the gold fluid was seeping out. The colour got deeper and deeper. I coulda see where it was coming from. I squint my eyes and bam!—a frantic fish hawk nearly knock me over. I swing my blade at it and damn near cut Yadav’s head clean off. He cussed me for five minutes straight. Wasn’t only the fish hawk was acting up, though. The herons was going mad, hopping and zipping from bough to bough, crashing into each other, colliding into the mangroves. Bubbles form where the golden pool began, surrounded by groupers, snook, catfish—all belly-up, some of them completely coated in gold. A tree boa looked down at the pool, its body looped round itself in a double-knot. Probably the only animal not joining in the cacophony.

Yadav, who was almost as loud as the birds, dwindle into silence when he laid eyes on the shimmering pool. My chest tensed up and tickled, like there was a humming in it. The pool was an unnatural gold—unnatural to the swamp and everything round it, couldn’t even tell if it was solid or liquid. Reminded me of them glutinous algal blooms you’d see in ponds near farms. Was it a sap? Leakage from some pipe we didn’t know nothing of? Maybe some radioactive mineral? It had a slight glow. Honestly, first thing I thought about when I saw it was Hiranyagarbha from the Vedas, the golden womb that was the source of all the universe.

But this thing wasn’t sacred. I wasn’t going near it, but Yadav dip his hands—his bare hands—in it. It’s warm, he say. When he pulled his fingers out, they were gold.

Your fingers arright? I ask him.

Just numb. Can’t feel much, he say.

Later in the day, the gold creep along to his palm and then his wrist. By the time morning come, it infest his entire arm. His arm wasn’t solid gold, no. It had the texture of a scab. We rush him to the hospital, but nobody know what to do except drown him in sedatives. They call a man, who then call a next man—and before we know it, had a team of university researchers and scientists standing over Yadav’s cot, fingers to lips, silently observing the golden scab as it spread to his collar. Before nightfall, it engulfed his neck and he was dead. The doc say that it collapse the cartilage in his windpipe.

Two months later, three white men fly down here to Trinidad, asking me to see the pool. They tell me that they’s from an American TV show—Paranormalists or something like that. I ain’t gone back to the pool since the time with Yadav, and sure as shit ain’t want to now. But the money they’s offering—shit, that is white people money.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: Hiranyagarbha

Saturday Storytime: The Drowning Line

This story from Haralambi Markov is one of those fantasies you think could be metaphor until the end, when it still could be but you really hope it isn’t.

“Don’t frighten her.”

“I’m frightening her?!” David does all he can to keep his voice low, working on bandaging the wound in a squat. His hands move fast. His touch is unforgiving. “You can drop dead from blood loss any minute now. Don’t talk to me about fear.”

“What do you want me to do, David? I go to therapy. I take the fucking meds. You want me to chain myself to the bed now, too?”

David flinches at that last bit. So the though had crossed his mind.

“It’s five AM and I have work in four hours. I startle every time I don’t feel you next to me. I fear next time I wake up to an empty bed, it’ll be the last. This is fucking unbearable.”

He breaks down. I have never seen him cry like that. Una breathes more laboriously low, on the verge of crying. I comfort them both as I guide them inside the car and take the driver’s seat.

I drive on the way back and tell my husband everything he needs to hear—slowly and with conviction, a recital of sweet nothings. What I really do is think about the man in the water, my family’s legacy and undoing. The one Una will inherit once I die. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: The Drowning Line”

Saturday Storytime: The Drowning Line

Saturday Storytime: Deathlight

Sometimes you just have to try, whatever the cost, as Mari Ness reminds us.

If she killed him, the ship would use a little—just a little—less energy. She could stay warmer just a little longer.

If she killed him, she would probably die. He was, after all, why they were both alive.

And also why they might both die.

The drop mission had been routine, exactly like their last two. Exactly. So exactly that she’d often found herself blinking and needing to check chronometers to remember exactly when they were, especially when they’d found themselves rewatching vids, rehashing conversations. Probably why she had made the tiniest, tiniest navigational error, had forgotten once—just once—to do a routine maintenance check. Probably why he, in turn, had forgotten his own maintenance check.

They still might have lost fuel.

They still might have decided to cross through this nebula to save time. To end this journey just a little faster. To move on.

All kinds of things might have happened. What mattered now was what had happened.

And now this.

We shouldn’t have done this one.

IRIAN discouraged pairs from doing more than one mission; regulations set a non-negotiable limit of three. When Els first joined, she’d found that ridiculous to deeply short-sighted: Surely, if a pair worked well together, it was in IRIAN’s best interest to keep them together? She and Dun were perfectly matched on all levels: His strengths compensated for her weaknesses, and vice versa; they’d had parallel but not equivalent training; more importantly, he’d made her laugh. A year into their first mission, and they were best friends; a half a year later, lovers. Signing up for a second mission felt only natural. She couldn’t even think of enduring deep space with anyone else.

On this mission, they were both so desperate to finish, to end it—

His fault.

You need him alive.

I need him dead. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: Deathlight”

Saturday Storytime: Deathlight

Saturday Storytime: The Destroyer

Tara Isabella Burton reminds us that every unhappy family is uniquely unhappy–though some people may find some resonance with this mother and daughter in an alternate Rome.

Long before my mother destroyed the world, her experiments were quieter, more contained. They did not obliterate continents. They did not rack up the dead.

She began as a domestic researcher in the household of an Umbrian merchant, engineering fish with mirrored scales. She told me how he loved to see his own face reflected, one and then a thousand and then another hundred times; how he filled the fountains with so many that there was no room to breathe or swim; how she woke up one morning to find that they had devoured one another, and left the fountains overflowing with blood.

He did not recognize her genius. For him she was only a carnival magician: a maker of flower stems that shattered like glass, and three-headed dogs, and the many-faced prisms that years later gave me nightmares of mirrors that did not end. Women’s work, he said. Not science. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: The Destroyer”

Saturday Storytime: The Destroyer

Saturday Storytime: How High Your Gods Can Count

A lovely little creation story from Tegan Moore. Or not so lovely. Depends on your perspective, I suppose.

The visions have been walking among the temple ruins with us for months. They mingle with the tourists, climbing steps next to them in grotesque parallel. They squat and cringe where the human children run to catch up with their pink-shouldered parents.

Something big must be moving, to stir up so much. It makes us all uneasy.

A human boy has a bag of something salty and orange. The morsels fit my fingers perfectly, the shapes pleasantly dry, the crunch between my molars a unique delight. Around me are others, yearlings of my troop mostly, the bold ones. We scrap over the handfuls the boy throws. A big, nasty yearling plucks my crunchy bit straight from my cheek and eats it. I scream at him and he screams at me and we chase each other, fists raised. I would kill him for this, maybe, or at least pull his hair until he bled, if there was no promise of more crunchy things.

The human boy laughs. The bag is tilted as though it might spill. The boy eats a crunchy bit himself. The troop watches his hand move to his face.

A vision rises nearby. This would scatter the troop if there was no food to keep us fixed here, but we want more of what is in that bag.

It is a vision of the turkeys, when they flocked against us. Their eyes are wicked, dark beads. In this vision, they outrun one of our children. They swarm him. Their claws and beaks never seemed threatening when we kept them penned, but the gods have sharpened them with righteous ruination. The child’s screaming echoes through our memory.

The human boy takes another crispy bit from the bag and waves it. The nasty yearling steps forward. The boy puts the food in his mouth. The yearling grimaces. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: How High Your Gods Can Count”

Saturday Storytime: How High Your Gods Can Count

Saturday Storytime: Mika Model

As someone who does a lot of “adjusting their programming” to fit the world around them, I’m just going to be over here thinking about this Paolo Bacigalupi story for a while.

I realized I was staring, and she was watching me with that familiar knowing smile playing across her lips.

Innocent, but not.

This was what the world was coming to. A robot woman who got you so tangled up you could barely remember your job.

I forced myself to lean back, pretending nonchalance that felt transparent, even as I did it. “How can I help you … Mika?”

“I think I need a lawyer.”

“A lawyer?”

“Yes, please.” She nodded shyly. “If that’s all right with you, sir.”

The way she said “sir” kicked off a super-heated cascade of inappropriate fantasies. I looked away, my face heating up. Christ, I was fifteen again around this girl.

It’s just software. It’s what she’s designed to do.

That was the truth. She was just a bunch of chips and silicon and digital decision trees. It was all wrapped in a lush package, sure, but she was designed to manipulate. Even now she was studying my heart rate and eye dilation, skin temperature and moisture, scanning me for microexpressions of attraction, disgust, fear, desire. All of it processed in milliseconds, and adjusting her behavior accordingly. Popular Science had done a whole spread on the Mika Model brain.

And it wasn’t just her watching me that dictated how she behaved. It was all the Mika Models, all of them out in the world, all of them learning on the job, discovering whatever made their owners gasp. Tens of thousands of them now, all of them wirelessly uploading their knowledge constantly (and completely confidentially, Executive Pleasures assured clients), so that all her sisters could benefit from nightly software and behavior updates.

In one advertisement, Mika Model glanced knowingly over her shoulder and simply asked:

“When has a relationship actually gotten better with age?”

And then she’d thrown back her head and laughed.

So it was all fake. Mika didn’t actually care about me, or want me. She was just running through her designated behavior algorithms, doing whatever it took to make me blush, and then doing it more, because I had.

Even though I knew she was jerking my chain, the lizard part of my brain responded anyway. I could feel myself being manipulated, and yet I was enjoying it, humoring her, playing the game of seduction that she encouraged.

“What do you need a lawyer for?” I asked, smiling.

She leaned forward, conspiratorial. Her hair cascaded prettily and she tucked it behind a delicate ear.

“It’s a little private.”

As she moved, her blouse tightened against her curves. Buttons strained against fabric.

Fifty-thousand dollars’ worth of A.I. tease.

“Is this a prank?” I asked. “Did your owner send you in here?”

“No. Not a prank.”

She set her Nordstrom bag down between us. Reached in and hauled out a man’s severed head. Dropped it, still dripping blood, on top of my paperwork.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: Mika Model

Saturday Storytime: The Blood That Pulses in the Veins of One

If you have a tough time with body horror, you might want to give this story from JY Yang a pass. Otherwise, stick with it for the payoff.

They are cutting you out of me, these creatures in their sealed white suits. Piece by piece their knives and curiosity are divorcing the gifts you have given me from the gifts I have prepared for you. Gone is the eye that gazed out over the cyan–purple sunset on Taurus 4. Severed are the muscles of the forearm which sculpted your old flesh into masterpieces. A gap yawns where once was the tongue that tasted your rich adventures.

My lips are dry and cracked. I cannot lick them.

The younger one wields the knife today. His name is Marjan and his golden–toned flesh looks about 20 years old, in the way terrestrians count their age. My forearm, the same one they’ve excavated from, is back in the metal vice. Marjan stretches its split skin and wedges cold metal forceps into the work pit, where muscles glisten and blood pulses weakly in bluish cords. His heavily gloved fingers reach in, and pain spasms up the shackled arm as he presses down.

—Whoa. Come check this out.

—What is it? Have you found something significant?

—Yeah, you need to get over here and see for yourself.

His supervisor leaves the churning sequencer and comes across the sterile floor of the lab, white and cumulaic in her hazard suit, blending into her surroundings like the camouflage of terrestrian animals. Her name is Jae. She leans over and peers through the glass of her helmet at my immobilized limb.

—You see that?

—Hmm. Yes.

She takes the forceps from him and elicits more pain–spasms from the arm. With my remaining eye I observe the purse of her lips as she examines the feeble fightback of my flesh.

—That’s definitely new growth, right? The muscle is regenerating!

—Looks like it. Quite remarkable.

—You wanna test it too? We should take a sample.

—Just take one. As small as you can. I want to monitor the regeneration process.

—Sweet. Prof Liu is gonna be thrilled.

Marjan picks up his scalpel. They want more from me, but this time it doesn’t matter. I have not eaten. I am pinned down to a steel table in a box of unbreakable glass and plastic. The air here is irradiated to sterility, an artificial and flavourless concoction of nitrogen/oxygen/carbon dioxide. If my core has dredged matter from these meager surroundings for fleshcrafting, it is meaningless. Utterly meaningless. Take it all away.

The pain begins afresh. I close my remaining eye. I must, I must, I must: Hold on to the memories. Not let trauma erode them. Remember all that has passed since we last met. They can take all the organic extrusions they want but they cannot take this.

Start: A mirror to this butcher’s table, the last time we met: The point from which your memories and mine diverge: The point at which I killed you: The point at which the vault of your body was sealed: The point at which its inventory of treasures locked down and made immutable:

It goes like this:

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: The Blood That Pulses in the Veins of One

Saturday Storytime: For Digital Girls Who Drink Tonic Water at the Bar When Purple Rain Isn’t Enough

You get exactly zero guesses why I felt the need to share this story from Afrofuturist Ytasha L. Womack this week.

This place serves no coffee and if you’re looking for a quick snack, forget about it. This is a hall for drinkers. If we were in Beowulf, I’d yell for someone to pass the mead. This place is all red light bulbs, shadows, flashing balls on screens and intoxicating electrically charged house beats. I’m a sparkling disco ball in a place like this. But everyone’s so chill. They’re such a been there, done that kind of crowd that my arrival is an afterthought.

So I pull up to the bar, order tonic water, and the regulars shake their heads. Being diet conscious is a no go at this calorie laden spot, but I’ve earned the privilege of ordering an occasional nonalcoholic beverage and as a result I’m not tossed out of my seat with VIP.

And I worked hard for this privilege.

Just as I was guzzling my tonic, between cheering for the March Madness star of the hour, a figure pulled up beside me and slid another tonic my way.

“Pour toi,” he said.

His name was Andrew, he said. A tall, attractive lanky brown man with a blond buzz cut and black rimmed glasses, he rocked red skinny jeans and a matching jacket with silver buttons, high top black All Star kicks and a vintage Harold Washington button on his red blazer.

Andrew said he was a newcomer, an Iowa state grad who moved to Chicago to launch his start- up dreams. He didn’t follow basketball much. But he was a tonic water drinker too, he said, and felt that the two of us should bond over fizz and bubbles. I’ve talked to men who like fizz and bubbles, but I’ve never talked to a man who didn’t follow basketball. Hmmm.

“What’s your start up?” I asked.

“It’s a little complicated,” he whiffed, shoving a handful of popcorn in his mouth from the trough they serve in the back.

“Try me,” I said.

“It’s a brain trust,” he said matter-of-factly, like it was some kind of insider trading terminology that stockbrokers use.

“Like a think tank,” I said, thinking of the DC policy wonks and their political foibles.

“Not quite,” he said, sniffing. “We upload neural data for safe keeping.”

“You file research?” I added, not quite sure what he meant, but still trying to eye the screen and keep pace with the too cute frenetic players on screen. Swish. But my halfhearted attention wasn’t doing it for Andrew, who swiveled on the swivel-less bar stool to devote his full energy to the explanation.

“Imagine,” he said, “a loved one has critical information for you. An answer to a question, a key to a lock, and directions to something lost, but they never had an opportunity to share it with you. They passed on and the information is gone.

“Um hmm,” I said.

“Gone,” he repeated, emphasizing the “g” like some frat boy dance stomp at the end of a step show phrase. “What if you could retrieve that information?” he said, his eyes twinkling.

What if you could? I thought. I looked to the flat screen for comfort, but the players running up and down the court couldn’t outrace my uneasiness at Andrew’s speculations.

“Modern man has walked the earth for hundreds of thousands of years,” he said. “And with each new generation, we gain as much information as we lose. You can’t tell me that no one in human history ever had the cure to cancer or the true map of the pyramids. Libraries have burned. Cities have disintegrated. Files and discs destroyed. With death, we lose data and each generation is forced to chug along building from what’s left. There’s got to be a better way.”

“So you want to stop death?” I said, my voice hovering just above a whisper. We were interrupted by cheers from the revelers. Someone dunked, but I was no longer paying attention to the screen. Andrew had me captivated. He leaned into my ear.

“I wish,” he said. “My company has acquired a technology that encodes messages and memories, like uploading your brain onto a database.”

“No way,” I shouted. The VIPers looked my way. They were suspicious of the tall stranger and perked up just in case. And like good protective men, they should be.

“We’re past the testing phase,” Andrew continued. “Several hundred people have already gone through the process. They’re mostly seniors who want their families to have access to family history. But it’s just the beginning, and we’re growing . . . fast.”

One of the VIPers, the former athlete who doubles as bar big brother tapped my shoulder. I nodded, indicating that I was safe and he returned his gaze to the racing dribblers on the screen.

What Andrew was talking about was pure madness, but something about his work and easy going demeanor kept me glued. Was he a government agent? Was he a specialized scientist who’d seen the unseen?

I felt like I was getting classified information and tried to remain as calm as possible, as if this was the most normal conversation in the world. And maybe in today’s world it was. “How many people you looking to upload?” I asked.

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Saturday Storytime: For Digital Girls Who Drink Tonic Water at the Bar When Purple Rain Isn’t Enough

Saturday Storytime: The Knobby Giraffe

When I studied physics, my consuming visualizations were limited to photons and reflection and color. This story by Rudy Rucker takes things just a little further, but the sensation is awfully familiar.

“Logged my hundredth hour on the MRI today,” I was telling her that night in December. It was snowing, with all Manhattan clean and still. “I feel like I’m approaching a state where I can tweak the cosmos,” I said. “Doing it with my head.”

“You’re beating a dead Schrödinger’s cat,” said Shirley. “Or is it alive?” Being a hard-core physics prof, she wasn’t taking my ideas very seriously.

“Listen, Shirley, after my session today, I did a bunch of coin flips and I scored nine heads in a row.”

“The odds against that are over five hundred to one!” exclaimed Shirley, mocking me with fake enthusiasm. “Final proof that Irit Ziv’s mind has attained direct matter control! Quantum telekinesis!”

“Why do you always tease me?” I asked. “Can’t anyone around here be smart except you?”

“You’re smart, Irit, but you’re up a blind alley. Listen to me. The physics department is not going to approve a pile of self-aggrandizing crap. You’re like a little girl making up stories about herself. I can fly! Watch me jump off the couch!”

“You’re supposed to be my thesis advisor,” I said, suddenly close to tears. Shirley had never spoken quite so harshly to me before. “I’ve been counting on you to win over the committee.”

“I adore you, Irit, but there’s only so far I can go. Everyone knows we’re lovers. If your thesis is crap and I push it—then I look crooked. Or like a fool. You have to give your ideas an academic slant, babe. Make them look respectable.”

“In my introduction, I have a whole history-of-science thing about Leibniz’s Monadology,” I said. “Which for some reason you refuse to read. Everything’s a monad, right? Particles are monads, but so are bricks, dogs, and cities. There’s no preferred level of scale.”

“What would a monad look like if it was actually real?” asked Shirley.

“They’re like, uh, little balls or blobs. They’re shiny and they reflect each other. Like ornaments on a Christmas tree. And thanks to the reflections, the monads are in eternal harmony. They’re computing the world in parallel.”

“The committee’s going to ask what’s inside one of those mirror balls,” said Shirley.

“A parameter,” I said. “The secret code for the world.” I smiled, happy with this idea. “It’s the same parameter inside every monad. The monads are like a zillion parallel computers crunching away on the same program.”

“Not bad,” said Shirley. “Be sure to say it’s a quantum computation. And say it’s all happening in Hilbert space. That’s what quantum physicists like to hear about.”

“Okay, fine,” I said. “And instead of saying the monads reflect each other, I can say they’re quantum entangled. So if you change one monad, you change ’em all. But don’t forget I want to work my way around to direct matter control. If you can connect with the secret code inside even one monad, you’re like a god.”

Shirley paused for a minute, then sighed and shook her head. “That kind of talk is not going to fly, Irit. We’re the physics department, okay? No superpowers. You’ve got to produce a formula. A formula that specifies how your monads behave. Call it Monadrule.” Shirley was writing on a piece of paper while she talked. Something she liked to do. “You’ll say that our universe is being computed as Monadrule[secretcode]. The secretcode is an arbitrary initial input. Like a number, or a specific point in Hilbert space. Maybe you can suggest some possible toy-universe-type values for secretcode. But mainly you need a precise symbolic description of Monadrule. Otherwise you’re coming into your thesis defense like a crazy mumbling acidhead. And I’d have to vote thumbs down.”

“What about my graphs of me meditating inside the MRI?” I said. “Aren’t they enough?”

“They’re worthless crap,” said Shirley. “Nobody cares about them. Stop stalling, Irit. Do some actual frikkin’ work.”

And at this point I lost it. “Snobby goody-goody,” I yelled. “I wish you were dead.” And then I stormed into the soft snowy night and hooked up with a cute woman from the Physics 101 lab section I was in charge of. Spent the night at her place.

The next morning I hear that Shirley is dead.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: The Knobby Giraffe