Saturday Storytime: Andromache and the Dragon

Oh, this story. This is a first fiction publication for Brittany Pladek.

“Why are you still here, human?” she asked, looking sideways at Andromache. “We have made our pact.”“I’m interested,” said Andromache.

“Hrm,” the dragon replied. Her long tongue flickered higher. With a crackle, her splintery jaws widened and her throat undulated with swallowing. The dragon finished her first mouthful, and the sour brown of her scale-leaves seemed to soften. A sated sigh rippled the branches cradling her belly.

Andromache stepped forward so she was in the dragon’s line of sight. “What do desires taste like?” she asked.

The dragon’s eye, a single gleaming berry, turned towards her. “You see,” she continued, “we — I — only feel wants. I can only know what I desire and desire it. I have no sense for its flavors, its complexities. But you will taste all of ours.” The eye did not turn. “I am curious about the difference.”

Dragons do not smile, but the thicket of that massive body flared its twigs for a moment. The dragon lowered her head to reveal a second berry of deep sea green.

“What do you want, human?”

“I — ”

With a dart like a sparrow, the dragon’s tongue flicked out and danced over the crown of Andromache’s head.

“Your need tastes like emptiness,” she rumbled, “like the crumbled soil in the hole where a tree has been uprooted, or the ache of a missing limb.” Her eyes glowed. “Do you know this need, human?”

Andromache stared back. The old loss rose through her limbs like blood, and her shoulders straightened as they always did, with almost the same vigor as she had felt when her husband had held them, a long time ago. “I know it,” she said quietly.

Raising her head, the dragon rustled her body in approval, each slim twig quaking with what Andromache guessed was laughter.

“You do!” she said. “How unusual. You are a step ahead of your fellows. They do not know what they want, and so they do not know when I have taken it.”

“That can’t be true.”

“It is.”

“I spoke with one yesterday,” Andromache continued, “and the child she will bear has made her happier than anything ever could.”

The dragon laughed again, rustling. “Not all desires are so simple,” she said. “Even if your friend’s child had been that day’s tribute.”

“Then what — ”

But the dragon’s tongue had flicked up again, and her jaw’s branches were unlacing. As she lifted her nose, the lattice of her chest bellied outwards, and her pliant throat undulated. She seemed to drink — not one sip this time, but long full draughts. A tender green blushed the dry leaves of her scales. Andromache watched in silence as the drab, parched fingers of the scrub brush plumped with a satiety they had never known. The bare branches of the dragon’s ribs clouded with leaves; her tail and muzzle flashed in flowers that curled immediately into berries. On the grey beach washed with grey waves she stood on the sand, a hymn of light and color, a singing forest, complete unto herself.

After the final draught, the dragon turned again to Andromache. Her head hung with eyes. “I am full,” she said in a voice of leaves and water. “Will you come again, human?”

For a long moment, Andromache stared at her many shining eyes. Then she said, “I will.”

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Saturday Storytime: Andromache and the Dragon
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Saturday Storytime: The House that Made the Sixteen Loops of Time

I try to notice new names when I’m reading for this feature. One of the glories of the current F&SF short story market is that it’s big enough to give us a chance to discover new authors. Still, even when I find someone new to me, it’s rarely a first sale. This story from Tamsyn Muir is an exception.

Daniel, though, had bore up well. He’d only once really lost his temper, when her kitchen parsley bit his fingers: “Why can’t you have a normal house instead of—this stupid, temperamental Disney shack,” he’d snapped. “And the water pressure is terrible.” For five weeks neither of his cellphones got reception there and Danny banged all the doors.

But with Daniel, any annoyance he demonstrated was usually awkwardness, and under the staid curtness of his day-to-day Chartered Stockbroker face he liked chinchillas as well as laptops. They were two people who understood each other completely: She understood his irritability, his privacy, his inability to be serious with her when he was serious all day with everyone else. He understood just about everything with her, including a lot of things she wished he didn’t. They were as devoted to each other as two people could be, and every lunchtime when he was at his office desk and she was marking university papers they would ring up to ask what the other was eating. Accepting her magical house was a small issue.

Anyway, anything 14 Arden Lane did never lasted; when the house felt it had made its point, it stopped. Usually. One of the chinchillas had been purple forever.

Now that she was forty-two Rosamund Tilly could tell when the build-ups were reaching explosion point. The ivy trellises around the house would be taut and trembling, the pretty crazy-paved path curling inward trying to claw the long grass verge. Even the dust would smell like firework smoke as she dragged a cloth haphazardly over her collections of glass cats. Years ago a build-up had made her accidentally wipe off her youngest daughter’s eyebrows, and Snowdrop had gone around with her fringe brushed down and full of bitter complaints. Her tweenage feelings had been further hurt by her mother finding it hilarious, but the point was underscored: Rosamund Tilly really couldn’t control what happened or when.

Thursday week the house made her hiccup a butterfly, and at that point she knew there was going to be a problem. 14 Arden Lane was of late empty and lonely now that it had lost the children and most of the chinchillas, and the house would sullenly take it out on her in sometimes vicious ways. Just a month ago great snakelike twists of wormy mud slithered out the kitchen sink, coiling over her dishes and bending her forks, and that had made Dr. Tilly remember the crabs.

That night Danny came over from the office after a long day of chartered stockbrokering and surfed pictures of cats on his laptop as she fidgeted. “A watched pot never boils,” he said.

“Don’t give the house ideas with ‘boil,’ you animal.”

“Remember how aggressive it got when you put down new carpet, with the chimney and the goats?” He was clicking through pictures of disapproving rabbits, sitting next to her on the sofa. “I’m waiting for the day when you form a new plane of existence and your evil self replaces you, and I’ll be able to tell her by the moustache.”

“You are so flip,” said Rosamund. “Why do you have to be so flip?”

“I’m just here to look after you, Rose,” he said, and that was pretty adorable so she put her feet into his lap and prodded his computer with her socks. Daniel Tsai had long-sufferingly helped her raise two children, sixteen chinchillas and read her thesis, but he’d been obliged to: In primary school they had exchanged teal and fuschia friendship bracelets, a lifelong commitment if ever there was one. “Well? Go on and tell the house to hurry up, as the suspense is killing me.”

Rosamund Tilly folded herself into a lotus pose instead, which always gently bemused him and disgusted her two daughters. Being able to fold oneself into a lotus was a payoff from having done yoga when it wasn’t popular and being a hippie when it wasn’t fun anymore, when she’d prided herself on having the widest bellbottoms in all Hartford and fifty-six recipes involving carob. When she had moved into 14 Arden Lane she’d had carrot-coloured hair so long she could sit on it and towered three inches over Danny, who wasn’t short, so she supposed the house had liked her out of pure shock.

Her ears popped, like they did on a descending airplane. “I think something’s coming,” she said.

Danny was looking at cats again. “So’s Christmas.”

Not a lot happened, at first. There was a little tingly smell like ozone, and a sense that she’d just breathed in a lungful of water and had to spit it out. Needle-sharp shivers started at her ankles and worked their way up. She closed her eyes very tightly, and when she opened them again there was Danny, waiting, eyes crinkling a little quizzically.

“Well?” he said. “Did worlds collide?”

“Not for me,” she said, and the sensation flared briefly again: more like the shadow of a feeling than the first sharp injection of it. Her vision blurred a little, but she wasn’t sure as they hadn’t turned on all the lights in the sitting-room. The house liked it when they thought conscientiously about the environment. Dr. Tilly worried that something dreadful was about to happen.

“Well?” Danny said. “Did worlds collide?”

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Saturday Storytime: The House that Made the Sixteen Loops of Time

Saturday Storytime: This is the Hardest Thing I Do All Day

This story from Alexandra Grunberg went nowhere I expected from its beginning. It was a pleasant surprise in all the best ways.

“Wow, you literally have no idea how to have fun. Here, let me help you,” said Zach, jumping to his feet and pulling Peter up with him.

“You see that girl over there?” he asked, pointing to the far corner. Of course Peter had seen her. She was the first person Peter saw when he arrived that night.

She was the reason he always arrived ten minutes late on Tuesdays, because he knew that she left work ten minutes late and he wanted to pass by her in the parking lot. She was the reason he had bought a big book of Sudoku puzzles, because he had seen her making her own puzzles in a notebook during a D-Section employee meeting and hoped that one day she would catch him working on them. She was the reason he had started listening to classical music and researched St. Bernards, because he had overheard her telling a friend she always thought of the dog when she heard the name “Beethoven.” She was the little piece in the puzzle of his life that never quite fit, forcing in a special spot each day, a small imperfection to an otherwise unchanging routine, and therefore made it perfect.

“The one with the black hair?”

“Yes, the beautiful girl with the black hair,” laughed Zachary. “That’s Rose. The girl she’s drinking with, Kelly, well, she and I have a bit of a history, and I was just chatting with them and happened to figure out that Rose is single. Hint, hint. Maybe we should go over and talk to them.”

“Do you really think I’m so lame that I need you to set me up with someone?”

“Yes. Yes I do.”

“You can go over and talk to them,” said Peter. “I’m going to get another beer.”

“Jesus Christ, you’re making this difficult. Well, just so you know, Kelly was open to having a mini get-together back at my place after this blows over. If you’re interested, I’m sure Rose will be there. If you’re not interested, I’m making you go anyway.”

Zachary wandered off to help a couple of interns who were setting up a beer pong table. Peter walked over to the bonfire where someone had brought up three large ice coolers. The ice had already melted, but there were still plenty of cans in the lukewarm water.

Peter was surprised to see BB standing by the bonfire. Because the fire was still going strong, Peter guessed that BB had been ordered to bring up a steady supply of unusable data. But at the moment, the little guy was frozen still, his little head tilted upwards, the camera facing the night sky. He was so still, Peter worried that he had suffered some major malfunction.

A young man whose shirt had come completely undone staggered over to BB and placed his beer on the robot’s head. Peter saw the flimsy metal cave slightly under the weight. He ran over and grabbed the beer, throwing it off the roof.

“What’s your problem, dude?”

“This is expensive company property,” said Peter.

The man staggered off toward the beer pong table and BB rolled around to face Peter.

“How are you doing, BB?” asked Peter.

“I’m fine, thank you.”

Peter waited for the robot to roll out, but it did not move.

“Got some work to do?” asked Peter.

“Yes, sir.”

The robot stayed in place. Peter was worried. First the printer, then the transmitter. He hoped BB was not failing on him, too.

“What’s wrong BB?”

Peter heard that strange sound again, the small release of air as BB lifted his head to the sky.

“This is the hardest thing I do all day.”

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Saturday Storytime: This is the Hardest Thing I Do All Day

Saturday Storytime: Killing Time

I’ve been throwing some tough stories out here lately. For a brief change of pace, let’s go with this “cozy” from Jennifer Moore.

“Come on, Ms. Priver,”he thought, checking his watch. “I haven’t got all day.” It was always depressing to fall behind on the first job of the morning. “What’s keeping you?”

But when the door was eventually opened, after a toe-scuffing two and a half minute wait on the leaf-strewn doorstep, it wasn’t Antonia standing there. Death thought he recognised the dressing-gowned old woman, peering out at him from the coolness of the tiled hallway, as her grandmother. Yes. They were old friends in fact. That’s to say their paths had crossed a couple of times before, which was as close to friendship as Death ever got. As unpleasant occupations went, his was right up there with sewerage plant worker and taxman. No one ever wanted to sit next to the reaper at parties. And dating was proving a complete no-no too, thanks to the uncompromising hours.

“Hello,” murmured the old lady, the word loitering somewhere between a question and an apology.

“Ah, Madame Priver. I’m sorry to call so early. I was looking for Antonia.”

The old lady’s eyes narrowed to thin black hyphens as she tried to remember what her granddaughter had told her about letting strange men into the house.

“Have you come to read the meter?”

“No,” smiled Death. “I’m here to see Antonia.”

“What’s the password?”

Death sighed. Young people were by far the hardest part of his job, but it was almost as cruel to keep the old ones hanging on so long. To wait until Time had already ravaged their minds.

He fixed his attention on the tight grey bun on top of the woman’s thinning scalp and plunged into the tangled chaos of her thoughts. An ailing cat jostled for attention with her great uncle’s butterfly collection. Characters from her favourite novel argued over an inheritance while her younger brother drowned unnoticed in her grandfather’s pond. Fragments of shopping lists and a recipe for apple almond tart had twisted themselves around her seventeenth birthday. Odd words fluttered above the general mêlée. Death seized one at random.

“Molecular?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t think it was that.”

He tried another. “Laburnum?”

She rolled it over on her tongue, head to one side. “Laburnum, laburnum. Hmm, I’m rather afraid we chopped it down. It’s poisonous, you know.”

“Pacific? Viper? Baguette?”

“Baguette.” She smiled triumphantly. “Yes that’s it. I knew it was something to do with cheese. My late husband was French.”

Death stepped across the threshold.  “Ah yes, Albert.  I remember him well.  Such a shame about his heart.”

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Saturday Storytime: Killing Time

Saturday Storytime: A Call to Arms for Deceased Authors’ Rights

I read the title of this story by Karin Tidbeck and thought, “Okay, but how does that make a story?” Then I read it. I don’t know whether it will resonate as well with anyone who isn’t a writer, but oof.

What I didn’t know was that Johanna had been keeping tabs on me. About at the same time that my own project came to a close, she asked if I’d be interested in writing commissioned text for someone else. I was over the moon. Sure, I wouldn’t be working with my own material, but I would get to write. It could be a way to get into the business.

“The job’s a bit odd,” she said, “but I know you don’t have a problem with weird stuff.”

“Sure,” I said. “What is it?”

She opened her mouth, but jumped, as if she’d received a shock (and she had).

After a moment she said, “It’s sort of like ghostwriting.”

The agency was located in an anonymous–looking building in the northern part of Stockholm. The man who received me introduced himself as Henrik. He looked as generic as the Ikea–neat office: white, blond, forty–something, business casual. He offered me coffee from a shiny espresso machine and looked at my CV, work samples, and recommendations. A recommendation from Johanna counted for a lot. We talked about myself and my work experience in general terms, and he gave me a spiel stuffed with marketing lingo and broad descriptions that said nothing about the agency except that they hired ghostwriters. Then he set a document in front of me on the table. It was a non–disclosure agreement.

“I can’t give you any more details until you’ve signed this,” he said.

I thought it strange to have to sign a non–disclosure agreement before finding out what the job really was, but I was desperate for the job. In my case this clause proved unnecessary. When Henrik had told me what my job would be, I said yes almost before he’d closed his mouth. What geek wouldn’t? Magic, for real. My greatest childhood dream. Everything I had fantasized about as a teenager with Book of the Law and Necronomicon on my lap. That’s when Henrik brought out the actual contract.

This part was a letdown. When someone says, “You’re going to take notes from dead writers,” it’s not unreasonable to expect a contract on vellum, some Latin or Hebrew, a pentagram or two, something that says ritual magic and secret masses. But no. It looked like any other service contract, and I had to sign it with a regular pen. But then Henrik brought out a lancet and asked me to hold my hand out. He pricked my left thumb, then had me put my thumbprint next to my name. The instant I touched the paper, I had the sensation of being watched by an intangible Something.

“Welcome to the agency,” Henrik said and shook my hand.

I had no regrets. Magic existed. It was a dry sort of magic that smelled more of new car than frankincense, but it was there. It was only when I went to bed, and felt that presence watching me, that I wondered what I had gotten myself into. But by then it was already done.

Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: A Call to Arms for Deceased Authors’ Rights”

Saturday Storytime: A Call to Arms for Deceased Authors’ Rights

Saturday Storytime: Aye, and Gomorrah . . .

Hmm. Looking around, I see I’ve never posted a Samuel Delany story here. That’s quite the oversight. Thanks to Strange Horizons for the prompt.

At which point Kelly noticed what was going on around us, got an ashcan cover, and ran into the pissoir, banging the walls. Five guys scooted out; even a big pissoir only holds four.

A very blond man put his hand on my arm and smiled, “Don’t you think, Spacer, that you . . . people should leave?”

I looked at his hand on my blue uniform. “Est-ce que tu es un frelk?

His eyebrows rose, then he shook his head. “Une frelk,” he corrected. “No. I am not. Sadly for me. You look as though you may once have been a man. But now . . .” He smiled. “You have nothing for me now. The police.” He nodded across the street where I noticed the gendarmerie for the first time. “They don’t bother us. You are strangers, though. . . .”

But Muse was already yelling, “Hey, come on! Let’s get out of here, huh?” And left.

And went up again.

And came down in Houston:

“Goddamn!” Muse said. “Gemini Flight Control—you mean this is where it all started? Let’s get out of here, please!

So took a bus out through Pasadena, then the monoline to Galveston, and were going to take it down the Gulf, but Lou found a couple with a pickup truck—

“Glad to give you a ride, Spacers. You people up there on them planets and things, doing all that good work for the government.”

—who were going south, them and the baby, so we rode in the back for two hundred and fifty miles of sun and wind.

“You think they’re frelks?” Lou asked, elbowing me. “I bet they’re frelks. They’re just waiting for us give ’em the come-on.”

“Cut it out. They’re a nice, stupid pair of country kids.”

“That don’t mean they ain’t frelks!”

“You don’t trust anybody, do you?”

“No.”

And finally a bus again that rattled us through Brownsville and across the border into Matamoros, where we staggered down the steps into the dust and the scorched evening, with a lot of Mexicans and chickens and Texas Gulf shrimp fishermen—who smelled worst—and we shouted the loudest. Forty-three whores—I counted—had turned out for the shrimp fishermen, and by the time we had broken two of the windows in the bus station they were all laughing. The shrimp fishermen said they wouldn’t buy us no food but would get us drunk if we wanted, ’cause that was the custom with shrimp fishermen. But we yelled, broke another window; then, while I was lying on my back on the telegraph office steps, singing, a woman with dark lips bent over and put her hand on my cheek. “You are very sweet.” Her rough hair fell forward. “But the men, they are standing around and watching you. And that is taking up time. Sadly, their time is our money. Spacer, do you not think you . . . people should leave?”

I grabbed her wrist. “¡Usted!” I whispered. “¿Usted es una frelka?

Frelko en español.” She smiled and patted the sunburst that hung from my belt buckle. “Sorry. But you have nothing that . . . would be useful to me. It is too bad, for you look like you were once a woman, no? And I like women, too. . . .”

I rolled off the porch.

“Is this a drag, or is this a drag!” Muse was shouting. “Come on! Let’s go!

We managed to get back to Houston before dawn, somehow.

And went up.

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Saturday Storytime: Aye, and Gomorrah . . .

Saturday Storytime: Bloodless

This story by Cory Skerry continues F&SF’s long and honored tradition of making us think hard about who the monsters are and what makes them monsters.

Fresh snowfall had softened the world that afternoon, and as dusk fell, the sky cleared enough to release a bright moon. Kamalija leaned against the wall’s stones, rough and pitted with centuries of weather, and watched the shadows of the woods. She wanted to kill something, wanted to feel the hum of her knives in the chill air. They were carved from her grandfather’s bones, etched with sigils of silver and set with garnets. He’d been a gate guardian, like her, and she imagined she could feel his ghost’s approval when she set the blades to their task.

A leather wineskin slapped into the powdery snow at her feet, emanating heat and the reek of fresh death. It contained a well-fitted wooden stopper carved in the shape of a wolf’s head.

Now that he’d given his presence away, Lafiik sauntered out of the blackness between the firs. “I noticed your heirs forgot to feed you tonight,” he said.

Kamalija didn’t move. “Life should never be stolen.”

“You’d take mine, wouldn’t you?”

“If you come so close, you offer it to me.”

Lafiik chuckled. “It was a deer, O Exalted Guardian. Drink with a clear conscience, but drink now, before it cools.”

“We wouldn’t feed a gift from you to even the most ill-behaved of our dogs, joskri,” she said.

His smile faded, but he walked closer. Closer. Her fingers tensed on the handles of her knives.

“Do you think we’re so different, that what you name joskri is a beast, like a wolf or lion?”

“I’d sooner sup with a wolf or sleep beside a lion.”

“Neither you nor I sleep,” Lafiik said, amused. He stopped just outside her circle—he must have been watching her for days or weeks before he’d shown himself, because he knew exactly how far she could reach. Kamalija’s witch star burned its righteous warmth in her chest, a gift for the bloodless warrior against the bloodless anathema. He’d been stalking her.

“They told me everything they told you,” he said. “They’re lying.”

Lafiik gripped the hem of his tunic and peeled up his shirt.

And then he stepped into her circle, as vulnerable as she ever could have wanted. Kamalija knew it must be a trick; she darted forward, knives out, but fell to a crouch three steps short. Snow piled in furrows in front of her boots.

Lafiik waited, his silver-brown skin so like hers, his nipples and navel dark against that expanse of cold flesh. Purple scars, like hers, ragged down the center of his chest. Was that supposed to prove something? All the bloodless she’d killed had those scars—the demons could propagate in an honorless parody of the sacred ritual.

“I mean it,” he said. “Feel my star.”

“You don’t have a star.”

“A landslide destroyed my city’s wall, and my blood circle along with it. When your circle is broken, you are freed—not dead. Feel my star,” he repeated.

He was so still he might as well have been truly dead. They would be there all night, she supposed, waiting to fight. She couldn’t understand what ruse this was, and after so many years of nothing, she found peculiarity, and the curiosity that came with it, intoxicating.

Before she could talk sense to herself, she tucked one blade into the sheath in her sleeve, and still holding the other, she placed a palm against his chest.

The heat struck her hand a half of a second before she even touched his skin. The contact didn’t burn—it was pleasant, just like her star, the only heat in an otherwise dry and cold existence—but the act burned something else, some part of her she didn’t have a name for.

“Kamalija!”

The voice came from behind her, from the gate.

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Saturday Storytime: Bloodless

Saturday Storytime: Love Will Tear Us Apart

There is literally nothing I can say about this story by Alaya Dawn Johnson that won’t lessen it. You’re just going to have to read it.

Think of it like the best macaroni and cheese you’ve ever had. No neon yellow Velveeta and bread crumbs. I’m talking gourmet cheddar, the expensive stuff from Vermont that crackles as it melts into that crust on top. Imagine if right before you were about to tear into it, the mac and cheese starts talking to you? And it’s really cool. It likes Joy Division more than New Order, and owns every Sonic Youth album, and saw you in the audience at the latest Arctic Monkeys concert, though you were too stoned to notice anything but the clearly sub–par cheesy mac you’d brought with you.

And what if he—I mean “it”—were really hot? Tall and lanky and weirdly well muscled, with bright blue eyes and ginger hair? So, he smells like the best meal you’ve ever eaten, but you kind of want to bone him too. Can’t have it both ways. You aren’t a necro. But a boy’s got to eat—maybe you could just nibble a bit at the edges? A part he won’t miss, and then fuck the rest of him. Eat an arm or something. He can still fuck with one arm. Not that well, though. Probably wouldn’t like it. Okay, a hand. Who ever needed a left hand? Then you remember that Jack—that’s his name, the mac and cheese—plays lacrosse. That’s probably where he got all those yummy muscles. You need two hands for lacrosse.

A pinky? Damn, you might as well starve yourself.

And you had it all planned out. You and Jack have shared an art class for the last three weeks. You were going to admire the mobile he’s been making (a twisted metal tower dangling with shattered CDs and beer tabs), look deep into his eyes, invite him back home with you to play Halo or smoke hash or whatever, and then devour him in the woods off of Route 25. Those woods are the local hunting range. You’ve done it at least a dozen times before, though not to your actual classmates at Edward R. Murrow High, your newest school.

Liking your meal too much to kill him? That’s a first.

“Pizzicato Five?” you say, catching on to the tail end of Jack’s sentence. “Who’re they?”

His eyes light up. Not literally, but they get really large and you can see the blue of his irises all spangly and flecked around his dilated pupils. Bug eyes, you usually call that look.

“Dude, they’re awesome,” he says. “Harajuku pop. Yeah, I know, you’re thinking about that Gwen Stefani crap, like, ‘I totally thought Jack had better taste,’ but don’t worry, this is the real stuff. It’s all ironic and postmodern. James Bond on a Nipponese acid trip in a bukkake club.”

“Wow,” you say, ’cause honestly you can only deal in monosyllables at this point.

“Hey, we can walk to my place from here. You wanna come over? I have a few of their albums.”

So you don’t get anywhere near Route 25. Which is good. You don’t want to eat him, and you can still smell your leftovers there. The whole thing is weirding you out. You—I don’t know—you like him. Like like him. You think you had a little sister once who would say it just like that. You don’t remember eating her, but you can’t be sure. And what would Jack think if he knew you were some monster who couldn’t even remember if he ate his sister alive?

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Saturday Storytime: Love Will Tear Us Apart

Saturday Storytime: Godwin’s Law

Though this story by Curtis C. Chen is about lasting ripples from World War II, it doesn’t feature quite the Hitler–or the Godwin–you know.

Michael walked to the memorial wall. The flags were as he remembered—USA on the left, CIA on the right—but the field of black stars floating above the white marble had multiplied since the last time he’d seen it. He now counted more than a hundred stars, each one representing a Company employee who had died in the line of service.

He stepped closer and looked at the Book of Honor, framed in steel and glass below the starfield. Less than half the gold sigils painted in the book’s pages had names written next to them, either in English or Runic.

Is your name in here, Linda? Are you one of these stars?

“Michael,” said a gravelly voice behind him.

Robert Denford didn’t look like he’d aged a single day since Michael left the Company. The two men shook hands coolly.

“How’ve you been?” Denford asked.

Michael glanced back at the wall. “You said it was a matter of historic importance. That’s the only reason I’m here.”

“Let’s go to the archives.”

Michael followed Denford into an elevator. Denford pushed a button.

“I hear you made deputy director,” Michael said as the doors closed.

Denford shrugged. “War is good for business.”


Before the elevator reached the basement, Denford pulled out his access talisman and opened a portal in the back wall. He and Michael stepped through the glowing circle and into a dim cave. There was no way to tell where this archive was; CIA had secret underground caches all over the world.

The two men walked down a long aisle of bookshelves that looked as if they had grown right out of the rough-hewn rock walls. Michael watched Denford pull one shelf out from the wall and unfold it into an impossibly large space. They stepped inside, and Denford parted another set of shelves.

Michael saw labels reading MIDWAY and MARSHALL ISLANDS on his way into a closet walled by what looked like multicolored curtains, but were actually floor-to-ceiling file volumes. He looked around in awe. The Company hadn’t used curtain files since—

“World War Two?” Michael asked.

Denford tugged a cloth line, and the material poured into his hand and became a hardbound book. “This is why we’re here.”

Michael read the book cover. “Hitler’s daughter. You’re joking, right?”

“The old man wants complete discretion. That’s why I called you.”

“I’m retired,” Michael said. “You can get someone more expert to tell you, authoritatively, that this is a crock. Something the Third Reich made up to scare the Allies as a last resort.”

“So you’ve heard the stories.”

“Yeah. Nazis raping Jewish and Romani prisoners, trying to breed supernatural talents into the master race. It didn’t work.”

Denford reached into his jacket and pulled out a modern file folder, bordered in red-and-white eyes-only logograms. The symbols shifted and moved over the paper. “There’s evidence that it did.”

“If you actually had convincing proof, you’d be talking to the JIC.”

“You’re right,” Denford said. “It’s promising, but not convincing. We need someone to run it down. Quietly. The old man trusts you.”

“And no one would suspect an elderly college professor.”

Denford smiled. “Everybody fights.”

Michael took the file. “Nobody wins.”

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Saturday Storytime: Godwin’s Law

Saturday Storytime: Night’s Slow Poison

Ann Leckie is a Tor author whose books are published by Orbit and a bestselling, award-winning author whose books no one reads or likes. And one has to wonder whether the people saying these things, after reading this story, would think it’s all worth it.

The Jewel of Athat was mainly a cargo ship, and most spaces were narrow and cramped. Like the Outer Station, where it was docked, it was austere, its decks and bulkheads scuffed and dingy with age. Inarakhat Kels, armed, and properly masked, had already turned away one passenger, and now he stood in the passageway that led from the station to the ship, awaiting the next.

The man approached, striding as though the confined space did not constrain him. He wore a kilt and embroidered blouse. His skin was light brown, his hair dark and straight, cut short. And his eyes . . . Inarakhat Kels felt abashed. He had thought that in his years of dealing with outsiders he had lost his squeamishness at looking strangers in the face.

The man glanced over his shoulder, and cocked an eyebrow. “She was angry.” The corners of his mouth twitched in a suppressed grin.

“One regrets.” Inarakhat Kels frowned behind his mask. “Who?”

“The woman in line before me. I take it you refused to let her board?”

“She carried undeclared communication implants.” Privately, Kels suspected her of being a spy for the Radchaai, but he did not say this. “One is, of course, most sorry for her inconvenience, but . . . ”

“I’m not,” the man interrupted. “She nearly ruined my supper last night insisting that I give up my seat, since she was certain she was of a higher caste than I.”

“Did you?”

“I did not,” said the man. “I am not from Xum, nor are we anywhere near it, so why should I bow to their customs? And then this morning she shoved herself in front of me as we waited outside.” He grinned fully. “I confess myself relieved at not having to spend six months with her as a fellow passenger.”

“Ah,” Kels said, his voice noncommittal. The grin, the angle of the man’s jaw—now he understood why the eyes had affected him. But he had no time for old memories. He consulted his list. “You are Awt Emnys, from the Gerentate.” The man acknowledged this. “Your reason for visiting Ghaon?”

“My grandmother was Ghaonish,” Awt Emnys said, eyes sober that had previously been amused. “I never knew her, and no one can tell me much about her. I hope to learn more in Athat.”

Whoever she was, she had been from the Ghem agnate, Kels was certain. His eyes, his mouth, the line of his chin . . . With just a little more information, Kels could tell Awt which house his grandmother had been born in. “One wishes you good fortune in your search, Honored Awt,” he said, with a small bow he could not suppress.

Awt Emnys smiled in return, and bowed respectfully. “I thank you, Honored,” he said. “I understand I must disable any communications implants.”

“If they are re-activated during the voyage, we will take any steps necessary to preserve the safety of the ship.”

Awt’s glanced at the gun at Kels’ waist. “Of course. But is it really so dangerous?”

“About three months in,” said Kels, in his blandest voice, “we will pass the last ship that attempted to traverse the Crawl with live communications. It will be visible from the passengers’ lounge.”

Awt grinned. “I have an abiding wish to die old, in my bed. Preferably after a long and boring life tracking warehouse inventories.”

Kels allowed himself a small smile. “One wishes you success,” he said, and stepped aside, pressing against the wall so that Awt could pass him. “Your belongings will be delivered to your cabin.”

“I thank you, Honored.” Awt brushed Kels as he passed, awakening some unfamiliar emotion in him.

“Good voyage,” Kels murmured to the other man’s back, but there was no sign Awt had heard.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: Night’s Slow Poison