Saturday Storytime: Godfall

I don’t know yet how I feel about the ending of this story from Sandra Odell, but the worldbuilding hooked me so hard, I don’t care.

Tully brought the skiff in from the south. The blue mountains of Maya’s feet rose against the sky, each toe adorned with a massive gold ring inlaid with cobras crowned with lotus blossoms. By the looks of the gold and white flags, the feet had already been claimed by the Vatican. It must have galled Pope Innocent XVI to accept the UN award for the feet of a Hindu god.

The god’s legs rested to one side, knees slightly bent, thick thighs leading to the fleshy invitation of her belly. Tully couldn’t see the upper arms, but her lower right arm lay across her midriff, while the lower left arm lay flung to the side, a cosmic afterthought. Immense gold bracelets at the wrists framed the wealth of rings on both hands. Beyond her breasts would be the treasures of her shoulders and head. This looked to be a good haul. Plenty of gold and industrial grade diamonds in the rings; uranium and other heavy metals could be extracted from the bones.

A rush of wind brought the mingled smells of iron, copper, patchouli, and a special scent that was distinctly…Maya. Tully couldn’t think of any other way to label it. The think-boy who figured out a way to bottle that scent would make millions.

Marco nodded in the direction of the UN flyers patrolling the boundaries of the fall zone. “The dogs are out in force.”

Tully allowed himself a moment to admire the view of the younger man against the fore rail. Dark skin, dark hair, nice ass. Too bad Marco had signed on as a helper. Tully made it a point to never mix business with pleasure.

“They’re just doing their jobs,” he said.

Marco looked up. “How long did you say we have?”

Tully squinted at the flyers circling the distortion in the air high above Maya’s midriff. The tangle of colors, the improbable angles that echoed in his joints, made them want to bend in sympathetic symmetry. He returned his attention to the controls. Gates always made him a little queasy. “It’s still small yet. The UN says three days, maybe four.”

He eased the skiff around Maya’s toes to the tops of her feet dark with henna. Workers on the maze of scaffolding in the ankle creases watched them pass overhead. A message ping warned that the skiff had violated Canadian airspace and should depart immediately. With a slurp of coffee and an acknowledging ping, Tully turned the skiff over the ankles to Maya’s calves. The Canadians had ground-to-air missiles.

Maya had settled into the ground five, maybe ten feet. In the muggy heat, it wouldn’t take long for the god’s skin to pale to a meaty gray, then she would start to swell. And stink. It would be bad. With any luck and a returned call from Ali Bob, they’d be long gone by then.

A mob of maybe five-hundred strong milled around the Red Cross tent city set well back from Maya’s out-flung left hand. They screamed at the flyers, at Her Most Revered Corpse, at the scrapper teams plundering Maya’s remains, at the aid workers searching for survivors in the surrounding rubble of stone, steel, and shattered lives. Radio chatter claimed at least three-million dead, possibly as high as five-and-a-half million.

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Saturday Storytime: Godfall
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Saturday Storytime: Tower of the Rosewater Goblet

Sometimes it’s not about the stories but about who gets to tell them. This is by Nin Harris.

In the sylvan city of Tare, deep within the ornate forest the Yroi called the Svieg, lurked a strange contrivance that was known as a “mechanical moveable type”. Erheani learned to work with the machine, which could produce six dozen pamphlets per day. She learned the ways of setting up different typefaces. She helped cast the clay and bronze tablets that were fitted into the steam-powered printing press machines. Because of a finite supply of water and coal, the machines could not produce more pages, nor could the pamphlets be longer than ten pages apiece. This had always seemed so limited to Erheani. She fantasized about stories that were so long, it would take weeks to finish reading them.

“Are you done with setting the plates yet, Er-hee?”

Erheani looked up from the bronze moveable type plates she was setting with the Dvenri letters, punctuation marks, and illustrations. It was from a series of pamphlets that recounted Dvenri folktales, banned by the Yroi Empire as being seditious.

“Almost done Lee-Lee, I just need to make sure everything is aligned just so,” Erheani said.

Erheani’s family was informed by telegram of the delay. She assured her father that the delay was temporary. She perhaps did not tell him that she had escape from bandits who had captured their wagon-train, carrying the Book of Living Testimony and the precious bags of bronze and silver coins with her. She did not explain the things she had learned in the terrifying forests of the Svieg. She did not explain how they had met. Madame Li-Yan had been gathering sweet-smelling herbs for her medicinal teas and long-boiling soups. Their eyes had met in startled recognition a split second before Madame Li-Yan registered that the Mirozhi girl was in fatigued trauma. She did not explain that it was Madame Li-Yan’s money that was paying for the telegrams, and for her room and board, or the fact that the room she was given was not the one she slept in every night.

She did tell them that she was in an apprenticeship, and that it would augment her future studies in Lith Gurland.

“Almost there is too slow! No need to be so perfect. Just make sure the letters print right. I think you already have got it.”

“Alright! Alright! I am done!”

Erheani allowed Madame Li-Yan to inspect her handiwork. Madame Li-yan nodded in satisfaction.

“You have learned very fast, Er-hee. Are you sure you will not stay with me? Learn to be a Master Printer, and write your stories so we can print them.”

Erheani shook her head.

“I want to be a Master Storyteller, Lee-Lee.”

Madame Li-Yan threw Erheani a skeptical look.

“So you think you will attain this in the grand city of the Yroi who have colonized both our lands? What good do you think will come of it, Er-hee? Your stories are good. No, they are better than good. Almost every night we go to The Bronze Wok, and almost every night we get the Master Chew personally cooking our dinner because of your stories. I have never eaten so well in my life.”

Erheani stopped working, and wiped her ink-stained fingers carefully on a damp cloth. “Lee-Lee, my family saved their money so that I would be able to be a Master Storyteller. It is not just my dream, it is theirs as well. I would love to stay here and be with you, this life is beautiful.”

She took Madame Li-Yan’s hand and squeezed it tight. “I have obligations, Li-Yan. I cannot let my family down.”

Madame Li-Yan looked thoughtful.

“You have made my printing press a lot of money, Er-hee, and I have paid you a generous salary. I can double that amount so you can return all that money to your family.”

Erheani stared at Madame Li-Yan, flushing a little in embarrassment.

“You would do that for me? I am not sure I would be comfortable with that.”

The woman smiled, “I’d be doing that for my business, silly. I have tripled my publishing output since you joined the firm. But this is also because I do not think you will be happy in Lith Gurland. Stay here, prosper, and when we have free time we can visit Lith Gurland together. Perhaps,” and here the woman hesitated, “Perhaps we could rent a small apartment across from the Clockwork Fountain? Wouldn’t that be nice? I would like to collect some supplies so we can try out that new idea of yours as well. Engine-powered moveable types that are able to run for a day sounds intriguing. We would be tourists, not supplicants.”

Erheani frowned, “But, if I don’t try to be a Master Storyteller, I’ll always wonder, Lee-lee.”

“This is Tare, the city of dissidents, artists, and people who work for change. Why would you not stay here where you can do so much good? Why do you want to go all the way to that cruel, glittering city that will wear you down?”

“I’ll always wonder, Lee-lee. That wondering might kill me.”

Madame Li-Yan’s eyes were devastated, but her voice was kind, “Sometimes wondering is better. But if that is your wish, I will not keep you.”

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Saturday Storytime: Tower of the Rosewater Goblet

Saturday Storytime: The Savannah Liars Tour

Some days you’re reading along, thinking, “This is a good story. That one is interesting. Hmm, I like that.” Then you hit one like this from Will McIntosh, and you say, “Oh.”

Jillian was waiting at the curb with the Mercedes running, the heat cranked uncomfortably high for my benefit. My old, familiar friend guilt joined me as I slid into the passenger seat.

“Good visit? How are your Mom and Dad?” The corner of Jillian’s eye crinkled as she smiled, but it was a tense smile.

“Great. Great. No sign of Mom’s cancer recurring, and you’d never know Dad had suffered a massive heart attack.” It was an old joke, and my delivery was wooden.

I turned on the radio, tuned it to NPR, where a journalist was relating a conversation she’d had with John F. Kennedy in the afterlife.

“You want to have lunch at Chur—”

“Did you see Delilah as well?” Jillian asked before I could finish. For the past few months, Jillian hadn’t asked that question. The question—the only truly irreconcilable thorn in our eight years of marriage.

“You know I always do.” I tried to sound matter-of-fact, but defensiveness leaked into my tone.

“What did you talk about?”

“Just . . . nothing much. Music, mostly.”

“You still haven’t told her about me?”

And there it was. “She’s dead, Jillian. It’s not like I’m seeing another woman. I’m visiting the soul of my late wife.” I dragged my hand down my face, feeling exhausted, knowing the route this conversation would take and dreading the ride.

“How much of the hour did you spend with her?”

I folded my arms across my chest, realized what a stereotypically defensive posture that was, and quickly unfolded them. “You know how hard it is to judge time in there. I visit the people I’ve lost. You knew who I’d lost when you met me, and you knew I visited them.”

Things had become so much more complicated since that innocent time when I’d promised Delilah I’d always visit her, no matter what. Everyone in Delilah’s life had broken promises—her sister, her mother, the men she’d loved before me. She deserved to have one person she could believe in, and twenty-two years ago I swore I’d be that person. When I made that promise, Delilah said she wasn’t asking me to never love again, only that I reserve a small corner of my heart for her.

The thing was, my love for Delilah never managed to stay in one small corner of my heart. It took up more like half, try as I might to contain it. Did loving her too much mean I should renege on my promise?

I shouldn’t have allowed myself to love someone else in the first place. When I met Jillian, I’d been alone for ten years. That had seemed like enough time to grieve, even if visiting Delilah tended to keep the wound open.

Jillian pulled into the driveway, turned off the ignition. “It’s dangerous, going under as often as you do. You’re not twenty-five anymore.”

“The Surgeon General says cryogenic sleep is safe up to fifty.” What Jillian was really saying was the visits were expensive. Outrageously expensive. We could afford it, though. I wasn’t driving us into bankruptcy or anything.

Jillian sighed. She took my hand. “I know you’re in an impossible position. I know that. But you have to see how hard this is for me, especially with us talking about having a child.”

I squeezed her hand. “I do. I’m sorry this is so complicated.”

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Saturday Storytime: The Savannah Liars Tour

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

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