about the author… Hi! I’m Jen Finelli, and I’m a professional author, content-consultant, and ghost-writer deeply in love. Because I’m also a med student, and doctors are weird, I try to write things that make people leak bodily fluids. Like tears of hope. Or “OMG-THAT-WAS-AWESOME-I-JUST-WET-MY-PANTS.” Or the inspired sweat of fighting for what matters.
Explosive things, kind superheroes, crude secret agents, sparkly fairies, biochemistry, guns, facts, and offensive gods show up in my pages, and sometimes that gets me published or gets me money or gets me in trouble. If you want to get to know me a little, or tell me about the things YOU like, you should follow me on twitter. You’ll get a free short story if you do.
about the narrator… J.S. Arquin is a writer, actor, musician, stiltwalker, and renaissance man. (Or maybe he really just likes wearing tights.) He has performed and traveled all over the world, and has lived in many places, including New Jersey, San Francisco, and Greece. He currently resides in his favorite place of them all, Portland, OR, where he gleefully rides his bike in the rain year round. His narrations have also been featured on very fine podcasts such as Starship Sofa and Cast of Wonders, and you might occasionally hear him on his own show, The Overcast.
Brain Worms and White Whales
by Jen Finelli
My name isn’t Spaceman Spiff, and if you call me Ishmael I’ll knock the chewing gum right out of your mouth.
Actually, can I get a piece of that? We don’t get gum up here.
Thanks. I know you’re new here—service droid, right?—so take a look around before I explain why I called you into my office. Heads up, it’s because you did something bad. See this pose? My boots on my desk, arms crossed, limitless backdrop of space out the window behind me as ignored in all its glory as a homemaker whose husband works overtime for secretary kisses? Yeah, this pose, this clean wooden desk, this suitcase full of old Colt firearms behind me, they all mean something.
They mean I’m a man with a past and I like to shoot things.
Let’s back it up from spaceman-with-gun to college-kid-seeking-job. This starts on June 4, 2014. I’m strolling into the parking lot. Sun shining on pavement that can fry eggs, kids screaming that Johnny got the bigger half of the Kit-Kat and it’s just not fair, teens driving Mustangs too fast over speed bumps, soccer moms packing detergent into minivans—you know the scene. I’m parked at the far end of the lot because walking builds character. Not because I’m paranoid the greasy-haired supermarket greeter wants to follow me and collect my fingernails, or because the cute cashier-girl might misinterpret my salmon-colored moped for something less manly than lightish-red.
That greeter’s creepy, though.
I’ve just dropped off my application to work as a cart-pusher, and I’m cursing my sweaty palms, when one of those Mustang-driving teenagers vrooms by, too close. I leap onto the hood of the nearest parked car. It screeches. I screech. I tumble off the car and brush myself off, shushing the honking car alarm in my fright—er, in my fast reflexes. “Sheesh, calm down!” I glance around, hoping to God no one else saw that, and scramble for my moped, hands shaking a bit as I try to force the key into the ignition. “Calm down,” I repeat.
I do feel calmer as I rev up the engine and drive away—it’s okay. It looks like cashier-girl didn’t see me freak out, and greasy-creepster didn’t follow me, and anyway the wind in my thick hair soothes me. That’s the best thing about being Viet-American, this cool hair. The hair, and the Pho. And the patriotic grandparents with tragic war stories that stir your soul and make you wish you weren’t such a wimp. I mean, when Ong noi was my age he was wading wetlands with snakes so poisonous you die two steps after they bite you. And fighting communists. I’m not a Red Scare kinda person, but I have my feelings about what happened to South Vietnam after the Americans pulled out. I don’t actually know what those feelings are. Mostly they’re a wiggling, like I have to go to the bathroom, every time my white friends talk about the sixties.
about the author… Helena Bell is a poet and writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina where she is an MFAcandidate in Fiction at NC State University. She has a BA, another MFA, a JD, and an LLMin Taxation which fulfills her lifelong ambition of having more letters follow her name than are actually in it. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Workshop and her fiction and poetry have appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Electric Velocipede, the Indiana Review, Margie Review, Pedestal Magazine and Rattle. Her story “Robot” was a nominee for the 2012 Nebula Award for Best Short Story, and her website is www.helbell.com.
about the narrator… Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas with her husband of twenty-five years and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming and gardening. She has a self-published novel entitled An Unproductive Woman, has published a at Escape Pod and has a story upcoming in the An Alphabet of Embers anthology, STRAEON 3, and Diabolical Plots. Khaalidah is the Assistant Editor at Podcastle. She is on a mission to encourage more women to submit SFF stories.
Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to long youth.
You can catch her posts at her website, www.khaalidah.com, and you can follow her on twitter, @khaalidah.
by Helena Bell
The last part of himself my husband will lose to his ghost will be his teeth. There will be a graying out, a glint of silver as the calcium is absorbed, repurposed. A few may be pushed out to fall onto his pillow like pale, rotten splinters. The process will take days or only hours depending on the molecular compatibility between the human and Sentin. My husband has excellent compatibility, they tell me. We are so lucky.
When my husband and his ghost sleep, I lift the corners of his mouth and peer inside him with a dim flashlight. Incisor, cuspid, molar. I count the line of them and wonder at what age each came in. I think of his older brothers tying one end of a string around one of his baby teeth, the other to a brick to be thrown from a second floor balcony. I think of the first apple he ever tried to eat, of pulling back to find a tiny bump of white against the red skin. Sometimes I count his teeth twice, itching to run my finger along his gums to feel for the metal threads racing through his body. The doctors tell me we have decades left, but they have been wrong before.
My husband’s ghost began as a silver fist clenched at the center of his spleen. A team of technicians placed it there, a tangle of wires and other bits which they claimed would absorb and reconstitute his damaged tissue. Sentin is not self-aware, they said; it is not alive in the usual sense. It can neither feel nor understand, merely mimic the thing which came before. When it senses potential failure, it stretches its roots like a weed, eliminating the weak and buttressing the strong.
We each held the ball of putty in our hands, pulling and stretching it to see if we could break it. We marveled at how it snapped back to its original, perfect shape each time.
On the day Auston Habershaw was born, Skylab fell from the heavens. This foretold two possible fates: supervillain or scifi/fantasy author. Fortunately he chose the latter, and spends his time imagining the could-be and the never-was rather than disintegrating the moon with his volcano laser. He lives and works in Boston, MA.
Auston is a winner of the Writers of the Future Contest (2nd place in quarter 1, 2014) and has published stories in Analog, The Sword and Laser Anthology, and Stupefying Stories. His debut novel, The Iron Ring (Book 1 in the Saga of the Redeemed), will be released on 2/10/15.
about the narrator…
Jeff Ronner is a voice actor, audio engineer, and sound designer. His work has appeared in radio and TV commercials on this planet, and he’s considering doing a series of translations with an advertising group on Theta Prime. But they’re demanding several body parts from him as a retainer, so he’s currently keeping a low profile traveling throughout Australia.
Adaptation and Predation
by Auston Habershaw
Everyone thrives in someone else’s version of hell. For the Quinix, this meant sheer canyon walls a hundred kilometers deep, every surface coated with a thick layer of red-orange vegetation and bioluminescent fungus. The arachnids liked to string cables in complex patterns from wall to canyon wall and built nests where the cables crossed. For them, each oblong, womb-like nest was no doubt cozy and safe. For me and every other off-worlder on Sadura, you were made constantly aware of the fact that, with just the right (or wrong) application of balance, you would plummet to a death so far below that you’d have plenty of time to think about it on the way down.
I’d seen more than a few fall—Dryth tourists to little fluffly Lhassa pups, all screaming their way down into the abyss. In the dim, humid depths of the Saduran canyons, the bodies were hard to find.
For that reason, among others, I came here to kill people for money. I make a good living.
Tonight I had a fat contract on a big Lorca—an apex predator, both because of his fangs and his bank account. As a scavenger, living on the bottom of the food chain my entire life, the irony was delicious. Here I was, a lowly Tohrroid—a slop, a gobbler, a smack—paid top dollar to do in some big shot whose trash my ancestors have been eating for ages. Sooner or later, the bottom feeders always get their due, don’t they?
Either that, or I was going to wind up dead.
I knew the Lorca liked to dine at the Zaltarrie, and I knew he’d be there tonight. I’d spent the last few weeks shadowing one of the wait-staff—a Lhassa mare with the fetching chestnut mane, a full quartet of teats, and the long graceful neck that fit with Lhassa standards of beauty. I had practiced forming her face in a mirror—the big golden-brown eyes with the long, thick lashes were the hardest—and now I had it down pat. I could even copy a couple of her facial expressions.
The Zaltarrie hung like a fat egg-sac in the center of one of the deeper canyons, webbed to the walls by at least five hundred diamond-hard cables, some of which were thick enough to run gondolas from the artificial cave systems that honeycombed the walls and were home to the less authentic Saduran resort locales. The Zaltarrie, though, was all about local flavor and a kind of edgy, exotic energy that appealed to the young, the bold, and the hopelessly cool. (Continue Reading…)
I write fiction, mainly speculative fiction. My stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Podcastle, Daily Science Fiction, GlitterShip,Bizarrocast, Crossed Genres, Lackington’s, Postscripts to Darkness, Waylines, Flash Fiction Online, On Spec, Black Treacle,Spellbound and elsewhere.
You can find the list of stories I’ve had published on the Stories page.
I’m an active member of SFWA. I’m also a member of Ottawa’s East Block Irregulars and the Codex writers’ group. I was lucky enough to benefit from the mentorship of the late Paul Quarrington, through the Humber School for Writers, in 2007. I’m working now on a historical fantasy novel.
Christiana Ellis is an award-winning writer and podcaster, currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her podcast novel, Nina Kimberly the Merciless was both an inaugural nominee for the 2006 Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction: Long Form, as well as a finalist for a 2006 Podcast Peer Award. Nina Kimberly the Merciless is available in print from Dragon Moon Press. Christiana is also the writer, producer and star of Space Casey, a 10-part audiodrama miniseries which won the Gold Mark Time Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Production by the American Society for Science Fiction Audio and the 2008 Parsec Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Drama. In between major projects, Christiana is also the creator and talent of many other podcast productions including Talking About Survivor, Hey, Want to Watch a Movie?and Christiana’s Shallow Thoughts.
The Semaphore Society
by Kate Heartfield
Gia blinks twice to drop the keyboard-display down. She doesn’t want to talk to her mom anymore and that’s the quickest – and, if she’s honest, the most satisfyingly annoying – way to make that clear.
“If you won’t let me help –” her mom says. Her fingers grip the back of Gia’s wheelchair so hard that it shudders, and the monitor screen mounted to one arm of the chair shakes.
Her mother never stops trying to make it all better. Gia is so goddamn sick of it. And she’s itching to log in to the Semaphore Society. Maybe Manon will be back today; she left so abruptly last night. Any conversation that isn’t about therapy or the power of positive thinking would be a relief.
The screen reflects her mom’s slight frown. Her face always looks like that when she worries about her daughter, which is most of the time. She must have worried before, when Gia was a kid, but Gia can’t remember seeing that precise expression before the day she collapsed on her high school’s stage halfway through the opening performance of Pippin.
The first time Gia can remember seeing that expression was later, when Gia woke up in the hospital, when her dad explained that they had found a tumour, that they were going to treat it, but that the bleeding in her brain –
The blinking pattern that pulls up her eye-tracking software is a lot like the blinking that stops tears.
Up it pops, Gia’s blank slate. Her mom hates this flickering-snow screen; it gives her migraines. But she can’t argue against it. It is so much easier on Gia than the keyboard-to-voice interface, with Gia staring at each letter, blinking in frustration to make choices when the eyetracker doesn’t catch her pupil dilation. (A QWERTY keyboard, for God’s sake. It’s not like her finger positions matter. Hands on home row! Her Grade 7 typing class won’t help her now.) (Continue Reading…)
I’m fascinated by how people put amazingness together. Or awfulness (Let’s not pretend schadenfreude doesn’t happen). What field’s doing the assembly changes quite frequently. Sometimes I even try putting together some of it myself. I refuse to comment on which end of the A to A spectrum that falls on.
by Jason Kimble
My favorite part about skimming is that I’m not broken when I do it. It doesn’t matter that I don’t have levels, that I’m on or off, because that’s how everything’s supposed to be when you’re in the hypernet. Even if I’m not supposed to be in the hypernet.
I’m only able to skim because Kaipo left my interface node on. That was the day he told me I could call him Kaipo instead of Dr. Singh. His eyes are different than mine, but that’s not because of the Skew, and even if it is I wouldn’t care, because they’re pretty and dark and they twinkle a little bit when he smiles. We’d had sex twice when he told me I could call him Kaipo if we’re alone. Sex is almost as good as skimming, only it doesn’t last as long, and sometimes I’m stinky afterwards, which I’m not a fan of. Sometimes Kaipo smells like pumpkin, which I’m totally a fan of.
“Hi, Heady,” I say, rolling onto my side on the bed to look at her. I frown, which I know because the muscles at my jawbone ache a little when I frown. “Did you hear all that?”
Heady raises an eyebrow and purses her lips. Heady’s my big sister. Like, really big. Eight and a half feet big. That’s what the Skew did to her, blew her up bigger than life, but I think it suits her. She’s not as tough as she looks to most people, though. She’s totally as tough as she looks to me right now.
“Sorry,” I say, sitting up. “Sometimes I get confused about outside and inside my head.” That’s what the Skew did to me: broke my head. You can see that when I cut my hair or trim my beard, because the hairs change colors each time. Other people tell me it’s silly, but I like it. I can never decide if I like red or blue or green or purple or yellow more, and this way I get to have them all, and all’s better than some.
“Don’t worry, Sy,” she says, because Sy’s my name. “You never have to apologize to me.”
She smiles, and the muscles in my cheeks tense up so I know I’m smiling, too. She’s a good big sister, Heady. Even if she’s not real. (Continue Reading…)
Esther Saxey received her D.Phil. in English literature from the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. She has published on the interconnection of sexuality and narrative in various texts, including Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (Reading The Lord of the Rings, 2006), the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Reading the Vampire Slayer, 2002) and the Love and Rockets comics series by Jaime Hernandez (2006). She has also provided a critical introduction and notes for the Wordsworth editions of The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
about the narrator…
Amanda Ching is a freelance editor and writer. Her work has appeared in WordRiot, Candlemark & Gleam’s Alice: (re)Visions, and every bathroom stall on I-80 from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis. She tweets @cerebralcutlass and blogs at http://amandaching.wordpress.com.
A Day Without Sunshine by E. Saxey
I don’t waste time. I study, I work hard, and when I go out I can squeeze a month of clubbing into one night. Tonight I’m squeezing it in a nasty place in Peckham, South London: no air, and the walls are sweating. I can’t get drunk–I’ve got a lecture tomorrow morning–so I’m dancing myself stupid, twisting my head so quick that my braids twat me in the face.
But across the delirious dance-floor, in the far corner, there’s a pool of stillness. Nobody dancing, everyone chilling, and you, leaning on a wall. You’re a little guy with lush brown eyes, gazing all around you.
I fight my way through the dancers to get to you. I get tangled in arms, fingernails up in my face, but I finally reach you.
“I’m Michelle. I’m doing law. You a student?”
You’re Hesham, twenty-eight, from Cairo. Not studying anything.
As I look at you, my skin tingles. Then I hear a police siren wailing past–of course, we’re next to the fire exit. That’s why there’s a pool of coolness round you.
“This is all excellent,” you say, waving an overpriced beer bottle at the terrible club. I laugh.
“You must be on some good stuff, fam.”
“I’m not! I like places where everyone’s having, oh, as much fun as they can.” You sound shy, formal. My Ma would call you “well brought up”.
Later, you sneak into my sweaty arms. You’re shorter than me and kind of delicate, but you don’t make me feel clumsy. Just strong, as though I could scoop you up.
Like I said, I don’t waste time. “Are you going to invite me back to yours?”
I reckon you’ll get ripped off by the flaky minicabs hovering outside. But you find us a proper black cab. We sit on opposite sides of the big back seat. Up the mangy Old Kent Road we go, across the dark river with both banks twinkling. Past the City, castles of light.
The taxi metre ticks up and up. “Hesham, I can’t split the fare on this!”
That would be me. Michael J. DeLuca. Writer, reader, dreamer, designer, brewer, baker, photographer, philosopher. Would-be ecoterrorist. False prophet. Liberal.
I’m a freelance web designer/developer as well. I have an undergraduate CS degree nobody knows about from a middlingly prestigious east coast university. I’ve been doing this for awhile (10+ years now), I’m not bad at it, and I usually can use more of it to do. Without it, I wouldn’t have enough money to keep myself alive, let alone keep writing (which not unlike crime, doesn’t really pay (me) (see that? nested parenthesis, that’s how you know I’m really a programmer)).
about the narrator…
Paul Cram grew up performing on stage and in more recent years traveling the United States working on independent films.
Paul’s voice is newer to the world of audio than it is to other acting forms. Fans of his voice will hopefully be excited to hear that he has two full-length audio books that came out this year: Zombie apocalypse novel FLIRTING WITH DEATH, and Sci-fi thriller THE FACE STEALER (think X Files or BBC’s Torchwood & Dr. Who.)Cram was most recently seen on set for the feature film WILSON opposite Woody Harrelson, and ANNIVERSARY shot in Maine, USA by movie director Jim Cole.
When not on a movie set or in a recording booth, Paul can be found deep-frying chicken wings with his sister in her kitchen, or quarreling about pop-culture with his little brother around one the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota.
Morning flooded the transparent womb of the ob room. Knuckling his aching skull, Hector twitched the opacity up to a tolerable level and set down his tea, then took the pod out over the ag. The fight with Mela the night before had not been pleasant, but work, he was perpetually astonished to discover, never failed to cheer him.
The conduit was a brilliant white spear overhead, broken by ribs of fair-weather cloud. The ag spread into haze in every direction, curving gently upward with the concavity of the Hypatia’s hull: chessboard squares of rippling corn, glittering rice paddies, apple plots flowering white. Here and there, a skeletal hulk loomed indistinct–some remnant structure of the ship’s propulsion systems, long-dismantled; shade crops grew among latticed shadows.
The crowd of Workers waited below, lens-tipped appendages craned upward. He smiled, in spite of the headache and the persistent awareness that no matter how he chose to rationalize it, everything Mela had said was true. He called up the log feeds. Foreman, they were saying. Foreman, we need your understanding.
He brought the ob room down among them. A grand menagerie they made, his subjects, each finely adapted to its task: delicate pollinators, long-limbed harvesters, knob-treaded aerators, juggernaut ploughs. “You don’t need me,” he said. “Your designers gave you all the understanding you need. But I’m here, ready to listen. I’ll help if I can.”
The oldest of the ploughs rolled forward. Your understanding grants us insight into the will of our designers.
The Workers appreciated repetition. They were simple beings, the product of their design. They believed in an infallible, benevolent humanity the way humanity once believed in angels, the way so many Relics now believed in their inscrutable alien creator, the Ix. And Hector was their ambassador, though he’d only held this job a month and the designers were fifty generations dead.
H1703 has had a dream, said the plough.
The Workers’ reactions flooded the feeds with the euphemistic, agricultural info-speak they used among themselves, too much to decipher. Excitement, urgency. They didn’t know what to think. (Continue Reading…)
I live, work, and write in Seattle, Washington. Gray sky days, abundant restaurant choices, and distant mountains are my idea of paradise.
In 2013 I abandoned my cat, tortoise, and boyfriend to spend six weeks studying writing at Clarion West. The experience taught me to commit myself and do the work, which is a lot less fun than just thinking about writing. It also introduced me to some of the best friends I’ve ever had. If you’re a writer considering whether you should apply, I’m happy to share my take on things. It’s not for everyone. But if it’s right for you, it’s worth it.
My tastes run to modern fantasy with a lyrical edge, though I’ve been writing science fiction, lately. If you’re looking for funny stories with happy endings, I fear you’ve come to the wrong place. I can’t seem to write anything without a dash of heartbreak.
about the narrator…
Erin Bardua is a Canadian singer and performer. She lives in near-rural Canada, where she assembles a living from singing and teaching others to sing. She always has about a dozen projects on the go; some of the more interesting ones have included acting and singing in a serialized film-noir murder mystery, and a collaborative clown opera. Erin is the artistic director of Essential Opera (www.essentialopera.com) which operates in Atlantic Canada and Ontario (so far), and recently rediscovered her writing habit, which she indulges in whenever the house is quiet enough.
Everyone Will Want One
by Kelly Sandoval
On Nancy’s thirteenth birthday, her father takes her to the restaurant he likes, the one with the wood paneling, the oversized chandeliers, and the menus in French. Around them, people talk in low voices but Nancy and her father eat their soup in silence. After the waiter takes the bowls away, her father sets a wrapped box the size of a toaster on the table.
She doesn’t open it, just smoothes down the ribbon and rearranges her silverware. The unsmiling waiter is watching her; she can feel it. She can feel that he doesn’t want her in his restaurant, opening her birthday present. It isn’t a birthday present sort of place, isn’t even a thirteen-year-old in her best dress kind of place. She tries to be very small in her chair.
“Go ahead,” demands her father. “Open it.”
He’s frowning and his frown is much closer than the waiter’s. Nancy picks at the bow, undoing the knot as best she can with her fresh manicure. Checking to make sure the waiter’s not looking, she picks up her knife and slides it under the tape, easing it loose without tearing the shiny paper.
The box inside has the logo of her father’s company on it. Nancy’s tangles her fingers together, stalling. She wants, very much, for it to be a toaster.
“Hurry up,” says her father.
She wants to fold the paper into a crisp square or turn it into a giant origami swan. She wants to pretend that is the present, a sheet of white wrapping paper. Her father clears his throat and she cringes. The box isn’t taped and she tugs it open. Inside, there’s a layer of packing foam, which she picks through, not letting any spill on the table, until her fingers meet fur. The thing in the box is soft, cold, and the size of her two closed fists. She traces the shape of it, four feet, a tail, ears pointed alertly upward.
When, a minute later, she gets it free of the box and shakes the last of the packing foam from its fur, she sees it has the shape of a kitten. Its fur is black and silver, with patterns that look nothing like a real cat’s, all loops and whirling, dizzy spirals. It looks like a synth-pet. They’re popular at her school and her father’s company does make them. But Nancy has a kitten, a dog, and a tiny jeweled unicorn at home. He wouldn’t give her another.
“Thank you,” she says, setting it beside her bread plate. “What is it?”
Tim Pratt lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Heather Shaw and their son River. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, Asimov’s, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Subterranean, and Tor.com, among many other places (for complete details, see his bibliography).
His debut collection Little Gods was published in November of 2003. His second collection, Hart & Boot & Other Stories, appeared in January 2007, and was a World Fantasy Award finalist. Third collection Antiquities and Tangibles and Other Stories appeared in 2013.
First novel The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl was published in late 2005. It was nominated for the Mythopoeic Award, and won a Romantic Times Critic’s Choice Award for best Modern Fantasy, and an Emperor Norton Award (which has the coolest trophy ever: a bust of Joshua Norton).
about the narrator…
Rachael K. Jones is a science fiction and fantasy author, and the co-editor of Podcastle. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons,PodCastle, the Drabblecast, Intergalactic Medicine Show,Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and Penumbra. She has a degree in English and is currently pursuing a second degree in Speech-Language Pathology. She lives in Athens, GA with her husband and perpetual alpha reader, Jason.
You can follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
by Tim Pratt
If you find yourself squatting over a pit toilet while wearing stiletto heels, you’ve made a few bad choices at some point during the evening. I could have taken off my shoes, but then I’d be barefoot, in the woods, in the half-light of a lantern dangling from a tree branch, standing in whatever you can expect to find on the ground around an artisanal hand-excavated poop hole.
Apparently there was a fashion for high-and-low cultural juxtapositions in this particular dimensional node, hence a full fancy-dress party being held in and around a homemade earth-and-sod house lit only by torches. The hors d’oeuvres were processed cheese foam sprayed on mass-produced crackers, served on silver platters passed around by leggy supermodels dressed in hair shirts and stinking rags, plus prune-wine brewed in a ramshackle still and passed around in crystal goblets. Let me tell you something: prune wine goes right through you, so I didn’t even have to pretend I needed to use the facilities when the time came to get in position.
The pit toilet was well back in the woods, some distance behind the sod house, but it nevertheless came equipped with a scrupulously polite bathroom attendant–he was standing on the lowest branch of a nearby tree–dressed in a green velvet tuxedo and prepared to offer towels, breath mints, and cocaine on demand. Interdimensional travel is often way more boring than you’d expect, but this was not one of the boring times.
Earlier, when I was mingling among the partygoers–the worst human beings this node had to offer–a guy wearing a moth mask had lunged over to me drunkenly, tried to touch my cheek and slurred, “Your skin . . . so beautiful . . . like porcelain . . .”
I’d knocked his hand aside and said, “My skin is like the stuff toilets are made out of?” Proving that I’d had a way overly optimistic idea about the quality of the local toilets.
Hello, my name is Erica and I hate writing introductions. But hey, when in Rome. I have published over a dozen short stories in such venues as Shimmer, Clarkesworld Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and PodCastle. If you want to read some of my fiction, check out the “Stuff I’ve Written” tab. I am an active member of SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) and am a member of the Codex Writers Group. I am currently at work on a novel for which I will be seeking representation. I work as a freelance editor, and teach classes on SF/F writing at Portland Community College.
I used to live in Pittsburgh, then in Baltimore, and now, Portland (Oregon)! I have three cats and a spouse named Rob, who writes the review blog Panel Patter. When I’m not writing/editing/teaching, I enjoy riding my bicycle, knitting, playing outdated computer games from the early aughts, and adding to my collection of tattoos.Twitter:@ericasatifka E-mail: satifka at gmail dot com
about the narrator…
I am an American voice talent living in Norway. When not admiring mountains, I can be found recording for a variety of projects at home.
The Silent Ones
by Erica L. Satifka
The year travel opens up between alternate Earths is the first year you fall in love, with a strapping farm boy from one of the rural worlds named Paul. He takes you to a barn dance thrown by his people, where you learn to smoke a corncob pipe. His sister, a tiny girl with saucer eyes and dirty hair, steals your purse. You’re too hammered to mind.
You get drunk on apple wine and fuck Paul behind a haystack while a band of his cousins screeches on their fiddles and moans in that unintelligible alternate-world dialect of theirs. At the pale green Formica kitchen table, Paul gives you a stick-and-poke tattoo of his initials inside a heart.
But when your six days are up, it’s back through the travel gate with you, and no more Paul. You mope for weeks, watching but not performing the calisthenics exercises on television, alternating handfuls of candy and amphetamines. Finally, your two best girl friends drag you from your home – “Don’t be such a drag!” – and bring you to the club.
And that’s when you see your first silent one. With the robes and everything. Shit. He’s sipping a martini, looking totally out of place, bopping his head to a spastic electroclash beat. Club soda rises up your nose, coming close to spilling out.
“Hey, get a load of that,” Sydney says, poking you in the ribs.
You laugh. It’s pretty hilarious.
“Rocks pretty hard for someone who dresses like a Druid.”
“Shut up,” you say. “He’ll hear you.” But when you look over again, he’s already left the bar area, his martini abandoned.
“Beam me up, Scotty,” Sydney jeers through gulps of rum and Coke.
You’re disappointed. You wanted to watch him more; it’s a new thing to you. But already you can tell that the band’s as weak as the club soda. No wonder he left. Bum scene.
“Hey, I’m out of here. Tell Randa.” You escape Sydney’s talons and light up in the parking lot. Thirty yards away a glowing red orb that pulses like your cigarette’s tip hangs at crop duster level. You turn away, vaguely ashamed. It’s like when you were seven and accidentally spilled milk into the aquarium, becoming an instant murderer. Your parents didn’t really care, but you did.
Not everything happens all the time, everywhere.
That’s the first line on every bit of literature dealing with the alternate worlds. Want to visit a world where the triple World Wars never happened? You can. Want to see a place where computers run on steam power and even the horses wear corsets? Go for it.
Or you can just muck about in a world full of beautiful hillbillies or debauched Atlanteans. That’s more your personal speed, anyway.
Most of the planes open for travel aren’t that different from your world. The atmosphere has to be breathable, at least, and it’s helpful if the inhabitants are roughly human, and mostly your size. Nothing will destroy a plane’s Yelp rating quite like a tourist crushed by forty-foot-tall giants.
Nobody stays in an alternate world for long. The languages aren’t remotely learnable, and the social structures are often even denser. But it sure beats a week at Grand Cayman!
You keep the glossy travel brochures in your nightstand. Sometimes you fan them out, a little universe. And only fifteen days of vacation a year, you think wistfully.
The following autumn the government finally decides to do something about the widespread cultural cross-contamination propounded mostly by visitors from the more religiously-inclined planes. Cops catch saffron-robed adherents of a syncretic faith wheatpasting suras onto the sides of subway cars; a Ming vase with a detailed depiction of the Crucifixion shows up in the Smithsonian. Big deal, you think. Histories are made to be broken.
You are given the opportunity for a sabbatical, but you can only afford to go to one of those really crappy Central American commune worlds that don’t even have bathrooms, so you postpone it. You think of Paul every morning when you layer foundation over your tattoo. His sister took out a credit card in your name that first month. It was a bitch to cancel; you’re glad he’s gone.
Sydney and Randa take you to the beach instead, and you lose two weeks’ salary in a slot machine. A little peeved, you lounge on the pier in your sheerest camisole, watching the red lighted orbs dart and scatter along the darkened shore.
They’ve been showing up more frequently now, eliciting a minor amount of concern by the tinfoil hat crowd. On the beach below, teenagers lob beer cans at the orbs, which scuttle away, only to be herded back to a central location. You watch as a baker’s dozen of red lights are forced into congregation, then look back at the teenagers on the sanded ground.
“Blast-off!” yells a jock in a white cap. A firecracker shoots from a puny metal stand, and you remember, yeah, it’s Independence Day. The orbs flicker wildly and scatter like birds at a shot. One falls, and another teenager rushes to intercept.
“Ow, fuck! It’s hot! My hand!”
“Serves you right, idiot,” you say, loud enough for everyone on the beach below to hear you. It’s not loud enough to reach the teenagers, who have already dispersed to pick on a tribe of old people foolishly walking the beach after dusk.
A deaf man hands you a card with three globes and a squiggly line printed on it.
“Sorry, I don’t have any money.” As if your camisole had pockets or something.
But as you look at him, really see, you realize it’s a silent one convincingly dressed as a beachcomber, in a rumpled tee shirt, red visor pulled low over his eyes. His eyes are a light purple that just doesn’t exist in your world’s genetics.
“Well, what do you know.” Except for the eyes he’s not a bad-looking guy, a bit flabby around the middle, fitting in better than the one in the club a year ago. You hold up the card. “So what does this mean, hmm?”
He smiles with all his teeth, points up.
“You’re from space, is that it? You come from those red things?” He shakes his head no. “Okay, I give up. What are you doing here?”
Another grin, and a sound from his throat that sounds like a grinding gear. He flaps his hands frantically and spins in a close circle.
“You want me to buy you a drink? Hey, I’ve got some friends with me, how about we all go out for some drinks, big guy?” You’re taunting him, and it makes you feel sick, like you’re no better than those teenagers on the beach. But the guy’s almost asking for it. You cock a finger. “This way.”
He follows like an eager puppy, his pointless visor attracting attention. There’s no real code of etiquette for the silent ones, but you have the feeling that what you’re doing is so totally wrong. They’ll serve him, of course. But this kind of thing just isn’t done. You halt, and he collides with you.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was doing. Stay here.” His eyes glisten, quizzical. “Don’t follow me in.”
He understands. He starts to pace away, but then breaks into a full run, diving off the pier onto the beach, the weirdo. Only a few people have gathered at the edge. You look down and there is nothing there.
You are cold in your camisole.
That autumn, a red lighted orb runs for Congress on a write-in campaign. It doesn’t win, but it’s a step forward. So say the major television commentators, anyway.
Randa takes a long weekend in an orgy world and never comes back. Rumors spread that travel between planes is being severely restricted. You wire Paul, no response. It’s hard not to think of the alternates as being fake worlds, their inhabitants somehow lesser. You wonder if maybe that’s the reason you slept with Paul.
At the grocery store, you wait in line behind an orb with two small satellites circling it. Children? You think you should know more about these things. After all, you’ll be working for them next week; they bought the firm. But what do you do? Tap it on the shoulder and say hello?
You feel, for a moment, hunted. Like something small, furry, and endangered.
In the parking lot you spy a hooded woman kneeling next to your car. She is siphoning the gas with a black hose.
“Get out of here!”
But she just watches you, blank-faced, the siphon hanging out of the side of her mouth like a piece of black licorice. With a gulp she swallows a mouthful of Texas tea, then reaches into her pocket, hands you a card.
One word, scrawled in ballpoint pen by a childish hand: GO.
“This is my car, psycho.” You take her by the shoulder and pull her to her feet, rough. Her thousand-yard stare is directed at the grocery store. Looking behind you, you see the family of red lights, the small planetoids of children spinning around their mother. You look back to your car. The silent woman opens her mouth wide, as if screaming. Her face glows with rage. You realize that she is screaming.
The silent woman takes the opportunity to wrest herself from your grip. She uncaps the bottle of gas and launches it at the largest of the red lights, the mother. Within five seconds, she’s removed a match from her pocket and struck it. You slap her wrist.
Her face droops in disappointment. Shaking her head, she walks behind your car, of course disappearing as soon as you think to follow her. The orb family drifts away, gasoline dripping from them with a pat-pat-pat.
A family of red lights moves in across the street. It keeps you up with its constant glowing, like a burning brand.
Be more tolerant, you tell yourself. It’s how they communicate. Or, so it would seem. What other reason?
You keep the two index cards gathered from the silent ones, the card labeled GO and the card filled with chickenscratch, in your wallet. You don’t know why. Maybe they are the last silent ones you will ever see. You haven’t seen a single one since that hooded woman attempted to burn the family a month ago.
I should have let her do it. The thought comes unbidden, unwanted, and you hate yourself for it. An alien species comes to Earth for the first time ever, and you want to kill it. Some shining example of humanity you are.
Still, as the light on your cigarette’s tip reflects in the curve of your wineglass shaped like a woman’s torso, you think about a dead culture inhabiting some shitty South Pacific island, stringing broken beads around their conquerors’ necks, not realizing that it was too late to do anything until it was, in fact, too late.
Slowly, your neighborhood becomes a red light district.
As the red lights move in, the city is remade. Doors are widened, then dropped altogether, in favor of three-sided buildings open to the elements. It’s November and you freeze in two layers of clothing and three scarves. When you ask the super why she’s done this terrible thing, she just shrugs.
But thank the heavens above, television still exists. You flip through the three hundred entertainment options until you find some news, any news, you don’t care about the slant.
It’s a Presidential press conference. In the three-walled White House, the President stands bundled in four coats behind a thicket of fungus-like microphones. Behind him, the White House dog roasts on a spit.
Well, that’s weird, you think, until you see how gaunt the President is. No surprise there. You haven’t had a decent meal yourself in a week.
He opens his mouth for a hearty my-fellow-Americans, but nothing comes out. He grins sheepishly and shrugs. You throw a stiletto heel at the television, expecting it to crack, but it doesn’t even make it halfway there.
You attempt a test. Leaving your house you turn to the sky and scream. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you! Get off our planet!” Nothing comes out at all.
Well, that settles it. You go back inside. The president warms his hands over a burning pile of papers. Enough of this. You pack. You prepare. You wait.
You’ve Amtraked it to a travel gate they haven’t yet shut down, somewhere in a Dakota, similar to Paul’s version of Earth. You didn’t know places like this still existed, cut away like this. All the houses here still have four walls.
You touch your stick-and-poke tattoo, and smile.
Standing on a street corner, you take out the small pile of cards you assembled on the train ride. Writing them was difficult. You can still speak your name and the phrase “Here’s my ticket,” but when someone asks you what you’re doing here, even that is glued over.
No matter. You have the cards. And some of them are even legible.
FIGHT. FIGHT. FIGHT. FIGHT. FIGHT.
There must be Earths they haven’t yet reached, planes still untouched. You remember what the glossy travel brochures said about the alternate worlds when they were first discovered: not everything happens all the time, everywhere.
In another place, people are free. All you have to do is get to the gate. Just get to the gate. It’s a golden half-moon, like a giant dull penny sticking out of the prairie. Just get to the gate.
The attendants, clad in super-serious black and silver uniforms, aren’t saying much either. As you go down the line, into the barely-used travel gate, you hand each of them a card.
FIGHT, you say to the man with cornrows who hands you the ticket.
FIGHT, you say to the old woman who punches it, her lips puckered tight like a coin purse.
FIGHT, you say to the young woman who hands you a sack lunch. Not all alternate worlds have food that you can digest.
Almost as an afterthought, you raise the hood on your parka, shielding your face from detection. It’s not as good as a robe, but maybe you’ll get that in the next world, if it’s still untouched by the invaders.
The gate’s set to random, and that’s just the way you want it. You feel the familiar slicing sensation, like a cheese grater being taken to your skin, and then another plane of another Earth opens up before you like a vista on a transcontinental flight after you’ve broken through the clouds. There’s a street, and a bus stop, and an orange sky, and not much else.
The people here will mock your stolen voice, sure, and the way you act and the clothes you wear, but enough will pay attention. You’ll devise new ways of communicating without writing or speech. Sidelong glances and interesting smells, perhaps.
This time, this world, it has to be different. You shoulder your bag, ruffle the cards in your pocket, and start walking.