Welcome to the 2nd Annual Artemis Rising, a celebration of women and non-binary authors.
by Beth Goder
After just three years, most of Gurt’s downtown was nearly unrecognizable. Roldan Street boasted a new tea shop, and the roads had been repaved with greenish eco-tar. Even the old sign at Marta’s Bakery, which had been shaped like a pink cupcake, was replaced with sleek blue lettering.
Score another one for the prophetic soup.
The library sported new windows, stained glass whorls of teal and gold, while Grocery Plus had removed the panoramic window which used to overlook the river. That was the first thing I noticed when I came back, the windows.
I’d spent a lot of time looking out of windows, back when I lived in Gurt. I couldn’t go outside during the dust storms, because of my asthma, so I’d waited inside wherever I happened to be when the storm hit. But dust is all the same, just one blank, swirling vortex, so instead of watching the storms I started looking at the windows. Marta’s Bakery used to have the most beautiful violet windows, circular, like a morning bun with icing on top. Not that I eat morning buns, anymore.
I promised myself when I moved away from Gurt that I’d never come back, not after Sara left me at the altar. On the day of our wedding, I waited for hours at the church window (clean, but with the latch rusted off), fingering the beading on my beautiful white dress, while all of the guests snuck out, except for my family, who had transported in for the ceremony. Dad enveloped me in a hug, while Mom said that she had never liked Sara anyway, reminding me of the time Sara had ruined our trip to Seldar by whining about the swamp smell. It helped, but not very much.
Sara never returned my pings or responded to my emails. She’d already requested vacation time from the library for our honeymoon, and she must have taken it, because I couldn’t find her anywhere in town.
When Mrs. Vineweld stopped me at the grocery store and said, “I’m crocheting a blanket for you, my poor dear,” I packed up and moved as far away from Gurt as I could get without transporting to another planet.
Tilandy was much more developed than Gurt, one of the seventeen original colonist sites on Prata. The dust was milder there, too. Overall, a much better place, even if most of the windows were standard issue, and not many people knew my name.
But then the soup started talking to me.
I don’t have any particular fondness for alphabet soup, but it’s the cheapest thing on the menu at the Tilandy University Cafe, and adjunct professors of xenoanthropology can’t afford to be picky.
I was reading an ethnography of the Feld aliens of Yuno Planet when I noticed that the soup was trying to get my attention. The letters formed up into words, swirling in the bowl, even though I hadn’t touched the surface with a spoon. I ignored it.
When Professor Bando sat down across from me, the letters scattered. Bando looked like a swan today, blinking at me through tiny, beaded eyes.
He switched off his hologram, revealing a huge grin. “I’ve finally worked out the kinks with model S5-12.” Professor Bando, who worked in the Holograms Department, was always claiming that his inventions were bug free. By now, most of the graduate students knew to run extensive tests on anything he invented.
“Very realistic.” I spooned up some of my soup. “How’s the new grad student coming along?”
“Nothing’s exploded in the lab, yet, so I’d say quite well.”
Professor Bando reached into his pocket and pulled out a rumpled scientific journal. “I saw a copy of this in the lounge and thought you might want to take a look.”
I pulled the journal across the table and unrolled it, revealing the latest issue of Alien Cultures and Customs. The main article was titled, “The Under-Margua of Prata: Will We Ever Meet Them?”
Professor Bando pointed at the cover. “I’ve always wondered about the Under-Margua. All that strange math. Incomprehensible. And their art. It’s too bad they’re so reclusive. And it’s strange to think they might be living right under us.” Professor Bando glanced at the floor suspiciously, then bit into his burger. “But you’re a xenoanthropologist, so you must know a great deal about them.”
I sipped my water, then shook my head. “No one really knows all that much about them.”
When the first colonists landed on Prata they were surprised to find that a sentient species was already living on the planet. The space reconnaissance probes hadn’t uncovered any activity because the Under-Margua settled underground to avoid the dust storms. Negotiations for the settlement of human colonies took place as a series of messages written in Interplanetary Galactic Common, implying that the Under-Margua were already in communication with other intelligent life, although they never admitted to it.
No one had ever met an Under-Margua in person.
“So you never made a study of the Under-Margua?” Bando forked some salad into his mouth.
I motioned to my haptic pad, still displaying the ethnography of the Feld. “I’m more interested in aliens who are physically similar to us, because I believe comparing our similarities and differences could provide insight into aspects of human culture that are biologically determined.”
l perused the journal, and when I glanced up, I found myself looking at a swan. “Did you activate your hologram?”
“No,” said the swan, its beak moving in perfect time with Professor Bando’s speech. “Blast. It’s projecting, isn’t it?”
When Professor Bando scurried from the cafeteria, the soup resumed its antics.
The soup had been sending me messages for weeks. First, simple things like, “hello, Talia Misk” and “happy lunching,” but then it started forming more complex sentences spread out over several meals. “Watch out for the green hatted man,” my soup once said, hours before Professor Wilder, who was fond of his green beret, stumbled into me and spilled his coffee all over my white blouse. “Student 391 is plagiarizing,” the soup warned. “Do not buy fish or cucumbers from William’s Grocery.”
The soup was always right. Helpful. And I started to take its advice, all the while pretending it was my idea. I’d tell myself that Shelly Stillwright had been producing more complex work than her earlier papers suggested was possible, and perhaps I should look into it. Luckster’s Food Emporium was closer to my apartment, so why not shop there?
That’s when the soup got pushy. “Go back to Gurt,” it wrote.
Every day, a version of the same message. “Gurt has changed,” or “your help is required in Gurt,” or “two for one sale on jigsaw puzzles, only in Gurt.”
I ignored it, until the soup said, “You will find Sara there.”
Gurt had changed a lot in three years, but Marta’s Bakery still smelled like baking bread and fresh icing. As I stood in the doorway, Marta waved me in cheerily. “We’ve got a special on cinnamon rolls today.”
Out of habit I pointed to the morning buns. “I’ll have two of those.”
“There’s something familiar about you.” Marta picked up a morning bun with parchment paper. “Do you have a relative living here?”
Instead of answering her question, I said, “It looks like there’s been some construction recently.”
Marta beamed. “The settler money from the planetary government came in. Most of it was earmarked for rebuilding. The dust this far out does wear everything down. But everyone living here also received some money.” She pointed up. “I took down my silly old sign and put up that lettering out there.”
I had liked the cupcake sign, but of course I couldn’t say anything. “Must be hard, living this far away from the original colonies.”
“We’ve had to do without some of the conveniences you might get in the more developed places. It’s hard to get shipments of fresh eggs and milk, what with the closest dairy lab being a few hundred miles west. And the dust storms are quite something. But I wouldn’t leave, just the same.”
When Marta handed me the morning buns, wrapped up in a pink bag, my face flicked for a second. She blinked a few times, but didn’t say anything.
Before leaving the university, I’d borrowed a holographic facial generation band, model T-6F, from Professor Bando. He’d reassured me that, although the hologram was still in the development phases, it was basically flawless. His exact words were, “I’ve finally worked out all the kinks.”
When I’d first put on the hologram, I didn’t know what to expect. The band fit snugly on my head, and when I looked in the mirror of Professor Bando’s lab, I saw a face not unlike my own. Smaller ears, larger mouth, slightly darker hair. But my eyes were exactly the same shade of dark brown. Completely unchanged. As I thanked Professor Bando, the holographic mouth moved exactly in time with my speech.
The world looked different from within the hologram, a little less crisp, as if everything had a halo of light around it, but the effect wasn’t too distracting. I found it strangely comforting to have a barrier between my face and the world.
The display of cupcakes reminded me of how I used to buy treats for Sara, so I quickly said goodbye to Marta and headed outside.
A man in a blue jacket was waiting for me. His arms were pulled up awkwardly at his sides, reminding me of a tyrannosaurus. “You’re here,” he said. “You must have received my soup vibrations.”
Time to find out who was interrupting my lunches. “Who are you?” I asked.
“A former resident of Gurt, just like yourself.” He extended a hand. “You can call me Hank.”
I reached out to shake his hand, but he pulled it away before I could grab it, and gestured at the library down the street. “Gurt doesn’t look like it used to, does it?”
I zipped up my jacket as the wind gusted past. We walked down Roldan Street, while Hank pointed out improvements to the hardware emporium, Tan’s Coffee, and the bookstore.
After examining the new buildings, I turned to look at him. “Why did you want me to come here?”
Hank stopped in front of the library and admired the teal and gold stained glass window. “I’m just a concerned citizen, and I think you could help Gurt. Even though you left, I know you still care about the town.”
“Not about the library,” I said. The wind rushed around me, faster and faster.
“That’s a shame. It’s a beautiful building, the first public space established in Gurt. I’d like you to sketch–” The wind gusted hard against Hank, swirling bits of dust around him.
I really had been gone a long time. I’d forgotten the warning signs of a dust storm.
Hank surveyed the sky. “Looks like this one is going to be fierce. You’d better get inside.”
“I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to see her,” I said, but Hank was already scuttling away.
“We’ll talk after the storm,” he called back.
I thought about running back to Marta’s Bakery, but the storm was picking up. Coughing, I stumbled into the library.
The library was a small building packed with rows of books on sturdy metal shelves. The smell of crisp paper hung in the air. After I slammed the door on the dust, I glanced around the room, but I couldn’t see anyone in the stacks.
I knew Sara would be sitting at the reference desk, but it was still a shock to see her there. When my coughing abated, she called out, “Welcome to Gurt Library. Can I help you?”
“I’m just here to wait out the storm.” I made my way to the stained glass window, staring out at the dust, then at the window itself, beautiful and fragile.
Sara came up beside me and leaned against the wall. “I love watching the storms, when the library is silent like this.”
I nodded and surreptitiously touched my holographic band, checking that it was still on.
Sara peered at the swirling dust outside, and no one said anything for a while. I realized that I was still holding the bag of morning buns. “Are you hungry?” I asked, holding out the bag to her.
“We really shouldn’t eat in the library,” she said, taking a bun.
The only sounds were the storm and our chewing. I thought about how we used to eat morning buns every day, how she’d cut hers into quarters, and I’d bite mine whole. How she’d drink orange juice, even though she disliked eating oranges. How she combed her hair during breakfast. I’d found that endearing, at first. Living with Sara, I’d learned the intricacies of her life, her daily habits, all of the little things that make up the routines of a person. And I was sure she had that same knowledge of me. It’s hard to forget those things, even after three years.
She took a deep breath.“Your voice reminds me of someone I used to know.”
I examined the thick wooden jamb of the window, sturdy enough to hold up, even against a storm like this. The dust beat against the window, a constant tapping.
When I didn’t say anything, Sara continued. “She was this brilliant student of xenoanthropology. On our first date, she told me about the Feld, how they have this custom called beech-letting, where they fold up a huge zawana leaf, pass it around, and the last person to touch the leaf before it springs open will have good luck for the rest of the season. But that person also has to say three hours of prayers every day. It’s a religious thing.”
I looked up from the window. “That’s a common misconception. The Feld don’t have religions.” I was about to launch into a description of the complex belief system of the Feld from the south of Yuno, with their thirty-two holy figures and government officials, but stopped myself when I caught Sara staring at me intently.
“You’re interested in the Feld, too?”
“Not particularly. I read a lot,” I said. The dust outside was picking up force.
“Talia read a lot, too.” She gestured around at the books. “Something we had in common.” Sara ran a hand through her long hair. “We had so much in common, in the beginning.”
She paused, as if waiting for me to ask a question. For the past three years, I’d thought about how I’d confront her, about all of the things I wanted to say. But now that she was in front of me, I wanted only to stare at the window.
“You stand the same way she did, too,” Sara said. “Leaning against the window like that. Talia was always leaning against windows.”
I straightened up. “You must have known her well.”
“We were going to be married,” said Sara.
“But you didn’t get married, did you?” I tried to keep my voice level.
Sara fingered a book on the shelf. “Have you ever thought that some relationships have an expiration date? And the only way to stop them from spoiling is to freeze them in time?”
“You can’t freeze time,” I said.
“It’s hard to tell when everything started to crack. Maybe it was the day she came home late from that xenoanthropology conference, forgetting that I’d made dinner, meatloaf and roasted potatoes, which went cold as I sat at the table alone. Maybe it happened when she said she never liked the purple mittens I knitted for her. Or maybe it was the day we went out to dinner with our friends, and I talked more to Shelia than to her. I’m not saying it was all her fault.”
I nodded, but said nothing.
Sara looked out of the window. “On the day of my wedding, I sat in front of the mirror in my white dress, and I asked myself if I really wanted to go through with it. I thought if I could only answer that question, I’d be able to get up.”
“So you let the hours pass by, without a word to your fiancée?” I asked.
Sara nodded, looking down at her hands. “It was wrong, I know. But that’s what I did.”
I turned from the window to face her. “How could you do that to someone you claimed to love? I don’t understand.”
Sara frowned. “I’m not the only one who messed up. Talia left Gurt without a word to me, and I never knew where she went, or what happened to her.”
“Was she supposed to hang around and wait for you to show up when you felt like it? I think she’d spent quite enough time waiting for you.” I crumpled the morning bun bag in my hand, hard.
Sara pulled at the sleeves of her sweater, which she always did when she was upset. “Maybe if she had stuck around, we could have fixed things between us. I know what I did was terrible. But she didn’t even give me a second chance. When I saw that she’d moved out, I thought she never wanted to hear from me again.”
Seeing her so miserable, all the anger drained out of me. I sighed. I’d spent a lot of time thinking about Sara, about our first date at Marta’s Bakery, and the way the sunlight glinted off her blond hair when we went for our evening walks, the way she looked so intent while reading. But seeing her here reminded me of other things, too. The way she always left dishes in the sink, her habit of checking her haptic device in the middle of dinner, how she’d forgotten the date of my talk on Feld marriage patterns, and hadn’t shown up then, either.
I took a breath and collected my thoughts. “So what would you say to her, if you had the chance to talk to her again?”
“I would tell her that I’m sorry.” Sara looked directly into my eyes, then away. “I don’t think I made the wrong choice, but I’m sorry about how I did it.”
I nodded, and looked back out at the window, hoping that the hologram was not accurate enough to register tears.
After a time, Sara said, “Do you think she could ever forgive what I did?”
“I don’t know.” I ran my hand along the window frame, then looked at her. “But if she knew you were sorry, she might.”
Sara smiled tentatively. “That’s good to know. That you think so.”
“The storm’s letting up.” I gestured outside.
“I should get back to work,” she said. “Thanks for the morning bun.”
After the storm abated, I headed out of the library. Hank was waiting for me on dust-caked steps.
“Glad to see you made it out okay.” He stood up and brushed off his pants.
“I’m going back to Tilandy.” I strode past him, down the stairs and out onto the street.
Hank ran after me. “Wait. I asked you here for a reason. It’s critical–”
“I’m done playing games. I have no idea why you lured me back here, and I don’t care.” I started walking back to the transporter station.
Hank strode along beside me. “If you’ll only let me talk to you for a little bit, I’ll explain everything.”
I stopped walking and turned to face him. “I’ve got a good place to start. What’s the deal with the prophetic soup?”
“Prophetic soup?” he said, looking puzzled. “There’s nothing prophetic about it. I sent all of those messages myself, using my own theories about vibrations and movement of liquids. The math is fascinating.”
“So if there’s nothing special about the soup, why not just send me an email?” I asked.
“The government doesn’t monitor soup,” Hank grinned. “Besides, would you really have paid as much attention to an email?”
I smiled a little despite myself. “So why were your warnings always right? How could you possibly know all of that stuff?”
Hank smiled. “You’d be surprised what you can learn, just from watching people closely.” Hank’s whole body flickered. I blinked. For a second, I’d had the distinct impression that Hank was strangely shaped, not a human shape, at all.
I shook my head to clear the image. “Why did you ask me here?”
“I need you to sketch the library window,” Hank said.
I raised my eyebrows and waited for him to elaborate.
“When I first came to Gurt, back when the town was held together by a few determined people on the frontier of Prata, I promised myself I would do whatever I could to protect this lovely place. But I worry that Gurt is in trouble. Plans for progress obliterate so much of the past, our foundation for all that is to come.”
“But how could sketching a window possibly help save the town?” I asked.
“I have many plans in play,” Hank said. “One of them involves the library. If the Gurt Library receives status as a planetary historical landmark, no one will be able to demolish the library, or the city surrounding it, no matter how well-placed the land is for a new transporter route. The window, an example of late 20th-century stained glass art, will be crucial to any bid to designate the library as an historic building.”
“So put in a request to get it recognized. I don’t see what this has to do with me,” I said.
“The city council doesn’t see things my way. The upkeep costs for stained glass are considerable, especially considering the damage from dust storms. Cleaning, repair of broken panes, protective glazing. It seems likely that they will remove the window and place it in storage.”
“How would making a sketch of the window prevent its removal?” I asked.
Hank stared at me intently. “When you draw and describe the window, you will create a record of its existence. If your papers are archived, any historian who studies your documents could discover the window. Anyone sent looking in the right direction. Perhaps this will lead to its restoration.”
“Are you certain this will make a difference?”
Hank shook his head. “No. It’s possible it won’t work at all. And this is only one of many plans. But I am a scholar of history, and I find that certain patterns repeat themselves. If you would know the future, you must only look to the past.”
I folded my arms. “Your whole premise rests on the assumption that my papers will end up in an archival institution and be available to future generations. What makes you so sure anyone will want my papers?”
Hank’s body flickered again. “You’ll be the first human to meet an Under-Margua.”
I snorted. “That seems unlikely.”
“Not as unlikely as you might think.” Hank smiled. “One more thing. When your contract ends at Tilandy University, you might consider applying for a job at Hub. Hub University offers excellent benefits. And there’s a colony of Under-Margua living nearby.”
After I agreed to sketch the window, Hank bid me goodbye. If Hub offered me a job, I’d go there, and hopefully I’d be able to afford better lunches. But I didn’t need Hank to tell me that I’d still be eating a lot of alphabet soup.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Andrea Richardson is a British singer and actress. With extensive stage and film performances to her name, she began narration and voice over work in 2015, and really enjoys using her existing skills in a different way. She lives in London and has a busy social life with amateur dramatics and working with her jazz band, Jazz Mondays.