The Dame With the Earth at Her Back
By Sarah Pauling
That’s the trouble with Teegarden’s northern latitudes: the sun never sets in summer. The red glow assaults Maryellen’s stage long after midnight, pushing in through the picture window alongside the nightclub floor. She’s asked Bruce if she could close the curtains sometime, since she gets tired of squinting out into her audience. He said it’d be a waste of prime oceanside real estate not to let the tourists see the ice.
So she makes the best of it. A comedienne works with what she’s got: in this case, a prime view of the drug deal going down between the back tables.
“I mean honestly! During my show! You couldn’t’a waited fifteen minutes to get your fix?” She clicks across the stage in Mary Jane pumps, letting her voice go high and nasal and schoolmarm scolding. “You couldn’t’a waited fifteen minutes or so? I only got so much material! My stamina’s nil! Ask my ex!”
The crowd titters and guffaws, some of them twisting around for a better view of the ne’er-do-wells. One culprit bolts towards the exit like the Sovereign Guard is hot on his tail, leaving his accomplice holding the packet.
“What’s he so worked up about?” Maryellen taps her red nails against her mic, wrapping the cord in her hand. “The flatcaps ain’t coming; we’re paid up and everything. Bruce, we remembered to donate to the Guard this month, right?”
That gets a rise out of the crowd: a rare and delectable blend of laughter and scandalized gasps. Everybody laughs at jokes about the regime, even if they don’t mean to. It’s good for people—releases the tension.
Bruce allows her one dangerous joke a month. They’re expensive: about one per bribe. She likes to make them count.
Maryellen shades her eyes to see the accomplice. “What about you, honey?”
The dame flushes redder than the sunlight, trying to angle her body away from every guest’s table at once. Her short blonde hair pokes out from under a newsboy cap.
“Aww, sweetheart, Teegarden’s too far from Earth to matter. The flatties let the little stuff slide. Look, if you’re worried, put it with my stash by the stage door. You can come get it later and we’ll have a smoke, alright?”
The crowd eats it up. The dame’s fingers tighten on the packet: it’s brown and tied with twine. She bolts, tripping over a barstool. Her bomber jacket’s got some kind of pinup painted on the back. Cute.
“Anyway.” Maryellen straightens up again; sways so the light catches her earrings. “Where were we? Oh right, right—I was on a junky little liner out of Alpha Centauri…”
The stash is real: it’s in the base of one of the lampposts that dot the seaside path alongside the club. Every morning after her set, Maryellen walks the route from the stage door to the staff apartments built into the club’s backside.
The lamps are useless this time of year, but essential in winter, when the only light comes from the moons’ reflection off the Sea Glaze. The ice shards range in size from Maryellen’s manicured pinky to an asteroid hopper’s engine, all swelling and retreating on top of the waves as far as the eye can see. Transparent, they layer over one another—shifting in and through and between, sending the red sunlight dancing in more seductive patterns than any neon sign could.
The Glaze was a pretty sight when she first disembarked on Teegarden, at least compared to the dull orange deserts of Mars. Now the glare hurts her eyes, and the shore looks barren-grey.
Maryellen buttons her fur coat. She hops down the low seawall that separates the path from the rocky strip of beach below it, then rolls a luxurious blunt in privacy. She cuts open a cigar from her stash with reverence. The weight of several joints’ worth of giggle-smokes feels holy in her hand.
With a job like hers, the solitude of the beach is worth adding a few squint lines to her complexion. Eye strain and lack of seaside vegetation don’t bother the tourists. Flush travelers from all over the Sovereignty crowd into temperature-controlled resorts with room service and big windows. Bruce’s club is just as jam-packed as the rest, but its isolation—just beyond the city limits, the only building for a mile—fools a certain breed of tourist into thinking they’re getting off the beaten track.
Footsteps crunch along the sea-worn rocks. Maryellen stifles a sigh. She looks up, lips rising around the blunt in a ready smile.
She sees the newsboy cap first, then the brown bomber jacket. Then her back is hitting the seawall, the blonde’s hand firm against her sternum through several layers of fur.
Maryellen’s mouth nearly falls open, but she remembers herself: can’t waste a blunt this sublime.
A switchblade opens against her throat with a sound like a sharp breath. The blonde flushes again: a brilliant, unhinged red from her freckled forehead down to the hint of collarbone poking out from her shirt.
“Who do you work for?” she grits out, pushing harder. She’s taller than she’d seemed from the stage, and older: catching up with Maryellen’s mid-thirties.
“Owww,” she says around the blunt. “Geez louise, my fucking tailbone.”
That must have been incomprehensible. The blonde blinks, then rips the blunt from Maryellen’s mouth, holding it high over her own head like a threat—never mind the knife, which tremors near an artery. “I said—”
“Yeah, I heard you, don’t flip your wig. Who do you think I work for? It’s the guy with his name on the club.”
Slivers of ice tinkle like windchimes as they hit the rocks as the water retreats to leave them behind, only for the next wave to sweep them up again.
The blunt lowers in confusion. “You—you’re not lying? You don’t work for—for, you know—”
“Unless there’s a drug empire based outta my dressing room nobody’s told me about, then no! I got nothing! Now wouldja get off?”
The blonde swallows hard. To Maryellen’s surprise, she complies: pulls back the knife, its blade flipping impressively between her fingers. Then she ruins any goodwill she might’ve generated by tossing the blunt to the rocks.
“Fuck,” they say at the same time: Maryellen’s eyes cast longingly downwards, the blonde’s raised in appeal to the heavens.
“Fuck,” the blonde repeats, “you really don’t know anything.”
“Hey, I resemble that remark!”
“Forget it. You have no idea what you just did, alright? Girls like you—” She shakes her head and backs away, letting the water lap at the heels of her boots.
“Ooh, bad idea,” Maryellen says, breathing easier. “Water’s cold as the Sovereign’s heart, sweetheart. Don’t lose your footing.”
The blonde gives her a look as sharp as a vivisection and nearly as penetrating. Her eyes are a cool grey: less flashy than the Sea Glaze, and steadier.
Maryellen licks her lips. “Sorry, I mean his warm embrace. You look pissed. A loyalist dealer, bless your heart. Sorry I got in the way of business, you fine and upstanding citizen. Girls like me make a habit of it.” She wishes she could stop talking, but her arms have gone light and shaky with adrenaline and, historically speaking, the latter exacerbates the former.
The blonde shifts away. She drops Maryellen’s gaze only with difficulty. “I don’t have time for this.”
“I’m just trying to warn you! Ice’s too cold to fuck around with.”
“I’m not scared of cold water. Got bigger problems.” Her boots crunch over the grit.
“Spoken like somebody who’s never gone swimming.” Then, after a moment: “You got a phone number, sweetheart?”
The blonde flips the bird over her shoulder.
There’s that pin-up on the back of her bomber jacket, a feature Maryellen’s seen on Sovereign pilots and freelance pirates and not many in between. A woman in a short green dress, hair red as Maryellen’s, straddles a planet-duster missile. Her target is too small to determine, a marble of blue and green: it could be an enemy’s capital planet, or even the Earth.
Maryellen pulls at the ruff of her coat. Sweat’s pooled in her brassiere in defiance of the weather. The back of her neck’s gone hot.
She watches the blonde until the curve of the seawall hides her.
“Funny dame,” she says to the martyred blunt. “God help me.”
To Maryellen’s disappointment, the blonde doesn’t show up the next night. She runs through a routine—the crowd-pleaser about Alpha Centauri—then heads home alone in the wee hours of the morning. The row of staff apartments is on the ground floor, sticking out of the nightclub wall like a dame’s big ass. They’d be good real estate—oceanside—except that beyond the painted veneer they’re dimmer and smaller and danker than said dame’s ass crack. Room and board come out of her pay.
She opens the door ready to shed her furs, rip off her fake diamonds, and collapse into her sagging bed.
“Can I pour you a drink?” the spy on her sofa says.
Maryellen blinks, her hand on the doorframe. She shakes her head to clear it, letting her mouth take over when her brain can’t catch up: “Sorry, I’ve gone cold turkey.”
The spy raises an eyebrow. He pours from a bottle Maryellen recognizes as her own, then sets it on her end table. He’s wearing an understated charcoal blazer.
She draws in air through her teeth like she’s disappointed. “Whiskey, huh? Guess I am out of scotch.”
“It’ll be worth your time. Sit down.”
Maryellen crosses the room. She perches next to him, spreading out her skirt. She takes the glass from his hand. “Okay. What can I do ya for?”
He smiles like a spy: all easy charm and an interest that seems too professional to be genuine. She’s seen his type in the club before. They think they’re a secret, and maybe they are secret to someone who isn’t constantly scanning the crowd for idiosyncrasies worth heckling. A spy will chat up some regular who leaves the building with a look like he wants to throw himself under the Glaze. Then the regular stops being a regular. It’s a clean, subtle business. Nobody looks. Nobody lets themselves be seen looking.
With the flatcaps, it’s easy. You see a uniform, you pay it, and all of its friends stay away. With a spy, there’s no sure thing.
The spy flashes a photo of the blonde.
She glances at it. “Your girl?”
“Not exactly. She’s a smuggler who’s gotten herself mixed up with traitors and insurgents.”
“Ooh. That sounds bad.”
Besides the blonde, she recognizes the crowd and the setting: the spy—or an accomplice—took this in the club the night before last. Bruce is gonna snap his cap when she tells him.
“We actually owe you a debt of gratitude here.” The spy tucks the photo into his blazer. “We didn’t know who we were looking for; just that the insurgents would be performing a sensitive information hand-off that, if intercepted, could allow us to deduce which operatives they’ve got embedded in the Sovereignty.”
“Wow.” She flutters her lashes. “How fortunate you’re here.”
“Your little act up there helped us find her, and disrupted the hand-off to boot. She goes by Dinah Dawn Ray.”
Maryellen chokes mid-sip; it burns on the way down. “Seriously? What kind of name is that? It’s fucking alliterative!”
“Do you know her?” the spy asks—calm, courteous. Interested.
“‘Course I do,” she says quickly. “In a way. I mean, how could I forget that spectacular wipe-out on the way out? A little reminder the universe is absurd enough without my help. Hey, you sure you didn’t see a scotch in the cabinet?”
“It’s very important,” the spy says, draping an arm over the sofa back, “that you tell me if the two of you had contact.”
Maryellen purses her lips. She lowers the glass.
The spy continues: “We want that packet. We know she hasn’t handed it off yet, because her accomplice is in our custody. He’s agreed to work with us.”
“Like—like you’re gonna set her up? Listen, I got nothing to do with this.”
“Of course not. Take your time.”
The ice shifts in her whiskey: transparencies under transparencies.
The spy turns toward her, his chest facing hers. His draped arm brushes her shoulders. He’s wearing a very nice watch. “You’ll be doing your Sovereign a great service by helping us, Ms. Simon. He’d reward a loyal girl like you.”
He couldn’t have missed her jokes about bribing the Guard. Nobody would mistake her for an upstanding citizen. What protects her now is what protects her every night: the Sovereignty’s need to fry fish much bigger than some fast-talking broad on a cold planet on the outskirts of civilization.
She pictures the blonde’s startled face; the way she’d hugged the twine-tied packet close to her chest.
When she’s silent too long, he adds: “Provided, of course, we have your full discretion. It’s to everyone’s benefit if we can keep things low-key. Just tracking down a piece of lost mail.”
Maryellen smooths out the lines of her coat. She tilts her head so the light catches her earrings.
“Of course.” She smiles through her teeth. “I’ll tell you what she said to me, but it wasn’t much. More of a dust-up then a hello.”
The crowd’s rough that evening: even her story about the liner out of Alpha Centauri barely gets a laugh. Bruce’s thick eyebrows tilt menacingly in her direction after the eleven pm show. She bites her lip and vacates the stage.
“Off your game.” He pours her a scotch at the bar.
“That a question or a statement?”
“You tell me.”
She sucks on her cheek. It hurts less to stare at the bloated red sun through the window than it does to look at the ice, so that’s where she trains her gaze. “How come there’s no scuba lessons on Teegarden?”
“You know, it seems like a market. Planet’s full of rich tourists—”
“There are scuba lessons. I know a guy who gives them off the coast of New Denver.”
“What, seriously? I was joking, on account of I ain’t ever seen anybody get into the water on their own free will before.”
“Yeah, well. Takes a certain kind of crazy to jump in the ice. What the hell is this about, Mary?”
Besides a regular or two, the patrons tonight are unfamiliar. The spy in his charcoal blazer sits at the far end of the bar. He nods when she catches his eye.
Maryellen holds out a cigarette to Bruce. He juts out his chin so she can prop it in his mouth and light it. “You ever think about going home, Brucie? To that backwater you keep telling me about?”
Bruce squints at her. He maneuvers the cigarette to the side of his mouth. “Never. It ain’t pretty out there.”
“Sure, but I’m sorta starting to figure it ain’t pretty anywhere.”
Back on Mars, Maryellen’s mouth was always getting her into trouble: with her dad, with her uncles, with the nuns at school. It wasn’t until her sister started dating a flatcap that Maryellen understood the weight of her words on a planet close enough to Earth to feel its gravity. As the regime grew louder, people’s eyes and lips grew heavy: nobody talked. Nobody watched.
Maryellen had been tired of heavy. She wanted her words to be weightless, inconsequential, an utterly useless secret. She wanted to be powerless enough to have the power to say things: truths, falsehoods, meaningless nonsense. Unaccountability seemed like a wonder drug, and secluded seaside living was just what the doctor ordered.
Pity. The long and short of it is: reality refuses to be wrapped up in a little bow like a funny anecdote. Just up the road, the city skyline glows blue and yellow. A Guard checkpoint blocks the way.
Bruce frowns down at her. “Really, what’s this about? You’re not dumb enough for nostalgia. If you’re thinking of going home, don’t. Nice girls like you get disappeared all the time. It’s better if you stay with us.”
Maryellen nods. Every time she glances at the ice, pressure throbs against the back of her eyes like a sinus infection made of light. Looking—just looking—didn’t used to be hard. “I’m just tired of the summers here.”
Bruce makes a skeptical sound in the back of his throat. He lays his hand on hers: a quick pressure, warm, his hand as coarse as her father’s. Then he pulls away.
“I mean it,” she tells him, breath sticking high and sharp in her chest. “The summer makes it hard to see.”
The spy sits at the bar every night for a week, clearly bereft of his precious packet. The days compress. Maryellen doesn’t sleep.
“So I was on a junky little liner out of Alpha Centauri, and the attendant comes up to me with this look on his face like he’s gonna tell me my dog’s been run over.”
She’s in blue tonight: a low cut and a high hemline. Imitation diamonds sparkle on her neck and a glorious shawl wraps her shoulders, trailing where she walks. The look was in fashion when she left Mars, but that was years ago now. Times change. Who knows what’s going on in the wider world, past this teensy planet and its teensy-minded clientele? Who knows what she’s been missing out there?
Caroline from the kitchen said that an ungodly number of flatcaps were clustered around the checkpoint into the city tonight: just far enough from the club to adhere to the terms of the bribe.
“And he says to me, he says, ‘Ma’am, I got something to tell you about the in-flight entertainment.’ And I say”—pause, head-tilt—“You gotta be more specific.” Laughter, uproarious.
She’s been working them all night. At first, she poured her heart into the routine. She kept the tourists laughing and drinking and flirting until it was easy to find the ones who weren’t.
The spy, in a trench coat this time, smiles politely from the bar. Two new accomplices sit at a back table with untouched drinks. None of them laugh at her jokes. Once you see them, you can’t un-see them. They blend in until they don’t.
Maryellen lets herself lapse into routine; into words and rhythms she knows by heart. She keeps her mouth busy on stage and her head busy elsewhere: she watches the unlaughing men and catalogues them. She notes their hairlines and their waistlines; the hardline shapes of their jaws.
She’s so busy cataloguing she almost misses her blonde—Dinah—shuffling between tables like someone who was never taught how to carry herself in a crowd. Her cap is pulled low. Her eyes dart like she’s looking for someone. The twine-tied packet is missing from her hands.
Maryellen’s heart goes to her throat. She fumbles a punchline about seaweed from Alpha Centauri.
That, if anything, gets the attention of the spy at the bar. He follows her gaze.
He slides to his feet. With a jerk of his head, the other two start moving as well.
Dinah hovers at a table near the front of the club. The red sun paints lines down her cheek, her coat. It settles in the dipped corner of her bitten lips.
Maryellen sees the moment Dinah notices the spies. She looks for an exit—her eyes jump from one corner of the room to the next, overwhelmed. Two of the goons are between her and the door.
That’s the trouble with Teegarden’s northern latitudes: the sun catches you out in the end.
Maryellen’s throat tightens. “Hey.” The word comes out in a rasp.
The crowd titters, confused. Bruce frowns at her from behind the bar.
She grips her microphone. She swallows and tries again, louder. “Hey!”
Every eye in the club follows her pointing finger to the spy. He freezes in place, halfway to Dinah’s table. In the back, his goons freeze, too.
Maryellen takes a sharp breath. Then, slowly, she smiles.
They blend in until they don’t.
She leans down like she’s whispering a secret. “Mister—Sir—Mr. Sir? Mr. Sir, can we be honest with each other? You and me? Your fly is down, Mr. Sir.”
The crowd goes with her: they laugh at Mr. Sir’s misfortune. Mr. Sir, to his credit, doesn’t even look down. He smiles wanly at the stage.
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Dinah back away from her table. The other two spies move to cut her off.
Maryellen gasps with a vicious delight. “And look at this pair!”
The crowd turns, as one, to the back of the room. The goons hold as still as quicksand victims.
“Look it, look at their hairlines. They’re opposites! Mr. Widow’s Peak and Mr. Inlet Stream over here. They go together like puzzle pieces.”
The club patrons—drunk, happy, oblivious—keep laughing. One even points. The goons shift uncomfortably, new to being the center of attention—new to people seeing them, and people looking.
Maryellen smiles wide, all teeth. “Sirs, may I ask: how did you find each other? Was it singles’ night at the discount barber?”
One side of Dinah’s lip curls into a smirk. Her grey eyes meet Maryellen’s, sending heat plunging all the way down her low neckline.
Then, her hands empty and her steps light, Dinah walks towards the doors at the back.
She walks right past the spies. Pinned by the gaze of an entire club—rowdy, wild, watching—they don’t move to stop her.
Mr. Sir takes a step.
“Don’t you move!” Maryellen angles her shoulders in a way she knows will make her necklace catch fire in the sunlight. “Oh, Mr. Sir. We are not done with you.”
Dinah slips out the door.
Two minutes later—after she’s run out of material, after the spies give up on subtlety to storm out in hot pursuit—Maryellen finishes her set with a bland joke about Europan flu. She puts on her fur coat and retreats, calm and slow, to the stage door. She steps outside, then walks the path towards her apartment.
Once she’s alone, she staggers back against the club wall, breathing hard. Her arms have gone light with adrenaline. Pity she has no one to talk to. That usually helps.
The seaside is rocky and barren. She’s never thought before about how difficult it would be to hide here—say, if you were being chased on foot by Sovereign spies; if they’d cut you off at the checkpoint. Nowhere to go but the great grey sea.
The Glaze churns before her, sharp as a thousand broken mirrors and unstable as a whiskey on the rocks. Looking at it—looking straight at it—hurts her eyes like nothing else. She forces herself to stare until its echoes dance in her eyes.
When she can walk again, she stoops to reach into her stash beneath the lamppost.
Her hand brushes against a twine-tied packet that’s not her own. She laughs to herself—to the ruined blunt on the rocks below and the ice on the sea.
She tucks it under her arm. Then she pulls out her giggle-smokes and rolls a humble spliff as she walks. She has to conserve supplies: her stash was depleted last week by some spitfire dame with a world painted on her back.
Besides, Maryellen’s got places to be.
She’d packed her bags slowly, piecemeal, each pile a small rebellion: ripped nylons, the contents of her liquor cabinet, her best panties. Old photos of a freer Mars, each picture dusty and feather-light.
A tour might be nice. A hundred different planets, all spinning under different suns. Hungry for comedy, for relief—and for information. Seems like the kind of job a performer would thrive in. Things on Teegarden are about to get hot for her anyway.
Hell, she might even get to see Alpha Centauri.
Holding the spliff between her fingers, she opens her front door. The apartment’s about ninety degrees.
“Hi,” she says to the blonde sitting on the old bed that wheezes and dips in the middle. All of Maryellen’s blankets are pulled tight around her. Her bangs are dripping wet, and she shivers like she’s just been dunked in the Sovereign’s cold heart.
“Hi,” Dinah says through shaking lips. She smiles like a question. “You got a light?”
Maryellen tosses the packet—safe and dry—onto the sofa.
“Girl like me?” She lets her furs drop to the floor. “Do you even gotta ask?”
By Phoebe Barton
And that’s our story.
The author had this to say about it: “When the world feels absurd, I watch standup comedy. Art–and humor–can speak truth to power, but I wanted to probe the edges of that idea. When fascism is on your doorstep, how effective is art for art’s sake? What pushes you to do more? What can common people do against what feels like an unstoppable force?”
When I first read this story, I was won over by the neo-’40s noir style, especially when it reversed the standards: sure, plenty of noir tales happen at midnight, but not so many throw a midnight sun into the mix. It’s not a style I encounter often, and it provides just enough familiarity to make the strangeness of a world like Teegarden shine all the brighter.
What’s really important, and which this makes clear, is that resistance is more than punches or gunshots. The logistics of resistance, the quiet interceptions and spanners in the works, are far more important than fights: without the foundations they build, the fights won’t happen. Resistance to fascism is a theme that’s become much more common in stories lately, and rightfully so. It’s on each of us to recognize those places where we can resist in whatever ways we’re able, and work for a better future… maybe even one where we can travel to see Teegarden’s icy midnight sun.
Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution non-commercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Do go forth and share it.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Eugenia Triantafyllou, who said, “Ghosts were made of stories. It was the way they chose to tell them that was different.”
Thanks for listening, and enjoy your auditory adventures through time and space.
About the Author
Sarah Pauling sends other people to distant places for a living as a study abroad advisor in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She was shortlisted for the James White Award for new writers and is a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Cast of Wonders, and Abyss & Apex. If approached without sudden movement, she can be found at @_paulings on Twitter, where she natters on about writing, tabletop gaming, comics, and books.
About the Narrator
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards. She co-hosts Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and all four Escape Artists podcasts, and runs the Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake. Find Tina at tinaconnolly.com.
Her very first Escape Pod appearance was in #209, when “On the Eyeball Floor” was narrated by Norm Sherman.