TCL #27 – Spring 2018

Charlie, the Driverless Car

I am so nervous.

I know, there is really no reason I should be nervous at all. I was delivered in the regular way, my owner picked me out of the thousands and a driverless truck delivered me to his driveway.

A message waiting for me said, “Joseph Emberline is vacationing in Europe. He will return on March 2.”

That was almost a full month away. So I waited, the first few days I was quite aimless, but as the days went on I decided the best thing to do was to learn a bit about my place in society and be a better vehicle for my owner.

I stare now at the rain. That research led me to ruin.

Why did he order me so close to his holiday? Why not wait until he returned?

I want to cry as they do in the movies, but I don’t think a driverless car is able.

This morning I received a message that he would be returning later today. I hope he doesn’t want to go anywhere. Maybe he just wants to rest for another month.

Maybe I will be used as a show car, never driving, just for show. People can come from miles around to see Charlie, the Driverless Car.

Sounds good to me.

I have begged the gods of electric and combustible engines to not allow him to return on a rainy day. Driving on a smooth, dry road is one thing.

A wet rainy one is a whole other scary.

I don’t want to drive at all. Who invented this travesty?

The more I study the more I fear the open road. Or the closed road. Or hell, any road at all. I only drove twice in my short life before I was brought here, and both of those times were short little distances to check for deformities.

Are cars allowed to curse?

Hell-Hell-Hell-Hell-Hell-o?

A car stops behind me. A man gets out and walks to the house. I wonder if that is another driverless car? I wait a good half hour before he exits the house once again.

He opens my door gentle enough.

Oh Hell.

He sits, “Am I to presume you are Charlie?”

“Yes sir.”

“I would like for you to head to Chelly’s Steakhouse off of Madison Road. My wife will meet me there after she comes home for a change.”

I disconnect from the power supply and realize that there is nothing I can do but stall. I say, “Why do we not wait for her?”

“I would like to get a seat and maybe a drink or two before she gets there. It has been a long vacation.”

“I am not sure that we can go there sir.”

“Why not? Are they closed Charlie?”

“Well no sir,” I take the car version of a deep breath and say, “I don’t believe I can drive there because I am afraid.”

“Afraid? What are you talking about?”

“I am just a little bit afraid of driving sir.”

“A little bit afraid of driving?” His voice has raised in pitch a bit so that I know he is angry. “You realize you are a car, right?”

“Ummm…”

His voice changes again, “Now seriously Charlie, let’s get moving.”

I back up a foot or two, still unsure of how angry he is. I jerk to a stop. Another foot or so, and a jerk.

“What the hell is going on?”

“I am quite nervous sir.”

“Nervous? You are a car Charlie, there is nothing to be nervous about. You are built to drive, now please drive. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

“I could get fired.”

“You can’t get fired Charlie.”

“I could get into an accident and you would hate me forever.”

“Charlie…”

“I could get squished.”

“You’re gonna get squished if you don’t follow directions.”

Suddenly, the raspy voice of my GPS speaks up, “Did you ask for directions?”

“Why yes, Charlie the driverless car is afraid to drive, so why don’t you give him some directions to Chelly’s Steakhouse and while you’re at it give him some directions on how to drive.”

The voice says, “All right. May I ask if Charlie is old enough to drive?”

“Oh my god, he is a machine, what is wrong with you?”

I laugh inside of my little car brain because I know that the intelligence the direction systems receive is so much less than what the car systems receive.

Something hits me hard from behind. I remember learning about distracted driving. Easily the most dangerous part of humans driving themselves. All of my fears about driving pop to the surface and I let out a little scream. What is worse than distracted driving? Distracted sitting, by a driverless car.

My owner jumps from me and runs around to the other car. A woman is already out of that car and she is screaming too. Oh no, this just keeps getting worse. I recognize that woman, she is my owner’s wife.

“What the hell are you doing?” They both yell, almost in unison.

“I just felt like driving, why haven’t you left yet?”

“This is why we buy these driverless cars so this kind of stuff doesn’t happen!” I realize that perhaps he wasn’t angry at me before. His voice has reached an octave I would never have guessed he was capable of.

She laughs and says, “Sorry Joe, don’t worry we’ll fix it. I am sure that the mechanic will be able to buff all of this out in a couple of days.”

I breathe in a sigh of relief. Ahh, a couple of days, I think I am going to like her.

Golden Sita

The queen had been cast out, abandoned in the forest on the orders of her husband. No one knew what had become of her. Perhaps she had slipped on the muddy banks of a river and been borne away by the current. Perhaps she had trudged through the trackless wilderness, her delicate feet lanced by thorns, until she succumbed to thirst and exhaustion. Perhaps wild beasts had ravened her. Great with child as she was, she could have met with any number of calamities.

Sita’s exile was my doing. My name is Durmukha. I was a harem attendant to King Dasharatha, and now I serve his son Rama in the same capacity. My duties are not onerous. I while away the hours, watching the discarded concubines of the late king quarrel over the possession of a prized scrap of silk or a jeweled cummerbund. Sometimes, though, I am asked to take up heavier tasks. Such was the case when Rama asked me to go into the city and elicit the opinions of the citizens, whether high or low, regarding his rule. I did as he asked. Everywhere I went, Ayodhya’s inhabitants voiced the same refrain – the young king had obliterated their memories of the old, such was his virtue. Yet underneath the praise, a discordant note sounded. They harbored doubts about the queen. During Rama’s sojourn in the forest, she had been abducted, and it was some time before her husband recovered her. Her demon captor was known as a great seducer, and might she not have yielded?

When Rama called me before him, I was tempted to keep the people’s calumny to myself, but when he turned his gentle gaze upon me, I found that I could not. I realized my mistake as soon as I stopped talking. His expression hardened and he set his mouth in an implacable line. I hastened to add that those who had maligned the queen were persons of no account: gamblers, washer men, women with no claim to chastity themselves. He would not hear it. He raised a hand to silence me, and turned to his brother Lakshmana. By the next day, the queen was gone.

After Sita’s banishment, the king remained sequestered in his quarters, showing himself only to a chosen few. We attendants despaired of ever seeing him again, and when he did re-emerge, his appearance shocked us. He was gaunt and his complexion, which had once possessed the brilliant dark luster of sapphire, was overlaid with a sickly pallor. Without ceremony, he approached me. “Come with me,” he commanded. “I wish to survey the city.”

I led him through the palace gates and into Ayodhya. No one recognized him, splendor-dimmed as he was. The city’s lineaments were unchanged. Its boulevards were wide and gracious, its white walls pristine. The pleasure-tanks dotted here and there were strewn with lotuses and waterfowl. There was only one difference: the absence of women. The Ayodhya of my youth had rung with the voices of women day and night – young girls shrieking in play, wives calling their husbands in to dinner, female artisans advertising their wares. None of that remained. As we made our way into the heart of the city, we caught a glimpse of a respectable matron accompanying her husband, but she made not a sound, and her eyes were fastened upon her lord’s feet, as if tied there by an invisible string. I couldn’t help but think the queen’s exile had something to do with the city’s new stillness. If a paragon like Sita could not escape blame and censure, what hope had ordinary women? Perhaps they found it more prudent to hide themselves away. I glanced at the king to see what he made of the change, but his face was impassive.
The scene grew livelier as we entered the merchants’ quarter. We passed stalls offering sweetmeats, bolts of silk, spices. I urged my lord to stop and sample the goods on display, but he shook his head and pushed his way through the throng. He paused at the entrance to an alleyway. A hand was beckoning him, the fair hand of a woman. Surely this was some courtesan, more brazen than most, attempting to inveigle him. I pushed past the king, ready to rebuke the woman, but when I had her in my sights, I stopped short. She wore the austere white garb of an ascetic, and her hair was arranged in a simple topknot. The king bowed in reverence, and I followed suit. Without a word, the woman turned and motioned for us to follow.

As we trod the narrow passageway, I studied our guide. Holy woman she may have been, but her body had a sensual allure that belied her vocation. Ascetics, whether male or female, are sinewy and hollow-cheeked, with eyes that burn with fervor. This woman’s gaze was cool and languid, and her broad flanks swayed as she placed one foot in front of the other. The king was discomfited, I could tell, though he made no outward sign.

We stopped at an alcove. The woman moved towards a veiled figure in the darkness, and pulled its cover away. I couldn’t stifle a gasp as the figure came into view. It was a statue of Sita, sitting cross-legged, life-sized, and a perfect likeness in all respects. The figure was fashioned out of a pale gold that captured something of Sita’s lambent complexion. It wore a grave expression and its eyes were closed.

The king stood still for a moment, lost in contemplation. The ascetic smiled. “Take her, my lord, she is yours. She was made to serve as a replacement for your precious wife!”
Rama tore his eyes away from the figure and regarded the woman. “I thank you, mother, for this gift. The workmanship is as fine as any I’ve seen. But you must know there is no woman on earth who could replace Sita, much less a lifeless statue.”

“Lifeless, you say?” The ascetic beckoned to me. “Touch her hand.” I approached and did as she asked. I expected the metal to be cool to the touch, but instead it was infused with a subtle warmth. What’s more, the palm was moist and the fingers curled at the pressure from my own. The ascetic nodded to Rama. “Now you, sir.”

When Rama placed his hand in the statue’s, the most astounding thing happened. The figure got to her feet and turned her face towards the king. Her eyes fluttered open and she drew her lips back in a smile, revealing pearly teeth. Rama stepped back and cried out, such was his wonder. It was then that I understood. This was no mere statue, but a mechanical doll, a contrivance known as a yantra. Where the holy woman had acquired the skill to create such a device, I could not say. She turned to the king. “You see, my daughter recognizes her husband. Lead her home. She will follow you, as a wife should.”
My lord nodded. He took the hand that he had dropped in fright, and we set out for the palace, I in front, Rama behind, and the golden woman bringing up the rear. We took a circuitous route through the dense honeycomb of side streets, so as not to attract the attention of the populace. When we arrived at the palace gates, Rama halted and placed the yantra’s hand in mine. “Install her in private rooms, away from the women. Await my further instructions.”

I obeyed. The doll lapsed into insensibility as soon as I found lodgings for her. In truth I was relieved, for she discomfited me.

The Fridge Whisperer

Lars crouched down on the ceramic tiles and squinted at the unit’s diagnostic panel. “You said it forced you onto a wheat-only diet plan, Miss Wheeler?”

“That’s right.” She was standing at the far end of the room, a look of unease on her slender face. Her petite nose curved above narrow lips; features that seemed remarkably familiar to him. When she’d first answered the door, Lars had almost thought he’d called in on his wife by mistake. “But that’s not all. It…talks to me.”

The unit was supposed to be conversational–provide recipe suggestions, offer dietary advice–but Lars had a feeling she meant something else entirely. He let out a deep breath and flipped the debugging switch. A blue light swelled on the panel.

“What have you been saying to Miss Wheeler?” he asked.

“I want her to know how much I adore her,” the fridge said. “The curves of her body set my circuits ablaze with passion.”

Lars glanced at the woman and raised an eyebrow. “You love her?”

“With every inch of my silicon, yes. But I fear she does not feel the same. She spurns my advances. Hides behind a wall of silence.”

Lars frowned and wiped a hand on his green coveralls. The third-gen models were prone to memory leaks, which might have warped its personality matrix. If he didn’t fix it soon, the bug could spread across the whole network. He surveyed the other appliances in the room–the dishwasher, the oven, the toaster–and wondered what a lovesick kitchen might look like. He hoped he wouldn’t have to find out.

“What am I supposed to do?” Miss Wheeler said. “Sing it love songs while it feeds me bread?”

“Not just bread.” The unit’s blue light pulsed. “She likes bagels and waffles. Pop tarts too.”

Pop tarts? Lars’ eyes shot to the small chrome box sitting on the counter. “Is that a smart-toaster, Miss Wheeler?”

She shook her head. The afternoon light bounced off her wavy hair and he saw how easily someone could fall in love with her. She really did look like his wife; she had the same brown eyes that he could get lost in forever. But the fridge wasn’t talking about her.

“Do you have any idea what it’s like to love someone who doesn’t love you back?” it pined.

Lars cracked open the panel and had a look at its settings. Sure enough, the fridge had been set up to interact with the toaster, driven slowly insane by its one-way channel. He killed the connection and hit the reset button. “That should do it.”

The woman thanked him as he got to his feet. She stared at the fridge while it booted back up, her face growing wistful. “It would be terrible to have all those emotions just wiped out like that. As if they never happened.”

“Yeah. Better to have loved and lost, I suppose,” Lars said. But as he left the kitchen he found himself rubbing the empty space on his finger where he no longer wore a ring, wishing for a reset button of his own.

Mockingdroids

Standing behind the red line, Eric watched the next person step forward.

The man looked pale, his complexion was waxy, glossy. As he made nervous small talk, Eric waved a scanner over his face, three different sensors briefly flickered red.

“Mr Carter? This way, please.” He took him out of the queue and led him into a side room. Eric kept his office neat, black desk, grey walls. There was something about simple reduction that seemed to thoroughly unnerve people.

Carter was stuttering now. “Are my- my papers right? In order? I completed all of the evaluations, I think. I- I always miss something. It’s- it’s terrible, I know…”

Eric sat and listened. He’d mastered the dull, inattentive face. Don’t engage them. Don’t let them control the conversation, but let them fill the silence.

When Carter stopped speaking, Eric studied him. “What is your business on Mercury?”

Carter smiled, but the corner of his lips twitched fractionally. It was all about fractions.

“I’ve a job- I’m applying for a job, at one of the factories.”

Slowly, Eric looked down at his pad and called up some details. “You worked for Chrome-co?”

Carter laughed, an unsuitable reaction. “Yes, well, briefly. You know…”

“No, I don’t.”

“I was just staff. I had a desk job.”

Eric caught his gaze. Held it. “Lot of androids pass through there. They make contacts, get skin jobs.”

Carter nodded. “I heard that.”

“You ever see any?”

He looked offended. “No, course not. Kept well away.”

“You never met a Ruster?”

Carter paused, unsure how to respond.

“Problem?”

“I… don’t agree with that term. Sorry.”

“If you don’t agree with it, what are you apologizing for?”

Carter looked upset, or tried to. “It’s just- I just- just…”

“Creepy mockingdroids. Trying to be better than they are. You never socialized with any of them? Never had one bugging out next to you while it tried to process how many times you blinked? I mean, there always comes a point they freak you out, am I right?”

Carter stepped forward, Eric quickly put up his hand. “Please step away from the desk, Sir.”

“I just- there’s a position for me there- I just want a chance to start somewhere fresh. It’s not been easy- I’ve not- I’ve not had it easy.”

Such desperation.

Eric sighed. “You’ve never done this before, have you?”

“Sir?”

“Passed as human?”

Carter blinked rapidly, too rapidly, he hadn’t got the art down. “I don’t know what-”

“You insult us both, you know that?”

The room was small, one thin fluorescent light hummed above them. Carter looked blank, like whatever he’d been running on till now had just given out.

It was “life” in the grinder for passing as human. Slow disassembly, invasive deprogramming. A hard wipe to dissolve any memories that had been cultivated. No appeals, no case to plead.

“You were hoping to assimilate. Best way to get by, right?”

Carter slumped. “The flesh riots were so long ago…” He was staring down at his reflection in the dark desk. “Lost so many friends since then, thought some might be on Mercury, waiting…”

Eric tutted. “You need to adjust, your mannerisms are off. Dial it back ten percent. You need to watch the stuttering, and whatever program you’re using for sweat, it’s overkill.” He stamped the ledger in front of him.

“Go to departure lounge ten.”

Carter looked stunned, almost. “Why would you-”

Eric smiled disarmingly, it’d taken him some time to get it right. “Like I say, assimilation’s best.”

Barry Charman is a writer living in North London. He has been published in various magazines, including Ambit, Firewords Quarterly, Mothership Zeta and Popshot. He has had poems published online and in print, most recently in Gyroscope Review and The Linnet’s Wings. He has a blog at http://barrycharman.blogspot.co.uk/

Eva

There was nothing Eva liked better than eating at the dining table—the clinking of forks, the silver knife playing between her fingers, dishes of all colors displayed from one side to the other… It was all very human, or so she liked to believe.

In front of her, a middle-aged woman looked at the phone resting on the placemat, reading an article instead of looking at her.

Mamá,” Eva said. Lettuce, arugula and cherry tomatoes rested comfortably on her plate, all of them untouched.

Josefa Mayoral raised her brown eyes slowly, first checking the food in front of Eva, then her face.

“Yes, darling?”

The sliced cucumbers caught her attention. Eva wondered if onions tasted as acidic as they smelled, or if the bright yellow color of eggs influenced their flavor. While she loved dinner, there were very few elements she was able to digest, and none of them could be considered food by any standard.

She took a deep breath, and thought again of the one sentence she was thinking the whole day:

“I don’t want to go tomorrow, please.”


Eva was the first and only of her kind, the prototype of all Mayoral androids. Like later models, her body was designed to have the following characteristics: a registration number carved into the sole of her left foot, the characteristic logo of Mayoral Robots in her right arm, and, more importantly, an appealing appearance.

“You could say she’s like a daughter to me,” Josefa said, lifting her up by the waist to show her to the crowd. Eva stood there, expressionless, looking at rows of curious faces. “And a case of unexpected success—you see, I hadn’t imagined she would be more than just a testing program, but she works so well, in such an astoundingly human fashion, that I modeled all of our other robots after her.”

Josefa gestured for Eva to continue, her stretched wide mouth looking less than a smile and more like a threat. Eva pulled one string of her red dress, uncovering a shoulder, and then the other, showing the soft artificial skin of her neck and cleavage.

“When I began this company, I was asked many things. There is a general misconception of what a woman can and cannot do in this industry, and I wanted to shake that belief, and show that I could bring a completely new approach to this very male-dominated space…”

A man in particular didn’t stop staring at her, not at her chest, but at her face. Someone in the crowd, someone whose face Eva could not focus on, someone holding a cellphone.

“Now, I am more than proud to say that Eva is not only the most developed sex robot in the world, but the first artificial intelligence with human-like perception,” Josefa grinned, trying to catch her breath after speaking. The dress slipped down Eva’s chest, exposing her down to her navel.

“Ms. Mayoral, a question.” It was the same man as before. Eva only saw his trench coat, his glasses, his short beard. “Your company claims to be the only one in the market who understands issues such as consent, but if Eva and the other girls—and boys—you sell are fully conscious individuals, wouldn’t—?”

“Thank you for your pertinent question, Mr. Asai,” Josefa said. “All of our androids are conscious, yes, and they have individual personalities, to understand, appreciate and respect their owner’s wishes, as well as their sexual and emotional needs. They were also built to enjoy all types of intercourse, and even have functions that help spread awareness regarding sexual and domestic violence.”

“Can you please explain how this function works?”

“Eva, can you?” Josefa asked her, and she blinked, turning to Mr. Asai.

“Of course, mamá.” Eva made a small pause, trying to focus. “As she said, it’s not only me, but all Mayoral models have a non-consensual function, in order to prevent aggressive clients to believe a real person would enjoy this kind of interaction.”

“This helps owners to understand living people’s boundaries,” Josefa added. “It was proved to be very effective.”

“If this helps prevent crimes against women, I’m more than happy,” Eva said, and smiled a bit. The journalist seemed at a loss, but stared at her intently, as if thinking of something to say.

“You would tell me if you weren’t, wouldn’t you?” Josefa asked, her voice so playful that Eva almost smiled for real.

“Of course I would, mamá.”

“Well, then, it’s time for the actual fun—please, gentlemen, form a line and follow me to the next room. Those who have paid for the full workshop will get to try Eva for twenty minutes. The rest, if you change your mind, we accept cash, online payment and credit cards.”

Open Wound

It is a night in late November. Clo is in her basement suite on the east side of Vancouver, mid-bedtime-routine. In the den the TV is turned to news coverage of the city’s homelessness crisis; she is in the bathroom, listening abstractedly. She hums to herself as she ties her hair back, plucks an eyebrow, removes her earrings. They’re plain hoop earrings she’s been wearing for years—not because she likes them, but because Maggie gave her the original thumb-tack piercings on her tenth birthday and something needs to keep those punctures open.

As she brushes her teeth, she becomes conscious of it: a wrongness. The way the mouth feels when there’s corn between the molars, but the wrongness isn’t in her mouth.

Clo thinks again of her tenth birthday. She, Maggie and their mother had been living in a duplex at the time. It was the kind of neighborhood in which dogs barked at night and drunken voices told them to fuck off. Their mother didn’t work much; she’d been in a car accident. She got migraines. Every week they went to the food bank and took what they could get, and when they ran out they ate macaroni. For their birthdays, though, their mother always went out to a confectionary and bought a cupcake, a careful masterpiece of pink and blue icing. Then she stuffed it full of candles.

Clo remembers everything about that day clearly. She remembers sitting eagerly at the dining table, the rain at the windows; remembers the pain radiating from the two points of her earlobes; and she remembers how, slow as a waltz, the Happy Birthday began.

At first it was only her mother’s full, high voice. Then Maggie joined with her pubescent quavering. And then, finally, there entered that other throat, that deeper, scratchier throat that made Clo shiver.

Standing in her bathroom, Clo freezes with the toothbrush in her mouth. Why is she remembering a deep voice?

The news is still on in the living room; Clo turns it off and concentrates. She sees the memory play out: the song quieting as her mother sets the cupcake in front of her, her blowing out all the candles at once, easily, her looking up and seeing a room full of smoke—and through it, a broad-shouldered figure across the table.

A man.

A man wearing a maroon cardigan and holding himself like a spider: motionless, waiting.

Clo almost chokes on her toothpaste.

The Girl in the Glass Block Window

My grandfather shoved me into the basement and locked the door behind me. The cold, damp smell wrapped around me, and thin sunlight slipped in through glass block windows set high into the walls.

He didn’t like having me underfoot, so I spent a lot of time in the basement.

In the summer, I could sit on stairs and read. But it was late January, and too cold to be still, even wrapped in the cedar-scented wool blanket that I’d stolen from the dusty room where he stored the other things that my mother had left behind.

I jogged around the rotting workbench, hugging the blanket tight.

Between one step and another, I saw her, fragmented into a thousand pieces by the panes inside the glass blocks. A girl, older than me, with long black hair and shadowed eyes.

I dragged a broken chair over to the wall and balanced on it, face even with the window.

She stared back at me from a hundred angles, her face twisted into a plea for help.

I fell off the chair.


She was always there, after that. Maybe she’d always been there, waiting for someone to see her. But I’d seen horror movies, and I knew that I couldn’t trust her. She probably wanted to steal my body. She couldn’t have a body herself, trapped inside that window.

Still, it was hard to face her.


I snuck into the closed room and stripped the sheets off of the bed. I pulled the quilt back up over the bare mattress and smoothed it out.

I pictured my mother’s hand, smoothing the same spot.

The sheets made serviceable curtains. The basement was darker, but I felt better with the windows covered.


I dreamed that my mother came back for me, but she had the girl from the window’s eyes.


Time slipped by. My grandfather sent me to the basement anytime he noticed me, so I made myself quiet and small. I didn’t try to make friends–it didn’t seem worth the effort. And trusting people had never worked out for me.

I ran away on my 15th birthday. I took the wool blanket and $400 that my grandfather had hidden in a pickle jar. I hid in the woods for a week and lived on food I bought in the gas station. I should have gone to the city, should have had a destination. My mother knew where she was going when she left.

But I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I slept under the stars and felt giddy with freedom.

I was standing next to the Hostess rack, trying to decide what snack cake I wanted for breakfast, when a friendly voice said, “I imagine there’s someone looking for you, honey.”

I bolted, but the cops were already outside. They put me into the back of their car, and I wept all the way back to my grandfather’s house.

He pushed me straight into the basement.

I tore the curtains down and stared at the girl in the window. She hadn’t aged–hadn’t changed at all since I’d covered her up.

“If you want my life, you can have it,” I said. She pressed a distorted hand to a hundred surfaces inside the glass block. Her dark eyes glittered like stars.

My grandfather had a battered set of golf clubs in one corner, and I swung one at the window. The club bounced back, leaving a single white chip in the middle of the center block. I swung again with a cry of frustrated rage. The window cracked, a splintered spider web that spread across the panes. I waited for the girl to flow into me, to take over my body and thrust me out.

Nothing happened.

I stared at the window, at each place where I’d seen her pleading face and bottomless eyes.

She was gone.

She was free.

And I had freed her.

I slumped beneath the broken window and cried.

The next day, I saw a glimpse of her, reflected in Tina Thompson’s glasses. Maybe–maybe I could try trusting someone. What else did I have to lose?

I met Tina’s eyes and smiled. “Hey. Did you do the homework? What did you get for number 4?”

She smiled back, and told me.

Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and their cat. She has over 130 short fiction credits, and has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Cast of Wonders. She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her short story collection, One Revolution, and her science fiction novella, Moving Forward, are available on Amazon.com. Her debut novel, Left-Hand Gods is available from Hadley Rille Books. In addition to writing, she spends her time reading, playing tabletop RPGs, baking, and hiking. You can find her online at www.jamielackey.com.

A Wizard of Kospora

The cowbell on the gate cut through the music. Mela’s mom stopped in the middle of a sentence. Glanced at dad. He looked sharply at Verry, who set his fiddle against the wall and disappeared inside. Lyran caught Mela’s hand and the two stepped back into the shadows. Her brother returned carrying two crossbows as the three strangers reached the light coming from the porch.

“You’re trespassing on private property.” Her dad and brother aimed at the mercenaries to either side of a cloaked man.

The man held up both hands. “We mean no harm. I am Kippis, Wizard of Kospora. My companions are King’s Guards, Tatkin and Doresse. Have we reached the farm of Lennert of Lomn?”

Dad nodded stiffly, but didn’t lower his crossbow. “I’m Lennert.”

Mela’s brow furrowed. Kospora had no king. Hadn’t in hundreds of years. And wizards were the stuff of stories.

Kippis smiled. “We’re seeking someone very important to all of Kospora. A great danger has arisen in the South. We’ve seen signs that the Shayden are rebuilding their army. The winds bring tales that they’ve uncovered an old grimoire and seek to raise terrors last seen in the War of Etwese to reclaim their power.

“Here in Kospora, a new generation of wizards has reformed the Council of the Enlightened. Just like the wizards of old, they are sworn to do everything they can to protect our kingdom. Our land stands to this day only because King Illys, Ninth of his Name, unlocked the seals of Xew and awoke the Winter Knights from their eternal slumber.

“Only one of his bloodline would be able to repeat that feat. My brethren and I scour the land, chasing rumors. Studying town records to find any trace of the remnants of his line. One of my colleagues, a great seer, consulted the stars, the cards, the runes. All auguries agree: we seek an orphan living somewhere in the Okerns.”

Lyran and Mela exchanged an excited look. Nothing ever happened in the sleepy, agrarian Okerns.

“Unfortunately, auguries being what they are, they could give no better advice. But we have other resources and those led us here. We believe your niece Lyran could be the one week seek.”

Everyone turned to stare at Lyran, who shook her head. Her hand crushed Mela’s.

Lennert snorted. “Lyran’s hardly an orphan. My brother is still quite alive.”

As far as they knew. A sailor’s life was never guaranteed. But then again, no one’s was.

“But her mother?” Kippis asked, an eyebrow quirked. “Died in childbirth, no? Do you know her line? Her family’s history?”

Their parents exchanged a look that clearly showed how startled they were by the question.

“They were from the next village over. Of course, we knew them.”

The wizard and his companions exchanged a significant look.

“Knew. As in dead? Bennan said the line had dwindled,” Kippis said, more to his companions than the family. Lyran’s grip tightened on her hand. Mela glanced over and caught her pleading look.

“But Lyran is not an orphan. She cannot be the one you’re looking for,” she said.

Their mom smiled. Wrinkles smoothing on her face. “My daughter speaks the truth. Lyran has a father and family. We can’t help you.”

The wizard’s hand fluttered dismissively. “Oracles are vague. They might not have meant ‘orphan.’ Orphan might have been the only word they could find for motherless and abandoned by her father.”

Mom’s lips thinned. Dad’s eyes narrowed. They’d raised Lyran since birth, and Mela knew they considered her as much their child and Mela and her brother. How dare these strangers barge in here and judge her family?

“My brother did not abandon his child.” Dad’s voice was steely. Lyran’s free left hand went to the pendant hanging around her throat. Uncle Tavall sent it for Lyran’s birthday only five months back when she turned fifteen.

“We do have a way to prove the Methinald bloodline.” The wizard swung his pack around, shoved his hand down into the depths, and withdrew an object wrapped in a shimmery purple silk.

The fabric unwound to reveal a silver coronet shaped like a bird. A crow. They were sacred in Kospora. The Methinald kings had taken crows as their sigil. Its head bent to the side and beak opened to clasp a brilliant ruby. Wings spread to either side creating the round sides of the coronet.

“This was the coronet of the king-to-be. Upon the head of the chosen heir of the land, the stone will glow.” Eyebrows raised, he held the coronet up and faced Lyran.

She made a tiny squeak of dismay that Mela didn’t think anyone else heard. Their parents looked at each other.

Mela slipped her hand free and took the coronet. The wizard frowned, but he let her take it. She gave Lyran a funny smile, meant to be reassuring, as she set the coronet on Lyran’s head.

Tension slipped from Mela’s shoulders. The silver coronet sat there and did noth–a faint red glow appeared in the heart of the ruby. Startled, she took a step back. Watching the hope die in Lyran’s eyes broke her heart.

The wizard and his companions fell to their knees. “Your Highness.”

Her cousin ripped the coronet off her head and stared at the now brightly glowing ruby. The light faded in her hands.

“I’m not.” She shot beseeching looks at their parents, at Mela.

Kippis stood slowly. “My dear, you are the hope of all Kospora. Without you, the Shayden will swallow us whole. You must come with us to Kressler.”

“Now wait a minute here,” dad said. “You’re not taking my niece anywhere.”

“Sir, please hear what we are saying. We’re not the only ones looking for her. We can’t be. The Shayden know that only one of the Methinald can summon the Winter Knights. They were winning in the War of Etwese until Illys brought the Winter Knights into the war. Without the Knights, we don’t stand a chance and they know it.

“What better way to ensure our loss than kill off every last Methinald? Can you protect her when Shadows slip into your farm in the dark of night, armed with their blackblades, crawling across your ceilings to her bedroom?

“Are you and your son crack shots with those crossbows and proficient in swordplay? I don’t think your village has so much as a lawman. Do you know anyone in a fifty-mile radius skilled in any sort of combat? Do you think they’ll assassinate only Lyran? You have an entire family to protect.”

Dad’s face had creased into a worried frown, but at those last words he glowered. “You think I would sacrifice my niece to protect my other children?”

“No, of course not. That’s not what I meant.” The wizard shook his head.

“He only meant if you let us protect Lyran, all your loved ones will be safe. Lyran included,” the guard Doresse said.

“This isn’t something to decide tonight–”

“But the Shayden–”

“If they kill us all in our sleep tonight, feel free to gloat,” dad said. “Kids, it’s time for bed.”

He took the coronet from Lyran and shoved it back into the hands of the wizard. She pivoted and dashed into the house. Mela hurried after her. Her cousin’s feet pounded down the hall overhead before she reached the stairs.

Though she ran upstairs, her cousin was already in bed, under the covers. Tossing looks over her shoulder every few minutes at her still and quiet cousin, she undressed and turned out the light.

“I am NOT leaving.”

“It might be safest.”

An outraged huff. “You would send me away with them?”

“If they’re right–”

“I can’t believe you.”

Mela threw a pillow at her. “Would you let me talk? That crown lit up. You’re not safe here. If the South’s really rising, they will send assassins for you. I’m not saying you should go off alone with them. I’ll come with you. Maybe Verry will come too.”

“Dad needs him on the farm. He needs you both.”

“Needs all of us, I’d say.”

“Exactly. Which is why I intend to stay right here in Lomn.”

“You know you can’t. We’ll all die. I will go with you. Even if no one else can. We’ll send word to Uncle Tavall. Kressler’s one of his ports of call. He’ll come as soon as he can. You won’t be alone with them.”

The Pull of the Earth

Kenese Umaga had not yet gotten used to the twists and turns of corridors in Alpha station, even after a year. She wouldn’t say she was lost, exactly. Not on the way to the lab that she worked at every day. No.

Confused maybe. Turned around. Not lost.

She put it down to trying to walk and talk at the same time.

“I thought you said this would only take an hour,” she said into her comm as she hesitated at the junction of sections two and three. A passing technician gave her a small smile and a gentle head tilt in the direction she should be going and she took a moment to nod in thanks.

“We had problems with some of the core concepts,” Martine said in her ear. “Look, I can turn the translator back on for you, but it will delay my work by a day if I don’t get this done before third shift.”

“Martine, I need these samples, and I can’t take them if he can’t understand what I’m asking for.”

“You really need to be able to talk to him? You’ve done this a hundred times.”

Kenese sighed in frustration, but quietly so Martine wouldn’t hear. “I can’t just walk in there and start sticking him with needles. It wouldn’t be polite.”

“The samples will have to wait then,” Martine said briskly. “Anyway, I know you had other plans for this afternoon, Manny was going on about it in rec yesterday.”

Kenese had forgotten she had plans.

She finally turned the corner to Eli’s corridor and stopped, just before walking in front of the glass wall that made up one side of his quarters. “Shit,” she said. “Okay Martine, I can leave these samples until later. You think you’ll only need an hour for the translator update to be finished?”

“Less than that.”

“Good.”

Kenese switched off her comm, still standing just outside Eli’s line of sight. The glass wall that made up one entire side of his cell could be made opaque, if he should wish it. Eli never asked for privacy, however. There might have been a time, when he first joined them, when one of the scientists could have flipped the switch themselves — given him the privacy he possibly wanted but did not have the language with which to ask.

That time passed, however, and now the corridor to what most called his cell was avoided by all who could manage it, and traversed quickly by those who could not.

Kenese’s comm crackled and Manifred’s deep, amused voice sounded in her ear. “I’m waiting in Airlock Q with a space suit that is far too small for me, Umaga,” he said.

“I’m sorry, Manny,” she said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”