Month: June 2012

Beasts on the Shore of Light

Keith Suarez emerged from a long, dark tunnel and scuttled across the cardboard-brown regolith of 21 Lutetia toward the sun. His eight tiny feet dug into the grit as he moved at a steady clip over crumbly mounds and deep craters. Keith wasn’t alone on his journey; this was, after all, the vacation season. There were hundreds—thousands—of others pouring out of hidey-holes, crawling away from the cold murk of 21 Lutetia and hunkering down on the surface, their matte black chassis glistening in the radiance as they absorbed all the energy they would need for the rest of the year. If you were to see the mass-migration of artificial crustaceans from above, it would look like a potato infested with mites.

On his way to his little plot of land in the sun, Keith waved an amicable claw at work-mates in the throng and flashed a quick laser “hello” at passing acquaintances, but he never stopped—in part because the animal algorithms that controlled this trek urged him on, but also because he really didn’t have any friends here. This was all simply the Kafkian nightmare that paid the bills; or was it Cronenbergian? Never mind that he spent most of the time as a bug eating dirt and defecating nickel, iron, gold and platinum. This was not a life.

Suddenly, something caught his infrared attention and he turned his eyestalk to get a better view. Someone wasn’t headed for the sunside. They weren’t moving at all. Grudgingly, he overrode the impulse to migrate and made his way against the current of pushy crabs toward the fallen person. In another life, some twenty years ago, Keith had been a pretty decent software engineer (before that career morphed into something incomprehensible and he was forced to retire), so the management of 21 Lutetia had promoted him to maintenances, although his main duty remained to gorge himself on flavorless rocks and shit out precious metals.

He approached the crab sprawled in the shallow frost of a crater and shone a cautious “Do you need help?” light.

“No,” replied the crab in the cosmic ditch.

“Are you sure?” He could tell that six of her long, segmented legs were broken.

“Really, I’m fine. Please, don’t let me stop you from your migration. I’m sure you’re eager to get on with your holiday,” she said, with a faint Slavic tinge to the beam of her voice.

Keith tried to imagine her as a gorgeous blonde with blue almond-shaped eyes, but the reality, rendered in the stark contrast of the intense light of the sun and the utter darkness of the pit, was much too sharp for fantasizing. She looked like every other crab on this rock. He did notice her smooth carapace lacked the pockmarks and scuffs that, over time, gave them their distinctive exteriors. She was recently fabricated and new to all of this.

“Here.” He crawled the few inches into the hole and the temperature dropped to minus one hundred degrees Celsius. “Let me help you.” He examined each of her shattered appendages and repaired what he could on the spot. “How’d this happen, anyway?”

“I fell into this hole,” she said, annoyed.

Keith knew that, between the robustness of the exoskeleton’s design and the microgravity of the asteroid, the fall shouldn’t have caused any damage at all. Deciding not to press the issue, he simply said, “If you spend your holiday down here your batteries will run out and then you’ll be in real trouble.”

She didn’t protest as he awkwardly hefted her broad, flat frame onto his back. He became aware that, aside from registering her weight, he couldn’t feel her on top of him and for the first time in a long time the absence of tactility bothered him.

“Have you been here long?” She asked as he climbed over the lip of the crater and joined the others on their long march. “Your shell is very rough.”

“About five, six years, I’ve lost track of time.” He turned an eye backward to see her bobbing up and down on his wide armor. “Where are you from? You have a nice accent.”

“Kiev, Ukraine.”

“I was going to guess Russia.”

“And you’re American?”

“Yeah, my body is resting somewhere in Atlanta, Georgia.” There was a heavy silence for a moment and he instantly regretted drawing attention to their existential predicament. He let the surge of the others and the ancient biometric subroutines guide him over the dull terrain. There was something reassuring and primal in this parade. This was what life had always been about, since the Paleozoic; horseshoe crabs striving for the shore by the light of the moon.

Alchemist’s Alphabet

I didn’t realize what the building meant when I watched it go up. I didn’t know what a blast furnace was, or a converter. I didn’t care when the first plumes of smoke rose from its chimney. It wasn’t until the orders stopped that I realized my life had changed forever.

It started with the glow stones. People wanted oil lamps these days, and so I stopped enchanting glow stones. It was a small part of my business, not worth fretting over. Then it was the poultices, then the artificing. Then, finally, Alex came into my shop and opened my eyes.

I put down the scale I was cleaning as the door swung open.

“Alex, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Just thought I’d handle pickup this week, give the apprentice a break. You’re well, Alemnus?”

“As well as ever. I had a few steel orders dropped this week, but nothing too extraordinary.”

Alex pursed his lips, and I got the sense he was holding something back from me.

“Everything’s in order, I assume?” Alex said.

“See for yourself.” I pointed to the steel ingots stacked by the door. “Perfectly uniform, every one.” I might have been bragging, but I wasn’t exaggerating. A village wizard needed to know all branches of magic, but alchemy was my passion.

“Aye, looks good,” Alex said, though he’d barely glanced at them.

That was when I knew something was wrong. “Usual order for next month?”

“Actually, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. There won’t be an order next month.”

I must have heard wrong. “Excuse me?”

“I won’t need another shipment.”

A month of frustration poured from between my lips. First Ulrich, then Stefan, now this? Alex was my biggest customer.

“Who are you getting it from? Mendelus over in Greyspring? Because his work isn’t half what mine is, I assure you. If it’s cost–“

“It’s not Mendelus. It’s him.” Alex glanced out the window to the new building. “That Fletcher fellow.”

“The one with that glass contraption strapped to his face?”

“Aye, that’s the one.”

“You’ve been my customer for twelve years.”

“I know, Alemnus, that’s why I came myself. All the other smiths are buying from him, dropping their prices. I had to, to compete.”

“How much is he charging? I’ll match it.”

Alex leaned in, as if he were whispering some dirty secret. “Three marks a pound.”

I nearly gagged. That was impossible. I’d studied with the best alchemists at the academy, and my costs were twice that. There was no way, unless they had some new technique.

“Can you match that?” Alex asked. “Because if you can, frankly I have a mind to think you’ve been robbing me blind the last twelve years.”

“No, I can’t match it.” What else could I say?

“I’m sorry, Alemnus, take care of yourself.”

I nodded mutely, helping him load the steel into his wagon. The moment he was out of sight I locked up shop and went to see Fletcher.


Original painting by Candice Mancini

“Da? Da, look what I can do!”

I frowned at the monitor and the columns of numbers that refused to add up. “Not now, Becca. Da’s working.”

“Look, Da.”

I could try to ignore her and not get anything done, or indulge her for a minute and salvage the remainder of the afternoon. I turned around in my office chair, and my heart went cold.

My six-year old daughter pirouetted in mid-air, a flutter of wings between her shoulders where this morning there’d been only rose print pajamas and strawberry blonde curls. She smiled at me and spun again, arms outstretched. “I’m flying!”

“Yes, yes you are.” I tried to clear the anxiety clotted at the back of my throat; it wouldn’t budge. “Where did you, um, where did you find those?”

Aggie came in from the kitchen, saucer in one hand, dish towel in the other. “Here now, I told you to leave – oh!” She dropped the towel and saucer, the latter landing on the former, so no harm done to the dish at least.

Becca flew higher and rapped the ceiling with her knuckles. “Look, Mum!”

“I see.” The words trembled on Aggie’s lips. She lowered herself to the sofa and I joined her, putting a hand on her knee. Her words weren’t all that trembled. “I haven’t seen those since before Da and I got married.”

Our daughter flit close, hovering right above the floor. “Really? Are they yours?”

“Once upon a time, yes.” Aggie looked at me then, so wistful and sad it all but broke my heart. “Let’s have a closer look.”

There was enough of the mother voice to the request that Becca did as she was told, but not without: “You’re not going to take them, are you?”

Aggie answered before I could. “Not at all.” She motioned for Becca to turn around.

With both feet flat on the ground, Becca showed us her back. Uneven slits perhaps five inches long had been cut in her pajama top so the wings could poke through. A small part of my attention allowed that we would have a sit down about when, and on what, we used scissors, but not this moment. What mattered most was how the wings caught the blue of Aggie’s eyes, the blue of the summer sky over Niarbyl Bay, or perhaps the other way around.

Rabbitheart – Part 3

Looking for the beginning? Click here to go back and read Part 1 or Part 2 of Nicole Tanquary’s novella Rabbitheart

“And you said my ideas were stupid,” I muttered. We were walking side-by-side through the forest, with a host of not-vie around us. I couldn’t see them … they had covered themselves in some kind of blackish paint, which matched them perfectly to the shadows … but I could hear their breathing, and the clinking of their weapons.

Spiderhands clapped me on the back, grinning to himself. “Well, your ideas all tried to get One in trouble. This plan is about getting revenge for what Mama Salli did to the vie. It’s much more noble.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, right, ’cause you’re the picture of nobility.” His night clothes had been scuffed up while running from the not-vie, not to mention filthy from lying in the dirt while I was explaining everything to Mestra. His Mother would probably cry if she saw him right now. The thought made my fingers clench. I couldn’t wait until I could remember my own Mother again. But Spiderhands … “Hey, Spiderhands. When you were talking to Mestra earlier, you said that later, Mestra could give me back my memories. But what about you? I thought you wanted the Ventine poison out just as much as I did.” This made him go quiet for awhile.

“Well … how do I put this. I guess I don’t really want to remember. I get a feeling that a lot of bad stuff happened to me when I was younger. I still have nightmares about it sometimes, when little pieces come back to me.” He shook his head. “I definitely don’t want all of it in my head again. That’d be too much to handle.”

Nightmares? I narrowed my eyes at him. How come he had never told me about this? Come to think of it, the circles under his eyes did seem a little darker than they should be. And his hair did seem a little thinner than other people’s. The nightmares could be stressing him out … then again, maybe it was just me. I wasn’t used to looking at him at night.

Acting on an impulse, I wrapped my arm around his waist and pulled him closer until our sides were touching. It felt natural, easy. Like breathing. “You can tell me these kinds of things more often, you know. I want to be there for you,” I said. Spiderhands smiled at me, then put one long arm around my shoulders. We had never been this close before, since it wasn’t allowed in the camps. The supervisors would probably have bitten our hands off if we tried. Now, though, I could feel the heat coming off of him in the cold night air. I could even smell his sweat. I knew that smell from when we mined together, but at that moment, it seemed a lot sweeter than it had before. A smoky kind of smell.

Things were quiet for a moment. Then I felt something crash into my back. There was a flash of blue-black hair, and then I was lifted off my feet and speeding along so fast that things started to blur. “Hey, lovebirds! You walk too slow!” said Tan.

“Rab? Where are- hey get off me I can walk just fine so you just put me down right now-” Bumping along on Tan’s back, I could see that a not-vie female had come up behind Spiderhands and had thrown him across her shoulder, and was keeping pace behind me and Tan. It seemed darker out here, in the trees, so I couldn’t see much of her. Just the gleam of her knives, and her chest, slick with war-paint.

“Aw, gross!” I said, feeling some of Tan’s paint rub off onto the front of my uniform. “And who are you calling lovebirds, anyways? We were just … just …”

“This is the way you miners use to get to the camp, right?” I glanced straight down at a bare path we had come across, a stretch of dirt pressed into stone by hundreds of footsteps, criss-crossed with tree roots.

“Yeah. Camp shouldn’t be too far away.” I felt Tan nod to himself, then motion a hand at the not-vie behind him as he disappeared back into the trees. Me and Spiderhands had warned him that the supervisors sometimes went hunting at night. They had to eat, too, and what they ate – besides miners who tried to run off – was small game like rabbits and squirrels. So the closer we got to the camp entrance, the slower and more cautious Tan became, until we were just barely creeping along, silent except for the occasional crinkle of a dry leaf and my own breathing.