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Book Club

Your mother is dying

What do you read to her?

 

During the pandemic, she started an online book club

For her school-aged grandchildren

Now they’re lounging in the cool, dark house

But she’s too tired to run the meeting

That’s become your job

Pick a book

 

Thousands to choose from

No one you know has more books than your mother

Literally hundreds of feet of crammed shelves

No one you know reads more carefully than your mother

Delving deep into the choices behind each word

Pick a book

 

She says she doesn’t love fantasy

But the grandkids adore it

And no one takes more joy than your mother

From watching children thrill to new discoveries

You remember that road trip

Rained out, holed up in the motel

She read The Hobbit out loud every night

Doing the Gollum voice with a wicked grin

So scary, warm, and cozy all at once

 

She says she doesn’t love fantasy

But you remember finding her old

Ray Bradbury books, yellowed and crumbling

Broken-spined and ancient even in 1979

You’d never read anything

So fresh and new

Two Christmases later she gave you that huge anthology

Of Bradbury’s short stories

You’d never owned a book so thick

And full of everything

 

She says she doesn’t love fantasy

And she probably never read more than five of the

Five hundred comic books you wrote during her lifetime

But she loved your essay about playing D&D as a kid

Almost as much as she loved

The short story you wrote when you were sixteen

About a mother baking bread

As she watched her boy climb a tree in the back yard

Approaching the sky

Growing up and away

 

She says she doesn’t love fantasy

But you saw her eyes shine

Forty years ago when you stood in the kitchen

Talking about Dandelion Wine and she remembered

The thrill of new sneakers

 

In the living room

The grandchildren curl into couches and chairs

Around her electric hospice bed

She listens intensely, eyes closed

Smiling as you read aloud

 

Douglas blitzing through summer

On his Royal Crown Cream-Sponge

Para Litefoot tennis shoes

 

Douglas in the woods

Stalked by the glorious monster of awareness

Suddenly conscious of being alive

 

Douglas in the cupola at daybreak, gazing out over Green Town

A young god rousing this tiny world from bed

Commanding the sun to rise

 

The kids audibly exhale when you close the book

Like child actors in a ’40s movie

You think of Douglas letting out a low whistle of astonishment

“It’s just the regular world

But it reads like fantasy,” they say

 

Your mother beams and glows

Eyes still closed

Basking in her grandchildren’s wonder

 

A year later you finally finish rereading the book

And you sob

Because after the pages you read to your mother

It’s all death and decline

The Ravine

The despair of the Happiness Machine

Old Mrs. Bentley burning her things

Great-Grandma dying, gently and freely

(That’s the fantasy)

Douglas realizing someday he, too, will die

 

You wanted to protect your mother

Raise her into the cupola

So she could gaze out over Green Town

And summon summer’s first sunrise

Forever and again

 

But look at all those books in her house

So many voices grappling with the hardest questions anyone can ask

She read so closely

Parsing every word

She said she didn’t love fantasy

But she was just critiquing escape

She wanted something real

Even in this book

Even if she didn’t remember the specifics

She knew the summer would end

 

Still, you’re glad you stopped reading where you did

Maybe you did it for her

Maybe for the kids

Maybe for yourself

And why not?

Why not give us all that moment before the inevitable?

That’s real, too

(Eyes closed, listening with every fiber, beaming as the children exhale)

 

Douglas astonished

So thrilled to know he was alive

On the Plantation of Daughters

nidikumba (that you may sleep each night soundly; that your nipples might flush

fertile in the clutch of your matelove’s firstborn; that their fingers might furl

feather quiet in your fist in the dark; that blossoms may light your bare feet

to the ocean each morning, thorning your soles and begging that you tread

gentle, gentler, gentlest, gently, gently—

 

komarika (that you may find solace when spurned, your fingers searing

supernova around the perimeter of diyas; that even when clay ceases to calm

you will be caressed; that when you ride to battle there will be balm

keeping vigil in the tent; that your hair will grow back as often as

you blade it stark to your skull in mourning, in mutiny, in signaling

beacons and transports of joy—

 

maana (that you may reign; that your kohl-eyed mudraggled tribe may proliferate;

that paddylands and jungles will be allies to your advance; that protection

will be your brightest enchantment; that each breach you condone

will confer the highest honor; that you may conceal weaponry

in every deepest depth—a feral tongue, a viper spine, unshed tears

and testimonies; that every call to arms will contain

the bellowing rage of the battle tusker—

 

karapincha (that you may learn of smokewarm backkitchens, of ancients abandoned,

of inherited knowledge, of pestles and mortars drumming the flagstones of interior

courtyards; that you may reincarnate on every trek along the dryhusked paths;

that hearthmaking will transform safety; that incense will charm the altars

of your choosing—marigolds and olinda seeds and tamarind pods and eternity

cached in a flight of corrugated leaves—

 

gotukola (that you may be hungry never; that you may restore lost visions

and rebirth the eyes that vanish from sight; that you may craft one thousand

livelihoods and count heads duskly by doling bowls of boiling kola kanda;

that in scorched earth centuries you will spring forth verdant and

wild, wilder, wildest, wildly, wildly—

 

(Editors’ Note: “On The Plantation of Daughters” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 48A).

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Space Unicorn Ranger Corps RECRUITS

David, Glenn Carruthers, Emily Crossen, Catharine Roseberry, Katie Sinkoski, Jennifer Hisrich, Jenny Barber, Danielle, Mr. Robin White, Andrew Gregg, Anitra Heiberg Lykke, Andrew S. Fuller, Damien Neil, Not_the_brain, james qualters, Maria Schrater, Leetmeister, Max Andrew Dubinsky, Robin Hill, Liz Argall, S P, Ken Schneyer, Neil Ottenstein, Penny Richards, Josh Smift, Jay Lofstead, Sidsel Pedersen, Annaliese Lemmon, fadeaccompli, Clarissa R., Ai Lake, David Versace, Kate Barton

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps ENSIGNS

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Space Unicorn Ranger Corps LIEUTENANTS

Kate Nussrainer, Samantha Baugus, shapeoflobster, Wichael Tellez, Anthony Agbay, Simone Cooper, Vikki, Parlei Riviere, Shelby Niehaus, Pat Hayes, Tracey Abla, Wendy, Sarah Storm, Brian Withers, Stephen, Will Hamilton, Sean Eric Fagan, smokestack, Heather Holmquist, Ian Sweedler, Kelsea Kreuch, Sasha H, Mark Tyler, Christiane Knight, Sarah Jackson, John Reynolds, Starr Hoffman, John Tobias, Kyle DeVries, Matthew Montgomery, julianna zdunich, Koa Webster, Sarah Hale, Randall Beeman, Danielle Weaver, Alena Geffner-Mihlsten, LInda Thompson, Ahsan A. Latif, Lisa Cox, Stephanie Novak, Rich Rubel, Margaret N. Oliver, Joan Combs Durso, Nancy Palmer, Elan Samuel, Sid J, Sarah Berriman, RMD Cade, devorah hill, Josef D Prall, Sam Gawith, Kirby Bullock, Declan Meenagh, Christi Clogston, jenn northington, Gareth Morgan, Ravian Ruijs, E, David Dagg-Murry, Raphaelle, Emma Osborne, Max G, Matt, Thomas Marks, Derek Smith, Erin Bright, michael smith, Ariana Dawnhawk, tatere, Adrian, Kaylan McCanna, Elena Gaillard, Lorelei Kelly, medievalpoc, Myz Lilith, Devin & Stephanie Ganger, Phil Margolies, Brandi Blackburn, Cait Greer, Jen Talley, Ian Radford, Adam Israel, Aaron Roberts, Jennifer Melchert, John M. Gamble, John Chu, Brooks Moses, Deborah Levinson, Didi Chanoch, Michael Lee, Adam Leff

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps COMMANDERS

Cody Duncan, Peter Jones, Kate Boyes, Emily K Miller, Kuang-Yu Liu, Kelly Lester, Chip Roland, Camille Knepper, Elizabeth Galliher, Mairin Holmes, Alex Eiser, K.C. Mead-Brewer, Alexander M Henderson, Kate O’Connor, Marzie Kaifer, Edmund Schweppe, Nicole Fuschetti, Dain Unicorn, Jayme, Bliss Ehrlich, Daniel (a raven)

ADDITIONAL SUPPORTERS

Jacob Aldrich, Karen, Roy Ha, SB Divya, Hayley Klug, Will Hindmarch, John Overholt, Martha Hood, Marc Beyer

Our Love Against Us

The rideshare slowed to a stop early. Nim glanced up from his phone. “This ain’t it. There’s no tower.”

“No road, neither.”

Nim clambered out of the back seat. The door locked behind him. The trunk popped. He looped his backpack on, grabbed his sweet potato pie, then released the pending crypto payment in his phone’s app. On every side, burned out or collapsed structures cradled an old retail corridor. Cracked sidewalk and crumbling asphalt abruptly gave way to bluestem and bottlebrush tall enough to brush the hem of Nim’s cargo shorts. He tried not to imagine ticks staking out claims on his brown skin. Aletha’s presence, her influence, suffused this space like shards of glass beneath a tranquil river’s surface. The red spray paint marking the next buildings to be burned. Neat stacks of pavement ready to be hauled off. Salvaged copper piping, a bin of rusted batteries. This is where she’d been hiding from the world. From Nim.

“Hey! Thanks for the tip and the stars.” Between their masks and the window, the driver yelled politely. “Sorry I can’t go further, but they’ve been ripping it up out here. Jackhammers and shit. For months. Heard there’s worse than spike strips in the grass.”

“No problem.” Nim hadn’t accounted for walking, and he was losing daylight.

“Sure you don’t want me to stay? This ain’t back east. People different out here, especially since the satellite came down.”

“Forreal? Thought it burned up.”

“Nah bruh, it hit places. Everyone from the D to the Chi checking they rooftops for a sliver these past few weeks. I know I did.”

Nim’s mask hid his grimace. “China does make good on settlement money.”

“Exactly. They already own all the farms through here anyway. Better than getting stabbed over a UN airdrop by some redneck.” The driver tossed her phone beside a 3D-printed Glock in the passenger seat. “Ain’t you been viral or something? Swear I’ve seen you before.”

“Prolly the locs. Why didn’t you flirt this hard on the drive up?”

Her eyes crinkled above her mask as the car hummed off. Nim strode into the boulevard of rabbit warrens and gopher holes, wild grass swallowing his boots. The air felt remarkably cooler. A kestrel monitored Nim’s progress from a second story windowsill, plucking apart a squirming rat.

His offline map pinged Turtle Tower a mile up. Reception was still trash, but a new message from Aletha popped.

 

:one year archive – delete? y/n:

Fam where are you? These people keep callin me bout u and this fellowship $$

listen can we talk. i know it hurts they took our work from us

Aletha I heard u. pick up the phone

did i do something wrong

hey nerd. just wishin you happy bday

:two weeks ago:

Fuck thema nd fck U

Fuck all hteway OFF

 

You ghost me for a year and wtf w this audacity

they got me trending #NimbusSoldOutOnUs

:one week ago:

nimbus. we need to get this footage out

what footage? Fam are u good??

people need to see it

 

*unread – 4:03am*

I need you. I need to see you. Don’t you love me?

 

Nim stopped. That last part. How long had he buried it? Through studying and organizing, arguments and arrests. Being each other’s antennae when pepper spray doused demonstrators at the Exxon-Chevron trials. Holding hands; savoring the gift that blindness offered him. Crowdfunding for ally bail or a few weeks’ worth of red beans and rice. Finding employment for displaced coastals when Brooklyn drowned for the last time. Working on Aletha’s dream in agile sprints. Abandoning it. Finding it again.

The prize followed. The fellowship. One tipsy night of celebrating, a bottle of TCapri between them, long fingers intertwined with his, pulling Nim from the suite’s couch to the bedroom. And after, a relieved, awkward hangover brunch. Aletha thankfully agreed they were close, but not that way. And not the fuck buddies way, either. Not that it wasn’t nice. Not that Nim didn’t lie his way through the whole thing, just to stay close. Aletha disappeared soon after, with her half of the fellowship, leaving Nim with more money than a kid from Akron could dream, international speaking engagements.

They were supposed to be in this work together. Screw the work, they were supposed to be—

The kestrel stretched one wing out, then plummeted from its perch. Nim’s eyes followed it straight down. The bird’s feathers burst like a flicked dandelion. He pulled his mask tighter.

A Rottie with no collar emerged from an abandoned building down the street, trotting over broken glass and grit, all black and rust and muscle. Nim’s phone vibrated with a new text from Winter, but he ignored it, eyes fixed on the dog. The Rottie loped sideways, not limping, just…unbalanced. Its jaw hung askew, no drool. A tip of playful pink tongue lolled out. Not sick, but not right, either.

Nim’s phone buzzed again as he crossed the street.

“I know you didn’t just leave me on read.”

“My bad. Reception’s trash, but I can talk now.” The Rottie’s chunky head dipped over the dead bird. Even this far away, Nim heard delicate bones snap. He turned a corner. “The lead checked out, Winter. She been here for a minute.”

“So I know my timing is shit. I get why you need to do this, really.” Winter’s voice hitched. “But I need to speak my truth, too. I need to know if my heart is safe with you.”

“I’m committed,” Nim heard himself say. When did lying get so easy? “It’s just complicated right now.”

Signs of Aletha were everywhere now. Every passing street held a DIY aspect of her arcology model. Here, vertical hydroponic gardens with vines wreathing a faded, spray paint mural of a silver-haired Colin Kaepernick and Ayọ Tometi, smiling and worn, but raising their fists. There, a weatherproofed book exchange. Stacks of reclaimed bricks on half-rotted pallets. Aletha’s ideas and tactics were all nothing new—most were ancient, actually. But whatever came next, warring fiefdoms or a resurgent Chinese world order, this land would have fragments of her DNA all up in it.

“Nimbus.”

“Yeah?”

“Did you hear me?”

“Sorry, go ahead.”

“I said I don’t think you’re dealing with this. What if she’s changed, yo?”

“Like that Zamunda shit they saying online? Bought a mansion somewhere, getting hand-fed grapes?”

“Isn’t that her right, though? Y’all’s fellowship didn’t come with strings. And they’re already using the principles in Paris and Tokyo.”

“But not Lagos and Caracas…not Oche.”

Winter’s breath hitched. Her Jamaica birth town had dropped another foot below sea level for every month they had dated. “I’m just saying. The blueprint is out there for the world to see. No one can deny how brilliant she is. Why can’t a Black woman ride off into the sunset? Just this once?”

“I ain’t arguing that point, Winter.”

“Fine. So where you hosted at?”

Nim pressed his lips shut. She didn’t deserve his petty. Winter was in awe of Aletha, probably a pinch intimidated, but never blinked whenever they traded ex stories. She deserved Nim’s best, not these shambles. But what else could he offer right now? Aletha’s text had snatched him up by the roots. “I’m coming up on the tower, there’s people up here. We’ll talk more tonight, cool?”

“Cool. Be safe.”

“I will.”

“Love—”

Shit. He cut off the call too soon. Shit. Nim fired off a text reply, cussing out the spotty reception, assuring Winter he loved her back. He waited. The message status showed sent, but not delivered, and definitely not read. Shit shit shit. The barrenness ended as abruptly as the paved road. Community steeped as the sun grew bored with its daily stranglehold. Children double dutched like back home, or encircled a young dunny lucky enough to hold a functioning tablet. Others tossed a football, more duct tape than leather. Through plate glass windows, barber chairs lined old storefronts. Compost barrels formed a neat row down an old alleyway. A young woman jerked at the sight of him, then hustled a wheelbarrow around a corner. Something dangled over its edge and fell free. A child’s shoe.

A block from the tower, men and women wearing bandannas eyed Nim’s approach. They encircled more people in faded hoodies with porch-door screening duct-taped over the faces, roving through rows of wooden boxes in an otherwise empty lot. Nim grinned in spite of the guns. An apiary. The nearest guard shouldered his AR-15 to raise a hand in what Nim took as greeting.

“Looking for a friend,” Nim called, shuffling closer. “Brought her some pie.”

The guard shook his head. “Hold up now—”

Nim pitched forward. Sudden pain clamped around his calf. “Ah, shit!” An old grate swallowed his leg to the knee.

“Oh, you poor thing!”

“Are you okay?”

“Is the bone broken?”

People surrounded him on every side, concerned, still holding rifles or shovels, clothesline, and a bread knife. Nim yanked his leg up, beyond embarrassed. For a moment, his imagination went left, picturing hidden traps beneath the metal, ready to carve him open. “Just a scrape, I’m good.” He forced a laugh, trying not to think about rust. “Didn’t drop the pie.”

The guard thumbed over his shoulder. “Walk with me.”

Nim’s reflection licked its lips in the man’s aviator shades. A salt and pepper beard edged around his mask. He led Nim away from the apiary, into the shade of a reclaimed office building. A fountain lay just before the entrance. Turtles with dark shells populated the basin, claws scraping through glittering coins and buttons. Their heads were all retracted despite two feet of water. “Are they okay?” Nim asked.

“Hard to say. They’ll come out when it’s feeding time. Name’s Cume.”

“As in…cumulus?”

The man’s brow drew down beneath his sunglasses. “That’s funny?”

“I mean…yeah. I’m Nim. Nimbus.”

“Oh. Ohhhh.”

The shared laugh helped Nim breathe easier, but Cume’s hand stayed on his rifle.

“You know about the pie, so you must know Aletha.”

“Helped her think through applying her theories. Actually, help is probably too strong a word.”

Cume laughed again and gestured Nim down another roadway, carpeted with wildflowers and grass. “Yeah, you definitely know Aletha.” An ache curdled his voice. “She was just here a couple weeks ago. Got a broken bone set.”

“She’s survived worse.” Curiosity nudged out Nim’s worry. “Can I ask…are y’all really building it?”

“You’ve seen the sidewalk we’re grinding up. You tell me.” He pointed down a side street. Two cement trucks rotated beside a massive excavation, nearly a block wide and twice as deep.

“Holy shit.”

“Yup. We doing thangs,” Cume declared proudly. “I don’t care what people say about her. She’s a genius, through and through. For us. Imagine what she’d do with some actual resources. Or hell, a working government?”

Nim winced. They never did settle on a name for the heart of Aletha’s arcologies; the power source. Almost Perpetual Motion Machine? Not Quite Infinite Renewable Power Core? Even the acronyms were janky. But like most things Aletha, she hadn’t let that stop her, even if it meant building the homebrew, DIY version without the IMF’s strings.

How could Nim stay mad at her? The coals were simply gone. He didn’t know what lay beneath them, didn’t want hope to fill this sudden scramble of emotions. “So where is she? In the tower?”

“Yeah, but not here. Down the way.” They skirted through several large clear enclosures churning with tilapia. One fish’s fin was deformed so it swam sideways. The others avoided it. “It’s gonna be dark soon. These streetlights just for show. You, uh, got a place to stay?”

Nim almost missed his meaning. “Oh…yeah. But we’re not together like that.”

“But she called you, right? Texted? Why else would anyone visit the middle of nowhere?”

Nim frowned. “Does it matter?”

The wiry man glanced at Nim’s pie. “Strangers show up every so often, checking on people they know. Started a few weeks back. They never leave that tower. Like she’s building another community but left us out of it.” Nim scowled, but Cume spread his palms, the first time he released the rifle. “Ain’t none of my business. Be safe.”

Down the way led to a mile-long swath of unshattered sidewalk and pavement among more abandoned homes and offices. Aletha needed help badly, Nim didn’t question that now. But why am I last on her list? Rusty pickaxes and jackhammers littered the ground within sight of the next tower, abandoned. No solar panels or rain barrel collectors. A single blue van parked before the tower itself. Optic white lettering on the side read:

 

SATELLITE SETTLEMENT LAWYERS

Free radiation symptom checks daily.

DON’T MISS YOUR PIECE OF THE PAYOUT

 

Gotdamn vultures. A handful of weary looking folks lined up before the van abruptly scattered as Nim approached. If Aletha’s ideas flourished back at Turtle Tower, they were withering on the vine here. Weak soil and weaker gardens. No sign of goods exchange. Decay wafted past him; overpowering then gone in the next breath. Good breeding grounds for—

Scorches blistered the southeast corner of the building, a repurposed hotel. The top three floors were burned like nothing Nim had ever seen. When he blinked the darkness left an imprint, a negative space, the opposite of staring at the sun.

So close, now. An ache of longing and loss peeled open Nim’s chest. If Aletha came around a corner right there he would choke on the spot, gag on all of his love boiling back to the surface. Shit. Winter must have a sixth sense. Nim had lied to himself this whole time, and she endured it.

Arguing voices rose as Nim approached the van. A light-skinned man with a clean cut beard slid a mask back on. Latino, maybe. Weary circles bruised his eyes. A sticker name tag identified him as Carter. “We can squeeze in one last interview. Where were you when the satellite came down?”

Nim meant to tell him to take his crypto and fuck off, but instead said, “I don’t live here. Looking for a friend.”

“You from back east?”

“More or less.”

“Did the new seawall hold? We’ve got no coverage out here.” Nim shook his head, and Carter’s face sagged. “Who are you looking for?”

“Aletha Shaunnessy. She would’ve been involved in some outreach here.” The man’s eyebrows ticked up a fraction. “You know her.”

“Couldn’t forget. She backhanded my partner with her cast a few weeks ago. She’s…inside. Hold on.” He ducked into the van. There’s a mini desk, laptop, IV drip beside a gurney—Nim’s gut clenched as the man reemerged. “I shouldn’t be doing this, sharing sensitive info and all. But you’re friends, right? More than friends?” Nim crossed his arms. The prying fizzled out. “We’re about to get out of here, but here’s the room number. Good luck.”

Outside the building’s lobby, Nim glanced back. Carter pretended not to record him with a phone. Inside, small pools of wax covered the reception desk. Dead candles, beside a ruined notebook, pages too blotchy to read properly. Visitor check-ins? No…not dates and times. Blood pressure, temperature. Fear spiked through him—midway down a page, one entry might be Aletha’s name. He couldn’t be sure.

Beyond that, a gloomy inner courtyard, the elevator bank on the other side. Sweat bloomed on Nim’s forehead as he found the stairs instead. Undulant movement, almost a humming prickled the balls of his feet. He stopped half a flight up. Cold certainty pooled in his stomach. “Nope.” No way people lived in this place. He turned on his heel and strode out into the twilight. The van still waited outside. He pounded on the door until Carter cracked it open.

“You’ve got me fucked up. What’s really going on here?”

Carter opened his mouth, but a woman interrupted, sunburnt with a short ponytail hanging near her nape like a drop of spoiled honey. “We can trade questions.”

“And you are?”

“Karen Gilliam.”

“Ahmed Carter.”

“You’re not lawyers, so what—doctors?”

“Scientists.” Nim’s lip curled. “Okay, PhD students really. Doing the same as you.”

“How’s that?”

Karen’s smile didn’t sync with her eyes. “Finding out what makes this community tick.”

Nim grimaced. He’d been recognized. Great. “Bull. No accredited program would even fund the decals on your little research van, let alone the money you’re promising these folks for their information. You’re not supposed to be here.”

“If anyone appreciates breaking rules,” Ahmed spluttered, “It should be—”

“You don’t know a thing about me. So you’re gathering satellite debris. Or the shit is, what, radioactive? And you let me go in there?”

A small whine pulled everyone’s attention toward the front of the van. The Rottie padded forward, stub tail wagging eagerly. Naked spine stood out between its shoulders. A blistery, purpled mass pulsated between vertebrae.

“Oh fuck,” Karen whispered.

The dog’s head tilted playfully, the lolling tongue dangling through white teeth. The flesh extended like melted taffy, stretching down to the pavement.

What the absolute fuck.

Something pink and translucent slipped up from between the Rottie’s shoulder blades, delicate as a long flower petal. It swiveled toward Nim.

“Inside,” Ahmed hissed. Nim scrambled in after them. Karen slammed the door shut as new meat leaves peeled out of the dog’s spine, binding to its legs.

Nim’s chest heaved as muffled, slurping sounds emanated from beyond the door. “I think it’s eating my pie.”

Ahmed squeezed his eyes shut. “It’s ambulatory. Allah yarhamuna.”

A low thrumming sank into the van, like raindrops testing the metal in radial patterns. Nim’s ears couldn’t process it fully. A tortured howl made him jump.

“It can’t get inside.” Karen rested a hand on Ahmed’s shoulder. “Think. Think through it.”

“A…threat response. A spore. I don’t know.”

“But why now?”

“I don’t know!”

“Excuse me.” Nim was amazed at his own calm. “Can y’all fools drive and talk at the same time?”

“I’m sorry.” Ahmed buried his head in his hands. “We should have told you. The satellite that crashed wasn’t a satellite. It was a meteor.”

“A contaminated meteor,” Karen corrected.

“There are people in that tower.” Nim’s throat tightened up. “My friend.”

“No shit,” Karen snapped. “Two of our friends got taken. We’ve been trying to find a way to cut them out. We thought maybe someone it didn’t recognize might…”

The two shared a guilty look.

“Cut them out?” Nim repeated.

“It’s hard to explain.”

Another howl sounded outside, further away. The same dog? Another? Nim forced himself to think. “So how does it spread?”

“We’re pretty sure its bloodborne.”

“Ahmed, sorry, but no. We’ve seen plenty of cuts. Scrapes.”

“But that doesn’t discount—”

Nim plugged his phone into a wall outlet as they argued. He remembered, at Turtle Tower, folks’ alarm when he fell through the grate. The fear in their eyes. The ready tools in their hands. The pain in Cume’s voice. She was just here a couple weeks ago. Got a broken bone set. He tried to warn Nim without warning him. “That shit came out of the dog’s spine,” Nim interrupted.

Karen and Ahmed ceased arguing.

“You saw it?” she breathed.

“So…marrow, as a gestation medium. Some sort of prion.”

“Sentient?”

Ahmed shook his head. “Maybe. I’d guess instinctual if—”

“You’re wasting time,” Nim cut in. “Let me out.”

“Nimbus, she had a cast on when we first showed up.” Karen touches her jaw and winces. “That makes Aletha one of the first. She’s probably dead or worse.”

“Then how’s she texting me?” Nim snapped.

“Bullshit.”

Nim showed them the latest timestamp. “This explains why she’s been so erratic. She’s been here since it fell out of the sky.”

Karen frowned at the message. “What’s the footage?”

Nim ignored her and reached for the door. No way this woman squeezed another scrap of data from him, especially not about Aletha.

Ahmed grabbed his wrist. “It’s not safe.”

Really? The same dude who let him saunter in there before? “And it won’t be any safer when the UN finds out.” Nim jerked his arm free. “They won’t bother with evacuations. They’ll announce EOAs, just like Sigma variant—remember that? China will level—”

“The emergency outbreak authorization is already in effect,” Ahmed interrupted quietly. “The planes will be in the sky at dawn.”

Despair caved in on itself beneath Nim’s ribs. Anger filled the new hollow. “This is that bullshit,” he rasped. “You’re just…collecting as much data as you can. For science. You’re not even trying to help these folks.”

Karen tapped a code into her tablet, unlocking the door.

“I…I’ll go with you,” Ahmed stammered.

“No, I will.” Karen tossed him the keys. “Just be ready.”

Nim stepped out warily. Twilight engulfed the surrounding street, the tower. Nim strained for any noise louder than the blood pounding in his ears. Every instinct raged at him to stay out of that tower. Every dog-sized shadow made his eyes water. But how could he leave Aletha alone, believing she had called and he didn’t answer? Nim was right about her, about them. Her message proved it. He just needed to see it through.

“Which way?” he whispered.

“Down,” Karen murmured. “Do you have signal?”

“Sometimes. Why?”

“When we get close, try to call her.”

“Karen?” A hopeful voice trembled out of the lobby.

Karen gasped. Ahmed’s head popped out of the van. “Ava!” Ahmed hissed.

The woman stood within the lobby; matted, dark hair brushing her shoulders. “You didn’t forget me, thank god. I called and called and called—

Karen and Ahmed buffeted Nim aside. Ava stumbled toward their embrace, weeping. Her lab coat matched Ahmed’s except for the grime and a frayed, filthy hem. Shoes tore up like she just ran five marathons—

Nim stopped. Her shoes. Bits of broken toenail pointed straight down, peeking through torn, stained leather. Ava teetered on one foot like a ballerina. The other twisted, dangling, like it just happened to touch the ground.

“Wait!” Nim shouted.

Karen reached her first. They squeezed tight, fingers interlaced. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Ava rasped. “You hear them everywhere inside. Nonstop.”

“How many? Which floor?”

“Inside me, Ahmed. Inside my bones…”

Ava licked her lips, eyes glazing over, teeth red and wet. Nim pulled at Karen’s shoulders, but the other woman held her close.

“Ava, you’re hurting my hand. Avaaaaaaaaaaaaa…”

The woman’s fingers corkscrewed like centipedes, looping around Karen’s, tightening, pulling them wide. A wet pop. Karen screamed.

Nim and Ahmed pounced forward, shouting. The tiny web of skin between Karen’s middle and ring finger stretched taut.

“Ow fuck get her off me please no”

Ava’s looped fingers faltered—

“Slide them loose!”

“Gotdamnit I’m trying!”

—then they squeezed. The flesh gave way. Karen’s hand bisected down to the wrist. Her scream eclipsed sound, a wordless hiss of air and pain.

Ava’s eyelids fluttered. “Yes. Oh god I’m so sorry—” She licked the gaping wound between Karen’s knuckles rapturously, and released her. She retreated back toward the lobby, toes smearing the peeled linoleum. “Kill me.” Nim’s breath caught at the dim ribbon protruding from behind her, snaking back into the elevator core.

Ahmed’s jaw fell open. “Did you see—?”

“Yeah.”

“My hand.”

“Duct tape,” Nim whispered hoarsely.

“Right.”

Nim’s chest felt ready to burst as they hauled Karen back to the van. “How many? How many people in this building?”

Ahmed’s jaws worked. “Maybe fifty? Three families for sure.” His eyes widened. “Nimbus, no. This place will be ash by dawn, inshallah.”

“Then tell the folks down the way!” he snarled. “Warn them!”

“But they could be—”

“Same as her! Look at her! They deserve the same chance you’re giving her and you know gotdamn well what her status is!”

Ahmed slammed the door shut in Nim’s face. Nim heard Karen’s muffled, pleading sobs before the van sped off.

“Fuck!” All of Nim’s uncertainty and anger clamored for him to do the same. He could get word to Turtle Tower himself. Live. But he couldn’t turn his back. That’s not who he was; not why Aletha reached out to him.

“Sorry, Winter,” he murmured. “Guess you were right about me.”

He scooped up a loose piece of brick, stuffed it in his backpack. Pried up another one and hefted it. A piece of broken glassware from his pie fit in his off-hand.

Heat and sound threatened to suffocate him with each step deeper. Voices echoed from every fissure. Calling out for loved ones. Beyond the lobby, a tortured atrium twisted into the tower heights, abandoning any semblance of right angles, or humanity. His phone’s light revealed spherical hollows instead of doors, ringed with drywall and wood that appeared gnawed upon.

People dangled within those spaces, larval, swaying shadows. Weeping, laughing, pleading. Nim swallowed down bile and listened.

“Mama, I need me a care package. They greens ain’t right.”

“Bae we said sickness and health…”

“Call me back.”

“Te adoro con locura. Llámame ya.”

“Your constituents deserve better, Gordon. Time to knock on some doors.”

“Ama zilna asdiqa?”

“Pick up your phone.”

“Nimbus…Nim…”

He stopped, waiting until he heard it again, teased a direction. Down. He swallowed and called out. “Aletha. I’m here.”

The entire atrium fell silent.

“Nim…” Her voice carried him into service halls, past machine rooms flooded with muck and slime, putrid enough to make him lightheaded. Through pink roots that resembled coiled muscles, wriggling into basement cracks to avoid his phone’s light.

In one room, a door remained. He found her, curled next to a dust-covered wall of metal controls and levers, nestled in a spiraling gob of drywall and chewed up fabric.

Aletha’s eyes opened, blinking in his phone’s light. Nim swallowed down a plum in his throat. “Hey, nerd.”

“Nim. You came.”

Despite the filth, they embraced. Somehow she still smelled like herself, jojoba oil in her locs, the faintest hint of frankincense on the nape of her neck. “You called me. I had to.”

“I knew you’d come.” That familiar thrumming suddenly suffused Nim from head to toe, viscous enough to make his teeth ache. “Fuck you for coming.”

Nim heard his own spine pop. He gasped in pain. “Aletha…my ribs…you’re breaking—”

“Tell me you love me.”

“The hell?”

“Say. It.”

“I…I love you.”

The pressure dissipated. Nim sucked in fetid air, gagged.

“Sorry. It keeps me lucid, even if it ain’t real.”

Her words filtered through Nim’s shock. “It ain’t real?”

“The infection ties up our dopamine, I think. You heard all the other tenants?”

Nim nodded. “All trying to connect with someone.”

Her eyes dropped down. “I…I’m so sorry, Nim. Take this.” She extended a muck encrusted phone. “Battery’s dead, but the SIM card’s good.”

Understanding trickled into Nim’s brain. “Your footage.”

“I did what those chuckleheads outside should have been doing. These are interviews, from the people who put the fire out. The first exposed.”

“Infected?”

“No. Ingested, maybe. It’s hard to explain. They use us like bait. Pulling more people in. Brain chemistry is all retrofitted. Drenched in dopamine for every attempt we make to connect. You shoulda seen folks early on. Texting until their phone screens cracked. Trying to write letters. Sing. Anything to avoid the crash.”

“Jesus,” Nim breathed. “That’s why you tried to cuss me into deleting your number.”

Aletha fixed her eyes on his. “Yes. It’s using our love against us. Gets inside our bones. Makes us build…whatever this is. A colony.”

“Gotdamn.”

“Nim. I got our arcology to work. It’s not even an hour’s walk from here.”

“I know.” Tears swelled in Nim’s eyes before he blinked them away. “I came through there.”

“Are they…still whole? Is it—”

“Let’s get you out of here. This shit will be worse than Sigma if we don’t tell folk.”

“Yes.” Aletha licked her lips. “But listen. You need to leave. Now. They haven’t broken your bones. That’s how it gets inside.”

They both stared at the sodden cast on her wrist.

“No,” Nim groaned, slicing away at the tendrils around her. “No no no…”

Aletha’s hands lingered on Nim’s fingers, caressing them.

“Nimbus,” she whispered. “Let me go.”

“This whole place is finna get torched. The government—”

“Good.”

“But the work, your work, the people—”

“Go save them.”

Something rippled between Aletha’s ribs.

“Please. I don’t want you to see me like this.”

“I’m not leaving. I can’t!”

“Then help me get home.”

Nim pulled her upright, supported her weight to the lobby. “Seven floors,” Aletha rasped. “I can do this.”

“We’ve got the footage. Nothing up there’s serious enough to waste time on!” Thrumming came from every side, or…outside? Would they hear the planes? He couldn’t carry her out, but he could make a litter, something! “We gotta get moving.”

“You’re the only one who came,” she whispered. “Scared off everyone else.”

“Stubborn.” Nim shrugged.

“Don’t I know it. You’re the only one strong enough to see this through.”

Nim wiped a hand over his face. An exasperated laugh escaped him. “This is so fucked. Fine. Seven floors. Then we out.”

Aletha smiled. “We out.”

The whispers and songs returned, louder with every floor. People burrowed into slick walls beside the open stairs, eying him hungrily. Close enough to be melded together, they howled or prayed as Nim hobbled past. Aletha clung tight to his shoulder and muttered encouragement to folks she recognized. “It’ll be over soon.”

Legs burning, they reached the seventh floor. “Where’s the apartment?” Nim panted. “I can grab whatever you need.”

Aletha nodded to herself, limping toward a common area. A balcony lay beyond it. “Should be high enough.”

Nim’s throat dried. “What are you saying?”

“This thing inside me has survival instincts. Self-preservation. But it can only see what I see.” She stepped onto the balcony, closing her eyes. “I need you to do this. But you’ve got to do it fast.”

Nim pressed his fists to his mouth, squeezing the sudden anguish down. “You lied to me.”

“I know. I’m sorry. But I can’t go with you. And I’m tired. So fucking tired.”

“But we can still—”

“Please, Nim.”

He nodded, scrubbing his eyes. None of this was fair. She needed him to be strong, and real. He leaned in close, her locs tickling his face. “I’m…going to miss the hell out of you. It’s real for me. I love you.”

Aletha’s eyelids fluttered. She sighed deeply, and a smile dimpled her cheek. “See you on the other side.”

Nim planted both hands on her ribs and shoved. She tumbled awkwardly over the rail. Translucent petals of flesh flailed out of her shoulders, grasping for the balcony. Nim only had eyes for the moment of peace on her face. Did she believe him? Or think his words another appeasement? He would never be sure.

The building grew silent again as Nim limped his way downstairs, numbly cradling his swollen arm. An ugly sprain, but he would live.

Outside he stopped in disbelief. The blue van idled in front of the hotel. The headlights flashed, beckoning him forward. “Not yet,” he muttered. “I need to be sure.” Stomach roiling, Nim forced himself to circle the building, find the place. No movement stirred in the wilted sunflower patch beneath the seventh-floor window. Nothing breathed.

For a moment, his rib cage collapsed inward. A pained keening pierced his throat. His friend, all of her unrealized joy and peace and potential, was gone. Nothing else mattered. Except those folks back at Turtle Tower, Aletha’s folks. They needed him now. He trudged back to the van.

“Nim. You found your friend.”

Karen emerged from the side door. Petal-like appendages unfolded from her back. They creeped forward, she the marionette suspended in mid-air. “She had more research, didn’t she? That clever, greedy…trying to steal what’s mine.”

Nim froze. “She didn’t. She just didn’t want to spread the…”

Karen abruptly burst into tears. “Noble until the end.” The crying melted into laughter. “But not me. You’re judging me, aren’t you? I can see it on your face!”

Nim backed away, knees turned to mush. “We can’t go together, Karen. You know what’s about to happen here. Can you even drive…like that? What do you think the first people who see you will do?”

“Nothing! I’m fine!”

“Not in your…condition. Our condition. I can still drive.”

Nim cradled his sprained wrist, still cowering back. Her petal limbs shivered, the droning sound he recalled inside the van. “Yes…you’re smart,” Karen beamed. “Smarter than Ahmed was. No time to waste.”

Nim slid in behind the driver’s seat. Karen considered him before curling back into the van. The humming resumed, pitched low enough to make his teeth ache. Nim threw it into gear and wheeled around for Turtle Tower. Cume and the rest were well-armed. He prayed it would be enough.

Karen’s voice rumbled cheerfully behind him. “I’ll be needing whatever she gave you, Nim.”

“I…I’ve got it right here.” Nim felt around in his backpack, his hand closed around a brick instead. He inhaled deeply, cranked the wheel and jammed the brick over the gas pedal. The engine revved. The van lurched forward.

“Nim…”

Nim leaped out. The van wobbled dangerously. Flesh petals sliced apart the door, the walls, an instant before it crashed into the tower lobby.

Nim never stopped running, not even when low flames illuminated his path. He hoped the whole building caught fire. He ran until his legs burned, until he could do nothing but stumble through the night. But he refused to turn around.

After what felt like hours, a search light halted him. “That’s far enough!”

He had made it. “Y’all remember me! I…I had a pie!”

A muffled argument, then Cume’s voice rang out. “Did you find her? Spill, kid.”

Nim made a gasping ruin of it, but the key words got through. Quarantine. Infection. Bombing. “Contingency six!” a voice bellowed. “Get our people moving!”

Vehicles spilled from hidden driveways and boarded-up storefronts. The guns trained on him didn’t waver. “I’m fine,” he whispered, tears streaming down his face. “She wouldn’t have sent me here if I wasn’t. She wouldn’t let me bring her, she made me…”

Cume growled. “Damnit, come on then.”

When the first bombs fell, close to a hundred people had fled Turtle Tower with every provision they could carry.

The midnight caravan halted in the false daylight, leaders murmuring in tense circles. In the bed of a rusted pickup, an elder wrapped Nim’s sprained wrist. Cume approached on horseback.

“You’ve got a place with us, forreal,” Cume murmured once she finished. “That would have been our asses and not a soul would know.”

“I’m sorry you have to build all over again.”

“Starting over don’t mean starting from scratch. We’ve got the knowledge, and thanks to you, we’ve still got the hands. Think about staying on with us. I mean it.”

Cume flicked the reins, trotting off.

Nim’s tears flowed soon after, sobs that pummeled his insides. Everything hurt. Everything. He stared at the tower flames until they burned down, vowing to right the record on Aletha. Then he cried some more. Sleep would not come.

His thoughts touched Winter as smoke merged with the graying dawn sky. He tried to dial her, wincing. Switched hands.

“Nimbus. You called.” Genuine surprise and hope bled into Winter’s f. “Did you find her okay?”

“I did, but some shit went down you wouldn’t believe. We need to talk about it in person.”

A tremor entered Winter’s voice. “Are we…good?”

Nim took a deep breath. “You love me, right?”

A soft gasp pushed through the phone. “I do. You know I do.”

“Come pick me up then. I need to see you. It’s time we had a fresh start.”

Something about that felt right and good. Real good. Beyond good. Cume smiled at Nim and Nim nodded back, already scrolling through his contacts for the next person to call.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Our Love Against Us” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 48A).

Interview: Rati Mehrotra

Born and raised in India, Rati Mehrotra now lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. She is the author of the science fantasy novels Markswoman (2018) and Mahimata (2019) published by Harper Voyager. Her YA fantasy debut novel Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove will be published in October 2022 by Wednesday Books. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for The Sunburst Award, nominated for The Aurora Award, and has appeared in multiple venues including The Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionLightspeed MagazineApex Magazine, PodcastleCast of Wonders, and AE—The Canadian Science Fiction Review. This is her second appearance in Uncanny, a powerful story of transformation, hope, and a hidden world of cats.

 

Uncanny Magazine: “Girl, Cat, Wolf, Moon” has a lovely balance of darkness and whimsy, a compelling protagonist, and a delightful secret world of cats. What was your inspiration or starting point for the story?

Rati Mehrotra: My starting point for this story was a real-life supernatural-seeming unsolved case from 1983 rural India. Several children—mostly girls—vanished within the space of a few months, snatched from right beside their families while they were asleep. All that was found later was bloody clothing, a bit of skull, or a limb. Villagers claimed to have seen wolf-like creatures before the disappearances. I couldn’t get this case out of my head, and eventually built an entire story around a fictional version of it.

As for cats, they are my weakness, both in real life and in fiction. Such elegant, mysterious creatures. I dreamed the cat market and knew it was right for this story. If there’s a world of monsters out there, then there must be a world of cats to balance it out.

Uncanny Magazine: You write both short stories and novels—what is your favorite thing about each length?

Rati Mehrotra: My favorite thing about short stories is that they’re short. They allow me to experiment with new structures, genres, and themes without becoming obsessed to the exclusion of all else. One can create an entire world and a whole cast of characters in just a few thousand words.

Novels, of course, require much more commitment. I am a relatively slow writer, and it takes me a year to come up with a first draft. And at the end of that, there’s always the risk that it will not sell. But I love that I can immerse myself fully in the world I’m building. Worldbuilding is my favorite part of writing—and reading—and a novel allows you to go in depth in a way that short fiction cannot.

Uncanny Magazine: Prince is a wonderful cat with a distinct personality. How did you come up with his character? Was there a point as you were writing the story when he did something you weren’t expecting?

Rati Mehrotra: Prince wrote himself. I had very little to do with it. The biggest surprise was when he stood on two feet—paws?—and started dancing with Lila in the cat market. I let him have his way, of course. He’s not someone you can argue with.

Uncanny Magazine: If you could purchase only one thing from the cat market, what would it be and why?

Rati Mehrotra: Only one? What a difficult question! But if I had to choose, like Lila, I would choose the wings. Flying is the one superhero power I’ve always fantasized about. Besides, it’s easier to escape monsters if you can fly.

Uncanny Magazine: I love that at the end Lila had to save herself, instead of waiting for someone else to save her, and also that she’d had the beautiful cat within her all along. Are these themes that you find yourself drawn to repeatedly? What other ideas or themes often reoccur in your writing?

Rati Mehrotra: I often return to themes of transformation and rebirth in my fiction. Sometimes, you can’t change the world you were given, even if you are courageous and steadfast. You can only change yourself. Lila has to transform to survive, and in doing so, she gains her heart’s desire.

Hope is an important element to me as well, both in reading and in writing. No matter how dark things seem, there has to be a candle to guide your way. The fireflies in the arch of trees symbolize that hope for me—and for Lila.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Rati Mehrotra: I am waiting on edits for my next novel, and I’m writing a new one, a paranormal fantasy set in my hometown in India. Mostly, though, I am procrastinating and feeling guilty about it. Which, somehow, is also part of my writing process, although it feels rather inefficient!

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

The Uncanny Valley

This was a rough month for the Thomases.

After quite a few careful visits with friends and loved ones, Michael’s luck finally ran out, and he came down with COVID. Thanks to vaccines, boosters, and medicine, it was a mild case, and he managed not to pass it to Lynne & Caitlin. It did mean that Lynne had to solo parent Caitlin for about two weeks, though. Towards the end of that period, Caitlin began to have some medical issues that we suspected might be her kidneys acting up again. We brought her in for tests just two days after Michael left isolation. The results were not good, and poor Caitlin was hospitalized for a week. As we write this, we are home again, but waiting to go back in two weeks for surgery to address another round of kidney stones.

 

We are extremely fortunate to be part of such a wonderful community. All of the love and support we received while in the hospital meant a great deal to us. Thank you, Space Unicorns. Your kindness is bigger than galaxies.

 

There is some better news in the universe! As all of you most certainly know, we’ve been running the Uncanny Magazine Year 9: To Fifty … and Beyond! Kickstarter! It will be over when you read this, but we achieved funding for Year 9, and reached many of our stretch goals, which included the DOUBLE-SIZED MILESTONE ISSUE 50! Thank you, Space Unicorns!

This issue is the final issue of Uncanny Magazine Year 8. With the ongoing pandemic and other global issues, it was another tremendously challenging year for everyone. We want to thank our phenomenal staff and every generous member of the Space Unicorn Ranger Corps who made all of this possible. We hope you enjoyed all of the gorgeous stories, poems, essays, interviews, podcasts, and art. This issue contains the bonus novella for Year 8, and we think you will greatly enjoy it along with everything else in the issue. YOU ARE THE VERY BEST, YOU MAGNIFICENT SPACE UNICORNS!!

We have some wonderful news, Space Unicorns!

As you know, our current Assistant Editor Monte Lin will become the new Managing Editor starting with Uncanny Magazine #50 (January/February 2023). We’ve finally found somebody to take over his old duties! Starting with Uncanny Magazine #49 (November/December 2022), the new Assistant Editor will be…

Tania Chen!!!

Tania brings a lot of enthusiasm to the position. We can’t wait to start working with them!

Tania’s Bio:

Tania Chen is a Chinese-Mexican queer writer. Their work has been published in Unfettered Hexes by Neon Hemlock, Strange HorizonsPleiades Magazine, and Baffling. They are a first reader for Nightmare Magazine and a graduate of the Clarion West Novella Bootcamp workshop of January/Feb 2021. They can be found on twitter @archistratego.

It was a phenomenal pool of applicants. Thank you to everyone who applied!

Uncanny Magazine Year 9 will be fantastic, Space Unicorns. Though many changes are happening, we will continue to have the BEST STAFF in the universe.

Stupendous news, Space Unicorns! “Confessions of a Spaceport AI” by Mary Soon Lee won the SFPA 2022 Rhysling Award for Best Short Poem!

Congratulations to Mary Soon Lee and to all of the finalists!

Fabulous news, Space Unicorns! “That Story Isn’t the Story” by John Wiswell is the Best Novelette Locus Award winner, and “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker is the Best Short Story Locus Award winner! Congratulations to Sarah, John, and to all of the winners and finalists!

Once again, congratulations to the other five Uncanny Magazine stories that were finalists: “Mulberry and Owl” by Aliette de Bodard for Best Novelette, “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” by Fran Wilde for Best Novelette, “If the Martians Have Magic” by P. Djèlí Clark for Best Short Story, “Proof by Induction” by José Pablo Iriarte for Best Short Story, and “The Sin of America” by Catherynne M. Valente for Best Short Story.

You can find the list of all of the winners and finalists here!

Excellent award news, Space Unicorns!

The World Fantasy Award finalists have been announced! “If the Martians Have Magic” by P. Djèlí Clark and “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker are finalists for the Best Short Fiction World Fantasy Award! Also, Editors-in-Chief Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas are finalists for the Special Award–Non-Professional World Fantasy Award for their Uncanny Magazine work! We are thrilled and honored! Congratulations to all of the finalists!

Magnificent news! Congratulations to Caroline M. Yoachim and Sarah Pinsker! “Colors of the Immortal Palette” by Caroline M. Yoachim and “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker are both finalists for the 2022 Eugie Foster Memorial Award for Short Fiction!

From their website:

The Eugie Foster Memorial Award for Short Fiction (or Eugie Award) celebrates the best in innovative fiction. This annual award is presented at Dragon Con, the nation’s largest fan-run convention. Starting with the 2020, we will add a video presentation of the award online, along with a reading of a section of each finalist.

The Eugie Award honors stories that are irreplaceable, that inspire, enlighten, and entertain. We will be looking for stories that are beautiful, thoughtful, and passionate, and change us and the field. The recipient is a story that is unique and will become essential to speculative fiction readers.

Along with that news, The Uncanny Thomases planned on attending Chicon 8: The 80th World Science Fiction Convention from September 1-5, 2022! We are sure it went well!

And now the contents of Uncanny Magazine Issue 48! The phenomenal cover is Hunter by Sija Hong. Our new fiction includes Natalia Theodoridou’s tale of wonder and sacrifice “The Prince of Salt and the Ocean’s Bargain,” DaVaun Sanders’s story of love and perseverance “Our Love Against Us,” Rati Mehrotra’s tale of cats, magic, and monsters “Girl, Cat, Wolf, Moon,” Beth Cato’s yarn of time travel and family “The 207th Time I Went Back to March 9, 1980,” Lavie Tidhar’s exploration of duty and relationships “The Portal Keeper,” Andrea Chapela’s (translated from Spanish by Emma Törzs) look at the future and hard choices “As One Listens to the Rain,” Tansy Rayner Roberts’s delightful fairy tale romp “Towered,” and finally Miyuki Jane Pinckard’s gothic novella of love and hauntings “Radcliffe Hall.”

Our provocative and compelling essays this month include “Book Club” by Greg Pak, “Breaking Out of Capitalist Realism” by Juliet Kemp, “Everything Is on Fire Except My Deadlines” by Premee Mohamed, and “Too Dystopian for Whom? A Continental Nigerian Writer’s Perspective” by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki. Our gorgeous and evocative poetry includes “On the Plantation of Daughters” by Lalini Shanela Ranaraja, “Identity” by Marissa Lingen, “The Construct’s Co-Emergence” by Linda D. Addison, and “Palingenesia” by Simbo, Olumide Manuel . Finally, Caroline M. Yoachim interviews Rati Mehrotra and Miyuki Jane Pinckard about their stories.

The Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 48A features “Our Love Against Us” by DaVaun Sanders, as read by Matt Peters, “On the Plantation of Daughters” by Lalini Shanela Ranaraja, as read by Erika Ensign, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing DaVaun Sanders. The Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 48B features “The Portal Keeper” by Lavie Tidhar, as read by Erika Ensign, “Palingenesia” by Simbo, Olumide Manuel , as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Lavie Tidhar.

As always, we are deeply grateful for your support of Uncanny Magazine. Shine on, Space Unicorns!

The Pregnant Body Problem

“They forced you to have kids?” the man asked.

“One of them surprised me,” she said. “It made me pregnant, then told me about it. Said it was giving me what I wanted but would never come out and ask for.”

“Was it?”

“Yes.” She shook her head from side to side. “Oh, yes. But if I had the strength not to ask, it should have had the strength to let me alone.”
― Octavia E. Butler, Adulthood Rites

 

The pregnant body in speculative fiction is almost as fraught and as vulnerable a thing as it is in real life. Pioneers of genre like Butler have dilated the question of choice and implanted her stories right in the uterine wall of genre. Others have offered halfheartedly explained deaths in childbirth that often remove women and birthing people from these stories to create magical orphans. Science fiction has supplied alien interbreeding, external uterus technology, sexless humans getting their babies through the mail, and the possibility of human parthenogenesis.

Octavia Butler wrote around this question best, because she understood that it cannot be written clear through. She was not afraid to confront the ambivalence of the desire to reproduce, the innate violence in the human soul, or the seeming inevitability of this fight.

The question of choice, the one posed by the Butler quote above, is central to the issue of pregnancy: the body must give birth and the body might not choose to be pregnant, to stay pregnant, or to die in the process of partition. This conundrum presents itself in life and in fiction with that vulnerability front and center: consider the fragile humanity of Zan, the only person who can enter the world-ship meant to save humanity in The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley. Zan represents the position of all women in the Legion: they must do what their civilization demands of them, giving birth to not only babies but biomechanical parts and machines, to food, and ultimately to worlds. Hurley’s requirement for birthing is not by choice; it is by necessity. Hurley sums it up: “Control of fecundity is something every woman wants, and each believes is her birthright. The worlds have other ideas, and it eventually led to their destruction.”

Humanity lives eternally in that struggle for control, and yet necessity is not commonly defended as the reason that anyone with a uterus must give birth. Instead, the requirement is often described as a dimension of punishment: those who have sex must be made to give birth. It is couched as a right to life above all else: those who have been conceived must live. It is through this unnecessary enforced misery and unsupported early life for the uninvited that people who can give birth are oppressed for that very wonder their body can perform. This tension between the rights of the individual to decide whether to give birth and the right of their society to use birth as a punishment has been a spare part in American politics: sometimes a tent pole, sometimes a wedge, sometimes a third rail. The right to choose is a Leatherman’s multitool: always in a politician’s pocket, ready to cut or unscrew lives as needed to make a point.

Pregnancy is a uniquely vulnerable condition for the human body. Being pregnant is dangerous, giving birth is dangerous, and being perceived as a body who can get pregnant is dangerous.

Fiction writers use this same tool, and sometimes open the eyes of the reader. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale bears reasonable criticism for rehashing the suffering of women of color as the imagined oppression of white women, and for breezing past the wholesale genocide of queers. However, it has put the issue of whether people who can give birth belong to themselves or to the society they live in right into the American living room again. This horror has echoed in the work of authors like Leni Zumas, whose novel Red Clocks examines the fates of five individual women who live in a future where both abortion and in vitro fertilization have been outlawed. Authors today can draw inspiration from James Tiptree Jr., Lois McMaster Bujold, and Joanna Russ on the subject about what a woman is and what a woman is for. They can apply it to pregnancy, to womanhood itself, to what it means to be human. And they do.

Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber looks carefully at the connection between the inherent violence of birth and the complicated relationship between men and women—that is to say people who can impregnate and people who can carry children. Hopkinson’s vision of the anxiety and isolation of maternity is eye-opening, placing the dynamic in the context of a diasporic household but returning to near-universal human emotions concerning sexual violence and incest, as well as childbearing and parenting.

Vulnerability can be set aside, as in short stories like “Babies Come from Earth” by Louis Evans, where human colonists must request and wait for their offspring, which are conveniently manufactured elsewhere. It can be destroyed entirely to save humanity from having to answer the question, as in Children of Men by P.D. James. It can be outsourced to people who have no choice economically than to carry and birth the children of others, as in Joanne Ramos’s The Farm. It can be displaced from humanity as in cyborg pregnancy represented in dramatic presentations including Blade Runner 2049 and Battlestar Galactica (2004), both of which pose the question of whether a being shaped like a human, capable of sentience and human feeling, which gives birth to young like itself and rears them as humans do is indeed a human. Pregnancy can be projected on to male-identified bodies, as in Alien Nation (1989) or Enemy Mine (1985). Neither the removal of expected gender roles nor the denial of humanity saves anyone from what pregnancy is and remains: a danger to the individual, an assertion of self-determination, and the right to privacy in one’s own body.

The body that can get pregnant might disrupt the expectation of monogamy. In our lives, this is evidenced by confusion or obfuscation over paternity. In fiction, the idea has been explored by authors like Bina Shah in Before She Sleeps, a novel about women required to take multiple husbands to increase population numbers. Or this same body might become property of the state through the state’s own blunders; Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male takes on the gender disparity caused by China’s one-child policy and the resulting surfeit of men who must choose either to never marry, or else to marry second or third behind more important husbands—and fathers. In my own novel, The Book of Etta, a body that can successfully birth children becomes the most valuable thing in the world, attracting hives of lovers and protectors based on that power—but it doesn’t set them free.

No body that can carry a child and give birth is free. Until the right to privacy is secured, codified, enshrined, and acknowledged by every government around the world, no body is free. No body is safe. These stories and novels and movies and television shows show us what it means to be human while that freedom is still in short supply. They always have.

We tell this story over and over, because the fight is inevitable. This fight will never end. The right to choose must be vigilantly defended, until babies come from appliances or off-world cabbage patches; until we are not birthed by bodies into bodies. While the body lives, it belongs only to itself. The pregnant body is simultaneously the most valuable and the most vulnerable one in our society. The pregnant body has the absolute inalienable right to own and to defend itself, within and without.

Each of these stories, coming from different writers and different times reminds us why that is true. When we do not read them and heed their warning, reality will take their place.

Fate, Hope, Friendship, Foe

The sign for the exit said FATE in blocky white letters, with an arrow pointing the way to town. The old woman laughed and drove on.

The highway unwound before her like a spool of frayed grey ribbon. Once the jewel of America, now the system was cracked and crumbling, its future stolen by children too greedy for the present. Not broken—not yet—but in time all things must come to dust. Or gravel, as the case might be.

Her youngest sister would argue, she reflected as the speedometer arced higher. “There’s renewal in decay,” the old woman muttered to herself, in uncharitable mimicry of her sister’s high, sweet voice. “They will repair it. Or build a new jewel. One that serves their needs better than this old hulk.”

The old hulk driving the car spat out the window. Age served a purpose. So did decay.

That purpose was to end.

She cackled unrepentantly at the sight of the next sign: HOPE, 14 MILES. The settlers of the American Midwest were a peculiar lot. Nobody quite like them anywhere in the world, at any point in history. That was true of every group, of course, and every individual; she had only to put her hand out the window as she drove to feel the strands running through her fingers. All the same, and yet no two threads alike. But this place…greed and aspiration and genocide and desperation and endless possibility that yes, could be called hope. A vivid mix whose pattern had indelibly marked the tapestry of the world. For good or for ill; she didn’t care. She liked the Midwest, with its silly town names.

Ghost towns, a lot of them. Seeds scattered by wagon trains, taking root where they could. A few flourished, watered by riches. Some few of those lasted when the water dried up. Then came the railways, iron threads linking them into a web. The iron rusted away, but the web remained, in the grey and black of concrete, asphalt, county highways and state and interstate, striped with yellow and white and occasional reflective dots, green signs sprouting along them like weeds. But it was only an image of vitality. The true life was the people, and when they left, the plant died.

Dead husks, all around her. Done in by the economy, by climate change, by accident and malice. She’d told the others she was going to look the place over, see what was out there before she made her decision. It was a lie. This was a farewell tour.

She hit another pothole in the road and wondered which would give out first: her patience or her car’s suspension.

The car was practically an antique. She’d found it at the turnoff for a dirt road with a sign jammed under its windshield wiper saying $100 OBO; judging by how weathered the sign was, no offers of any kind had ventured by in a very long time. She’d left the disintegrating cardboard by the side of the road, and her only regret was that the thing was a gas guzzler. Fortunately a sign up ahead promised fuel, though by its faded and peeling paint, there was no guarantee of a working pump there. Worth trying, though. She exited the highway without signaling and coasted to a stop at the station.

Charging station, ethanol, diesel, and regular gas. This was how the place stayed in business, by catering to all comers. Still, business wasn’t booming. The teenaged girl who came out from the tiny convenience store looked surprised to see a customer.

The old woman got out of the car. “Do I pay you or the machine?”

“Pay the machine,” the girl replied.

There was a town visible in the distance behind the station, but even from here, the old woman could see boarded-up windows and weed-tufted sidewalks. “That Hope?” she asked as the pump chunked to life and began bleeding gasoline into her tank.

The girl nodded.

“Doesn’t look like much.”

“Isn’t very much,” the girl said. “But it’s more than nothing.”

She sounded like she meant it, too. Where had her family come from, that the dying shell of a podunk town seemed better than the alternative? Her accent said “immigrant,” though it was faint enough to be hard to place. Probably came here when she was a kid. The accent would be gone if she’d moved to the city, had somebody to talk to other than her parents.

The old woman slid one hand out, feeling the air. Sixteen. Might be headed to college soon. “You looking forward to getting out of here?”

The girl shook her head. “Father needs my help with the ranch. We have horses,” she supplied, settling in against the post, kicking at a bit of broken concrete. “Breeding and training. Sell them all over the state. Maybe farther, soon.”

The old woman scowled at the horizon, swatting wisps of grey hair from her eyes. She’d been wondering since she first saw the signs; now she was sure. The town of Hope, and a girl with hope. Which one of her sisters had planned this? Or were they working together?

Didn’t matter. She wasn’t the Christian God, promising to spare a town of sinners if one righteous man could be found within its walls. A body still had plenty of healthy cells left when the body itself was ready to die. One girl with hope did not a land with a future make.

The pump shut off, and she re-racked the nozzle. Gasoline: it had killed many in its time, and now its time was almost done. That was the way of things. Nothing lasted forever.

“Where are you headed?” the girl asked as the old woman opened the driver’s-side door.

She didn’t even know which road she was on. Didn’t much matter.

Grinning toothily at the girl, she said, “All the way to the end.”

The car died not long before nightfall.

Stupid machines. They weren’t ever really alive, and it took a lot to break them so hard they counted as done by her standards. This one wasn’t that far gone; it had just…stopped working. Leaving her stranded along a Midwestern highway without so much as a cow in sight.

Cursing, she got out of the car and stood in the middle of the asphalt, breathing in the scent of warm tar. No need to be cautious. There weren’t any other people on the road, and in terrain this flat, they’d see her two miles off. If some jackass decided to hit her anyway, he deserved what he would get.

The sun was finishing its long summer descent toward the horizon, casting a deceptively soft glow across the plains. She sighed and planted her bony ass on the hood of the car, letting its fading warmth seep into her joints. Another day ending, and a sort-of-dead car by the side of the road.

Maybe she should just take the hint. What point was there in going further, seeing more of the same? She’d always been the pragmatic one. Just cut the thread now and move on.

She hopped off the hood and was reaching into the car’s glove box when she heard an engine.

The approaching truck was the first vehicle she’d seen since bypassing Hope, and she could easily have ignored it. But it seemed rude to shut off the power to somebody’s home in front of them, so she straightened—as much as her bent old spine could straighten—and kept her hands empty as the truck slowed.

He had manners, she had to give him that. He pulled over on the shoulder, a good distance away, and leaned his head out rather than opening the door. All very nice and unthreatening, if she’d been the sort of woman to worry about that kind of thing. “Need a jump, ma’am?”

Midwestern kindness would be the last thing to die. She debated telling him she’d already called for a tow—but from where, and with what? She didn’t have a phone, and there was nothing for miles around. “Need something,” she called back. “I don’t know what went wrong with the bastard.” She kicked one tire for good measure.

“I can take a look, if you like.” The man drove his truck in a sharp arc that left his front bumper close to hers, then got out. Nice-looking fellow, a weathered forty-two by the feel of him. He waited while she popped the hood, then went through the dance of hooking up cables. Didn’t do any good, though.

“You got gas?” he asked.

She jerked her chin over her shoulder. “Back in Hope.”

“Don’t know the place, but all right. If it ain’t gas, and it ain’t a battery that just needs a jump, then this is beyond me.” He scratched his fingernails through what had to be at least an eight o’clock shadow by then, though she didn’t have a watch to check. She knew when it was the right time for things. “There’s a garage in Angel River that can help, but they’ll be closed by now.”

“I guess I’ll find a motel,” she said dryly.

She meant it as a joke, but he came upright like his momma had spanked him. “There ain’t none of those around here, ma’am. But if you want—if you trust me, I mean—I could put you up for the night. Got a hitch on my truck; I could tow your car to my house, then drive you on to Angel River in the morning. But I’ll understand if you’d prefer not.” He looked around a little helplessly, like an alternative might pop up out of the dandelions.

He was a nice fellow. She wouldn’t turn his hair white by telling him what might happen if he tried anything untoward. “Let me just get something from my glove box,” she said.

“What’s your name?” he asked as they drove along in the growing twilight, her scrap-yard fodder rumbling behind them. “I should have asked sooner. Sorry, my manners ain’t what they used to be. I’m Bill.”

A sign distracted her from answering. The reflective paint had almost given up the ghost, but enough remained for her to read FRIENDSHIP.

“Something wrong?” he asked, and she realized she’d cursed out loud. “Bad associations with guys named Bill?”

“Not you,” she muttered, rubbing her brow. She should have known. Nice young men didn’t just come along at random. But which one of her sisters had arranged for her car to quit on her? That wasn’t their usual style.

Well, whatever they were planning, she would have none of it. Hope and friendship wouldn’t change her mind. And neither would whatever damnfool town name lay next along this road. She would drive straight past MERCY, wouldn’t stop even for KITTENS.

Bill had fallen silent. She hadn’t answered his question. After a moment, she said, “Call me Aisa.” It would take a fairly dedicated nerd to recognize that one, and he didn’t seem like the type.

“Pretty name,” Bill said. “Is that Spanish?”

“Greek.”

He made small talk the rest of the way, amiable chatter that didn’t require her to do more than make the occasional polite noise, and didn’t mind when she didn’t. His house proved to be a decaying ranch on the outskirts of Friendship, well-stocked with frozen pizzas and beer. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a frozen pizza. The crust was terrible, and she enjoyed every bite.

It wouldn’t turn her from her path, though. Nothing did. Whoever was steering her along this all-too-relevant road, they ought to know better. There would still be terrible frozen pizzas even after she cut the thread, and nice men who helped grey-haired old ladies by the side of the road. Maybe not this one—stomach cancer would get him in about twelve years—but others. And other terrible-but-good foods, after frozen pizza went the way of kykeon.

Tomorrow she would get the car fixed, and drive out of Bill’s line of sight before doing what needed to be done. Tonight, she ate bad pizza, drank beer, and made small talk with a man who was going to die someday, just like everybody else.

The next morning dawned bright and hot, and Bill made good on his promise.

Started to, anyway.

She realized something was amiss when he suddenly swore under his breath and twisted to look behind him, down the long, broken ribbon of the road. “How the hell…”

“Problem?” she asked, with laconic resignation.

“I must have taken a wrong turn,” he said, in the bewildered and unbelieving tone of a man who knew there hadn’t been a turn to take, right or wrong, since they got back on the highway. “I don’t know where the hell I am.”

He twisted to face front once more and leaned forward, peering through the dead bugs streaking his windshield. “Can you read that sign up ahead? Uh, I mean—sorry, your eyes probably ain’t—”

Her eyes were fine. And this sign had been replaced recently, its simple letters standing out with bold clarity.

FOE.

“Foe?” he echoed blankly. “Ain’t no town around here called Foe.”

She sighed. “You’d never heard of Hope, either, had you? Let me guess—‘Fate’ also doesn’t ring a bell.”

There still weren’t any other cars to hit. Bill had no compunctions about staring at her, while continuing to drive straight toward Foe. “What does that mean?”

“It means,” she said through her teeth, “that someone is interfering. Stop the truck.”

They kept hurtling forward at eighty miles an hour. “What?”

She reached into her pocket and pulled out the shears. Blades as long as her hand, and wickedly sharp; at the sight of them, Bill slammed on the brakes. “Holy f—Aisa, ma’am, you don’t need those to protect yourself from me. Or—” The truck had ground to a halt; one hand leapt instinctively to the door handle. “Oh God. Oh, Jesus. Tell me you’re not a serial killer.”

The best that’s ever lived. But he was a nice young man who didn’t deserve her mordant attempt at humor, and besides, there were quite a few powers out there who would dispute her claim to that title. But his fear wasn’t her problem. She had bigger things to worry about.

Her door creaked as she opened it, and her knees creaked as she got out. Bill was just going to have to live with what he was about to see. She was tired of being jerked around. She’d come out here to do something, and she was going to finish it.

She was good at that.

In the middle of the road, she stretched out her hand. Feeling all the threads—not just of people, but of things, places, ideas. Looking for the one that bound this land together. One snip and she’d be done.

Her fingers brushed against something…different.

She paused, frowning. It was deeply buried, like it was trying to hide from her—a laughable thought—but it was there. One gnarled pinkie finger slid along the strand, feeling it vibrate with a force that did not belong on a deserted road in a back corner of the Midwest. Tracing it. The other end wasn’t far away.

The other end was in her car.

“Unhitch that thing,” she snapped at Bill.

She had to snap a second time before he obeyed, scurrying like he thought she would waste her time burying her shears between his ribs. Gravel crunched as he pushed the old car back a foot or two. She strode to the driver’s side, popped the hood, and braced it up with its little rod. “Show me where the fuel goes into the engine.” That seemed like as good a spot as any to target.

With a wary hand, Bill pointed at a hose.

It looked like tough material. But she was tougher, and her shears were sharp. She wedged them in at an awkward angle, and was about to close them with a snap when suddenly a shadow fell across the engine compartment.

She’d suspected, ever since she felt the thread. But when she looked at that gaunt silhouette, familiar even after so many ages apart, she knew.

Brother.

When mortals said their families were complicated, they had no idea what the word meant.

Plato claimed she and her sisters were the daughters of Necessity. Hesiod said their mother was Night, acting on her own—but then later he said Themis instead, and gave them Zeus for a father. Poetic fool couldn’t even make up his own damn mind. And Night had other children, too: Death, and Sleep, and Retribution, and Strife, a whole pack of damnations with a few nicer ones mixed in.

And Moros. The inexorable force that drove mortals to their doom.

Drove. She really wanted to kick him in the balls for that joke.

She advanced on him, shears at the ready. Moros didn’t retreat; he was no more capable of it than she was capable of turning away. “Sister,” he said. His voice sounded like the scrape of tires over a badly maintained road. “Why this anger? I’m only trying to help.”

Help?” She almost snapped the shears to punctuate it, but held herself back. No point cutting some random threads early, just for dramatic effect. “This isn’t like you. All these towns with their cutesy—”

Her own words cut off like she’d snipped them short. FATE, to get her attention. HOPE—that wasn’t Moros’ style. Nor was FRIENDSHIP.

And the car had died before she saw that sign. Like he was trying to keep her from going there.

She glanced at Bill, pressed against the tailgate of his truck like the crazy lady with the scissors and the guy who appeared out of nowhere might forget him if he didn’t breathe. She glanced past him, at the sign for Foe, nine miles away.

It was a warning.

Moros stood his ground as she came close enough to plant the tips of her shears against his chest, just above his heart. Or where his heart would be, if any of their mother’s children had things like that. Close enough to kick him in the balls, come to that, but the sad truth was that he lacked those, too. Physically and metaphorically. It didn’t take any courage to face up to a fate that was going to get you anyway.

Or to laugh in the face of one that wasn’t there. “You won’t do it,” he said. “My time hasn’t come. But this place is doomed—you know that. I’m just helping you with the inevitable.”

She twisted the shears, letting the points dig in a little bit. He was right; she wouldn’t cut his thread. It wasn’t the right time. But she could make him hurt.

He’d interfered with her. Even Zeus, who did have balls, didn’t have a big enough sack to do that.

The Midwestern wind blew. All the way down from what was left of the polar ice caps, with barely a tree to stop it; she was neither a weather god nor a meteorologist, but she anticipated a thunderstorm at the least, and maybe a tornado or three. It would smash some things. Kill a few people. None of whom would deserve it…but that was how the world went. Deserving or not, sooner or later, everything died.

They still did their best to avoid it.

“Funny thing about inevitability,” she said, her tone conversational. “It’s always going to happen—right up to the moment when it doesn’t. And then it’s impossible that it could have ever gone any other way.”

Moros blinked at her as she stepped back and lowered her shears. Then he said, “But you have to. You can’t turn away from this!”

She laughed at him. “I don’t turn away from anything. You know that. But sometimes…I give the world a chance to turn away from me.”

Then she did kick him, right in the crotch. There wasn’t anything interesting there to hit, but it did what she needed it to: drove him backwards and out of this place, leaving the road empty.

Almost.

There was a fluttering of feathers and a little ripple like somebody playing an arpeggio on a lyre, because of course there was. Melodramatic bastard. This one was her half-brother, too, if you took Hesiod at his revised word—but then again, who in their family wasn’t her half-sibling, when Zeus couldn’t keep his dick under his chiton?

Tall and golden and athletic, he leaned on his winged staff and grinned. “Enjoying your vacation?”

She glanced over and found Bill had passed out, sprawled on the gritty surface of the road. “Is he going to be able to get back home?”

“All travelers I guide will come safely home,” her brother said sententiously. Then the grin came back. “Thanks for stealing that car, by the way. That put you enough in my domain for me to send you where you needed to go.”

Down a road littered with messages—or rather multiple roads, she suspected. The angle of the sun was different, as if she was suddenly a lot farther north than wherever Bill’s town lay. How many states had this brother hopscotched her through, in order to make this work?

Roads, and thieves, and trickery. Or a blind determination to hurtle toward doom. Monotheism had its appeal, when the alternative was a family like this.

Then again, she was one to talk. Did she really have two sisters? Or was it all just her?

Yes. The answer to all of it was yes.

“I don’t promise anything,” she warned him.

“Of course not. And I’m not asking you to. I just figured…I like people to have a chance.”

More fluttering feathers, more lyre arpeggios, and the ghost of a laugh as he vanished. She sighed, tied back the long brown tail of her hair, and went to take a look at Bill.

He blinked up at the young woman kneeling over him. “What—what happened?”

“You fell and hit your head,” she said, helping him sit up. Then she tapped him on the shoulder with the distaff in her hand. “You should go to a hospital. And while you’re at it…have them take a look at your stomach.”

 

(Editors’ Note: “Fate, Hope, Friendship, Foe” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 47A).

Tuesday, Late Commute

I met a woman on the platform, handbag pressed tight
To her chest like it might protect her. She kept her distance,

And I’m not one to converse uninvited with the damned,
Even when we share a fate. “Long day,” she sighed first,

And I replied, “Long day.” (Or was it the echo of a third
Woman’s voice, already chewed up, spewed out and dead?)

The evening air was a jaw locked on my bones. “It’s cold,”
I told her. She tapped her black-patent feet; an anxious dance,

An invocation of heat. “It’s always warmer inside,” she lied,
And kept her nose pointed at the brick arch to our right.

“Heading home?” (I’d decided to bear her falsehoods, the way
She clenched that bag, the way I haul the knowledge of dying.)

“Not yet.” An exhalation; a regret. I recognized the impatient
Ache time creates as it flays each day from unsleeping night.

I wondered how long she’d languished in the belly of this
Westbound rail-beast, how much of her soul had dissolved

Into ragged seats and gum-defiled steel floors, if she used
The shattered rib that guarded her racing childhood heart

To carve her name in the yellowing walls. How deep did it cut?
How profoundly did she feel the casual rattle and shake

Of her identity digested whole? How often did she glance
At her phone, imagining hope in a host of unanswered calls?

“You ever feel like you’re being eaten alive?” I asked, and
For this, she granted me a stare, straight as filed teeth.

“It’s just a train.” She turned away, and soon our beast arrived,
Growling, gusting, golden-eyed, hungry as a city night.

 

(Editors’ Note: “Tuesday, Late Commute” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 47A.)

Family Cooking

For once, I have the kitchen to myself. Mama’s gone, Paolo’s picking wedding things up from out of town, and Abuela went to visit an old friend while she’s back in the area.

I start by clearing everything from the countertops and wiping them down. I put loud music on, the kind I can sing along to. I am calm, I tell myself. I like to cook. This is no big deal.

Only, this morning, when I made eggs for the four of us, they came out brown and bitter-smelling and turned the bright green carrot tops in the compost brown and foul when they touched. In fact, they turned everything in the compost bin to something approaching hazardous waste, and I don’t know why, and my mother’s wedding is in a week, and I’m supposed to be making all the food.

For the wedding, I am making arroz con pollo, because it can be made in big batches, and quiche, because I am stupid, and olive dip and crackers, because that is easy, and a fancy braided bread. Also cute little apple tartlets because Mama still talks about how Paolo was the only person who convinced her that apples could be anything other than mealy and sad. I am not, thank goodness, baking the wedding cake.

I start with the bread because I’m nervous, and there’s nothing like slapping dough on a counter for half an hour for distraction. This is the only full run-through I have scheduled before the wedding, and between other preparations and shifts at the cafe, I don’t really have time for another. Mama says there’s no pressure, that we can always order pizza, but that’s a load of horseshit if I’ve ever heard one.

I take the dough in my hands and press it forward onto the counter. Though my hands are dusted liberally with flour, the dough still finds places to stick: the crevices in between my fingers, the top of my thumb. I prod at the tiny part of my mind where the magic lives, ask it to make the bread lovelier, more delicate, perhaps, or laced with the sensation of waking up from a good dream. My family is eating this, I remind it. Help me make them something lovely. Please don’t be literally poisonous.

I add more flour to my wrists, press into the dough again, rocking the pad of my palm against the dough, then the heel. The song changes, and I move my shoulders to the beat, get into a rhythm with the dough.

“Hi Isa!” Abuela’s voice floats through the house.

I turn the music off. “In the kitchen!” She and her friend must not have had that much to catch up on.

I pick the dough up and slam it on the table. This isn’t technically necessary, but when I do it a little bit of the tension in my chest dissipates, and this is only the practice bread anyway.

“Aggressive,” Abuela says from the doorway.

I don’t look at her. “You’ve never had a vendetta against a piece of dough?”

Her voice carries a tinge of amusement. “No. Beads, sometimes, and wire. When I was younger I used to twist naughty wires into little knots as punishment for their misbehavior.” She sticks her tongue out, a little quirk for when she’s said something she shouldn’t. Recognition jumps through me, a bitter aftertaste to its sting. Mama does that. So do I.

“Of course,” I say, hefting the dough up again for another slam, which feels suddenly necessary. “Your magic lies elsewhere.”

It’s an understatement. Most people aren’t led by their magic, only following it when it aligns with their chosen vocation, like me with cooking. People with craft magics become accountants as often as anyone else, though they may be more likely to knit on the side. But Abuela’s magic came late and came strong, sweeping her away from everything when it arrived.

She creeps closer and examines my list. Her eyebrows, painted on, raise in delighted surprise.

“Olive dip? Are you making it with cream cheese?”

“Yeah, of course.”

She smiles a slow genuine smile and touches the necklace at her chest. “That’s my favorite. Always has been. I always like to put extra olives in.”

“Great!” I say, my voice cheery. I hold up the dough, which isn’t quite ready. “Let me just get past you to the cabinet there. This needs to prove.”

The practice dinner takes me an hour and a half longer than I hoped it would. I grit my teeth as I look at it, piled on the table in an unsightly array of mismatched platters because we haven’t had time to run to the church and get the nice ones yet. I’ve taken so long that everyone’s back and waiting around, hungry but too nice to mention it.

Mama puts on a white bathrobe because she thinks she’s funny, and then she and Paolo come in and taste everything. Before they start, I poke the tangle of magic in my skull, and it emits a pleased, self-satisfied hum. That’s got to be a good sign.

They start with the arroz con pollo. The chicken is too dry, and I didn’t add enough green olives, but of course they say only nice things. None of them appears to feel poisoned, which is an excellent sign.

Next they try the two quiches, one with asparagus and spinach, the other potato and mushroom. I burned the crust on two of the potato ones, and Paolo winks at me as he takes a loud, crunchy bite of one of them.

“Yeah, yeah,” I mutter. “It’ll be better for the actual wedding.”

Mama wraps an arm around me, the soft fabric of her bathrobe rubbing dangerously close to my dirty apron. “Of course it will be,” she says. “But nobody needs a perfect wedding anyway.”

Abuela chuckles. “My wedding was perfect, but that didn’t help the marriage.”

Mama winces, almost imperceptibly, but I know Paolo sees it because he rests a hand on her arm. Abuela doesn’t notice. I wish she would.

“Try the bread,” I say.

The bread is a little too dense, underworked, I know, but they take thick slices anyway.

Mama takes a bite, then makes a face. “Kinda bland,” she says.

“Maybe it’s better with the olive dip?”

She tries it, slathering a hefty portion of the dip onto her slice. But as she brings it to her face, she gasps and drops it.

“Ay, Isa,” she says mournfully, looking at the bread where it lays between her slippered feet. “I don’t think that’s good.”

I take a paper towel and pick it up cautiously, holding it at eye level. The red of the crushed pimento isn’t small and diamond-shaped anymore; instead, every speck of red has turned into tiny, angry worms that dart around.

“I’m glad you noticed it,” I tell her. “It’s hard to spot.”

“Well,” she says reluctantly, “I was looking at everything pretty closely, after this morning.”

I carry the paper towel outside and dab some of the dip onto the grass, which immediately dries up to brown, then black. The effect ripples outwards, until there’s a black circle three feet in diameter of dead grass.

Abuela opens the back door and watches me. “That’s a problem with your magic,” she says.

I stare at the circle, shriveled and dark and poisonous, and think, I did that.

She walks up to stand beside me. “It’s okay,” she says, testing the words as she says them. “Just practice it a few times, and it will come out right.”

She’s the one who would know.

Abuela is making Mama a necklace for the wedding, and that necklace will probably be worth more than the whole wedding costs.

You see, Abuela’s story is inspiring. She was in a tragic, loveless marriage when she discovered her magic. They didn’t test for it in schools, then, so it wasn’t until she was twisting paper clips into a crown for my mother that she felt it, that little zing that turns a task or a craft into something more. She made jewelry during the day for a few years, in between making meals and taking my mother to school and learning a new language, but one day she’d had enough. She couldn’t dress my mother for school or clean the house or make one more potato salad for one more goddamned potluck.

And why should she, when she could make art like that? When the practiced skill in her fingers mixed with stronger magic than most people ever even saw?

So she packed her bags and hugged my mother goodbye.

My mother was only six, but she told me once that she remembered it. Abuela bending over her, dark hair already shot through with grey, kissing her on the forehead, wearing the dress she only ever wore to church and her nicest shoes. Telling her to be good and watch T.V. until dad got home.

My mother didn’t see her mother again until she was twenty-two and graduating from college. I hear there was a big scene. No one will tell me about it. Grandpa was dead by then, luckily. Maybe that’s why she finally came back.

I don’t want to know what my grandfather did to my grandmother. What, if anything.

When we took Intro Magic in eighth grade, they said a lot of stuff I didn’t listen to. Mostly we were just there to try stuff, to see if we had magic and mess around with crafts if we didn’t. But near the end of the year, when everyone had tried pottery, knitting, crocheting, woodworking, sewing, cooking, baking, welding, gardening, painting, and everything else, when I knew that I had cooking magic, and most other people knew what they had too, they sat us down and told us about what we could and couldn’t do.

Well, that’s how they framed it. We were thirteen and had just found out we were good at something, even if it wasn’t something we liked. We had a modicum of power in our pubescent lives for once, and we weren’t going to use it to pay attention to our teachers, that was for sure.

So when I examine the olive dip after Mama and Paolo have gone upstairs and Abuela has gone to read in the living room, I don’t have anything to base my experimentation on. All I know is, the olive dip is poisoned, but everything else is fine. Some of it’s good, even.

So what the hell went wrong with the olive dip?

I’m going to make it again. I’m going to make it until I get it right.

It’s not a hard recipe. You don’t even cook it.

I chop the onions, ignoring the sting in my nose and eyes, and dump them in the blender.  The garlic powder goes in next, then the mayo and cream cheese. I check on the little ball of magic in my brain. It’s wound up like normal, reaching in tendrils toward the ingredients on the counter. Be nice, I tell it sternly, work. Not that that’s ever helped before.

I press down on the food processor a little harder than I need to. But it stutters to life all the same. After half a minute I add in the olives and olive brine. Then I add in a little lemon juice just in case.

I step back from the food processor and wash my hands because they still smell like onion. I take a deep breath before dipping my spoon in.

Maybe, I think, maybe if I just eat it quickly and don’t look at it, it won’t be poisonous because it won’t have time to be. Maybe, if it is poisonous, it won’t be poisonous to me, since it’s clearly something that’s fucked up in my head that’s causing this.

But I can’t quite bring the spoon to my mouth without opening my eyes, and when I do, I see that the cream cheese and mayonnaise have clumped into tiny snowmen holding spears made of onion, dripping pimento blood.

I stumble back, swearing. When I sprinkle this one on a few worms outside, one of them keeps moving. The other five die, though, so I’m not putting it in my mouth.

I try again. As I chop the onions, I reach for my magic and think about my mother, wanting her to be happy, wanting her wedding and her marriage to go well. I think about my Abuela, how she’s finally visiting, finally here, and this dip is something she’s looked forward to. When I put the cream cheese in the food processor, I do the breathing exercises we learned in Cooking II, to try to trick the magic to be good this time. To do something unexpected like yield twice as much as the ingredients should, or to be infused with the taste of flowers that will never exist. These things can happen to a good cook. And I want to be a good cook.

This second try turns liquid, scorching hot, that burns through the spoon.

The third just turns black.

I run out of cream cheese after that, even though I stocked up before this. It’s only been an hour since I started.

I put the remaining olives and mayonnaise in the basement fridge, the kitchen fridge already packed with wedding ingredients. We probably should have done it the other way, put the wedding food in the basement. It doesn’t matter.

I poke at my magic again, but it’s the same as it always has been, and as I pause before opening the basement door back into the kitchen, I wonder if I should call someone from middle school, ask if they have notes. Maybe I should try to email my old teacher.

Maybe I should suck it up and ask Abuela.

I find Abuela the next day. She’s taken over half the dining room table with her jewelry making stuff, and she’s twisting some wire around glittering, sharp red beads when I enter. She holds it up when she sees me.

“Look,” she says, “your favorite color. I thought it might go with your dress.”

My favorite color is purple. The neatly organized question I prepared melts away, leaving my brain empty, so I just blurt it out.

“Has your jewelry ever gone bad? Like, tried to hurt people?” I don’t look at her, focusing on the many colorful beads in front of her instead. Orange, yellow, blue, brown, purple. I watch the red beads re-enter the line-up, observe the spots on her hands as she sets the wire down.

“You mean like your cooking? Of course,” she says. “One time I set an earring—a single earring!—on the ground and it turned my whole yard black. I was getting calls from the neighborhood association for months.”

“Do you know why it happened?”

She nods.

“What happened? Did it hurt anyone? Was it obvious? How did you stop it?”

Abuela sighs. “I had agreed to make a jewelry set for someone I hated. A politician. She was paying me ten times my normal fee, but every time I tried putting things together for her, they would unravel. Or the wire would come to life and try to bite. The earring I mentioned dripped ooze and melted into the yard. The gardener got sick later, but only a little. It wasn’t him I hated, and my magic’s not so strong as all that.” She pats my knee reassuringly. “And neither is yours, certainly.”

“Right,” I say. My ears and mouth feel distant from my mind; everything echoes a little inside my skull. “But how did you stop it?”

“I told her I couldn’t do it because she was an evil woman.”

“Oh.”

“There was one other time that it happened,” Abuela says. “It was less noticeable, so…” she shrugs. “I gave it to him anyway.”

“Did he die?”

“No.” She’s not smiling. Her eyes look into the distance. Her mind is elsewhere. “But he got very, very sick for a very long time.”

“Sorry,” she says after a moment. “That can’t be very helpful for you. But I think your problem is along the same lines. Think very carefully: is there anyone you really hate who is going to be at the wedding? Perhaps you have some lingering concerns about Paolo?”

I don’t hate anyone coming to the wedding. Not real hate. Not even Mr. Briney who is always saying I have to move to the city if I want to be a real chef or Demina from down the street who started dating my ex. Not even my ex. I don’t hate Paolo. I’m happy he and my mom are finally getting married. I shake my head. None of it makes any sense.

Abuela frowns. “You’re sure there’s no old enemy who showed up at the cafe recently? No evil former teacher?”

“I’m sure.”

She chews her lip, just the right side, just like Mama does, and I realize.

“Oh,” I say.

“Oh?”

It’s her. I hate Abuela.

Inside my chest, something clenches and unclenches all at once. I hate her a lot.

I test out my theory the next day, running through all the wedding foods that weren’t perfect for the first run-through, which is almost everything. Only, this time I know that Abuela’s not going to eat it. She’s gone to another town to shop for old jewelry she can tear apart and make her own. When I make the olive dip, I chant it to myself. Abuela’s not going to have this. Abuela’s not going to want this. Abuela’s not going to have this.

I undercook the quiche this time, but the bread tastes like mango and the satisfaction of watching a good sunset. My magic is back. The olive dip is great. Almost too salty. Not poisonous at all. Mama and Paolo both try it. I dab some on one of Mama’s succulents—to heavy glares—and nothing withers.

I don’t know what to do after that. I don’t want to even look at Abuela. I’m terrified that the hatred—the pure fury—boiling inside me will be too obvious. Now that I know it’s there it feels like it’s slowly chewing me up from the inside out.

So, the next morning, I go to the park. I go to the grocery store and get more ingredients. I arrive home laden with bags and only go in through the front door once I’m sure nobody’s on the porch.

My mother finds me after I’ve put everything away and am re-organizing cans in the pantry. She’s been at her friend Sofia’s house having her makeup done. They can’t decide what looks best with the dress, so she’s come home with different colored eyelids every Thursday for the last month. Today they’re a silvery blue.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, glancing knowingly at the cabinet.

“Nothing.”

“Did you solve the olive dip problem?”

I gesture at the cream cheese softening on the counter. “Take a guess.”

Her face softens. “You’ll get it,” she says. “You always solve the problems you really put your mind to.”

I think about the spelling bee in eighth grade and AB Calc and The Culinary Institute. “Not always.”

She pulls a chair around from the other side of the counter and sits facing me. A few years ago she would have just sat on the floor, but she’s old now, dyes her brown hair where it goes grey at the temples and sits on chairs with soft cushions and straight backs.

“What do you think would help?” she asks.

“I don’t know! What do you think would help?”

She flinches, just a little, the lines at the corners of her mouth deepening. “I don’t know anything about magic,” she reminds me.

I try to pass the moment off, rolling my eyes like she’s said something obvious. “You don’t have magic, but lots of people you know do. You’re not ignorant.”

“You should talk to someone who knows about magic. I’m sure your abuela would be happy to help.”

“I know what’s wrong with it. I just don’t know how to fix it.”

Now my mother rolls her eyes. “You’re going to turn help down because why? You’re going to turn down help on making my wedding work because you don’t want help from your grandmother?”

“It’s not that,” I mutter.

“Then what is it?”

“I can’t tell you. It’ll make you sad.” Lots of things make Mama sad, which is why it’s good that Paolo’s such a jokester, but this? This is worse than a video of a dog and an owl becoming friends or a movie about a breakup.

Mama taps her fingers on the countertop, thoughtful. “Lots of things make me sad, and yet I carry on.” She hesitates. “Is this about your abuela?”

I shrug. “Maybe.”

She sighs. “Then tell me. She’s like me, you know. Just me once removed. Just she admits her hair is grey and wears it in elegant buns and draws her eyebrows on, and I don’t have to do those things yet.”

“I hate her.” My voice comes out flat and razor sharp, full of ugly truth. I continue. “She’s horrible, Mama. She’s not like you at all. You’re a good mother.”

She tilts her head back, a motion of defeat. “I didn’t want you to think of it that way,” she says quietly. “I wanted you to love her, and for her to love you and visit you and send you presents.” She closes her eyes. “I wanted you to grow up with a grandmother and no complicated feelings about anything at all.”

I reach over and take her hand. Her fingers are cold. “I want those things too, but it’s hard. She hurt you. She still hurts you sometimes. How can I love someone who does that?”

Mama nods. She sits up straighter and looks me in the eye, twists my fingers around hers in a comfortable, familiar gesture. “That’s fine,” she says. “You don’t have to love her, and you especially don’t have to like her. But please, for my sake, don’t hate her.”

My abuela had a hard life, I remind myself as I mix the pimentos into the arroz con pollo. My abuela did the best she could, I think, as I put foil around the crust of the quiche. I find myself disbelieving that, so I try again as I put the olives in the food processor. My abuela is here now because she cares about her family. My abuela has changed. My abuela, like anyone else, is a person.

Most importantly, this is my mother’s wedding, and I am not going to ruin it with bad food or poisoned family members because I love her. And that, I think, staring sternly at the mixture in the food processor, is that on that.

I put the dip into fancy bowls and run to change. Everything else is ready, so I can take the dip out and mingle as people start to arrive and sit in the lawn chairs that we’ve borrowed from everyone on the block and half the people from church. There’s a cute little awning with flowers on it at the front, and Abuela and I will escort my mother there in forty minutes. I can’t wipe my eyes because they’ve been made up for two hours now.

As I come back down, I see Abuela with a plate of crackers looking at the dip. She turns toward me when I come in.

“You look beautiful,” she says, and I laugh. I have two aprons on, just in case something flies around to my back, and the green tulle of my skirt only barely peeks out beneath them. My hair is so stiff I feel like I could safely motorcycle.

“I mean it,” she says. “You’ve grown up in ways I can’t understand.”

I nod at her. “Yes.” I take a deep breath. “But that’s okay. We don’t have to understand each other.” Just love each other, I should say after that, but I don’t. We look at each other for a long, still moment.

She turns back to the dip. “This looks good too,” she says.

“I was just about to take that out,” I say. A lie. I was going to examine it first. I have a backup dip that I bought, just in case.

She holds a cracker up, looks me directly in the eye. “Is it safe, do you think? For me?”

My abuela cares about her family. I care about my mother. I don’t look at the dip.

“Yes,” I say. “It should be good for you.”

 

(Editors’ Note: AnaMaria Curtis is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

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