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Loving the Old Wounds

One of the greatest monologues ever written and performed for television is Don Draper’s ad pitch for the Kodak Carousel slide projector in the finale of the first season of Mad Men:

“In Greek, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backward, and forward. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels—around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

Among the many things that make this scene one for the ages is the counterpoint between Draper using slides of his own life and family for the presentation and the audience’s knowledge that said life and family are hopelessly broken. Like pretty much everything about Don Draper, the speech is a lie.

Also, “nostalgia” is not an old Greek term meaning “the pain from an old wound” but rather a 19th century portmanteau of the words for “pain” and “homecoming” coined by a German psychologist seeking to describe the extreme homesickness felt by soldiers fighting away from their own land.

Still, the idea of the “pain from an old wound” is a powerful one, and it brings me to the Walt Disney Company’s 1979 science fiction film The Black Hole.

Some movies trigger great spiritual awakenings, deep epiphanies, and occasionally inspire the young to become artists on their own right. The experience of watching The Black Hole is closer to that of acquiring a new wound. One of my dearest, most trusted friends holds The Black Hole as a pivotal point in memory because of how—at the age of seven—it was the first time he realized that Hollywood movies were far from magical and could actually, you know…suck.

The Black Hole began its journey to the screen as a desperate effort to cash in on the disaster movie trend of the early seventies (The Towering Inferno in a starship!). Many rewrites later, the film was finally green-lit in the mad scramble to cash in on the success of Star Wars. Being a kludge of ideas from one genre retrofitted as a kludge of ideas from another, The Black Hole is an objectively hard sit; a bleak and turgid slog from one science fiction cliché to the other punctuated by moments of dire horror, portentous spectacle, and heaps of Disney-style cuteness and “humor.”

It is hard to imagine any sane mind thinking that the way to capture the Saturday matinee nostalgia so successfully evoked by Star Wars would be to produce a gloomy remake of Disney’s own 1954 hit 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in space, with Maximillian Schell’s “Dr. Hans Reinhardt” replacing James Mason’s Captain Nemo. Unable to poach any of George Lucas’ crew, Disney even brought the key visual effects artists involved in 20,000 Leagues out of mothballs to contribute to The Black Hole, giving the entire thing a palpable old-timey sheen.

Disney may have thought they were producing a science fiction epic about how the crew of the deep space exploration vessel Palomino discovers Dr. Reinhardt’s ship, the Cygnus, precariously perched over a black hole, and proceeds to discover the horrible secrets of both the ship and its master. The Black Hole’s true accomplishment, however, is to bear damning witness to the scope and ferocity of The Walt Disney Company’s misunderstanding of the success of George Lucas’s film.

Consider the casting. Star Wars benefitted from an ensemble of unknowns made necessary by the film’s low budget. The most famous names on the poster were Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, and all the new and unfamiliar faces helped establish the sense of an alternate reality.

The Black Hole, however, had a budget almost triple to that of Star Wars and a sensibility straight out of Old Hollywood, so it sports an ensemble of well-worn faces that would have just as easily been at home as the guest cast of a sweeps episode of The Love Boat…or a film originally designed to cash in on the disaster movie craze of the early seventies.

One can almost imagine a couple of executives discussing it while “doing lunch” at some hot pre-Spago Beverly Hills eatery:

 

EXECUTIVE #1

So The Black Hole. Is it classy? We need it classy like the Star Wars.

EXECUTIVE #2

It is classy, we got Ernie Borgnine playing the cowardly reporter, Tony Perkins playing the gay guy—

EXECUTIVE #1

There’s a gay in the picture?

EXECUTIVE #2

It’s subtext—and Maximillian Schell’s gonna be our Captain Nemo.

EXECUTIVE #1

Didn’t he get an Oscar?

EXECUTIVE #2

Not so much that he’s gonna break the bank, oh, and that French gal, Yvette Mimieux, I think she dated Roger Vadim, maybe Godard.

EXECUTIVE #1

She speak English?

EXECUTIVE #2

Does it matter? Anyway, we got Bobby Forster playing Hans Solo and Joey Bottoms as the Skywalker kid.

EXECUTIVE #1

Bottoms? From The Last Picture Show?

EXECUTIVE #2

His brother, but who’s gonna know?

EXECUTIVE #1

Hell of a thing going through life with a name like “Bottoms” amirite?

 

It doesn’t end with the bizarre cast. The film’s wisecracking flying robot, the Mickey Mouse-eyed, mostly candy-apple-red V.I.N.CENT who is both a telepath and a sassy narcissist, is played by Roddy McDowall. The supporting cute robot, a beat-up earlier model named B.O.B., is voiced by Slim Pickens with the southern drawl he made famous in the role of Captain T.J. “King” Kong in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

With a cast like that, one might come to the conclusion that The Black Hole is a comedy, or maybe a light action adventure film, or an epic spectacle…but no…the film is a dark meditation on the nature of scientific obsession wrapped in a minor-key haunted house film set in a starship that resembles a gothic cathedral as it might have been designed by Norman Foster on the last of a month of rainy Sundays.

If that doesn’t seem incongruous enough, I should mention that, alongside the big-eyed cartoon-ish robots with the funny voices, The Black Hole features a hissing, desiccated, black-eyed ship’s crew who are forced onto a conveyor belt leading to a mechanized laser lobotomy machine: all of which is shown on screen. Also, there’s the battalion of goose-stepping Darth Vader-rip-off stormtroopers who compete for rank and supremacy in a virtual shooting gallery and apparently torture other robots for pleasure.

Equally dissonant is the on-screen disembowelment of Anthony Perkins’s character, which, while bloodless, is implied entirely in a tongue-wagging close-up and gurgling death rattle that is pure nightmare fuel. On top of all that, there’s John Barry’s funereal score, which—though beautiful—appears to have been composed with no awareness of the film’s plot and mostly dirges and burbles on as languidly paced scenes of laser combat streak across the screen.

Just as every other aspect of the film fails to evoke the magic of Star Wars, the visual design of The Black Hole is equally mystifying. The film presents a beautiful and sumptuous but utterly unconvincing reality: hand-painted and stagey, full of saturated colors and design flourishes more meant to evoke than represent. Half the walls clearly consist of fabric stretched over frames, “futuristic” Eames office chairs roll around on wheels in what is supposed to be a zero-gravity environment, and the actors all look ill at ease with the props, costumes, and sets, as if they were seeing them on the day for the first time.

Even more confounding is how the film’s color timing stands at odds with the production design. The Cygnus looks something like the Pompidou Centre—all scaffolding and brightly colored ducts—but these colors appear to have been muted in post-production, perhaps to try to retroactively match the film’s dark tone…kind of like someone had no choice but to throw a wake in a fast-food restaurant and did whatever they could to bring solemnity to the indoor ball pit.

The pièce de résistance of this bizarre stew is the climax, which I can only describe as how the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey might have been remade by a breathtakingly cranky church lady. One of my favorite memories of The Black Hole is taking a colleague to watch the screening of a 70mm print a few years back. She was a first timer, and even before this sequence began, she turned to me and asked, “What is happening?”

To which I replied, “Buy a hat, and hang the fuck on to it.”

Here’s what happens in the last ten minutes of The Black Hole. The putative heroes, having completely failed in their every attempt to stop Reinhardt from plunging his ship into the titular threat, wind up helplessly traveling through the singularity and find themselves in…wait for it…

A highly stylized vision of Hell.

Yes, that Hell. The Judeo-Christian one that looks like an Iron Maiden album cover. In a film that up until that moment has presented zero interest in being about anything even remotely related to matters of faith.

In case the metaphor doesn’t land, Dr. Reinhardt somehow floats alive through the black hole, merges with the satanic robot he built as his enforcer, and finally perches on a rocky cliff to witness the funeral procession of his zombified crew. This is followed by the heroes ascent to Heavenly salvation, represented by a disco-like mirrored corridor complete with a numinous welcoming angel and a chorus of harps and glockenspiels.

The heroes ultimately emerge from disco heaven, shoot out the back side of the black hole, and head to a nearby planet.

What planet? Fuck if I know.

There are no explanatory scenes or dialogue after the entrance into the titular black hole, much less the ensuing whip-lashing ecclesiastical turn. The movie just stops, cutting to end credits in a sort of shrugging admission of defeat.

These articles of impeachment notwithstanding, it is easy and probably cheap to armchair quarterback decisions made in the process of putting together a film, especially with no first-hand knowledge of the exigencies of time, budget, and scheduling involved. In the case of The Black Hole, however, it’s not just that the decisions involved led to a poor result, it’s that the incongruities are so glaring and persistent—that so many of the film’s parts seem at complete odds with one another—that these inadequacies take on a whole new life. The Black Hole may be bad, but that badness is so baffling that it gives way to a sort of beguiling weirdness.

It is because of that very weirdness that I have been obsessed with The Black Hole since I first watched it on a VHS tape in the early eighties. I am not alone in this. Forty years after its release, Disney continues to license toys and merchandise for the film targeting a small but devoted audience that just loves big-eyed robots.

And I do love them. There is something about the design of V.I.N.CENT that strikes a deep chord in me, like some long-forgotten memory of an imaginary childhood friend. V.I.N.CENT flies, talks, is telepathic, shoots lasers, and has a drill attachment. Design-wise, he’s like the most fun parts of C3-PO, R2-D2, BB8, and Pluto rolled up in one large floating ball. What makes me love it even more is how out of step the Bambi-eyed/swiss-army-knife design is with the vocal performance attached to the character. If the physical form of V.I.N.CENT reads like a welcome memory from a childhood that never existed, his dialogue as interpreted by Roddy McDowall sounds to a more adult ear like it could pass muster on RuPaul’s Drag Race. In the same way a grown-up viewer might wonder why Anthony Perkins’ character becomes so very quickly and utterly besotted with Dr. Reinhardt, that viewer might also see V.I.N.CENT’s diva-like demeanor as a coded message from a less enlightened time.

Or not. Maybe the writers were just going for “snappy patter.” Either way, V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. have far more personality than any of the human characters in the film—and have a greater emotional bond than any of the humans in the film. Because of this, in one of The Black Hole’s strangest moments, these two red and silver golf balls have to carry the emotional climax of the entire film when B.O.B. tragically gives up the ghost. However, between Roddy McDowall having a kiki and Slim Pickens doing his best impersonation of Slim Pickens doing his best impersonation of a robot, the scene comes across as comically, catastrophically, head-scratchingly insincere: a hail Mary pass for emotional resonance in a film that has completely failed at establishing any.

Unlike the cute good-guy robots, the role of Pure Evil is manifested by Reinhardt’s aforementioned enforcer robot, Maximillian. Voiceless and decked out in muted red livery, Maximillian also looks and behaves like a childhood fantasy, albeit a very frightening one: a massive floating torso with airfoils for legs, six arms—each equipped with something deadlier than the last—and a neckless head like an inverted bucket, punctuated by a single lambent red eye. Like everything else in the visual design of The Black Hole, Maximillian is an empty vessel whose exterior design is so evocative that he ceases to be a character in a shitty movie and crosses to become a truly menacing figment of far better imagined nightmares in the audience’s mind.

That unintended spark of imagination—the multitude of places in which The Black Hole invites speculation into what might have been had it been actually good—is the entire reason it persists, decades on, as an unshakeable object of my childhood. The movie’s failure as a cohesive cinematic experience is, conversely, the reason for its success as nostalgia. It is, however, a different brand of yearning that that one might have for that first ecstatic viewing of Star Wars. This nostalgia is more like a yearning for completion. Loving The Black Hole isn’t about reliving a great experience, but rather about having had a bad one and wishing for the ability to reach back through space and time to make it better.

This desire is constantly aided and abetted by the contradictions I have taken such pains to describe. Every one of those canvas panels that look so fake on screen signifies an empty space that could have been occupied by a better film. The big-eyed robots could be the stars of their own story, one set in a universe more appropriate in tone to their appearance. I want to know the world that made V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B.

I want to know the rip in the fabric of space and time through these two Disneyfied characters fell that deposited them in the grimdark realm of Hans Reinhardt. I want to see a movie where the crew of the Palomino consists of well-written characters in whose lives and successes I am invested. For me and many others, all of the holes in The Black Hole’s story, visual presentation, thematic cohesion, and approach to character somehow transcended from mere sucking voids to vast open fields where our imaginations revel in infinite possibilities inspired by the pain of enduring the truly inadequate.

The same Teutonic knack for putting words together to describe otherwise indescribable emotional states that begat “nostalgia” also birthed the term “sehnsucht.” Though not directly translatable into English, Wikipedia defines sehnsucht as “thoughts and feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for ideal alternative experiences.”

Further on, the article breaks down the sensation of sehnsucht into six component parts: 1. utopian conceptions of ideal development 2. sense of incompleteness and imperfection of life 3. conjoint focus on the past, present, and future 4. ambivalent (bittersweet) emotions 5. reflection and evaluation of one’s life and 6. symbolic richness.

I can’t think of a better way to describe The Black Hole.

When I was seven years old and sitting in a Levittown movie theater near Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, Star Wars made me point to the screen and say, “I want to do that.” In that moment, I had a “utopian conception of ideal development.”

Then I came of age in the Reagan Era, under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, and the AIDS crisis, and Chernobyl, and the fall of communism, and 9/11, and America’s endless wars on drugs and terror. I also went, and continue to go, through all that one would expect from the well- but mostly badly- lived life of a middle aged man: the two marriages, the one divorce, the two children, and trying to raise them and preserve my own sanity in a time of racial, social, and political turmoil made even more urgent by the reality of a coming catastrophic shift in our entire way of life due to pandemic and climate change. Oh, and somewhere in between all that, there’s also been three decades spent in the entertainment industry trying to fulfill my dreams.

All of which is to say that my experience of living has definitely felt a lot more like watching The Black Hole than Star Wars.

I have spent many a moment trying to dream up a story in which all the disparate elements that make up The Black Hole come together in a sensical way. While it pains me to report this as a professional writer for comic books, film, and television, I have not even come close to succeeding. The Black Hole frustrates all my attempts at a cohesive and satisfying synthesis of its component parts, even as it sparks constant creative speculation.

That is why more than forty years after The Black Hole was released, I haven’t forgotten this sad and misbegotten assembly of old Hollywood death throes groaned in the wake of a new wave. In fact, all I have to do is lift my head and look across my office to see a shelf on which rest little plastic figures of Maximillian, B.O.B. and V.I.N.CENT.

Floating on their lucite stands, these big-eyed angels and their towering devil remind me of how the broken and wretched, the incomplete and imperfect can still offer a space where consideration of the past, present, and future give way to bittersweet emotions, and reflection on one’s life, and finally a symbolic richness evoked by the persistent tokens of childhood, no matter how badly they were abused in the past. In failure, The Black Hole does something that evades many far more successful films: it creates light where none should exist.

Pro Wrestling Is Fake (But You Already Knew That)

“It’s fake…right?”

Without fail, this question (or some variation of this question: “picking the winners” is another popular response) remains the immediate follow-up upon learning that I am a professional wrestler. And yes, it’s fake.

To be clear, saying “It’s fake” plays against the traditional mythos of pro wrestling. Giant muscle men fighting for championships. The sport of kings. A sport, period. Never, ever fake.

We all know how the magician saws the lady in half. We all know the illusion depends on carefully constructed boxes and panache. We all know these titans covered in baby oil and barely covered in spandex aren’t really truly hurting each other. We all know the violence is another type of illusion. We all know it’s fake. And yet—the magician never reveals their secrets.

Knowing the secrets; knowing how the tricks are done while the audience marvels. Pro wrestling was built on this dynamic. We, the performers, know the truth and you, the audience, are fooled. It feels icky to read, let alone to type, let alone to actively participate.

But I am a professional wrestler.

I stumbled through childhood (and teenagehood and early adulthood) as a queer little weirdo. An athlete I was not. But I did watch pro wrestling on TV, when pop culture consisted of Cartman, laser pointers, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Skipping over my almost-careers and law school and student loans we land beside me as I enroll in a wrestling training academy. I paid my tuition—upfront, thank you—and spent a few years struggling to learn the secrets. Who doesn’t want to know secrets?

You can know what I know. Professional wrestling is: theatre in the round mixed with a bit of stunt work. Scripted, sort of; improvisational, definitely. Dangerous by default—but the goal is to avoid injuries.

Here is your hypothetical:

You and your opponent are scheduled to have a match on tonight’s event, a sold-out spectacle in front of a thousand fans. The event begins at 7 PM and let’s say your match should start around 8 PM. The call time at the venue is 4 PM…but after sitting in traffic for 27 agonizing extra minutes, you finally make it to the backstage area at 4:32 PM. Just in time to meet your opponent—actually, at this point let’s switch the language a tiny bit and swap out “opponent” for “partner” —just in time to meet your partner, who has traveled overnight in a semi-reliable Honda Civic crammed alongside four other wrestlers and their pile of Red Bull cans. You now have approximately two point five hours to conceive and choreograph a live performance for a brand-new audience with no time for rehearsals and oh yes—at any point during your act, one step out of place could lead to career-ending, life-altering injury. Do this night after night. New partners. New audiences. New audiences to convince that it’s all “real.”

If you’re thinking this all reads like a scam—it is. It’s designed to be. An industry predicated on a lie—a lie about what is real versus what is fake—designed to keep outsiders OUT. Once the lie is exposed, we can either double down and keep the scam going or we can broaden our idea of what professional wrestling even is.

Pro wrestling is fake. Pro wrestling is art. I am not a fighter. I am an artist.

Embracing the “fake” elements opened doors for those of us who would never fit into the old version of pro wrestling—what was supposed to be a real sport, with real fights and real winners. A version of pro wrestling seen through hyperhetero hypermasculine hyperBRO eyes. And, thankfully, a rapidly outmoded version of pro wrestling. Queer pro wrestlers (and queer pro wrestling fans) are carving out our own spaces, and not by keeping pre-determined count of our choreographed wins and losses. Winning a real fight? Not interested. But scripting a fake fight based around stunts and live crowd interaction and adrenaline? That’s a challenge. That’s something unique. That’s the appeal of pro wrestling for me.

Once we let the audience in on the secrets, the audience rewards our creativity instead of our toughness. I’m forever seeking credit for my improvisation, not my right hook. And so on and so on. Pro wrestling could not be welcoming to all performers and all fans (and, to be fair, pro wrestling still has a long way to go when it comes to inclusivity) without acknowledging the inherent grift behind the theatrics. I want to be honest in my art. I need the conversation between my art and my audience torn open and exposed. As live theatre, pro wrestling only truly works when the audience participates—cheering and booing and moving the story along through their reactions. Sometimes, the audience reactions can rewrite the script right in the middle of the show! If the audience doesn’t buy into the emotional arc of “the good guy,” that wrestler might change their performance on the spot, transforming into a villain even if just for one night.  Pro wrestling can be fully immersive and fully interactive—and still fake.

Another note: I’m writing about this divulging of secrets, this agreement between audience and artist, as if it’s the normal agreed upon practice these days. No. Keeping pro wrestling “real” remains the priority of the majority of performers.

As for me, maintaining that wall might make for a more immersive show in the immediacy but the implications are dire. An industry—an artform—predicated on a lie cannot ever be inclusive. There remains an inherent power dynamic resulting from performers withholding truths and an audience left in the dark. Inevitably, that same power dynamic will (and has and does) imprint upon the performers themselves. An industry predicated on a lie became a place to keep your sexuality a secret. Out of necessity. Out of fear.

By engaging in a more open, truthful dialogue with our audience, some of us—a growing “many” of us, to be frank—have opened more open, truthful dialogue within pro wrestling. Social media eliminates the geographic distance between us.  Likeminded performers might be a DM away from starting an essential conversation that blooms into an entire movement.

I recently wrestled on an event themed as a “Big Gay Brunch” and it certainly was: Queer pro wrestlers coming together for a celebration of theatrical violence and some English muffin sandwiches. The show drew 600 people at 11 AM and many, many more streamed the event from home. Several fans confessed to me this was one of the only times they felt comfortable in a live pro wrestling crowd, and for some this was the very first show they were willing to attend.

The culture of masculine invincibility is dying. Slowly, surely, we have begun openly discussing what was kept in the shadows. Decades of pro wrestlers dying by suicide. Queer pro wrestlers forced to hide their true selves. Slowly. Inevitably.

This is the only way to keep professional wrestling from swallowing itself whole.

So the next time you scroll through Twitter or flip through the channels and catch a glimpse of pro wrestling, you will know the secret. Yes, it’s fake.  Move past that. We know. You know. We know that you know.  We are trying to entertain you. We aren’t trying to trick you. And in refusing to deceive you, a growing number of us tell ourselves the truth at last.

The Uncanny Valley

We’re writing this during a stormy Central Illinois day when we always keep an ear out for a tornado siren. (Thankfully, our house has a Cold War bomb shelter, though wrangling Caitlin and Hugo the Cat downstairs into it is always an adventure.) Our neighborhood is filled with Halloween decorations, and we’re hoping the Great Pumpkin will visit our very sincere pumpkin patch. All of us are well. October is both Caitlin’s and Lynne’s birthdays, so it is fairly celebratory around here.

Speaking of celebrating, this is the first issue of Uncanny Magazine Year 8! Can you believe it?!? Thank you once again to all of our readers, our listeners, the best staff in the universe, our contributors, the Kickstarter Backers, the Patreon Patrons, the subscribers from Weightless Books and Kindle, and to everybody who has ever shared anything they loved from Uncanny. This is your magazine. Without you, Uncanny wouldn’t exist.

Exciting news, Space Unicorns! We have THREE Uncanny Magazine staff announcements!

Uncanny Magazine is thrilled to announce that Meg Elison will be the new Uncanny Magazine Nonfiction Editor! The position was previously held by Elsa Sjunneson, who stepped down after Uncanny Magazine Issue 42 to focus on other career opportunities. Uncanny once again thanks Elsa for her phenomenal work since taking over as Nonfiction Editor with issue 32.

Uncanny Magazine is also thrilled to announce that current Assistant Editor Naomi Day is being promoted to the newly created position of Senior Assistant Editor! Naomi started as Uncanny Magazine’s Assistant Editor with issue 37 and has done a fabulous job. Finally, Uncanny Magazine is thrilled to announce that Monte Lin will be the new Uncanny Magazine Assistant Editor!

We’re very excited about the staff going forward into Uncanny Magazine’s eighth year. We think they will all do fantastic things, and this is going to be one of the best years ever for Uncanny Magazine!

Fabulous news, Space Unicorns!  “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard won the Best Novelette Ignyte Award, and “You Perfect, Broken Thing” by C.L. Clark won the Best Short Story Ignyte Award! A huge congratulations to Aliette and Cherae!

Once again,  congratulations to Eugenia Triantafyllou, whose “My Country Is a Ghost” was a finalist for a Best Short Story Ignyte Award,  Terese Mason Pierre, whose “Fin” was a finalist for a Best in Speculative Poetry Ignyte Award,  Millie Ho, whose “Hungry Ghost” was a finalist for a Best in Speculative Poetry Ignyte Award, and Nibedita Sen, whose “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Excellence” was a finalist for a Best in Creative Nonfiction Ignyte Award!

It was a fabulous ballot. Congratulations to all of the winners and finalists!

Tremendous news, Space Unicorns! “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher is the 2021 WSFA Small Press Award Winner! Congratulations to Ursula and to all of the finalists!

From their website:

The award honors the efforts of small press publishers in providing a critical venue for short fiction in the area of speculative fiction.  The award showcases the best original short fiction published by small presses in the previous year (2020). An unusual feature of the selection process is that all voting is done with the identity of the author (and publisher) hidden so that the final choice is based solely on the quality of the story.

The winner is chosen by the members of the Washington Science Fiction Association.

Are you a member of the Discon III Worldcon? Don’t forget to vote in the Hugo Awards! The deadline for voting is November 19, 2021, 23:59 Pacific Standard Time (November 20th at 02:59 Eastern Standard Time, 07:59 Greenwich Mean Time, and 20:59 New Zealand Daylight Time).

As you may recall,  four Uncanny Magazine stories are finalists for the prestigious Hugo Award!Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” by A. T. Greenblatt is a finalist for Best Novelette, “The Inaccessibility of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard is a finalist for Best Novelette, “Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse” by Rae Carson is a finalist for Best Short Story, and “Metal Like Blood in the Dark” by T. Kingfisher is a finalist for Best Short Story!

Plus, Uncanny Magazine (Publishers/Editors-in-Chief Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, Managing Editor Chimedum Ohaegbu, Nonfiction Editor Elsa Sjunneson, and Podcast Producers Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky) is once again a finalist for Best Semiprozine!

Finally, former Nonfiction Editor Elsa Sjunneson is a finalist for Best Fan Writer!

It is an amazing list of Hugo Award finalists, many of whom are Uncanny authors and friends. CONGRATULATIONS TO EVERYBODY!!! Thank you to everyone who nominated these works, and to the hard-working DisCon III staff. We are honored, ecstatic, and overwhelmed. Please vote for the things you love!

Uncanny Magazine co-Editor-in-Chief Lynne M. Thomas plans to attend the convention in person. If you see her, please say hi!

And now the contents of Uncanny Magazine Issue 43! The spectacular cover is For Want of Milk by Grace P. Fong and is based on Grace’s story in this issue! Our new fiction includes John Wiswell’s tale of friendship, trauma, and survival “That Story Isn’t the Story,” Grace P. Fong’s Old West story of kindness and triumph “For Want of Milk,” A. T. Greenblatt’s exploration of identity and dreams “The Stop After the Last Station,” Mary Robinette Kowal’s magical epic journey “Ina’s Spark,” Del Sandeen’s story of pain and growth “For All Those Who Sheltered Here,” Rachel Swirsky’s tale of war and hard decisions “White Rose, Red Rose,” and finally Mari Ness’s humorous holiday romp “The North Pole Workshops.”

Our provocative and compelling essays this month include “Loving the Old Wounds” by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, “Scenes from the Apocalypse” by Dawn Xiana Moon, “Pro Wrestling Is Fake (But You Already Knew That)” by Veda Scott, “What You Might Have Missed” by Arley Sorg, “The Precarious Now” by Marissa Lingen, and “The Matter of Cloud: An Interview with Greer Gilman” by Sofia Samatar. Our gorgeous and evocative poetry includes “POST MASSACRE PSYCH EVALUATION” by Abu Bakr Sadiq, “The Burning River” by Hal Y. Zhang, “Confessions of a Spaceport AI” by Mary Soon Lee, and “Between Childroid + Mother” by Miriam Alex. Finally, Caroline M. Yoachim interviews John Wiswell.

The Uncanny Magazine Podcast #43A features “The Stop After the Last Station” by A. T. Greenblatt, as read by Erika Ensign, “POST MASSACRE PSYCH EVALUATION” by Abu Bakr Sadiq, as read by Matt Peters, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing A. T. Greenblatt. The Uncanny Magazine Podcast 43B features “For All Those Who Sheltered Here” by Del Sandeen, as read by Matt Peters, “White Rose, Red Rose” by Rachel Swirsky, as read by Erika Ensign, “The North Pole Workshops” by Mari Ness, as read by Matt Peters, “Confessions of a Spaceport AI” by Mary Soon Lee, as read by Erika Ensign, and Lynne M. Thomas interviewing Del Sandeen.

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

 

Thank You, Patreon Supporters!

Uncanny Magazine would like to thank the following people for supporting us on Patreon. This magazine would not be possible without their support.

 

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps RECRUITS

Katie Sinkoski, Jennifer Hisrich, Jenny Barber, ml cohen, Danielle, a pair of enchanted gloves, Mr. Robin White, Andrew Gregg, Nadine Noll, Amit Gupta, Anitra Heiberg Lykke, Andrew S. Fuller, Aleksi Stenberg, Damien Neil, Not_the_brain, james qualters, Maria Schrater, Leetmeister, Max Andrew Dubinsky, Kayti Burt, Wordsmith Lynn, Robin Hill, Liz Argall, S P, Ken Schneyer, Ryan Pennington, Neil Ottenstein, CathiBeaStevenson, Penny Richards, Josh Smift, Jay Lofstead, Sidsel Pedersen, Annaliese Lemmon, fadeaccompli, Clarissa R., Ai Lake, David Versace, Kate Barton

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps ENSIGNS

Dominique Martel, Valya, Carla B. Estruch, Jordan, Adrienne Joy, Duke Kimball, mari s, Alina, Wesley Lee, itay parasol, Emilie De Saint Martin, Zanele Ndaba, John Carr, Riikka, Tatyana, James Castles, Surya H, Callum Williams, Dilly, Howard Cornett, Kellen Harkins, Fábián Tamás, Ashley Herzig, Dariam Fernández, Rhian Bowley, Carl Olsen, Goran Lowie, Aliénor, Dawn Bonanno, William Hay, Amanda Crowley, Dave McAvoy, Julia Pillard, Nicky Martin, Nicholas Davies, Monique Cuillerier, Thomas Faust, D. M. Baldwin, John Coxon, Kristina Saccone, Fabienne Schwizer, Greg Chapman, Khael, Lael Tucker, Colin, Jaime McLeod, Katie Rodante, Sofia G, Kathrin, Ross Williams, Andrew McIntosh, Alec Ross, Karen Young, Simon Hoerder, Melanie Savransky, Ailbhe Leamy, Pete Kirkham, John Atom, Chris Gates, Kim Park, Christine McCullough, Shaun Garvie, Felicia Jordan, Jes, Tracey Thompson, Ryan V Thummel, Shannon H, Jenn Brissett, Brian, Sonja Pieper, Kelly Quantrill, Kristi Chadwick, Aditya Dubey, Kari Keeling, Taylor Alcantar, Goetz Kruppa, Bonnie, Agnes, Peter Schmitt (Aragos), Douglas Dluzen, Hiu Gregg, Mary Brock, Chawin Narkruksa, Tuomas Pohto, Emily Goldman, Beth Hoffman, Alina Kanaski, Matthew Bennardo, Brad Preslar, Fiona Parker, Alison Gilder, Markus Regius, Natalie Boon, Luke, Caroline Pinder, Vicente JM, Ben Hammerslag, Tina Skupin, Eris Young, Chessa Hickox, machine_person, John Derrick, Charlie Lindahl, Lauren Strenger, Carrie, Beth McMillan, Sarah Jansen, Emily Kvalheim, [email protected], Leanne Kathleen Ingino, Sadie Slater, Andrew Hickey, Julia Struthers-Jobin, Tim Campbell, Michael Jeffries, Melissa Brinks, Nick Mazzuca, Maria Haskins, Sarah Elkins, Victor Eijkhout, Melissa Martensen, Joe Iriarte, Selim Ulug, Jacqueline Rogoff, Sarah Bea, Amanda B Cook, Ellen Zemlin, David O Mahony, Risa Wolf, John Cetrone, Cynthia Murrell, Gina, Emily Capettini, Tiffany M., Albert Bowes, Amanda J. McGee, Leslie Ordal, Maria, Gene Breshears, Ysabet MacFarlane, Erik DeBill, Emily Finke, Paul Weymouth, Laura K, Philip Woodley, David Demers, Jeffrey, Ondrej Urban, Emily Hogan, Paul Weimer, Lauren Vega

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps LIEUTENANTS

Stephen, Will Hamilton, Sean Eric Fagan, smokestack, Katrina, Heather Holmquist, Ian Sweedler, Gregor M. Geemd, Kelsea Kreuch, Sasha H, Victor, Mark Tyler, Christiane Knight, Salvatore Fabbiano, Kalina, Sarah Jackson, John Reynolds, Starr Hoffman, John Tobias, Kenneth Otani, Kyle DeVries, Matthew Montgomery, julianna zdunich, Koa Webster, Sarah Hale, Randall Beeman, Danielle Weaver, Alena Geffner-Mihlsten, Linda Thompson, Ahsan A. Latif, David, Lisa Cox, Stephanie Novak, Rich Rubel, Haley N Cowans, A T-L, Margaret N. Oliver, Joan Combs Durso, Nancy Palmer, Elan Samuel, Sid J, Sarah Berriman, Rosier Cade, devorah hill, Josef D Prall, Sam Gawith, Kirby Li, Declan Meenagh, Christi Clogston, jenn northington, Gareth Morgan, Ravian Ruijs, Bee Buehring, E, David Dagg-Murry, Raphaelle, Emma Osborne, Sarah Biz, Max G, Matt, George Hetrick, Todd Honeycutt, 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, Michael Lee, Adam Leff

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps COMMANDERS

Kelly Lester, Chip Roland, Camille Knepper, Elizabeth Galliher, Mairin Holmes, William T. McGeachin, Alex Eiser, K.C. Mead-Brewer, Alexander M Henderson, Crystal Huff, Kate O’Connor, Marzie Kaifer, Edmund Schweppe, Nicole Fuschetti, Dain Unicorn, Jayme, Bliss Ehrlich, Daniel (a raven)

ADDITIONAL SUPPORTERS

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

The Burning River

word for word pound for pound your name is the heaviest

of your foibles.

 

that the heart fails is no surprise, each thing has its end;

that you chose to fail mine is.

 

then to steal a dead woman’s self, you should be afraid

of the haunting but

 

we are all our choices, crags rounded by the water of time,

and I choose not to spend

 

purgatory hating you, but I can’t say the same for my gangrenous

tongue in your mouth wagging.

For Want of Milk

(Content Note: Miscarriage, Animal Death)

 

There’s magic in my mother’s cattle. Warm milk drips through my fingers and fills one, two, three iron pails. The cow lows, but she stills when I put my hand on her flank. I tell her not to worry. There’s still plenty for the calf.

I carry what I can from the barn to our farmhouse. It’s an old man with two faces, built by two eras. The eastern side slouches under a sod roof, built by Momma’s first husband who came with her from Philadelphia when all they had were their hands and homesteader dreams. Then he died fighting for the Union. The western side has two rooms of proper wood, built by my Ba whose hands made the railroad. He left for his old country before I was born, and the law made sure he can’t come back.

The only things he left me were his dark hair, dark eyes, and skin that don’t burn.

Momma always says, “You’re my railroad daughter, Pearl.”

But the townfolk always called me “bastard,” and when I grew curves, they called me “bitch.”

I heave my load onto the kitchen table and call for Momma. She’s not here. She’s probably minding the garden or foraging the prairie. Knowing I won’t be caught, I sneak a sip. The milk tastes buttery sweet and thick with cream. It’s the best in the county and why we can live, unbothered, at the edge of so-called civilization.

Momma says I haven’t seen real civilization like back East—that it’s made of iron and money and men without conscience. She says I’ve never seen it, and I never will. Because she’s never going back, and it’s not worth my going solo. The town train station is as close to real civilization as we gonna get.

A basket of new, soft cheese sits beside the door. I sigh because I know it’s my next chore. While I pack it up and secure the saddlebags to our pinto mare, Tansy, Momma walks in like a force of nature—sun-worn skin and wild, grey hair. Though she’s nearing sixty, she stands straight as an oak.

“I’m coming with you today,” she announces. I know better than to question. It’s not often she comes with, since she’s got so much business on the farm, but she speaks to the wind and barley, and sometimes they tell our fortune.

“Where were you this morning?” I ask.

“Looking for things we’ll need.” She opens her palm, revealing a cheesecloth full of foraged pennyroyal. Then she tucks it into her pocket and vaults into the saddle behind me.

It’s a five-mile ride into town, but Tansy navigates the tall grass and prairie dog holes as easy as the packed dirt on Main Street. Momma hitches her to a post outside the dry goods store, and I undo the saddlebag. I look down, so my hair hides my face from the townfolks’ prying blue eyes and gossiping whispers. “Stranger.” “Slant-eyed.” “Freak.”

The clerk, Fidel, greets us with a nod. He’s a stranger, too. A different kind, but it means he also knows how townfolk whisper. I think it’s why he’s nicer to us. I unpack my cheese at the register, and he counts them up while Momma scans the shelves behind him.

“So many,” he laughs, shaking his head in disbelief like he does every time. “I reckon that’s equivalent to two whole dollars. Your cows must either be blessed or cursed. Dunno which.”

“You know better than to talk like that ’bout Momma, Mr. Garcia.”

Momma smirks and points to the goods we’ll need. “A pound of flour, four yards of shirting, and the rest in scrip for later.”

“Anything for you, Missus Lovelace.” Fidel turns away to assemble our goods when the front door slams open. In walks a tall man with a grey mustache that’s oiled to two points long as bull’s horns. His silk cravat is stuck through with a silver pin that’s probably worth more than I’ll see in my lifetime. He’s got one hand tight around a mahogany cane and the other around a girl’s tiny wrist.

She can’t be much older than me—sixteen, seventeen at most. With golden hair done up in crowning braids. I’ve never seen a dress so nice or a face so pretty. She looks at me with wide blue eyes, and I know she’s never seen anyone like me, either. Maybe she, too, finds me a freak. She breaks her gaze when the man pulls her forward. Her slender legs stumble, and I notice how ill-fitting that pretty dress is, how it can’t hide her pregnant belly.

The man strides up to Momma and orders, “Madam, if you please—two bottles of laudanum.”

Fidel stutters, arms still full of our goods.

“Does he not speak English? Tell your boy I requested laudanum. I certainly did not travel a full week from New York City to find I won’t have the supplies I need.”

“It’s all right, Momma,” I mutter, taking a step away. “He can get his things first. We ain’t rushin’ to go nowhere.”

Momma silences me with a glare before coolly responding, “My apologies, Mister—”

“Doctor.”

“—Doctor—”

He cuts her off again. “Madam, when your husband returns, you ought to let him know he should replace his hired hand with one of better stock, who takes proper service seriously.”

Doctor. Mister Fidel here, as the owner of this shop, takes his service very seriously. And I am his customer. So you’ll just have to wait ’til we’re done.”

The doctor blinks. “He owns the shop? Then who might your husband be?”

“Don’t need one.”

The man tilts his head, taken aback by the statement.

Fidel intervenes, producing two bottles of laudanum. “Your order, sir.”

Momma shoots him a glare, too. The look’s chastisement enough.

“That’ll be eighty cents, please, sir,” Fidel squeaks.

“That’s blatant robbery! All I’ve invested, and this is how you receive me…” The doctor fumes, but he reaches for his money. The girl’s wrist goes white where his other hand digs into her skin.

“Transport means some things’re more expensive out here,” Momma states. “You’re best off working the land like the rest of us. Poppy tea’s good for pain management.”

He looks downright offended now. “And how would you know? You some herb-swilling witch? I’m fully board-certified.”

“I’m this town’s midwife. And I’m all too familiar with your kinda doctoring. Forceps and fevers, the killing kind.”

He scoffs, mustache twisting with irritation. “A gentleman has clean hands.”

Momma ignores him and takes one of our cheeses back from Fidel. “I’d love it if you could kindly take that flour off our earlier order. Promise we’ll return for it later.”

As Fidel recalculates our tab, Momma reaches past the doctor, she offers it to the quivering girl. “Now, what’s your name?”

The girl takes it but looks at the doctor before whispering, “Faith.”

“This here’s your welcome present, Faith. My daughter and I work a farm just north of here. Best cheese this side of the Mississippi. Try it. You’ll see. If you’d like more—or anything at all, and I mean anything—you come find us. Just follow the road through the barley.” Something more than cheese passes between their eyes.

As the doctor pockets his bottles, he pushes between them. “You had better not talk to my family without my permission. Faith is a good wife who knows better than to consort with loose women.”

They head out the door, I come out from the corner, and Momma concludes our transaction. “Now, who in the world was that?”

Fidel shakes his head. “Must be the rich quack the postman was talking ’bout this morning—just bought a good chunk of property from the railroad company, so’s he can rent to us at an even higher price. Says land’s good out here. Calls it a smart investment.”

As I pack the saddlebags, I ask Momma, “Why’d you give the cheese away? We sure coulda used that flour.”

“Pearl, I knew plenty of men like him back east: men who can’t stand the sight of a woman in their space—space they stole to begin with. And god forbid a woman know more than him. So in the end, we ladies only got each other.”

I’m putting Tansy to bed when I hear a sound that I don’t like, so I take my lantern in hand and slip into the night. An angel parts the grass before me. Her wheat hair flows down to her waist, prettier than sunrise. “Missus Faith! What’re you doing here?”

She’s in a lace nightgown hiked to her knees and shoes too pricey for dirt roads, but she begs, “You’ve got to help me.”

“I’m sorry, but I dunno what you think I can do.”

“But Malcolm called that woman a witch! You must be one, too, right?”

I roll my eyes. “Been called lotsa things. Ain’t no witch. Momma’s magic’s just real good cheese.”

“Please, we came through the Ohio Valley by rail, crossed the Mississippi by riverboat, and drove to your nowhere town by stagecoach. I’m so tired, but I still walked all the way here to find you.”

I think on what Momma said about relying on each other. At the least, we could feed her, let her rest, and send her back proper tomorrow. “You just wait outside while I finish up in the barn.”

She follows me into the stable anyway and watches my work with rapt attention. When I go to hang up Tansy’s bridle, she’s already done it.

“Thank you kindly. Guess we’re gonna see Momma.” I smile and offer my arm to walk her to the farmhouse. She steps bow-legged with the baby.

Momma meets us on the path, rifle in her arms and tobacco smoke lingering on her deerskin coat. She sets the gun down and takes Faith’s hand. “The wind said you were coming.”

“Can you really help me?”

“Help you how?” Momma asks, but I think she already knows.

Faith’s face goes red trying to push out words. She breathes deep, and tears roll down her chin. “I don’t want it,” she sputters. “I don’t want him. He made me do it, made me leave everything behind. I never wanted any of this.”

Momma soothes her by running fingers through her hair. “We can take care of you.”

Faith nods vigorously, too choked up to speak anymore.

Momma throws the coat over Faith’s shoulders and pulls her close. Then she tells me, “Fetch a pail.”

We head to the corral. While I use the lantern, Momma only needs the full moon. She already knows where the cattle sleep. The cow looks up when we arrive, but the calf keeps suckling his mother’s teat. Momma separates them and leads him away. “We’ll need milk,” is her only command before she disappears through the grass.

The cow’s confused by the late hour, but she lets me work. Faith hovers behind me, watching fresh cream pour from my hands. “I didn’t think you were actually her daughter,” she admits. “I thought you did the laundry.”

My spine bristles. “Well, I am.”

“What’s it like?”

“Milking cows? Or bein’ a bastard?”

“No, living here. The town. The prairie.”

“It’s nice. Quiet. Folks don’t bother you.”

“And men don’t tell you what to do.”

“Exactly. Momma sold regulators in the city ’til she was driven out by—”

“—by men like my husband?”

“You’re quick.”

Faith places her hand on the cow’s forehead. She nuzzles her palm, so Faith picks some grass to feed her. But the whole time, Faith’s really watching my fingers. “Might I try?”

“Sure, ’course.” I step back.

She kneels and wraps her palm around the teat. “It’s warm.”

“Of course it is.” I place my hands around hers, and I thank the lord my Ba’s skin don’t go red. “Apologies, Missus, but it’s easier to teach by feel.”

“You don’t need to apologize,” she whispers. Even in the dim candlelight, I see pink flush her untanned cheeks.

I go slow at first, finger after finger in a gentle cascade. Faith moves under me. She learns quick and soon, she’s the one moving my hand, conducting the rhythm of dripping milk and my heartbeat.

When the pail’s full, we go find Momma. She waits by a tree, rope and rifle in hand. I know what’ll happen. I’ve watched her do this since I was born. This is a farm, after all.

But this time, Momma hands the gun to me. I’m shocked. I’ve never felt the earth in my veins. The cattle don’t bend to me.

Still, I weigh the stock in my hands. It’s cool and solid and comforting, the metal sister to the ground below my feet. When I raise the barrel to the calf’s forehead, energy flows from the earth into my bones. He closes his black eyes.

And I pull the trigger.

The rifle roars, but he goes down quiet. The earth still echoes in my chest. I reach out, expecting Momma to hand me the knife for the finishing blow. But instead, she gives it to Faith, who stares, dumbfounded, at the body.

“You have to do it. It won’t work if you don’t do it.” Momma’s words are an order.

The horror on Faith’s face hardens to determination. I show her where to cut. It’s harder than it looks. She has to really saw the knife through the thick skin.

Blood pumps onto the grass and her nightgown. Momma collects it in her canteen. Then she reaches into the pocket of the coat that Faith’s borrowed for the cluster of purple flowers. She crushes them and adds them to the bottle. Finally, she tops it off with our fresh-squeezed cream.

Our spell: mother’s milk, child’s blood, and a pinch of pennyroyal.

She nods and hands the bottle to Faith, who just stares. I make a drinking motion.

There’s trepidation in her eyes, but she puts it to her mouth. One sip, and she gags. Another, and she winces. One more. And down it goes. All of it.

Then she watches, blood still on her lips, as Momma and I hang the carcass on the rafters. The hooves will go to the dogs, the skin to the tanner. We split the belly, leave the carcass to hang, and take the organs to the house. We know better than to waste any of it.

Momma heads back to the farmhouse, and I follow with Faith on one arm and milk on the other. My hands are bloody, and so are hers. The fluid and our fingers intertwine as we walk.

When she crosses the threshold, she stumbles and clutches her stomach. I walk her, screaming, to my small bed, where she collapses on the mattress. She rolls onto her back, and I take her hand. It’s now damp with sweat as well as blood. I know magic isn’t tender, so I talk to ease her pain. “How’d you end up here, anyway? The wives usually stay back east.”

“Malcolm said there’s free land. No doctors here. Money to be made.” She pants through clenched teeth. Sweat beads on her forehead. “He said science says our boy will grow strong on clean air.”

“How d’you know it’s a boy?” I comb her hair with my dirty fingers. It seems to soothe her, like there’s magic in my touch, too.

She relaxes enough to say, “Malcolm said it’s a boy. That he should know. He’s a doctor. My father—he’s on the board—said Malcolm was the smartest—”

“Momma’s smart, too. Or else why would you’ve come here? Just ’cause something come out the mouth of another man don’t make it more right.” I twist her hair into bloody twin braids that run down her chest, like a warrior princess.

Her groans change into weak laughter, and her eyelids drift half-closed. She rests her hand on her round stomach. “The cow—will she miss the calf?”

“Only if she wants to.” I place my hand atop hers, and the earth flows from my touch. The child inside her pacifies. “Take it easy now. You’ve had a long night.”

She sleeps, but Momma waves me over. My night isn’t done yet.

“You’ve taken good care of her, Pearl.”

I blush. Compliments from Momma are rare. She lights a fire and sets our biggest pot on the stove. I pour in the milk. It’s tainted. Small trails of pink dance on the white surface.

“Never mind those,” Momma tells me. I know what she means. It’ll make the magic stronger.

She cuts the calf stomach into thin strips, and I add them to the pot. I don’t know if it will work. It’s too fresh. But the look on Momma’s face tells me to trust her.

It does. The milk separates over the low fire, and the surface gets soft and springy. Then I cut the curd to specified size. It’s late now. There’s still more to do, but most of it’s waiting.

Momma pats my head. “You’ve done well. Get yourself some rest, so you can take her back before sunrise.”

I sleep well that night, on the floor next to Faith with the deerskin coat as my pillow, and I wake when the first star fades. The fire has died, but the moonlight reveals several wheels of new, soft cheese drying on the counter, rinds dotted with purple. I lead a groggy Faith to the washbasin for a rinse.

She yawns when I help her onto Tansy. No protest when I mount behind her and wrap my arms around her swollen belly to take the reins. She dozes most of the way to town. I admit, I do, too. Luckily, Tansy knows the road.

The sun peeks over the horizon when we arrive at the hotel. I help her down, and I’m about to leave when I realize she looks disappointed.

“Something the matter?” I ask.

She puts her hand on her round middle. “That’s all? But you said you’d help me.”

“We did.” I turn Tansy back toward home. The cows’ll need milking.

We have so much veal, we actually need a cart and the both of us to bring it to market. Fidel greets us warmly, asking what we’d like in exchange, and he gives us a good price because it’s still early in the season. Momma buys lots this time because we’ve got wheels to take it home.

“—and a pound of flour.”

“That’ll be seven cents.”

“That’s more than last week.”

“Things gettin’ hard fast,” Fidel says. “Dr. Perkin’s been angling to raise the rents.”

Momma sighs. “Hopefully he won’t be here much longer. You heard anything ‘bout his Missus?”

I perk up at the mention of Faith.

“You didn’t hear? Poor girl had a miscarriage.”

“My, that’s downright awful,” Momma says. But I’ve known her long enough to know she’s thinking something else.

“She’ll be all right, though. The doc gave her a thorough examination. Said she just needed a few days’ bedrest.”

Like a demon at the mention of his name, the doctor strolls into the shop. Fidel starts shaking like he’s on trial, but the doctor’s come for Momma. Their eyes meet, and I see she’s just as tall as he is. He jabs his cane in her face. “My wife disappears for a night and won’t tell me where she went. Then she locks herself in our bedroom, refusing to see anyone—even me! But she gave me your name. What have you done to my family?”

“I heard about the miscarriage. Most unfortunate.”

“And I know you had something to do with it. What did you give her? I bankrolled this railroad, this town, sent you every cent I made in the big city! You’re a squatter whore with a fistful of grass, making good women sick. If you don’t tell me, I’ll have my sheriff throw you off your damn farm!”

Momma stays cool as earth. “Doctor Perkins, I haven’t been to town since we last met.”

Fidel nods, corroborating her story.

The doctor points at me. “What about her?”

Momma steps in front of me, but I don’t need a shield anymore. I have arrows on my tongue and heat in my veins.

But Momma lays her hand on my shoulder. I lower my fists at her touch, but I’m still tense. I know I gotta trust her. She faces the doctor with a gator smile. “Deepest condolences for your loss, Doctor Perkins. Please, if it’s any help, why don’t you join us for dinner tomorrow night? Up at the farm. I’m sure your wife would love to come. We’ll show you how harmless we are.”

The look in his eyes says he’s salivating at the chance to find something there, something incriminating to take back to the sheriff. The look says he’s underestimating us.

They actually do come. Not on foot or horseback, but by coach. It can’t get all the way to the farmhouse, so I come out to lead them on foot. The doctor wears a finer tailcoat than usual, velvet brocade, but Faith looks pale and worn. In the absence of her child, she wears a corset, laced breathlessly tight around a ruffled black gown. I take the dress’s train to keep it off the ground. The fabric’s worth more than anything I’ve ever owned. As we walk, the doctor complains about the mud on his shoes.

Momma opens the door and, to my surprise, greets them warmly. The house smells inviting, even if the doctor sneers noticeably at its haphazard construction. There’s veal bone soup on the stove and stewed field greens on the table.

“Welcome, friends.” She pulls out a chair—her chair, at the head of the table—and the doctor sits right down.

He huffs. “How can you possibly deliver children here? It’s unsightly.”

I pull out a chair for Faith and explain, “We go to folks’ houses for that kind of delivery. Here, we make cheese.”

She sits gracefully while he snorts, “Cheese? What kind of proper midwife is also a cheesemonger?”

I shrug. “Everyone does whatever, whenever, they can on the frontier.”

He smiles politely, if disingenuously, at Momma, but he still frowns at me.

“Why don’t you try some? We’ve a fresh batch from a few days ago.” The wheels from Faith’s visit still sit on the counter. Momma picks one up and hands it to me.

The rind is snowy white, speckled with purple, and splits smoothly under the knife. A pale, red ribbon winds through the creamy flesh.

I serve it on our nicest china, the set painted with blue cornflowers. He avoids eating until I hand him a smaller knife and a bit of hardtack.

He grudgingly spreads the paste on his cracker and places it in his mouth. When he bites down, crumbs tangle in the hairs of his mustache. I watch his mouth as he chews, moving from side to side.

“This is…quite good.” He struggles as if it hurts to pay the compliment. “What type of cheese is this?”

“Just our secret recipe, between my daughter and me.”

“It’s good. Shockingly good. How is it so good?” He continues to eat, enchanted by every bite, each one increasingly voracious. His comments are laced with the quiet anger I recognize as jealousy.

Momma sets the rest of the wheel in front of him, and he gobbles that down, too—this time forgoing the niceties of bread and cutlery. I prepare another.

Faith reaches forward to cut a sample, but he snatches it away and bites directly into the rind. I rest my hand on hers, and she draws back. I feel the magic, and it’s not for her.

“I need more,” he says.

I bring the rest, and he downs them one by one. Momma watches, arms folded. Curd and saliva cling to his lips, but he still demands, “More.”

I give him the final piece, which he digs into with too-large teeth, and it smears across his nose.

“More.”

“There is no more, you oaf.” Momma yanks her chair out from under him, and he collapses on the floor.

“More,” he tries to say, but it comes out in a bellow. “Mooooo—!”

He tries to stand, but immediately drops to all fours because his fingers have merged and hardened into hooves. His eyes go black, and his ears elongate. The tailcoat splits along its seams, revealing a pink body sprouting thick fur. His mustache hardens into tiny horns, and his flaring nostrils thrust forward into a muzzle. Soon, there’s just a boy-calf kicking on its side, lowing in frustration.

“Now, Pearl,” Momma says, tying a rope around the calf’s neck. “Set the table for dinner. Ol’ Bess must be wondering where her dogie went, so I’ll be taking him out to see her. He’ll have plenty of time to fatten up before the season ends.”

She urges the calf to stand and it follows her out the door, seemingly unaware of the moment before.

I take dinner off the stove, and Faith lays out three place settings. It’s certainly charming, how formal she does it.

“What’ll happen to you?” I ask.

She shrugs. “Guess I’ll go back to town. He was a doctor. He had money. Might be able to make a death certificate and claim it back in New York.”

“But do you want to go back?”

“Think I have to.”

“Cause a man put it on paper?”

“When you put it that way—”

“You could stay here. We could always use another pair of hands.”

“I think I’d like that.”

She laces her fingers through mine, and we collect the scraps of velvet to use as rags. We know better than to waste any of it.

Thank You, Year 8 Kickstarter Backers!

Uncanny Magazine would like to thank the following people for supporting us during our Year 8 Kickstarter. This magazine would not be possible without their support.

 

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Interview: John Wiswell

John Wiswell is an ace/aro writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. He won the 2021 Nebula for Best Short Story, and is a finalist for the Hugo, World Fantasy Award, and British Fantasy Award. His work has appeared in Nature Futures, Fireside Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. “That Story Isn’t the Story” is his second story in Uncanny (following “The Bottomless Martyr” in 2020), an emotionally powerful tale that features escaped familiars and bleeding wounds, video games and enduring friendship.

 

Uncanny Magazine: This story combines a lot of elements—familiars trying to escape from a bad situation, bleeding wounds, enduring friendship, stories that people are (and aren’t) ready to tell. What was your starting point or inspiration? How did you bring all of these elements together?

John Wiswell: It began with Anton in Grigorii’s ramshackle house. He was traumatized, unsure how to cope, believing his master is outside his door—and simultaneously, he was in a safe place, with people who would come protect him if something happened, and videogames were on the TV. It was a powerful dissonance between where Anton was physically and emotionally, that I knew would push the story forward. In a sense, the entire novelette is about how unreal being safe can feel.

The other thing I knew was coming was Anton wouldn’t have a normal ending. No confrontation with Mr. Bird. No fight to the death. No self-sacrifice. No diabolical master plan. Everything that we sometimes dread will happen to us, or our loved ones, because of our trauma? That is partially because we’ve been harmed. It’s also partially an illusion. I wanted to let Anton slowly recognize what was a trauma mirage, while his worthiness of self-respect wasn’t illusory at all.

Not that I knew the exact ending at first. A great friend of mine, the screenwriter and actor Nat Sylva, stayed up late one night talking through the themes with me to help me figure out what I really wanted. I’m very curious how your readers will take that ending.

Uncanny Magazine: You’ve written stories with a wide range of tones, from light and heartwarming to more ominous and dark. Do you find one of these tones easier to write than the other?

John Wiswell: It depends on my mood, honestly. Sometimes I write to confront or embrace themes, and that confrontation can yield a dark friction. That definitely happened with “That Story Isn’t the Story,” where I handled some uncomfortable themes, while trying to shine empathy down into that darkness. As such, I hope this doesn’t read as a purely dark story.

So sometimes I write to confront or embrace, but other times I write to escape. Escapism isn’t just for readers! [Laughs] I have something I can’t resolve right now, like a pending surgery or I’m waiting for an appointment. So I write to get away from that thing for a while. I find those escapist moods more frequently turn into my lighter work. I’ve written a few entire stories waiting for a delayed flight to land thanks to those moods.

I’m not entirely in control of my mood. So I find it best to adapt and write to the strengths of whatever headspace I get.

Uncanny Magazine: Some of the characters in “That Story Isn’t the Story” are into video games, and Terraria provides a way for Anton to connect with Luis when he first arrives at Grigorii’s place. Are you a gamer? Why did you pick this particular game for this story?

John Wiswell: Oh yes, I love videogames. Elden Ring cannot come out soon enough. [Laughs] Videogames have made so many leaps as an art form in my lifetime. I love seeing new creators get access to the tools. These days you can have The Last of Us, and Dream Daddy, and Hades, all at once.

Terraria is one of my favorite games since it’s a 2D Lego set I can share with my buddies, and whenever we have built enough, we go mining to fight skeletons or into the sky to fight harpies. The ability to freely go from adventuring to constructing invigorates. It’s no wonder it’s been a source of coping with depression for several friends. So when I wrote this story and looked for a piece of art that characters could both bond around and use as a coping mechanism, it came straight to mind.

Uncanny Magazine: If you were a character in this story, who would you be, and why?

John Wiswell: For more of my life, I’ve tried to be Grigorii for others. At a couple of points in my life I’ve been like Anton, deeply needed help escaping a toxic rut. This world gets better if we look out for each other. It’s not always easy; it takes patience of a Herculean scale. It’s worth it. I want to be the kind of friend that others feel comfortable reaching out to.

Uncanny Magazine: I love the way we never see Mr. Bird directly—as with many monsters he is scarier when he remains unseen, a technique that is often used in horror. What are some of your favorite depictions of monsters? Do you have any literary influences in the horror genre?

John Wiswell: In recent memory, the ‘elk’ in Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians was a phenomenal monster. It gets under your skin in multiple ways. [Laughs] The kids in Craig DiLouie’s Suffer the Children remain genuinely haunting, too, especially since they sort of turn their uninfected parents into the real monsters. It’s hard to get more chilling than that. But if you have an hour, I have some opinions about how cool kaiju are…

That said, I’m usually drawn to more sympathetic portrayals of monsters, like Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, or John Gardner’s take on Grendel. Quite often creatures—including Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel—are othered as a means of projecting dislike of marginalized groups. That’s part of why you’ll find my stories sometimes sympathizing with a werewolf, or haunted house, or undead skeleton. Or, in this story’s case, a familiar. Familiars are sometimes depicted as grotesque and mindless, without empathy or shame, too often feeling like stand-ins for biases against drug addicts. As someone who is a proud friend of many survivors, I was inclined in a different direction.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

John Wiswell: I’m literally taking a break from novel revisions to talk to you. This is refreshing! The novel is about how we define monstrosity, and how we other it, and a lot of queer metaphors smashing into queer realities. I probably shouldn’t say more since I don’t have an agent right now. But if you’re an agent, maybe I’ll be sending this to you soon?

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

Thank You, Patreon Supporters!

Uncanny Magazine would like to thank the following people for supporting us on Patreon. This magazine would not be possible without their support.

 

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps RECRUITS

Katie Sinkoski, Jennifer Hisrich, Jenny Barber, ml cohen, Danielle, a pair of enchanted gloves, Mr. Robin White, Andrew Gregg, Nadine Noll, Amit Gupta, Anitra Heiberg Lykke, Andrew S. Fuller, Aleksi Stenberg, Damien Neil, Not_the_brain, james qualters, Maria Schrater, Leetmeister, Max Andrew Dubinsky, Kayti Burt, Wordsmith Lynn, Robin Hill, Liz Argall, S P, Ken Schneyer, Ryan Pennington, Neil Ottenstein, CathiBeaStevenson, Penny Richards, Josh Smift, Jay Lofstead, Sidsel Pedersen, Annaliese Lemmon, fadeaccompli, Clarissa R., Ai Lake, David Versace, Kate Barton

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps ENSIGNS

mari s, Alina, Megs, Wesley Lee, itay parasol, Emilie De Saint Martin, Zanele Ndaba, John Carr, Riikka, Tatyana, James Castles, Surya H, Callum Williams, Dilly, Howard Cornett, Kellen Harkins, Fábián Tamás, Ashley Herzig, Rhian Bowley, Carl Olsen, Goran Lowie, Aliénor, Dawn Bonanno, Kelsea Kreuch, William Hay, Amanda Crowley, Dave McAvoy, Julia Pillard, Nicky Martin, Nicholas Davies, Monique Cuillerier, Thomas Faust, D. M. Baldwin, John Coxon, Kristina Saccone, Fabienne Schwizer, Greg Chapman, Khael, Lael Tucker, Colin, Jaime McLeod, Katie Rodante, Sofia G, Kathrin, Ross Williams, Andrew McIntosh, Alec Ross, Beth Myers, Karen Young, Simon Hoerder, Melanie Savransky, Ailbhe Leamy, Pete Kirkham, John Atom, Chris Gates, Kim Park, Christine McCullough, Shaun Garvie, Felicia Jordan, Jessica Lee, Tracey Thompson, Ryan V Thummel, Shannon H, Jenn Brissett, Brian, Sonja Pieper, Kelly Quantrill, Kristi Chadwick, Aditya Dubey, Kari Keeling, Taylor Alcantar, Goetz Kruppa, Bonnie, Agnes, Peter Schmitt (Aragos), Douglas Dluzen, Hiu Gregg, Mary Brock, Chawin Narkruksa, Tuomas Pohto, Emily Goldman, Beth Hoffman, Alina Kanaski, Matthew Bennardo, Brad Preslar, Fiona Parker, Alison Gilder, Markus Regius, Natalie Boon, Luke, Caroline Pinder, Vicente JM, Ben Hammerslag, Tina Skupin, Eris Young, Jeff Xilon, Chessa Hickox, machine_person, John Derrick, Charlie Lindahl, Lauren Strenger, Carrie, Beth McMillan, Sarah Jansen, Emily Kvalheim, [email protected], Leanne Kathleen Ingino, Sadie Slater, Andrew Hickey, Julia Struthers-Jobin, Tim Campbell, Michael Jeffries, Melissa Brinks, Nick Mazzuca, Maria Haskins, Sarah Elkins, Victor Eijkhout, Melissa Martensen, Joe Iriarte, Selim Ulug, Jacqueline Rogoff, Sarah Bea, Amanda B Cook, Ellen Zemlin, David O Mahony, Risa Wolf, John Cetrone, Cynthia Murrell, Gina, Emily Capettini, Tiffany M., Albert Bowes, Amanda J. McGee, Leslie Ordal, Maria, Gene Breshears, Ysabet MacFarlane, Erik DeBill, Emily Finke, Paul Weymouth, Laura K, David Demers, Jeffrey, Ondrej Urban, Emily Hogan, Paul Weimer, Renae Ensign, Lauren Vega

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps LIEUTENANTS

Will Hamilton, Sean Eric Fagan, smokestack, Katrina, Heather Holmquist, Ian Sweedler, Gregor M. Geemd, Sasha H, Victor, Mark Tyler, Christiane Knight, Salvatore Fabbiano, Kalina, Sarah Jackson, John Reynolds, Starr Hoffman, John Tobias, Kenneth Otani, Kyle DeVries, Matthew Montgomery, julianna zdunich, Koa Webster, Sarah Hale, Randall Beeman, Danielle Weaver, Alena Geffner-Mihlsten, LInda Thompson, Ahsan A. Latif, David, Lisa Cox, Stephanie Novak, Rich Rubel, Haley N Cowans, A T-L, Margaret N. Oliver, Joan Combs Durso, Nancy Palmer, Elan Samuel, Sid J, Sarah Berriman, Rosier Cade, devorah hill, Josef D Prall, Sam Gawith, Kirby Li, Declan Meenagh, Christi Clogston, Melissa Stahr, jenn northington, Gareth Morgan, Ravian Ruijs, Bee Buehring, E, David Dagg-Murry, Raphaelle, Emma Osborne, Sarah Biz, Max G, Matt, George Hetrick, Todd Honeycutt, 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, Sarah L., John Chu, Brooks Moses, Deborah Levinson, Michael Lee, Adam Leff

Space Unicorn Ranger Corps COMMANDERS

Kelly Lester, Chip Roland, Camille Knepper, Elizabeth Galliher, Mairin Holmes, William T. McGeachin, Alex Eiser, K.C. Mead-Brewer, Alexander M Henderson, Crystal Huff, Kate O’Connor, Marzie Kaifer, Edmund Schweppe, Nicole Fuschetti, Dain Unicorn, Jayme, Bliss Ehrlich, Daniel (a raven)

ADDITIONAL SUPPORTERS

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

On a Branch Floating Down the River, a Wren Is Singing

I pressed my naked thumb against the blue fingerprint whorls on the glass. Hungry. So hungry. Like the rest of the humans outside this tower. The wind whipped the loose hair not tucked underneath my wool cap and froze my tears across my lashes. Screw this crazy post-nuclear weather. Let me in, dammit.

I knew Michio-AI-san could wait forever. My bones could rot against these skyscraper doors and he’d still be playing chess with the other AIs: chess moves spelled out in aircraft carriers, oil rigs, solar arrays, and wind farms. Automated fighter jets flying way too low. Spy satellites echoing data through the cloud cover.

Machines didn’t need to eat, only find fuel to burn. They thought almost at the speed of light. And as the oldest AI, Michio-AI-san knew how to play a waiting game over decades. The humans left living in the New Tokyo subways thought we’d see him take total control of the Earth in our lifetimes, maybe sooner. The AIs in other countries simply hadn’t had the time to evolve enough to catch up.

I felt rather than saw a drone scan me from above. All it would see was a woman in a sequined parka and wool snow skirt, magenta snow boots. My teeth hurt with scan vibration, then the lock clicked, and the sliding glass opened just wide enough to let me through.

The lobby entrance to Michio Enterprises smelled of machine oil and rubber. Its high vaulted ceilings—this skyscraper had been a pachinko casino at one point—still flashed neon martini glasses and low-cut dresses and jumbo dice. I rubbed my hands together, trying to unstiffen them and pulled my iced scarf away from my mouth so I could inhale the warmer air.

The guard bot—a department store mannequin with black and silver skin—walked over, gun in hand.

“Pleased to meet you, I am Yukio Kakutani,” I said through chattering teeth. “I am here for the competition. Michio-AI-san should know me from online forum Tamago-no-Akihabara.”

My cheeks were wet from the water melting from my cap and eyelashes. Even as my body warmed, the pit of my stomach stayed cold. This was it, then: join the AI conquering this world, or die. Competing in this tournament meant no turning back. It meant if I lost, I was fine with serving Michio-AI-san in any capacity. Even as a lab specimen. Even as compost.

Knowing my reputation with the AI, probably compost.

At least Kagemori wasn’t alive to see this. It would have killed him faster than the RJ flu had.

The guard bot studied me, waiting as the walls crawled behind its head, thoroughfares for tiny machines. No doubt the grooves and pin pricks on the walls made sense to spider-clingers, vac-bots, and engine octopi. They were the AI’s eyes and ears, and probably noses as well.

A soft ping nearer my feet, and a greeter robot the size of a small child rolled in front of the guard bot, intercepting me neatly. The greeter had a miniature chrysanthemum growing from a glass vase on its chest. The black and silver guard bot paced back to its post at the door then, its pistol still up.

“Kakutani-san? Poet? This way please,” the greeter bot said in the dulcet tones used for elevators, escalators, and subway doors opening.

I stepped carefully behind the greeter, knowing my boots were wet and the marble floors were slick. I patted the front of my coat for the crinkle of washi paper in my bra, Kagemori’s tiny ink portrait of a wren on a branch floating down the river, tucked against my heart for luck.

Of the two of us, Kagemori had been the real artist. With a line he could make an eyebrow question, tilt a nose in the air, purse lips that told the viewer exactly what the mood of the piece was. He made the walls of the subways come alive with forest scenes and ocean murals. Some of his more fleeting pieces, pieces that would dry into dust and flake off, or slide slowly down the tiles as they aged, became series that the AIs would pay for. Subway dwellers tolerated his temporary art pieces painted across their living quarters because machine scrip was the only currency anyone took any more, and anyone hosting a Kagemori piece that sold got their cut.

Poets, however, were more problematic and Michio-AI-san hadn’t declared any winner in his last poetry competition for AIs and humans. Entirely disgusted, he posted online what he deemed the worst submission, “Neko” an AI piece comprised of the characters for cat repeated 4,096 times with random spacing. Kagemori and I had scrutinized the piece, trying to understand what had made it worthy of being the absolute worst out of a thousand poetic entries. Would 4,095 repetitions of the word cat written by a human have been better?

I thought about how long it would take a human to draw a cat 4,096 times. For a machine with thousands of robot minions, it would have taken no time at all.

Did the AI understand the poetry of human effort? Or did Michio-AI-san and his peers only look at the end result?

Following the greeter across the lobby, I stepped carefully across the echoing black marble floors, trying not to slip in my wet boots. The bot bowed me into the elevator and backed out. Steel doors closed, and I felt the car descending into warmer floors. The heart of Michio Enterprises, using geothermal and nuclear power as its lifeblood.

My last words to Kagemori had been bitter. I had been so angry he had chosen to reject AI indenture, with its medical procedures that would have saved him. Any AI in the world would have sponsored him, been his patron: any of them.

We could have made it past Michio-AI-san’s watchful drones into Korea to start the bargaining. I know we could have. But he didn’t want to attempt it.

I clenched my fists, thinking about it.

The floors dropping past me now were just dots on a screen.

Kagemori had said most AI art always smacked of quantity, safety, hedging bets. If a thousand charcoal variations of a crane emerged from Michio-AI-san’s robot hands, surely one of them would strike the other machine AIs as art and he could pretend the other 999 were a road to that one piece.

The observer would choose, just like quantum mechanics.

Often humans worked with less, knew less, had less time to craft their works. Smaller things, smaller numbers, mattered to us, Kagemori said. But we weren’t the only sentient creatures. Even as we had created AI and had to rethink what being sentient meant, so did the AIs, looking back at humans in their biological frailties and wetware. Looking now at their life in small niches, now that human industry and human wars had ruined the climate.

After I’d screamed and sobbed, in his last hours Kagemori had been calm, even while he coughed. “You and I. One thing,” he’d said, and I’d gone to him and held his hands. “One thing. Matters.”

He’d died that night of RJ-47 flu as I sat with him. We still don’t know why some humans got RJ and others, like me, stayed immune.

In the months after his death, Kagemori’s few remaining sketches had tripled in price. I’d held out as long as I could.

Already some AIs were trying to copy what he did, creating robots with the same length of leg and spine, the same wrist bones, in order to understand what he did when he sketched. Their drones had come down to the subway to measure him, to pay me as his partner for the right to dissect him and take his corpse. I’d said no, and they had left according to AI law. But while I was aboveground making an offering at a Shinto shrine, mourning, some other human had told the drones they could have the body, and took the money.

No one would tell me who had sold out Kagemori’s bones.

The others had tolerated me for Kagemori’s sake and not my own, apparently. I had no real friends.

That’s when I decided I had to compete for myself. Six months later, I had one bowl of ramen with the last of my money, and had set off for Michio-AI-san’s tower.

Once out of the elevator I was taken away by a new little greeter, sleek and trim like an emerald beetle. Beetle-drone guided me inside a vast room where I saw hundreds of other humans sitting at blank terminals, mumbling nervously, composing on fingers, sketching and scanning practice sonnets and other poetic forms in the air with their pens and pocket knives.

A few of them saw me, looked startled, then looked studiously away from where I walked. A couple of times, I blinked and could swear I saw Kagemori, smiling, waggling his fingers in the air as though to warm them up before taking up the digital pen.

Each time it stopped my heart with a pang.

But then, the face would disappear in the other wave of faces for the hallucination it was. Not many women in this room, though I saw a few. Some were from other countries even, perhaps officially sent by their AI-governments.

All the competitors’ faces were like mine: set with the idea they were likely to die here. Their sacrifice meant their region of scattered humanity would receive foodstuffs from Michio-AI-san after the tournament was over. The New Tokyo subways would receive food, if I lost. Local girl does good.

But I intended to win.

I’d posted a few poems online before this that had drawn AI attention. Somehow, as the machines became more verbose, their variations more extensive, my lines got shorter and shorter. The one I was known best for was a single line:

“To think all this office complex had all been a noodle factory, once.”

The machines had poured over this line for weeks, knowing I meant Michio-AI-san’s data towers but uncertain what I had left unspoken. Why had I repeated “all”?

Thousands of machine intelligences had debated that choice.

Then Michio-AI-san had created noodles, the kind you eat on special holidays. Wavy, fried in shoyu and onion. His drones dropped them off in festive packets on the street, down the subway vents, like rat poison. And hungry people had died like rats eating them until we understood about the toxic inks on the packets, that Michio-AI-san wasn’t inspired to human benevolence by my poems. Eat and die, was the answering poem, I had thought.

Eat shit and die, Michio-AI-san.

Some subway dwellers had wanted me cast out to starve into the freezing world above. That one-line poem had killed so many.

Some subway dwellers liked me better for having provoked Michio-AI-san. Something I had done had rattled the machine overlords, made them respond. Wasn’t art all about response?

Kagemori had headed up that group. That was how we met. Talking about a premise of imperfect human art that went beyond wabi-sabi.

Death was definitely part of Michio-AI-san’s art. He also dropped captured bots from other AIs from the top of his skyscrapers, their high-pitched squealing echoing against the corners of the other buildings. Sometimes he even dropped special bots he’d made to look like birds, or abstract shapes, that would then explode on street corners into fireworks, strobing lights.

He had dropped things again in response to my last public poem, five years ago, the one about icicles dropping from branches in a windstorm. His crystal icicles had killed a few subway dwellers who had just emerged from the station doors, and shattered several of his own automated shipping trucks.

The subway dwellers had revolted. Only Kagemori’s standing in the community, and the fact we were a couple by that time, had kept the people from casting me out of the tunnels. That, and I had promised to stop sharing my poems where the AIs could see.

Once I arrived at my workstation for the competition, I unwound my scarf and put my dripping coat carefully to one side. I placed my fingers above the keyboard drawn in white lines across the glass of the desk. Fingertips warm enough to smudge the glass.

Just being human here was messy. I couldn’t avoid it.

“Please everyone—please put the headsets on at once,” a pleasant female voice requested over the loudspeaker.

The headset covered my whole head.

The large room dimmed. The other contestants’ voices stilled to whispers, then to silence.

A wind noise across my ears. I held my breath. Was that the rapid chirp of a wren? I opened my eyes and looked around—my fellow humans were gone, and I was now in some sort of sun-drenched forest, perfect to the last earthy smell. I couldn’t feel my headset or the keyboard.

Some kind of simulation, maybe, but a damn good one. My knees were trembling but at least I was warmer here.

Michio-AI-san’s avatar walked down a hill toward me. Online, he favored appearing as Miyamoto Musashi, a Musashi not as history tended to think of him—old and wizened and venerable—but a young one. I looked up at a strapping, bearded fighter in his twenties, still learning the five strategic rings of combat. Only a two-ring Musashi I thought wildly, and giggled.

He was cute, if walking a little stiffly. Put him in a suit instead of armor, with those flowing dark locks he could have been a J-pop star before the AI revolution.

Maybe I was going mad with fear.

I bowed. “A pleasure to meet you, Michio-AI-sama,” I murmured, keeping my eyes on his face as I rose again.

“Perhaps not,” the Musashi avatar said grimly. He took his sword out of its sheath and then motioned with it, for us to sit. “Humans think so slowly.”

These would be the rules of poetic combat, he explained. Because I seemed a bit mannerless, a scattered female with a stained skirt, our form would be the zuihitsu. I was to think of its chatty call and response as a battle, with strikes, feints, and damage. The conversational tone of Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book was the benchmark. How deftly could I call a human scene to life?

Like the Musashi avatar, I would also use a traditional weapon. A naginata appeared on the ground near my right hand. I picked it up to look at its craftsmanship, and the Musashi avatar knocked my hand aside with his arm, suddenly, violently. I dropped the naginata in surprise.

Our eyes met, locked.

Then I understood that the battle had begun, and it wasn’t just words. Michio-AI-san hadn’t forgotten the noodle factory, the icicles, nor his other poems of the physical world. How the other AIs had liked my words better than his physical antics where humans died.

What was shorter than one line? A period. One blow.

His first poem must have been how he knocked the naginata away. My fingers scrabbled in the dirt to grip the weapon again. What was the proper answer to that? I thought for a second, then stood up as he glared at me, the naginata’s long pole helping me rise above the dusty soil.

Subservient prop. I would mock myself for using it, and him for thinking it important.

I said with as much calm as I could muster, “There is nothing remarkable about playing not to lose—it is as common as glass shards on the road and far more dangerous to your feet. “

Musashi looked up me, with his crossed legs and hairy-knuckled grip on the sword across his knees. Knocking a weapon aside when the opponent was not ready was a coward’s move, not a samurai one. He glared at the insinuation from under elegant simulated eyebrows.

“Yearning for the perfection of winter,” he said grimly. “A crest of white on Fuji-sama. Tears on a pale silken sleeve.”

Damn those Heian women court poets, constantly weeping into their kimono sleeves, I thought. And white was the color of purity but also, death. What to say back?

I thought of the racks and racks of machines in quantum data centers, kept frigid for optimal operations. Their lights blinking like fireflies, yet never warming the place. The cool-fingered thoughts of a computational wonder: Bashō or another wandering poet of the 1600s, looking at the seasons in tidy rows.

Musashi startled, blinked at me. Did I have to speak the poem aloud? How much of this contest was the AI reading the electrical signals in my brain?

But according to the rules, I wasn’t supposed to be a Bashō. I thought carefully about the snarky, gossipy Pillow Book and the waka of the Heian period.

I said, looking down at the still-seated Musashi avatar:

“Everyone scrambles after the music is done, to find a chair. One man decides to become a chair maker, so as to create more places to sit. Another woman becomes a tatami. Is the ground not good enough for all? I have decided instead to become the idea of sitting, a restful idea held in my feet while standing up. “

A gust of wind crossed my face, a chill almost as bitter as the cold outside the subway. I guess Michio-AI-san knew what I meant about him being an idea of sitting, an abstraction. How he made the music that each round, robbed humans of opportunities. That I held him in my feet.

The Musashi avatar snapped his fingers, and large fluffy snowflakes began falling from gray skies above us, melting in my lashes and freezing my cheeks again with wet. He was showing me the power to send me back to starve in the subway tunnels, all couched in sweet nature poetry and the petal-light fall of snow.

Unfair, how the AI could control this virtual environment to make its point, skip words entirely. I could only use my body in this space, my posture and expressions. My naginata, my brain…what else did I have?

“I have only my words to bridge the ice of your smile,” I said then, extending the naginata so that its edge was centimeters from Musashi’s face, then while backing away made a sweeping cut in the air like a smile mirroring his bearded grimace.

The damn naginata was heavy. My armpits were wet, keeping the naginata in the ready position—threatening but not damaging Michio-AI-san. I couldn’t talk and fight at the same time. My fingers were getting stiff, and my snow-dusted body had now started shaking, teeth chattering.

He stroked his beard, breath steaming in the air. Then Musashi stood, waving his left hand in a butterfly-wing motion while holding his katana up with his right. I could swear I saw, like a hologram, a monarch butterfly, flitting in lazy figure eights around his waving fingers.

Cheating virtual bastard. One tiny gesture, moving the world on orange-and-black butterfly wings. His rise to sentience that became the eventual AI shitstorm that sent humans underground to starve.

He said nothing more. That was his poem: his identity, his rise to sentience. I played back the visual in my memory. Had he been too hasty in rendering that monarch? Or too generic, drawing it as an amalgam of thousands of butterflies? I took in a deep breath, tried to steady my teeth from chattering with cold fear.

I thought of Kagemori. The wren at my breast. “There is the one thing that matters,” I said. “Can you see it?”

Musashi roared. He threw his sword toward my face, and it was like a black curtain fell across my eyesight.

When I could see again, I was in a new place. Still on a mountainside, but instead of simulating feudal Japan, I was overlooking a panorama of the glittering ruins of New Tokyo. I could feel the sun warm the top of my head.

Where Musashi had stood, glaring at me with his sword in his hand, Kagemori now sat on a sunlit grassy mound. Not the frail and sick Kagemori, as I had last seen him in our subway niche, but a healthy Kagemori, much like when we had first met.

Someone definitely had sold his bones to Michio-AI-san, and not just any AI bidder, because this Kagemori moved exactly as I remembered. The lines of his face, precise and beloved. His dark hair. Even the hand motions and the way he sat, slouching cross-legged on the ground.

“Hey, Yukio,” he said, in that slow, easy way he had when I’d come back from foraging for the day, and he’d been deep deep inside a piece he was sketching. He held up a charcoal sketch: a wren, a sister to the one I had tucked in my shirt. The wren posed near a domelike nest in a hollowed tree trunk. The faintest suggestion of a river flowing in the background.

“All I could come up with today.”

I took it in one hand. The tapered wing lines felt true to Kagemori’s style, and the sketched branch and nest flowed like something he might have made. But I didn’t have to take my own sketch out from my shirt to check—my Kagemori ink drawing had no nest.

In Japan and elsewhere, male wrens make nests, sometimes multiple ones, to attract a mate. By drawing a wren for me on a branch, floating down the river, Kagemori had meant: he saw me, Yukio. We didn’t need a nest as long as Kagemori saw me for who I was.

Michio-AI clearly hadn’t understood what the wren drawing in my shirt meant. If this was Michio-AI-san’s answer to my question about the one thing that matters, he was wrong.

But even being right didn’t help me feel good, facing this fake version of my lover smiling at me. Kagemori more than looked right, he smelled right. This simulation also meant that something else had happened while I wasn’t paying attention.

You couldn’t create an avatar, or make art this close to Kagemori’s just from taking someone’s bones and ligaments and measuring them. You’d need spies, video footage of his processes, voice recordings over time. Maybe even measurements of neural patterns. Artistic habits. Exposure to him over years in the subway.

Someone in the subways had sold us out, more than just snatching his body when my back was turned.

Kagemori held out his hand as he used to, and I took it with my free hand. Squeezed it. Same bones and warmth. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.

I dropped his hand.

“I know what you are going to say, Yukio,” Kagemori said, and he smiled sadly. “That this nesting sketch is a fake, made by Michio-AI-san. That this is Michio-AI-san saying he can fake me, be me so exactly that you should give up fighting him. Give up trying to write about noodle factories. Give up making art.”

I raised both eyebrows.

“And I am sorry if that’s what Michio-AI-san chooses to do. It would be like him, because he’s kind of an idiot about humans and art. But what I am saying now is a recording, contractually agreed to be played after my death,” Kagemori said. “I did in fact draw you a sketch of a wren and a nest. And I sold Michio-AI-san that sketch, just like I sold him a bunch of other recordings of me working, and even a few of our talks about art. It’s why he let us live after the icicle poem.”

“When I got sick, he was all for my full indenture and to try to cure me with his nanobots. But by that point, well, I couldn’t. I saw how much death is actually part of his art. I didn’t want that death to be yours.”

Kagemori shrugged sheepishly. “If you see this recording it means he’s not pretending to be me; he’s letting me tell you that I’ve been pretending to be me, for some time now. I love my art, but something had to balance out, make things so you and the subway folks wouldn’t be poisoned again. And if you chose to compete in the tournament, Michio-AI-san has already had my death to sate him. He doesn’t need to kill you if he wins.”

He looked at his charcoal-smudged hands.

“I did tell him to let you sell my body to the highest AI bidder so they could make their own Kagemori robots, give him a little competition. He said he would honor this request. I wanted to make sure you had money to live on while you decided what to do. Money not from him. From me.

“I love you, Yukio. Remember our one thing.”

Kagemori blurred, then froze in place like a statue, still smiling down at the drawing in his hands.

“I did honor that agreement,” Musashi’s voice came from behind a tree, and the samurai avatar strode up to where Kagemori and I were seated. “But your neighbor Hirano took his body to Liu-AI-san. It doesn’t matter; I had made Kagemori’s physical measurements long ago. I could have imitated his brushstrokes at any time.”

I sat for a minute, looking at Kagemori and at Michio-AI-san in utter rage. Two sentient entities that thought they knew what was best for me, apparently.

I had been so angry at Kagemori for dying and leaving me. And now, this. This hypocrisy. Lying to me for what? When it all came down to this—would always have come down to this—me and Michio-AI-san fighting each other at the end.

And I still wasn’t done here. Our poet battle wasn’t over.

“With all respect, Michio-AI-san, this interlude is still a very fancy way of not answering my poem-question,” I said finally. “There is the one thing that matters. Can you see it?”

The Musashi avatar grabbed the wren with nest sketch out of my hands, waved it at me.

“The nest,” he said. “Safety. Home. That is what matters. He saved your life with this drawing, with his recordings. What else matters?”

I looked up at the scant, beautiful curves of the domed nest. Lines Kagemori had created sometime when he was alive.

How I wished he were alive and we were far, far away from New Tokyo. That he had listened to me, been brave enough.

“No. The wren matters,” I said, getting to my feet.

I reached inside my blouse and pulled out the tiny ink drawing of the wren on a branch, floating down the river.

“Me. I am the one thing,” I said. “He saw me as I really was, as I wished to be seen. He compromised himself, so that I could meet you now as an artist. You might be able to imitate his sketches, his painting style, but you won’t be able to imitate what you can’t see. And I’ve just proved you can’t see a certain part of him. A part of him that saw me.”

I reached out slowly, tapped the drawing in the Musashi avatar’s hands with one finger.

“The nest drawing was for you, Michio-AI-sama. Safe in your towers, underground with your geothermal reactors. You and he were a lot alike. He lied about a lot, but he didn’t ever draw me a nest because he wouldn’t create the lie about us, about me,” I said. “I am the wren.”

Musashi growled a curse word under his breath.

I wouldn’t let that be his answer.

“Japan hasn’t had poetry battles, real ones, in decades,” I said. “Not like the way the Heian court passed notes, or had moon parties to create new verses. I only kept in practice verbally because I couldn’t post my poems anywhere. I could only share them on the fly, underground, in the subway. With—with Kagemori.”

I tapped my naginata on the ground.

“How will you find another Kagemori, another me, without making conditions favorable for humans to thrive? How will you be sure you aren’t missing the one thing that changes everything?”

The Musashi avatar was still scowling.

“Death is unoriginal, Michio-AI-sama. We already have enough death. If death were a poetic answer, humans won that contest—long ago.”

At the word contest, the swordsman struck, and I raised my naginata in time to deflect.

We held like that, as sweat poured down my face. Then quick as a snake, his other hand came out and struck at my elbow, forcing me to drop the naginata.

I backed away, hands without a weapon and I looked up to his hungry eyes.

His sword was now poised at the side of my neck. A millimeter closer and it would draw blood.

I thought about my image of myself: a wren on a branch singing, floating down the river away from where she had been. I willed myself to look at a point above his head, to be looking at the sky when he struck.

His other hand closed my fingers of my left hand gently around something…round? warm…? alive?

As the blade sliced my neck without pain he murmured, “Damn humans…”

I awoke at the workstation, clearly not dead yet, gasping and gagging. A valet bot rolled up, bearing a slim glass of water in its serving tray. My head ached as I pulled off the headset.

I looked down to find that my pleated wool skirt now had no soup stains. I shivered, not wanting to think about the bots crawling all over my clothes to make things the way Michio-AI-san wanted them, while I was in simulation space fencing with Musashi. His drones could crawl up the walls. They could fly all over the world.

Who cares whether one human poet probably had her last ramen bowl in New Tokyo a few days ago and had the stains to prove it? Michio-AI-san.

Maybe I won.

The valet bot waited to speak until I’d drunk the water down and placed the glass back on its tray.

“Michio-AI-sama told me to speak with you about your scores once you awakened,” the valet bot said. “You were the only natural human in this round and the only one who defeated the simulation. The other AIs had all sent accelerated clone proxies, proxies that died rather quickly. Especially the ones from Liu-san, who had a striking physical resemblance to the late artist Kagemori.”

“Did I win?” I asked. “Is it over? Do I have the job of making art for Michio-AI-san?”

In answer, a little hatch opened along the valet bot’s side.

I reached inside and felt it—a warm egg, fresh from some protected hen with laboratory genes, ready to give up itself as a sunny yolk for breakfast. The valet bot said simply:

“Three things I offer to make a woman smile—sun on her hair, the hand of a lover, a perfect egg.”

Michio-AI-san’s first real poem. That had made humanity realize he was alive and not a machine. That was the butterfly wings that had started the AI revolution.

“Is he a sore loser?” I asked the valet bot. I set the egg down gently on the workstation keyboard, willing it not to roll. The wren sketch crinkled against my chest.

The valet said nothing.

“Even if he is mad about losing, can’t he just wait? Doesn’t he know that I’ll die someday, that he’ll always have the last word?”

“I have prepared your apartments and gymnasium,” a loudspeaker interrupted, this time in Michio-AI-san’s Musashi voice.

“You are ineffective with the naginata and you need to master a weapon if you are to be my battle poet. I expect you to run the recruitment testing next month. We need to find and train more humans, humans like you. Humans who can outwit AIs in sim space.”

A pause.

“The war of art is just beginning.”

Because I couldn’t locate the loudspeaker, I looked at the bot. “If you want me to recruit humans to your wars, you have to take care of them and feed them, Michio-AI-sama. I ate my last meal too long ago.”

A compartment on my desk opened, and up popped a steaming bowl of ramen. No packets. No ink. A single soy egg, a slice of pork, a fish cake, a rich miso broth.

The steam rose and wet my face. The asshole knew how to make real food. Maybe there was still a noodle factory underneath this office complex.

I bet I could make him open it.

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