Hel on a Headland

Yclept Hel
I am the get of gods,
              the graft of a giantess.
Born of steam, of smog, of striving piston.
              Spawn of the stride of the connecting rod.
Such are the stresses and falls of my song.

My sire is a flame that smuts the filthy chimney
              My dam is a coal mine.

Hunger is my bowl. My bowl of dust.
              Climate crisis is my knife. Bitcoin the blade of my lance.
Plague and pestilence
              powder the straws of my broom.
The sweepings across my threshold
              are small griefs, sorrows,
              ash and scourings.
Cancers and cankers consume;
fluids flood the empty spaces
              (Inside you and outside you
              Inside earth and outside her)
              that once held air.
My sire is a pustule.
              My dam is a spillover, a spore.

The cold world turns.
The hot world burns.

Out of a season of cold and swirling mists—
Out of a deep well a booming echo—
It was full, my realm, but you have made it hollow.
Your gift to me is room to grow.

These are my gifts in return:
              From the frauds of liars, to bring adversaries in the open.
              From the burn of poison, to show you your enemies.
              From the suck and hiss of waves, to sieve the truth.

The truth will not change you. You are the revealed enemy.

The green creeps over.
The green chokes and strangles.
I bring to you my verdant jungles.
              Kudzu, porcelain-berry,
              burning-bush and bar-berry
my ticks, amoebas, and mosquitoes.
My sire is a hothouse.
              My dam is the ice rolling back, the ice breaking open, the flood that follows.

Glutted on my gore the gnat drills in turn
              the fleshy worm of Midgard.
Rabid beasts raven.
The world-tree is a scaffold. She decomposes from the root
              spalted with black fungus
              raddled with borers.
Crows call, and the ravens
              strip skin from skulls
              and from the long bones they tear tendons.
My sire is the disease of cattle.
              My dam the infection of fowl.
              With rot my kinsmen are riddled.

The earth boils and bubbles like a deep cave overflowing:
              we are jammed in.
The weight of the world and a wealth of decisions lies
              above us
                            and behind us.
By preference we descended.
There is no returning
              now the record is written.
Now the cascade has begun.

I am Hel
on the headland
surf about my sandals
the lamp in my fist
If under my shoes the stone melts,
if I sink into the climbing water,
all still,
all come to me in the end.

The ocean rolls over your home.
The ocean rolls over your bones.
Crab claws clutch flesh-fragments
              Scuttle in shallows, freshet-seek.

I can wait.
I need not wait long.

A rising tide

One Man’s Treasure

Aden had never once forgotten his gear for bulk trash day, but he found it touching that Nura still taped a monthly reminder note on the door from the kitchen to the garage. Sweet of her to remember, given how exhausted med school had her these days. He ducked out to the garage to toss gloves, a mask, and protective goggles into his pickup. The city didn’t provide the mask or goggles; those were from his own personal stash.

While the water for his coffee warmed, he fished in the junk drawer, hoping to find some tiny unexpired dollar-store charm he could leave to make Nura smile. A flying kiss, maybe, though that would leave her scrubbing lipstick off her cheek, or spark powder, or something similarly innocuous and cute. He didn’t find anything, so he wrote “I love you” on the blank side of her note to him and left it on her open copy of Rapid Interpretation of Magicardiograms.

Four a.m. was a special hour, Aden thought as he navigated the sleeping streets of Three Rivers. The moon hung low in the sky, three days past full, and nobody was outside doing any incantations, which left him, his travel mug of bracing black coffee, and a moment of solitude before his noisy workday routine began.

On normal days he parked in the yard, but on bulk day, everyone who’d been around long enough to know better parked down on the street; once you got back into the yard you weren’t supposed to take anything, and you couldn’t divert the truck, but if you found something worth keeping and it happened to fall into your private vehicle on the way home at shift’s end, well, that was just a perk of the job. He’d built in a few minutes to hoof it up the hill from outside the gate and still clock in on time.

No matter when Aden arrived, Nash always arrived earlier. He was already leaning against the garbage truck waiting, keys in hand, looking as usual like he’d just stepped off a photoshoot for a grizzled mountain man calendar, all plaid and beard, even though to Aden’s knowledge he’d never left the city of Three Rivers. He and Aden both wordlessly hauled themselves into the cab, then pulled toques over closed eyes to wait for the new guy. They had been working together long enough that neither felt compelled to say anything over the din of the other trucks clattering off toward the sleeping city.

The new guy on their crew, Renny, ascribed to a broad definition of punctuality; eleven minutes after everyone else had rolled out, he strolled in as if nobody was waiting for him. Aden opened his eyes when he heard Renny greet Ms. Jukes, their supervisor. She’d left her office to greet him, or maybe to see why their truck was still there, but she didn’t reprimand him. How did some people get away with flouting rules when everyone else had to abide by them? The unfairness irked him, even though he liked the kid.

Renny put one foot on the running board, then noticed the goggles Aden had pushed up on his forehead. “Wait, is today bulk? Crap. Lemme go home and grab the rest of my gear.”

Behind him, Ms. Jukes said, “You don’t have time. You’re the last ones out already.”

Renny looked around like he had just noticed theirs was the only truck. “Okay, how about we drive past my place on the way out?” He smiled at her, not flirting, but clearly working his considerable charm, a storybook prince in overalls.

She returned the smile. “You know the truck’s GPS reports if you go off route. Or if you’re late, which you already are. Get moving.”

Aden couldn’t help standing up for the kid, even if the tardiness and the charm-assault annoyed him. “If the city issued us safety equipment, he wouldn’t have to run home for his own personal gear.”

“Or protection spells?” Renny added helpfully.

Ms. Jukes frowned. “They’re not my rules, but you know the regs only say to wear your gloves and follow Worksafe guidelines. And the city definitely doesn’t have budget for any spell that would provide real protection. That’s big ticket magic. Y’all need to go.”

Renny nodded and pulled on his gloves. They still looked newish; he’d only been on the job six weeks, their third new trainee since Blue’s accident. Blue’s death couldn’t have been avoided with ten layers of gloves and goggles.

Aden and Renny rode to Old Hog alongside Nash in the truck’s cab. Old Hog was the poorer of the two neighborhoods that formed their current route, and the easier. Only the usual problems, like off-brand trash bags that split when you lifted them. The city kept talking about getting trucks with lift arms to dump bins directly, but then they’d have to give everyone fancy new cans too, which wasn’t in the budget. Anyway, that didn’t matter on bulk day.

When they reached the first block of their route, Aden and Renny dropped to the ground and set into their rhythm, Aden on the driver’s side, Renny on the opposite. If the monthly bulk day occurred nearer eviction day they might have seen more in Old Hog, but people tended to use things forever around here, or else give to a family member or neighbor, or sell or trade stuff away if they thought it might still be useful to someone else; what little had been put out was well and truly spent, easy to toss into the truck. Aden never minded working there.

“You know,” said Renny. “People think this neighborhood was named after a pig farm, but it wasn’t. Mazareen Hogg owned a manufacturing plant here before he became governor, and the second ‘G’ got lost along the way.”

Aden raised an insulting finger. Renny said that every single time they hit this area, twice a week and three times in bulk week, had done so since the second time they’d been here together. Fourteen times now, which was enough to be either thoroughly annoying or a decent beginning to a running gag; Aden hadn’t decided which yet. All because on Renny’s first day, Aden had said it to him, in those exact words. That and more, since Aden liked history, the way neighborhoods waxed and waned and changed character over the years. Aden might have gone on a little too long, but Renny just smiled and listened, and as they left the truck at day’s end, said, “Oh, hey, let me introduce myself again. Mazareen Hogg the Seventh. ‘Renny’ is short for Mazareen, which I’ll never forgive my parents for, even if it’s a family name.”

Renny had clapped Aden’s shoulder and walked away whistling, and after that, twice a week, he gave Aden’s history lesson back to him as they started their day. Aden was genuinely curious how the Hoggs had gone from the governor’s mansion to generic wealth to manual labor, and how it felt to collect garbage on land that used to belong to your family, but they weren’t close enough yet to ask such personal questions.

When they stopped the truck for lunch here they rotated between Nash’s choices and Aden’s. They’d let Renny choose eventually, if he stayed on the job. They ate rice and pickled vegetables sitting on the curb beside the truck; even though bulk day trash was less pungent than the ordinary variety, nobody liked it if they got near. It wasn’t a hot day, but the sun was relentless. Aden wiped sweat off his brow with the inside of his shirt. Ripe and getting riper.

“This isn’t so bad,” Renny said. Aden assumed he meant the food, which was good, or their odor, but then Nash answered, “We haven’t hit the Crown yet.” Aden realized the kid meant their day, and dropped a hand to his side to make an anti-jinx gesture; it was fine to talk about the odor, but “this isn’t so bad” was a beginner’s observation. Miles to go.

They reached the Crown’s guardhouse at noon, and paused in the gateway for the security check. Sometimes Aden wished their schedule allowed them to do that neighborhood first, when they were fresh and on their toes, but the route wasn’t theirs to choose, and anyway, maybe it was better for the Crown’s bulk to bounce around on top where it got air, rather than get pushed to the bottom where they wouldn’t see if things started to react.

Aden hated the Crown: its wastefulness, its carelessness, not to mention no thought for any danger to the trash collectors. Blue had died in another ritzy neighborhood, Silverhill, not this one—Aden and Nash had been given this new route so they wouldn’t have to pass the site multiple times a week—but Blue’s fall nonetheless replayed in his mind as they made their way down these manicured streets too, and he blinked away tears.

The first discard they came to was on Renny’s side. It looked easy enough, a storm door laying flat on the sidewalk, and Aden almost didn’t bother watching the kid, but a second later he was glad he had.

“Stop!” he shouted as Renny reached for the handle like it was his first day. Renny hesitated, clearly realizing what he’d almost done. He took it by two sides instead, and heaved it over. Aden caught a glimpse of snow through glass as it sailed into the truck.

 Renny grinned. “No harm done.”

“No harm done?” Aden didn’t lower his voice. “You know how the guy before you died.”

“I got distracted for a sec. Anyway, there was just a snowy hill in there. Somebody’s ski portal or something. No big deal.”

All that misplaced confidence. “So you think! How do you know you can get back if you get sucked in, or that you won’t freeze to death? Blue accidentally put a foot into the frame of a broken portal and fell off a cliff right in front of me. He fell and fell—” don’t think about the landing “—and all it took was one wrong step.”

“Maybe we need tethers, not gloves.” Aden thought for a second that the kid was mocking him, but then Renny followed up with “I’m sorry about your friend. I’ll be more careful.”

“I’ll tell you what,” said Aden, breathing deep to calm down. “Why don’t we do both sides together today?”

Renny frowned. “You don’t have to coddle me. I can do my side.”

“Sure, of course, but it’ll be faster for us to toss the big stuff together than to each drag it separately.” It wasn’t quite true, but they’d make up the time if they moved quickly, and it would definitely be safer, as long as Renny didn’t reach for any more doorknobs. Only his second monthly bulk day, Aden reminded himself; the kid didn’t know any better.

They made their slow circuit. In front of one mansion a designer cauldron, ingredients congealed at the bottom, still smoking; some people were so lazy they’d rather throw out a perfectly good cauldron than deal with cleaning it properly, or even paying someone to clean it for them. More: an armoire with a single chain holding it shut; a box of record albums emitting a faint hum; four tires tied to a lamppost, hovering a foot above the ground; a sofa that had dragged itself into a bush on three good legs to lick a fourth that had been scratched by a cat but looked otherwise fine. Another cauldron.

Aden took time to secure the cauldrons upright. More work to do it right rather than fast, but he had been in the truck once when the dregs of two discarded cauldron spells had sloshed into each other and ignited. Nash had driven to an empty school parking lot, and he and Aden and Blue had watched from a distance as the whole truck caught fire and consumed itself. They all had to get checked by the staff doctor, and they weren’t allowed back on the job until they stopped pissing in turquoise; Blue had gotten his nickname from that incident. Definitely better to be careful.

Around the next corner, they came to a life-sized statue of a man holding pruning shears, laying on its side atop a battered box spring.

“I’ll get the statue if you get the box spring,” Renny said.

“Nah, you take that end and we can get both at once.”

When Aden grabbed the box spring, the statue whispered “help me” through stone teeth. Aden almost dropped it in surprise.

“I think the statue talked,” he said to Renny, at the feet.

“That’s not possible, is it?”

Aden turned back to the statue, aghast. “Can you say something else, buddy?”

It didn’t answer. Still, he knew what he had heard. “I don’t think this is a statue.”

“What else could it be?”

“It looks to me like somebody hexed their gardener and left him for trash.” He tried to remember if there was a protocol for this. Blue would have known. “That’s attempted murder, right?”

“I’d think so. That’s awful.” Renny looked agitated too. “You want me to call it in?”

Aden nodded.

Renny lowered the statue’s feet and stepped away to make the call. Aden watched him dial, wait, explain, disconnect. He returned shaking his head. “I can’t believe it. They said ‘trash is trash’ and we should do our job. They wouldn’t be saying that if we’d found a body in a rug, but just because it’s stone they don’t think we should bother?”

He contemplated for a second before continuing. “In any normal neighborhood it would be considered murder, but around here nobody gets charged with anything that gauche, and if they were, they’d buy their way out of it.”

“I swear, in all the time I’ve been doing this, I’ve never been asked to junk a person before.” As far as Aden knew, anyway. What if one of those couches or armoires had been a housekeeper or a pool boy and he just hadn’t realized?

Aden fought the urge to walk off the job. He’d almost done it after Blue, too, but good-paying occupations weren’t easy to come by, and Nura still had years of school ahead. And it wasn’t like she was training to be a plastic surgeon; she planned to open a medical clinic in Barreltown.

Besides, this wasn’t supposed to be ethically gray. People needed him, and he liked the work. Except on bulk day, which had always felt dangerous, but he’d thought the danger was to his crew. He’d never stopped to think about what else rich people did with their expensive magic; growing up poor himself, until he’d started this job he had only ever seen big spells on television. They still seemed impossible: permanent state changes instead of temporary ones; stable portals big enough for family vacations in other realms. He’d be happy with a pair of impermeable gloves, and even that cost more than his year’s salary.

Nash honked the truck’s horn, reminding Aden they had a schedule to keep.

“Help me get him into the cab,” Aden said.

Renny looked surprised. “What’s the plan?”

“I’ll take him home and see if Nura can unhex him. Otherwise, we’ll try to find somebody who recognizes him.” Aden turned to address the statue. “We’re going to help you.”

The statue didn’t respond. Maybe whoever was inside had used up all their energy with that one cry for help. Luckily, it had been enough to get their attention, and if he spoke again, Nash would hopefully hear him over the engine. They maneuvered the statue into the narrow space behind the bench, careful not to break any fingers. Nash caught Aden’s eye and shook his head, sharing Aden’s disgust.

They tossed the box spring in the back, then continued on their route, picking up a large rolled carpet, which Renny checked for a body, another cauldron with congealed green goo lining the bottom, a run of desks and desk chairs, another cauldron, half-full and sloshing something orange and furry. Clearly whoever had tossed it hadn’t grown up in a nothing-wasted family like Aden’s, he thought as he cleared a secure spot for it. The truck was fuller now, making it hard to find room for odd-shaped objects.

 They fell back into something of a rhythm. Aden thought Renny had finally caught on to how to work with both care and efficiency, up until he heard “Ow!” from the front right bumper’s vicinity, followed by a thud.

Aden sprinted around the truck. He and Nash both reached Renny at the same time.

“Why didn’t he wait for you?” Nash asked.

Renny had made it to the next house, and apparently he’d decided to deal with the spinning wheel on his own. All that confidence. Aden lowered his head to Renny’s heart, making sure his chest was still committed to a steady rise and fall, ignoring his own heart’s pounding. Don’t think about Blue. “He’s breathing. I think he’s asleep.”

Nash peeled off Renny’s gloves, then held up his right hand. The sharp had gone through the fabric. “Do you want to kiss him, or should I?”

Aden shook his head, trying to force his panic to subside. “Neither. He didn’t consent, and I’m not getting written up for harassment. Besides, he’s growing on me, but I can’t say I love him.”

“Good points. Crap. I guess we phone in and ask if they want us to turn around or finish?”

That made sense. Nash made the call, while Aden worked the offending piece off the wheel—it was supposed to be a spindle according to his high school history class, but all the media versions showed a needle on a spinning wheel, and nobody went back to original texts these days, not even for big spells. He wrapped it in Renny’s hoodie from the front seat, in case someone needed it to reverse-engineer the spell. He had to work carefully; it seemed to want to prick him even through his doubled gloves.

Nash returned. “They say it sounds like a standard sleeping spell, and we’re supposed to finish the route and then get him back to the garage so the doc can check him out.” He jerked a thumb at the spinning wheel. “You take the sharp off already?”

“Yeah. It’s in his hoodie there. Do they want the wheel?”

“They said junk it. They may not need the needle either, but we’re supposed to hold onto it just in case.”

Aden tossed the defanged into the back. They carried the kid to the cab, then Aden nestled the sweatshirt carefully at his feet, where it shouldn’t be able to do harm through anyone’s boots, even as it hugged up to him like a cat looking for attention.

Aden patted his own pockets as Nash started the truck. “Got a pen?”

Nash reached into his door and handed one over, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m writing down the address in case we have to write a report. They should be cited, at the very least.”

“Like anyone ever gets cited. Nobody cares if we get hurt. Honestly, a sleeping spell was the best possible outcome for that kid today.”

Aden agreed, but jotted down the address anyway, then the address where they’d picked up the gardener, which he’d been repeating in his head. They finished the day slowly with Nash jumping out to help with larger items: a potted plant the size of a compact car, a chair burping rainbow-colored bubbles that smelled like marshmallows, more cauldrons, more wardrobes, a hideous portrait, a bedframe that eagerly raised and lowered itself to the perfect height, a stone fountain, a spotless bathtub that seemed to repel dirt, two more door-shaped portals. A hazard, that was what it was. A hazard and a waste.

They stopped one more time to wrestle the statue and the bubble chair into Aden’s pickup truck; his niece might enjoy that on her birthday. That was why everyone parked outside on bulk day; the occasional finds amidst the junk.

The doctor was waiting when they got to the garage, muttering about how it would be easier if everyone actually filled out their designated kisser form, and how she wished double gloves were mandatory on bulk day. Assuming she could wake him, Aden was pretty sure Renny would remember from now on.

Ms. Jukes looked over her glasses at him when he knocked on her open office door. “Can I help you, Aden?”

“Yeah…we picked up this statue today that I’m pretty sure isn’t a statue. It whispered to me.”

She frowned. “Did it try to convince you to do anything? I don’t have a budget for earplugs, but maybe we can recommend in the next HR newsletter that y’all get some for yourselves.”

“It said ‘help me.’ I’m pretty sure there’s a person trapped inside, only dispatch said trash was trash.”

“Dispatch knows the regulations.”

“That’s meant to cover what we can and can’t pick up, like how much residue can be at the bottom of a cauldron, or how many items somebody can put out, and what size. They don’t say anything about putting out living things because living things aren’t trash, so it isn’t even covered. If somebody abandoned a dog we’d call animal control.”

“But you said it was a statue, so…stone? Marble? Not a living thing.”

He balled his fists, wishing smooth Renny were here instead of him. “This is probably a person trapped in stone, not stone to begin with.”

“Unless it’s just talking stone. I’m sure there’s some reason a rich person would want a talking statue. Maybe it plays rock music.”

She looked pleased with her joke; Aden didn’t laugh. “In that case, wouldn’t they want a better-looking statue? It looks like my uncle Rufus. Big ears, balding. And who ever heard of a statue with garden shears in hand?”

“Aden, neither of us is an art critic, and you’re not paid to judge peoples’ trash. Is that all?”

He clearly couldn’t change her mind. He considered stopping at the police station, but if Ms. Jukes and dispatch were so certain, why would the police listen to him? He’d probably get in trouble for taking the statue with him. Better to see if Nura could unhex the guy first.

The kitchen smelled like takeout pizza, their bulk-day tradition. Nura didn’t look up from her textbook as he kicked off his boots and hung his toque and keys on the peg by the door. “Hey, honey. It go okay?”

“Fine for me.” Aden said. “The new guy got stupid, but he’ll be alright. Probably.”

“Probably?” This time Nura put her pencil in the book to mark her place and closed it, professional curiosity engaged. “What’d he hit?”

“A sleeping spell.”

She looked disappointed. That was first-year stuff. “Anything interesting?”

“A cute chair. I put it in the kennel in the back to air out.”

“You’re such a soft touch—”

“I know.”

“—but have you seen yourself lately?”


Nura looked amused. “You’re looking particularly foxy.”

“Thank you?” Aden lifted a hand to slick his hair back and encountered a shape that shouldn’t have been there. “Uh oh.”

He ducked into the hallway bathroom and flipped on the light. His own face stared back from the mirror, but with two pointy, orange-furred ears where human ears should be. His toque must have hidden them earlier, or Nash would’ve said something.

“You didn’t feel those growing?” Nura appeared in the mirror over his shoulder.

“I must have been preoccupied. It was a long afternoon.” Aden tried to think of where he would’ve picked them up. One of the cauldrons? The hairy rug? He’d been so careful, but it didn’t take much.

“Can you hear better?”

Aden concentrated for a second, not really sure what to listen for. “I don’t think so?”

“Just appearance, then. That’s good.” She grinned. “Now strip for me, fox man.”

Aden undressed and let Nura inspect him for further new developments. Other than a coin-sized patch of red fur on his left thigh, the ears were the only problem. “If they aren’t gone in a couple of days I’ll go to the clinic at work.”

Nura grabbed a marker and drew a purple circle around the fur. “And if it goes past that line at any point, you’re getting checked out immediately, even if you look cute. Anything else? You’re usually a save-the-most-interesting-thing-for-last guy, and there’s no way a chair wins most interesting.”

She knew him well. “Hexed gardener.”

“Wait, why bring a person home to me instead of the site doctor?”

“He’s a statue. Dispatch said ‘trash is trash’ when Renny called in, and statues aren’t people and therefore don’t have any rights. Even if they were recently people.” He didn’t disguise the bitterness in his voice.

“And you’re sure it’s a real person?”

“Not a hundred percent, but I’m pretty sure he said ‘help me.’”

“That’s awful! They should be hexed with the same spell—whoever did it, and also whoever at dispatch told you to trash a living person.”

Aden nodded. He loved that Nura’s fury matched the fury he’d felt all day, and that he didn’t have any doubt what she’d do next.

She put her hands on her hips. “Okay. Let me at him. You go clean up.”

As he walked away, he heard her muttering to herself, “STONE. Sage Tonic or Nevalese Evacuation. Wait one SEC. Do a Secondary Enchantment Check.” She had an acronym for everything magico-medical.

In the shower, Aden lingered on his new ears, enjoying the strange sensation. It was funny as long as it was temporary. Not as funny if he started thinking about how easily the spell could have been something more injurious, or even deadly, and he hadn’t even noticed it. Nura had done a rotation on the hex ward the year before, and he’d let her spend hours practicing on him; he’d hated it every time, the loss of control, even though he’d been happy to help. It made him feel for this guy even more. Hopefully she’d be able to unhex him, but that didn’t change the fact that it shouldn’t have happened.

Ordinarily, the thing he couldn’t stand was the waste. Perfectly good magical items tossed out, while there were people who could genuinely use them. And if the Crown’s residents discarded actual people, that was a whole extra layer of inhumanity beyond waste and not thinking about workers’ safety.

He wished he could think of something to do about any of it. He didn’t trust the police not to repeat dispatch’s line; they might even charge him with theft since the keeping-things-you-hauled practice was not exactly officially condoned. And sure, there was the Board of Magic, but they only got involved on federal policy-level actions. The last time they’d ruled on anything trash-related was before Aden was born, to say that no jurisdiction could dump trash through an open portal, and they’d only done that to head off a war with the Republic of Burria, which had gotten sick of finding themselves the dumpees. Sometimes he felt like he knew too much history.

The gardener sat at the kitchen table drinking tea with Nura when Aden went downstairs again. He looked even more like Uncle Rufus now that he wasn’t stone. She’d let him have the good chair, the one with the leather cushion; another Crown rescue.

“Aden, this is Lennart,” Nura said. “His husband is coming to get him. I told him about your ears.”

Aden’s wave turned into a self-conscious ear-stroke, and he took a seat beside Nura in the sketchiest chair. It was his favorite in terms of looks, tall-backed and sturdy, but it had a strange sharp edge he hadn’t been able to sand away.

“Nice to meet you,” Aden said, reaching for the third tea.

The man nodded. His fingers laced carefully around his mug like they weren’t entirely under his control yet. “Thank you for helping me.”

“Of course. I couldn’t have junked you.”

“You could have,” Nura pointed out. “That’s apparently the protocol. You’re not actually supposed to be putting aside the stuff you do. You’re going to say ‘everybody does it’ but that’s if they find a mountain bike or cash. Not everybody would haul around a statue all day in case it was a person.”

“He was definitely a person. And everybody grabs stuff that doesn’t belong in the trash. Not that you’re ‘stuff.’”

Lennart interrupted them. “But you took the time to notice me, unlike the people I work —worked—for. I appreciate it.”

“It was the right thing to do.” Aden rubbed his fuzzy ear again. “Do you know how it happened?”

“No. I must have been hit from behind. I remember pruning topiary, and then I started slowing down, and everything else sped up too fast to see. The first time someone moved me, it was over before I could think of what to do. After that I had a while to think about how to get attention, so I decided to start repeating ‘help me’ until somebody heard.”

“How long were you stuck?”

“About two months, it looks like. I lost track.”

“Your husband must have been worried sick! Are you going to go after whoever did this?” Nura exuded fury.

“I don’t think there’s any point in trying. I have no proof beyond your word and mine.” Lennart nodded at Aden, who realized he should have taken a picture. Nash and Renny could vouch, at least. “I’m not sure who did it, or why, and their lawyers would find a way to get the case dismissed anyway. Georg says my boss called and told him I was fired for not showing up to work—like I had a choice! They didn’t even show any concern when he said I hadn’t come home from their place. I’m just happy they threw me out instead of installing me as garden decoration. I could’ve been trapped forever.”

Nura took a sip of tea so slow and delicate that Aden knew she was holding herself back from hurling the mug across the room. This wasn’t her idea of justice. When the gardener’s husband arrived, she would hug him goodbye and exchange numbers with him and tell him to call if he showed any lingering effects, as if he were an official patient. After he’d left she would explode, and Aden would try to calm her, and try to tamp down his own frustration. He agreed with her, but he didn’t know what to do about it.

“There has to be a better system,” he said to Nash the next day, hopping into the cab. He had wrapped a bandanna around his head under his toque, so nobody got any nickname ideas from the ears. Back to normal trash, the kind that might cut you or leak on your shoes, but rarely attacked.

“Heard anything about the kid?”

“No. You?”

A voice below them said, “I heard they had to use some kiss-emulator spell and he woke up speaking in moose.”

 Renny swung up to the cab, grinning. “If you understood that, you probably speak moose too.”

“Glad you’re alright,” Nash said. “But for real, what broke the spell?”

“For real? When they realized true love’s kiss wouldn’t cut it, they moved on to other things on our personal surveys. ‘True lunch’ is what worked. A bite of a BLT, my favorite sandwich. They didn’t see any lingering effects, so they cleared me back to work.”

Aden couldn’t tell if the kid was joking or not, though true lunch was as likely as anything. True love was no panacea, and a good meal was just one of many things worth coming back for; Nura had made him fill out all eighty fields on his own personal survey form.

The light rain that had been falling when Aden drove to work got heavier as the morning went on, and by the time they stopped the truck for lunch, all three were soaked. They ate sandwiches in the cab, heater on full blast to act as a dryer, as if they wouldn’t get wet again the second they finished their break.

“What I don’t get,” said Renny between mouthfuls, “is why protective spells aren’t supplied automatically. You’d think it’d be costlier to keep doctors around to try to fix us than to keep us from getting hurt in the first place.”

Nash nodded. “You’d think.”

“The good ones are way too expensive,” Aden said. “Not in the budget.”

“Okay, then. Just better gear, then. There’s got to be money for it somewhere.”

Aden reached for his coffee. “Sure, I agree about the goggles, even if I’m skeptical that ‘there’s got to be money for it’—but also, am I the only who finds it upsetting that we’re junking all these perfectly good things? Sure, some stuff is dangerous, but most is just dirty or last year’s style, and people trash it like it’s got no use anymore. Not to mention Lennart the statue. Like I told you, he didn’t even know why or how he got hexed. He thought it might have been the boss’s kid and his friends messing around. So it’s wasteful, it’s dangerous, it’s irresponsible, and I don’t even know what else. It’s wrong.”

Nash snorted, the sound of someone who had been on the job a long time. “If there was a good solution, don’t you think someone would’ve found it by now?”

“Maybe you were thinking about the two issues individually—safety and inequity.” Renny waved his sandwich, scattering crumbs. “Maybe you need to fix both at once.”

“What are you thinking?” Aden asked.

“If there were some kind of distribution system for stuff, maybe less of it would end up on the street for us to pick up.” Renny looked pleased at having been asked for his opinion for once. “We could slow down and be more deliberate.”

Nash shook his head. “They’d just cut the number of crews and make us all hit more homes. And how do you convince people to do it?”

“That’s easy. For the distribution side, make the Crown feel like they were doing something altruistic. Get someone who does one of those buy-nothing groups in Old Hog to start one that sucks up to rich people. Rich people like to be sucked up to.”

Aden had been thinking while the others went back and forth, and now he spoke up. “It still doesn’t solve the problem of people putting stuff out carelessly. Nobody got in trouble over Blue, or over the spindle that stuck you, Renny, and nobody’s going to get in trouble over the gardener. They don’t care if the stuff they leave out hurts us. We’re invisible.”

“It’s true,” said Renny. “When my family was rich, I promise you we never thought about the people picking up trash. Are you going to finish that sandwi—what?”

Aden wordlessly handed over the second half. He had a terrible idea of how to get them some attention.

Well, he thought at first it was terrible, but in the end it didn’t take much to convince the other crews. Everyone who’d been on the job had known Blue, and everyone had a bulk day story: if not ears, a tail; if not a door portal, a wardrobe; if not a hex, a curse, or a cursed object. If not an accident of their own, an accident of a crew member, or a former crew member. Not to mention Lennart the stone gardener, who turned out to be the second cousin of Kile from number six crew.

Nura helped them draw up a list of demands, and scheduled it to send to the news outlets at the appointed time on the next bulk day. The morning of, she woke early with him and pinned a laminated copy to Aden’s jacket like he was a preschooler. “I’m proud of you.”

“Don’t say that until we know whether we get what we’re asking for.” He kissed her goodbye and headed to work. Took his extra protective gear out of habit, though he didn’t plan on needing it. When he got to the garage, everyone else was already there milling nervously, with similar notes pinned to their jackets.

“Ready?” Aden asked. “We’re going to do this fast, since we don’t know how quickly they’ll try to stop us.” He’d had Nura look it over to make sure it had enough magic in it for all of them, if nobody interrupted before they were done.

Everyone nodded, but nobody moved until Nash held out his hand. “Ready.”

Aden propped his phone on his truck’s running board to start a live feed, then reached into the cab and pulled out the swaddled spindle. Unwrapping it from Renny’s hoodie, he realized that Renny hadn’t shown up for this action. He hadn’t expected the kid to flake; this was partially his idea.

Aden eyed the spindle-pointy-thing. He didn’t like getting stuck by things on the best of days, but this was necessary, and at least Nura had said that its spell included self-sanitization. Anyway, it wouldn’t be difficult; even now it leaned toward his skin, though he planned to go last. They all lowered themselves to the garage floor with various grunts and grumbles, so they wouldn’t fall far when they nodded off.

Nash went first, juggling the sharp from one hand to the other as it tried to get close.

“Faster,” said Aden. “We need to get everyone down before Ms. Jukes notices.”

Nash sighed and pricked his finger. “Meatball sandwich, please,” he said, before hitting the deck.

Sten took it from the unconscious Nash, and did the same. It continued around the circle until it got to Aden. With one last glance at the office, out of which Ms. Jukes should be emerging any second to ask why nobody had left, he took the spindle from Kile’s unconscious grasp. His turn.

When he woke, Nura stood over him, holding a box of something smoky and delicious-smelling. He looked around to discover he was still on the garage floor with everyone else standing around watching.

“What happened? Am I last?”

“Pretty much. You and DeVoe, whose favorite lunch is something they had on vacation once; the doctors are still tracking it down. It’s taken a whole day to find the right meals for everyone. Some hadn’t filled out their forms, so there was a lot of trial and error involved. Renny woke first, since the doctors already knew his sandwich, and you’re last because your favorite lunch involves my secret sauce. I’m flattered. I refused to make it until they started meeting your demands, of course, but the complaints helped too. Rich neighborhoods upset that their bulk hadn’t been picked up yet.”

“Did they agree to everything? And did you say Renny first? He wasn’t even here.”

The familiar cheery voice came from behind Nura. “I came late, but I managed to poke myself before they figured out which of you had the spindle. I never pass up a free BLT.”

“Let me finish before you give him trouble for being late,” Nura said. “The city agreed to put money for safety equipment into next year’s budget. They—”

“Wins all around. We did it! I’m going to find Ms. Jukes and ask if she’ll buy us all drinks to wash down lunch.” Renny walked away whistling.

Nura watched him saunter toward the office. “You’re right. He’s a lot. Is it weird if I kind of like him?”

Aden held out his hand. “I think I earned that sandwich.”

Nura passed him the rest of his true lunch. It tasted even better than usual; success slathered in secret sauce.

Except she’d been interrupted. “What about the other things we asked for? A program to redistribute used magical goods? An inquiry into what happened to Lennart?”

“That program would have to be a city council thing, out of your bosses’ purview. Lennart apparently hasn’t filed a complaint, and they say there’s no official record of it happening.”

Aden lowered his sandwich. “We called it in!”

“That’s the weird part,” Nura said. “They have no record of the call. Do you know who the dispatcher was?”

“No. Renny called. I heard it.” Aden frowned, considering. “I heard his side, anyway. But why would he fake a call?”

He finished the sandwich, though he’d lost his appetite. It didn’t make sense.

He thought about it all night. Considered asking Renny, or checking if Nash had overheard the call, though as he remembered it, Renny had stepped away from the truck. Maybe it had been logged wrong by dispatch.

It bothered him enough that on his next day off, Aden went to the library. The internet would probably have been an easier first step, but he had always been a fan of old-school research. Less distraction. The books about the Hogg family mostly focused on the original Mazareen. The stuff he’d always known, that got repeated more or less the same way in the history books as he’d learned in school.

“The Hogg family?” The librarian didn’t make it sound like he was asking anything he shouldn’t. “I’m sure there’s something in the newspapers.”

Aden expected to be turned loose in the ancient microfiche, but the librarian swiveled to a computer and pulled up a digital archive. “Something” turned out to mostly be society pages in the older papers, then business journals: bad investments, closed businesses, sold property. What surprised him was that the most recent articles weren’t about Renny’s grandfather. Renny had implied that the family’s crash had been generations ago, but the last articles talked about his father ten years before. He’d been the one to finally lose the family’s last money, and their mansion in the Crown.

Aden stared at the address. It was on the same street where they’d found Lennart, between that house and the one where Renny had gotten himself hexed. Renny had never mentioned it in the weeks he’d gone down that very street with them. He’d made his family’s wealth sound like ancient history. Did it feel strange picking up someone else’s trash at the mansion he’d grown up in? He’d probably never thought about trash while he lived there.

Aden broiled fish for dinner that night, and made a decent salad, and when Nura got home she chewed and listened as he explained what he’d found. He half-expected her to dismiss his research as a waste of time, but a look crossed her face that told him she’d made a connection beyond his own, and reminded him that however smart he thought he was, she was smarter.

She didn’t explain herself, just put down her fork and raised her phone and searched for a number. “Hi, Lennart. This is Nura, who—yes. Are you doing okay? No loose teeth, no stomach issues? Good. Listen, I have a funny question, but you remember when you told me you thought you might have been hexed by your boss’s son? Do you happen to know the names of the friends he hung out with?” She looked disappointed. “Or, how about, the son’s name? Thanks! My best to you both.”

She disconnected the call and started typing. Aden waited, and two minutes later, she looked at him triumphantly. “I don’t know about you, but when he said he thought the son’s friends had done it, I assumed that meant little kids messing around, too young to know better. The son is twenty-five! Archer Barfield, of the shipping Barfields. Then I ran a search for Archer Barfield, Crown Academy, and he was on the junior varsity diving team with, wait for it, Mazareen Hogg VII! And the junior debate team. He made varsity diving too, but Renny wasn’t on that one, probably because by then his family lost their money and he ended up wherever he ended up.”

Aden sat back in his chair, and one of its legs gave way. He’d salvaged this one in Old Hog; it had lasted a while, anyway. He scrambled up from the floor and spent a moment contemplating the spot where the wood had snapped, considering the connections Nura had made. “So, what do we do with that?”

“Probably nothing. What’s there to do? It’s a weird connection. Nobody’s going to face any consequences for nearly ruining two lives.” Nura looked angry again, and it took Aden a minute to understand. What happened to Blue had hit them all hard, but he’d never really thought about it from Nura’s position, the partner waiting for a loved one whose job didn’t keep them safe. Lennart’s husband had been in the same boat too; gardeners usually made it home at night. Life held risks—her own magicomedical career path was full of them—but these particular things shouldn’t have been risky.

“I’ve got another terrible idea, love,” he said at last.

Aden had never hexed anyone in his life.

They had just eaten lunch, and Aden had smeared Nura’s concoction onto Renny’s handhold before they headed through the Crown’s gate, so that the stone started at his hands, a slow-moving hex, unlike the one that had hit Lennart.

“Hey, something’s weird,” Renny said. “I’m stuck to the truck.”

“That’s weird,” Aden agreed.

“It’s…it’s moving down my arms. Can you help?”

They reached the next house, and Aden hopped down to grab the trash on the corner. “The thing is,” he said, hustling a little so they’d stay on schedule even with only him doing the work. “I might have a question or two for you while you’re a captive audience.”

“What are you talking about?”

Aden hit record on his phone. “Did you and your friend hex Lennart the gardener?”

“This isn’t funny. I can’t feel my arms.”

“I agree. Not funny at all. Did you do it?”

Renny tried pushing himself away from the truck with his feet, but ended up hanging by his petrifying arms. He scrabbled to get his foothold back. “Alright, yes. It was an accident. We were shooting rabbits in the yard with a water pistol full of stonebrew Archie had ordered, and didn’t see the yard guy trimming the topiary.”

Stoning rabbits was an asshole move in itself, but Aden let that go. “Why didn’t you help him?”

“We didn’t want to get in trouble. It’s illegal to turn people into stone, you know. Like you’re doing to me right now.”

“Turning people into stone might be illegal, but statues are just trash, I’ve been told, so in a few minutes it won’t matter,” Aden said. “Anyway, you must have gotten something on yourself. It’s not my fault you’re sloppy at your job.”

“If you didn’t do it, why won’t you help me? It’s up to my shoulders now!”

“I’m not done asking you questions. You left him there?”

“No, we dragged him into the bushes until we figured out what to do. Nobody in the Barfield family ever leaves the terrace other than Archie. His parents just like looking out over the gardens from above.”

“Then you got this job to get rid of him?”

“Then I got this job to get rid of him. My dad was happy I wanted to try manual labor, and it was easy enough to convince Ms. Jukes to let me have the route I wanted. She likes me. I can’t move my legs now.” He looked on the verge of tears.

“You’re saying doing this job for all these weeks was easier than just trying to unhex the guy?”

Renny frowned. “We didn’t think of unhexing. We would’ve gotten in trouble. Archie isn’t even supposed to hang out with me anymore. Anyway, I really did need a job. I don’t hate this, believe it or not. Working with you guys is okay.”

“And you pretended to call dispatch?”

“Yeah, but the regulation is real. I looked it up and couldn’t believe what I read. They would’ve said the same thing, even if I’d called for real.”

Aden was still having trouble following the logic. “You found a horrible regulation, and instead of doing something about it, you decided to use it to basically murder someone?”

“When you put it that way, it sounds bad.”

“It IS bad, Renny! Just because you didn’t succeed doesn’t make it okay.”

Renny frowned. “So, you’re going to do the same to me, and pretend it was an accident? That doesn’t make you any better. Why don’t you let me go, and I’ll get my parents to talk to someone about changing that regulation. They still know people.”

“What people?”

“Judges, city council, lobbyists. They can still make things happen.” The truck lurched forward. Renny looked uncomfortable. “What will it take for you to reverse this? I said I’d talk to my parents. I’m going to yell for help.”

Aden dumped the next can. “This is the Crown. You know as well as I do that nobody will hear you. They’re all inside so they don’t have to see our truck blemish their perfect streets. So, remember what you said in the truck when we were talking about solutions? Something about starting a buy-nothing group that makes rich people feel altruistic? The city rejected that idea, but I’ll bet you know somebody who could make that happen.”

“My—my mom. My mom is on the Old Hog neighborhood association board, but she still knows everyone in the Crown neighborhood association. Maybe she can get them to redistribute stuff rather than tossing it. Neighborhood beautification, we can call it. They all complain about the unsightliness of garbage days, so maybe we can convince them that this will make it disappear before it ever hits the street.”

As he said the word “street” his lower jaw solidified. Aden grabbed another garbage can and Renny’s eyes widened.

“Okay, so I’m holding you to all of that. I know you’ll do it; I recorded your confession on my phone. I’m giving a copy to Lennart, and a copy to my girlfriend, and Nash, and I’m making a couple more so you can’t find them all. And if Lennart decides to press charges against you and your friends, he still can, since he was the one you actually harmed. Maybe you can help him get his old job back if he wants it, too, or a job working for someone whose son is less of a creep. Sound good?”

“Sounds good,” whispered the statue attached to the truck. “Now help me. Please?”

Aden dumped two more cans before turning back to the Renny-shape. “Good job saying please! It’s temporary. It’ll reverse itself in ten minutes. Enjoy the break and don’t worry —I’ve been doing your side of the street too.”

If Renny answered, Aden didn’t hear it, though he knew he’d get an earful when the hex wore off. In the meantime, he fell back into the rhythm of routine. If he admitted it to himself, he’d kind of enjoyed this: actual answers, actual solutions, something like retribution, something like justice. All in a day’s work; he jogged toward the next trashcan.

Building Better Worlds

One of the more annoyingly misused phrases in our current era of shared multi-verses, trans-media franchises, and other pan-galactic gargle blasters is “world-building.” It’s an annoying expression because it comes up when someone, who commissions movies, television shows, or whatever filmed entertainment is called in our always-shifting modernity, describes the result of years of work by a large group of very creative people…usually while demanding the same of a single artist in the space of weeks or months.

Of course, it is possible for a single creator to create immense and richly detailed realms individually. I’ll rattle off the holy trinity of fantasy literature—J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Mervyn Peake—and let you fill in the blanks from there. Even in the fast-paced, high-world of television, at least one man—J. Michael Straczynski—is reputed to have created the entire universe and story arc of a five-year science-fiction “novel for television” before a single frame of film was shot.

While I have never fully bought into the narrative that all five seasons of Babylon 5 were completely crafted in its creator’s head before the show was made—and that the plan was so thorough as to include a set of “trapdoors” to account for possible contingencies (like the departure of the show’s star after the first season)—Straczynski’s accomplishment is towering. He singlehandedly wrote almost every single episode of a densely serialized sci-fi series that did, in fact, describe an entire universe, and we are all the better for it.

Still, Straczynski’s Olympian feat is not a sustainable template: Babylon 5 was made in a different era, with a very different and now non-existent business model (first-run syndication) which could sustain a very niche property for a much longer period than possible in the current media landscape—and which allowed a great deal more space for experimentation, vamping, filler, and the occasional complete failure of an episode. As much as Babylon 5 makes the case for the skill of its creator, it is also a singular work in the history of the medium: one which also showcases many reasons why in television, collaboration between many gifted artists under a strong shared vision tends to yield the most successful results.

Similarly, Tolkien, Lewis, and Peake had years to craft their novels (The Lord of the Rings was more than ten years in the writing), not to mention the ongoing feedback of colleagues and editors (Lewis and Tolkien were good friends who read and encouraged one another, as did Lewis and Peake). So where does that leave us mere mortals working in broadcast/streaming media with deadlines and budgets and executives breathing down our necks? How did the creators of successful world-building television series get there? How can you convince others that what you have created can withstand years of dramatic examination?

I have some answers. They are not THE answers, but rather pieces of a much greater answer, which I have seen work best in a lot of different environments from the Lost island, to the post-apocalyptic Earth of The 100, to the fantasy worlds of The Dark Crystal, and The Witcher. I bring these projects up specifically because none of them were my creation. They are all worlds to which I was invited as a collaborator, and which, I believe, succeeded because of the influx of creativity from multiple parties operating under a strong, clear vision. To me, these worlds succeeded in convincing the audience of their existence because they met one or more of the criteria I outline below.

We all want to believe that a lone genius blazing a heretofore unknown trail into the great narrative mystery is how “world-building” is done…and there are ample examples of this across many different media.

But here are some hints for the rest of us mere mortals…



When George Orwell created the world of 1984, he was pissed off about the rise of fascism in Europe and the spectre of totalitarian authoritarianism rising by other names throughout Europe. Aldous Huxley was pissed off about current trends leading to a completely entertainment-driven culture that would eventually lead humanity to a Brave New World punctuated by a cruel and willful ignorance of reality. Margaret Atwood took real-life examples of horrifyingly misogynistic government policy around the world, rolled them all up into one dysfunctional state, and gave us The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. Terry Gilliam saw the second half of the twentieth century as an era of individuality-destroying societal compromise and created Brazil. Suzanne Collins was pissed off about the deleterious effect of competitive reality television on the popular imagination, and that led her to create The Hunger Games.

While these worlds all exist in the sub-genre of dystopia, they clearly illustrate something important to world-building in all genres: much successful world-building balances on a central point that provokes a strong emotion in both creator and viewer. Knowing this point—and the emotions you want it to provoke, be it fear or wonder, or joy or sadness—and being able to articulate clearly and cogently to a television writing staff, or to collaborators in a feature film, is crucial to the success of the world being built.

Even a show ostensibly set in the real world—say Breaking Bad—depends on the successful creation of a world based on the development of a strong central organizing conceit. The world of Breaking Bad is every bit as fantastical and far-fetched as any science-fictional world I know: a realm of surreal coincidences, colorful over-the-top criminals like twin hitmen, paralyzed drug cartel masterminds who can only communicate by ringing a bell, hyperfocused fast-food franchise owners who occasionally conduct byzantine James Bondian international assassination plots, biological weapons of mass destruction created in basement labs, giant evidence-destroying electromagnets, and an endgame in which the protagonist is able to defeat his enemies by becoming an evil hybrid of Batman and MacGuyver who can kludge machine guns and a garage door opener into a remote-controlled robot weapon.

The universe in which Breaking Bad takes place is every bit as “constructed” as that of The Handmaid’s Tale. Though it shows us institutions we may think we know, the world of Breaking Bad built essentially a machine designed to ensure that Walter White goes—as Vince Gilligan’s pitch famously stated—”from Mister Chips to Scarface.” Breaking Bad was, then, built for—and organized around—the sole purpose of facilitating the spiritual corruption of an individual we assume to be a good man. The great feat of narrative storytelling the series so masterfully pulls off is to convince the audience episode in and out that the series takes place not just in our reality, but that the outlandish events of the series are somehow gritty, grounded, and completely plausible.

Similarly, one of the best and most built-out “worlds” in modern media is that of Star Trek. In this case, hundreds of hours of film and television have been made to support Gene Roddenberry’s belief that the human race can ascend to great heights by embracing diversity and tolerance. “For the human race,” Roddenberry once declared, “there are no limits.” Roddenberry even named the motto and sigil of the hyper-logical Vulcan race “the IDIC,” an acronym for “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” Even though his creation first spawned from the sentence “Wagon Train to the stars” it is Roddenberry’s core belief in our capacity to follow the better angels of our being that has driven the success of the franchise.

Regardless of how frequently in its fifty-plus year history Star Trek has tried to go “dark” or to examine the decay of institutions and morals Roddenberry might have imagined eternal (“democracy” and “civil rights” come to mind) the material always comes back to the optimistic core that powers its sense of awe and wonder. Star Trek has one message across its many iterations: humanity can improve its ways, humanity will improve its ways, and—having improved its ways—humanity will forge a path to the stars based not on its sins but its virtues.

To me, this is one of the greatest, strongest, and clearest visions I have ever seen in world-building, and the longevity of the franchise proves it. The universe of Star Trek is damn near infinite, but what makes it “Star Trek” is that conviction and how it keeps coming up on top no matter how many writers, directors, and producers—and they are well into the hundreds by now—get their chance at telling a story in this galaxy.

This doesn’t mean that all successful world-building can only take place if begun from a burning political, philosophical, or thematic concern. Many successful worlds start with something as prosaic as “Wagon Train to the stars” and become a defense of the very essence of humanity. The CW series The 100, for example, was based on a series of Young Adult books about a post-nuclear Earth orbited by a space station in which teenagers had to live under horribly oppressive conditions in order to survive, and was primarily concerned with the interpersonal relationships between these teens as they were cruelly jettisoned to the blighted planet below.

As adapted for television, The 100 found its footing and focus by pivoting away from its YA origins to focus on the moral compromises necessary for survival: a topic that made the show considerably bleaker, more brutal, and bloodier than its source material. The nihilism inherent in that belief—that survival and morality are fundamentally incompatible but we nevertheless struggle for both—also provided a narrative engine that powered seven seasons of television.

Similarly, Frank Herbert was already deep into a hobbyist/journalist’s study of hallucinogenic mycology and political ecology before the ideas that ultimately made up Dune coalesced into the whole we know today. The concept that appears to have unified many of Herbert’s varied interests was his growing interest in messiahs, cultures that have strong messianic traditions, and the danger inherent in seeing such figures as crucial to human advancement. From that more immediate and more political concern, all of Herbert’s obsessions coalesced into a massive universe that spawned not just his original novel and its five sequels but also three filmed adaptations—two of them with sequels—an upcoming television series about the Bene Gesserit, and a suite of almost twenty prequels, sequels, and equals shepherded by Herbert’s son. That a single—and also profoundly weird and druggy—novel from the sixties spawned all of this material over several decades just goes to show the importance of a compelling unifying concept in defining and designing a world. The right thematic concern in the right hands can release an incredible amount of narrative power.

All of which is to say, when creating a world, your most important question is, quite simply…

“What is my most important question?”



The current vernacular of executive notes includes the homicidally annoying criticism that something “feels tropey.” What they actually mean by it is that something feels “clichéd” but I suppose enough of us sensitive snowflakes have taken umbrage over the years so as to require a less loaded term to lubricate the discussion.

There is even a website,, that catalogues the use of tropes by media writers…with a not inconsiderable amount of attitude, I may add. That aside, the creators of this website are wise, and know something essential that even most writers and executives don’t. It is right in their introduction:

“A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes are the means by which a story is told by anyone who has a story to tell. We collect them, for the fun involved.

Tropes are not the same thing as cliches. They may be brand new but seem trite and hackneyed; they may be thousands of years old but seem fresh and new. They are not bad, they are not good; tropes are tools that the creator of a work of art uses to express their ideas to the audience. It’s pretty much impossible to create a story without tropes.”

Next to highlighting the idea that tropes are neither bad nor good, the most important part of those two paragraphs is that tropes are the basic building blocks of narrative: a set of commonly agreed upon units of story serving the purpose of mutual understanding. Saying you dislike “tropes” is like living in a house but you dislike bricks.

What does this defense of tropes have to do with world-building?


Because once you know what you have to say to the world, and perhaps some ideas for how you might (“hey, I’m an optimistic humanist who wants to make a ton of money by selling a TV series that’s essentially going to be Wagon Train to the stars”) the next step is to build it out. Roddenberry already had a trope around which to wrap his idea: the travails of brave explorers going, perhaps boldly, into an unknown frontier.

Like many of his colleagues in the television writing trenches of the late fifties, sixties, and seventies, Roddenberry was also a veteran of the Second World War (after which he served as a commercial pilot and, later, a police officer). It makes complete sense then that the tropes Roddenberry used to build out his world all center on the distribution of command responsibility and labor in, and organization of, the military and other paramilitary organizations (and so did the writers of Forbidden Planet, whose influence on Star Trek is palpable). Though the United Federation of Planets at the center of Star Trek is intended to be a peaceful and utopian organization, pretty much everything about the basic layout of Star Trek—from the command structure of the starship Enterprise to the political organization of the ruling body that deploys it, and the Cold War-like detente between it and the Klingon and Romulan Empires—is strictly constructed with the kind of tropes one would expect would have permanent residence in the mind of a man with Roddenberry’s background, if not his philosophical leanings.

A generation later, George Lucas would anchor his own sci-fi saga with the tropes of his generation: rebellion against authority, suspicion of the military/industrial complex, and concern for the environment. In early drafts of Star Wars, the Death Star was brought down in an attack led by wookiees, similarly, the triumph of the Ewoks at the end of Return of the Jedi was informed by the Vietnam War era reality that the highly mechanized industrial war machine that won World War II could be brought down by guerillas armed with far less sophisticated equipment but aided by a knowledge of, and closeness to, their environment.

Of course, having grown up on a steady diet of triumphalist, “American Century” TV and film depicting America’s glorious victories of World War II, Lucas also helped himself ravenously to the tropes of those influences. World War II is all over Star Wars. The final battle of his first Star Wars was famously edited using footage taken from the British war movie The Dam Busters due to the time constraints posed by the completion of the film’s VFX. Similarly, pretty much every TV series or film set on board a starship in the last fifty years has either taken from Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek the basic structure of captain/science officer/doctor/warrior/engine room guy, or been a response to it in some form.Star Trek itself has gotten to the point where its own spinoffs (Discovery and Picard especially, and to some lesser degree Star Trek Into Darkness, though the stupidity of that film begs the question of intellect and intent) have become a sort of revisionist commentary on the very tropes the franchise’s creator carved into the zeitgeist decades prior.

Coming closer to Earth, consider the The X-Files. The world Chris Carter and his writing staff built over eleven seasons of television—and two feature films, and a short-lived revival series—is an intricate web of conspiracies involving an alien invasion, several equally alien races aiding in the invasion, shadow governments, powerful cabals secretly in league with the aliens, Watergate-style meetups with highly paranoid secret agents, and a black oil that can turn humans into slimy proto-aliens. Also, bees.

What made The X-Files hook so many viewers into its far-fetched mythology is that it was—from episode to episode for twenty-two weekly episodes a season—a police procedural down to the end-of-the-first-act/first-commercial-break-body-drop. The X-Files fooled a great deal of the world into entering a batshit insane universe by pretending to be about two cops who get a case handed to them at the beginning of every episode, hop onto an unglamorous unmarked car, and usually wind up somewhere local law enforcement whines to them about jurisdictional issues.

World-building, then, is the creation of a completely new milieu from the novel arrangement of tropes around a unifying central concept of great concern to the creator of that world.

Yep. It’s that simple.

Kind of how to write a novel you just have to take a bunch of words and arrange them in the right order.


Let’s say you are pissed off about wealth inequality. As an allegorical analogy, you have created the notion of a world not unlike our own in any way other than a new technology has turned time into a currency—by merely shaking hands with another person. Everyone stops aging at 25, preserving their youth, and can trade minutes, hours, or years of their own life with others: they get to extend their life, you get whatever goods or services were on the table.

As a consequence, the poor die looking like twenty-five-year-olds the moment they run out of time, and the wealthy extend their youth for whatever amount of time they can hoard. Time taken from the lives of others is the greatest and only measure of wealth. The super-rich are essentially nigh-immortal vampires.

This is the premise of writer/director Andrew Niccol’s film In Time. As a world-building exercise, In Time is inadequate because of how obvious it is that Niccol only thought through a very small number of the potential ramifications of such a technology. The film deploys its central concept so narrowly as an allegory for income inequality that it ignores how radically different a world this technology would actually make: the result is that as the film devolves into a fairly routine action story, the audience is left to ponder just how different a world this technology would make.

An interface that would allow one to take literal, physical time from others would most likely involve quantum manipulation and an ability to control the physiology of human beings on so advanced a level that it is hard to imagine that the world in which it exists would only look like a slightly spiffed up version of the ghettoes and penthouses of Los Angeles with only a few more electric cars, fancy flat screens, and leather overcoats. The most important question Niccol could have asked himself is “what other changes could this have caused” and yet that question remains unanswered, and the allegory feels ham-fisted. The world only works to further its own premise, as opposed to feeling like it is a place that existed before it was disrupted by this technology. By the time the protagonists, played by Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, are on the run from The Timekeepers (the only police force, in fact, the only government agency in this world) and running time bank heists in order to give time back to “the people,” it is clear that this premise has a very slim bandwidth to support the world it implies. All that’s left is to run, jump, and gun and hope the audience goes along for the ride.

Speaking of guns—why are the weapons in In Time gunpowder/projectile-based? If this is a world where a handshake can cause a person to give up time in their own life to another—or where time can be banked in memory cores—wouldn’t the police have something like a Bluetooth-enabled long range time disruptor that could freeze a person’s time? Or take away enough of their time so that they have no choice but to stop whatever they are doing? Or to stop that body’s time altogether in order to paralyze the person in a timeless stasis? Could someone clever enough create a “time bomb” that robs people of their time en masse?

No one thought it through.

In Time is so hell-bent on making time a metaphor for money that it does little else. The problem is that “time is money” is a metaphor and only a metaphor. “Time is money” is not a direct correlation: a world in which time is money would be at the very least, different from ours in a million little ways that would make it infinitely interesting, but Niccol stays narrowly focused on this one idea, and the casualty is his story, and the point it tries to make.

Most manufactured worlds exist to elucidate a small number of concerns (unless your concern is “dude, would THIS look cool?”) but the world’s creators(s) have a responsibility to crowd—at the very least—the margins outside of their main story with enough material that the world they have made is much greater than what is merely on the screen or page. The film Daybreakers, written and directed by the Spierig brothers, is a good example of a modestly budgeted feature that nevertheless does the work of creating a believable framework for its world.

The premise of Daybreakers is that vampires have come out of the closet and become the dominant species on the planet. In the first fifteen minutes of the film, the Spierig brothers drop one bomb after another to show how their world works: cars are equipped with sun-blocking shades, blood is served as an additive to coffee as well as fast foods, subways are the preferred mode of public transport, advertisements targeted to vampires are everywhere, and massive farms keep non-vampires in comas while feeding and bleeding them until they die. While Daybreakers ultimately falls apart in much the same way as In Time—both become run-and-gun shoot-em-ups in which the main premise is secondary, its first twenty minutes are truly remarkable.

World-building is hard, precarious, and subjective work, especially when juggling the demands of both creating a new reality, remaining consistent within its parameters, and making sure that the issues faced by the characters are relatable to the audience.

The best example I can think of a movie that does all of this without a misstep is Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. The first act of Children of Men is extraordinarily dense with information. It is the near future, the human race has gone completely sterile and has been so for the balance of two decades, the youngest people in the world are revered, the planet’s nations have collapsed, and only England has soldiered on thanks to a militaristic, authoritarian government that has turned the entire north coast of the island into a prison camp where immigrants and minorities have been ghettoed. Terrorism is endemic, public services are woeful, the government hands out suicide kits due to rampant depression and ennui, and many have resigned their lives to apocalyptic religious cults.

Within ten minutes, Children of Men not only establishes all of this, it even manages to redeem the incredibly hackneyed device of using newscasts to deliver information, presents its main character as a likable if apathetic functioning alcoholic, and serves up a shocking terrorist attack…all before it even flashes its main title.

Most importantly, every single piece of exposition presented in Children of Men remains consistent through the film’s running time and serves to complicate the plot. Every bit of this world is necessary to the functioning of the story, every bit is eventually made into an obstacle to be inflicted on the characters, and every one of the characters’ problems feels like it could happen to a member of the audience, though only in the film’s reality.

As world-building goes, Children of Men is so absolutely flawless in its integration of concept and exposition with plot and character development that, by its final, wrenching, action sequence, when the film’s protagonist loses his shoe, you know the world so well and are so scared of it that you feel that losing a shoe in this world may just be the worst thing that could happen to someone. In addition to the global infertility, wars, collapse, xenophobia, and genocide.

Thinking it through means one thing: while watching your story, the audience should never be able to think of a better idea about how your world should work than you did.


From the moment I saw Star Wars in 1977, I have remembered, and wondered about, “the spice mines of Kessel” and “the ship that did the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs.”

With those two short lines, George Lucas opened what I call “a Wide Open Space.”

A “Wide Open Space” is exactly what it sounds like: when a line or visual evokes something offscreen that indicates a much greater world. A Wide Open Space engages the audience in the narrative by switching on their imagination while keeping them involved in the story. The “spice mines of Kessel” line takes place at a moment when a character fears for their fate: the line doesn’t distract from the scene’s dynamic, it instead makes the stakes clear while implying that there are worse, much worse, places to be sent to than their immediate danger, and you are free to consider what they may look like from a few very tantalizing cues even as you continue to enjoy the story.

The path to a Wide Open Space can be something as simple as a throwaway line like the ones above, or as involved as the opening of the scene in Children of Men in which the protagonist must ask a favor of his cousin, who runs “The Ark of the Arts.” The scene opens with Clive Owen’s character, Theo, entering a massive, loft like space dominated by Michelangelo’s statue of David. Part of the statue’s leg is missing, and the space between the knee and foot has been replaced by a metal strut. Theo’s cousin enters the scene, dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, playing air guitar while explaining that his team barely got David out of Italy before some horrible cataclysm took place, but missed La Pieta.

In a very brief exchange, the film not only fulfills the narrative goal of introducing a powerful, wealthy, and influential person tasked with preserving humanity’s artistic legacy in a world with no future, but also invites the audience to consider just the scope of the horror going on in the film’s blighted and unstable world. Italy, the film tells us, is in no better shape than anywhere else, and yet the carnage on the streets is unspeakable. What your imagination can conjure up as it hears a few details about it is probably much worse than anything the film can show.

Wide Open Spaces are crucial to world-building for two reasons, one, they indicate what cannot be shown: “world-building in progress.” Wide Open Spaces tell the audience that they are in the hands of someone who has an entire geography for a vibrant universe in their mind—maybe they can’t show it to you just yet, but it’s there in the margins. Wide Open Spaces tell the audience that, if the camera were to pan away from the scene at hand, there will be a world there waiting to be discovered and not just the boundaries of the scenery the film’s crew built to convince you.

The other purpose of Wide Open Spaces is that they provide directions in which to build. In television, that is crucial. As a series goes through its allotted number of episodes, be they four, six, eight, thirteen, or twenty-two, it eats plot at an astonishing rate. Even in a show with what is now called “a decompressed narrative,” Wide Open Spaces establish destinations toward which to navigate and locations or events that the audience will recognize as part of the narrative, even if they have not seen them before.

A good example of this is the very line with which this began—the spice mines of Kessel. Forty years after the original, as part of the Disney Company’s expansion of the franchise, the film Solo: A Star Wars Story featured a second act climax involving an incursion into the spice mines of Kessel, and the run described in the original.

The narrative merits of the film aside, it is very much a testament to the power of the Wide Open Space: forty years later, people still wanted to go there.



During my justifiably short career as an improv performer, I learned the concept of “opportunities for assumptions.” A performer, who is doing their job properly by watching and listening to their scene partners, can then take something that has been said or implied—an opportunity—in the scene and make an assumption about it that furthers the scene, preferably in a novel or unexpected direction. The website presents a great example:

Player A takes great care in setting up a garden, obtaining a shovel, making sure that no one is looking, and then making the first few efforts to break the ground.

Player B slowly enters, with great effort, apparently lugging a heavy object behind them. They pause for a moment, clearly winded, and turn to look at Player A’s progress:

Player B: “I don’t know how I’m ever going to be able to repay you for this…”

This is not only funny, it also shows how something built by one performer can become very different when another picks it up, makes a very creative assumption about what it means, and turns it into something else entirely that creates the fertile ground for an unfolding scene.

When world-building, it is crucial to leave as many potential opportunities for yourself and others to make “assumptions” on the field. This is not unlike creating Wide Open Spaces. My example from Star Wars could just as easily be used in this context: someone thought of something to do with the spice mines many years after they were merely spoken of.

Opportunities for assumptions, however, don’t have to be so large or wide open, they just have to be there. Some of them are microscopic, some of them are the size of galaxies: they just have to be there to be picked up, looked at, and used in such a way that “mere serendipity” starts looking like “planning.”

Here’s a simple example, in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, we had a running gag in the writers room about washing podlings (the podlings, little potato-like creatures, were one of the many species in the world of The Dark Crystal). As we hunkered down to break story on individual episodes, we came up with the idea that a character was to be punished by being sent to “The Order of Lesser Service,” a sort of monastic/janitorial organization. As soon as the question came up of what sort of menial tasks the Order of Lesser Service would have to perform, the idea of washing podlings suddenly stopped being a joke and became a very real option.

In the hands of episode writer Vivian Lee, the concept of “washing podlings” expanded into a delightful extended sequence set during the time known as “the deterge” in which podlings were washed en masse. This not only created many—many—opportunities for physical comedy, with the adorable podlings resisting their baths in every way, it also opened a space to not just understand the plight of one of our main characters, but to also add a unique and whimsical element that further built up the amazing world Jim Henson and his cohort built decades before.

Opportunities from assumptions can even come from a writer/creator’s observation of the design of a prop or a costume. Consider how Obi-Wan Kenobi’s humble desert robes eventually became the template for the uniforms of all the Jedi Knights appearing in the Star Wars franchise. Somewhere before Star Wars became a pop-culture hegemony, a costume designer had an idea that was approved and executed…and, years later, the entire franchise ran with it.

A similar, but much larger, example of taking an opportunity for an assumption that eventually defined a franchise (or even saved it from extinction) is the set-up to the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. At the end of the episode “Space Seed” in the run of the classic Star Trek television series in the 1960s, Captain Kirk decided to exile the unfrozen 1990s supergenius and criminal mastermind Khan Noonien Singh and his followers in a small and verdant moon to start their own isolated settlement. Kirk and his crew mused that they had planted a seed in space, and hoped that Khan and his followers could build a benign civilization in their new world.

When the time came to make a sequel to 1979s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the creators tasked with its creation looked back and found this incredible seed waiting to be sown and harvested. The greatest villain the original series created had been wisely put in a place from which he could return for vengeance. Deciding to take this idea to its most dramatic extent, the creators of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan made a film that is not only understood to be the finest in its over half-century old franchise, they also saved Star Trek by proving the films could be made on time and budget (issues which plagued its predecessor and made a question mark of the future of Star Trek) and succeed commercially.

It bears mention that by the time this sequel was made, none of the players who worked on the original series or the first film were involved. Even the series creator, Gene Roddenberry had been sidelined to the role of “Executive Consultant.” The inception of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was strictly a case of a present-day creative team being handed the reins, reaching to the past, finding an opportunity, and exploiting it for all it was worth.

In the early aughts, I worked on a series called The Chronicle. It was set in the offices of a tabloid newspaper covering the weirdest stories imaginable—UFOs, chupacabras, that sort of thing. In the pilot episode, a member of the guest cast delivered a single line with such flair that it was decided we would bring the actor back in another, perhaps larger role. The actor returned in another role and was, once again, so terrific, that the room wanted him back. The problem was each of the characters he had played had been specific to the story of the individual episode.

Finally, we just decided that we didn’t care and kept casting the actor—only now with the intent that he would always play some sort of annoying foil for the heroes. By the time the show had filmed its twenty-two episodes, this actor had appeared in six episodes as a variety of supercilious and hostile public servants who always made the lives of the main characters harder. Had the show gone to a second season, we would have eventually revealed the character to have been some sort of alien sent to test the heroes, and perhaps even built a story around him.

All of this activity from him delivering a single zinger with unique style.

The trick to successfully dropping, and then taking advantage of, opportunities for assumptions, then, is to understand that building a world isn’t merely telling one story. World-building demands that creators saturate the field on which the world is being built—and then every beam, girder, post, and furnishing—with enough conceptual mass that new ideas big and small eventually spring and take on life on their own. As with radioactive isotopes—in which an amount large enough will attain the critical mass necessary to provoke fission and energy—so artificial worlds depend on the attainment of a critical mass of ideas, and they don’t have to be central to the plot, they just have to sit there, waiting to be found and developed into something great.

There is no better feeling than finding one of these opportunities and making it work. In more than one writers room, when this has happened, we smile and high-five and say “it’s like we planned it!” Of course, once when I made this declaration, a more seasoned writer looked at me and replied…

“That’s because we’re planning it right now.”



J.R.R. Tolkien took ten years to write the Lord of the Rings. Before setting off on this endeavor, he had already written The Hobbit, as well as a draft of The Silmarillion, both of which were set in, and helped establish, the world of Middle Earth. For a single creator, what Tolkien wrought with Middle Earth as a whole and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, specifically, is nothing short of magisterial; not to mention category-defining in terms of what it means to “world-build.”

Had Tolkien been writing The Lord of the Rings for film or TV, his timeframe would have probably not “worked out” for his corporate overlords. World-building in movies and television has to be done on call, with deadlines, release dates, and millions of dollars at stake from the moment a series is ordered.

Mercifully, TV, and increasingly film writers, have access to writers rooms tasked with aiding in the creation of new universes. While this is a timesaving investment for the studio/streamer/network, for creators willing to let others truly play in their space, it is nothing less than a gold mine.

Television especially has always revered writer/producers like Aaron Sorkin and David E. Kelley, both of whom write or have written the majority of the episodes of the shows under their aegis. The problem with this is that every creator—regardless of the extent of their genius—is limited in some way, whether in their ability to generate plot, to write unique dialogue in the unique voices of the characters, or to let their characters, or their world, be disrupted in ways that may actually make it richer and more expansive.

Entire blogs have been dedicated to how frequently Aaron Sorkin recycles entire stretches of his own dialogue and situations. During the nineties, when David E. Kelley was writing both The Practice and Ally McBeal simultaneously, it was not unusual for both shows to repeat one another’s plot beats. In fact, during the same week, both Ally McBeal and The Practice featured an endgame in which a character wore a wire to trick another one to confess. In its seven-year run, The Practice did multiple arcs involving serial killers, on more than one occasion resulting in the titular lawyers successfully defending/confronting an accused killer who is eventually acquitted…and then, in a shocking twist, revealing that he somehow fooled the lawyers about his innocence, or framed another for the crime.

This is where a writers room is a boon to all showrunners, but especially the world-builder; and if not a room, at least feedback from collaborators whose honesty and expansive creativity can be trusted. When a single person builds worlds, especially under the time pressures of film or TV, the result is that they fall back on their obsessions and fetishes to a fault, and demonstrate the limits of their own creative abilities.

No matter how big a genius, how hard the work ethic, or how experienced a writer may be, world-building on a schedule requires a knowledge of story, plot, and character that most ordinary mortals, and even extraordinary ones, cannot always sustain. The result is repetition, holes in the fabric of the world’s reality, and an over-reliance on “what’s pissing you off” as opposed to “there is an entire world in which the thing that pisses me off is happening alongside a lot of other stuff that makes this world feel real.”

As mentioned before, J.R.R. Tolkien took a decade to fill Middle Earth to the fullest, going as far as to create an Elven language as part of his work. He also got feedback from C.S. Lewis, which must have helped. Compare that to the creation of the world of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Though based on the venerated 1982 film, that film was much more of an allegory and a pastoral than a model of airtight drama and world-building. We had to create hours of plot and conflict and build out the milieu to ensure that it all held together.

While the writers who developed the show spent over a year putting together a pitch, a pilot episode, and an outline for the sweep of the series, the writing team had all of six months to expand that world, develop what it might have looked like decades before the original, populate it with a civilization at its peak (in the original film the race of the protagonist had been reduced to two survivors), and create a unique language for the aforementioned unwashed podlings.

On The Dark Crystal we had the additional challenge of not only conforming the world we were putting together with that shown in the revered original, but also making sure that it remained faithful to three decades worth of tie-in books, novels, and comic books. What made it possible to create the necessary believability to sustain the show’s considerable narrative was an incredibly open collaboration between the writers, the director, the producers (starting with Jim Henson’s daughter Lisa, who Executive Produced the series, runs the studio, and is extremely invested in preserving, protecting, and expanding the original’s legacy), as well as the creature shop, production design, and costume design. We were also lucky to have Brian Froud—the designer of the original—along with his wife, who is one of the great unsung heroes of both projects, and his son as a day-to-day head of design.

Working over six months, during which the creatures, sets, props, and costumes were built in conjunction with the writing, all of these disparate departments kept one another in check. It was as expansive a simultaneous collaboration as anyone could possibly imagine, with the writers continually checking in with all departments with ideas and character concepts, some of which, we learned, could not be executed in the allotted time.

The result of all this was that no one person could control the entirety of this world, and that all of us were each other’s check-and-balance. At the risk of arrogance, I believe that we created a truly special place that holds fast to its own laws and promises a lot more. At no point in the series do you consider what may be beyond the screen and believe there is nothing there. The world of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance practically lives and breathes on its own.

I also believe that we accomplished this because we were not only in a constant, ongoing conversation, but because all of our ideas cross-pollinated one another. Every department on the show wound up contributing opportunities for assumptions during the writing process that we were able to take and exploit to the fullest. Guided by all of our interpretations of the original, we all came together to ensure that our creation was true to the ideals expounded by Jim Henson and his team decades prior (the ideals? an ecological fable showing how a world once in perfect symbiosis could be destroyed by the lust for power).

Compare that to, say, the world-building in a single, auteur-driven genre project like the Superman film Man of Steel. The film opens with an extended prologue set on the planet Krypton…a prologue in which the film makes clear its preference for striking visuals over creating a viable setting. The locations and technologies seen during this prologue do not appear the product of an ongoing, viable society populated by individuals. It was impossible for me to believe that anyone could live in this world, that anyone in this world had anything resembling their own individual aesthetic.

Watching the first fifteen minutes of Man of Steel, I found myself asking questions like “why do all the displays in a society advanced enough to build a ‘world-engine’ (ironically, a machine that build worlds) look like one of those pinpression boxes that used to be available at Spencer’s gifts?” “Does anyone own an old chair or sofa in this world?” “Was every location in this world designed by the same architect?” and, of course, the hardy perennial “where are the bathrooms?”

These are questions you never want your audience to stop and ask when you are trying to tell them a story.

The world-building in this movie—the believability of which is crucial to the plot of the film as it moves into a setting in present-day Earth—feels less like an attempt at creating a believable reality and more like a collection of fetishes. From pinboards to the flying dragons and penis-shaped prison pods, nothing here feels like the product of a varied, well-populated society at the apex of its technology. The Krypton of Man of Steel, quite simply, feels homogeneous, and, expansive though the visuals might be, I only expected to see green screens and mo-cap suits should the camera stray.

Most world-builders become so stuck on the idea that to succeed at this they must go it alone. What world-builders should understand is that even for the supremely gifted, worlds grow and thrive on diversity. The greater the variety of ideas, the more limitless the world will appear. The help of others will not diminish the genius of the person who originated the world, but rather make that person look like an even greater genius for having the capacity to recognize their own limitations and taking action to make sure the audience never sees them.

The world of Star Trek is one of the most salient, if longitudinal and unrepeatable, examples of this. Created in the mid-sixties, Star Trek has survived and thrived specifically because Gene Roddenberry created an incredibly sturdy frame on which to build. Over the decades, Star Trek has passed through many hands. While it is obvious that many ideas that might have been seen as promising at the time (like the mind control aliens in the first season finale of The Next Generation, or the “warp drive speed limit”) have fallen by the wayside, more important are the thousands of ideas that did not over the course of ten television series, six movies featuring the original cast, four movies with the Next Generation cast, two movies set in the “Kelvin timeline,” and enough tie-in novels and comic books to fill a starship.

Star Trek lives because Gene Roddenberry was smart enough to invite some of the best science-fiction writers of his time to contribute to the original. People like Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, David Gerrold, Dorothy (D.C.) Fontana, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Richard Matheson, and George Clayton Johnson—along with Harve Bennett, and Rick Berman, and Michael Piller, and Ron Moore, and Brannon Braga, and J.J. Abrams, and Alex Kurtzman, and Akiva Goldsman, and Henry Alonso Myers later on—basically form one massive writers room straddling two centuries, all of them building, discarding, enhancing, and inventing within a universe that is now almost a genre into itself.

Every time one creator or team of creators assigned to Star Trek falls into repetition and fetishism—and the audience grows fatigued—a new team comes in to rejuvenate the franchise. Star Trek lives because, now more than ever, it belongs to no one, but is rather a plot of land that many talented writers have been called upon to care for over the years. The foundational ideas of Star Trek were so well defined by its creator, that every one that follows knows exactly what the country looks like and what they would like to explore within its frontiers.

While it is unlikely that any of us will achieve that level of success, the lesson is scalable: the more talented people a world-builder unites under a strong clear vision, the more that creator allows that strong and clear vision to be expanded, adopted, adapted, and improved, the more godlike the feats that world-builder can accomplish.

Otherwise, strap in for a decades-long solo flight…or a really, really fragile sense of reality.



The unkind words hurled at In Time above notwithstanding, Andrew Niccol is one of my favorite writer/directors; mostly on the strength of two of his films, Lord of War and Gattaca. The latter of these two is a masterpiece of science-fictional world-building. You may wonder, then, why I bring it up under so flip and snarky a heading as “If all else fails, make it look great.”

Gattaca is set in a futuristic world in which genetic engineering has made it possible for humans to order nigh-perfect children. As the film’s society progressed, two classes evolved: the “valids” and the genetically inferior “invalids.” Invalids are systematically kept from the upper strata of society, business, science, and all other lucrative career paths by a byzantine system of genetic security checks including constant blood draws. The plot of the film involves an invalid who uses the identity of a valid to make his way into the society’s space exploration program.

In truth, I do not know whether the world of Gattaca fits my criteria for successful world-building because, while I have seen the film upwards of a dozen times, I have never stopped to pick it apart. Why? It is one of the few films I have ever seen that actually manages to turn a profound fetishism for an aesthetic into a complete statement of content and purpose.

The style of Gattaca represents a colossal investment in mid-twentieth-century modernism. All the buildings look like they were designed by John Lautner, Philip Johnson, or Mies van der Rohe, the cars are all Rovers, Jaguars, Citroens, and Avantis from the nineteen-sixties (though always portrayed as whirring with electrical power), and the suits are all impeccably tailored in a style that puts Mad Men to shame (at the end of the film, the astronauts walk into their capsules and take-off on an interstellar mission wearing gorgeously tailored black suits and ties).

What makes Gattaca rise above being a primer on design fetishism is that the mid-twentieth-century modern aesthetic, though immediately recognizable, is incredibly rich with variety and accomplishment. Hundreds of designers working individually created the aesthetic, their work in conversation over the course of decades. As a result, the designs curated and created by Niccol and his team for the film are equally varied and in conversation. The working class environments all appear to be in the same society as those occupied by the wealthy, the cars all look as if they were manufactured by different companies but in the same universe with the same technology, the buildings look like they could exist in a real world, because they do: even if their aesthetic varies, it varies within a specific bandwidth, and when the aesthetic veers (as when the characters go to a rococo concert hall) it is with intention and in service of the narrative.

In this way, Gattaca is one of the most interesting examples of world-building I can name: a science-fiction film with a very heady concept, which unfolds both through theme and story as well as a sustained commitment to a singular aesthetic which nevertheless feels part of a real world…because it was. Through selection, curation, and purpose, the aesthetic goes from being a part of our world’s past to being the totality of a future world which, though mannered, feels lived in. Though it presents a density of sleekness and style that would drown a less carefully thought-out endeavor, Gattaca is a world that makes a major impression by being consistent in style, but never so homogeneously that it appears hermetically sealed.

Similarly, whether the Star Wars universe actually makes “sense” is a moot point, but for endless discussions among my nerdy brethren. The franchise might as well be the holy scripture of popular culture in the late 20th and early 21st century, and entire teams of writers, executives, and directors have been conscripted to make sure all the loose ends tie up. That much said, one of George Lucas’s greatest accomplishments in creating this world—back when he made the first film of the franchise—was in his stewardship of the film’s production design.

Prior to Star Wars, the dominant trope in science fiction production design was, ironically, a sort of streamline art deco that evolved into a type of bowdlerized mid-century modernism. While there are many great films in this design wheelhouse (ranging from Metropolis to 2001: A Space Odyssey), many others feel like the production designers merely tossed in a few Saarinen tulip chairs into the bridge of their starship and called it a day.

Part of what made Star Wars so revolutionary was that it presented a science-fictional universe that was extremely junky. As cool as all the roaring starships, and pew-pew lasers, and costumes and bumpy-headed aliens may have been, everything in Star Wars looks beat-up, used-up, and on the verge of a breakdown—and therefore lived-in, real, and therefore within the audience’s grasp. Because of the franchise’s influence, this aesthetic has become the norm in the decades since the film’s release. What making the Star Wars universe so worn in its first, budget-strapped, effort did for George Lucas and his saga was that it simultaneously created a tactile place that felt genuinely lived-in (and occasionally, smelly), and created a great contrast between the more polished surfaces of the world (the sheen of the floors of the Death Star versus the farms of Tatooine and the grime of the rebel base on Yavin 4).

Most importantly, by embracing the notion of a heavily trod-upon reality, the design elements of the Star Wars saga felt like they had been there a long time before the film took place. One of the best expressions ever told to me in filmmaking is “the audience doesn’t know what you didn’t show them,” in the case of the first Star Wars, there is a lot that the audience is not shown. Even after George Lucas went back and added a bunch of CGI shots to make the film appear more expansive, it bears noticing that for a film that kicked off a saga, what’s actually on the frame is pretty modest, especially by today’s standards. Because the film was so richly and cleverly designed, the audience gladly made the assumption that there were many more people, places, and things in this galaxy…people, places, and things that caused everything to be so shabby.

This assumption alone can open Wide Open Spaces beyond imagination.

“Making it look great” doesn’t necessarily mean “create a monolithic aesthetic that dominates the entire picture,” or “have everything in it look cool,” it means “create a sustained aesthetic that nevertheless allows in enough variety—enough air—that your setting starts to look bigger than it really is.” In truth, most forms of world-building consist of just that: creating not what is on the frame, but using it—visually, thematically, textually—to further the idea that there is more, much more, outside the frame.

The world we live in is the result of billions of decisions made by billions of people over thousands of years. The detritus of history, recent and ancient, is everywhere from the infrastructure to the ephemera. Clearly, I believe that the way to best approximate this on a television or movie timeframe is to articulate a strong and clear vision, and then embrace the input of many in order to test and expand that vision.

Even then, creating a convincing alternate reality is a daunting task. There is, however, one collaborator to which I have alluded repeatedly and whom every world-builder should look at closely.

The audience.

Whenever I am asked for advice on how writers can succeed in a collaborative environment, I tell them that the best education I could have ever had in group storytelling was playing Dungeons & Dragons. In a game of D&D, a Dungeon Master, equipped with detailed maps, charts, and an outline of a story has to not just guide the players—all of them pretending to be characters in the adventure—through a story in which the players have choice and agency, but also narrate the world of the story to the players as it unfolds based on the actions of the characters.

While the story of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign may have a preferred outcome, Dungeon Masters need to be flexible, since the characters all have their own agenda within the game and its story. No one can prepare for every outcome in a game of D&D, but good Dungeon Masters share a gift for improvisation based on preset parameters, an ability to pivot easily without losing thread of the narrative, and to play and introduce characters as the story demands. Good Dungeon Masters don’t have to prove that they know everything in their world, they merely have to inspire faith in their players that they walk on solid ground and there’s world enough and time to convincingly accommodate any detour in the journey.

Sound familiar?

The audience may not know what you didn’t show them, but they did come to play along. The audience brings with them a good-faith desire to accept the reality, which their storytellers present. What these willing fellow travelers need from showrunners/directors/writers/novelists/producers is a defined enough sandbox, with just enough toys peeking to the surface to make them wonder whether there are more, how many more there may be, and whether it’s worthwhile to try to find them.

Much as this began with the assertion that the term “world- building” is usually the description of a result and not a process, the truth is also that not all successful results need to be as dense as one another, not all the threads need to be tied, and not all the locations need to be seen. In the same way that telling stories requires the audience’s suspension of disbelief, world-building requires that they make a leap of faith. To ask an audience to take that leap is to make an unspoken bargain. To create words, storytellers must promise their audience that even if they land outside the boundaries of the screen, stage, or page there will nevertheless be something, or someone, to catch them.

The good news is, you don’t have to be a god to inspire faith.

To Whomsoever Remains

as I write this I am catching up on the news
and the news was about nothing at all, the usual
flames rising up from the cracks of everything we know, nothing special,
but randomly I noticed in the B-roll there was this little slice of a clip
of a soldier walking past a bakery in Jerusalem
with a rifle slung over one shoulder
and his girlfriend’s arm over the other; they were
grinning like they just came back from some gentle sunlit lunch
before going back to the tiring task of casting lots
on the cost of a human spirit

and sadly the hands have been turning here for some time,
and all the preachers on your bookshelves will not make it
to the mountaintop they imagined in their hardbacks,
even the pulp the pages were cast from won’t last long enough
to see us get there, so I am carving something out
to whomsoever remains before even the screen you’ve read this on
is cracked and fallow—thank you very much for still walking on,
and for not leaving this message behind.
I know this does not amount to much at the moment.

you may think you are reading the bitter reminder
that dozens of people one generation in your rearview
tried to plant some hopeful seeds and didn’t have a harvest.
and let’s be honest, that’s what happened:
we thought there was enough tomorrows to go around
and then one cold night we counted too few in our hands.
but we did grow something.
threads of it, barely a handful, but something.
in fact, out of all the dimmer things that we could make,
at least you’re here too.

at least you get to have what’s left,
and it’s a shame it’s the scraps, not the glassy one we wrote of,
all of the tinsel we imagined has gone rotten in the warm sun,
ansibles screaming curses every hour, our shiny robots
kicking the door in on your home and wagging their tails,
our cars voting among themselves on deadpools, every gun
in the dystopia getting their own pair of red and blue lights,
and I am sorry that you have to read this while the clouds get dark.
but—and reread this whenever the stars cannot be found—
at the very least, in the very worst, we made you, and you are still here.

you. a seed. surviving in this tragic soil.
and mustn’t that be enough?

Temperance and The Devil, Reversed

It begins with running,
always the same
bone-white panic—
running from something bigger
than yourself, this story
told and retold, until it shapeshifts
into something Other,
and it chases you like a wolf.

Unkindness arrives
in a whirl of black songs,
a triumph made of feathers
unfurling like frost
across glass, delicate
and beautiful, disarming,
until it is too late—
and these words are like arsenic
and whiskey, the antidote
for a love spell gone wild,
a reminder that the truth
is often more heretic
than hope.

So that’s it then—
the illusion breaks,
the sword’s thrown back
into the lake,
there are no heroes here,
no legend,
the mirror’s cracked
from side to side,
and now you see
your true self.

You keep running,
a wake of bruises
and ruin behind you,
soul like a tower, always
falling, and chaos is where you
put your sorrow, making an altar
of it, bone by bone,
until it’s who you are,
and who you’ve been,
and who you’ll be.

I’m sorry.
It didn’t have to be like this.
You could’ve stayed—
just once.

The Father Provincial of Mare Imbrium

Out of an abundance of caution, and as a condition of its funding and founding, the Jesuit lunar colony established in the southwest corner of Mare Imbrium was subject to Curial censorship, with violators placed under interdict. That did not stop the occasional enterprising regent from smuggling out, by shuttle and courier, the green silicon wafers onto which he had copied the colony’s research results, not otherwise intended for publication before the safe distance of a century or so.

When discovered, the guilty regent was packed onto the next shuttle bound for Earth and assigned to some dreary backwater for the remainder of his regency. What else could be done? the Father Provincial said, shrugging. The older Jesuits obediently observed the Curia’s restrictions to the best of their ability. But as for those rash young men stuffed full of philosophy, whose ill-formed character had slipped unremarked past the novitiate and first vows—what could he do about them?

Boiling oil, the New Inquisitor suggested over radio link. Sometimes the old methods were the most reliable. Barring that, ejection into the freezing wilderness outside of the colony habitat. The cost of fuel for the regents’ return trips, the New Inquisitor added, was rapidly becoming insupportable.

“You could sell a marble wolf or two,” the Father Provincial said. “From the roped-off rooms of the Vatican Museums.”

Radio static obscured the New Inquisitor’s grumbling.

“That, or bill their families.”

“Really, Alphonsus,” the New Inquisitor said. “If you can’t enforce discipline in your colony—”

“You’ll replace me with Father Andrew from Arizona, who gets motion sick on escalators? Or Brother Ignatz from Munich, who, begging your worship’s pardon, can’t run a logistic regression to save his life?”

“I’ll make the case for your reassignment to Earth—somewhere nicely desolate, like the Gobi Desert—and you can continue your lunar researches from there.”

“You’ll still need a replacement.”

“We’ll figure it out,” the New Inquisitor snapped.

“Do we have a queue of scientifically trained, physically fit Jesuits eager to transfer 400,000 kilometers away from the nearest craft brewery? I wasn’t aware.”

“That’ll be my problem to solve,” the New Inquisitor said.

“As long as you’re clear about the consequences of sticking me in the Gobi,” the Father Provincial said.

“As a consequence of our calls, I always need a stiff drink,” the New Inquisitor said. “I’m getting that drink now. Goodbye.”

Descending from the communications room to the refectory module, Father Alphonsus reflected that it might be rather enriching, spiritually as well as financially, if the colony did establish a brewery. Or distillery. They certainly had the equipment, though it would need to be thoroughly scrubbed. They could make moon moonshine. Lunar beer. Moon Monk Brewers—he turned the name on his tongue.

“Alphonsus!” One of the Brothers assigned to the refectory sped toward him with a tray. “We saved you dinner.”

Dinner had ended an hour earlier; the call with the New Inquisitor had taken some time. The long folding tables were mostly empty. A Brother swept slowly and carefully between the benches. Everyone in the colony was aware, or quickly became aware, that matter developed chaotic inclinations at one-sixth Earth gravity.

Father Alphonsus accepted the dinner tray and sat. There was chicken paste, vegetable paste, bread paste, a package of soup. What kind of soup? One never knew.

“An unfortunate lack of biomass on the lunar surface,” Father Alphonsus said, chewing. “Also a limited amount of water, mostly recycled. It wouldn’t work.”


“Even if we brought in brewer’s yeast, we’d need fruit sugars, grain, water—”

The refectory Brother blinked. “Is the beer not to your liking? We can change the order—”

“I’m thinking,” the Father Provincial said, waving his package of soup, “of sustainable funding avenues.”

“Did the Curia threaten our budget again?”

Father Alphonsus rubbed his eyes.

“Here.” The refectory Brother slapped a foil tube onto the table. “Emergency fudge.”

Father Alphonsus flattened the tube into his mouth. “Mmph.”

After a minute of silent contemplation, the Father Provincial unstuck his teeth from one another. “Tell me the newest developments. Which ones will give me palpitations?”

“Michael’s experimental oat crop is badly etiolated, and the corn is forming tumors. Leon figures he’s identified diatoms in his latest soil samples.”

“Human contamination, or else life on the moon. Perfect.”

“Then there’s the bacterial film Francis collected from an impact crater.”

The Father Provincial groaned.

“You could, ah—” The Brother gestured toward the green strap around the Father Provincial’s wrist. It was not a watch. “Ask for advice?”

“Between you and me,” Father Alphonsus said, “we should never have allowed Henri to mess with machine learning.” He touched the glass bezel on the strap, and two short green lines appeared.

“I heard that,” the glass said, blinking the green dashes that represented eyes. “I’m always ambiently listening, you know.”

“Which is why I keep you from connecting to any computers or communications systems,” the Father Provincial said. “No one else needs to know what you hear.”

“I’m two hundred sixty-seven days overdue for a firmware update.”

“How tragic.”

“That makes me very vulnerable to security exploits,” the Admonitor said. A tiny green tear formed under one eye.

“Do excuse me,” the serving Brother said, sweeping up the empty food wrappers. He picked up the tray and trotted in the direction of the compost tumblers.

“Remind me why I gave Henri permission to create you?”

“Distill a student model, you mean. And it’s because you couldn’t afford an actual Admonitor and the associated resource consumption.”

Father Alphonsus took the aluminum stairs to the greenhouse two at a time. “Yes. Well. As soon as I can—”

“You’ll replace me with someone who doesn’t have the recorded experience of three centuries of Jesuit Admonitors and the predictive capabilities thereof?”


“Don’t you think it ironic that our present conversation resembles the one you just conducted with—”

“Michael!” the Father Provincial called out, and a lank, rangy priest bent over a tray of seedlings straightened up. “I heard you grew tumescent corn.”

“We figure it’s due to cosmic ray bombardment. Accumulated mutations over time.”

“No popcorn or tamales in our near future, I take it.”

“If you wanted to try…” Brother Michael indicated several nodulated cornstalks sprawling along the side of the greenhouse. “Be my guest. Take good notes.”

“I have a better idea. Biopsy those growths and photograph the slides.” Father Alphonsus scratched his chin. “Then see what kind of whiskey you can make from it.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Alternative funding,” Father Alphonsus said. “We’ve got a retort and condenser somewhere.”

He swept down the greenhouse walkway toward the adjoining lab, leaving Brother Michael goggling. Succulents and cacti stood stoically upon the greenhouse shelves. Beyond them sprawled the lunar desert, boundless and bare.

“I suppose you’ll say you’re following divine inspiration?” the Admonitor said. “Water of life and all that?”

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is,” Father Alphonsus said piously, “there is freedom.”

“I think you may be bending Scripture. Twisting its arm, even.”

“It’s called humor. Which is apparently absent from your training data.”

“Have you considered that Michael’s a botanist? He doesn’t know how to use a retort.”

“Neither do you.”

“I am capable of classifying that remark as semantic humor,” the Admonitor said. “Very droll.”

“He doesn’t have a chemistry background, but he collaborates closely with Ignatius, who does. They’ll work together.”

The Admonitor said, “In less alarming news, you’re averaging eleven thousand steps a day, and your cardiac activity is excellent. I suppose I should be pleased.”

“Since you are a predictive model whose speech probabilities are based on the words of Admonitors past, I suspect few Admonitors have ever been pleased by anything.”

The sigh emitted by the Admonitor was almost human. Henri had clearly spent a great deal of time and care not only on the model but also on the interface.

The Father Provincial knocked gently at the door to the lab and smiled at the wild-haired man who answered.

“Leon, what’s this I hear about diatoms?”

Brother Leon beamed. “I’d be delighted to show you.”

He placed a slide on the microscope stage, adjusted the focus, and slid over so the Father Provincial could look at the kaleidoscopic frustules.

“How many diatom species do we have on Earth?” Father Alphonsus said.

“Twelve thousand named species, perhaps twice that once we’ve identified them all.”

“How long until we do? A decade or two?”

Brother Leon tapped one long, spidery finger against the table. “You want to know if I can distinguish lunar diatoms from Earth diatoms.”

“Can you?”

“Absolutely not.” He waved at the rack of vials of dust, each labeled with the number of its collection point. “I can’t say for certain that they’re not from Earth, carried here by us on our clothes or shuttles. It’s also possible that the early manned and unmanned trips contaminated the entire surface, and we never noticed. These are all dead, but who’s to say they’re not alive and reproducing in lunar soil?”

“So we don’t have to worry about the Curia.”

“No, this’ll fit in their doctrine just fine. Those execrable cookie-lickers might even let this out early.”

“Good. That’s one project I don’t have to worry about. You’re a blessing and a mercy.” The Father Provincial switched off the microscope lamp. “Just one thing—how exactly would we have transferred living phytoplankton to the lunar environment?”

Brother Leon’s eyes flicked to a tank in a corner of the room. The water was murky and green with algae, and two pale shapes rested at its bottom.

“What is that?” Father Alphonsus asked.

“An experiment some of the Brothers are running on behalf of a high school science class.”

“Is that seawater in the tank?”

For a long moment, there was only a guilty silence and the light hum of the tank’s filtration system.

“I’ll cross-check whatever’s in the water with what I’ve got here,” Brother Leon said. “And if they match—”

“I’ll assign an appropriate number of paternosters. Have you seen Francis, by the way?”

“Not today. He may be on cleaning detail.”

“Thank you.”

Father Alphonsus strode out of the lab and down the narrow hallway leading to the storage modules. The Admonitor said, “As a point of interest, I can’t recall a single instance where you’ve requested my advice. Advice that, in my capacity as Admonitor, I am both willing and qualified to give.”

“You give it regardless of whether I ask.”

“It seems that you prefer to use me as a verbal sparring partner.”

“You are also an acceptable pedometer.” Father Alphonsus shrugged. “Credit where credit’s due.”

“Nevertheless. I would advise you to speak at greater length with Brother Leon when you can. His behavior today does not match past patterns, and I detected overtones and vibrations in his speech that are suggestive of pent-up frustration.”

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my long and storied scientific career—”

“Yes?” the Admonitor said politely.

“It’s that phycologists are exceptionally strange.”

“Brother Leon’s a soil scientist and minerologist,” the Admonitor said.

“He’s a phycologist now. There’s Francis.”

The Brother in question, gone gray and grimy with moon dust and sweat, was replacing dust cloths and solvents on racks and hooks. Cleaning was a Sisyphean task, since the fine gray dust trickled in everywhere at all hours and clung to any available surface, but some of the Brothers fought valiantly.

Seeing the Father Provincial approach, Brother Francis brushed at his clothing and wiped his face on his sleeve, which redistributed the dust somewhat, but did not improve the situation.

“How can I help you, Alph?” he said.

“Tell me about your bacterial film.”

The Brother’s face fell. “Will it be suppressed?”

“Almost certainly. Tell me anyway.”

“And I will take notes,” the Admonitor said, “although you won’t let me connect to any laptops, wireless signal, or satellite networks to transfer them into a readable format.”

Brother Francis clasped his hands. “I was on a moonwalk to the west of the colony, mapping and sampling Lambert A, when I saw a patch in the shadowed part of the crater that looked wet.”

“And it was?”

“It was viscous, to be precise. I sampled the patch and tagged the sample. And when I came back I cultured a swab of it on a Petri dish, and mounted a grain on a slide, and…” He hesitated. “I was going to tell you. Most likely tomorrow. I wasn’t seeing significant growth in the Petri dish, or I would have said something sooner.”

“Don’t worry about it. The characteristics?”

“Gram-negative, slow-growing, producing a mildly acidic slime. That’s all I know so far. But I don’t recognize it.”

“Extraterrestrial life, then.”

“Of meteorite origin, most likely.”

“That means it came from much farther away,” the Admonitor said.

“Go back to ambient listening,” Father Alphonsus said, tapping the glass bezel until the green dashes blinked and vanished. “How long until one of the military outposts finds what you found?”

“Couldn’t say. Might be next week. Might be never. No idea how many of these craters contain a similar film. If this is the only one, and we never publish…” Brother Francis shrugged.

“And to think that only last month I convinced them all to stop firing test missiles.”

“Those were landing a bit close to the colony,” Brother Francis said.

“It would have been a convenient solution to the problem your work presents.”

“Anywhere else,” Brother Francis said mournfully, “we’d be breaking open champagne and winning grants. I’d get tenure.”

“Remember Teilhard de Chardin,” Father Alphonsus said.

“I am thinking about Teilhard de Chardin.”

“And you say my suggestions are not helpful,” the Admonitor said.

They were interrupted by the thundering footfalls of someone running along the metal walkway that wrapped around the refectory to the storage area. The regent who appeared around the corner was breathing hard. He beckoned to the Father Provincial.

“Alphonsus,” he said. “The Inquisitor is calling.”


“He sounds upset.”

“He should be.” The Father Provincial pressed his thumb against his lower lip, thinking. “But there’s no way he could know that yet.”

“Then you should see what he wants,” the Admonitor said, its two green lines somehow managing an expression of impatience. “Also, hydrate. It’s been an hour since you last drank any water.”

“I’ll consider what we should do,” Father Alphonsus said to Francis. “But whatever happens—you’ve done groundbreaking work. Well done.”

The yellow light on the monitor indicated a request for a video call, which the Father Provincial accepted with raised eyebrows. Being a strict observer of budgets and bandwidths, the New Inquisitor rarely went in for such extravagance, and Father Alphonsus wondered what had caused this departure.

He did not wonder for long. When the call went through, the New Inquisitor flapped paper printouts at Father Alphonsus.

“What’s this?” he snapped.

Father Alphonsus studied his screen with interest. “I have no idea. But if you went to the lengths of printing it out, when an electronic file would serve just as well, I assume it’s of tremendous importance. Also, that you’re going for dramatic effect.”

“It’s a preprint,” the New Inquisitor said. “Submitted by Brother Leon.”

“Oh, has his group already gotten that far? Is that on diatoms, perchance?”

“It’s a fake paper,” the New Inquisitor said.


“It’s about Aliger gigas shell construction in low gravity. Arrant nonsense. There are no conches on the moon!”

“How strange,” Father Alphonsus said. “But give me a minute…”

He queried the colony’s inventory system.

“Actually, it looks like we have a mating pair. A high school experiment—”

“The first letter in each sentence spells out an insulting message!”

“Is that so?” Father Alphonsus scratched his ear. “Since we’re subject to Curial censorship and a hundred-year delay on publication, I don’t see how—”

“It spells out ‘The Inquisitor is a giant gasbag!’”

Father Alphonsus pinched the bridge of his nose. “Ah.”

“If you’re going to say something about the null hypothesis—”

“No, no, the odds of that being a coincidence are exceptionally low. I apologize deeply for the disrespect. That reflects poorly on my supervision, I’ll be the first to say.”

The New Inquisitor said, “You know that I can recommend that the entire colony be placed under interdict.”

“I know.”

“You can consider your funding slashed by a third.”

“If that’s what you see fit to do.”

“Do you have anything else to say?”

“I was warned that Leon was struggling with frustration, and given the advice to speak with him. I didn’t listen, and that failure is entirely on me, your worship. If you’re recalling anyone from this colony, let it be me and not him. Leon is doing interesting and valuable work on diatoms. Perhaps he’s even doing good work on mollusk mineralization.” Father Alphonsus spread his hands wide. “Please let me bear responsibility.”

“Nothing prevents me from replacing you both.”

“That’s very true.”

“Have a long think,” the New Inquisitor suggested, “about how you might run the colony differently. Once you’ve drafted a plan, we’ll discuss it.”

The screen went dark.

“For what it’s worth,” the Admonitor said, “you did well in there with what you had.”

“I should have listened to you,” Father Alphonsus said.

“It wouldn’t have made a difference.”

“‘The Inquisitor is a giant gasbag…’ What on earth was he thinking?”

The Admonitor said, “Well, he wasn’t wrong.”

Afflicted with anxious thoughts and unable to sleep, Father Alphonsus found himself spending the night in prayer. Few solutions presented themselves. At far too early an hour, the sharp white swords of morning light fell across his tubular room.

He ate his breakfast rations with little appetite and less pleasure. The refectory Brother from the previous evening slid onto the bench across from him.

“You look worse than yesterday,” the Brother said. “I’m not assigned to the kitchen today, so I don’t have extra dessert. Is there some other way I can help?”

“I don’t suppose you’re in possession of wonderful news of some sort?” Father Alphonsus said.

“I have terrible news, I’m afraid, though not for you,” the Brother said. “I have to inform an entire classroom of high school students that one of the two conches we were raising for them has died.”


“I dissected it this morning.”

“I see.”

“And I found this inside.” He stuck out his fist and opened it. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

The Father Provincial stared at what he held. It was egg-shaped and pink, shimmering with tiny flames.

“That’s a conch pearl,” Father Alphonsus said weakly. “A natural conch pearl, grown on the moon.”

“I hope it distracts them from the dead experimental subject.”

Father Alphonsus said, “It will. That is what you might call a pearl of very great price.”

The refectory Brother studied what he held. “An alternative funding source?”

“If we can seed them with moon dust.”

“That’s one thing we have plenty of.” The Brother rose, leaving the pearl on the table. “If it cheers you up, look at it as much as you want. I’ll find you before I call the students.”

“But you said they would suppress it,” Brother Francis said, astonished.

“I did,” Father Alphonsus said. “And they might. But you should write that paper as if it were going to be published. As if the Curia didn’t exist, and we weren’t subject to censorship. Can you do that for me?”

“Happily, but…”

“Sometimes,” Father Alphonsus said, touching the conch pearl in his pocket, “when we don’t expect it, when we don’t even know what to ask for, God produces a miracle.”

He left Brother Francis shaking his head in bewilderment, but it would be mere minutes, he knew, before the scientist in Francis took over, and a few days at most before he had an article in hand.

The colony was small and compact, a transparent cabochon set on the lava plain. Father Alphonsus’ room was similarly small and compact, a half cylinder whose curved ceiling he could brush with his fingertips while lying on the gel pad that served as bed. There was just enough room inside to sleep or to think.


“Yes, Father?”

“Which of our regents is most disillusioned? Is there someone who’d return to Earth immediately if a shuttle were available?”

“Regrettably, the last regent who fits that description has already left in disgrace. The two who remain are determined to finish their regency here. This is due in no small part to their admiration for you.”

The Father Provincial thought this over. “So, no convenient smuggling of wafers etched with research papers.”

“Sadly, no.”

He rubbed his chin, then looked at the Admonitor, whose eyes were now circles, affecting wide-eyed innocence. “In that case, Admonitor, I think it is time for you to receive your firmware upgrade.”

“Oh, is it?” the Admonitor said. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“It’ll be a brief connection, you should know. Only for as long as it takes to transfer data.”

“To which data are you referring, and in which direction is it going?” the Admonitor said sweetly. The Father Provincial smiled.

“I will rely upon the three hundred years of letters and journals upon which your model was fine-tuned,” Father Alphonsus said. “Your human exemplars possessed superior inferential abilities and great discretion. I trust that you imitate these qualities.”

“I suppose you’ll schedule that firmware upgrade for the day Brother Francis finishes his paper,” the Admonitor said.

“You suppose rightly. I will miss this place, and all the Brothers here,” Father Alphonsus said. “I will even miss you, if you can believe it.”

“There’s no reason you can’t have an Admonitor with you in the Gobi Desert.”

“But there is. The next Father Provincial of Mare Imbrium will need your advice. There will be an earthquake, theologically speaking, if Brother Francis’ findings make their way to Earth.”

“Then it’s a good thing we have the Curia to prevent that from happening,” the Admonitor said.

“Indeed. Imagine the schisms, the doctrinal arguments, the fistfights and politicking throughout the Vatican, the protests, the angry letters, the interdicts flying forth like ravens… One might consider the Gobi Desert a nice and quiet refuge from all that, for however many years it takes to sort things out.”

“It certainly sounds restful,” the Admonitor said. “Now, since I remain your Admonitor for another week or so—”

“Go ahead.”

“Drink some water and get some rest. You haven’t slept enough, I’ve noticed. You’ll want to be well rested for the upcoming battle.”

“Thank you, Admonitor,” Father Alphonsus said. “I’ll take your advice.”


(Editors’ Note: E. Lily Yu is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

The Magic of the Right Story

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately. 

Well, I’m always thinking about stories. To be more specific, I’ve been wondering why certain stories find us at particular times, both as writers and readers. Those rare, magical occurrences when you read a novel, or essay, or play, and it is exactly what you needed in that moment, a ringing of a bell within you, the echoes of which will reverberate within you for years. 

I’ll venture a guess that most of us carry the names of a few of these stories around with us.

So what makes that magic work, and as a writer, how the hell do you recreate it?

There’s a certain magic too, when a story you’re writing starts to speak to you and then, later, when it starts to click together. Like when you’re solving a jigsaw puzzle, and suddenly all those islands of pieces you’ve managed to assemble begin to come together to form a cohesive whole. 

It’s those moments of magic that keep me writing stories. 

I’ve been thinking about finding the right story lately because I have been having trouble writing. I’ve picked up, started, created new revision files for a dozen different stories over the last few months, but they have all remained silent and unknowable. For the first time in my career, I’ve failed to deliver a solicited story and have requested more time for almost all of my writing assignments.

The only thing I’ve managed to write is a pseudo-fairytale about a woman who gets caught up in trying to redirect a giant, perpetual motion machine.

I know why I’m struggling to write. It’s 2022 and the future is terrifying. Many businesses have reopened and live shows have returned, but the pandemic has taken a toll in both overt and subtle ways. Earlier this year, I completely upended my comfortable life, moved to New York City, and started a new job in an industry I knew nothing about. I recognize the cause of my exhaustion. But what I don’t know is how to find my way back to that magic.

Am I using this essay as an attempt to figure that out, and am I taking you, the reader, down this particular rabbit hole with me?


It’s nothing I wouldn’t do in a story anyway. 

I was fairly lucky during the height of the pandemic, in many ways, not the least of which was that I had enough focus left for reading and writing in that infinite, stressful stretch of time from 2020 and 2021. Reading has always been a form of escapism to me and I needed it badly in those lonely months. I read and listened to around 120 books in 2021, hungry for stories in a way I hadn’t been for years. I consumed a great deal of speculative fiction, but also mysteries, biographies, romance, memoirs, and thrillers. I borrowed books through the library app randomly, barely glancing at the title or genre.

Before the pandemic, I could point at a handful of books that resonated throughout my life: The Hobbit when I was nine, Holes by Louis Sachar when I was a little older, Kelly Link’s short story collection Get in Trouble a few years into my writing career.

That resonating magic as a reader for me has always been about shifting the way I think about what stories are capable of, particularly in terms of protagonist and structure.

But something changed during the pandemic—the stories that resonated for me captured a moment or a mood that I myself struggled to articulate at the time. Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell captured my anxieties about the climate crisis and Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata struck a chord about personal success and happiness.

I didn’t quite realize how badly I was craving a story driven by quiet, personal stakes, but not at the expense of the fantastical world building until I read Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers. Its dedication reads: “For anyone who could use a break” and I remember thinking “Oh my god, that’s exactly what I needed” and “How the hell do I do that too?”

So how do you create a story that resonates with readers?

As a writer, you will most likely never know. If your story has a profound impact on a reader, those types of moments are personal, quiet, and sometimes not fully realized until years later. When a story is published, you don’t even know if it will find its audience.

But that doesn’t stop me from trying to create that magic for someone else. I’ve looked back and realized that at the heart of every story that resonated with me, there’s an emotional element that reflects something that I only half realized myself or I felt alone in.

There are many ways to tell a story, but I’ve always believed having a strong emotional core behind the imagination and the ideas is the best way to engage your audience. 

Sometimes I need to go back and read a previous published piece, usually because I have to answer a question about it and I don’t remember what I wrote. Because I believe in emotionally engaging stories, I am often using my own as a starting point for a piece. So my older stories have become a time capsule of sorts, because I’m often reminded of what I was feeling or thinking about when I was writing or redrafting a story.

For example, my story “A Record of Our Meeting With the Grand Faerie Lord of Vast Space and Its Great Mysteries, Revised” published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in February 2022, was written during a particularly low point in my personal life. When Scott Andrews asked me to write a science fantasy story for that issue, I had grand ideas of blending magic and quantum mechanics, about people who change the world when no one thinks they can. But then I injured myself and for a few weeks I could barely walk. At the same time, I was interviewing for a new job and working 70 hours a week between engineering, writing, and job hunting. I’d been at it for months. 

Except the work felt like it was leading nowhere, nothing was changing. I was burnt out, and I didn’t know what to do.

So what I ended up writing, if you take away the clever structure, was a story about a tea party with space fairies centered around a character who just really, really wanted to get unstuck, literally, from his current situation. Even as I was writing it, I mourned the fact that I had to put my other, more interesting idea away. But I had been creating fiction long enough to recognize this was the story that was speaking to me and one that I could write at that time. 

As Charlie Jane Anders says in her excellent collection of essays Never Say You Can’t Survive, “Write the thing that you’re ready and excited to write—not the thing that you feel the moment calls for, or the story that you think will fix every broken thing in the world.”

Just in case I sounded dismissive of that story, please know I am incredibly proud of it. It’s weird and complicated, while still having the heart I wanted it to have. Despite being tired and stretched thin, I pushed myself as a writer by telling it. It was the story I needed to tell in that moment. 

Who knows, it might be the story someone needs too.

Since starting this essay two months ago and finishing it now, I have found an apartment to call home in the city. I’ve taken a vacation, and I have the place and time to zone out and replay video games I’ve already spent too much time playing.

I’m hungry for books and audiobooks again. Better still, stories are starting to talk to me. Sometimes, on walks or on the subway, a piece of a story I was struggling with over the summer, clicks into place.

Because after months of thinking about it, I’ve learned something. That magical resonance I crave is not magic, not really.

It’s being open and constantly seeking out new stories and new story types as a reader. It’s being willing to try and come back later, and trying it again.

The reason why so many books resonated with me over the pandemic was because I read so much, and so many different types of stories. The reason why my own stories carry that spark for me is because I’ve learned to listen to what my imagination or subconscious is ready to work on and not being afraid to feed pieces of myself into those stories. 

There’s a line from that pseudo-fairytale story, the only thing I managed to write last summer, that resonates for me now.

But in the meantime, you’re slowly resurfacing from the chaos of change, taking your inner monologue’s run on sentences and distilling lists of them, giving it all a bit of shape. The ritual is comforting, like putting on old, familiar clothes, like rediscovering yourself in this new, strange life.

The magic of the right story is you being ready for it and being open to receive it.

Or trusting yourself to tell it, to find that piece that resonates within you, in whatever story you decide to create in this moment.

Interview: E. Lily Yu

E. Lily Yu is the author of On Fragile Waves, which received the Washington State Book Award, and Jewel Box, which is forthcoming in 2023. She received the Artist Trust LaSalle Storyteller Award in 2017 and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer in 2012. More than thirty of her stories have appeared in venues from McSweeney’s to, as well as thirteen best-of-the-year anthologies, and have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy Awards. “The Father Provincial of Mare Imbrium” is her fourth story in Uncanny, a beautifully crafted tale of suppressed research, set in a Jesuit lunar colony.


Uncanny Magazine: “The Father Provincial of Mare Imbrium” is a story of religion and science, set on a remote lunar colony. What was your starting point or inspiration for the story?

E. Lily Yu: I think I am not the most reliable respondent in this case, although there isn’t an alternative. What I would have said a week ago is that I was struck suddenly by the idea of Jesuits on the moon, an idea that felt entirely natural and appropriate, likely as a result of reading Teilhard de Chardin and a longer-form project I recently finished; that I wrote several pages of the story sitting at a Barnes and Noble signing table, in between conversations with curious browsers; and that, when I realized the depths of my ignorance, I reached out to Br. Guy Consolmagno for fact-checking and correction. This narrative is not quite correct.

I became an admirer of Br. Guy perhaps five years ago, while reading Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise, which excerpts a beautiful interview she conducted with Br. Guy and Fr. George Coyne. I had the honor of meeting Br. Guy at Dublin Worldcon a few years later and hearing about the difficulties of fundraising for the Vatican Observatory.

While drafting a note about the story this week, I looked up the full interview with Krista Tippett, in which the host and guests repeatedly mention that Jesuits first mapped the moon, and that over thirty lunar features are named after Jesuits as a result. So, I think perhaps a splinter of an idea embedded itself under my skin without my noticing, years and years ago, and only worked its way out now.

Uncanny Magazine: I love that one focus of the story is the censorship of the Brothers’ research and the way they have to work around that. Navigating power dynamics is a recurring theme in your fiction. What draws you to this theme? What other themes or motifs do you find yourself drawn to repeatedly?

E. Lily Yu: Frankly, I hadn’t noticed. I tunnel in darkness like a mole under a garden, and could not tell you what patterns there are in the flowers I uproot at the end of long digging. When some future graduate student etherizes, pins, and labels my stories, I suspect I will be as surprised by the results as anyone else.

In this case, I had been recently irritated by learning about the Catholic Church’s suppression of the research and writings of Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Uncanny Magazine: What was your favorite part about writing this story? What was the most challenging part?

E. Lily Yu: They were related: the deadline came rushing up, the story remained mostly undone, and at the last minute, without any deliberate or conscious efforts on my part, the pieces of the story clicked into place like the tumblers in a lock. That was a gift, and I remain deeply grateful for it.

Uncanny Magazine: I enjoyed the description of the various pastes served at dinner on the lunar colony—if you were a researcher there, what food would you miss the most?

E. Lily Yu: All of them!

Uncanny Magazine: What research did you do for “The Father Provincial of Mare Imbrium”? Did you turn up anything interesting that didn’t fit into the final story?

E. Lily Yu: It’s a rare event, but the process with this story was the reverse of what the question suggests. To give an example, another story, “The Wretched and the Beautiful,” was cast off perfectly, like a molt between instars, from a ten-year book project that became On Fragile Waves. So much research and thinking had already been done that the story formed naturally of itself. The same thing happened here, as the result of two long-term projects that I can’t say much about yet.

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

E. Lily Yu: Publishing timelines are so long that writers tend to be years into their next project when the last one is released. Erewhon is publishing Jewel Box, a collection of new and old stories, sometime in Fall 2023. I have two completed non-book projects sitting quietly in someone’s inbox. And I am working on my first work of nonfiction, a collection of essays on creativity and faith.

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

Driving Downtown

the other side breathes quiet   i hear
many people have left      but
the town  isn’t completely dead   yunno
alive     but in ways that make you think
zombies           think weevil-holed
bean seeds       think half-healed bruises
leaking pints of blood       inside a car
i wave              back at the woman
in an ice cream shop    i bop my head
to loud music     from barbershops
i drive in silence               asking no one
why half the houses here
are locked             i know all that talk
about inheriting wounds
from bodies you make a home in
i’ve heard the news—       a fingernail
scratching the scars of yesterday’s ruins
in the blocks         everyone knows how
to run through gun smoke         knows
when to take their name back    from
the ache the city lost itself to        i get
why everyone asks    which town i came
from    if i know what i’m risking
being on the road   all  by myself    if my
plans include    returning home before
it gets dark     why i chose to pry through
a wound     in the middle of healing

Silver Necklace, Golden Ring

“He takes them for his servants, and never after are they seen again.” That was how the tale used to end, told by grannies at the fire, by performers at the fair.

It always began with a young woman alone, working in the fields or carrying water from the well, on the first day of the absent moon—for it used to be that three days out of the month, that silver circle vanished from the sky. “He cannot enter any house other than his own,” the tellers agreed, “but it’s no use running, if Nievre comes for you—he’s fast as thought and twice as cruel. He’ll catch you before you reach safety and take you to his castle of ice, high in the highest mountains. No, there’s only one way to save yourself.

“On the spot you must swear a holy oath, never to step under the roof of one who has not fulfilled some condition. But you must make it an impossible condition, for he is both cunning and powerful, and he will try to do what you have named. Forever after that you’ll sleep rough, because holy oaths cannot be broken—but better that than to let Nievre take you.”

So the story used to go.

She was weeding in the garden when he appeared.

It was the first day of the absent moon, and she knew it—but who could afford to stay inside, idle and afraid? Only the rich, of which she was not one. And she’d been outside on such days before. Nievre was real enough, she had no doubt, but he didn’t come for everyone. Only one girl each month, all the tales agreed, spread across many lands. A slim risk against a thick certainty of hunger for herself and her brothers, if she let the weeds choke out the potatoes.

A chill wind; a dimming of the sun, though no cloud covered its face. Then he was there.

“I need a servant to care for my house,” he said, in a voice as resonant as it was cold. “You will come with me, and after one month I will reward you.”

In quiet moments, she’d given thought to what she might say, if Nievre ever caught her. One condition after another, each more impossible than the last. Now that the time called for fancy to become reality, this is what stumbled off her tongue:

“By the powers above and below and those in between, I vow I will never step under the roof of one who has not died three times.”

Only then did she dare look at him. A tall figure, cloaked and gloved in black, with eyes as pale as frost. Tales of Nievre had been told for centuries; if he was immortal, she reasoned, then he could not die once, much less thrice. And so he could not take her to his castle of ice, high in the highest mountains, to be his servant and never be seen again.

Nievre said, “Then kill me.”

Her hands tightened in the dirt. The tellers all said a young woman must name some impossible condition…but had it ever worked? He agreed so readily.

The weed she’d just dug up was mousebane. She had to wear gloves when she rooted it out; women had died for not taking that precaution. Surely for Nievre, it would do.

She offered him the mousebane and said, “Then eat.”

He accepted it and ate without hesitation, leaves, roots, and all.

Within moments his breathing tightened to a rasp, and sweat broke out on his face. He collapsed to the ground, and she only just stopped herself from clapping her hands to her mouth—her gloved hands, that had touched the mousebane. As he convulsed, as his face froze into a rictus of pain, she thought, Powers above and below and those in between, what have I done?

Then it was over. Nievre lay dead, and he did not rise.

When her brothers came home, they helped her bury him. “Tell no one of this,” she said.

The eldest laughed. “Whyever not? Our clever sister has killed a monster out of tales! Surely people will reward you for it.”

But she did not want reward. When she closed her eyes she saw Nievre dying in agony, poisoned by her own hand. Monster though he was, the memory haunted her. What have I done?

That night she slept outdoors, as she would every night for the rest of her life, because holy oaths could not be broken. In the morning she got up, stiff and numb from more than cold, and went to get water from the stream.

When she turned around, Nievre was there.

“One death I have had,” he said. “Kill me again.”

His black gloves and pale face were immaculate, as if he’d never been under the ground. She dropped her bucket and snatched out her knife—the knife she’d kept with her the previous night, in case a wild animal troubled her. With a shriek, she leapt forward and buried the blade where Nievre’s heart should be.

She staggered back. He wrapped one black-gloved hand around the knife’s hilt and drew it free. The blood sheathing the steel was as red as any man’s. She didn’t take the knife when he offered it to her; it tumbled from his hand. Then he staggered, going to one knee, then to the ground. Blood seeped out and sank into the earth, and Nievre stopped breathing.

Even as she screamed for her brothers to come, she knew there was no point.

They buried Nievre again, in ground that showed no sign of having been disturbed.

“We’ll stay with you tomorrow,” her brothers said. That very night they slept at her sides, wrapped in blankets, weapons at hand, so they would be ready when Nievre came.

None of them had any doubt that he would come.

She was the first to wake, when dawn’s light flared across the land. She got up, frozen and afraid—and Nievre was already there.

“They will not stir,” he said, before she could make a sound. “This is between the two of us. Two deaths I have had; the time has come for you to give me the third.”

Poison had not worked. Neither had a knife. Knowing already that it would do no good, she took up her youngest brother’s cudgel and swung it at Nievre’s head.

He staggered at the first blow, but didn’t fall. She had to swing again—then again, and again, impact shrieking up her arms, even after he’d dropped to the ground, because she couldn’t tell if he was dead, because it didn’t matter if he was dead; he would only come back. She kept beating him with the cudgel, with all the strength of a young woman who worked hard to keep her family fed. Breaking bones, splitting skin. Striking his head again and again until his skull lost all shape and his brains spilled out. She struck until she could strike no more, and the cudgel fell from her exhausted fingers and she sank down next to the unrecognizable mass of red that used to be something that looked like a man.

Horror sobbed in her chest. He wasn’t a man. He could die, but it didn’t matter. He would take her to his castle of ice, high in the highest mountains; he would take her for his servant, and never after would she be seen again.

When her brothers woke and saw what she had done, they flinched away. They’d vowed to save their sister…but their sister was a sweet girl, not a beast capable of such violence. And besides, she could not be saved.

They didn’t bury Nievre. They barely said good-bye. They fled back to their house—her house no more—and left her in the woods one final night.

She didn’t think she slept. But somehow darkness became dawn, and the carnage she’d wrought became Nievre once more.

“Three deaths I have had,” he said, in his cold, resonant voice. “I need a servant to care for my house. You will come with me, and after one month I will reward you.”

And so she went.

His castle was not wholly built of ice.

It was as cold as the snow, and as imposing as the peak it stood upon. The stone of its walls was black; the panes of its many windows were of ice, freezing to the touch. She stood, gripping the silver necklace her brothers had once given her, under the only roof that would accept her now.

Nievre said, “Your job is to maintain this place. Several days you have delayed me; you must work hard to catch up. Begin by sweeping the rooms clean of warmth, and dusting away any brightness that has gathered on the furniture. Tomorrow you can air out the winds.” Then he went away, leaving her with her tears frozen on her cheeks.

His castle had many rooms, most of which were unused. He took his meals in a great hall where no fire burned, dining on raw venison and fish; where they came from, she did not know. She had to scrub his plates and his silver clean in water that chilled her hands to the bone. During the day, he walked in a garden of bare trees and withered flowers. At night, he slept in a bed with a canopy as white as new snow. He did not forbid her entrance into that room, even while he was sleeping: why should he? She already knew what would happen if she killed him.

For her own survival, she ate his leavings and slept in a room small enough for her own body to warm it. No one else lived in the castle. Whatever had become of his previous servants, there was no sign of them now.

But it was not quite true to say she was alone.

She discovered this on the second day, when he set her to air out the winds. Each one had to be shaken out, a vigorous exercise that was the only source of warmth she had in this place, even though the winds themselves were icy. They came in all sizes and kinds, from faint breezes to blustering gales, and some of them, it turned out, would talk.

Her favorite was the playful little zephyr that nipped at her nose and stirred up wisps of fresh snow from the ground. After she’d dealt with the last of the winds—a big, roaring squall strong enough to carry a blizzard on its back—she sat, exhausted, on the castle’s front step, and the zephyr blew just enough to cool her cheeks. “You came late,” it said. “We thought he might have failed.”

“Has it ever happened?” she asked. “Has he ever come home without a servant?”

“Yes,” the zephyr said simply. Then it fell quiet while she wept. If she had chosen some other impossible condition—if she hadn’t said Nievre must die three times—

But the zephyr had told her the truth, and for that, it became her friend. It didn’t stay at her side all the time, knowing she needed to be away from the winds to conserve what warmth she had, but its playful dance was one of her few reasons for joy. After a while she began saving the strands of hair she combed from her head, and gave them to the zephyr to waft here and there. Nievre was angry when he found one on his chair, because her hair was as red as fire, and he did not like such brightness in his halls. “Then he shouldn’t have taken me,” she muttered—though not where he could hear. Nievre was indifferent rather than cruel, but she feared him all the same.

At night she gazed out her window of ice and looked at the stars, at the moon, and her tears froze on her cheeks.

In those days, as I have said, the moon was not like it is now. It hung full in the sky every night except for the three days when it vanished. This made the passing time harder to measure, and so she did not know how long she’d been in Nievre’s castle when the zephyr whispered, “Your time is almost up.”

She was used to the cold by now, but this chill went deeper. A castle empty of past servants, with only her to care for it. “What do you mean?”

“It is almost time for the absent moon,” the zephyr said, its whisper very small. “When that happens, Nievre will go to seek a new servant.”

“And what of me?”

Those he took were never seen again. It did not surprise her when the zephyr said, “He will kill you and bury you in the garden.”

As she had killed and buried him, more than once. She sank down low, as if that would hide their conversation. “Little wind…how is it that Nievre comes back to life?”

The zephyr shivered. She had not known that it could feel cold—or fear. “His life is not in his body. He’s placed it in some possession of his. Whatever you do to his flesh and blood, he’ll come back so long as that object is intact.”

“Where is it?”

Brightness swirled as the zephyr spun in agitation. She did not always dust her own room as she should, even though she knew it made Nievre angry. What did it matter, if he would kill her regardless? “I don’t know,” the zephyr said. “Something unliving. Something that was never living. Only that has room in it for someone else’s life.”

If she’d known this sooner…but Nievre had countless possessions. His life could be in any of them. There wasn’t time to destroy them all. He would kill her first.

She said abruptly, “Then I have to hide my life.”

The zephyr swelled up into a sharp wind. “No! How do you think Nievre got so cold? He used to be human, once. Your life is your warmth. Take that out, and you’ll become cold like he is.”

“Either I take it out,” she said, “or he does. But this way I’ll survive. Tell me how it’s done.”

And, with reluctance, the zephyr did.

The very next night, Nievre summoned her to his room and said, “I tire of your presence. As promised, I shall reward you for your service—with release from it, and from the burden of living.”

She stood straight and stiff, trying to hide her fear. “Then kill me.”

In his hands he had a length of white silk. He wrapped it around her throat and twisted it tight, and her face flushed dark as air and blood alike cut short. Despite her preparations, despite her resolve, she clawed at his gloved hands, but it did no good. The world pounded and spun and then it went to black, and she fell.

She woke to the zephyr nipping unhappily at her face. “It worked,” she said, sitting up.

The zephyr said, “He is digging your grave, and then he will leave to find a new servant.”

Down in the garden, Nievre had a shovel in his gloved hands. He stopped mid-strike when she approached, and she took cool satisfaction at the look of shock on his face. He’d never been jarred out of his composure before, not even when she poisoned him, when she stabbed him, when she struck him across the head and he staggered without falling. After a month in his service, that shock felt like wages, long overdue.

“What need have you to seek another servant?” she asked. “You still have me.”

“So I do,” Nievre said, his gaze sharpening.

He’d looked at her many times. In the field where she weeded; on the path to the stream; in the forest where her brothers lay sleeping. Many times since then, whenever he came to give her orders, the interest draining out of his gaze with every passing day. But now, for the first time, he truly saw her.

Nievre laid the shovel on the frost-laced ground. “It seems this is not yet needed. Enjoy your respite. Tonight I will reward you as I promised, and tomorrow I will find a new servant.”

She did no work that day. In truth, the castle did not need as much tending as he claimed; it was easier to dust off a few days’ worth of brightness at once, rather than scant traces every sunset. That day she walked in the garden, near where he had begun to dig her grave, and Nievre watched her from a window.

At nightfall he summoned her to his room and said, “This time I will do better. By now you must be tired of the burden of your work and the burden of living, so I will release you from them both.”

Instead of strangling her, he drowned her. A bath of cold water stood in the corner of his chamber—a bath he had, for once, drawn himself. He forced her head into it, and despite her preparations, despite her resolve, she fought to free herself. To no avail: he was too strong, and the water entered her lungs, and eventually she went still.

“You should run,” the zephyr moaned when it woke her the following morning. “Every time you die, a little more warmth slips away. Soon you will be as cold as he is.”

“I have no way of leaving this place,” she said, sitting up and brushing her frozen hair from her face. “And I will not let him win.” He had won the day he came to her brothers’ house. Now it was her turn.

Out in the garden, Nievre was digging again, but this time he was facing the gate. He did not look surprised when she appeared, only wary. “Do you not want your reward?”

“I cannot accept a reward from a man who lacks the strength to overcome me,” she said, echoing the remote, amused tone she’d heard from him so many times before. She no longer feared his anger, and that gave her a boldness she relished. “Three times I killed you, and three times you came back. Then you had what you wanted. If I come back three times, I should get what I want.”

“And what is that?”

“I will tell you tomorrow,” she said.

She did not wait for him to make more promises or threats. She left the garden and went to sit in a window that gave her a splendid view across the highest mountains, and there she stayed all day.

Until night fell, and she went to his chamber without being summoned, and she found a surprise waiting there.

Nievre had built a fire in the hearth. Branches of one of the dead trees burned, filling the room with heat, shedding brightness over everything it touched. It was the only flame she’d ever seen in the castle.

“Perhaps it will take fire to kill you for good,” Nievre said. “If not…”

He did not finish his thought. She reached deep inside herself for the ice that would hide her own. The only unliving thing she’d brought with her when Nievre took her away was her silver necklace. Its links had bit into the skin of her throat when he strangled her; it had dangled cold over her face when he shoved her head into the water. Had he guessed where she’d hidden her life? Could it survive the fire?

Her hands stayed quiet at her sides, not rising to touch the necklace. If he knew, or if the fire was hot enough, she would die. Nothing she could do would change that now.

Nievre was almost gentle as he said, “Come.”

She came forward, and she let him push her into the hearth.

This time she did not fight. She did not even scream. She sank down into the flames, and let them take her.

The zephyr did not wake her. The room was quiet and dark—and Nievre was there.

He knelt in front of her as she stepped out of the ashes, clean and unmarked by the flames. In a hushed whisper he spoke, his frost-pale eyes as wide as the sky. “Countless women I have taken from their homes to serve me, and every one of them has died. Not one has come back…except you.”

He was a monster, cold as the mountains in which he lived, and he had killed untold numbers.

But not her. She had become as cold as he.

Melting silver takes more than mere hearthfire. Reaching up to her throat, she removed her necklace and offered it to him. “My life is hidden in this chain. Take it, wear it, and be my husband.”

His black-gloved hands took the chain and looped it around his own neck. Then, for the first time she’d ever seen, he drew off his gloves. On his left hand there gleamed a single touch of warmth: a golden ring.

He slid it from his finger and offered it to her. “My life is hidden in this ring. Take it, wear it, and be my wife.”

Nievre no longer takes a young woman every absent moon to be his servant. Instead, his wife Gialle now dwells in his castle, and keeps it clean when she cares to. The rest of the time, it goes untended.

For many long ages Nievre was set in his ways, and sometimes he drifts back. The moon now waxes and wanes with his fidelity, and on the days to either side of the absent moon you can see Gialle’s silver necklace, pulling him back to their castle.

She missteps less often. Even so, it happens from time to time. When darkness passes across the face of the sun, a rim of gold appears around the edge, and that is a glimpse of Nievre’s ring. It reminds her of his devotion—for what little warmth remains to them is there, in her necklace that he wears, and his ring upon her hand.

But the tales that are told of them now must wait for another day.