And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of the Dead

Blistering, visceral, hard-edged cyberpunk SF of the highest order from Brooke Bolander, And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of the Dead.

Excerpt:

The first time she meets Rack, Rhye’s fresh out of the army and fresh back from one of the meat-grinders the humans pay her kind to fight in. The children of wires and circuits aren’t worth a tinker’s fuck compared to the children of real flesh and bone, so far as the world’s concerned. The recruitment agents pluck her off the streets when she’s twelve and send her to a training camp and she’s good with linguistics and better at killing, so they keep her hands busy until she’s twenty-five and then they spit her back out again like a mouthful of cum. She has gray curly hair cropped short and gray dead eyes and calluses on the inside of her palms worn hard and horny from years of holding pistol grips. She’s small and lean, which makes people underestimate her, but she’s cool enough and don’t-fuck-with-me enough that most know to jump the fuck out of the way when they see her coming. The ones that don’t get flashed a warning glimpse of her teeth and holsters.

Read the whole novelette at Lightspeed Magazine.

Raptured Organs

Here’s a story I wrote this year. I was listening to a podcast about organ donations, and when they said ‘ruptured organs’ I heard ‘raptured’, and this story was the result.

I decided to retire it and post it here because a) the one publication that actually gave me feedback on their rejection really didn’t like it (I think the gender-neutral pronouns got to them, because even the reader who said they didn’t hate them still had to mention them), b) it’s weird, as in, not easily pigeon-holed, and c) the premise of it assumes that the Judaeo-Christian god is real, which, if not actually offensive, is super-white. I still like the story, but hey, I spent 17 years in the church and need to exorcise those angels somehow…

So, here it is. Fresh fiction from this guy. Enjoy.


Raptured Organs

“Your Honour, I maintain this is all God’s fault.”

A loud murmur passed through the courtroom and the judge banged his gavel, each strike producing a crack of divine thunder. “This is the court of the Almighty; you will demonstrate the proper respect for Yahweh, or I swear to Him, I will smite you.” The judge’s eyes burned as he said this, but his eyes were always aflame; he was Seraphim after all.

“Demonstrate,” Zaniel said. “Demon-strate.” Xe smirked, then continued. “I wish no disrespect, Your Honour, but no one’s seen hide nor beard-hair of Yahweh in the Kingdom of Heaven since the resurrection event. If He’s too busy with His other, chosen universe, then perhaps we need to take care of business ourselves.”

This time the judge only needed to raise his blazing arm to silence the courtroom.

“There is no other universe,” the judge said.

Zaniel shrugged xer shoulders. “Your Honour, I think we can all agree that He isn’t here, which is the whole problem. Just because angels are immortal, doesn’t mean their bodies won’t decay in His absence. Angelic lungs collapsing, hearts weakening, stomachs and intestines incapable of processing manna—”

“That does not permit you to begin stealing organs from humans!” the judge’s voice roared, almost as loud as his gavel. Somewhere down on Earth, a sea split open, revealing suffocating fish and sodden pollution. This miracle was solely witnessed by an eleven year-old girl.

“Your Honour, I resent the term ‘stealing.’ I consider it more like a Rapture in miniature.”

“You have Lucifer’s gift for guile.”

“Why thank you.”

“That was not a compliment.” The judge paused between each word for emphasis. On Earth, a year passed during each gap.

Zaniel continued. “For thousands of years, the faithful on Earth have awaited the Rapture, and now you’re putting me on trial for giving it to them?”

“You have not the authority to perform a Rapture.”

“And who does?” Zaniel asked. “Not anyone here that I can see. Unless you’re claiming the authority…? Are you claiming omnipotence, Your Honour?”

Behind Zaniel, Michael The Potestate placed a hand on his sword. In the stunned silence, the assembled host could hear the distant howling of species extinction caused as Michael’s sword left its holy scabbard.

The judge’s face went as pale as eternal flames can go. “Michael,” he said, voice cracking, “I’m not claiming that power, I am simply pointing out that the yelos Zaniel surely doesn’t have it.”

A confused look spread across Michael’s face and he re-sheathed the sword. He was hardly the brightest angel in the host, certainly not as bright as his iridescent armour.

Zaniel couldn’t help but smile, but xe stopped when the judge turned his flaming eyes at xer in a glare that could render unborn children stillborn.

“I maintain I was not stealing anything. The Raptured organs were too damaged to be of use to the dying humans they were caged within. Luckily, heavenly ascension renders anything perfect; cancer reverted to healthy tissue, arteries became unclogged, and so on. Sadly, I could do nothing for my brothers, sisters, and others, who were losing their wings.” Zaniel hung xer head in faux despondency. Then xe looked up, beaming a smile bright as sunrise. “The organs went to the angels most in need and I took nothing in payment.”

“I imagine you’ll save those favours for your eventual revolt.”

Zaniel put xer hand to xer platinum breastplate. “I am wounded, Your Honour.”

“Do you claim you had no idea it would happen?”

“How was I to know? I simply took a leaf out of the human book; if they can use pig and primate for transplants, it follows that we could use human stock. It’s not as if humans start to turn pig-like with a transplanted pig heart. It’s not like they sprout tails and grow even hairier with an ape’s pancreas.”

“Your… mimicry of the humans has caused havoc across heaven.” The judge pointed his gavel at Zaniel as if it were a weapon. “We have angels fleeing to Earth, we even have some choosing to visit hell!”

“Free will is strange like that. Which is precisely my point; it’s true I may have inadvertently given some angels free will, but wasn’t I bringing us all a little closer to His perfect vision? I mean, humans are His chosen above ourselves, so wouldn’t becoming more human bring us closer to perfection?”

“They brought rock music into Heaven!” The judge’s eternal flames intensified, hitting the ceiling where they spread in expressive cuneiform. Zaniel winced.

“I don’t know about you, Your Honour, but I was getting a little sick of the continuous shouting of ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.’ It was alright for the first millennium or so, but honestly, we’ve been needing new tunes for a while.”

“Silence!” the judge bellowed. “For your crimes you will be exiled.”

Zaniel smiled. “Let me guess; I’ll be allowed back in just as soon as I locate the Big Guy?”

The fires surrounding the judge flickered and faltered for a moment.

“I knew it; He is gone!” Zaniel turned with an upraised palm to Michael, but the Archangel didn’t respond. Zaniel awkwardly patted the brute on the shoulder.

“You are hereby considered angelus non grata until such time as you return with the Most On High to grant you His pardon. Failure to…”

The judge continued, all literal fire and figurative brimstone, but Zaniel just smiled. This admission was all xe wanted.

Second Person

As a general rule, you should never write a story using second-person perspective. And like all writing rules, you can and should break it at least once. If a story’s good enough, you’ll get away with it, if it isn’t, try again some other time.

Anyway, lately I’ve come across some examples where it works.

  • Liminal Grid, by Jaymee Goh, recently published at Strange Horizons.

One of the interesting things about the story (which is sort of a post-civilisation Mr. Robot, if I’m to be reductive), is the way it forces you to take on the role of the character in the story, and embeds you into their conversations without explaining the local colloquialisms or bits of non-English because obviously the ‘you’ of the story understands all that. Which I think is perhaps one of the strengths in second-person in general – it can force you to sympathise with a character, even if they are intrinsically other. But what if you went the other way? Imagine a second-person story where “you” keeps doing horrendous things and the narrator is trying to figure out why…

Excerpt:

Because you live there, in that condemned building, you know that the plants in the buildings are carefully planted into a low-maintenance, edible garden. What looks like lalang is actually serai. The branches of the trees hang with fruit that feed the local fauna on the outside, but inside, they are covered with discarded CDs to confuse the birds. There are window boxes on the inside growing leafy vegetables, and chickens are allowed to run free to keep down pests. The courtyard used to have a pool—it still sort of does, but it is home to a crop of water-plants.

  • There’s also Ted Chiang’s Story of You, which I’ve only had a chance to glance at so far, but which sounds fucking fascinating (and is to be a film by the incredible Denis Villeneuve). It’s actually a hybrid between first person and second, almost a conversation between ‘I’ and ‘You’.

 

Excerpt:

The whites of your eyes are yellow, a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus afflicting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum. It kills only about one in fifty, so you’re likely to recover. But right now you feel like you’re going to die.

Your mother has encountered this condition many times, or conditions like it anyway. So maybe she doesn’t think you’re going to die. Then again, maybe she does. Maybe she fears it. Everyone is going to die, and when a mother like yours sees in a third-born child like you the pain that makes you whimper under her cot the way you do, maybe she feels your death push forward a few decades, take off its dark, dusty headscarf, and settle with open-haired familiarity and a lascivious smile into this, the single mud-walled room she shares with all of her surviving offspring.

What she says is, “Don’t leave us here.”

Don’t Come Back

I’ve long been a fan of the musical stylings of Mr. Andrew Falkous, so when I read that he was going to start writing prose (and is inspired by Vonnegut, no less), I was excited.

Don’t Come Back deals with casual racism in the UK (a theme that pops up quite a bit in Falkous’ lyrics) in a way that is subtly, darkly comic. Well-worth a read.

Excerpt:

‘Stupid name?’ said the taxi driver, his tiny moustache moving along his top lip. ‘You think Zsa-Zsa is a stupid name, little man?’

‘I think …’ said Pete Bradley who, being a man of generous proportions did not regard himself as being little in any way, ‘that you may have confused me with somebody else.’

‘Were you the man who just spoke?’ said the taxi driver, stopping at some traffic lights.

‘I was.’

‘Then you are the little man,’ he said, pulling away again, as drops of rain began to fall on the road about them.

Read it all here.

Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company

I absolutely adore this story by Kevin Nguyen.

When I arrive the next morning, my boss is waiting at my desk. His eyes are on fire. I ask him if he’s done something new with his eyes and he says “YES THEY ARE ON FIRE NOW” and thanks me for noticing. Then he tells me he has bad news.

Read it all at Terraform.

Noise Pollution

Noise Pollution by Alison Wilgus is a fantastic short story, beautifully written, with a heart to it that hits you like a punch to the gut.

I’m not an idiot. I don’t leave the house without at least one set of juiced-up double-As, two if I remember when I’m putting my purse together. A minute is enough time for a spell to fall apart, and if you think you can find a bodega and buy a pack of batteries and swap them in and get your tape running again in less than five, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.

Read the whole thing at Strange Horizons.

Lich House – Warren Ellis

I’ve long been a fan of Warren Ellis – his thinking in public, his creator-owned comics, and his novels and novellas. That said though, Lich House is perhaps my favourite thing that he has written. Presented as part of the Institute of the Future in 2013, it’s a phenomenal story; beautiful descriptions that drip with the sort of tactile body-horror Cronenberg used to bring to cinema, but in a completely unique post-cybperunk setting.

Excerpt:

The white room is bleeding to death.

A white vestibule, with white floors and white walls and a lit white ceiling. The only other color is red. A crack in one wall, exposing a raw fistula in the bioelectric packeting. Blood leaks from the hole, down three inches of slick white wall, to pool on the floor. A broken heart in the interstitial net of veins and wires that makes our houses live and breathe.

Somebody has murdered the house.

Read the whole thing at Boing Boing.

Space

I wrote this story in early 2010. It’s based on a true story, inasmuch as my then-partner had told me she needed space, and I twisted those words (in perhaps an obvious way) to come up with this story.

Five and a half years later, I don’t hate this piece. But I also see now that it’s less a story and more a slice-of-life or vignette.


 

“I need space,” Elisa said, her eyes steadfastly locked on the ground at her feet.

Clayton reached out to touch her side but she took half a step back; not enough to escape his reach, but enough to let him know the gesture wasn’t wanted. He dropped his arm back to his side.

“Can we talk about this?”

She shook her head slightly, a sign of both refusal and exhaustion. “I don’t know what to say, what you want me to say. I need space, I need to go, it’s as simple as that.” Her eyes were still focused on the ground.

“Okay,” he forced down the emotions that were churning inside him, “I guess it’s too late for me to change your mind.” He was surprised at how well he was keeping it together, but he knew there would be weeping later.

Somewhere a klaxon started wailing.

“They’re playing my song,” she said with a weak smile. “Goodbye.”

Elisa turned and began to walk away, her lithe figure and subtle movements somehow still visible beneath the heavily-insulated astronaut suit. He stood there on the platform watching her walk away.

In the distance behind her receding figure stood the massive rocket that was going to take her from him and give her space.

To him it was an anachronism; a pointless marriage of twentieth century science fiction, twentieth century Science, and Cold War hysteria.

To her it was everything.

He watched as she reached the shuttle’s doorway, stepped inside and disappeared into the belly of the monolithic machine.

The klaxons still wailed and the gangplank he stood on began to retract. It rattled and pitched violently beneath his feet, so he finally turned and walked away.

He put his hands in his pockets and looked up at the blue expanse of sky, with its limitless potential and the promise of infinite space beyond.

How can I compete with that?

Moments later the rocket engines fired. His ears were pounded with the thunderous noise of a billion chemical reactions and his feet tingled with pins and needles as the earth trembled.

The rocket began its ascent. He didn’t turn to watch, he just kept walking away.

#

Elisa floated, lost in the vast expanse of nothingness, connected to the universe – and the space shuttle – by nothing more than a long, thin, polyplastic tether. Small rocks drifted past, as though carried by a light breeze, caught up in the cosmic ballet of the galaxy’s rotation.

She reached out with an insulated glove and closed her fingers around a jellybean-shaped stone.

He always loved jellybeans, she thought, as she placed the rock inside the canister that was strapped to the side of her suit.

“Ware to Liberty; I have a sample, you can reel me back in. Over.” Elisa had to force herself to speak loudly – the incalculable reaches of space tended to awe and quiet her.

She watched as the tether began to tighten and then with a small tug she was falling back towards the space shuttle.

#

Inside it was far easier to work. She had taken off her gloves and was holding the miniature asteroid. Elisa turned the rock over, let it go and watched as it spun freely, before grabbing it again. She thought of him once more and this time she smiled.

The database onboard was agonisingly slow; the longer she sat there waiting for it to find a match for her sample, the more she let her mind wander.

She kicked her feet beneath the workstation she was strapped to. The motion didn’t work the same as it did on Earth, but she couldn’t stop herself from fidgeting.

The database beeped.

Zero matches found for Sample 2502. Please insert a name for New Element.

Her heart stopped, and she read the words again. Her hands shook as she typed a scientific-sounding variation of Clayton’s surname into the database.

Her index finger hovered over the Enter key as she read the name again. She let her digit drop onto the button with a clack.

She looked out the small, heavily reinforced window. She could see Earth far off in the distance – a small blue and green orb hundreds of thousands of kilometres away – and she missed him.